Thursday, April 16, 2015

March 29, 2015--The Moment of Entry

By: Rev. Emily Joye Reynolds

Mark 11:1-11

I've got a  two part disclaimer. 

First: I try not to put disclaimers on any sermons i preach because i'm of the opinion that preachers ought to trust the congregation to receive what they have to say if they really believe that God has put a truth on their heart. And while I do believe that God has put this upcoming truth on my heart, this one is just risky enough, that I've gotta say up front that I'm tender on this one, so be gentle with me okay? That's the first part of the disclaimer. 

The second part of this is that I try really really hard to never liken myself to Jesus in any of my sermons because, well, idolatry. I know I'm not him and even the thought of comparing myself to him makes my guts rumble. So please know that the story i'm about to share is about community, entrance and humility--the most profound learning moment of I've had on that, and that I in no way compare that moment to Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. Totally different contexts. 

Let us pray.

Now if you know me well, you know that I struggle with the institution of marriage. Like not a little. Like a lot. I struggle to believe that institutional marriage is a worthy endeavor for human beings. Given the statistics of divorce, domestic violence and the sheer volume of people living in unhappy matrimony, for most of my life I told myself I would never ever get married. The fact that the version of marriage we inherit today was built upon the premise of men owning women as property and that I have no intention of being owned by anyone but God, it didn't strike me a good idea to get married. I've met and known way too many women in my life who appeared to get smaller in their marriages while their male spouse counterparts got bigger and bigger-so big sometimes that they felt the need to step outside the marriage and get their "needs" met somewhere else. My own family history is full of that very dynamic and I'd been on the receiving end of the pain of that dynamic. Didn't exactly give me a fairy-tale version of marriage to believe in. Add to that for a large portion of my late adolescence and twenties I didn't identify as a heterosexual or with heterosexuals and therefore knew that if I partnered with a woman, marriage wasn't legally available to us even if I wanted that--so why bother? Add to that that I've officiated so many weddings that felt more like a hollywood drama than a meaning-filled worship service. I struggle with the institution of marriage. Not a little. A lot. 

Next month is my second wedding anniversary. I'm no pro at being married and I still question the validity of it all the time, not because I don't love J.R. but because I'm not sure love has to equal marriage or that marriage even lives up to love. But I'm not here to preach about that. I want to tell you about a moment at my wedding. 

I stood at the back of the sanctuary, outside that door, before the processional knowing that I was walking into something that I had great ambivalence about. Again I love J.R. with my whole heart. That wasn't the source of my ambivalence. I could look across the columbarium glass and see him standing there with Rev. Tom Ott, his best friends and mom which calmed my anxiety, but it didn't die down for long. I was there with my two best friends Wade and Anna, my Pastor Rev. Marjorie Wilkes Matthews and my mom. Though we'd thought very intentionally about the service, I didn't want a huge production. I had on a very simple dress. My bouquet was a uncomplicated arrangement of red roses. I had one layer of mascara on with lip gloss. My mom looked fabulous, but she's my mom and she always looks fabulous. Music was playing. There were several moments when I thought to myself "what am I doing?" And then eventually Marjorie, Anna and Wade had all gone forward and it was just me and my mom. Soon she was tugging my arm and I was stepping past the threshold. There was no going back. 

Now I mentioned earlier, right, that I've officiated a lot of weddings, yes? That comes with the job and that's true. What's also true is that because I've officiated a bunch of weddings I know that when the bride enters the room, the congregation stands up. But for the life of me I cannot figure out why it surprised me that day, but it did. I walked in with my eyes nailed to the floor because my anxiety was through the roof. But then I heard all this rustling as people were getting to their feet and so my eyes shot up to see what was going on. And that's when it hit me: I caught the collective gaze of adoration and support. I felt them honoring me with their eyes. I even had direct eye contact with Marjorie and Tom, then looked over at my mom, who held so much pride in her eyes that I couldn't help but cry. Then J.R. and I caught each other from across the room and those tears increased. It was this feeling of being completely held by the community in one of the most vulnerable and scary moments of my life. It silenced my fear and deepened my faith. I kept thinking to myself, they're standing for me. They're holding honoring silence for me. I've never felt more sacred and trusting of God than I did in that moment. And it's because those specific people on that specific day held me in their sacred and trusting regard.  

Entrances into profoundly important moments have spiritual import and high implication for the future. They are not neutral in getting people ready for what's to come. If you are a committed and engaged Christian you know that we here in the Church take preparation seriously. We prepare for Christmas for an entire month during Advent. We prepare for Holy Week for 40 days and nights during Lent. It's true for our religion and it's true in life in general, that if something of significance is going to happen, you better prepare yourself. And not just for a little bit--for as long as it takes to get ready. 

Think about it, we ask doctors to go to medical school for almost 10 years because we believe that much preparation is necessary for them to deal with the responsibility of caring for people's bodies. We pastors have about 8 years of formal training in order to prepare for the responsibility of caring for people's souls. Athletes train extensively before their athletic seasons begin, often going through rigorous rituals of mind and body testing, in order to prepare for opening game day. Musicians who perform for a living spend countless hours practicing, rehearsing and honing their craft before opening night. 

But there's preparation and there's entry. They're not the same. One leads to the other.

We've been preparing ourselves in Lent for five weeks. Holy Week is when we enter. The moment of entrance is unlike the weeks of preparation that precede it because it's the "go big or go home" moment, it's the "do or die" moment, it's the "no turning back now" moment. When Jesus crossed the threshold into Jerusalem he was entering something he'd been preparing for ever since John baptized him in the river Jordan. But all that praying, traveling, preaching, teaching and healing couldn't confirm this moment in the streets of Bethpage and Bethany, near the mount of Olives. When he untied and sat on top of that colt as it took its four legs into the center of power while people all around dropped their cloaks and shouted praise--Jesus was entering. He was entering what he'd been preparing for and there was no turning back now. This was The Moment. 

Now, let's be honest. The crowd depicted in this story is one that often gets a very very bad wrap/rap. Many of the best sermons I've ever heard are about this crowd that waves branches and sings praises on Palm Sunday but jeers and shouts "Crucify Him" on Good Friday. God knows we human beings can be fickle fickle fools when we get into packs and herds. God knows this crowd deserves the critical analysis it gets. But this morning I'd like to pay attention to what this crowd did right, about how their collective support, adoration and love of Jesus might have just enabled him to enter The Moment with sacred faith.   

Many pastors and people of the Christian faith will tell you that Jesus knew what was coming because he was predestined by God to ride into Jerusalem and get crucified. On some level I believe that too, all except the predestined part. I think Jesus probably had a good idea he was going to get crucified because that's what Rome did to people who got out of line by challenging it's power. And that WAS Jesus' mission: to unapologetically claim God's sovereign power in the faces of those who were attempting to usurp it for their own idolatrous ends. And that's what he did. He claimed "The Kingdom of God is at hand, and no it's not in your imperial power subjecting the people and temple to blasphemy, and yes it is in me a humble servant of the Lord and in all these gathered people who deserve justice and peace. And the Kingdom of God will not be silent until the Kingdom of God has come into it's fullness here on Earth." So they strung him up and did to him what they did to people who dared to proclaim the Good News. I think Jesus knew what he was getting into. Predestined? No. In the know? Yes. 

But just because he knew what was coming didn't mean he didn't have high anxiety and huge ambivalence about being spiritually called into that struggle and victory. If you read the Gospel carefully (and I hope all of you will do that this week as part of Holy Week) you'll notice that Jesus depicts a pretty high level of fear at multiple places on the road to Jerusalem. If he was truly human, and I believe he was, fear had to be at the heart of his Holy Week. No one marches to a political show down and personal blood bath as if it's no big deal. 

So back to The Moment of Entry. If he knew what he was getting into, if he knew that by stepping into that street and signifying to those people what he was about to do and that there was no turning back--can you imagine the fear he must have felt? 


But what about the moment he lifted his eyes and saw them? When he crossed that threshold and saw them offering their animal to carry him in? Saw them waving branches? Saw them laying down their cloaks at his feet? Saw them blessing God's name and claiming that he was coming as an anointed ancestor of David? 

What do you think he felt in that moment? 

Believed in. 

We can do anything when we behold our community supporting us, loving us, holding us, believing in us, cherishing us. We can walk through any fear. We can practice faith in the most impossible moments. We can do anything when our community rises to meet us. 

Past personal preparation, we need a community of support at the moment of entry. I needed it on my wedding day. Jesus needed it on Palm Sunday. I bet if you search your life, you've stood at a threshold, at a moment of entry, and needed a community in order to take that first step. 

But here's the thing disciples: we need to be that community of support for others as much as we need that community of support for ourselves. Moments of entry are highly special and spiritually infused, but they are a rarity. What's not a rarity is the calling of discipleship that beckons us to be that community of support for each other. We get to participate in that beyond Holy Week all year long. Who are the people in this church today at moments of entry? Who are the people in your life outside this place who are at moments of entry? 

Let us be reminded today, at the entry moment of Holy week, just how precious and sacred it is to be part of the crowd that rises, the crowd that honors the beauty of the courageous one, the tender and vulnerable one, the perhaps unsure and wavering one, standing with their toes at the threshold while we throw down our gifts, hold them in loving gaze and sing "Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven." 


Thursday, April 9, 2015

On the Journey: When We LEARN More…..We DO Better April 2015

I recently came across the following quote by Pastor Kenneth L. Samuel in the Stillspeaking Daily Devotional:  “The journey of self-discovery is the most amazing journey of all, because worlds outside of us have little meaning unless they touch and inspire the worlds inside of us. Dr. Fred Craddock said that the greatest distances in life are actually the distances between head and heart.”

Years ago I attended a racism workshop with a racially mixed group. At the leader’s request the black participants began, reluctantly at first, to unfold their personal stories about being black in a white person’s world. I remember an articulate young woman, an administrator in a local company, telling about how, when she shopped, white clerks followed her, suspicious that she would shoplift. Her story, told with some anger, conveyed the indignity she felt. After sharing her story, she announced to the group that she was tired of attending “racism” conferences because nothing ever changed. Then she exited the room and never returned.  That evening I couldn’t get her story out of my heart; since then I have often thought about her with great sadness.

Understanding the part that white people play in racism requires a journey of self-discovery. I think what hinders us in making progress is our tendency to approach examples of racism first with the head rather than the heart. Our mind works hard to protect us from feeling responsible for racism and shifts blame to the “other,” leaving our conscience clear. A common head response might be: “Civil rights were addressed in our country in the 1960’s; Black people need to take advantage of the opportunities available to them!”  The problem with head responses is that, unless we do the work of digging out the whole truth, it’s easy to dismiss the issue, satisfied with only partial truth. Digging requires that we study history we never learned and look at issues from new perspectives; it takes time and commitment.

Friends from my interracial book group have shared life stories that are filled with racism experiences. Their stories range from being made to feel unwelcome to having a childhood home set on fire by whites. I cannot dismiss their experiences using my head.  I am angered and saddened by the stories they share. Theirs is a world outside of me which will have little meaning for me unless I let myself be touched and inspired within…in my heart. For white people, this journey confronts a moral question, a question that probably must touch our hearts before we will choose to deal with it meaningfully in our heads. 
I invite my church family to join others who have begun this journey.  Read stories of their lives told by African Americans. The book “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving is one I would also recommend. From a white perspective Debby shares her struggle with both heart and head, for ultimately it takes both to make the journey toward acknowledging the role all of us who are white play in racism.—Deb Miller

Pastor Tom Ryberg April 2015 Congregationalist

During our March council meeting, council members picked up a topic that has been unresolved since the question was first raised nearly two years ago. In July 2013, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman being acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, several church members participated in a vigil for racial justice that was described as "sponsored by" FCCBC in local media. This was concerning to other members who did not feel that it was a fair representation of the entire church to say that FCCBC had sponsored this event. In response to their concerns, in the nearly two years since, church leaders have been careful to avoid having FCCBC be named as a sponsor in community events, and we did not have a process for signing on or affiliating with local events. 
Until now.
At our council meeting, Rev. Ott raised concerns about the pendulum swinging too far the other direction: our church's name and identifying information has been conspicuously absent from too many community events in recent months that clearly align with our vision. The most recent example is that church members created a small group book study based on Waking Up White, then invited the author to come to FCCBC to address the greater community. In spite of this direct connection, our name was nowhere to be found on any of the promotional materials - a pretty clear example of "hiding our light under a bushel!"

Two of our four strategic priorities are to
become an inviting church and to embody difference faithfully. There are many unique and wonderful things about us that make us attractive to those seeking a church home, but if we don't celebrate the vital things we are doing, particularly including our commitment to racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion, it will be harder for us to distinguish ourselves from any of the other 120 churches in the greater Battle Creek area. (That's right - there are 120 churches in Battle Creek! What sets us apart?)

In response to the concern that we need to be able to get our name out there in a responsible way that fits with our vision and values, council members introduced, discussed, and passed a motion that staff and council members are able to affiliate FCCBC with community events and causes that align with our strategic priorities. Finally, after nearly two years of murkiness, we have a new process by which church "sponsorship" may be given. Thanks to the FCCBC council for helping bring good resolution to this important question.

Pastor Emily Joye Reynolds April 2015 Congregationalist

I've decided to use my Congregationalist space to address religious freedom. But not with my own words because there's no need to reinvent the wheel when folks smarter than me have already written profoundly on this. Our culture is saturated in realities and conversations having to do with Religious Freedom because of what's been happening in Indiana. A few years ago a whip-smart colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ drafted an article about Religious Freedom that deserves some attention now. Her name is Rev. Emily Heath. She's a theologian and pastor for our times. Here's her concise way of discerning religious liberty. I hope you find this helpful in discerning, faithfully, how to respond, as Christians, to realities and conversations about religious freedom in 2015. Peace, Rev. EJ. 

Pastor Tom Ott April 2015 Congregationalist

Every time I celebrate Holy Week I am reminded that death and new life are always linked. Nothing dies without something new being born, and nothing new comes to life without something dying.

That is one of the truths at the heart of our faith.  Christianity is about death and resurrection, the cross and the empty tomb, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Most of the time we try to keep life and death as separate from each other as we can. In the medical world, we have hospitals that focus on doing everything possible to preserve life, and we have hospice care that focuses on doing everything possible to help people die well.

We treat life and death as if they are two separate and unrelated things. But everyone who goes to the hospital knows how fragile life is and how vulnerable is the mortal flesh of our bodies. Everyone in hospice care knows how precious life is and how blessed we are share moments of deep connection with each other.

We know that death and life are always linked.

Holy week reminds us that faith requires us to hold on to the connection between death and life. Loss is part of every day of our lives. We are constantly loosing connections with people we love, experiences we found fulfilling, abilities we once relied on, resources we once had in abundance. Every day we have to let things go, say goodbye, do things for the last time, leave something behind. As the apostle Paul said, “death is at work in us…”

Every day we are born anew. Every breath gives us another opportunity to choose life, every encounter brings the possibility of deeper love, every experience holds the possibility of new learnings to discover and every decision opens new opportunities for making a difference in the world. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Sorrow and joy, grief and gladness, despair and hope. Holy Week reminds me that faith requires us hold all of the connections between death and new life.