Sunday, January 15, 2017

You Already Have What You Need! by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

         The late Edwin Friedman, Rabbi and family therapist, tells this story about desire:

         A man, who shares his home with his wife, children, in-laws, and animals, goes to the rabbi and says, “Rabbi, rabbi, my life is a living hell!  My wife nags about everything I do and don’t do.  My children never listen to me.  My in-laws don’t respect me.  And my animals!  They are so noisy and leave a mess all over the house.  Rabbi, please, tell me what to do.”
         The rabbi pauses while looking intently at the man.  “Um.  Fine. I know just what you should do.  Go home and remove your wife from the house.  Then your life will be peaceful and happy.”
         So the man does just that.  He goes home and divorces his wife.  A week passes, and the man returns to the rabbi.  “Rabbi, rabbi.  My life is little better.  But, my children still never listen to me.  My in-laws don’t respect me even more.  And my animals!  They are noisier and messier than ever. Rabbi, please tell me what to do.”
         The rabbi, strokes his beard and says, “My! This is what you shall do: go home and remove your children from your house.  In doing this, your house will be ever so peaceful.”  And the man leaves to go home and turns his children out into the streets.
         A week later, the man arrives at the rabbi’s home.  “Rabbi, rabbi!  My home is so much better.  With my children gone, I don’t have to yell and scream as I used to.  But, my in-laws, they are always finding fault with me.  They are always angry with me.  I can’t do anything to please them.  Rabbi, please tell me what to do.”
         Looking puzzled at the man, the rabbi says, “Ah, I know just the thing.  My son, go home and remove your in-laws from your home, then all will be well with you.” And the man leaves.  When he arrives home, he packs up all his in-laws’ belongings and tosses them all into the street.
         A week later, the man arrives again at the rabbi’s home. “Rabbi, rabbi.  You are amazing!  My home is almost like heaven!  I sleep well, and there is no one nagging me.  Except, the animals!  The animals continue to make a total wreck of my home.  Please, rabbi, tell me what to do.”
         Scratching his head, the rabbi lifts up a finger and says, “My son, gather all of the animals and turn them out into the street.  I know then that your life will be perfect.”  So the man hurries home and tosses all the animals out into the street.
         A week later, the man returns to the rabbi’s house.  “Rabbi, rabbi, my home is not a home at all.  I’m so lonely!  My wife is not there for me to talk to.  I miss the sounds of my children running through the house.  I think about my in-laws everyday, and the wisdom and love they showed to me.  And I’m poor and hungry.  I think I’m dying.  Please, rabbi, tell me what to do.” 
         The rabbi’s eyebrow contracts, then he says, “My son, go.  Go win the heart of your wife, and bring her back into the house.  Then I know your life will be as heaven.”  And the man leaves and does what the rabbi instructs.

         That is not the end of the story.  I think you can guess how it ends. Yes, as subsequent weeks go by, one-by-one the man reclaims his child, his in-laws, and his animals.  In the end, the man has learned that what he thought he wanted most – love, peace, and fulfillment – these things he already had.  Who hasn’t felt something similar to this at one time or another?

         The church in Corinth, Greece was rich in more ways than one: numerical, leadership, financial, and in organizational and spiritual gifts.  One of the earliest gatherings in the new religious movement established by the apostles.  They have everything they needed to help one another and to grow.  Why Paul wrote to them, we’ll touch on in two-weeks’ time.  For now, let’s reflect on the words of encouragement he gave them.
         1  Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the
revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Many of you have been with The Village since it was founded, others
shortly after that.  Looking back, you can remember all the work that went into organizing it: the meetings, the paperwork, the invitations to stop by on a Sunday morning.  You remember what it took – and still takes - to making each service, each mission outreach happen.  In looking back, you will recall that some of you – or others that you know – came with no skills on how to “do” church, a church like The Village.  But, it all happened.  And it’s still happening.  What you thought you couldn’t do, you did.  What you thought you didn’t know, you figured out.  The material stuff you needed, you figured out a way to get that.  No small feat!

         But there were and are bumps, missteps, and all the challenges and chances life in community can bring.  The word for us today from Paul is that we have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  And, that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  But, there’s another but; something else to realize:
(1)  it is not the case that we have every gift with which to do our work in advancing the realm/Kin-Dom of God.  Rather, the conditions have been set for us to discern the gifts needed and to employ them.The soil into which we have been planted is still rich and fertile.  There are those in this wider community who need to hear – need to hear again – God’s good news in Jesus of Nazareth.  We have a clear sense of what
       we’ve been called to do: to simply be bread and salt and light in the
       world.  What did John Wesley say: “Do all the good you can.  By all the
       means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all
       the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

         It’s called sapiential eschatology, or realized eschatology.  Simply put: all that stuff about what will happen in the future – what God desires for all people, the coming of the Kin-Dom of God – is all about what is to happen right now.  Not some future date, but now; with our participation.  So, God is waiting for us to act.  All the gifts are not given to us up front.  But, many are given to us as we gather together, listen to each other, struggle together, and do the obvious in the work of Kin-Dom ministry.  Spiritual gifts emerge and fade, as they are needed in light of the context in which we find ourselves.

            The Village Church has changed over these last seven years.  I can only imagine as I have only been with you these past three months.  A word from Paul:  now is the time to reflect and discern, and on who, what, when, where, how of our life as a worshipping community; a worship community that is in a state of change.  And, even in all that change, we already still have the seeds, the kernels, the nucleus of what we need: the Spirit of God and each other.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Christians Can't Be Choosy! by Hafidha Saadiqah (with assist by Karen Shepler)


Acts 10:34-43

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

         This is the second Sunday after Christmas; the time of Epiphany - “appearing” – that small window of time between Advent and Lent.  This is the time when we would hear of the appearing of “Kings and stars.  Doves and voices.  Water.  Wine.  Transfiguration.”  We’d be looking at snapshots of the improbable.  We’d be asked to stand on that boundary between the mundane and the eternal.  But, today, I want us to travel a parallel path alongside tradition and go straight to the matter:

church.  More specifically, this church – The Village Church – and why The Village Church now.

         One of my favorite authors, Howard Thurman, Christian minister, educator, and mystic wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers (and sisters),

To make music in the heart.

         Indeed, the work of Christmas has never stopped.  The work that the Church universal and any local congregation has been called to so has and never will stop.  And while the Christmas decorations may be stowed away for another year, everything that Christmas signifies still goes on.  Emmanuel: “God with us.”  The gift of new life.  Strength in weakness.  The fulfillment and ongoing possibility of hope, love, joy, and peace for all people. 

And while the carols and crowds have died off, our shingle that says who we are remains outside this building, on our website, on the theater’s marquee, on our weekly program, and on the tee shirts that some of us wear.  “Welcome” it says, because we are a hospitable, an open and affirming church.  A church for all people, all the time, no matter what.  But, I wonder about what it takes to be a welcoming spiritual community; the enormity of it all.  I’m not simply speaking of being welcoming in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, but in all the ways of being welcoming.  For instance, theological welcome.  And, there’s the issue of what it physically takes to be a welcoming community: place, preparation, time.  Thinking again of the words of Thurman’s meditation on the work of Christmas, that is some heavy lifting.  And for some of us we may be caught off kilter in our declarations of being welcoming.

         If you know the back story to our text this morning, you will remember that Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, a central figure in the Christian community even now, was called on the carpet for his choosiness, his xenophobia – his dislike of people because of their nationality.  His reasoning was that people who were non-Jewish were unclean, sinners, unworthy, outside of their God’s concern.  Cornelius was a Greek, coming from a nation and culture that worshipped many gods and had other “strange” customs.  And, he was a military man; a man of war.  Even so, Cornelius freely accepted the good news Jesus taught, and the ministry of his disciples.  He, and many others.  For these reasons, it took heaven and earth to move Peter off of his butt and out of his preconceived notions of who was acceptable and who was not acceptable in the Kin-dom of God.  It took awhile, but he did move, and the rest is history. 
         The Church of Jesus Christ and this church are called to welcome everyone who finds life and health in the Gospel.  We are called to spread this good news without fear or favor of any person or group regarding anything; the identifiers they assume for themselves, or the one's culture assigns to them.  The Church stands as an alternative society; its reason for existing and the ways it operates are different from other institutions.  Love is its doctrine.  Discerning God’s truth is its sacrament.  Service is its prayer.  And trust in the Spirit of God is the glue that binds it all together.  The transformation and well-being of all people is its bottom line.  Nevertheless, like Peter, we often pick and choose what we see and respond to in the call to discipleship issued by Jesus of Nazareth.  We busy ourselves making our church’s comfortable for ourselves that we sometime don’t realize that we’ve made it uncomfortable for someone else, or, impossible for them to come in.  At times, like Peter, we focus on non-essentials instead of identifying what is essential – critical to true community.

         Yes, Christians can't be choosy about who God loves and calls us to be in relationship with.  Even so, we can be clear about the depth, texture, and tone of our relationship together.  With all this diversity among us, what's essential?  What are the non-essentials?  For me the essentials are:

         -All who come inside embrace the God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth.  This God calls, saves, heals, and sets free.

-Availability matters next in line: that we each stretch and share the load; our welcome is not welcoming to those who are already here is we are not here to do our part…sometimes more than our part.

         -Language and behavior matter:  truth and tenderness together; motives can easily be discerned,

         -Place, setting: just as we need wings to fly, we need roots to hold us in place, to nourish us, to launch us into our work.

And, likewise one central non-essential is:

         -ironically, belief; for me takes a smaller role because as we go deeper into our relationship with God, and our knowledge of scripture grows the discreet beliefs we cling to will become more informed and more textured by what it means to be alive now.

         I think love and service and worship are important and essential to us here at the Village.  As we move into the future we need to hold on to the fact that we are welcoming, but also that we welcome ourselves, and that are tender with each other and with ourselves.

When I look at The Village Church having been here three months, I want to be clear that we should NOT not be choosy because we are a small community and we are desperate for any and everybody regardless of what they bring with them.  But, we should no be choosy because we have a chance everyday to do the gospel, be the gospel in the most intimate and tedious way.  We are choosing to guard against anything that would harm and disrupt the healing and creative work of the Spirit in our midst.  We embrace all by exposing the cards in our hand of high trust, high commitment, and high vulnerability.

Peter had to learn that lesson, and so do we.  We learn it in light of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and

gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

         In doing this, the work of Christmas continues.  In fact, it’s the only way it ever can be accomplished

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In Sync with God by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Eccl. 3:1-13

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 9What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.

11God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

         Happy New Year!  We’ve safely crossed over into a new year full of possibility and promise.  Hang on to your eyebrows ‘cause it’s gonna
be a blast!  Several things come to mind, but one that always surfaces at this time for me is ballroom dancing.  Yep!  Go figure!  It always happens without fail.  No, I don’t know how to ballroom dance, do any dance for that matter.  Contrary to popular opinion, all black people don’t have rhythm.  I’ve always wanted to learn ballroom dancing, but, so far I’ve been only able to enjoy it from the sidelines.  Maybe one day.

         Even though I don’t do ballroom dancing, I do know its cardinal rule: don’t bump into anyone, ever.  If you do, you will earn a penalty.  Don’t bump into anybody, ‘eh?  That’s hard to do with at least upwards of ten couples sharing the same dance floor at the same time.  You can’t help but bump, or lightly brush up against someone.  The key to all of it is that you know where you and your partner’s bodies are on the dance floor at all times.  You two are counting at the same time, all the time.  You know every step you are going to make as well as every step that you partner will make.  You are anticipating each other.  Moving in the same rhythm.  Some of these couples are a sight to behold, even when they bump into another couple or miss a step; get out of sync with each other.
         That’s life, isn’t it?  Sometimes we miss a step.  The breaks rub, belts snap, and the gears get hung-up.  But, when it’s going good, it’s good!  Indeed!  We do our happy dance when it’s sweet.  And when it’s less so, we find a way to pivot and slide our way through it somehow – because that’s the only thing we can do.  And we survive another day, another year.  Hey, we thrive as we improvise! 

         Our text this morning is about improvisation.  That familiar beginning: For everything there is a season.  You’re probably familiar with it because of The Byrds’1965 release of “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  What follows in this passage is a long list of seven contrary pairs, each with two pairs of opposites.  Joy and tragedy.  Rest and labor.  Life and death.  This chapter, indeed the entire book, is about living life as it always comes - in cycles with opposites.  The good and the bad always abutting each other.  It’s as inconvenient and nonsensical as it is rich and fulfilling.  There’s no stopping or changing it.  Absolutely none!  So is discerning God, speaking to God, listening for God.  Sometimes we get something, other times, not.  Trouble comes when we try to make our lives and our life in God all about logic, orthodoxy, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, and rewards.  This is then when we get out of sync with God, with life, and we become stuck.  

         To be in sync with God is to give in to the ways in which our life is to a great extent out of our control.  But, God is there, always.  God is always seeing us, speaking to us, hearing us, moving with us.  The second rule of ballroom dancing is applicable here: there is only one leader, and it’s not us!  Listen and watch for, anticipate the leader.

To be in sync with God is to acknowledge that we are still emerging; we are always coming-into being.  And, at the same time, God will be who God will be – with us, for us, for others; creating and recreating for God’s good pleasure.  Our job is to keep dancing with God until some measure of clarity of God’s purposes shines through; until we come into a greater sense of our own possibility in God – ours and other’s.

To be in sync with God is to acknowledge that some “answers” to life are not be forthcoming.  And, it means that every wrong will not be
righted; every good deed will not be rewarded; evilness will remain a factor.  But, together – people with thoughts like and unlike our own – can struggle to find and enact new ways to confront head-on those things that eat away at human flourishing.

To be in sync with God is to keep moving in moments when the dance of life is painful and less than desirable; even when it seems that we are dancing on the margins of a situation.  Plato said it well:  all of life is a lesson in learning how to die well. Knowing when it’s time to surrender up some of our assumptions.  Life/living is a scandal, and outrage.  But, everyday we have a chance to let go of all the assumptions and conclusions that we know in our hearts are not true and sustainable, that don’t work.  We learn how to live, how to do the dance of life when we let go, when we let God, when we let ourselves rest in God’s Spirit moment by moment up to the very end.  Remember this, from the author of Romans 14.8: 

If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.
So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers sing a song that I
feel is quite fitting for this first Sunday of this new year.  It’s entitled, Let It Be a Dance.  It’s not Theo- and Christo-centric, but it is true and reasonable.  Neil and I will sing the first verse, and if you are willing and able, join us on the rest.  Or, if you prefer, take a partner and dance.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

When Angels Visit by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

            Have you ever seen an angel, or had a vision?  I think I had a vision.  It happened this way.  Two days before I had the vision I could hardly finish my workout on the treadmill.  I gave up and went home, gathered my strength and everything seemed to be fine.  The next day, Friday, it took me 10 minutes to make it up the 13 stairs to my bedroom.  As I was dressing, I broke out in a cold sweat, became lightheaded, and felt as if I was dying.  Again, I rallied.  I got my youngest to school and took my sister to run an errand.  Arriving at work at 1pm, I started to feel the same, maybe worse than I did earlier in the morning.  I eventually made it to the doctor’s office, who told me that I would be “staying as a guest in the hospital for awhile.”  X-rays showed two fist-sized blood clots, one in each lung.  I was told that I was lucky to be alive. 

         After about 2 days on Heparin I started to understand what the doctor meant, how close I was to dying. Thank God for blood thinners!  So, as I settled in for a second week in the hospital – and 5 roommates later – I had my back to the door and was staring out the window.  I wasn’t asleep, and I wasn’t anxious about anything, and I wasn’t on any other drug.  Then I saw my dad.  He came through the door of my room.  Dressed in his usual jet black suit with crisp white oxford shirt and blue necktie.  But, he had such a worried look on his face.  It was the first time I had ever seen his face that way.  I saw him as clearly as I am seeing you.  He said nothing, but walked towards me.  I began to panic.  And instantly he moved backwards with his hands up and went away.  I guess the reason why I was afraid was that my brother and sisters and I had buried him two months prior.  I’ve never had an experience like this before, and I haven’t had one since.

         My experience was not like how Matthew writes about Joseph’s.  No, do this, or don’t do that.  It didn’t involve anyone else except my dad and me.  And, there was not a big revelation, no “This was the interpretation of the vision of your dad.”  But, what I’ve come to understand these 13 years later is that the space between life and death is very thin.  I don’t think we see the space because we are, for good or ill, products of the Enlightenment; we are so wedded to the rational, what can be explained by microscopes, test tubes, and longitudinal studies.  And, thanks to John Calvin and all of the theologians of the 16th century for excising any and all things that lent themselves to mystery and sacred symbolism and practice in giving us Protestant Christianity.

         When angels visit, as they did to Joseph and Zacharias and Mary they challenge our understanding of, not only time and space, but also faithfulness, righteousness, and openness to God looks like.  And when angels visit they invite us to risk being unsafe, being seen as credible, and be led by God in ways that we can’t even imagine. I think that’s what the Joseph story is all about. Both Joseph and Mary were vulnerable, and risked being excluded from their families and Jewish society in order to follow through on the word of an angel, a messenger from God.  The word from God was to trust God’s promises of presence, of being the one who would bear them up, of being the one to make a way for them when what they were being asked to do all seemed implausible. Like Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and all of the others in the Hebrew scriptures who witnessed the call of God through an angel, a vision, a voice:
-the boy Samuel in the temple who hears a voice calling out to him
-Daniel and his companions in the lion’s den. There’s a vision in the middle of them, spewing fire
-Balaam’s donkey – Balaam goes to speak to God’s people, and the donkey won’t behave. Balaam finally kicks the donkey, who then speaks, “There’s an angel there!”

So, too, are we called by that same God to follow and trust.  The voice, the vision asks us to give all of our heart to a way of being in this world that goes against the grain and privileges of mercy and grace, of courageous patience and forthrightness to speak up and speak out about what God is doing.

         To speak about seeing angels and hearing voices and having visions is very dangerous in our world when one out of every five Americans is living with some level of mental illness, and often lack of care and funds.  But, if our confidence rests in a God who is always in pursuit of us, who promises to never leave us nor forsake us, who has led us this far along our way in life, who speaks still…then why not an angel?  Why not a star?  Why not lumbering shepherds?  Why not diviners?  Why not the weakness of a baby?  Ours is a God who can speak to and through broken and troubled minds and hearts.

         When angels visit we are not always aware of their presence.  And sometimes their message is lost on us.  But, God is faithful, and will not leave us to flounder in chaos and confusion.  God’s voice can open our deaf ears.  God’s power can open our blinded eyes.  God’s power can break up our stony hearts.  God’s power can change our stubborn minds.  That’s good news, and it’s frightening at the same time for us who have been anticipating the Christmas event.  God’s presence coming among us, indeed, already among us, meets and works with us where we are – in our common ordinary lives, using common ordinary things and people to do uncommon, not ordinary things. 

         To the extent that you can discern it, when an angel visits, and if it is showing you and asking you to dare and go deeper in the life of the Spirit of God, be obedient and do it.  It may seem like it’s not real and we can explain it away. But, don’t write it off. That’s the call to the new creation we’ve been waiting for.  That’s the mystery of the incarnation – God with us in all of life.  Amen.