Monday, March 30, 2020

Lent: Ezekiel 37 Valley of the Dry Bones

          About nine years ago, I attended a three day training provided by Presbyterian Disaster assistance, to be trained in disaster response.  Many of us remember Hurricane Irene followed a year later by Super Storm Sandy.  Many of our communities and churches were damaged and or impacted by these storms.  Disasters come in many shapes and sizes.  We often think of them as natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and forest fires.  Throughout the training, it was emphasized, the best way to deal with a natural disaster is to be prepared.  Make sure you have what you need prior to the disaster hitting and make sure you have your own family plan.  Another thing that was emphasized is that there are various stages to disasters – the first is preparedness, the second is impact, and the third is immediate response and the next is long term recovery.  As I looked over some other resources, mitigation is also listed, which is the attempt to reduce the severity or seriousness of the disaster. 
          What is connecting with me is that we are, obviously, in the midst of a disaster, but this is, for most of us, a different.  It is different because this disaster is not like a hurricane that has a short period of time for impact.  When we prepare for a hurricane, we know we need to hunker down for a day or two, but once the storm passes, we can go outside and assess the damage and begin recover.  Our natural inclination is to move into recovery.  The goodness in human nature, in human hearts, in our souls, calls us to respond, to help, to get life back to normal. 
          So what happens when we are in a long term disaster?  What I am seeing is the phases of disaster or blurring.  In the midst of the impact, we are also trying to mitigate what could be an even worse disaster.  People are needing to prepare, and stay prepared, and replenish those resources as they are consumed.  And as people are getting better, there is a recovery phase still mixed in with the midst of chaos.  The thing that we cannot do, that we must wait on, is trying to return life back to normal. 
          So, what does that mean for us?  From a resource provided by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance – “Disaster disrupts people’s spiritual lives significantly.”   Our Lenten series as been on Spiritual Disciplines and we have been discussing what it means to be spiritual but not religious.  Spirituality connects us to life.  Spirituality is about community, it is about having a mission, it involves our well-being and joy.  All of this is being impacted right now. 
          In a normal form of disaster, it is important for people to gather together in community and share their stories.  This has been so hard as a people of faith, that we cannot gather together in the physical presence of each other.  But we can still gather.  At this time, more than ever, we need to use technology to stay connected.  Call each other.  There is an overwhelming sense of fear and that can impact our sense of mission and purpose, it can impact our well-being and joy.  The anxiety of this current disaster is impacting people’s ability to sleep.  All of this disrupts who we are as a spiritual being.  So, in the midst of this disaster, we must stay attuned to our spiritual well being. 
          Which brings us to the passage today in Ezekiel.  The people in the day and age of Ezekiel have been through a horrendous disaster.  The Babylonians have come in and ravaged their land, they have taken people into exile and to add insult to injury they have destroyed the city of Jerusalem including the Temple of God.  As exiles being forced to live in a foreign land, the Israelites underwent a deep spiritual loss.  Disasters disrupts people’s spiritual lives significantly.  They have lost their land, they have lost their holy place of worship, they have lost their culture, they are cut off from everything including their God.  There is a deep sense of Hopelessness for the Hebrew people in exile. 
          This passage in Ezekiel is descriptive, you should be able to visualize the sense of despair.  One commentator compared it to the scene of the Elephant Graveyard in the Lion King, while another used an image of a battle field during war.  Ezekiel is having this vision, a vision of a valley filled with bones, a vision of death.  A vision of death with the voice of God asking- Can these bones live?  For you see, with God, death never has the last word; hopelessness, despair, should never have the last word.  And it is with words that God tells Ezekiel to speak, to prophecy to these bones, tell them the word of God.  Hear the word of the Lord.  And as Ezekiel speaks, I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. If we gathered with us last week, this should make a connection.  When God created Adam, when God took the dust of the ground and formed it into a person, God breathed life into Adam.  And now, once again, the breath of God will bring life into these dry bones.  This is a story of re-creation, or renewal, of rebirth, of restoration. 
          The word of God is able to overcome a deep sense of hopelessness and despair, to is bringing a message of purpose to the people, that their lives have meaning even in exile.  God’s word brings a sense of belonging, it is life giving, even in exile, the word of God can connect them to what they feel they have been cut off from.  The word of God breathes life into dry bones.  Bones can be seen as the soul, as the deepest part of the self.  Ezekiel is God’s messenger, Ezekiel becomes God’s presence to the people in the midst of this disaster.  God sends him to God’s people because our God is a God of love and compassion and life.  God sees the people’s pain, loss, and despair and does not just leave them in this disaster alone.  God understands that disasters disrupt our spiritual selves and Ezekiel brings that pastoral care that the people so desperately needed.  Life was brought back into those dry bones and a promise was given:  and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 
          I am finding so many connections to our current situation to that of Ezekiel.  In a much smaller sense, we too are exiles.  We have been exiled from our social gatherings, from our extended families, from our loved ones and we must learn how to navigate these times.  If anyone does sense hopelessness or deep spiritual dryness, please reach out.  Being isolated is not normal, so we may have new feelings and struggles and thoughts of despair and perhaps a feeling of helplessness.  We want to be in the recovery stage where we can help.  And that is going to be trying on us.  Our natural tendencies may be limited right now.  Our deep sense of meaning and purpose might have limitations right now and that is what makes this current disaster different from others.  Riding out this storm is going to take time but there will be work to do when it is over.  And we will be able to leave our exile and return back to our communities and be reunited in person once again.  And in the meantime, God is with us.  God is breathing life into us. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Lent: The Blind Man

Genesis 2:4-8
John 9:1-11


We start the season of Lent with ashes, ashes of last year’s palms, ashes of the past, ashes of things that have died, and we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  But over the past few years, when I mark the sign of the cross in ashes in other’s foreheads, I cannot say those words: to dust we shall return, instead, I use the words:  the old is gone, in Christ we are a new Creation. Lent is a spiritual spring, is a time of renewal, it is a time to name the old that we seek to shed and live into the promise  that in Christ we are a new creation.  Last week, we had the woman at the well, and in Christ, she became a new creation.  Today, we have a blind man and with his encounter with Jesus he too will encounter a new season in his own life. 
Words from Ash Wednesday involve:  Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth.   Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  These words take us all the way back to the story of creation, the story of God creating Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden.  God creates, then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,[b] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. The name Adam comes from the Hebrew word Adamah which means dirt, ground, red clay. 
          The other day, as we were doing our school distance learning, my younger one read about an animal called a Pika.  She immediately decided she was madly in love with this little creature and wanted to make one of her own.  So what did we do?  We pulled out the clay and created a very unique little Pika.  Just as God creates out of the dust, we too create, and clay is just one medium for us to express our creative outlet.  This story, creating out of dust, creating out of clay, is one that the potter can relate to.  Throughout the world, people use the dust of the ground, the dirt, the natural clay, and make useful items out of it. 
          When we take the time to stop, to think about our connection to God and our connection to creation, we need to be reminded from time to time that we are the soil, we are the air, we are what we eat, which depends on the nutrients in the ground, the sun, and the rain. 
          So, not only does God create Adam out of the dust of the ground, God then breathes life into him.  God does not just create Adam and place him in the garden, there is this intimate connection – God’s breath into Adam creating life.  One of my college roommates would always say:  Breathe in the good, breathe out the bad.  I think this is a good mediation in the stress we are living in today.  A form of meditation to help us deal with anxiety.  But we should also remember that as we breathe in the good, we are breathing in the breath of God. 
          Dirt and breath bring life at the crack of creation, and Jesus parallels this very act of creation in his encounter with the blind man.  As Jesus and his disciples encounter this man, born blind since birth, the disciples ask Jesus a theological question – who sinned, this man or his parents.  They lived in a day and age where they connected everything to God.  If someone was born blind, deaf, or lame, it was connected to some sort of divine punishment.  But instead of divine punishment, Jesus is telling them that this man’s blindness is now going to be used for God’s glory.  Jesus takes what is currently seen as a negative from God and is teaching that it is actually a positive.  This man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him. 
          Yesterday, George to the Rescue was on the TV and I was only partly listening.  But he was doing a room remodel for a young woman that was blind.  Apparently, there is also a youtube personality that is a young blind woman.  Blindness can create many stresses in a person’s life including depression.  The one woman, through her youtube channel had brought hope and renewal to the life of the other person.  It renewed her desire to focus on her passion which is swimming and her goal of participating in one of the upcoming Olympic games.  There was no mention of God in this story, at least none that I heard, but in the sharing of hope, in the sharing of life still has meaning despite being blind, in the encouragement of engaging in one’s passions, the Kingdom of God was at work.  God’s work was being revealed through them. 
          So, as Jesus approaches this man, he continues to teach his disciples and tells them:  I am the light of the world.  Last week, Jesus described himself as the Living water.  Water, light, two essential things that life needs to grow.  And then he spits on the ground and mixes it with the dirt, the dust, and creates mud.  Sound familiar?  The Light of the world takes the dust of the ground, infuses it with his salvia, and places it on the blind man’s eyes.  Could we be, just for this moment in time, back in the garden of Eden?  Then he tells the man to go and wash.  But Jesus does not seem to stick around for the conversation that entails afterwards.  When Jesus heals, sometimes we hear him say, your faith has made you well.  But not here.  There are no more words from Jesus to this man – just go and wash in the pool.  In a sense, Jesus passes the baton onto this man to tell the story.  And he will be questioned over and over again.  Miracles are hard to accept, even when they are right in front of you. 
          The religious authorities are having a fit.  They want to know how Jesus opened his eyes.  The very people that are suppose to be the most connected to God, that know the scripture inside and out, cannot connect the story of creation to this man’s healing.  We get ourselves into our own rigid set of beliefs and understandings that we can actually prevent ourselves from seeing God at work.  I like to open to the mystery of God.  Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I like to think that God can do new things, that the creation story is not a thing of the past but an on-going story.  For the blind man, in Christ, he became a new creation, the old was gone and he had been made new. 
We may not ever experience such an easy to define miracle of the blind man, but in Christ, in the ways God works in our lives and transforms us, we are living miracles and just like Jesus proclaimed the glory of God was to be shown through the healing of the blind man, our lives too should proclaim the glory of God through our own stories, our own healings whatever they may be, our own understanding of how, in Christ, we are a new creation.  Amen. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

March 15, 2020 - 3rd Sunday of Lent

Good morning and welcome to our first on-line worship service.  As we gather at this time, we remember that we are still community, whether we can be together in person, or if we are together in spirit.  Congregations all across the country are experimenting with this form of worship today because we believe we should gather and worship and take time to quiet ourselves and redirect our anxieties, stresses, concerns back towards our loving God.  So, this is the time to breathe and be assured that even though times feel anxious, the sacred is still around us and is still with us and we are still called to be the body of Christ in this time.  Welcome, welcome to this sacred time. 

Today’s scripture is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well: 
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, we had the story of Jesus in the Wilderness.  The wilderness  is often thought of as a harsh environment, dry, hot, depending on where you are.  When I think of this wilderness scene, I definitely envision a desert type of environment.   As Jesus fasts for these forty days, he must have had some sort of water source, I can’t imagine forty days without food, but just the thought of even one day without water makes my mouth feel dry.  I am sure we all know the feeling of being thirsty and fortunately, for the most part, we have easy access to water. 
Fourteen years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Kenya with the Presbytery Nairobi Partnership team.  During that time, we made sure we stayed hydrated but when I got home, I had a headache that would not go away.  After going to the doctor, I learned that I was dehydrated.  Even though I had been drinking what I thought was enough water, it was not.  So, we added some electrolytes into my system and I immediately began to feel better. 
So, here we have this transition, of Jesus being in the wilderness to a story of him, passing through Samaria, and encountering a woman at the well in the middle of the day.  This is one of those passages that has so many angels in which to tackle.  Jesus should not be in Samaria.  Jesus should not be speaking to a woman.  And this woman should not be at the well at mid day.  So, all these things that should not be happening – are happening. 
Jesus starts the conversation by asking for a drink of water.  He asks her to offer him hospitality.  As the conversation unfolds, and the breaking of social customs is named, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach her about who he is.  He uses the metaphor of water and connects it to himself.  Jesus, from the dryness of the wilderness, is describing himself as the living water. 
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
This past Thursday evening at the Lenten dinner, we have been talking about what it means to be spiritually hungry.  Here is a woman, that is spiritually thirsty.  In a simple conversation of a man who sees her as a person, that has not labeled her as a Samaritan or a unclean woman or an outcaste, in the simple act of receiving water from her, Jesus changes her life.  She is so alone and this stranger saw her as something more than anyone else around has ever seen her.  And now she understands her thirst.  She is thirsty, thirsty to be seen, thirsty to be in a community that will accept her, thirsty to understand her purpose and worth, thirsty to know God.  And as all of this rises to the surface, in this one conversation, she runs from Jesus and goes back to the community that does not accept her and proclaims:   29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[e] can he?”
As we journey through this season of Lent, things are not unfolding the way I had planned for them to unfold.  But that is okay, the Holy Spirit is still with us and is still at work and is still guiding us.  We may feel for the next few weeks that we are in the wilderness.  The wilderness that I had wanted to use as the place where seeds and eggs are in the right environment to hatch or germinate.  And then, as the season of wilderness ends, and a new season begins, as the caterpillar hatches or the seed germinates, there is a hunger, and there is amazing growth.  When these caterpillars arrived on Monday, they were tiny.  In just one week, they have more then quadrupled in size.  The only way for them to grow like this is to eat.  This is the season to spiritually eat, or spiritually drink.  As the woman at the well breaks out of her shell, out of the bonds of the labels that have held her captive within her community, as her wilderness comes to an end, she thirsts.  She and the caterpillar are wired the same way.  Shed the egg, the shell, the hardness that holds us back, and drink in God’s love for us.   Chew on the word of God, find ways for your spiritual hunger to be fed.  We are called to growth, no matter what age we are, God has given us the living water.  If you thirst, if you hunger, that means the Holy Spirit is with you, is nudging you, is calling you into a new season of faith.  Just like the caterpillar cannot ever become an egg again, we too can only go forward.  And God provides the food and drink that we need to engage this season of life. 
In the wilderness of the next few weeks, stay hydrated.  We may not be able to meet together as a people in one place, but we can make phone calls to each other, we can email, send letters, pray, and spend time reading scripture and even engage in various spiritual practices.  I will do my best to send ideas out to you.  Amen. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

When did we see you Naked?

When did I see you Naked?

               This past summer, on our mission staycation, we looked at When did we see You naked, as those who are most vulnerable.  Who are those that need shelter?  And another resource I just found interprets the naked as those in poverty.  But as we look at this specific topic, we can think about the various agencies that are indeed, clothing people.  This past week on the moms of morris facebook page, there was a post that one of the local colleges is starting a clothing closet for professional clothing.  So, when college students, who are usually financially strained, have interviews, they can come to the clothing closet for interview clothing.  How we present ourselves, at least for interviews, can impact whether or not we are chosen for a job.  There are several other agencies out there with the same vision.  Dress for Success is probably the best known and I know my local YMCA collected for them last year.  When did we see you naked?  Well, we might not actually see people naked, but perhaps we can see the challenges people face when trying to take the next step to employment and can assist with an outfit that looks professional. 
            There are also numerous churches and agencies that provide clothing to people.  When I first started here, I thought Roxbury Social Services just provide food through their food pantry.  I had no idea they had clothes as well.  Our deacons were purchasing new sweatshirts for the clients of Faith Kitchen.  In Dover, there is a program out the Episcopal church called North Porch and they focus on providing diapers and baby clothing.  And Market Street Mission is one of the few places that really focuses on men’s clothing.  As the men graduate from their program, they will need professional clothing as well. 
But when did we see you naked can also include blankets.  This past summer, we started to make fleece blankets for the men at Market Street mission.  When they come in off the street, they often have just a few items and a fresh and clean blanket is a real gift.  Because the program can only handle so many men at a time, the first step in getting into the program involves sleeping on the floor in the main room.  A blanket can really help make sleep just a little more comfortable.  And what about bathing items, collecting soap and shampoo, razors, deodorant, toothbrushes and tooth paste, and towels.  There is always a need. 
And what about laundry?  There is a ministry called:  Laundry Love where congregations will actually sponsor an evening at a local laundry mat and pay for the clients to have their clothes cleaned.  And the last time I was at Triennium, I met a pastor with a ministry called:  Sacred Spark, that works directly with the homeless and one of their ministries is laundry.  She has the children’s programs all throughout the region collecting quarters so that they can do the laundry for those living in the homeless camps.  As much as we might complain about doing laundry, having clean clothes is important.  And maybe you are like me, I love the smell of fresh sheets on my bed.   I can’t imagine never having the ability to put fresh sheets on my bed. 
            So, what does responding to those who are lacking in sufficient clothing have to do with being the salt of the earth and letting our light shine?  Well, I see it saying two things.  The first is that when we let our light shine, or when we are the salt of the earth, we respond to the needs of others.  We listen and hear what is lacking or what will be most beneficial for someone to be self sufficient and we respond.  But I also see it as for the other.  God wants everyone’s light to shine.  It can be hard to shine with your full potential if you cannot afford clothes for a job interview.   When I started my first pastoral position in Charlotte, I invested in two good outfits for Sundays, but I could not afford to have designer clothes for the rest of the week.  I did what I could, but another pastor would comment on my clothes.  What do you think that did to the light within me that was trying to shine?    
            One of my favorite stories is of a young woman I got to know in Dover.  She would always wear oversized sweatshirts and would often pull the hood up over her head.  She started attending the church and after several months, her self confidence began to grow.  A few people paid attention to her.  One family let her come over and do laundry.  She began to shine.  She started to wear other types of clothes and no longer hid behind a hood.  You don’t put a light under a basket.  She might have been homeless, living on the fringes, but she is still a child of God with a light worthy of shining.  There are so many positive stories other there, from Dress to Success to Market Street Mission of people being able to take the next step in being self sufficient due to the generosity of others.   

Monday, January 20, 2020

When did we see you Thirsty?

John 1:29-42
Congregational Vitality

            Over the next six weeks we will spend time on what it means to be a Matthew 25 congregation.  Our session voted to join the denomination on this movement last spring and our summer mission adventure last summer focused on the passage as we examined what it means when we ask the questions:  When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, when did we see you a stranger or naked, when did we see you in prison or sick?  These six areas are very clear ways to be in ministry, to care for others.  But what is not so clear are the three areas that the denomination has broken this movement into:  Congregational vitality, eradicating structural racism, and systemic poverty. 
            Today, we are going to focus on congregational vitality.  I think this is something that is near and dear to all of our hearts.  We truly want this congregation to be vital.  So, directly from the Matthew 25 website I share this:  You might think that the vitality of a congregation or worshiping community is based on the number of members, the scope of programs, the size of financial gifts or some other statistics.
Not so — at least not entirely.
Rather, a community’s vitality is primarily its spiritual strength and its capacity for purposeful mission. Congregational vitality is evident in a worshiping community when its structural systems, finances and discipleship practices are aligned in such a way that the community is actively engaged in the mission of God in their local community and the world, and they are powerfully focused on growing as disciples in the way of Jesus Christ. Faith comes alive when we boldly engage God’s mission and share the hope we have in Christ.
            And so we need to ask ourselves:  are we spiritually exhausted, financially fragile and structurally unsound?  And if we are, what can we do about it?  The first, spiritually exhausted needs to be held in distinction from just being exhausted.  I think as a society, we are exhausted.  But sometime, out of doing ministry and feeling exhausted by it, we are actually spiritually renewed.  So, we need to pay very clear attention to what energizes us and what really causes us deep exhaustion.  Does Olde Suckasunny Day zap our energy and our spiritual strength?  Or do we engage in the day feeling a greater connection to our community and energized by our fundraising and efforts to be a visible presence in our neighborhood?  Mission trips are always good examples of being physically exhausted but spiritual energized.  So, as we move forward this year, the question we need to ask ourselves before engaging in any sort of activity, ministry, or event is – how will this impact us spiritually? 
            Are we financially fragile?  Yes, and no.  We are learning to do ministry within our means and are blessed by a yearly bequest as well as other legacy gifts to the church.  Could we be more financially sound?  Absolutely, and we have been praying about the ways in which to share our building with the greater community.  Are we structurally sound?  Yes.  We have a strong leadership within the church, we have committees and ministry teams that function, and our building itself is in good shape.  Is there more that can be done, absolutely.  But when we put our minds to something, it really seems to happen.

I want us to hold this statement:  vitality connects to purposeful mission.   And I want us to remember that Jesus started his ministry with just a few people and probably very little money.  Last week was Baptism of the Lord Sunday when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.  Today’s passage occurs the very next day.  John is spending time with his disciples and Jesus is still in the area.  They see him walk by and John describes him by calling him “the Lamb of God”.  It seems as if John’s description is enough to get his disciples’ attention and the two of them go towards Jesus.  Jesus senses that they are following him and he engages them by asking:  What are you looking for?  Seems to me to be a rather strange way to start a conversation.  There are no introductions or basic greetings, but a straight forward question.  And they don’t answer him, but rather, they give him a title:  Rabbi, and ask him a question:  Where are you staying?  And his response:  Come, and see.  So they do and they stay visiting for him for the day. 
One of these two men was named Andrew and Andrew has a brother known as Simon Peter or Peter.  After his day spent with Jesus, Andrew leaves and goes to find his brother Simon Peter and tells him:  We have found the Messiah.  And not only does he tell him who he believes Jesus is, he brings his brother to meet Jesus.  Vitality connects to purposeful mission.  Andrew believes there is something purposeful with Jesus and he wants his brother to be included. 
As we think about congregational vitality, I want us to also think of the word thirst.  When did we see you thirsty?  We could focus on the numerous places around the world and even right here in New Jersey where people do not have clean drinking water.  But for congregational vitality, I want us to focus on spiritual thirst.  From the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  And from the Psalm we heard read today:  As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.My soul thirsts for God,  for the living God. 
According to the Matthew 25 information on Congregational vitality, there are seven marks, seven ways to determine if your congregation is vital, or it can be seen as seven ways to move the congregation towards vitality. 
Congregational vitality grows out of discipleship, and to be a disciple of
something you should thirst for it, long for it, desire it.  The Psalmist writes: my soul thirsts for God.  And Andrew, a fisherman, a man who spent his days upon the water, thirsted for something more.  First, he is with John the Baptist, learning from him, then he gravitates towards Jesus, thirsting even more, finding in him the place he desired to invest himself, and not only himself, but his brother as well.  The second mark of congregational vitality is evangelism, which is what Andrew does as he goes and finds his brother proclaiming to him:  We have found the Messiah. 
            This passage concludes with yet one more mark of congregational vitality:  Empowering every member to discover their individual calling and the gifts God has given them so they can go forth and serve.   When Simon Peter arrives, Jesus gives him a new name.  You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter[l]), and it also means rock.  The future church will be built very literally, on the rock of Peter.  So, just in this one passage we have three marks of a vital congregation: Discipleship, evangelism, and empowerment.  And that congregational vitality is based on purposeful mission.  These first disciples of Jesus are a part of a mission, to share that Jesus is the Messiah, that God’s promised has been fulfilled.