Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Turning Point by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

I watched a video this week of actress Nichelle Nichols reflecting on her life and the time she had a chance to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Does anyone know what role Nichelle Nichols made famous? She was Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise on the popular television show, “Star Trek.” I did not realize that it was quite a big deal for this cast, and the crew of the Enterprise to be racially integrated in 1966.  

         Then apparently, in the first year there was an episode when Uhura and Captain Kirk’s characters were taken over by aliens and they kissed. It was the first interracial kiss on TV. There was a huge uproar, especially in the South. People from the South told her they were forbidden to watch it because it was integrated. After that kiss, and all the backlash, Nichols found that her character’s role was being minimalized in the show. She would have fewer and fewer lines in each script and when she did have lines they would get edited out in the rewrites. She was contemplating leaving the show when she had the occasion to meet Dr. King. He told her he was one of her biggest fans. He also told her that Uhura is a symbol. He said: those of us “who are fighting the good fight stop and watch you on Thursday nights.” 

         You see, her work was really important as a role model to young African American women and girls. He encouraged her not to quit and said to her: "Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.” After the show was canceled she began work recruiting for NASA. She went to universities and through her work several women and African American men were recruited for NASA including Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. But, she almost quit. It was a turning point in her life. She met Dr. King and he encouraged her to stay in the good fight. Who knew being an actress could lead one to becoming a symbol inspiring other people?

         Just imagine for a moment how many people in how many different life situations were touched by Dr. King and that movement, and faced a turning point. They faced a situation where they could say “Yes, I’m in” or “No, the cost is too great.” There were plenty of reasons to say no: 1) it’s scary; 2) I don’t feel I have the skills to be an advocate for civil rights; 3) I could get killed. 

         There were also some great reasons to say yes: 1) The oppression of people is wrong and I want to do the right thing; I don’t want to participate in this evil system; 2) Even if I don’t live to see justice fully realized, I want a better world for my children and grandchildren; 3) my faith is calling me to say “yes.”  You know Dr. King was absolutely motivated by his faith.

         This scripture has been one that has guided people of faith in movements for change for generations. As Jesus was ready to begin his formal ministry he went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. This would be a common practice for him. He was asked to read the scripture that day. And it just so happened that the scripture was a prophecy from Isaiah: 

God’s Spirit is on me;
    he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
    recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
    to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

         But then he said something that really shook them up. He said: “You’ve just heard Scripture make history because I’m the one that’s going to make it come true. It came true just now in this place.”  That was a turning point for Jesus. He was off and running.

         You see, he set the agenda for his ministry. He told them, “God has chosen me.” He said: “Now is the time.” No more waiting. Let’s get started. 

         He made a bold move. I love bold. Bold is good. Bold is great. Dr. King was bold. The people who responded to Dr. King were bold. He paid for his boldness with his life. He knew he would, and he did not regret it one bit.  He said so in that speech. 

       Good news for the poor, pardon for us from whatever imprisons us, recovery from what blinds us; to be set free from our burdens. This is what it is all about, my friends. If we really want to follow Jesus and change the world, these are our marching orders right here.  We could live our whole lives around that scripture.
         So what are we going to do about it?

         Well if you are going to change the world, it is usually good to start with what you know. Start with your strengths – your assets. We are a church, even before we had doors, (literally, the first Sunday a group of us gathered in a parking lot to do some clean up before we had the keys to our building), and we committed ourselves to being a Reconciling and an Open and Affirming Church in the United Methodist and United Church of Christ denominations. This means that we fully welcome, accept and include in leadership gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. This stand puts us in the minority among faith communities in NW Ohio. This is one of our strengths. It is not our only strength, but it is one of them. LGBT people feel welcome here and straight allies who want to be part of a church that welcomes everyone feel at home here.  We don’t want to be in a church full of haters.

         But in the world, many people still don’t think churches like ours exist. The dominant message out there is still “God hates gay people.” It has been the message for a few millennium and we need a bigger megaphone in order to be heard over the voices of the religious leaders who are still sending that message. There are people of faith who think that God loves everybody.  That’s what the bible says.

         Yesterday, you may have heard, I was at an Ohio Faith Summit in Columbus. This was part of my new part time job as the Ohio Field Coordinator for the Reconciling Ministries Network. We gathered about 40 faith leaders from across Ohio to begin training people to launch a faith based campaign. We will be working alongside Equality Ohio on a massive effort over the next 3 years. The plan is to educate people in Ohio, to tell our stories and to change hearts and minds. In the end, we want the legislature to vote to give legal protections in work and housing for LGBT people and we want the citizens of Ohio to vote for marriage equality on a ballot measure.  No more discrimination legally and we’re going to let everybody who wants to get married, do so.

         Now here is the thing. Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. So we can see that the arc of justice is already bending toward all these things. Change is coming. Yesterday my wise friend David Beckwith said this: the question for us is: will the church be seen on the right side of history when justice is achieved? Because right now we are viewed out there in the world as being on the wrong side of justice. We are going to have to get loud and proud, and get out there and work, in order for the world to see that people of faith, people who love and serve Jesus, are on the right side of history in the cause of equality for LGBT persons.

         We launched three strategies yesterday and The Village and other congregations across Ohio are invited to be a part of these strategies. 1) be more visible year round. Yes, we go to Pride. There are ways we can be visible not just to LGBT folks, but to the wide community. We need to let NW Ohio know that there are Christians who believe God loves gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people. We need a plan for how to do that. 2) People you know conversations. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force worked in Minnesota to win marriage equality there last year. The centerpiece of their strategy was People You Know conversations. It started with two people who said they would go to a two hour training in deep listening and telling their stories. They were joined by 3 more people, which took them to five. Five months later, they had had 26,000 People You Know conversations (that they could track) initiated by people of faith in Minnesota. They would not have won marriage equality without this strategy. We have an opportunity to have this training at The Village whenever we are ready.  We all agree on this here but it doesn’t do any good unless we talk to other people. 3) Gender Justice Education. We know that part of the resistance to legislation around protections in housing and work will be around transgender persons. So we want to address this upfront with training. Allies need to be educated. We need to understand the context and concerns of transgender persons. Transgender persons will also be included in what we call Gender Justice Education. The Village, when we first opened, helped to launch the only Trans Support group in NW Ohio but we are not experts. We would benefit from some learning; and we can help teach others from our experience.

         A great deal of amazing work is going to be happening in Ohio between now and 2016. We are in the midst of a huge turning point for our state. I have already agreed to be a part of it, personally. We as a congregation have to decide to what extent we want to join in. It could be a few of you as individuals who volunteer or it could be a massive priority for our congregation. I can’t make that decision for you. You have to decide.

         I do know this. The change that Dr. King ignited in this country demanded a huge army of people. You can’t do a bus boycott effectively without a buy in. Lunch counter sit-ins take trained, disciplined volunteers. Voter registration is a massive door to door campaign. But with training and support, any effort for change is achievable. 

         And it’s achievable because we have a wild card. We have power. 

       When we are working for justice, God is with us. God gives us the courage when we feel scared. God gives us the skills when we feel ill-equipped. God gives us the strength when we are weary. God gives us the hope when we are in despair.

         So I ask you, are you at a turning point? Is God asking you to take a step and join the work for equality for LGBT persons in Ohio and to be more visible in your witness? Could you be trained to have conversations with people you know? Are you called to be trained in Gender Justice Education so you can be a fierce advocate for transgender inclusion in this campaign? Or perhaps there is some other thing, in some other direction to which God is calling you and that is your turning point? 

         I want to invite us into a time of prayer and listening to God. Ask God if this is a turning point for you, if God is calling you to act to change the world. Then I will lead us in a time of prayer together.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Message: "It's All About God" by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)


Three Hundred Thousand residents in a 9 county area, or 15% of the people living in West Virginia, have been ordered “Don’t drink the water” since last Thursday because of a chemical spill in their water supply. This could last for several days. Not only can they not drink the tap water, they can’t boil it and cook with it; they can’t bathe in it or wash clothes in it, they can’t even touch it for fear of getting sick because of a chemical spill is Charleston, WV. Hundreds of people have reported symptoms of nausea and dizziness. Restaurants, schools and other businesses have closed. Hospitals have canceled all surgeries except emergencies. 

         They are trucking in water and people are lining up with gallon water jugs for drinking water, for cooking, and so they can get by. But can you imagine trying to get by on the water you can carry home in a couple of jugs? We so take for granted the water that runs so freely from our taps each day.
         We can survive a long time without food, but “Humans can only survive approximately three days without water. We need it for life.”   (source: Karyn Wiseman,
         Water is crucial to our planet and to our survival. We know that for people in some countries, access to clean water is a matter of life and death on a daily basis. Water is a theme that comes up over and over again in scripture, from the parting of the sea to save the people from Pharaoh’s army to Jesus sitting by a well with a woman in Samaria, talking about her life and the living water that he could give her.
         In today’s scripture, we find the water of baptism. One obvious question to ask is this: why would Jesus need to be baptized?  Even John asks that.  He was the one perfect human. Because he was fully human and fully God, why would he need to be washed clean with the water of baptism? Surely he had no sin that needed to be symbolically washed away with the water of the Jordan River.
         Baptism is also a sign that we are initiated into God’s family. Surely Jesus did not need baptism for that. We just finished reading the stories of his birth – all those angels, the star, the shepherds and the wise visitors from the East. Was there any doubt that he belonged to God?
         But this is also why we baptize. We mark with the water a child, or a teen, an adult, or even someone old, and near death with water and we say: “You are a beloved child of God, marked with the water of baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit. Nothing can separate you from God’s love.”
       When you were baptized you were claimed as God’s own child. We told you: You are enough. Don’t ever let the world tell you that you are too fat, or too stupid, or too slow, shy, or too anything. You are enough, because you belong to God.
         But again, why would Jesus need that? Certainly he knew he was enough! Certainly he knew that God loved him.
         So the story goes, John was in Galilee, by the River Jordan. He was baptizing people. And Jesus came up to him.
14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
         Jesus said to him: I need baptism too.
         And as soon as John had baptized him, he came up out of the water, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
         Now the next thing that happened was Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days of preparation. And then his ministry began.
         You see, Jesus had to do these things in order to prepare to do his work, because the work ahead of him was going to be hard work.
         The work of turning a world upside down (or right side up) takes a deep well of spiritual strength. It takes confidence. This work takes trust in God. For Jesus to be able to stand up for justice, and to bring compassion to the most unlovable, he needed to be ready.
         And so, he needed baptism. He needed the water of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He needed to prepare. He needed to hear God’s voice saying: “With you I am well pleased. So let’s get started.”
         Here at The Village we are starting a new year. We are at a turning point in our life together. I believe we are in some ways, like Jesus, ready to step out and set our little corner of the world on fire. We have gone through our infancy. We have shown that we can survive. We are a church.
         Now we are ready to go. The question is: how will we live out our baptism together?
         This week in our weekly email I invited you to start dreaming about what The Village might be and do in 2014, 2015 and beyond. The Lead Team is making plans for us to do what we are calling “Strategic Dreaming” together as a congregation over the next couple of months. We are going to have some listening sessions. We want to listen to God by listening to what God is saying to each one of us.
         When we gather, we are going to discuss some key questions. We have not honed in on the exact wording of the questions yet, but we are close. It will be something like this.
         First: how can The Village better help you connect to God? We might get at this by asking you to think about some of the experiences you have had at The Village when you have felt really close to God. It might be a memory of a worship experience; or it might be a time when you served and you really felt connected to God because you were living out your call. Perhaps it was in your daily prayer time.  Maybe a friend from The Village prayed with you and in that moment you felt the presence of God. We want to know how we can help you, and more people who are not here yet, dig deeper as we connect to God and grow in our relationship with God.
         Second, we’ll ask: how can we do a better job of building up our relationships within The Village? Part of being a church is having a sense of intimacy with one another, knowing, and being known. When we know one another, we can dig deep to learn together. We can also care for one another and encourage one another as followers of Jesus. We want to know if there are group studies, activities for fun, or others ways we can strengthen the sense of community we have right here among ourselves. We want to hear from you about how you think we can do that, and how you want to be a part of strengthening our Village community. We don’t want you to think of ideas for somebody else to do!
         Third, how is God calling us, as a community, to go out and change the world? What breaks your heart? Because if it breaks your heart, you can be certain that it breaks God’s heart too. What is something you are passionate about that you want to do something about in the world? What can we do as a community so we can have a bigger impact than one of us can have as an individual? Is there something we can agree upon that lots of us are passionate about and that we want to act upon? You see, there are plenty of things that concern us, and we talk about, but it is a whole other thing to give our time and our resources to action. Can we determine one part of this world that God put The Village on this earth to change? And will we put our whole selves into that action for God?
         I get excited just thinking about that one. They are all important: drawing closer to God, to one another, and reaching out into the world.
         When we do these things we are living out our baptism. Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan so that he would be prepared to do those things. In his ministry he always took time to pray and center himself with God. He built a strong community around him: his community of disciples. He knew the importance of having a team of people working together and so he cared for those disciples and modeled for them how to care for one another. And he taught them how to go out and change the world. He sent them out to care for the widows and the orphans and to speak the truth to the unjust leaders.
         The starting point was his baptism. In baptism we are claimed by God. Because you see, it’s all about God. In his ministry, Jesus never claimed anything for himself; he always pointed people back to God.
         Baptism is a gift from God: a gift of God’s love to remind us – to make an indelible mark on us with the water – the source of all life. “You belong to me.” We belong to God so that we can be a blessing to the world.
         When we love one another in here [in this community] we are loving with God’s love. And when we go out into the world to change it, we are changing it by the power of God. To me, that makes it not so scary at all. We have God with us and so it feels like we have the power to do anything.
         So we on the Lead Team invite you to dream with us. Let’s dream about what our church can be and do in 2014, 2015 and beyond. Let’s remember that in our baptism we are claimed as God’s beloved children and that means it’s all about God. All that we are and do is for God.
         We have a prayer that we are inviting everyone to pray each day as we enter into what we are calling our Strategic Dreaming process for The Village. There are prayer cards you can take to put on your kitchen table or somewhere else so you can remember to pray every day. Pray for our church that God will give us the vision of who God wants us to be together.
         Let’s pray that prayer together now.
Dear God,
Show us your dreams for The Village. Give us your vision. Let us have courage and wisdom to lay out a path for our church that is bold and compassionate. Show us a way to draw others into our community so they may also know your generous and gracious love. Help us to change the world.   Amen.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Wise Men’s Story: Worshipping by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

One of my family’s favorite Christmas carols is the 12 days of Christmas. There is no deep religious meaning to the song. It is just fun to sing. And every year for the past 9 years we went to the children’s Christmas program at Gesu Elementary School where our children attended. The highlight of the show every year was the Kindergarten classes singing the 12 days of Christmas at the tops of their lungs complete with hand motions. It was a hoot.  We even sang it in the car ourselves, in their honor. 

Perhaps you know that the 12 days of Christmas count the 12 days from Christmas day to Twelfth Night, January 5th.  That is the night before January 6th, the day we call Epiphany (Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico and in the Hispanic Community). This is the day that we celebrate the day the magi or the wise men from the East made it to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. Now, the truth is it was probably not just 12 days, it was possibly more like 2 years and 12 days when they got there to see Jesus. We think he was mostly likely a toddler by the time these visitors from the East arrived. These 12 days of Christmas are important, because you see on the Church calendar the Christmas season does not START until Christmas day. As you recall, we celebrated Advent during December. That is the time of waiting for Christmas.  

But out there in the world, in the consumer driven culture, the retailers start the build-up of Christmas so early, usually right about Halloween time (it’s getting closer to Labor Day), that by the time Christmas day comes, we are done with carols, and trees and just want the whole things to be over.  How many of your wanted to take down your tree on December 26th?  

So when the church calendar invites us to linger for another 12 days, we feel this kind of tension. We are counter cultural because we are still going to sing one last Christmas carol today, about the three kings. And why not celebrate the birth of Jesus with 12 days of Christmas? 

We are celebrating the birth of the one of whom Isaiah promised: a ‘wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, the prince of peace.’ Gosh! At my house we usually give any old regular family member a whole birthday week. Should not Jesus get 12 days of celebration?

So, this is how the story goes of the wise men. We are honestly not sure who they were: some sort of learned, religious men.  All we have is the short scripture we read in worship today (Matthew 2:1-12 from The Message translation for those following along on the net).  In fact they may have been the first religious leaders who visited Jesus. As part of their religion they studied the stars and so we refer to them as astrologers.  Some think they were from Persia or Babylonia. The scripture just says they were from the East, where the sun rises. Somewhere in the tradition they were thought to be kings but we are really not so sure about that. 

We know they came from far away. This is really important because it means that Jesus did not come just to a group of people in one little of corner of the world. He was not just a Saviour for the Jews living in Galilee. The news of his birth spread far and wide. The impact of this child of God would change the whole world. 

Just think about that for a moment. There was no internet back then. No telephones. No CNN with round the clock news. There was not even a telegraph or a railroad. They delivered messages by hand across deserts. One side of the world did not even know the other side existed. But the birth of a baby, to those temporarily homeless parents, who were nothing special, in a tiny little town, was made known to these religious scholars in a far-away land.  That something isn’t it?

The next amazing thing, is that they set out on a journey to see this baby. It was one thing for some shepherds to go from their field outside of Bethlehem, into the town to see a baby, on the prompting of some angels.

But these three, traveled possibly thousands of miles, presumably on camels, across a desert, simply on the basis of a prophecy and a star in the sky. 

You see, that is the power of Jesus. Just let that sink in a moment.

Before this little baby even had the ability to speak in compete sentences, he had men walking across the earth to see him. That is the strength of the light and hope and the love that Jesus brings into our world.  Before he could even speak a sentence.  Imagine a two year old, just imagine a two year old, having this effect.

And so they went. They went to worship him, to honor him, and to give him gifts. They took him gold because that was and is the most valuable gift they could imagine and it is a gift for a king. They good frankincense, because it is a gift for a god. And they took myrrh, sadly, because it is a symbol of death. That gift was a foreshadowing of the suffering that was to come. 

I suppose this is why we give gifts at Christmas time. We give gifts to one another because the magi gave gifts to Jesus. Honestly, though, when I think of this story, wise men giving symbols of kingship, of holiness and of suffering to the Christ-child, and then I look at much of what we in the United States do with gift giving, I am horrified. Seriously! Don’t get me started. 

Okay, well, let’s have a look. Americans were expected to spend $469 Billion on Christmas this year. If we had spent only 63% of that we would have had $175 billion left over. “In his book The End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs estimated that with this amount, we could end extreme poverty in the world. In other words, if Americans spent only $294 billion during the holiday season over the next two decades, nearly one billion people suffering from hunger would have adequate food sources; the estimated 600 million people who survive on less than $1 would see a dramatic improvement in their standards of living.” I could spend 40% less on Christmas to end extreme poverty in the world. How about you? 

Now, I don’t want to ruin Christmas for everyone. I like presents. I like to give presents. I even like to get some presents now and then. But here is the question, on this Twelfth day of Christmas, what were the wise men doing when they took gifts to Jesus?   They were honoring him.

And what do we want to do to honor Jesus?  You see, Christmas is just about over for this year. Tonight is Twelfth night. But now, we have to decide: “what are we going to do with the next 353 days of this year?”  We have that long until the next Christmas.   

Because you know those Wise Men who visited Jesus, after they gave him their gifts? They got on their camels, and had to make that LONG journey back home. And they had to decide, “Well, now what are we going to do?” They had to wait years to see what would become of that baby boy. All they had, was HOPE. 

HOPE is powerful. But they had a lot of years to wait on hope.  We have some years where our hope waxes and wanes too, doesn’t it? We have years when we experience the fullness of God’s abundance and blessing in our lives. And we have other years when we get more than our share of suffering.
But every year, on January 6th, we get the star. We get the star shining in the sky leading us to a baby. Epiphany is the day that Jesus was made known to all the world. He comes to all of us.  And we are called to come and kneel down and bring gifts. We are called to honor Jesus. 

Christmas is over. But we have 353 days left until next year’s Christmas season. This is when the real living begins. We have 353 days to honor Jesus with our lives -- 353 days to line up our lives with Jesus and what Jesus imagines for us. 

So, what will you do? What one new thing will you do this year to honor Jesus? How will you recommit yourself to living for Jesus? I am going to start every day, not only with prayer, but with reading scripture and writing in my journal. I got a new guide for that called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  It is a great title, isn’t it?  It has suggested scripture readings for every day of the year. That will  keep me going for the next 353 days and beyond. I am going to honor Jesus by reading scripture every day. Because I know that when I read a few short passages of scripture every day, God speaks to me through them. Not through every one every day.  Sometimes I wonder what the heck was that one about. But through many of them. And I never know which one on which day, unless I commit to making this practice part of my daily routine. 

We make other commitments, like going to the gym, or taking a class. We make commitments to spend time with people we care about. It just makes sense that we would carve out time every day for Jesus. So this is how I am going to honor Jesus for the next 353 days. 

Maybe you want to do something else. Maybe you want to practice being more forgiving, or more patient.  Maybe you want to join our Tai Chi class and live more slowly and deliberately. We in the West over do and over commit in everything we do, even the way we move.  Maybe you want to be more generous and honor Jesus by giving a bigger percentage of your income to The Village for the next 353 days. Maybe you want to honor Jesus by giving your time in service in some new way to end poverty, be a voice for the voiceless, stand for women and others who society pushes down.

This is between you and Jesus. But I want to invite you to choose one concrete thing that you will do to honor Jesus. It will be your gift. Just like the Magi gave Jesus a gift. I want to invite you to give a gift. 

In worship we had on the tables some papers that look like a gift. We took  two of them. One for us to keep and one for us to put here on the table with the gifts (and yes, those were really the same three gifts, brought to us from the Middle East by Cheri’s sister when Becca was born).   If you want you can comment on the website or You Tube page and Pastor Cheri will pray over your gifts in the coming weeks.