Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No Child Left Behind: a sermon from the mountains

With a shout out to my big bro...

Holden Village
Eucharist 9.23.12
Mark 9:30-37

When I was a college student I was the epitome of a busy-body. I hussled from classes to choir, from the church where I was working to band practice and then collapsing for a short rest before getting up with the sun to begin the busy-body hussle all over again. During one of these “oh, I'm so important watch me run here and there” days I hastily drove across Fargo-Moorhead to church for a staff meeting. I loved the church and the people on staff and so looked forward to these early morning check ins and meetings filled with affirmation, support. We spent the morning bickering about Christmas decorations and the right time for the Thanksgiving service. We read the feedback cards that asked for less Bible reading in church and better hymn choices...typical weekly church stuff. Yet, I loved all this church stuff — so busy, so important. I particularly loved this staff because my big brother was serving as youth director, so sitting at these meetings meant more time spent with him. After our meeting the entire staff was going to hurry back to campus so that we could attend a Eucharist chapel service together and have some lunch. So, I jumped in my car (ever so busily) and with my brother in the passenger seat we were on our way...busy, busy, busy.

We were just a few blocks down a busy street when a small blur on the right side of the road caught our eyes. There, on this chilly October morning in North Dakota was a toddler, just about the size of our village baby, Benjamin. This little toddler was wearing only a diaper as he teetered and tottered over an alley way moving towards this busy street. We pulled over and ran to the little boy who saw me coming and saw my fake smile plastered on my face with my happiest “Hi little guy” voice and he jumped into my arms and was covered with a sweater that somehow appeared in Daniel's hands.

There, on the corner of Broadway and 12th my busy-body hussle came to a screeching halt. Now, I found myself doing a slow and calming sway with a shivering little boy in my arms. We waved down our pastor who was just a few minutes behind us and started looking for a parent, who surely must be around here somewhere. We waited, and waited and no one appeared, no one seemed terribly concerned for this vulnerable little one who had been out in the cold for at least twenty minutes now.

We began calling out to those walking by and knocking on doors and finally a neighbor was able to identify the little boy. His name was Hunter, and we were pointed towards the house where he and his mother lived on the top floor. We all walked over to the house, but I was hanging back, because now little Hunter was burying his head in my shoulder and playing peek-a-boo and smiling a brilliant and oh, so innocent smile. Our pastor led the way yelling the entire time, “Hello! My name is Pastor Julie, can we come in? Hello its Pastor Julie we have your little Hunter!” finally a women emerged, groggy, embarrassed and probably little shocked at the picture of an entire church staff at her door front. She muttered some profanity and thank-yous, she took little Hunter back and slammed the door.

We stood there a little shell shocked and after we made our way back to church our pastors made the appropriate phone calls to report our experience and concern. And instead of sitting in a chapel service we found ourselves back around the staff table with a changed conversation. Because of this encounter our ideas of what constitutes church business and our call to serve our immediate neighborhood suddenly came to the forefront. Christmas decorations and hymn choices? Suddenly not so important. My busy-body hussle looked pretty sill now. We began a deep and enlivened conversation about what really serving this neighborhood could look like. How could we, as a church, not just be equipping, not just encouraging our neighbors to live lives full of grace and light and love? How we could we, as a church, be support our broken families and not just sending the message of what they “should” be doing. How could we, as a church, take seriously what God has given us? Because this ministry we are working in, is about transforming lives and this gospel we have been given, it has flesh and bones. This transforming gospel is for real people, just like beautiful little Hunter and his mother.

Often it takes an encounter to stop us in our tracks. Something that silences all the chaos and noise of our lives and awakens us to new understanding, more life-giving ways of being. What does it take to halt your busy dances? It could be as simple as the autumn leaves turning new shades of brilliant color, or the realization that you've left a loved one feeling neglected and forgotten. As alarming as a health concern, as startling as a lost child, as awakening as an encounter in the wilderness with a cougar, bear or bird. These halting encounters happen in so many ways, it is a familiar rhythm to life – yet one that is meant to catch us off guard and pull our lives and the life that God is calling us to into sharp and new perspective.

That is exactly what Jesus did in our gospel reading. Did you hear it? Did you hear how the disciples spent days of travel bickering about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God? Quite literally they were following Jesus, and their top concern was who gets the best seat in the new place. Jesus responds – not with shaming them, not with a theological dissertation or a long winded sermon. Jesus takes flesh and blood, a tiny little child and holds that child in his arms.

With a simple, yet profound action, Jesus halts the self-centered conversation. Jesus holds a child, a child who is not considered cute and innocent at that time, but rather a child was a nusenience, less than, not worthy of attention and certainly not appropriate to bring to the center of an oh-so-important adult conversation. Jesus takes a child, who is at best considered a second class citizen and holds that child in her arms. Jesus does not enter the argument of his followers or validate the concerns of who might be the greatest. Instead Jesus gives flesh and bones...a beautiful face to his followers and reminds them that this...this is what following Jesus is about.

For days of travel the disciples were doing their own version of the busy-body dance, distracted, self-centered and oh-so-important. Jesus halts all of the noise and chaos and says – welcome the one you do not value, welcome and honor the one you ignore...because this message of God's love, this transforming gospel is about people with flesh and bones and is for people like you, like me, like Hunter, like the child in Jesus' arms. This is the message of Jesus this day – not chaos, not noise, not be better or be greater...the transforming message of Jesus Christ is that he came in his flesh and bone and blood to transform and welcome us so that we might be brave enough to welcome each other.

Now, I know this is not exactly the community that needs to hear the lecture about being a busy-body or being too distracted to notice what is really important. I mean that is why were are here, right? We all made an intentional choice to come to this place set apart to live lives full of intention and focus – to not be distracted and to ponder the message of God put before us in flesh and blood. Yet, we all need to hear that these stilling and centering encounters are happening to and around us all the time. God is continually coming to us, meeting us in flesh and blood. God is halting our busy-body ways, our “I'm so important watch me go” dances and we suddenly encounter the Divine that stills us, re-focuses us...and then, so much more importantly, transforms our lives and points us to the gospel message. It can be easy to limit God's presence in our lives to only the moments of inspiration at the mountain top or the chills on our spine during our favorite song. Yet God meets us in very earthy ways – in the faces of one another, in the empty bellies of those who go hungry, in the heart aches of our loved our most physical needs and hurt, God is there...offering welcome and open arms.

So, Jesus took a child in his arms and through the embrace, that simple action he showed his followers what God's love is all about. The face of that small child and the plea to welcome him gave Jesus' death on the cross a purpose, a face a person to love and serve...and that is what followers of Jesus do. What will startle you to attention? Where will you see and hear and touch the flesh and body and blood of this gospel of love?

In just a few minutes you will encounter the body and blood of Christ. We will come to the table with our immediate neighbors and hear the words, “The body of Christ...given for you.” and “The blood of Christ shed for you.” And God will encounter the faces of those around you, in the needs weighing on your hearts this evening, on the places of your souls and the places of this globe that need a transforming encounter...remember that when we come to the table and encounter Jesus, we encounter the One who welcomes those who are not valued, those who are ignored, those who are hurting, those who need transforming love this night. You, me, Hunter and all of God's children.
I leave you with the words of Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread. Sara spent most of her life as skeptic and then encounter something greater and bigger than she could imagined in the simple act of walking to the front of the church to take bread and wine. Sara writes, “This is my belief, that at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn't promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. We will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God's.”


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sing from the mountains

We got off the ferry which was docked on the north side of Lake Chelan and still felt a little like we were swaying. Our land-legs had not returned to us after the plane-light rail-train-bus-ferry whirl wind we had just finished. The princess scampered right onto the awaiting village bus while I found my way to the end of the dock to be sure there was enough help with loading luggage and supplies. The strong, young men swinging bags and boxes like they were beach balls gave me the polite, “Yeah, we got it.” When I climbed onto the bus I found the princess was already situated in a front row seat with 'Grandpa Doug!'. One of the villagers we met on the ferry ride up had sat down next to Micaela and for the first half of the trip up the mountain the kind, elderly man listened to every detail of how the princess lost all six of her teeth. She then looked out the window for about thirty seconds before drifting off to sleep.

The village feels very different this time around. Maybe is the construction and about a hundred miners milling about. Maybe its because we'll be here for such a long time and our chalet is cozy, lived in and now...ours. Maybe its because I'm a part of the staff and not just a visiting musician. Whatever the cause, the community is already knitting us in and feeling like “our” community. I cannot believe its possible to say that after feeling so a part of our little town in Oregon and leaving so many special people in Minnesota...but somehow our hearts are growing to let all of this in, too.

But its not happening too fast. We are given plenty of time for travel recovery (there is no short or easy path to the village) and transition. So, I've done a few hikes, finished a baby blanket, made music and read some books while the princess has made so many friends, hiked a few miles, knit a few rows, taken art classes and eaten some ice cream!

I miss being able to call people and hear familiar voices. But I do not miss my phone and really do not miss seeing people with devices constantly in front of them. The simplicity and integrity of this places grows on me every single day.

And I leave you with this quote from Martin Luther that was used in the Vespers service the day after we arrived. It had already been one of my very favorites, but it hit me hard and has stayed with me this week especially...

"This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified."