Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Psalm One

Psalm One
Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on God they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season (in due season),
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they give life.

Today we celebrate our sixth birthday. In preparation for today, I wondered when we would stop celebrating birthdays? I didn’t grow up in a church that celebrated birthdays. Actually, I have never been in a church that celebrated a birthday, unless it was a big one, like 25 years or 100 years or 150 years. Maybe we treat church birthdays like we treat our own. We stop celebrating at some point, like maybe after 21, or it seems for sure after 30. After 30 we only celebrate the big ones and we forgo the big party for 32, 46 or 57. We celebrate the early birthdays the most. Maybe that is because those are the ones where we see the most change. Year to year we see big changes. When Lila turned one, I felt a certain joy, because we had taken a parenting class before her birth which gave us reason to be afraid of almost every thing. Everything was a hazard, cute stuffed animals and a loose baby blanket could be sure and certain death. We celebrate milestones when we really need too.

Perhaps, we never celebrated birthdays at church because no one remembered when getting from one year to the next was a big deal, or none remembered when the church started. It always seemed that the United Methodist Church, just like the Presbyterian church or the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, had always been there and in someways would always be there. These institutions were a part of the community, solid and stable and not changing much. But the truth is there is change. Our big institutions, all of the mainline church denominations, have been facing decline. The world is changing, and the way people connect to church has changed too. We are in a time of decline across the board. You might be able to see it in a sanctuary but you can just as easily read about it in plenty of well-research studies. The world is different. Stores are open on Sunday, kids practice soccer on Sundays, no one moves to town to join the closest United Methodist Church just because their Mom raised them that way. So why are we here starting a church in an uncertain time? It makes no sense. Research shows the mile radius around the Abbey to be filled with people who are high in their distrust of clergy and disinterest in the church, and a high interest in “alternative spirituality.”

Today we plant a church because this new day gives us new hope. Today no one feels obligated to join a church because they want to be good citizens, or need to network or like to sing in a group. No body has to come to church anymore. Which is the gift. Everyone comes because they want to.  Because they seek and they long to, because they love. And our church is open every day all the time, a living sanctuary. We are here to share the gifts of the church, freely and lovingly.

We have a lot to give. We have inherited a strong foundation from our Annual Conference. Church institutions have talked about changing, doing it differently or being different for a long time but when it comes to actually putting money into that work, well that is a different story. New church starts are usually in a suburb with a cute white guy pastor who plays a guitar and has a tattoo or a piercing… but not both. But here, you have proof of people brave enough to really fund something different. We inherit their courage and the gift of a strong foundation.

We have been gifted with a strong call to justice by our mother church. First United Methodist Church has planted justice in our DNA. It is a church that refused to pay a pastor who preached with a pistol and disregarded the rights of Native people. It is a church that during its hay day was large and wealthy and white with powerful people, and it stood in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. It is a church that made Omaha’s first home for PFLAG and stood up for LGBTQ+ rights, before it was cool. This call to justice is seeded in our very being.

We inherit the grace and courage of our tradition. John Wesley and his brother Charles and their little group of college friends that created a movement. WE inherit their integration of the head and the heart and the hands. Their deep well of grace and their holiness that was both social and personal.  Their call to action, meant they showed up. Showed up to create schools for young people without access, they showed up to feed the hungry, and they showed up to change tax codes and laws that kept people poor. They showed up in prisons and preached in fields, they worked to make fair labor standard and abolish slavery, and their little holiness club turned into a movement that spans the globe yet today.

We bring all of this to the table, it is a part of who we are and it is how we show up. Showing up is at the heart of our theology, we are about to enter the season of Advent where we talk about God showing up. And it is not a distant metaphor, it is as real as breath. Emmanuel, God with us, God within us. And when we celebrate Christmas, we remember God showing up and not as the oldest son of a popular king, not as the oldest son of the Chief Priest to reform the temple, but God shows up born to a woman who shouldn’t be pregnant and by some accounts surrounded by farm animals... which was not recommended in any childbirth class.

We show up here because that is our call. It is simple and profound. And sometimes even showing up is hard. It took a lot of paper work and asking and re-asking to get started at all. And there were days when I looked at the struggle before us and thought is this ever going to work? Will we make it? Will it matter? And every time I have leaned into this poetry of Psalm One, the phrase of bearing fruit in due season. I have looked at worship attendance and worried. I have looked at our coffee bar and worried. I have looked at our giving and worried. In our first year, 2012, we raised in a whole year what we will often this year raise in one month. There was reason to worry, particularly if you looked close and realized that most of that money was the gift of my mom and my boyfriend. But the truth is in every moment there was an answer. A reason to hope, the season was winter and spring would come, in due season we would bear fruit.

That is the gift. In this uncertain adventure, that every moment of uncertainty has been met with people who bring gifts; gifts I don’t have. I didn’t know anything about coffee, I didn’t even drink it, but Chris Smith did. There was no class about permits or paint colors, plumbing or Excel spreadsheets, but all of those needs were met with the gifts of people who care. Every moment that seemed like an obstacle has been an opening to learn about a new gift and to grow the Abbey through the gifts of others. You bring gifts to this community and I am ever grateful. May we have to courage to use them to grow. May we deploy them for God’s love with the foundation of where we have been and a eye for every year to follow. 

May it be so.


Discussion Questions

1. What is your favorite birthday memory? What do you love or not love about marking a year of your journey?

2. How do you identify with the Psalm? What would it mean to pray it daily for a week?

3. What are the gifts you bring to community? How do you feel called or challenged to use them?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints Day Sermon (1 Corinthians 13)

1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV)

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


We hear this scripture a lot… at weddings. It is so common at weddings that some couples say, “I don’t want that scripture - everyone else uses it.” It is the scripture I shared at my Grandma’s funeral. Because this poetry about love speaks in all cycles and phases of life. It names our call to love with profound and simple phrases that ring true and raise a challenge… love is kind; love does not boast or seek its own way; love hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things. This love endures beyond what we see and know for sure. The poetry culminates in this story seeing dimly and knowing only in part. It invites us beyond what is now and into the sense that we don't see everything and we don’t know everything. Which I think is the perfect place to begin any conversation around death.

We are in a season where the hours of evening are creeping into the daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere it is a time when we see cycles of life and death in the world around us. The once vibrantly green fields have turned dry, brittle, and golden. Crops are dying to life, becoming grain to nourish and seeds to sow for the future. It is a season of transformation, where evening creeps into daylight. It is a season where we actually name what scares us. We name it and we literally dress up as the most terrifying things. We dress up as witches and ghosts, goblins and political figures. People turn nice normal yards into grave yards, coated in cob-webs and punctuated zombies and old bones. Everything that scares us we name it. And I believe it is essential work to name our fears, including what might be our biggest fear, our own mortality. Facing our own death is hard and may only be eclipsed by facing the death of one we love. I think that is why we set aside this time each year, to name it and face it.

When I was in seminary, we were assigned to write a credo. It required thought on eight key aspects of Christianity. And while this was not an unusual assignment, I am grateful because there were themes I loved to write about and there were themes I would have never chosen. The one I struggled with the most related to death and the mystery of what lies beyond death. Everything I wrote sounded small in the face of the topic, and I have never been too committed to pearly gates and streets paved in gold or a mansion waiting with our name above the door. As I erased everything to start over, I received a call. My friend needed help. She was having a baby, and I was her photographer. It was a first for me, and I witnessed nothing going according to plan. She had a fever, she was sick, and the plan with the right music and the powerful natural birth was gone. And as I witnessed this powerful moment, I thought Ember, the baby girl we were waiting for, must think she is dying. Everything is changing; her body has participated, growing to term, positioning itself for birth. And yet the womb that was her home is pushing her out. She is pushed out, away from everything that sustained her life, and it must feel like she is dying. And yet she is received. Breathing air she didn’t know she could, seeing light and hearing new sounds without the womb surrounding her. She must feel like everything is strange and new, a death of one way and yet she is received into life.

When I have had the occasion to be in the room with people at the time of their deaths, it has been peaceful and holy. On Wednesday, Joel Walker shared his experience as a hospice chaplain. He named the peace and the powerful presence of a spirit bigger and bolder. He named how every person on staff experienced this bold mystery, regardless of their faith. We can’t know all the logistics, we see in part and know in part. So maybe we should stop trying to know it all or at least claiming we do. While we may not be able to name the logistics and specifics, we can rest into the mystery of God’s love. We can love that we see dimly, love that we know only in part, and that love is what we rest into. In the mystery, we might imagine being received.

We pause to talk about death, to name it beyond easy images or tired clichés to be open to the mystery of life and death so we can face each day with courage. We name our fears of death so they don’t hold us but empower us. Because naming our fears isn’t about cowering but empowering. We name our fear so it doesn’t hold us back. We celebrate All Saints because it means we can live with reverence for each hour and we can be brave as we live in the world that fills us with doubts or despair. When we open ourselves to the big bold mystery of God’s spirit, we can open ourselves to the spirits of the saints that went before us, encouraged us and loved us into being. And when we open ourselves to God’s love, we can move forward to be those saints for others.

Discussion Questions

1. What does it mean to be a Saint?  Who has been a saint that you remember as important in your life?

2. What gives you comfort and courage in the face of big fears, like mortality?

3. What do you need to live each moment with reverence?