Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon: From Generation to Generation


Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
December 20, 2009

From Generation to Generation

The Sanctuary They Make in Meeting - Artwork By Jan Richardson

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:39-55
Mary Visits Elizabeth
3In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 4and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

              To Abraham and his descendants forever… Our salvation begins, not with the telling of this Gospel story, but with a woman in Genesis. And it does not conclude with Mary, nor will it conclude with us. We have been connected through a chain of faithfulness, in which God has linked together one generation to the next. In her song of praise, Mary makes reference to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, echoes the song of Praise that Hannah offers, and sings with joy at the news of her relative, Elizabeth. God has been working since the dawn of human history to seek us out and draw us in, and will continue to do so until Christ comes in final victory. 
              But, in this story, the chain of faithfulness begins with Sarah. She had counted the moons – marking each one with disappointing regularity.[1] As the narrow crescent disappeared into the darkness, so did her monthly hopes that a child would be born in the course of nine more moons. Months became years. She saw 924 moons die and rise again. But, her hope did not return. As the moon waxed, so waned her dream, her hope, her faith, her identity. A wise woman once told her that a child could bring her many blessings, but it could not bring her true faith. That faith had to come whether or not the child did. This was no comfort to her. Her empty arms, barren womb and useless breasts provided nourishment and sanctuary to no one. Her once joyful smile turned to a furrowed frown. Her infectious laugh ceased to be heard. All who knew her watched as her spirit faded.
              Until that one day, when she sat in the tent and listened as three strange men talked with her husband. They told him absurd things as they ate her food. They said that a child would be born to them. To her. Not only that, they told her husband that their ancestors would number more than the stars. Listening at the tent entrance, she couldn't help but laugh to herself. Now? After all this time! After she had grown old and her husband was even older?
              The messenger heard her laugh, and questioned her response. She was afraid to admit to him that laughed; but, she was more afraid of this news. Now? How can this be?
              She looked up at the sky that night, deep chortle lodged in her throat, and she began counting the stars. When she got to 925, she stopped.
              She counted the moon. There was only one – a thin sliver of shimmering silver to remind her that this heavenly being never disappeared, even on the darkest of nights. If she tried her hardest, she could see a perfect, circular outline in the sky. The moon remained in the sky, even if she could not see its beaming face.
              Sarah’s laughter was muted. The moon had always been with her. Its light had been dimmed, but it never disappeared. The child, whether it came in the Spring of her Youth or the Winter of her Discontent, was promised, and it was coming. Suddenly, there was nothing funny about the prophecy.
              The stars that shone on Sarah as she birthed her son, Isaac, shone down when the Lord said that his descendants would number more than the stars. The moon continued to wax and wane through years of exile, tribulation, and warfare.
              Generation upon generation came to be, as Sarah’s descendants became a nation and God called upon another woman who had counted these moons, her barren womb and empty arms, mocked by her rival. The chain of faithfulness continues with Hannah, the wife of a faithful man, who went to the temple each year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord their God. He had two wives, one of whom had children, but Hannah did not. Because he loved Hannah, he gave her a double portion of the sacrifice.
                These gifts were always deeply saddening to Hannah. Though she loved her husband, she could not bring herself to eat the meat that he prepared. His other wife mocked her, never allowing her to forget that the problem was not with their husband, but with Hannah herself. Year after year, Hannah wept and would not eat his gift. Finally, she took it upon herself to visit the priest in the temple. There, she prayed silently to the Lord, that she might be remembered. She promised that the Lord would open her womb, give her a son, and that she would return the boy to the temple when he was weaned. The priest looked at her with disdain, thinking her to be drunk as she moved her lips without making a sound.
              She stated her case before him, and he sent her away with the words she had forever longed to hear: "Go in peace, the God of Israel will grant the petition you have made."
              That night, Hannah ate and drank. She feasted and felt the tension of her burden lifted from her shoulders. She would strengthen her body for this duty to carry a child. She would know the joy and pain of labor and birth. She would know, at last, what it meant to be remembered by God.
              Three years passed, and Hannah treasured that time with her son, Samuel. She nursed him, she clothed him, she taught him her favorite melodies and let him assist in the preparation of the coarse meal and flour mixture. And on that day, when he was weaned, she prepared to take him back to the priest as she had promised. This child, though born of her womb, was a gift from God, and one that she freely offered.
              As they walked to the temple where Samuel would find his new home, she brought gifts of food and sang quietly to keep her heart from becoming heavy. For, in those three years, she had continued to count the new moons, knowing that this day would come. But, this time, it was a day of her choosing. God had been faithful, and now she could be faithful in return.
              When Eli took Samuel's hand, Hannah prayed, saying, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God! My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in my victory."[2] This was faithfulness, and its proper response. Her heart was not heavy, but rejoiced in the fulfillment of her lifelong dream. Samuel would always be her son, but now he was entrusted to the care of the priest, where he would be raised in the temple and would be called by God in the quiet of a night, to be a prophet and judge for the people of Israel, the descendents of Sarah.
              That night, as she slept in her too-quiet home, the same stars shone upon her, and the moon was dark. She slept deeply, peacefully, and long.
              Through Samuel, God named the first kings of Israel, including David, from whom Jesus would be descended.[3] As the moons continued to fade and return, the prophets arose and declared that the Lord would send one who would rule in Israel. One declared that “He would be from Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah.”[4] The story of our salvation is becoming more focused now; the prophets have told us from where our savior will come. The Israelites heard God’s promises, and they waited and watched for the day when the chain of faithfulness would be connected in their presence.
              And, in their waiting for the promised and coming king, the moons continued, and another woman began to count them. The chain of faithfulness, which was pulled taught by years of struggle, was connected to the faithful Elizabeth. She was the wife of a priest, and both of them were righteous and blameless. But, like so many before her, she had seen the moons become round and full, then waste away in the heavens. Her monthly hopes, scattered like the proud. She had come to a place of relative peace, when an angel of the Lord appeared to her husband as he offered incense in the temple with the news for which she had always longed to hear. They would have a son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would be endowed with the power to turn the people of Israel to the Lord their God.[5]
              As Elizabeth watched the moons in this season of her life, she counted for a new purpose. Her husband silently helped her as she struggled through her days. The fatigue was more than she could endure, and her house was beginning to show it. Her old body was weak, and it took all that she had to make their bread each morning. He made her hot cups of tea, and she kept to herself as her body began to show physical evidence of the miracle growing inside. Her strength returned. Her smile brightened. Her husband patted her hand, communicating as he could that he was glad to have her back.
              And, as she watched the sixth moon disappear in the sky, she received her first visitor since she conceived. It was her relative, Mary who knocked on her door, and the instant she looked upon the young girl’s face, she knew something marvelous was happening. Elizabeth felt her heart take a beat that made her breathless, the baby felt like it was dancing inside, and her mouth opened as she exclaimed loudly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth’s own silence had been broken – she, herself, muted with no one to speak with for these six months. Her voice was loud – too loud – it shouted the words that came to her with exuberance and without hesitation. She didn’t know where this voice, these words, had come from. But, she knew what she was shouting was the truth. She was the mother of a prophet, and this was the family’s first prophecy. Here, before her, was her young relative, blessed with child. It was just as miraculous as her own conception, and together, they could celebrate the mystery that was occurring in their wombs. As they stood at the door, women who intuitively knew the other’s deepest secret, they created a sanctuary. A small habitat where life could be created and they could share the words of women in this peculiar state of life. As Elizabeth welcomed Mary into her home, she welcomed Mary into her story, her miracle.
              That night, Mary and Elizabeth counted the stars together in silence. The moon, plump and round, shone on their grateful faces.
              Mary, unable to tell anyone, even her betrothed for fear that he would reject her, had come to Elizabeth knowing that here, she would be safe. Elizabeth had received the same message of a child coming in a season of inconvenience and impossibility. For Elizabeth, this meant the end of her shame. But for Mary, it was just the beginning. She did all she knew to do, which was to travel to her relative, who was older, wiser, and yet a peer in this journey.
              When Elizabeth opened the door, Mary saw the oddity of this thin woman with a protruding belly. She saw the light in Elizabeth’s eyes and the shared secret of what their bodies were producing. As Elizabeth shouted her greeting, Mary felt her own silence broken. Her dreams as a young girl were taking a new turn. She had always envisioned her life proceeding in a particular direction – saving for a dowry, being betrothed to a good man, making a life and a family together with him. As far along as this plan had proceeded, she could not have imagined that they would be interrupted by an angel.
              How terrified she had been in his presence! He said such strange things to her, telling her that she was favored by God He told her that she would conceive a son through the Holy Spirit, and that his name would be Jesus – the Son of the Most High, the heir of David’s throne, and the rule over the house of Jacob forever. These names were familiar to her, but only as an uttering in the temple. They were lauded men, not a humble young girl such as her. And, here they were, being named as if they were close relatives.
              “How can this be?” She replied. How could it be, truly? How could she be pregnant? Who was she to be remembered by God? God had gifted her with this responsibility, but how could she possibly fulfill it? Before she could say any more, the angel told her about Elizabeth, her relative who was said to be barren. She was carrying a son and was in her sixth month. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
              Nothing will be impossible with God… Not for Sarah, not for Hannah, not for the prophets, not for Elizabeth and not for Mary. Nothing will be impossible for God, who had found her to be favored.
              Then, echoing the words of all of those who had been called upon before her, Mary replied, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
              When she arrived at Elizabeth’s home, her reception warm and just what she had needed. Elizabeth softly touched her belly as she shouted, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Caught in the same spirit of joyfulness and acceptance, Mary unleashed the hopefulness she had contained within her since the set out on her journey:
              “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed!”
              In the next generation, the stars continued to shine as the chain of faithfulness was continued through Jesus’ disciples, who taught the Good News of our salvation in Christ.  They preached Good news to the poor and release to the captives.
              In the next generation, the church rooted and grew in cities and nations and countries far from Bethlehem, far from Nazareth, far from the people of Israel, as God’s promise to shine light on those who walked in darkness came true for people of all ages, nations and races. The power of the Holy Spirit, who has been present with each link in the chain, continues to be present with us today.
              In this generation, as we gaze upon the stars, their light still shines as the moon waxes and wanes and continues to be a reminder of the promise that God made to Sarah… to Hannah… to Elizabeth… to Mary…  to us. God is with us. God is always with us. In this is the faithfulness of a loving God to a people whom will never be forgotten. We have walked in darkness, but we will see a great light, for the true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
              And ever.

[1] Genesis 17-18, 21, 26:4

[2] 1 Samuel 2:1b-10

[3] I Samuel 7, 9

[4] Micah 5:2-5

[5] Luke 1:8-25

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Great Santa Debate

The season of Advent is upon us. But, really, who am I kidding. Our tree is up, our house is festively decorated (I even bought a tablecloth!), and Matt's been building some fantastic fires in the evenings. It's Christmastime, folks. And, the boys are getting the spirit. And by spirit, I mean "of receiving."

To be honest, we put a lot of emphasis on these wrapped things under the tree, and J - generous soul that he is - keeps wrapping up things at home and at school to put under the tree for Mommy and Daddy. I don't think Cooper has registered on his mental list of people to please, but he's getting it.

I'm not sure if this is pure generosity, or more of a works-righteousness philosophy, because J keeps asking to go to Target to pick out presents. Despite all of our theologically-correct efforts to tell them that Christmas is about Jesus rather than Santa, that's all been blown out of the water.

Last year, on Christmas morning, the president of the seminary and her husband showed up at our house (with our permission, of course). He was dressed as Santa. She was dressed as an "elf" with reindeer antlers. It didn't matter that they drove there in an burgundy Toyota Camry. What mattered was that the REAL LIVE SANTA showed up to give my children an awesome fire truck on Christmas morning.

I just can't tell them that wasn't real. Because it was. Totally and completely real.

The problem is that the president has since moved to Texas to take another job, and I'm thinking that this duty is not in the current president's job description. So, we're left with very high expectations and no plan except some lame excuses about why Santa didn't drive up to our house and bring a rockin' toy.

We've toyed with bribing other adults to show up in costume, toting a nice set of blocks. But, that seems to take the magic out of it for us, as well. The beauty was that none of us had any expectations around this event. Christmas had gone just splendidly, and we were cleaning up wrapping paper and readying ourselves for some hard-core gift exploring. When all of a sudden, there was a knock on our door.

It's funny how little it takes to shift someone's world. For 11 1/2 months now, the boys have kept this memory close to their hearts; Santa came, they saw Santa, and the mystery was conquered.

So what do we do this year?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Your Christmas Gift

Dear Blogoshpere,

You have been so good to me this year, and I wanted to give you something that would show the depths of my appreciation. It must be somethig warm, something personal, something Jesus-y.

So, for Christmas, I am making you all Snuggies out of this authentic Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleece. As a bonus, I'll include the picture of the angel Gabriel(la?) so that you'll always know that s/he is watching out for you.

Enjoy, be warm, and thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New ventures in blogging!

So, for no reason other than I like filling out forms, I've decided to try out Tumblr. Seeing as how my brain is sinking all of its creative energy into forming a person, I've not been terribly interesting or motivated to write. But, a friend suggested that I try out Tumblr, which, despite its unnecessary misspelling, sounds like fun. Plus, it will give me a place to house all of my complaining about the minutiae of pregnancy. Really, I'm a ball of fun these days. I eat a lot, and then go to bed at 7:30.

Without further adieu, here's something else for you to bookmark. Thank you, as always, for reading. It's brought me much joy to know that you're out there. I'll still post here, about as frequently as you've come to expect (which is to say, not that frequently). But, I'll try to keep the pregnancy dealings separate. Maybe that will help me be creative AND organized. Also? flying monkeys will come to do all of my housework.

So, here it is:

Many blessings to all of you -
Rev. Mama

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A little stick...

and a bit of waiting

have changed me

and my family


and we wait

until may

or maybe june

to see


this baby

will be.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yet another reason why we love the City Schools of Decatur

Living in Decatur has been a fantastic experience for the Flemmings. We can walk to all kinds of cool stuff (if you consider Matt's office cool), and have really enjoyed shortening our commute. The City Schools are a big draw, and last week, our good friend, Bruce, who is the Principal at Renfroe Middle School got the call that they've been named a Georgia School of Excellence. It's a good time to be in Decatur.

And, the boys have had a great run at College Heights thus far. Jackson is rockin' out the Pre-K world, with his wonderful teacher, Ms. Angela Gabriel. Making her extra cool is the fact that she co-owns a feminist bookstore in Little 5 Points, Charis Books. So, J and his classmates read things like, "The Peace Book," and "Celebrate our Differences." It rules.

Cooper is having a swimmingly good time, as well, and super-loves his rockstar teachers, who teach him songs and dances to "We are Family" and "Lean on Me" (the Club Nouveau version, mind you. We be jammin', indeed). They even came to cheer him and his classmate on at their soccer game, bearing signs that said "GO LIONS!" and the like. They rule.

Cooper made fast friends with a boy in his class, and as it turns out, that boy's mama is a phenomenal photographer. This is a totally shameless plug for her, because LOOK AT THESE PHOTOS:

So, here's what you do. You call, write or e-mail Deana Levine and say, "You're amazing! Please photograph my children with the same ease and magic that you've shared with so many. Make my children that perfect on film!" Look how easy I'm making it for you:

Deana Levine
phone: 678-661-1408

So, you know, give her a call. Don't you want good pictures of your kids? DON'T YOU!

I thought so.

Love and blessings to you all!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Theology on Tap: Assignment #2 - A Cinderella Story

Halloween is a holiday that brings with it as much anticipation as Christmas. Jackson wore his Halloween costume with such enthusiasm and frequency that we actually had to buy him a new one. In a Game-Day decision, J and C decided that they would both go as Buzz Lightyear, defender of Galaxies and opponent of the Evil Emperor Zurg. We’re good with this. Buzz is a pretty wholesome, upstanding guy. Plus, he has wings. Accessories make this costume even cooler.

This is our first year Trick-or-Treating in our own neighborhood, and our first year living in Winnona Park. We’ve been looking forward to Halloween, in particular, since we moved here. And, it worked out splendidly that our friends were having a birthday party for their sons on the same day, just a few streets away. We enjoyed revelry (and cake!), and then headed out with a large crew of folks and all of our adorable, costumed children.

Despite the drizzle and moderately unpleasant cold, it was a great night. We moved from our friends’ house to the thick of Trick or Treating on Avery street, and watched as our little folks became a determined herd of candy getters. They checked in with us briefly at the end of each driveway with heroic shouts of, “They had Reece’s Cups!” and (my favorite) “MOM! I GOT PRETZELS!” Then, they quickly moved on to the next house. C somehow managed to wrangle 3 times as much candy as his more polite and rule-abiding older brother.

As they were approaching a particularly exciting house, I noticed a child dressed elegantly in a princess costume of some sort (I parent boys - I don’t have the gene that helps to determine the subtle differences in princess costumes). The child was graceful, and wore the gown with confidence. I turned to the child’s mother and said earnestly, “Your daughter is beautiful!” She responded, matching my earnestness, “Thank you. That’s my son.”

Before I could apologize, or make some sort of repairative response, she continued:

“He’s my son, and I love him. He’s probably gay or transgendered, but I he’s mine and I love him no matter what.”

I eeked out a “Wow. You are an amazing mother.”

“Well,” she said, “some folks say that. But, tonight, he was really concerned - embarrassed - that people might laugh at him. But I told him, ‘Honey, don’t you worry. I love you. And no one’s laughter will ever take that away.’”

I did my best to affirm her, and to tell her how blessed her son must be. This boy, with his dark skin and short, curly hair, was the antithesis of the blonde, waifish Cinderella we normally picture. But, he took that story of one misunderstood, set apart from her sisters, and left behind and claimed it as his own. He was as fitting of his title as any little girl, and he wore it with more confidence and grace.

When he returned from the house, new pieces of candy in his basket, he ran to his mother and said, “Mama! They knew who I was! They saw my charm, and they knew!”

He pointed to the Cameo on his necklace, which bore the picture of Cindarella.

But, I hope that this is how he is always received - as one who knows who he is, and conveys it because of his charm.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Theology on Tap: Assignment #1 - Anticipation Becomes Reality

Many of you know that we have a terrific class at Saint Mark called Theology on Tap. The idea is not original, but it's really taken off with some success in the last year. This semester, we are studying Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," and using her book on writing to help craft pieces of our own faith stories. Each week, we'll have a writing assignment, and tonight I bring you the first of six installments. I'm posting the assignment below, in case you'd like to follow along at home. Enjoy!

Reading Assignment: Part One-"Bird by Bird," Writing, p. 1-53

Writing Assignment: Your Own Christmas Story (Post to blog by Tuesday, Oct. 20)

Take one specific memory about going to church during the holidays—where you didn’t hear anything said because you were thinking of what Santa might have brought. Or, write about what your family did to prepare for Christmas, and what those traditions looked like. How have they shaped you? Your understanding of what you believe?

Christmas, as a child, was a destination. Because my parents grew up in the same small town in west Tennessee, we drove 7 hours across the state a few days before Christmas each year. We split time, as any dutiful family would, between their families, usually transferring houses in the interim between huge meals.

So, Christmas was a ritual that began with a long car ride in the cold of winter. I packed the backseat with my favorite toys, my sleeping bag and pillow, my trusty poodle, Puffy, and all of the hope and anticipation of the stuff that would be riding back home with me. I spent most of that car ride in quiet prayer that I would get whatever my heart longed for the most - a horse usually topped that list. I'm not certain how we would have transported it back home in the backseat, but I would have devised a plan. I'm clever that way.

The Christmas I remember most fondly was the year I turned 5. The wonder of it all was just starting to hit home, and I remember getting in the car at the end of the day, after my dad had arrived home from work. We started our trek in the early evening, and I slept most of the way, waking occasionally to stare at the vast, dark sky, spotted with diamonds. I saw my reflection in the windows when we passed streetlights, and I could see the depth of hope present in my countenance. The days ahead were the stuff of dreams: sleeping in late, staying in pajamas too long, eating too much of the wrong thing, presents, presents, and more presents, relatives doting, and lots of laughter. The grown-ups were too preoccupied with eating and cleaning, wrapping and playing to be particularly mindful of this girl, lost in the hope of a horse galloping through the backyard on Christmas morn. I trotted my index and middle fingers over every square inch of couch, floor, and wall, hurdling obstacles and whispering, “Good jump!” to my imaginary steed.

On Christmas Eve, I was preparing for dinner with my father’s family. We gathered at his mother’s house, and Mama Dow cooked all day for her three sons, and the various wives and grandchildren that happened to be present. My mother and my Aunt Holly were the most dutiful helpers, and the rest of us sat in waiting, in a haze of cigarettes and coffee, watching parades and waiting for the good specials to come on TV. It was a rare year when my three girl cousins, Delta, Marci, and Kris, happened to be there, as well, which made the magic all the more tangible. They were teenagers. Women, practically. Yet, they were just as excited as I. Maybe they were hoping to get horses, too. I spent all afternoon imagining a herd of horses gnawing on frosty grass when we awoke the next morning, and my cousins and I dancing out the back door in our nightgowns and slippers with glee, ignoring the cold.

It was a tradition on the McDow side of the family to unwrap gifts on Christmas Eve, after dinner. This meant that any children present had the patience to eat only starchy foods and dessert before losing their minds completely and hovering around the tree, arguing over who got to disperse the gifts so that we could get this present thing rolling. After the painfully long clean-up process, the family gathered in the living room, Mama Dow was escorted to the chair that had previously been inhabited by her husband of more than 50 years. He passed away earlier in the year, and this was our first Christmas without him. We distributed piles of gifts to each person, and began with the small box of chocolate covered cherries that, at one time, had probably been a delicious delicacy, but had passed that point to become a hokey tradition. (Incidentally, my Aunt Holly still sends me a box every year.) My Uncle Jerry distributed his annual gift of Arizona Highways calendars to everyone, including his nieces. I think he enjoyed the exasperation on our faces as, year after year, we unwrapped something he knew held no interest for us, and we did our best to receive it politely.

Finally, we got around to the good stuff: new leather jackets, some fancy Hewlitt Packard technological gadget, a new lighter, jewelry, a fancy outfit, and (my personal favorite) the game “Sorry.” After the flurry of activity, we settled into our corners of the room, to examine our plunder. I even got some cousins to play Sorry with me. Just as we were preparing to head to our sleeping quarters, my mom cleared her throat.

I turned, and there… walking towards me… was a life-sized Annie doll.

She was made of cotton fabric, with a perfect replica of the red dress from the movie. Her hair, spun from orange yarn, was perfectly looped into her scalp to replicate Aileen Quinn’s ringlets. She had a soft smile, embroidered on her cream-colored face. She even had freckles.

I don’t know if I can convey how much I adored this movie, and how often I sang the soundtrack. I identified with Annie, in some strange ways. I loved Carol Burnett, even though I feared her. I thought Ann Reinking was the most beautiful woman in the world, and wished on some days that she would come and adopt me, too. I didn’t just love this movie. I inhabited it. I put it on and wore it as my reality. I sat in window sills and sang “Maybe” to my dog. And I cannot convey the sense of affirmation and joy when I saw this doll.

My mother had spent weeks, months, hand-making Annie for me. I don’t know if she had a pattern. I don’t know how long it took. But, I do know that this was better than any horse (or herd of horses). It was my imagination becoming real.

This was my glimpse of God’s goodness, a child peering into a mirror dimly – the anticipation of Advent, and the impossibility of what we can’t even imagine dreaming of coming true. It’s beyond faith, really. If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), I never could have hoped for this. Who could have hoped for a savior in such an accessible form? Who could have thought that a loving parent would have spent time, in the dark of night and the quiet of solitude, fashioning the most perfect way to say, “I love you. I hear you. Here is something you can see and hold and touch to remind you that I am always here.”

The incarnation of our hope is beyond our wildest dreams. And way, way better than a horse.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Get in the Homiletical Hot Tub with my Husband!

No, really!

A few months ago, Matt was asked to write the blog for Lectionary Homiletics this week, the good folks who bring you the Festival of Homiletics. Today debuts his first post, which you can find here:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon: Draw us in the Spirit’s Tether

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
October 4, 2009
World Communion Sunday

Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether

Lectionary Texts: Psalm 26 or Psalm 25; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 ; Mark 10:2-16

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 -

Job and His Family
1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Attack on Job's Health

2One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan (the Adversary) also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, 'Where have you come from?' Satan answered the Lord, 'From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.' 3The Lord said to Satan, 'Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.' 4Then Satan answered the Lord, 'Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.
5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.' 6The Lord said to Satan, 'Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.'

7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

9 Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.' 10But he said to her, 'You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

There was once a woman in the land of Gulfport whose name was Angela. That woman was hardworking and dedicated, who feared God and spoke truth in the face of evil. There were born to her children, a son and daughter. She had a house, a car, and a job she loved. She had friends, and dined with them each night, blessing and praising God in the courts of the temple.
One day, the heavenly beings presented themselves before God. The Lord said to Satan, and those gathered, "Have you considered my servant Angela? There is no one like her on earth; she fears God and speaks truth in the face of evil."
"Does Angela fear God for nothing?" asked Satan. "If you stretch out your hand and take all that she has, she will curse your name."
"Very well," replied God. "All she has is in your power. Only do not stretch out your hand against her."
God took away her husband, leaving her alone with her children. She struggled to feed and clothe or even see them. God took away her home, and suddenly a great wind came across the ocean and it struck the four corners of her house, and if crashed to the earth, scattering everything to the winds. God took away her community when the storm scattered more than just belongings – her friends moved far away with the handfuls of memories they were able to keep. God took away her health. One night, she felt her left side go numb and a breath-stopping pain in her chest. She was rushed to the hospital. It was her heart. After surgery, she was sent home. Angela took her medicine, girded her loins and sat among the ashes. She had no health care, and returned to work the same day. God took away her tenacity and endurance. She couldn't work the same long hours. God took away her job, her livelihood. She was fired.
And Angela fell on her knees and did a curious thing: she worshipped. She praised God because there was nothing left to do. She shouted, "Amen!" and cried a soft "Hallelujah." In all of her dealings, her words shaped the understanding that, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away."
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
How is it that we, the children of God, can continue to re-live the suffering of Job in our own daily lives and still have a meaningful relationship with God, the Father, the Creator, the author of life and the embodiment of Love? Angela is a real woman, and this is really her story. Four years ago, she lost everything during Hurricane Katrina, and she along with thousands of others are still struggling to rebuild her community. Last week, she lost her job after having a heart attack, leaving her with no income and children to feed.
Today, as we prepare to come to the table with all of our Sisters and Brothers in Christ around the world, the texts boldly name some of the most difficult themes in our Scripture: the Suffering of Job, the vindication of the faithful servant in the Psalm, the nature of the Incarnation and Christ's power over death in Hebrews, and our lectionary Gospel reading discusses what Jesus says about divorce. Even with the question of Theodicy (that is, the defense of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God despite the presence of evil and suffering in the world), I would venture that divorce is the last of these topics that is the most difficult for us to talk about in church. And, I promise you that no pastor wants to preach that those who have divorced their spouses and re-married have committed adultery. This is thorny ground, and I imagine most of us would yield our prophetic role to the pastoral on this issue.
And, how are we to take these tricky texts and use them to prepare our congregations to come to the table and feast with God's people on earth and all the company of heaven? Our liturgy for Communion says precious little about our integrity, but these text offerings say an awful lot. Job is blameless and upright, and God defends him, saying, "He persists in his integrity, though you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." The Psalmist practically begs for the same test, so that he may be vindicated, redeemed, and found a recipient of God's grace. Paul wrestles in Hebrews with how we are to understand our relationship with God, since God has made "human beings for a little while lower than the angels." If this is the case, then we should all be blameless and upright, fearing God and blessing God's name.
But the Gospel text reminds us that we are neither blameless nor upright. We are foolish and impulsive, making promises that we do not keep and longing for what is not ours. We surrender our integrity when we are tested, and we lose faithfulness in one another and God. We yell, and cry: "What have I ever done to deserve this??" And the silence from the cosmos echoes louder than any words.
So, how are we able to invite people to this table, knowing that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?
We are able because our integrity is found, not in our own ability, but in God's promise to be faithful. God continues to host this supper, and to invite all who will partake of it, because God has made "the pioneer of our salvation perfect through suffering." We do not suffer apart from God, because, "It is Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, that is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9).
And because Christ has tasted death for all, we are invited, in the great congregation to bless the Lord and feast at God's heavenly table.
Today, we have woven the song "Draw us in the Spirit's Tether," throughout our worship. It is a simple hymn, suitable for a day like today, when we are invited to the communion table. It speaks to the joy and simplicity of our faith, the power of Christ's presence in the sacrament of communion, and offers a prayer that we may be true disciples. The first verse reads: "Draw us in the Spirit's Tether, for when humbly in Thy name, two or three are met together Thou art in the midst of them.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Touch we now thy garment's hem
This references one of my favorite verses in all of scripture, which is found in Matthew 18: 15-22, when a Jesus speaks to what should happen when a member of the church sins against another. 'If another member of the church* sins against you,* go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.*
16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.' Then Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' 22Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.
Jesus responds that in our conflict, we are to approach one another, speak with truth and compassion, and let the other know how they have wronged us. If he will not listen, then we try again and bring an elder of the church. For, Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered, I am there among them." This notion of God being present in the smallest of congregations is not just comfort to tiny churches – it is a promise that when two or three are gathered to work out a conflict, God will be in the midst of them.
Today, when we gather for Holy Communion, we will be celebrating with our sisters and brothers around the world. We will feast at a small table, but we will know that it is extended into every church where Christ's name is praised. This is a gorgeous sentiment – we gather to eat at the largest table God could find; we will even feast will all the saints in heaven today. But, we give little thought to the understanding that when we gather at this table, we'll be joined by folks who don't like us. And we don't like them. We'll be dining with those who hate and misunderstand us; who have sinned against us, and think that we have no right to be at that table. And, we think the same of them.
But somehow, we've managed to find a way to welcome all who would come. And, it can only be through a loving and merciful God that people who deeply misunderstand each other can come and sit and eat with the same sense of grace and peace. We will pray, at the setting of the table, "As disciples used to gather, In the name of Christ to sup, Then with thanks to God the Father
Break the bread and bless the cup, Alleluia! Alleluia! So knit thou our friendship up
." It is easy to think of being knit together with people we love, and people who love us. But, what are we to do with the folks who don't? World Communion Sunday forces the issue.
Today, sinners of all sorts will find the face of Jesus in this moment of partaking. And, sisters and brothers, it is up to us to see the face of Christ in all of those who are humble enough to gather at this table. For, not one who approaches comes without the mark of suffering on her brow. Today, we feast with Angela, who has lost everything except her ability to praise God. Today, we feast with the Lutherans, who are still seeking to understand how to be welcoming and accepting. Today, we feast with your grandmother who always loved you, and your uncle who always misunderstood you. We feast with your neighbor, and with the bully from 4th grade. For, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we have all forsaken our promises to be kind, gracious, forgiving, merciful. We have made assumptions about others, without knowing their stories, their wounds. And, today we are invited to eat together at this holy table, bringing our sufferings, our struggles, our fears. We will lay them down, for we are all promised the same love that can only come from God, as we are bound together by the Holy Spirit:
All our meals and all our living, make as sacraments of thee, That by caring, helping, giving,
We may true disciples be. Alleluia! Alleluia! We will serve thee faithfully