Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Becoming playful, creative and restful in community...

This is a week of catch up before my closing two weeks of vacation: last
night we had a sabbatical team meeting, today a few local social justice Berkshire Organizing Project meetings, tomorrow some follow-up on both CROP Walk plans and an emerging ecumenical shared Christian Formation plan for youth and Friday a wedding. Then it is on to Montreal - with a quick stop over in the Eastern Townships for a book signing for Louise Penny - and then a few days of fun and apartment hunting for next year's sabbatical.

Before bed last night, I read these words of wisdom from Parker Palmer in his A Hidden Wholeness:

The divided life is a wounded life and the soul keeps calling us to heal the wound. Ignore the call, and we find ourselves trying to numb our pain with an anesthetic of choice, be it substance abuse, overwork, consumerism or mindless media noise. Such anesthetics are easy to come by in a society that wants to keep us divided AND unaware of our pain - for the divided life that is pathological for individuals can serve social systems well, especially when it comes to those functions that are morally dubious.

In preparing for "our" sabbatical - and that is what the grantee reminds us is at the core of our proposal - both pastor and congregation are invited to find new/old ways of being playful, creative and restful. I know that I need this and trust that the congregation does, too - especially given our shared penchant for doing, doing, doing. Palmer's book reminds us "that because we are communal creatures who need each other's support - and because left to our own devices, we have an endless capacity for self-absorption and self-deception - community is essential for rejoining soul and role." So, as hard as it is for some of us, myself included, to practice being playful, creative and restful that's where we are headed.


Monday, August 18, 2014

breaking it down: rock and soul sunday...

Well, our "Rock and Soul Revival" was a gas with over 100 folk joining the party. We were able to raise over $2K for Berkshire Environmental Action Team and show some of the folk how connected a church can be to changing our hyper-individualistic culture using peace, trust and music. Three comments were repeated often to me after the gig:

+ First, the way all of you played together showed how much you love and care for one another.Most of this crew has been with me since the first
show began in 1997. That means we have almost 20 concerts under our belts and each one gets better artistically. And one of the reasons for this has to do with how much each musician values the others. There are NO divas allowed at this gig and not because they are banned, but rather because there simply isn't space in our hearts for self-centered bullshit. This is a love fest and when this crew comes together everyone works hard and makes certain the other performers shine and do their best. And as a performer, you can actually feel the loving support holding you up and pushing you deeper - and so can the audience - it is palpable. 

+ Second, I don't think I've ever heard a group in a church play so beautifully. Your music is a festival of sound and it is all done with care, commitment and quality.  Everyone brings their best game to these benefit concerts - nobody phones it in - and that is one reason there is such high energy. Another important factor is that we're all giving of ourselves for a greater cause. But a key factor is that whether you are a pro or an dedicated amateur, each performer has cultivated her/his own commitment to aesthetic excellence - and it shows. This is NOT a jam band. This is NOT a free for all. This is NOT Farm Aid (as much as I love that gig!) This is a living experiment in bringing our best music into the moment, in a well-practiced and disciplined form, and then sharing it to see what the Spirit can do when it is received in love. So, yes, this is the finest church band I've ever heard. Someone said, "Where do all these people come from?" I smiled and replied, "Well, most of them come from our church... and those who aren't with us regularly on Sunday morning are musical colleagues, friends and lovers who care deeply for one another and value caring for the wider community."

+ And third, the songs fit together like a liturgy - they told a story - a story about working and being together in both the joys and sorrows of life. That is not an accident, right? Each of our concerts/events is designed to tell a story through the music and poetry: sometimes the story is hard - like the Good Friday realities - sometimes it is a mixed bag - like our Festival of American Music on Thanksgiving Eve - and sometimes it is challenging - like yesterday's call to commitment re: environmental justice. It is my conviction that our music must not only be truly beautiful in an artistic sense, but that it must also take us on a journey: by the end of the concert we need to be in a different place from where we started. We must feel the challenges, know in our hearts the solidarity and trust the hope we've shared together over two hours. In a word, at the end of each show a sense of community must be realized or else the story didn't work.

In a down and dirty way, here's the arc of the story we tried to tell in song yesterday. This may be too much detail for the ordinary reader, but I want to document how it happened:

+ We began with the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine"- an acoustic folk anthem about what it feels like to try out everyone else's answers to life before finding that confusion is normal. It is a song that says we are on a quest and we're going to look everywhere for our answers. It is profoundly non-ideological in it's commitment to the journey of life and the perfect way to kick things off.

+ Then two Pete Seeger songs took place that stated the challenge of caring for the earth in a way that empowers people. Pete always used group singing to create beauty and encouragement, so why reinvent the wheel? He was already the master so we borrowed his tunes, had the crowd singing and had a ton of fun doing it.

+ Two gentle songs followed, one by an old and dear friend, and one by a new friend: both added depth to the journey. One sang "Feelin' Groovy" with a flute break and the other invited 3 other women to join her in harmonies as she told of experiencing the healing of the sea. The story deepens and reminds us that journey is as much personal as it is social and cosmic.

+ The next three songs became the heart of the story for me: "Helplessly Hoping" by CSY was beautifully performed with just an acoustic guitar and 3 voices in close harmony (we are in this together and can offer support even when life and love is cruel); then we deconstructed the 60s anthem "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell into a lament (how did things so loving turn out so badly?) by starting it like a Childe ballad a capella and then adding voices and instruments (guitar, bass and soprano sax) to create a sense of weariness and sorrow. This section concluded with our sultry take on Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" (upright bass, piano, drums and solo voice) that makes it clear that "while everybody's crying mercy... but they don't know the meaning of the word."

+ Then it was time for some reflection so we did Herbie Hancock's "Cantalope Island" an upbeat instrumental that gave people time to groove and think. I followed this my mournful interpretation of "Nowhere to Run" in honor of Robin Williams reminding folks "to reach out to their helpers because life can be a bitch." Then it was collection time with the bluesy "Turn Me On" by Nora Jones that ended with the Wailin' Jennys' beautiful "One Voice."

So in that first set, we introduced the journey - we made it personal and social - we gave the people a chance to reflect and lament and at the same time draw strength from one another and from the beauty - so that by the time we reached "One Voice" the complexity of being faithful and compassionate in the quest for caring for the earth had taken on sound and form. The second rock and roll set did something similar - especially the arc of songs that included "Compared to What," "Long Train Runnin'" "Piece of my Heart" and "Feelin' Alright." As one friend said, "You got them up and dancing in church - not a small feat!" And we raised over two grand! 

It was a GREAT gig and I am so grateful to each of the musicians who donated their time. Let me also thank our two incredible tech men:  Rob Dumais on sound and Paul Durwin on video. They, too, give so much of their time and we couldn't do it with out them. (I hope to have some clips to post as the week unfolds...)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rock and soul sunday...

Today is our Rock and Soul concert @ 3 pm: it will be a full day and we'll all be wasted at the end, but also grateful. Here's the invitation our mission partner, BEAT, has been sending out.
Here's a link that was published locally yesterday about the 10th Anniversary of BEAT: it is a concise and clear overview of BEAT's work in the community to day and why it is important to support them. (Check it out here: http://www. iberkshires.com/story/47212/BEAT-Celebrates-A-Decade-of-Environmental-Advocacy.html)

And, of course, here's the poster Di created for our concert at 3 pm. We're doing all kinds of music from acoustic folk to brash Janis Joplin rock and soul. After all, it IS the 45th anniversary of Woodstock. The first set will be gentle and introspective - tunes by the Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Linda Worster, Nora Jones, Weez McCarty and CSNY - that will close with the Wailin' Jennys'
"One Voice."  Our guest and founder of BEAT, Jane Winn, will bring brief greetings before set two - and then the ruckus begins. We've got Creedence, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin along with the Doobie Brothers, Thelonious Monk, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, too.  So come on out for the fun if you are in town.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting down to rock and soul...

Today as I embrace a time of reflection and renewal on our Sabbath, I
have been thinking a lot about our upcoming "Rock and Soul" concert. These events have both been intentional and organic in ways that always surprise me. And while some more hesitant folk in our churches have had a hard time getting their head around why a pastor would put so much time and energy into a rock and soul show (or a folk music gig or a jazz performance or anything else that is just a little outside of the box) the vast majority get it - as do many of those whose lives vibrate with life outside of our Sanctuary. So here's what I have discerned about why these kinds of concerts/events/happenings are of value:

+ First, popular music speaks to our culture.  In my spiritual tradition, the use of music has always been steeped in high culture: if it wasn't classical, it was not of the Lord. This became increasingly true in the 19th century as artists separated themselves from Christianity in the West and began to pursue "art for art's sake." Many in my Reformed tradition accepted the notion that artists where set apart to explore higher truths - and many artists bought into this foolishness, too. The result has been a phony distinction between high and low culture that spiritualizes some art and denigrates others; just go into most art museums if you think I am mistaken and you'll discover an atmosphere of quiet, intense reverence that once only existed in places of worship. Such a rarefied approach to art, however, deepens the ancient binary way of organizing life into good and evil, light and dark, high and low.  

It also disconnects people of faith from what is happening in the nitty-gritty realities of life on the ground. Living with our heads in the clouds is antithetical to a faith that proclaims "the Word became flesh and lived among us." Like the angel said to Christ's disciples 40 days after the resurrection on the day of the Ascension: Sisters and brothers, why are you standing around looking towards the heavens! Jesus is no longer there but calls you to get back to the work he started here on earth. So get to it! (note: this is my very free interpretation of Acts 1) Popular music at its best - as well as visual art, TV, movies, sculpture and dance - rejects the heaven/earth divide. Take a listen to 21st century country music if you think I am mistaken: it will let you know what the vast middle class of white Americans are feeling. The same is true for the heartland of black culture as a quick survey of the most popular hip hop performers will disclose. In the book of Revelations, we are told to "listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches..." and one way of doing this involves popular culture.

+ Second, music draws people into community - and celebrates their gifts. What I have discovered in doing this for 30+ years is that there are people in our congregations who are ACHING to share their gifts but don't feel as if they are valued. This is especially true in churches where only the elite are elected as officers, only the finest of classical culture is offered in worship and where the ordinary tends to be under-appreciated or dismissed. Further, if the only way people in church experience music (or the other arts) is through performances by the best and brightest, ordinary people will rightly conclude that true faith is essentially passive exercise. How would they think otherwise when their gifts aren't needed or valued? 

But get a small group together to sing and play popular music - and help them
practice productively and see the sacred in the music and message of some of their favorite songs - and a whole new energy of creativity is released into the community. Here is what I have found in doing the work of church renewal: we NEED the gifts of ordinary folk. And they NEED to share these gifts. Because I am a musician, I tend to go for the low hanging fruit first and tease out the musicians by asking them to join the feast. But the quest for unlocking the gifts of our people must go deeper than music so that the full range of ordinary blessings are embraced, shared, celebrated and nourished. 

+ Third, playing rock, soul and jazz in the Sanctuary invites people into our space who might never darken our doors for worship. I have been told the following enough times to believe it is true: "I won't regularly come to your church on Sunday mornings (for a variety of reasons.) But I will be there for your out of the box musical gigs because they nourish my soul in ways that traditional worship does not." I've heard it said that listening to such a prophetic pronouncement by those outside the church is unwise in this time of scarcity because it asks us to cultivate programs that don't meet the immediate needs of the congregation. My mature response (and I have been immature and snarky through the years) goes like this: our musical events do something in the wider community that goes beyond the utilitarian. And while we have gained new friends and members as a result of these gigs, mostly what happens is that we build new alliances and friendships with people who once mistrusted the church. What we are changing, therefore, is both our relationship to the wider culture and how they speak about us when we're not around. By joining our Sanctuary with the wider culture's quest for justice and compassion we become partners for the common good. And we are doing this in a way that the makes sense to those beyond our walls because music is a participatory art form - and popular music is participatory in spades.

+ Fourth, drawing emotional, spiritual and ethical truths from popular music helps people in and out of the church discern how God is still speaking beyond the old forms.  In a world as hurting as our own, in an era that saturates our consciousness with the suffering of the world, we can often wonder: where the hell is God? Our work with popular music helps people learn to discern the presence of the Lord beyond scripture and worship. It honors the holy in the songs they sing on their way to work. It lifts up the presence of God whether we're at a funeral or a party. It brings the sounds and feelings of the working week into the Sanctuary. It becomes a way of prayer. And it reminds people that there is a source of hope and love beyond the obvious pain. In fact, this love and hope is embedded in our pain.

Professor Jeremy Begbie of Duke Divinity School put it like this where he owned his own classical bias and the limitations it imposed upon him. He said:

Sometimes I’m asked in classes, “What kind of music do you like?” And I refuse to answer. The reason I refuse to answer is because it’s assumed that that’s the most important thing you could ever ask about music: “Do I like it?” I think Christians need to learn -- if they’re really interested in engaging culture, they need to learn to ask a subtler question, which is: “What’s going on here?”

Why is this person doing this writing, performing, whatever? Why are people buying this, listening to it, whatever? What’s happening when they consume this music? And then I think one learns a lot more. You learn a lot more about other people. We learn much more about the culture that we’re living in. And so I’m often recommending music that I know will be a bit of a stretch to perhaps the group I’m with, and they’ll recommend music to me that might be a stretch for me, but I think we’ll both just learn a good deal more and expand as Christians a little bit more.

Some examples: I’m a great fan of the Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan. James MacMillan is a -- that’s tough music. It’s not the toughest contemporary music, but you wouldn’t have it with the shower on, you wouldn’t have it as background music. It has to be listened to, but when you do -- I’ve known people who have no classical training and who would never think of going to a classical concert being totally mesmerized by this music and feel that they learned something as Christians about the Christian faith in the process.

That I would like to see going on more. A student in a class the other day played a song by Sufjan Stevens. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was about a serious topic. I thought it was banal given the serious topic.It turned out a lot of the class, particularly those of a certain age group, in their 20s and early 30s, were deeply moved by this and thought that it was completely appropriate to those lyrics.

So I had to do a bit of thinking on that instead of just swipe that aside. I said … , “What’s going on here? Why do you hear profundity or at least music that’s appropriate to those words where I only hear trivialization? Because it sounds almost facetious, that sound, considering the profundity of the words.” That’s an example of a two-way learning process where we need to challenge each other on Christian terms, to say, “Christianly, what can we learn about the gospel or the Christian worldview from this music?”

That’s the key question to ask, I think. Not instantly, “Do I like it or not like it?” -- because until we ask the first question, actually, you’re just not going to like it, but then we might be missing out on something fantastic.

If you are in the area on Sunday, August 17th @ 3 pm come on by for our Rock and Soul concert. We'll be raising funds for our ally in caring for Mother Earth. And rocking the house.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A day in the life...

Today was one of those unique artist/musician/pastor days that I cherish. It began with a "music lesson" with one of our young teens. He will be playing in the show on Sunday doing "Blue Monk" and I wanted to make sure he was both up to speed and in his comfort zone. We had a rocky practice last Tuesday and I wasn't sure my man was feeling confident about the tempo of this jazz classic. 

So, I spent about 90 minutes listening to him play, working out some exercises to improve his groove and simply enjoying the wonder and joy of being with a young and talented musician. He's been playing guitar for the past six years - and has grown by leaps and bounds. What we discovered today was a way to help him strengthen his sense of rhythm in a fun and easy way. When I came to our church, he was a little guy aching to make music. Now he plays with some creativity and verve - and if he gives some special attention and practice to the groove he'll mature in keeping the beat rock solid. We made a lot of progress today and I hope we'll do a little more work together as the year continues.

Then it was off to the church office to work with my secretary on the 2014-15 directory. We've done some rewriting and needed to spend a few hours making sure our formatting works. She, too, is a delight to work with: very talented and lots of fun. When we got this project wrapped up it was off to the local copy center to get a few special orders completed before the weekend. Then it was back home for email follow-up and taking Di to work. I got a little 20 minute nap in, too before heading back for a 6 pm meeting re: securing our congregation's financial future.

At the close of the day I had the chance to draw out a stage direction map for our sound tech gurus so that we're ready to rock on Saturday for our dress rehearsal. This has been a fun show to prepare for and we've got some sweet acoustic numbers as well as some kickass rockers. As I head off to bed in anticipation of tomorrow's Sabbath, I am grateful to be alive and doing ministry in this time and place.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nowhere to run...

So often I pray - and think - through songs. On Sunday, August 17th at our rock and soul gig, I am going to do a prayer/lament/tribute to my brother Robin Williams. As I wrestled with what song worked, I was led back to "Good Morning, Vietnam." For so many reasons, I still love that one - and one of the early tunes is "Nowhere to Run" by Motown's incomparable Martha and the Vandellas. As you can hear from their pop take on this song, it is kind of wild and fun. (This clip, however, is fascinating in its mix of both "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Apocalypse
 Now" and the way Americans have mixed sex and violence but that's for another commentary.)

For our gig, however, I think the songs has to be stripped down - played just on my acoustic guitar with a few vocal harmonies adding that unnerving drone - and shared simply with compassion and tenderness. In this way, the words cut through with an irony that evokes sorrow, mourning as well as honest respect for this wounded but generous artist:  

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide...every where I go, I see your face, every step I take, you take with me... each night as I sleep, into my heart you creep, I wake up feeling sorry I met you, hoping soon that I'll forget you: nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide. 

Rest in peace, brother man, and know we LOVE you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sabbath, sabbaticals, mourning and renewal...

NOTE: We just got home from band practice - three FULL hours of working on wooden and electric music for our Sunday, August 17th gig for the Berkshire Environmental Action Team - and it was a gas! I am SO grateful for my band of musical magicians who are vulnerable, committed and so compassionate. I love them beyond words and they feed my soul. So, all day long my worship notes have been lost in the ether net and no matter what I tried I couldn't find them. So, we sat down, had a glass of red wine and tried a bunch of things and all of a sudden: voila - they returned. This is the close of my summer series re: Sabbath and it sets up a year long emphasis on sabbatical. Please come join us for worship if you are in town this Sunday: and without a doubt come on up to the house for the 3 pm gig!

The brightest and most compassionate people I know understand that perhaps the only thing we ALL share in church… is a sense of loss: There isn’t a person here today who has not known death – or heart break. You would be a liar if you told me you had never known shame or grief. And every one of us has been bewildered and perplexed while looking upon the staggering suffering that runs rampant in our world.

Whether it is the suicide of Brother Robin Williams or the revolting and vicious execution of Yazidi women and children by ISIS guerillas in Iraq, we know what that emotional punch to our solar plexus feels like and it hurts. It hurts like hell. And that’s why the people of wisdom teach us that the fundamental truth we all share is a sense of loss.

Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in Albuquerque, NM teaches that because we all suffer and know the pain of loss, what we do with our pain matters:  it matters to our neighbors and it matters to our families, it matters to our economy and our politics and it matters to our soul. So, he continues, we either learn to transform our pain or we will transmit it. And transforming our pain is at the core of our Christian spirituality.

+  What else is Jesus teaching the world from the Cross when in agony he cries out:  Father, forgive them for then know not what they do?

+ Notice he doesn’t say: God damn these wicked sinners – look what they’ve done to me by piercing my hands and my side and hanging me out in the sun to suffocate as a common criminal?  Nor does he say: Give me drugs to take away all of this pain – I can’t face it – and I don’t deserve it. No, he takes all the pain the world can give him – holds it inside so that he doesn’t push it out on innocent people – and asks God’s grace to transform it so that the pain of evil and sin is NOT transmitted to others.

It is a beautiful but terrifying thing Jesus shows us. Father Rohr writes that our pain has something to teach us – we probably won’t like it – and we will resist holding on to it because it hurts so much. But we must hold on to our pain until it teaches us its lesson: Don’t get rid of your pain until you’ve learned its lessons:

(For) when you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it – don’t pass it on and transmit it to others - and you will be an instrument of transformation (and peace) for others.

Do you remember the Prayer of St. Francis?  It begins:  Make me an instrument of your peace…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony; where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we commit ourselves to the journey of letting God transform our pain into peace and compassion so that we don’t transmit it and dump it all over the world, we become active, honest, broken and grace-filled followers of Jesus. How did he put it in this morning’s gospel reading: “Listen and under-stand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person… but what comes out of their mouth.” And when the Lord’s disciples said, “Oh come on, will you explain this to us,” I sense that in exasperation Jesus told them:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Peterson’s reworking of this text is much less subtle and probably closer to the spirit in which Jesus spoke it – it is certainly closer to the Greek in the Bible. Listen carefully to the way Jesus replies to Peter’s question, “Can you put your mysteries into simple talk?” Christ responds:

Are you being willfully stupid, too? Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there-what pollutes ourselves and our world is what we do!

Precious little ambiguity there, right? And let’s be equally clear about the specific actions that Jesus names in his rant:  covetousness, murder, adultery, theft, false witness and slander. Do these sound at all familiar to you? They are the remaining six commandments of the Lord given to Moses on Mt. Sinai – the ones that come after honoring and keeping the Sabbath – the ones that have to do with loving our neighbor and caring for the common good.

·   You shall not murder - neither shall you commit adultery - neither shall you steal - neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor – nor shall you covet your neighbor’s wife or desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Now I don’t know about you but I am blown away by how often Jesus teaches his first disciples – and by implication you and me, too – that Sabbath keeping is not only one of the ancient commandments, but that it is the key to right living and right thinking. Without it, it is much harder for God to transform our pain by grace and love, and we wind up transmitting our wounds in ways that defile us and hurt our neighbors.

·   That’s the first insight I want to share with you this morningSabbath keeping is absolutely essential for you and me if we are to become instruments of God’s peace. We need time and rest, refreshment and renewal, quiet reflection and grace if our pain and loss is to be transformed by God’s love.That is part of what this whole year and next will be about for us as a congregation as we all prepare for a season of sabbatical.

I didn’t realize it when I started this summer series on Sabbath keeping, but one of the truths I have learned is that we have been given an incredible gift by God in the form of the Lilly grant we just received. Not only does this grant give me a time for deep Sabbath creativity – a season to let my heart sing as the grant application says – but it also provides as way for you – and I mean all of you – to playfully practice some creative Sabbath keeping as a congregation.  In fact, the grant would not have been awarded if there wasn’t a vibrant congregational component.  Too often, you see, clergy sabbaticals are only for the clergy.

·   I’ve talked with many of our lay leaders who’ve been around for a long time and what I heard is that while First Church has a long tradition of providing for clergy renewal and sabbaticals, there isn’t any tradition of simultaneously doing a congregational sabbatical.

·   In fact, the way I get it, often times the leadership felt the church was hanging on by their fingernails when the pastor was away: church participation slumped, things felt like they were grinding to a halt and while the minister was blessed, that blessing didn’t touch the congregation very deeply.

Well, that’s NOT what’s going to happen as we take a full 10 months to prepare for OUR sabbatical:  we have a congregational sabbatical planning team that will be at work to make sure YOU have fun in a creative and faithful way, too while I am away.  And let me tell you who is on that planning team:  David Noyes, Scott Eldridge, Holly Goodrich, Carlton Maaia, Liz Calderon, Sue Kelly, Renee Moretti and James and Ashley Burke.  They are going to make certain that this year of sabbatical makes a difference to YOU as well as me. 

·   Sabbatical keeping in all of its rich radicality is going to be at the heart of faith community over the next few years:  without grace and refreshment from God our pain cannot be transformed.  That’s the first thing I want to share with you.

·   And the second is this:  Sabbath keeping in the biblical tradition – and in our sabbatical planning – is a way for us to keep maturing in the way of God’s grace.  As one scholar said, the second part of today’s gospel shows us that even Jesus had to learn more about God’s kingdom – he had to grow and mature in the radical implications of grace – and it took an unclean woman from Canaan to teach him. David Lose writes what if:

Jesus’ own sense of God’s kingdom is challenged, stretched, and enhanced by his encounter with this fierce and faithful woman. Maybe, that is, Jesus is serious – that is, he believes he was sent only to the Israelites – and the woman takes him on and, in fact, persuades him that something larger is at stake. In this context, her “great faith” isn’t so much an amount, but rather is simply the fact that she just plain holds on. She won’t let Jesus go until she wrests a blessing from him on behalf of her daughter. Moms with sick kids are like that – they won’t let anything get in the way of their taking care of their child. Not unsympathetic doctors or health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a slightly narrow-minded messiah-type.

The gospel of Matthew tells us that the woman said to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all…so she knelt before him and pleaded: “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus said: “It would not be fair to take children’s food and throw it to the puppies.” But she persisted telling him: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall under the table.” And with that Jesus realized that her faith was great and said: Let it be done as you have said.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Do you grasp the totally upside-down wisdom revealed in these eight sentences? Not only are we given a story about Jesus resisting sharing God’s grace with a woman, who was also an outsider to Israel, but we’re shown that he had a change of heart and mind because she was so insistent. Three key biblical clues warrant a comment:

·   First is the notion that Jesus, and by implication God, respond to the ups and downs of our lives with ever increasing compassion. Traditional doctrine states that Christ is always divine and perfect even in his humanity and God is always constant and in control.  And I’m not going to argue or subtract truth from doctrine, but rather let me add something to it.  Let me suggest that maybe what Jesus is showing us here is how even God chooses to respond in new ways in the cause of grace. Yes, God set creation in motion, but could it be that part of the divine nature is to also become ever more gracious?

·   Are you with me on that? Could it be that as humans live and life changes and matures, that God also responds to those changes, so that grace grows deeper? 

That’s how I see what’s going on in this story: at first Jesus doesn’t acknowledge this woman – after all she isn’t a part of his community – and his understanding of ministry was grounded in caring for the children of Israel.

She was an outsider – and we know this both because Jesus is now wandering outside of Israel in Tyre and Sidon in what is currently Lebanon and once was Syria – and because he calls her a dog.  A little dog, to be sure, but still a dog which is probably a racial slur – and on one level, this is very troubling. But on another it is very hopeful because not only is Christ’s notion of God’s kingdom expanded, but racial division is overcome in healing.

·   The second biblical comment is simply that this woman – like those in ancient Israel who were welcomed by God after the exile in Babylon 600 years before Christ – bowed down and knelt before Jesus. Now what do you know about kneeling? I found the scholarship of Professor Carla Works of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC to be very helpful. She writes:

The author of Matthew uses the action of kneeling as one befitting a king.
The magi, who are also Gentiles, are the first to offer worship to Jesus in this way (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11). The unrepentant slave bows before the king in the parable of unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:), and the mother of James and John kneel before Jesus as a king of a kingdom (Matthew 20:20). For the woman to treat Jesus in this manner is in keeping with her earlier declaration of Jesus as the Son of David. Kneeling is not only a sign of kingship, but also recognition of power. There is a connection between those who kneel before Jesus and the healings that Jesus performs. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be made clean (Matt 8:2). A ruler kneels and asks for his daughter’s healing (9:18). At the end of this Gospel, when the resurrected Lord appears, the disciples bow before him, and Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth is his (28:17-18). Bowing in worship also recalls Jesus’ command to worship only the Lord God (4:9). This woman kneels before one whom she recognizes as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David, but to wield power over evil. (Working Preacher)

Once again a nontraditional person from the margins of society recognizes and names the movement of God’s gracious spirit in the world – and blessings abound

+  And that is the third biblical insight – on that Isaiah celebrated 600 years before Jesus – and one that always challenges the status quo:  she claims a place within the household of faith.  She doesn’t make unreasonable demands – she’s willing to take the crumbs from the table – but she still pushes the envelope in a radical way. I love how Professor Works puts it; this woman: places hope in what others have discarded. This Son of David has so much power that there is enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her. She is not trying to thwart his mission. She just wants a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb is powerful enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter.

All of which brings me back to my starting place:  we all have known loss, we all have shared pain and our loss and pain CAN be a way into ever greater blessings if we are willing to learn the wisdom of our wounds. And over the 15 years – to say nothing of the past 250 years – there have been wounds and loss in our faith community.  To name a few of those wounds out loud just a few:

·   The economic and social tumult that transformed Pittsfield in the wake of General Electric’s departure.  As a congregation, we lost members and resources to say nothing of stature and influence with this loss.

·   Then there was the injury of my predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Richard Floyd, my colleague and friend. The tragedy of his biking accident not only turned his life upside down and created trauma in his family, but it forever scarred First Church, too. Not intentionally, but naturally as any profound pain always does:  there was hurt and anger, fear and anxiety and a deep loss of confidence in our future born of this loss.

·   And let’s not forget the loss of Lou Steigler after 50+ years of ministry here that went well beyond just music.  He was beloved – and trusted – a source of wisdom and stability – a symbol of tradition. And when it came time for his retirement, many of the long time members of First Church were troubled and afraid. Believe me, the anxiety was palpable.

·   Because, of course, not only was there all the loss I mentioned, but there was also the changes brought about by my ministry.  For the first few years I was here, the jury was still out for some and you made it very clear that only time and commitment would warrant anything more than suspicion. What's more I made it clear that we HAD to add new friends and allies to our core and today over one half of the people who are in worship have been here less than 5 years. That's a LOT of change.

We lost our friend and colleague Vicki Forfa in those early years, we wrestled with the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression and we buried some of this congregation’s saints.  To say it has been a full and demanding – albeit it fruitful and sacred – time of ministry for me would be an understatement. Because, you see, now as I look back after seven years I see more clearly that for five full years we were grieving. It was necessary and vital, it was normal and healthy, but it was grieving.  One of my favorite writes, Jaco Hamman, from South Africa notes that “grief is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical and relational reaction to the experience of loss and change.” 

As I look at our work in anticipation of our share sabbatical, I want to name and own that:  for almost five years we were grieving. And then something changed – I don’t know exactly when or how it occurred – but I would like to name that change as mourning. We moved from grieving to mourning and “in contrast to grief…”

Mourning, is the intentional process of letting go of relationship, dreams, visions and more as the community lives into a new identity after the experience of loss and change. The work of mourning is into about replacement, but rather living through grief… as we move towards renewal and revitalization.

·   I believe our shared sabbatical is one of many signs that we have honored the holy work of mourning… and are moving into a new realm of grace and hope.

·   Like Jesus we have changed – like the woman who claimed her place at the table of grace, we have wrestled with the past and found a new vision – and like the prophet Isaiah we know that the old days are over and a new way of being God’s house of prayer for ALL people is dawning upon us.

So know this, good and faithful people of First Church, this sabbatical year is going to be FUN.  It is going to be playful and creative – it is going to help both you and me go deeper into grace – and it is going to be saturated in Sabbath rest.  What’s more, it is going to ask us – and invite us – and challenge us to:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Our year of sabbatical living, beloved, has come – and it begins… NOW!