Monday, October 31, 2016

Climbing Down with Zacchaeus

October 30, 2016
Chatfield UMC
Luke 19:1-10 Zacchaeus
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

On this morning when we bless our confirmation students, I found it delightful that our scripture passage today is the story of Zacchaeus. If you spend anytime in church you would have heard this story of the wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And you have sung the song.
But I’m not sure if this group of students has ever sung the song. So I have asked the Praise Team to sing the song and all of you who know can join in.

Praise Team sings “Zacchaeus”

(As I suspected, cuts across generational lines. The adults were singing and even doing the motions the youth were looking around wondering what it was that was going on.)

Many of us grew up on these songs: Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man, All the Children of the World, Deep and Wide, The B-I-B-L-E...
Just a nostalgic note: Most youth gatherings in my day began with a good half hour of singing these songs.
I can’t imagine beginning confirmation with even one song, let alone ½ hour of singing...
But I also can’t imagine being a part of a church culture that no longer sings.

You know as your Pastor, one of my jobs is to help us as a congregation walk that line between what has been, what is and what can be. To honor the past. To acknowledge the present. And to look at what we need to be to have a future.

This is why we begin our council meetings with reflection. We ask ourselves: What do we exist for? What is God doing among us? And Would the church be missed in this community if we closed our doors? Past, present, future.
And we have to do all three simultaneously. For we can’t get glorify the past by forcing kids to sing songs for ½ hour at every youth gathering while the kids roll their eyes, and we can’t merely live in our present complacent about our future. We have to do all three at once. Which is what is exciting about being a church together.

We are the place that affirms: Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.
What we practice here in the church every single Sunday is what the rest of the world would like to know how to do.  How do we integrate these young people in a past, present and future? How do we live in a past, present and future? This I believe is one of the great angst of the 21st century. If we insist on living in the past we chose death, if all we do is live in the present we chose narcissism, if we only long for the future we chose pie in the sky, the great by and by and we are of no earthly good.

In the most recent Christian Century, Peter Marty, a pastor, theologian, and politician contemplated this angst:
He referred to a letter to the editor that sounds familiar in this election year:  He writes:

I never cease to be amazed by calls for America to return to a previous era of greatness. Although historians have yet to locate such an idyllic chapter in our nation’s history, their conclusions haven’t stopped large segments of the population from glorifying the past.
for a different take on the good ol’ days, try reading your newspaper’s letters to the editor. Here’s one I came across recently:
The battle between good and evil is raging out of control in America. We are doomed so long as our country insists on trashing the Ten Commandments and failing to return to Jesus. We will never return to the greatness of our past until we return to God and put prayer back in our schools. It’s time for America’s sin-sick soul to wake up.
Notice the author’s reliance on the word return. One wonders what past era he might have in mind. Was it America’s legacy of enslaving African peoples, only to lynch numbers of them later? Was it the 18th century and its primitive medicine, or the 19th century and its marginal sanitation? Perhaps his cherished past exists somewhere in the past 100 years, when women still lacked the right to vote, laborers had frighteningly few rights, the needs of the disabled went largely ignored, Agent Orange wreaked havoc, and the waterboarding of terror suspects became acceptable to some top brass.
Nostalgia that ignores blemishes of the past makes for shabby history. (From: Make today great again Christian Century Oct 21, 2016 by Peter W. Marty)

We do the same thing in the church. We glorify those past days when the pews were full and confirmation class numbers were closer to 20 than 5.

But just like glorified past of our nation’s history the history of the church is also not always something to be glorified. 
Having larger confirmation classes didn’t bend the world towards justice. Having fuller pews didn’t create a society in which all were honored for being children of God. Having more members on the church roles didn’t create a merciful society. In other words: the Church of the past, as large and as powerful as it could have been, wasn’t. It didn’t save the world.
While we might wish for the days when we sang “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” It is obvious that the message of this gospel story didn’t sink in. For we are still living the life Zacchaeus rejected. We are still not following Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was an agent of the state. And not a very honest man. The system required him to take a cut of the taxes he collected in order to make a living. In other words, he wasn’t paid a living wage. He had to collect his wages on the backs of the people who were taxed by the Roman government. The whole system was rigged against him, the citizens and the local economy. Because of this the community barely tolerated him. And Zacchaeus became justifiably rich. According to the system.

Yet, Zacchaeus must have been feeling like something was out of balance. Like he needed to make a change but wasn’t sure what it would or should be.
He had heard about Jesus. A man who was telling people that their lives were to be centered on care of neighbor and love of God.
Zacchaeus knew he was taking money from his neighbor. He knew he was honoring the Roman system and therefore the Roman gods. Was he wondering if this was making him feel ill at ease?

So when he heard that Jesus was coming he wanted to see him.
And it turns out Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus.
In their encounter, somehow in someway, Zacchaeus realized that his life could be different. That what Jesus was teaching was Truth and Life and Salvation.
So he gave away his fortune to the poor. He gave back the money he had cheated out of his neighbors.
He was no longer going to be known as the rich tax collector. But more importantly, he was no longer going to be a pawn of the government system that abused the poor.

I wish we knew more of the story. How Zacchaeus’ life played out. Did he have to sell his house? Did his family suffer?
All we know is that he gave up wealth and changed his habits to follow Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor.

All we know is that Zacchaeus was profoundly saved from a life of meaninglessness.

Maybe we don’t need to know the rest of the story because maybe we are called to live out the rest of the story if we so chose to follow Jesus. While we might not be actual cheaters of the poor, we are certainly people who haven’t been willing to give half of everything we have to the poor. And by we I don’t mean each of us individually, I mean we as the church. And I don’t even mean we as Chatfield UMC, I mean we as the Church universal. As we look at our past we see a Church willing to build huge structures and institutions that cost lots and lots of money. And somebody had to pay for it. And, unfortunately somebody still has to pay for it. And the cost of the institution puts stress on the churches like ours.
So we have a lot of angst in the church, in the institution and in the pews about the future.
We ask ourselves what will the church look like when these young people come back to raise their families in the church. I attend lots of meetings where the hand wringing is profound and the message is dire.

But I believe the gospels give us hope. In this story of Zacchaeus. And in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. IF we follow the way of Jesus. IF we seek for salvation. IF we live our lives for God and neighbor.
For what does Jesus say: I have come to seek and to save that which is lost. Even a church that is lost.
What we have lost is not a glorified past. What we have lost is not a brilliant future. What we have lost is a present that honors the past and learns from it. What we have lost is the will to change the story so that we honor the present we are called to live.
So that these young people will see by our example that we can reject the systems that require us to pawns to a way of life that doesn’t honor God. So that these young people can see by our example that the way to live is by honoring God and caring for neighbor. So that these young people will be nurtured by those who are being saved and made holy by the Christ who find us and called to us each and every day: come down and let me come to your house let me stay with you and show you how to live.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My God IS Bigger than Your God

Season of Creation:Storm
Chatfield UMC
October 16, 2016
Psalm 29, Job 38

After hearing all the destruction that happens in the midst of a storm. Cedars breaking. Imagine all the trees in the cemetery broken crushing the gravestones.
The oaks are stripped bare. Imagine all the oak trees in town stripped. Not just leaves gently falling from their branches next spring as new buds form, but stripped. Shattered.

Where is God in all of this?
We have to be careful don’t we? We have heard it being said in recent weeks: God is using the storm to wipe clean the slate. God is bringing the storm to punish people for their sins.

That isn’t what the psalmist is saying. God’s voice is in the storm. And we are invited to listen for it. To hear God’s power. To hear the strength of a God who has the power to create as well as destroy.

We all like a cuddly God. A nice God who doesn’t give us much trouble or does whatever it is we desire. We want a God who loves us and cares for us and comforts us like a big mama figure.
Which is a great metaphor for God.

But that God isn’t quite enough. Not for what we face each and everyday. We also need a God who can be powerful and can be heard powerfully. Roaring throughout creation as the winds roar in the storms and the thunder echoes in from our bluffs. While we don’t need our trees stripped or our cedars toppled we do need a God who could do that.

So did the people to whom the Psalm was written. Their neighbors were the Canaanites who had the god Baal. Baal was the god of the thunder and rain and storm.  When the people needed rain for the crops they were tempted, and some probably did, ask Baal for the rain they needed. And when it rained. Baal was praised.

The Psalmist needed to remind the people that Baal wasn’t really God at all. The God who created the world, the God who created the wind and waves, trees and flowers, this is the God who is obeyed by creation. This God can do so much more than simply bring rain when asked. This God can make a statement!

I always think of this Psalm as a sort of playground scrabble. You know what I mean: My dad is stronger than your dad sort of thing.

My God is way stronger and more powerful and so much more to be reckoned with than your god (little ‘g’)

And like that playground scrabble no one expects their dad to go after anyone’s dad. God isn’t going to strip the oaks or break the cedars. God could. We could spend our days trembling before a terrifying God. Knees shaking worried about the great wrath we deserve. But that isn’t the God we are given.

Notice the last verse of this, otherwise terrifying Psalm: May the Lord give strength to all people! May the Lord bless all people with peace!

The gospel that is appointed with this Psalm is the familiar story of Jesus calming the storm. Remember the story. Jesus and his disciples sail out to the middle of the Sea of Galilee when suddenly one of the infamous storms that happen on that particular lake churns up the waves. The disciples are so afraid. Jesus is asleep, the first rest he has gotten in a long time. Save us the disciples cry. Calming Jesus stands up, speaks to the waves: Peace be still. Peace be still.

Peace, that is what God gives us.  God, who could give us raging storms, tree breaking and stripping winds, catastrophic devastation, and we would deserve it for all the devastation and breaking and stripping and raging that we do in this world. God could destroy us and we would deserve it.

This morning we baptized a little girl. In the next few months we will baptize other children, little Harry, the Bernard family children. I will begin the confirmation classes for 5 young people. Jack, Austin, Abbi, Anna, Joshua.

These children and young people will grow up in a world that is so different than any world we grew up in.
So different. But so much the same.
We have pledged to stand with them in growth as children of God. To love them through their struggles and triumphs. To point them toward the way that leads to life.
We are hoping that they will chose to follow the way of the Christ in all that they do and say and hope for.

And how can we be for them the Christian mentors you have agreed to be? By being people whom God wouldn’t want to destroy. By being people whom our children can look up to and see in us the love of Christ, Love of God and love of neighbor.

This week our first Lady, Michelle Obama, spoke a passionate word to our country about what our children are hearing in this election cycle.
It has been hard to hear the words and the attitudes. And Michelle brought some clarity to the table.
She reminded us that the words we use and the way we communicate about the dignity and worth of each person in our world is heard by our children. Children we hope to influence for good. Children we hope to see grow into followers of Christ.

Mrs. Obama said that if we don’t repudiate the language and attitudes we are hearing:  “We are telling our sons that it’s okay to humiliate women. We are telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We’re telling all of our kids that bigotry and bullying is perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country.
And she asks: Is that what we want for our children?"

Is that what we want for Skylar, Harry, Fletcher, Lillian, Evy, Abbi, Anna, Jack, Austin, Joshua?
For your grandchildren, great grandchildren? Nieces and nephews?

We have all said words we are not proud of. We have all thought things about others that are shameful. We have all spoken or acted in ways that are not honoring of another’s dignity. We have.
We know that what we deserve is destruction. So we cower and remain silent afraid that our own sin will be found out and exposed.

But think of this dear ones:
Because we have done this and God has not sent down the cedars of Lebanon on our houses, has not stripped us bare like oaks driven in the winds. We are people who have hope.
We know that our mighty and powerful God is not set on destroying us.
Our mighty and powerful God is set on forgiving us.
Calming the waters that would or should drown us in our shame.
Saying Peace be still to the storms that threaten to overcome us in our guilt.
Restoring strength to our feeble attempts to speak words and do acts of reconciliation and love.

The waters God gives are not waters of destruction. The waters God give us are the waters of baptism that do not destroy us because of our sins but wash us clean of our sins. The waters God gives us are cleansing, renewing and thirst quenching waters.

Today let us remember our baptism. Remember our baptism and be thankful and courageous in our words and actions as people of God.


Wisdom: Life, Death, Resurrection

Psalm 104
Season of Creation Flora and Fauna
Chatfield UMC
October 9, 2016
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Once again we are singing the praise of God’s creation:

God’s creation is made with wisdom
Everything is God’s creation.

And today we are going to find how powerful this song and matra of creation is for us in the 21st century

The beginning of Psalm 104 sings God’s praises, we imagine God’s delight in the diversity and activity of creation. “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use to bring forth food from the earth … The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly…  In them the birds build their nests.”

We imagine the power of God and the wisdom of God at work in the world through the common, ordinary moments of creation’s growth, death and rebirth.

I have set an ivy plant on the table this morning. A simple ivy plant. It was given to the church by Phyllis Waadevig. Phyllis is one of those plant whisper-ers who always have plants to share. For those of you who grow plants you know that ivy can be a bit tricky.
But this plant who came from Phyllis’ gifted hands has been nurtured by the plant tenders of this church and I have watched as the ivy grows over the days of the year. Set carefully in the right light, given the proper water and fertilizer. Growing! Long tendrils of beautiful, delicate, green leaves.

Our plant tenders know that in order for this ivy to grow and stay healthy in our church those long tendrils need to be pruned. And the beautiful thing I have watched as the tendrils are carefully cut they are carefully wrapped in damp paper and sent home with others who now have ivy plants growing on their window sills.
Life, death, resurrection. Gift, growth, pruning, re gifting.

The wisdom of God’s creative work right here among us. God makes the grass grow, yes but not without the wisdom of Life, death and resurrection.

It is a powerful thing, this wisdom of God that we encounter every time we look out at the fields and ditches and gardens and lawns and house plants of our lives.

In Madeliene L’engles’ book Swiftly Titling Planet she quotes an ancient poem as an incantation against the evil darkness that is threatens the peace of planet earth through nuclear war.
While it sounds preposterously naive to the modern ear. The poem, like Psalm 104 is powerful and are words we need to hear in this 21st century.

We are being frightened by acts of power, intimidations of destruction, violence against our most vulnerable that even the childhood personification of joy and playfulness, clowns, are being used as a threat. And we are all so afraid of life that scary clowns are causing children to decide to cancel Halloween plans and hide under their beds, literally. Literally. That is how frightened we are right now.

We need to hear the words of this incantation in order to stand up to the fear mongering and violence and threats:

Hear these powerful words:
At Tara in this fateful hour,

I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace

Between myself and the powers of darkness

All these, all of God’s creation, All of God’s creation created in wisdom, All these I place between myself and the powers of darkness.

Nature just isn’t a nice thing. Nature/creation isn’t just a pretty picture. Nature/creation isn’t just a soothing sunset. Nature is that powerfully wise force that God has provided to remind us that Life, Death and Resurrection can stand between us and evil.

The psalmist is wise to the ways of Mother Earth and gives praise to God.
 Oh we need this wisdom revealed NOW.

Because without it we become fractured. Afraid of our own shadows. Convinced that black communities are unsafe hell holes. Sure that people who look differently than us are going to harm us. Panicked that clowns are agents of death instead of joy and laughter.
In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul writes to a very fractured church in Corinth. Not unlike the fractions we are experiencing in our world today.

This group and that group think they hold the key to wisdom. That somehow Their Group has found the truth of what is wise. They say: I belong to Cephas’ group. I belong to Paul’s group. I belong to Apollos’ group. Their identity is wrapped up in a power play that has nothing to do with how they are called to live as interconnected people of God.

None of them have turned toward the wisdom of God to hear the real dance of wisdom. To feel the real pulse of wisdom revealed in the creation of the world.
Where everything is interconnected. They are wrapped up in their version of truth instead of listening to wisdom:
Where death comes out of life. Have you ever seen a dead tree blossoming with moss and lichens and mushrooms?
Where green growth allows for sharing.
And where the wisdom of God’s love revealed in the Life, Death and Resurrection of the Christ draws us from our fears into a life interconnected.

In I Corinthians, Paul encourages the people of Corinth to overcome their splitting into various groups and to see themselves as one in Christ.

Paul writes to the Corinthians and to us:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. Those who are being saved: who look in foolishness but hope to the dead wood of a cross; who see Life that flows through resurrection.
So we can say in this season of darkness:

Earth with its starkness
Christ and the cross
the cycle of Death and Resurrection
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness

Trash: The act of choosing life or death

Job 38
Season of Creation
Chatfield UMC
October 2, 2016

The Psalm text appointed to our first Sunday of Creation proclaims:
Adonai, Oh my Lord, how countless are Your works!
In wisdom You made them all—
The earth is full of Your possessions—

Three small but powerful sentences!
What if we took these three sentences as our life’s mantra?

God’s creation is made with wisdom
Everything is God’s creation.

These words are on the front of your bulletin to take home if you would like to contemplate them this week.

In wisdom You have made them all.

I know what you are thinking? Wisdom? Everything?
Here are some examples of angels questioning God as God creates the creatures:

God creating seahorses
Give them a horse’s head
Angel: sure no problem
Gills and tiny baby fins
Angel: cute
Males give birth
Angel: what????

God creating praying mantis
Make an insect that does karate
Angel: ok
No make it bite her husband’s head off
Angel: dude we need to talk

God creating kittens
Make them really fluffy and adorable like little furry hugs
Angel: that’s so sweet
& put razor blades on their feet

And finally God creating dogs
Oh these turned out great. I’m going to want all of those back at some point.

So we might question some of these creations of God that seem not so wise to us: but we do need to take seriously the psalmist who did say: In wisdom God created them all.
Because while platypuses seem ridiculous to us and mosquitos are annoying and that neighbor down the street is down right mind boggling. Each one somehow is connected in this web of life that has wisdom as its core.

When we come to this Sunday in the season of creation: Ocean Sunday it is good to remember this, too. We are obviously a long long way from the ocean. So it is hard to get real excited about centering our worship around oceans.

But we have to, we have to live knowing that somehow we are connected to even the ocean. Even when many of will never experience an ocean or will experience once in a while at most.

I brought some shells that are arranged on the altar this morning because I was reminded of my grandmother as I thought about this Sunday.
My grandmother lived in Hudson Iowa. A little town right outside Waterloo. Grandma lived in and around Hudson all of her life. Always in a small town or in the country. Grandma never, ever traveled outside of Iowa except for the one time she came to see me in Minneapolis.
Oh she hated that trip.
She was so glad to get home to her little house and gardens

But do you know what my grandmother collected and studied and wrote stories about and shared with the school children in her home town???
Sea shells.

Her little front room of her little house far, far away from any ocean was filled with carefully labeled, carefully identified, carefully tended seashells.

I have the notes she taught from when the school children came to visit her. She taught them that the sea shells she cared for came from a place that was connected to them even though she had never seen it herself. And she taught them to be careful of the earth in the same way she was careful with her sea shells. Even if they would never see an ocean themselves. I remember this when I think that something has nothing to do with me because I am not near it.

So when we hear of the prayer vigil at Standing Rock to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline from going through the sacred land of the Sioux Nation we should think about adding our prayers to the collective prayers of the indigenous nations of the world who stand and pray and protect Mother Earth. Even though it doesn’t directly affect us.

Or when we see this next image which is a disturbing image of what is left over from a decomposed ocean bird.
This is what was in this bird’s stomach. Items that will not decompose. That will not return to the earth as the body of this bird is slowly doing.
We may never see a bird such as this, but we will drink sodas and dispose of the caps, we will eat chips and dispose of the wrappers, we will all have fun with balloons until they pop and we have to throw them in the trash bin.

How we do that, what decisions we make about how to dispose of our trash can make a life or death difference for another creature in God’s creation. A creation that was created with wisdom.

Someone has said that if humans became extinct the rest of creation would carry on quite well and probably thrive. Looking at the stomach contents of this bird, we probably can’t dispute this. However, we are part of God’s creation and we are part of what God made with wisdom.

It is our turn now, to return that wisdom with wisdom. How can we God’s beloved creatures made with wisdom act with wisdom in thankfulness for the gifts of God?
God has said: I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

You see we are all connected. All of the creatures made with wisdom by our God, we are connected and we will live and die, prosper and decline together.
Let us chose life.