Kin-dom Fruits

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton
October 8, 2017

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one sets a trap for his listeners.  Jesus is talking, not to his whole crowd of followers, but to the temple officials, the men in charge, religious authorities accustomed to setting the rules and calling the shots. So obviously, they relate to the landowner in the parable. When Jesus asks, “What will the owner do to those tenants when he returns?” They know the answer. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time!” After all: that’s what you do when someone disrupts production. You’ve got to set an example; replace troublemakers with laborers who will follow the rules. The priority is to bring in the harvest, to protect the bottom line.

But here’s where Jesus turns the tables: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.”  Taken away from YOU.  “You are the problem,” says Jesus. “You leaders who are only concerned with upholding the law when it suits you; you who are more concerned with defending the profit margin than with protecting lives. You are the tenants in the story.”

Jesus, it’s fair to say, is royally ticked off, up to his eyeballs with religious leaders who claim to be in charge but repeatedly ignore his message… Sick to death of chief priests and Pharisees who have forgotten what God truly desires – not fruits of a well-run agri-business, but fruits of the kingdom.

I want to unpack this word, “Kingdom.”  It shows up a lot in the gospel of Matthew (53 times, to be exact).  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” announces John the Baptizer in the wilderness.  And, “The Kingdom of God has come to you,” says Jesus (Matthew 12:28). At the time Jesus lived, the word “kingdom” packed a punch, because it challenged the sovereignty of the Roman Emperor:  “Not Caesar’s kingdom.  GOD’S kingdom.”  Caesar’s kingdom is oppressive, militant and obsessed with the accumulation of wealth and power.  GOD’S kingdom?  Well, that’s something else entirely.  GOD’S kingdom (says Jesus) is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds that grows into a giant bush where the birds flourish. (Mat 13:31)  It’s like yeast that leavens the whole dough (Mat 13:33); or like a treasure hidden in a field (Mat 13:44)…”  “The kingdom of heaven belongs to the little children (Mat 19:14).  Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter GOD’S kingdom before any of those temple officials.”  (Mat 21:31)

As he so often does, Jesus takes the status quo and flips it on its head, paints a picture of a community in which the most vulnerable are regarded with honor, prosperity is shared and everyone, everyone, has a seat at the table.  THAT’S the kingdom to which Jesus refers.

The thing is, the word “kingdom” has lost some of its clout. We don’t live in a kingdom. We have no king – and haven’t for generations.  So theologians have looked for other ways to describe this alternative social structure cooked up by God: The Realm of God (we say), or God’s Beloved Community.  I’ve heard it called God’s Commonwealth (which works particularly well if you live in Massachusetts!).  Sometimes, I replace the ‘g’ in ‘kingdom’ with a hyphen in order to speak about God’s kin-dom (see the cover of the bulletin).  Maybe it’s a bit awkward, but I love the wordplay, the reminder,  in the words of the Lakota Nation, that “we are all related” – people and animals, rocks and rivers, mountains and stars.  In God’s kin-dom, there is room for everyone, we are interconnected, all siblings, children of the Most High.

And the fruits of that Kin-dom, God’s Kin-dom?  Justice and loving-kindness; wholeness, harmony, peace, and well-being.  It’s what we call in Hebrew:  Shalom.

And it’s what we’re all called to produce; what God invites us to co-create.  If we are laborers in the vineyard, then we are laboring to cultivate that kind of community, to embody God’s vision for creation – actively, persistently, daily.  There is another Hebrew phrase, Tikkun olam – which means “to repair the world.” to finish what God has begun.  Our Jewish siblings believe that this is our vocation.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21).  In other words, we’re not talking about some idyllic afterlife, some gold-encrusted, angel-populated heaven up in the clouds; we’re talking about something that’s taking shape right here, right now.  Something we can nurture, in partnership with the Creator of the Universe.

That’s the sort of sacred labor that Jesus was talking about. But apparently,  it’s not what those first-century religious leaders were doing. Then as now, religious leaders were too easily distracted by the pursuit of power, wealth, and status.  Like the tenants in the parable, they forgot that they had been entrusted with something that did not belong to them; they got greedy, possessive, and so they behaved badly.

Maddeningly, some things never change.

This fall, we on the Protestant branch of the Christian tree mark the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation, launched when Martin Luther famously nailed to the church door his list of 95 complaints against the religious leaders of his day: the Catholic priests.  Among the abuses he enumerated: That priests collected a fee for forgiving sins – indulgences, they were called. Also, those priests had exclusive access to scripture and, by extension, claimed insider access to God.  In short, they called all the shots and reaped all the rewards.

Luther’s call to reform the church started a movement that changed the course of history and the shape of Christianity.  But 500 years later, we religious leaders still forget that the vineyard doesn’t belong to us; rather, that we have been entrusted with its care and keeping.  There are too many shameful and heartbreaking stories of clergy misconduct to list: children systematically abused, money stolen, whole categories of people unjustly ostracized or rejected… There’s a reason young people harbor such distrust of religious authority.  According to a study conducted by the Barna Group, 87% of 16-29-year-olds say the church is too judgemental, 85% say it is hypocritical and 70% say it’s insensitive to those who are different.[1]  Again and again, we have compromised our moral authority.

You may have noticed that I’m saying, ‘we.’  It’s easy to call out clergy who have broken the law, easy to condemn the misdeeds of others; it’s harder to look in the mirror. But that’s what this parable demands.  Jesus has plenty to say to all of us about kin-dom building, but today, it’s the Church, and those of us in positions of leadership, who are in the hot seat.  Today, I am the one compelled to ask: When have I failed to to be a faithful tenant in God’s vineyard?

Here is an admittedly partial list. I fail to fulfill my role:

  1. When my decisions are driven by public approval and not by God’s purpose;
  2. When I focus more on the survival of the institution than on the spread of the gospel;
  3. When I fail to interrupt bigotry, to speak up for or stand with people on the margins; when my fear of criticism keeps me silent;
  4. When worry about profits prevents me from being prophetic (or  urging us all to be prophetic);
  5. When I use my power to avoid risks, rather than to take them;
  6. When I opt for safe topics instead of opening space for us to wrestle with hard questions and controversial issues;
  7. When I neglect to pray (that is, when I forget that this is not my ministry, but God’s ministry);
  8. When I fail to invite all of you to share the joys and the costs of leadership – because if it is God’s ministry, it is also our ministry.

Looking back at that list, two things occur to me.  First: I fall short, all the time. So I need your help.  I need you to hold me accountable to this sacred labor.  If I’m not speaking up, exercising courage, helping us to get real together, reminding myself and you that our sacred purpose is to raise up kin-dom fruits, then I need a nudge!  And second, when I do my job, we may ALL feel a bit less comfortable, myself included.  Kin-dom building is like that; it requires risk, makes us stretch, prevents us from ever getting too settled.  The tenants in Jesus’ parable forgot that they had work to do; they imagined that they could kick back and enjoy the fruits of that vineyard all themselves.  But that’s not what God intended. God wants us all to roll up our sleeves.

Yes, when Jesus told this parable, he was confronting the religious leaders in the temple, but the truth is: we all struggle to keep on task, to live faith-filled lives – clergy and lay members alike.  We all forget that the very ground on which we tread was formed by God, that we are all laborers in a vineyard that does not belong to us, but which surely relies on our faithful care and keeping.

The Pharisees wanted to hire productive workers. But raising kin-dom fruits means exposing any landowner who is more concerned with proceeds than people. The Landowner sent slaves to do his bidding, but raising kin-dom fruits means condemning slavery and racism in all its forms.  The tenants murdered one messenger after another, but raising kin-dom fruits means raging against violence, and lamenting every loss of life, and tenaciously tending communities in which children matter more than weapons.  Raising kin-dom fruits means choosing every day to work for God and not for Caesar – cultivating justice and propagating loving-kindness; planting seeds of wholeness, harmony, peace, and well-being – in our relationships, our church, our community, our world.

Beloved siblings in Christ:  May we find ways to do that every day; until we break a sweat; until our muscles feel that satisfying ache that comes after a hard day’s labor; until the blisters on our hands and our broken-open hearts and the justice-seeking, love-expanding fruits of our labor bear witness to our faithfulness; until Shalom takes root and erupts into breath-taking blossom all around.

May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church,  Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, p. 15.

Emptiness and Void

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Michael Hendricks
October 1, 2017

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good morning.  This morning Pastor Alison is away.  I want to thank her for offering me this opportunity to share some reflections with you.  I want to thank you as well for your support.

This reflection grew out of conversations, Alison and I have had about hard issues facing young people today.  As many of you know, I have been working as a church school teacher here for more than twenty years.  Wait.  What?  Yikes.  As it turned out, in some ways, this reflection addresses why somebody might do that.

For most of my time teaching, I have been teaching the Story Tent curriculum in which we dramatize stories from the Bible.  Over those years, we have dramatized many, many stories.  And a few of them, we have even turned to more than once.  But the story we have worked with the most – by far – is Creation.  And for some reason, every time I turn to those early stories, I find something in them – something powerful and insightful – that I never noticed before.

A professor of mine, I recall saying once, that any time we try to understand things by talking about how they began, we are really talking about the way those things are.  There is so much in just the first chapter of the Bible that addresses how things are, I will just assume that we will be back there in Story Tent again before too long.  And, if you’ll bear with me, today we will be going there again.  Back to the beginning.  The very beginning.  Before even the garden.  Before even the seven days.  Before God even said “Let there be …”, well, anything.

Today, we will look at what comes before.  At what was first.

Please pray with me.

God the Creator, You took emptiness and chaos and made everything.  We ask you now to look at the emptiness and chaos within us and to fill it with your greatest creation.  Speak to our hearts and say, “Let there be love.”  Then, with your help, may it one day be written of your world, “And there was love.” Amen.

Many of us have the familiar words of the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” committed to memory.  That verse summarizes what the first chapter of Genesis will describe.  Here is what is coming.  Here is how everything that is came into being.  Which is great, but it is not until the third verse that Creation – with God’s powerful words, “Let there be Light.” – that the act of Creation actually gets started.

And the Light is so much like a bright, shiny object designed to capture our attention, perhaps in some ways similarly to the way a magician’s right-hand moves so we don’t see what the left is doing, that maybe we don’t focus enough on what comes before.

But in the second verse of Genesis 1, the Bible describes exactly what came before.  What there was before God ever said, “Let there be Light.” What there would still be now if Creation never happened.

The New International Version says the earth was “formless and void.”  The World English Bible calls it “formless and empty.” The Good News translation calls the world “formless and desolate.”  My favorite of these, the Living Bible, calls it a “shapeless chaotic mess.”

There is a reason for these differences.

The words in Hebrew are actually Tohu and Bohu.  Or in Hebrew, Tohu Webohu.  And nobody knows exactly what they mean because nobody has ever found another instance in all of ancient literature where these words appear – so we have no other context in which to understand them.

What was there before God got started?

Nothingness.  Emptiness.  Chaos.  Tohu Webohu.  And we don’t even know exactly what that means.

And maybe that’s okay because the thing that strikes me as important is that it comes first.  Emptiness and void come before the wonder of Creation.  Emptiness and void come before God’s love comes and makes everything else possible.

And here’s the thing that I can’t help thinking.  What if, as my professor suggested, this observation about how things began is just as much, if not more, an observation about how things are?  What if that truth of the Creation story continues to be true?  Maybe or maybe not so much in a science class way, but just as true nevertheless.  What if the person we were created to be is preceded by a bit of tohu and bohu, a bit of chaos and void, within each of us?

I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but the more I look at the world, the more I hear of violence and hatred and all the horrifying behaviors that fill the news on the television and internet, the more convinced I am that the Tohu Webohu chaos that came before God’s choice to bring Creation into existence is still here living in the human heart.

In my heart and maybe in yours.

And maybe there’s a logic to it.  A beautiful and sacred logic that you would expect from the Creator who designed us.

That hole in our hearts might be that emptiness that God gave us as a gift – that empty place inside us that we are intended to fill – to fill with love.  What if the tohu and bohu void that existed before Creation almost sparked God to respond, responding with everything as an answer to nothing?

In that same way, what if we were given an emptiness at our core so we would know that we were never intended to be complete in and of ourselves?  What if we were given a void within ourselves so we would need connection, so we would need love, to become who we were created to be?  What if the culmination of Creation as it is described in Genesis is not the creation of a human being, but as it clearly seems to be, the creation of two human beings – the creation of relationship, and, by extension, the creation of love?

But that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  What happens though when God’s love doesn’t fill us?

Whether it’s because we turn away or because no one’s convinced us of it, what happens to that emptiness at our core?

As I said, I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure, but I do know there is a saying in science that nature abhors a vacuum.  Somehow, some way, with something, our emptiness will get filled – and that’s what I’m so terribly sad about, so terribly afraid of.

Because if that’s true, what it means is that it puts an awful lot of pressure and responsibility on us to be agents and ambassadors of God’s filling love – knowing that when people’s emptiness and void isn’t filled with God’s love it will surely be filled with something else.

Like what, you ask?

Do you remember that horrible “How did we get here” feeling when you first heard about a young man or woman with their whole lives ahead of them deciding to strap on an improvised bomb and sacrificing their life for the sole purpose of spreading fear and terror?  It’s a big world out there so of course, it’s easy to think there might be one person out there like that.  But that’s not the terribly sad thing about our world today.  The sad thing about our world is that there seems to be an almost endless supply of people whose inner emptiness is being addressed with a binding community of anger and resentment that encourages both self-destruction and an outer violence.

Did you ever wonder why just two generations after their grandparents risked their lives to free the world from the horrors of Nazism, that there are young people in our country who are attracted to the very same or similar ideology?  And now it’s almost worse, because perhaps a case could be made that when young Germans first embraced that evil, it’s at least possible that  they might not have realized where it would lead, but we have no such excuse.  We know exactly where it leads, and yet you still see that there are those in our country today – young people – whose inner emptiness is filled with the community of shared hate.  In fact, that community, if anything seems to be growing.

Did you ever wonder why in this day and age – only a few decades after the Civil Rights movement at great cost finally helped put our nation on a more just path – we still see the KKK marching more openly than ever in cities and towns across America?

Did you ever wonder, why at this time in our country, the rate of suicide in middle aged men has grown so great that it has actually impacted the average life expectancy of our nation?

Did you ever wonder why even in this wonderful community that we are privileged to live in, that I have been fortunate enough to raise my family in for almost 30 years, that we, like so many other communities in our state and our nation, have opioids as an issue facing some of our young people.

Talk about emptiness!

Talk about trying to address your emptiness by embracing the ultimate void of all.

That emptiness we are born with is a sense that something is missing.  And what we believe as members of this community of love and faith is that God’s love that was designed to answer that void is infinitely filling and always within reach.  A great message, but our nation’s children, the world’s children, are telling us, screaming at us actually, that they are empty and God’s love is not reaching them.

We have to do a better job of reaching them.

But, if I’m the means by which God plans to spread God’s love, I must confess, for the sake of the world, I wish God had a better and more consistent and more persistent agent. Because I’m not always on my game.  And I get tired.  And grumpy.  And discouraged.  And frustrated.  And sometimes I still have my own emptiness issues.

But you and I, I believe, are what God chooses to work with.  Maybe because we are not always suited for it, it means more that we keep coming back and trying to live God’s love into this world.

Because, brothers and sisters, if I know one thing in this world to be true it is this: It matters.  Right here in this church.  Right now, with everyone you meet.  With everyone who might have an emptiness inside them just looking for something to fill it.  In other words, with everyone.

That’s what we are here for.

To help point the way to fill in the Tohu and Bohu emptiness in the world, in each other, with God’s love before it is filled by something else, something less, and something potentially and profoundly much, much worse.

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that as Christians we have any special claim to God’s love.  I’ve seen too many powerful expressions of love arising from other places to really believe that.  And, sadly, I’ve heard too many words spoken in the name of the faith I’ve been called to follow that sound nothing at all like the love I believe we’ve been called to.

In fact, it’s really the opposite.  As Christians, we should not expect, nor do we deserve, any extra share of God’s love.  If anything, as Christians, we’ve taken on a special obligation to extend and put ourselves at the service of that love.  We’ve chosen this, we’ve affirmed it, and we have no excuses.

To help live God’s love into God’s creation.  To do what we can to bring in God’s Kingdom.

To be filled.  Then help fill others.

Take that deep and spirit-filled breath we always talk about.  Know that you are loved.  Be filled with that love.  Then share that love with others.

Amen.

In Lak’ech, Ala K’in

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
September 17, 2017

Members of the High School Youth Group share stories and reflections from the 2017 Mission Trip to Denver, CO.

Holy Hot Spots

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton
September 3, 2017

Where to begin? Beloved members and friends of Saugatuck Church: It’s been two months since I worshipped with you in this sacred space. While I’ve been away on a soul-nurturing, spirit-filled sabbatical, you have no doubt been accumulating your own adventures. I pray that each of you has found time to rest and to play this summer.  I know that some of you have also navigated health challenges, suffered loss, weathered personal storms.  And then there’s the world around us, which has continued to turn.  In the last month, we’ve seen a White Supremacist rally turn deadly in Charlottesville; and a category 4 hurricane devastate vast swaths of Texas and parts of Louisiana.  On a brighter note, many of us joined the throngs of onlookers who grabbed cardboard glasses, cereal boxes and special telescope filters to view a dramatic solar eclipse earlier this month.

When have you caught your breath, this summer – in awe, or in horror?  When have you had the wind knocked out of you, been left speechless, sobbed out of sheer wonder, or worry, or overwhelming rage? When have you been struck by the sheer scale – of a crowd, or the devastation or the cosmos?  For me, it has happened over and over:  I drove to the top of two different peaks that tower at or just below 14,000 feet.  I marched in a crowd of peace-seeking counter protesters 40,000 strong in Boston.  I lived on an island that is constantly changing shape, as an active volcano steams and bubbles and sends lava oozing across the landscape.  (“That’s my home getting bigger,” said the Rev. Eric Anderson, my host and United Church of Christ pastor, as we watched lava pour into the sea).  Each of these experiences has filled me with awe.

The Irish poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama (In the Shelter) says we don’t just read stories; they read us.  Which is a way of saying that we bring our lives to the text.  What we hear has everything to do with what we’re up to, where we are standing, where we have been, what is unfolding in our own lives when we encounter a tale.

So although I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush a thousand times, I read it differently in the wake of Charlottesville, and Hurricane Harvey, and my sabbatical trip to Hawaii. This story about a blazing bush and holy ground and a God outraged by and responsive to the people’s suffering – this story comes alive for me in ways that take my breath away.  Perhaps it does so for you, too.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush…

“Moses!  Moses!”

“Here I am.”

“Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

I learned to walk barefoot in Hawaii. Not that I had never gone without shoes before, but in Hawaii, it became a way of life.  In the home of my cousin in Honolulu, in the parsonage in Hilo (on the Big Island), where I lived for most of a month, at the halau (or hula school) where I danced… I always removed my sandals before setting foot inside.

I confess it took some getting used to for this sock-loving New Englander.  Walking barefoot makes me feel a little exposed, literally a bit more naked. At the same time, removing my shoes had a way of adding meaning to my coming and going.  Always there was a pause at the threshold to remove sandals when I went in and to put them back on as I left.  Always there was this reminder to treat with respect, even reverence, every space that I entered.

Walk around barefoot and you become acutely aware of the ground – textured kitchen tile, stray bits of sand, the puddle left by a melting ice cube I dropped near the fridge.  And outside: hot white sand, hotter black sand, cool grass, protruding roots, skin-scraping lava rock. It’s harder to ignore the details of a landscape – its soft spots and sharp edges – when you are walking barefoot.  You can learn a lot about a place through the soles of your feet.

I’d always assumed that God commanded Moses to remove his sandals as a sign of respect, the way we expect baseball players to remove their caps during the singing of the national anthem.  And it’s true: walking barefoot does feel like an act of reverence.  But having lived barefoot in Hawaii, I wonder whether it was also an invitation to get more intimate with the Divine.  “Remove your shoes, Moses, and know me better!  Step out onto this land that belongs to me, this ground that I have charged with my own life force; stand barefoot, so you might feel the earth breathe, the rocks vibrate, the sand blaze. Come, get to know me, the land I created and the people I love, through the soles of your feet.”

Imagine how hot that ground must have been, where Moses stepped, baked by the wilderness sun and by the perpetually burning bush. There’s a hike I took across fields of hardened black lava rock, where it’s best to keep an eye out for heat shimmers and rock the color of silver. That’s newborn rock, rock that has only just been formed by flowing lava, cool enough to harden, but still hot enough to melt the soles of your sneakers. Just on the other side of one of those masses of silver rock, we found molten lava, flowing like sunset-tinted honey over the ground. Imagine watching new land being formed, almost literally beneath your feet!

That steaming rock, still hot to the touch, reminded me that the land is alive with God’s creative Spirit.  Hawaiians have always known this. Like Moses in the wilderness, they see something powerful, life-giving and mysterious in the fire: glimmers of the Divine.  Hawaiians call her Pele, the volcano god.  “Do not poke the lava or toast marshmallows over Pele” says a sign in Volcano National Park. Because that would be rude.

Take off your shoes.  You are standing on holy ground.

Maybe God directed Moses to take off his shoes so that Moses would learn to recognize the feel of holy ground, the feel of land charged by the divine touch, not just off the beaten path on Mt. Horeb, but wherever Moses went.   “I will be there,” God told Moses, as he sent him out on that life-changing mission. “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.”

Scholars have debated exactly what the sign is intended to be.  The text is ambiguous. It could mean – my being with you will be the sign.  Or that you will eventually return to this holy mountain to worship will be the sign; or the fact that I am sending you is the sign.

But here’s another possibility.  Maybe, it’s the feel of the ground beneath Moses’ feet that will serve as a sign – like the shimmers of heat that rise from recently formed lava rock.  Step on it, and surely you will feel the heat of God’s presence. Surely you will recognize the sheer force and wonder of the one God; surely you will realize that you are not alone.

Stand on this holy ground, Moses…

Lay your hand on the pavement in Charlottesville, and feel the heat of outrage by those courageous enough to stand up in the face of bigotry.

Put your ear to the ground in Boston, listen for the hum of freedom songs being sung by 40,000 voices; feel the tremors caused by 40,000 pairs of feet walking away from hate speech and toward their many-colored sisters and brothers.

Wade through the flood waters in Houston, and watch the ripples caused by thousands of people who have turned out to help folks get to higher ground.

Yes, the ground around that bush in the wilderness must have been hot to the touch. But it’s not the only hot spot. Not by a long shot. Because the Spirit of God that blazed in that bush continues to ignite in response to human suffering, and God continues to call and send emissaries to confront Pharaoh and free the captives – emissaries like us.

Beloved in Christ: this is how I read the story of Moses today; how it reads me.  I hear God urging us to be on the lookout for hot spots, to take off our shoes and peel off our socks, the better to feel the ground reverberating beneath our feet, the better to feel the soft spots and the sharp edges, to get in tune with the suffering of those who set God’s heart ablaze with grief or outrage, love, and compassion.

When standing on those hot spots threatens to leave you breathless; when you are overcome by the sheer magnitude of human suffering, in the guise of racism or climate change… hate speech or hurtful silence… large scale destruction of homes or of hopes…

When that happens, then do this:  pause and step off the trail:  take off your shoes, feel the ground beneath your feet, and remember that God’s hunger for justice is more fierce than primordial fire; God’s love more expansive than the cosmos; God’s devotion more enduring than the mountains. Beloved, be swept up in that promise; shed your shoes; let God take your breath away, trust that we are in good hands, powerful hands; then breathe deeply again, because like Moses, we have work to do: liberating, heart-healing, hate-dismissing, community rebuilding, holy, holy work to do.  With the help of the great I-am, we can do this, one barefoot step at a time.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Amen.

Dream On

NOTE: Summer Interim Co-Ministers Linda Bruce and Rev. Willie Salmond presented joint reflections at the 8:30 AM service at Compo Beach and the 10 AM service at Saugatuck Church. Both are below.

Dream On

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
© Linda Bruce
July 23
, 2017

Dream on… dream on… dream on…

Dream until your dreams come true….

No, you won’t find in that in the Bible.

The band – AEROSMITH…

Singer / Songwriter …Steven Tyler… the year was 1976 and it was my high school coronation ball…

The senior ball for the campus king and queen,  and all the court…

Don’t know if they have that anymore….

I did the artwork for the program…

Castle in the sky… I thought appropriate for campus king and queen…

Yes… I dreamed of my life as a princess…

And while I did marry my Knight in shining armor, 13 years later… my dreams changed… ( I GREW UP)

No more castles in the sky….  I wasn’t going to be a princess…. Charles married Diana….

And as the dreams changed….. I changed….

I had experiences of oh… wow.. something’s going on here… something weird…..something divine…

In times of joy and sadness….

God was surely here……But I didn’t know….

These Unexpected blessings….. came at times when I was at my lowest points..

The declining health and deaths of my grandmother and father.. and the death of my son…

All broken dreams

And my new dreams were more like petitions…   I didn’t know what to do…

I asked for guidance for the one thing to do the next day…

Show me the way…

Or God, give me the courage to get out of bed tomorrow…

And feeling more ambitious…  God, help me to get up before noon…. Maybe take a shower

I don’t know what to do Jesus…

God…  I don’t know what to do.

And I felt God was always there…. I knew…..

Because sometimes in the middle of the night, I had a revelation

Or an idea.. or a plan…

Or sometimes that inspiration came to me in the morning… the one thing…

The one thing that I needed to do for that day.

I gave everything up to God….

And I received unexpected blessings…

Whether we call it intuition, the subconscious, the still small voice, a prophetic dream…

The love of community

The kindness of strangers

I called it divine intervention…..

And what about these unexpected blessings in the everyday?

How am I sensing and experiencing God’s presence with me, in the midst of my life?

How are you?

Sometimes I experience God in the moment….

Often I see God in the eyes of the stranger….

When I am outside … I can’t help marvel at God’s creative energy

That blesses us every day….

And sometimes that’s when I start to day dream….

I can observe but a lot of the time. I think….

I Think… what does this mean?  What am I to make of it?

God is with me and will keep me where ever I go…  Really? How does that work?

I’m a questioner, I want to get things…. I want to get things right…….

I’m reminded of my family binge watching old Monty Python shows.

Monty Python was a British surreal comedy group popular in the 70’s.

My husband and two kids are splitting their sides with tearing eyes they are laughing so hard.

I look at them quizzically…  I don’t get it…

The kids in stereo say… MOM! There’s nothing to get! It’s just funny!

There’s nothing to get……. IT JUST IS!

God will always be with us…  It’s just the way it is…. IT JUST IS!

Genesis 28:15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.. for I will not leave you…

So dream on.. dream on.. dream on… dream until you hear the truth…

And then dream some more…..

Because we’re human…  and when we hear the word,  a lot of the times, it doesn’t stick…

And we like to negotiate with God.. make deals… ask for more signs….

Seldom are we transformed overnight…

But God is steadfast and enduring…

So… engage your senses and Dream on…

Amen.

Dream On

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
© Rev. Willie Salmond
July 23
, 2017

Jacob says “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”

Take a look at Raphael’s beautiful painting. Jacob is in his prime – young, strong, virile, a head of curly hair.

However the truth is he finds himself at a crossroads in his young life. He is in fact fleeing for his own life. Jacob the deceiver by trickery has stolen the blessing of Isaac the birthright from Isaac from his brother Esau. And a blessing when given cannot be returned, cannot be revoked. Technically the bible should be calling God the God of Abraham the God of Isaac and the God of Esau.  But no. God’s grace never goes by the book.

The title for God is now the God Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

Esau is furious and wants to kill him. His mother and father tell him he must not marry a foreign woman but he must go to Uncle Laban and be advised who to marry. And then all alone he arrives in this wilderness place at a crossroads in his life. Full of guilt maybe even remorse for what he has done. And with his mind full of confusing thoughts he lies down and falls asleep.

Sounds familiar?  I wonder if you find yourself at a crossroads in your life this morning? Perhaps like Jacob you are disturbed by a very broken relationship which you would like to see healed. Perhaps like Jacob you feel the guilt for a hurt you have caused. Perhaps like Jacob you don’t see clearly the way forward in your life.

There is a bit of Jacob in all of us.

Then Jacob has a dream. He is not given answers to his conundrums. He is not told how he will reconcile with Esau or how he will find a wife someone to love. Instead he is given a moment of pure grace. A vision of heaven and a ladder from earth to heaven. Angels descending and ascending. A moment of pure grace.

When Handel was completing his Hallelujah Chorus (King of Kings Hallelujah, Lord of Lords Hallelujah) he wrote in his journal “I did think I did see the heavens open and the great God himself on the throne.”

Pure grace and from it a magnificent piece of music.

David Livingstone traveled from north to south Mongu, Senanga, Sesheke and came across the Victoria Falls. One mile across a crashing powerful waterfall and spray and spray and spray with rainbows in the mist. Moshi tunya the local people call it. The smoke that thunders.

Livingstone wrote

“Scenes so beautiful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”   Ascending descending. In this moment of his Africa exploration, avid Livingstone was granted this moment of pure grace.

Angels descending ascending.

Then Jacob is given two promises. You shall lead a great nation and through you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.

Jacob wakes and says “Who me? Surely not. I’m the deceiver. I’m on the run. I have no wife to love no family. But he also knows something special is happening. “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”  A moment of confession. He has been unable to see the hand of God in his life. But this dream is the beginning of something special.

Fast forward and we begin to see the unfolding of this grace moment in Jacob’s life. Fast forward and God speaks to him again. “You shall be Israel” the name of the new nation.  Fast forward again and Jacob and Esau are reconciled. Fast forward and Jacob finds himself in Egypt of all places. Following a terrible drought Jacob his sons and their families are desperate for pasture for their flocks.  They turn to Joseph in Egypt.  The one whom they sold into slavery and who is now Pharaoh’s right hand man. Joseph graciously says come. Then there is this lovely moment when Jacob who is now old meets Pharaoh the world’s most powerful man. Pharaoh likes him. Asks how old he is.  I have clocked 130 years and let me tell you some of them have been harsh even evil. Then Pharaoh bows his head and a strange thing happens. So strange that the author of Genesis mentions it two time. Jacob blesses Pharaoh the world’s most powerful man.

In that moment Jacob must have remembered his dream of heaven and the promise. Through you shall all nations be blessed. Even Egypt.

Pray for this grace moment in your life especially as you find yourself at a crossroads. Pray for a unique God moment to be just yours and yours alone. A private, secret, special moment. In our Christian faith the grace moment is that moment each week like this morning when we confess our sins in unison.  And then kneel before the cross of Christ as we receive forgiveness.

“There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin

He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Jacob’s young life was just beginning. He had no idea what was ahead and he was fearful.  But as he woke from his dream he knew that something special was happening in his life.

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”

As some of you know it has been my pleasure and privilege to work with vulnerable young people in Uganda. In February this year I went back to Kampala to attend the graduation of a young woman Josephine at Makerere University. This was a moment of pure grace. At her party at home afterwards she spoke of her struggle with HIV/AIDS, her struggle with poverty with hunger. And at the end of her speech she looked down and then made a long speech about her shoes and thanked them. Walking to Makerere, walking home from Makerere. Walking to the library. Walking to church.  Thank you shoes. Thank you.  The impossible had happened. She graduated from university. A moment of pure grace.

Pray for that moment of pure grace in your life. And then other parts of your life will fall into place. Step 1. Say with Jacob “Surely God is in this place; and I did not know it.”

Let “Angels descend with songs again. And earth repeat the long amen.”

Amen.

Good Soil

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
© Linda Bruce
July 17
, 2017

Foolish People

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
© Rev. Willie Salmond – Saugatuck Church member
April 30, 2017