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