God brings me just what I need at just the right time redux...

Yesterday, as I was wrapping up my Sunday message, I had the thought: where the hell am I going with this? I know that happens to musicians - I was debriefing about the jazz we were playing with my musical honcho at church when he said he experienced something similar in one of the tunes we were doing - but you should know it also happens to preachers. Now, as in jazz, so too preaching: this lapse - diversion - mistake or brain fart CAN become a blessing and open up whole new possibilities. That is a beautiful thing. It can also become a train wreck and then you simply have throw yourself on the mercy of a grace-filled God and try better the next time. Like St. Paul says: ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

So, as I realized I was adrift in the closing moments of my message, I said a quiet prayer and brought it home. Afterwards, while in conversation with another, a young woman assured me that what I had said was just what she needed.  A few other people told me that today as I met them in different settings. It seems that if I remain as open and awake as possible, God brings me just what I need at just the right time.

For the past week I've been wrestling with what to say to the folk at our organizing meeting tomorrow. For the past year a small sponsoring team has been working with a local community organizer - and a regional organizing consortium - to build a justice movement from the grassroots. There are already traditional, Leftist justice groups that jump around from one band wagon to another trying to be relevant. I have never been interested in their shtick - too well-trained by Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross, Sr. I guess - so I have shied away for their shrill and hollow calls to action. But this group, the Berkshire Organizing Project Sponsoring team is different. It is thoroughly grassroots, boldly inter-faith (Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants are all a part of the sponsoring group) and action oriented based on local issues.

As acting president (a label only until things get off the ground) I was charged
with articulating WHY we are engaged. And after a week of walking around with a few ideas, here is what I've come up with. Again, God brings me just what I need...

WHY WE ARE HERE:  Berkshire Organizing Project Meeting
My name is James Lumsden – I am the pastor of First Church of Christ on Park Square in Pittsfield – and I have been a part of the Berkshire Organizing Sponsor Project since its inception.  That is something that I am both proud and humbled by because while I am grateful that there are now 10 congregations committed to the work of making our values count in a significant and public way in our towns, I know we could just as easily blow it and go back to the divided, suspicious, weak, frustrated and even demoralized status quo that is always just a heartbeat away in the Berkshires.  Still, I sense that this moment is pregnant with possibilities:

+  Roman Catholics are talking and working with Protestants again – Jews and Muslims are also at the table today as equal partners – and we are laying the ground work for an authentic inter-faith justice organization that can change the lives of ordinary people in the Berkshires. 

+  This isn’t the country club at prayer, beloved, or some elite collection of dilettantes who want to dabble among the less fortunate for a season before moving on to the next cause of the month.

No, this is real people – working people, middle class people, clergy and laity and women religious alongside teachers and postal workers, electricians and gardeners, social workers and retirees – who know what life on the ground in the Berkshires looks like and feels like and tastes like from the bottom up.  You are people who LOVE the Berkshires. Amen?

And while we know this to be a beautiful place to live, with fascinating and hope-filled dreams for the future, we also know that the last seven years have been brutal – and the past 40 years have been tragic.  Speaking just about the Christian institutions that are represented in this room let me remind you of some sobering statistics about what has taken place among us since the 1980s: Nationally the United Methodist Church has lost more than 3.3 million members; the Episcopal Church has lost more than 1.1 million.

My tradition, the United Church of Christ, has lost more than 45% of our founding membership with another 900,000 departing since 1980.  And while I can’t speak for my Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers, I know the trend has been equally grim for the Roman Catholic family because in the same month I arrived in Pittsfield 7 years ago, the Diocese of Springfield closed 22 congregations in our county alone.  These have been hard times, not without hope, but challenging and complex times that demand a new way of operating.

My friends in AA like to put it this way:  If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And the people of this community do not need another debacle like recently took place at the hospital in North Adams.  Too many are already grieving, too many are already wounded and demoralized; too many already believe that our churches and religious organiza-tions have just given up on them.  Look it isn’t a secret that opiate addiction is on the rise all over the region, right? Our people are broken-hearted.

And that’s why I am here tonight:  As a pastor, my call is not just about comforting people when they are hurting, but joining God’s spirit in pursuit of justice.  That’s what God’s people have always done – Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants – we may us different words, but we’ve always offered shelter from the storm AND a vision and voice of a better way in the struggle against injustice. The Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, put it clearly: THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD MY GOD IS UPON ME BECAUSE THE LORD HAS ANNOINTED ME TO PREACH GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR. GOD HAS SENT ME TO BIND UP THE BROKENHEARTED, PROCLAIM FREEDOM TO THE CAPTIVES AND RELEASE TO THE PRISONERS… TO BESTOW UPON THEM A CROWN OF BEAUTY INSTEAD OF ASHES, THE OIL OF GLADNESS INSTEAD OF MOURNING AND GARLAND OF PRAISE INSTEAD OF A SPIRIT OF DESPAIR.

Now bear with me just one more minute:  this is a call – a sacred invitation –
to both comfort the walking wounded all around us AND restore and repair the conditions that have CAUSED the suffering. Don’t be fooled by that word preach, ok?  Scholars are clear that the Hebrew word, basher, which we have translated into English as PREACH is a rather poor and passive choice. The Hebrew word BASHER, you see, comes from the stem BASHAR that literally means MEAT or FLESH.

So the prophet Isaiah ISN’T telling us to spend more time TALKING about our problems. He’s telling us that we become allies of the Spirit of the Living God when we ENFLESH AND EMBODY some news that is good to the poor and the lame, the broken and the maimed:  THAT”S when we’re anointed, sisters and brothers, when we’re in loving action!

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve had enough talking and preaching. I believe the time has come for some action – some performance – some holy embodiment that is good news to the poor and comfort for all those who are broken-hearted.  Can I get a witness?  Thanks be to God…

(I'll be singing this for the group, too...)


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