Sunday, October 30, 2016

CURIOSITY SAVED THE CAT by Hafidha Saadiquah (with an assist by Karen Shepler)

Luke 19: 1-10

1He/Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he/Jesus was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Friends, it wasn’t a mistake that this story happened in Jericho.  Stuff like this always happened in Jericho, or on the Jericho Road.  Remember the Good Samaritan?  Same location.  The Jericho Road, yeah, that seventeen-mile stretch of road between Jericho and Jerusalem during Jesus’ time where anything could and did happen, especially the bad stuff.  Jericho, not a good place.  Thieves.  “Business people.” 
The innocent.  The guilty.  The dead and the half-dead.  Sex workers and their pimps.  And yes, an assortment of priests and Levites.  Let’s not forget the Samaritans.  God bless the Samaritans, at least that one.  Oh, did I mention tax collectors? 
Nevertheless, you had to travel the Jericho Road if you lived in a village along it; or, if you wanted to get to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem!  Now there was the place.  That’s where you wanted to be.  It had it’s share of troubles, but at least you had a better chance of finding the help you needed, not getting accosted, not getting fleeced.  Seeing something
different, becoming something different.  And that’s what happened to Zacchaeus…on the Jericho Road.
         He didn’t become the chief tax collector by being a shrinking violet.  Zacchaeus, he probably started off poor like any other Palestinian Jew of his day.  He had a family that he had to take care of.  And over time, the opportunity to be a tax collector and move up the ladder just…presented itself to him.  A “deal” one he just couldn’t refuse.  One he didn’t want to refuse because of what it would mean for his family, his reputation.  No more groveling, no more hand to mouth/paycheck-to-paycheck.  The people of Jericho would look up to him, and see what a big man he had become.  They had to answer to him now.  Not “Zacchaeus, but, Mr. Zacchaeus!  He knew that the people of Jericho and the nearby towns didn’t like him.  He knew what they called him: sellout, traitor, conspirator, robber.  Sinner!  Yes, he was all those things.  No, he wasn’t all those things.  There was much much more. Whatever!  “A job was a job”; at least that’s what he told himself. 
         When he was alone, at his desk doing his accounting, he probably scratched his head and sighed thinking about the new young rabbi.  That
rabbi from Nazareth was different, not like the others.  It had been a very, very long time since he went to synagogue.  He wasn’t allowed to on account of his job with the Romans.  But, several times he had heard Jesus speaking.  He was in the streets more often during the week than in the synagogue; going here and there, talking to people, making some pretty bold statements.  Jesus was in the streets, along the Jericho road where anything could happen.  Same texts, but Jesus talked about them in a way that was different from the other rabbis.  The way Jesus talked there seemed to be room in God’s house for people – people like him; room for the poor who were innocent, and room for the rich who were guilty.  So, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho, that’s when he knew he had to do something.  He had to make a decision.  That’s when he decided to make his decision.  Throw caution to the wind.  Expose himself to ridicule and above all make himself look like an idiot as opposed to remain as the self-assured insider that his profession and government connections afforded him.  Get to Jesus and make a connection.  So he runs ahead of the others, climbs up the tree, and concurs with Jesus that he should take him to his home for a meal and conversation.  He climbs down the tree when Jesus comes and before too long the words are running out of his mouth, telling what he has already done, what he will do, what he was going to give.  He probably surprised himself.  It probably sounded like gibberish to everyone else who was listening.  I am persuaded that often our prayers are no more than gibberish as we pour out our hearts to Jesus.  The people around him thought he was a joke, and that Jesus was a joke for going to his house.  But, as they say, “There’s no time like the present.”  And every decision has its day.
There are many Jericho Roads.  They are everywhere.  And we will necessarily go down a handful of them in our lifetime.  There’s no
getting around it.  And there’s a Jericho Road and a Jericho with your name on it; a road where you will have to make a decision, or reconfirm a decision you’ve made.  A decision to be, or not to be.  A decision to stand and be exposed for what that decision entails.  A decision to be Christian – with all of its baggage and all of its blessing.  A decision to be a part of something bigger than us. 
There is a Jericho Road that we have to go down.  A decision to make as we travel it.  And there is sycamore tree for all of us to climb that will signal to others that we have aligned ourselves with something and someone bigger than us.  A cause bigger than our plans for ourselves, our particular church; bigger than what politicians, scientists, and average geniuses like you and me can discern for this world.  But that’s just the initial decision.  The decision to be a follow of the God of Jesus of Nazareth…to do the work of the Spirit of God inspired is a decision we have to reaffirm and recommit to everyday. We have to recommit.  Our experience on the Jericho road can change us, to make us turn away from the outside and turn to the one who can help us.  The actions on the Jericho road can change our hearts. The goings-on on the Jericho Road can lead us to change our mind, “re-evaluate” our decision, leave off the decision we’ve made because, because, because.
Jesus calls to us over the serenity as well as the tumult of our lives just as he called out to Zacchaeus.  “Hurry and come down.  I need to come to your house and share with you what God had planted in my heart.” Jesus and Luke tell us that we, no matter who we are or what we have done, are called to come down and be with Jesus.  Friends, let’s come down from wherever we are in our hearts and minds that would keep us from going up our sycamore trees in the first place to see what Jesus has to say…has for us to be and do, because we, too, are children of Abraham, “pure ones” like Zacchaeus.  Beloved of God.
You may remember this song from your Sunday School days; its still good.  Sing it with me if you know it.
         I have decided to follow Jesus.
         I have decided to follow Jesus.
         I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back.  No turning back.
The next to the last verse says,
         The world behind me the cross before me,
         no turning back.
And then there’s another verse:
         Though none go with me.  Still I will follow.
         Though none go with me, still I will follow.
         Though none go with me, still I will follow.
         No turning back; no turning back.
Let that be your heart’s prayer each day, even not as we make our
way to this table which has been prepared to support our decision to follow in the way of Jesus of Nazareth…one more day.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pharisee In Me by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

9Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

         What a jerk!  Seriously!  But, I get his point.  I don’t do the stuff he mentioned, and I don’t abuse drugs, cheat on my spouse, abuse my children, lie on my tax return, and I haven’t robbed or defrauded anybody.  Isn’t that the point of the Christian life, that we sin less and less; that our lives are guided by God’s transformative ethic of truth and justice? And a hard, radical love.  Indeed, it is.  But the Christian life is more complicated than we think.  Confessing faith in the God of Jesus of Nazareth and living into our baptismal vows of turning away from sin are essential.  But, the knottier work that we will be doing until the day we die - after the confession is made and the water wiped from our head -  is attending to our shadow selves. 

         Shadow selves?  What’s that?  Some in the Church call it our “sin-nature.”  Others, “human nature.”  Still others, the Devil.  Here’s another image to work with.  The American author and activist, Robert Bly describes shadow as those aspects of ourselves that we find embarrassing, disgraceful, and achingly brittle; things like our temper, our jealousy, our conceit.  These are traits we like to think that are not part of us, or that we have overcome them.  If this last description offers more clarity, then you’ve just confirmed scripture when it says: “the children of the world are wiser than the children of the light.”  Be that as it may, our shadow informs how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to others.  They have direct bearing on our choice of words and action.  And they can contribute to the quality of our lives and the health and longevity of every community of which we are a part.

         Where did our shadow-self come from?  Our families of origin.  Our culture.  And institutions like this one.  We’ve all learned and internalized them; how we can be pleasing, how to be acceptable. Our shadow came into being when as a child someone said we were too noisy.  Or, as an adult when we were told that we were bossy, touchy, bitter, cruel, an attention whore.  So, we spend all our time ignoring, denying, or covering it up.  And, it’s in religious contexts like ours where we try to pray this shadow stuff out of us, and be extra, extra nice and mindful to be on our P’s and Q’s.  Not a bad idea, but this is also the space that can feed our shadow self. But it can also help us come to grips with that side of ourselves we need to work on. Hence, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

         The Pharisee: a blue-collar Jew.  A rule-follower.  Strict prayer life and attendance at the synagogue.  Very clear about wicked people being
punished, and righteous people being rewarded in the afterlife.  The Tax Collector: could be a Jew or a Gentile.  Middle- to upper-middle class. 
Made his living collecting taxes and fines for the occupying Roman government.  If Jewish, not a synagogue attender because of his employment. The Pharisee.  Self-righteous?  Yes, hands down.  The Tax Collector.  Self-righteous?  I’m sure at some point in his life he was.  But, here he’s just honest about who he was.  Brittle.  Broken.  An opportunist.  Sometimes delusional, if not demented. 

         Now, this is where biblical interpretation is not so clear.  I refuse to choose between the two.  I will not name the Tax Collector as the “hero” of this story because I know that just as there is a Tax Collector in me, there is also a Pharisee in me.  And, the two extremes of being a Tax Collector and a Pharisee are within me, too.  The colluding Tax Collector, and the penitent, humble Tax Collector.  The holier-than-thou Pharisee, and the desiring-to-follow-after-God, the trying-to-get-it-right Pharisee.  And all four are in you, too.  In this church and in the Church universal.  

         The word shadow may not have been in Luke’s mind when he penned his gospel, but the idea of that human dilemma was definitely there.  As Luke gives his accounting of the ministry of Jesus, he emphasizes the Kingdom of God; this wide open, alternative, culturally and spiritually revolutionary real-time community.  In the preceding passages he warns of the threat to the witness and survivability of this society: threats from outside of it, like the Roman government.  But, he also warns of threats from within, like the Messianic Pharisees who thought life in this new community was all about dos and don’ts; comparisons and contrasting.  So, Luke includes Jesus’ warning about:
*being extra vigilant in caregiving and offering mutual support,
*the need to be prayerful for one another, always,
*keeping the faith during times of disruption and chaos, and,
*the critical importance of being persistent in advocating for
         justice and equity – fairness

“Hold on” is one message I hear him saying in this text.  “Don’t fall apart.  Don’t let your shadow selves destabilize everything that the Spirit of God has given birth to through you.”  Don’t let jealousy, selfishness, possessiveness, anger, lack of initiative, timidity, and grand-standing destroy the community.  Even so, God’s intentions will not be derailed. What’s that verse, “…don’t think more highly of ourselves than you ought.”  Life in Christ is not a competition; it’s not about any one of us.  It’s about all of us.

         So, what’s the good news in this text?  What can we do with this constant struggle between the Pharisee and Tax Collector in each of us?  What can we take with us into this new week full of promise and possibility?  First, come to realize that resolving to rub out forever the vicious, selfish, and reptilian aspects of ourselves is a futile course to pursue.  Why?  Because we are fighting against ourselves, and sometimes we are our worst enemies.  We won’t win.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I do believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, but I also believe that our wrestling with the flesh will not end until we leave this earth.  Even so, God’s work continues now.  We are part of the Church of Jesus Christ – the Church Militant; the community of believers who have not left this earth yet, but carry on God’s work of reconciliation.  We are human beings with every frailty and limitation you could possibly name.  Yet, God uses us just as we are to do incredible things that bring life and joy and hope.  So, sinner we are, sinners saved by grace.  This ministry belongs to God.  God is in control, yet we are blessed to be a central part of it.  Even in most problematic moments, God still chooses to use us.  So, let’s take the high road and live into the worst parts ourselves.  None of us are finished products. 

         The second piece of good news we can take from this text is sitting next to you.  The person on your left and your right; the ones before you and behind you.  How ironic; the place that can incite our spiritual bigotry and acting out can also be the place to bring about our spiritual maturity and awareness.  We all need a small host of friends who will help us own our shadow self; to help us hear what they can teach us.  Maybe that’s why we don’t become instantly sinless at our confession of faith and baptism.  What better teacher can we have in brokenness?  What a way to learn how to hold these two parts of ourselves in tension, to take responsibility for our actions, make peace with them, and allow the Holy Spirit to unleash in us our untapped talents and gifts; that there is power in gentleness and meekness!

         Many Unitarian Universalist congregations sing a hymn at the beginning of service inspired by Rumi, the 13the century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic.  It goes like this:
Come, come, whoever you are:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!
Ours is no caravan of despair; come, yet again, come.
Though you’ve broken your vow a thousand times,
broken your vow a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come.
Come to this place because you are welcome.  Come to this place because we are all wrestling with the Pharisee and Tax Collector inside of us.  Come because your stories of defeat and victory, gifts and strengths, as well as your faults and foibles, can inspire and teach and build up someone else where they are weak.  Come to this place because you’ve broken your baptismal vows one thousand times since last we gathered.  Come to this place because our stock in trade is grace.  Come, just as you are, and expecting more.  Just come!

Sing with me if you know this song:
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stand! Places Please! by Rosie Best (with an assist by Karen Shepler)

Pray with me.

The following sermon is being brought to you by my biases, my interests, my knowledge, and my dramatic sensibilities.

Today we will not read the scripture. Today we will hopefully make sense of the scripture in a way that will bring it to life for us, so that we can apply it to our current situation in this very church. I know that this is the goal each Sunday, but I want to be explicit today that this is what I am trying to do. Today we will ENACT scripture, hopefully for our benefit.

Sometimes people struggle to understand the Bible, and they feel like they aren’t really a GOOD CHRISTIAN if they don’t. However, the Bible is a collection of different types of literature - each having its own purpose. So, in the same way that we don’t read the phone book for inspiration, we are going to use the scripture today, in the way it’s intended, for information to assist us in our current situation.

Let me give you a quick example to make sure you get where I am going: a recipe is essentially a list with information. You use the list part at the store to gather what you need, and then the directions at home to assemble the parts in order that you make a satisfying meal.

So lists are not essentially inspirational, unless we know how to interpret the data. The results of using the information found in a list can be very satisfying. We’ll come back to that thought in a moment or two.

Now, why am I specifically claiming that today’s word is for us in the here and now? Well, we are in a state of change at the Village church. We are building a relationship with a new pastor, as our founding pastor recently stepped down from ministry here at the Village. Before Cheri left us, we had begun a discussion about the fact that our numbers at the Village had been dropping. We had several discussions about events to invite people to the church. And yet, our numbers had been dropping…  leaving gaps where they had previously stood and served. In addition, we have been discussing some people in the church feeling burned out, over taxed and that some do all the work here, and how do we deal with that?

So, now we have to look at a project that was undertaken by an incredibly prayerful and organized leader… my main man, Nehemiah.

The walls – a symbol of strength and protection - had been down for 152 years. After Nehemiah mourns, prays, and comes up with a plan; He asks for safe passage to go survey the damage. Which brings us to chapter 3 of Nehemiah… and so I have to issue an activity warning… I am going to need YOUR help.

This list, which seems uninteresting, is more informational BECAUSE of the same details it drops into the regularity of a work order…

It is a list of who does what… but it is also a fairly repetitive piece of informational text. And yet… within it there are nuggets or gems of information which we may never have noted because we would be put off by the dullness of the majority of it.

I have some index cards and I would like you to write on this what your name is (and if you so choose, your heritage, or lineage) and then I want you to write what you understand your role to be in building the Village.

So Nehemiah begins, I’ve taken the liberty to reformat the text in such a way to see it for the list it is. Also, because we are not doing a genealogy study today, I’ve removed all the ‘son of’ references, except where that’s the only way we know them:

1.    High priest Eliashib + fellow priests
a.    PROJECT rebuild Sheep Gate: Consecrated it + set up its doors
b.    Consecrated to Tower of the Hundred and Tower of Hananel.
2.    Men of Jericho built next to Eliashib, etc.
3.    Zaccur built
4.    Sons of Hassenaah
a.    PROJECT build Fish Gate: lay beams, set up doors, bolts + bars
5.    Meremoth made repairs
6.    Meshullam made repairs
7.    Zadok made repairs
8.    Tekoites made repairs
but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.
9.    Joiada + Meshullam
a.    PROJECT repair Old Gate: lay beams, set up doors, bolts + bars.
10. Melatiah (the Gibeonite) + Jadon (the Meronothite) + Gibeon & Mizpah men under jurisdiction of the governor of the province Beyond the River
11.Uzziel GOLDSMITH made repairs
12.Hananiah PERFUMER made repairs
a.    PROJECT restore Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall
13.Rephaiah made repairs.
14.Jedaiah made repairs opposite his house
15.Hattush made repairs.
a.    PROJECT repair second section
b.   PROJECT repair Tower of the Ovens
17.Shallum made repairs, he and his daughters
18.Hanun + inhabitants of Zanoah
a.    PROJECT rebuild Valley Gate: set up doors, bolts + bars
b.    PROJECT Repair a thousand cubits of the wall
c.    PROJECT complete wall to Dung Gate
a.    PROJECT repair the Dung Gate: set up doors + bolts + bars
a.    PROJECT repair Fountain Gate: Rebuild and cover; set up doors, + bolts, + bars
b.    Build wall of the Pool of Shelah of the king’s garden, to stairs that go down from the City of David.
a.    PROJECT repair graves of David to artificial pool + house of warriors
22.Levites made repairs
24.Hashabiah made repairs for his district.
25.Hashabiah’s kin made repairs
a.    PROJECT repair another section opposite ascent to armory at Angle
a.    PROJECT repair another section Angle to door of Eliashib’s house
a.    Repaired another section from Eliashib’s door to end of his house
30.Priests, the men of the surrounding area, made repairs.
31.Benjamin and Hasshub made repairs opposite their house.
32.Azariah made repairs beside his house
33.Binnui repaired another section
a.    Specifically: from house of Azariah to Angle and corner
34.Palal repaired opposite Angle and tower projecting from the upper house of the king at the court of the guard.
35.Pedaiah + temple servants living on Ophel made repairs
a.    STOP at point opposite the Water Gate on east + projecting tower
36.Tekoites repaired another section
a.    opposite great projecting tower to wall of Ophel.
a.    PROJECT repair above Horse Gate
b.    Take section opposite your own house.
38.Zadok made repairs opposite his own house.
39.Shemaiah the keeper of the East Gate, made repairs.
40.Hananiah repaired another section.
41.Meshullam made repairs opposite his living quarters.
42.Malchijah, a goldsmith
a.    PROJECT repair to house of temple servants and house of merchants
b.    Stop opposite the Muster Gate, include upper room of the corner
43.Goldsmiths and merchants make repairs
a.    PROJECT upper room of the corner to Sheep Gate

Now, given that the walls had been down for 152 years, and there were over 40 sections of wall that were identified as needing some level of repair, isn’t it amazing that what had been in disrepair for so long was replaced in just 52 days?

As the Village church, we meet in this space, and today we are going to identify that our walls are down. We have been lacking in strength and protection and we need to all stand and do our part. Symbolically I would like the Lead Team to first take a place around the wall. And then others fill in the gaps. Let’s see how BIG we can make our circle. Identify the gaps that exist. We are in this ministry, this little place of god’s work on earth. And we need to stand next to each other to fulfill what God has called us to do.

My name is Rosie Best, and I hope God approved this message.