july 11, 2010

Anna Blaedel
July 11, 2010
Psalm 82
Luke 10:25-37
First UMC, Osage
(with help from Feasting on the Word)

On New Year’s Day, 2009, on a BART platform in Oakland, California I myself have stood on countless times, 28 year old Johannes Mehserle fatally shot 22 year old Oscar Grant.

Mehserle, a police officer, claimed Grant was resisting arrest, though multiple videos taken during the arrest dispute that.
Witnesses and digital video show another white officer punching Grant at least twice in the face, and standing over him shouting racist epithets.

Mehserle is white. Grant was black.

Grant was face down on the ground, unarmed, hands held behind his back. Mehserle shot Grant in the back, while Grant was restrained

Mehserle’s only defense was that he meant to pull his taser, but instead accidentally pulled, and at point blank range shot, his gun.

Grant died seven hours later, leaving behind a four year old daughter.

The verdict was handed down this last Thursday. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 2-4 year sentence. The sentence was handed down from a jury that didn’t have a single black woman or man on it.

My heart is breaking. For the family and friends of Oscar Grant. For the communities in Oakland, held in a state of shock, outrage, and disbelief. For all the people who have too many reasons to distrust a justice system that too often is unjust. Yes, even for Mehserle, who has taken a life…committed an act of violence…with whatever intention…that can never be undone.
Oscar Grant’s family urged a nonviolent response to the rage so many feel. They called on people not to allow their anger to erupt in violence, continuing the tragedy.

God, help us.

I could not help but draw connections between this horrible set of events, and our lectionary texts this morning…Psalm 82, and the parable of the “Good Samaritan” from Luke’s gospel account.

Hear again the words of the Psalm: God calls the judges into God’s own courtroom and says, “Enough! You’ve corrupted justice long enough, you’ve let the wicked get away with murder.”

Grant’s mother, upon hearing the verdict of involuntary manslaughter, said, “The system has let us down, but God will never let us down.”

The psalm continues: “You’re here to defend the defenseless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break; Your job is to stand up for the powerless, and prosecute all those who exploit them…”

God, help us.

On April 23, the Governor of Arizona signed SB1070 into law. Proponents and critics alike call it the “broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations.” Failing to carry, at all times, documents identifying you as a legal resident of this country is now a crime. Police are mandated, not just allowed, but required, to stop anyone, anyone, they think might be in this country illegally. I doubt any of us, here, now, could actually offer documentation of our legal status. Remember, this isn’t a driver’s license. Do you have your birth certificate on you?

This bill, which will go into effect in August, does nothing to resolve the issues of violence and smuggling along the boarder. It does not address our economic dependence on cheap labor. It is an unfunded mandate. It even makes it illegal to give food, water, shelter, or space for worship to undocumented immigrants.

It does give legal license to pick on undocumented immigrants, along with all US citizens and legal residents of the state, or those passing through, who happen to look and talk like immigrants. It is a good thing this law wasn’t in effect on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho, so many years ago. The Samaritan looked different, and talked different, and was just passing through. He was not a citizen. He was helping a man of unknown immigration status. He might have been arrested and deported before he could have helped the man left for dead by the side of the road.

God, help us.

Psalm 82 is a cry for God, the Chief Justice, to take action. The issue is not an absence of God’s justice, not an absence of God’s action, but a failure on our part to actively pursue justice. The psalm is set to strengthen our resolve and conviction that God can, that God desires to, use each of us in building a more just human community. The psalm calls us to look to God for vision, and to depend on God with humility as we go about trying to do what God requires of us, which is to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly.

God, help us.

This morning’s gospel text is one of the most familiar parables found within all of Jesus’ teachings. The parable of the “Good Samaritan” points to the essence of Christianity.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, familiarity can breed a certain contempt.

Well known evangelical preacher Jim Wallis asks, in conjunction with this parable: When a parable becomes a cliché, can it still function in the life of the community? A “Good Samaritan” is commonly recognized as anyone who comes to the aid of another. But is this really what Jesus was getting at? Was he only offering a variation on “Be helpful when you come across people in trouble?” Was he just giving us a parable to make us feel guilty when we ignore a homeless person?”

Wallis offers these responses to his own questions, “I do not want to exclude offering help to those depending on the kindness of strangers, but this parable goes beyond that. It not only lays down a big challenge but makes an even bigger offering of gospel or good news. This is a story for people who recognize that they are on a journey—not just a journey from womb to tomb, but from birth to rebirth, from partial life to abundant life. The gospel proclaims what God pours into the hearts of all those who journey in a dangerous world…”

Wallis concludes, “This is more than a parable about a helpful stranger; it is about the transforming power of God at work in those who travel the dangerous roads in our world, mobbing us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.”

We are all called to be on a journey from birth to rebirth, from partial life to abundant life.

A few years ago, a twelve year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Khatib, was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers near his home in the West Bank. The boy had been playing outside, and holding a toy gun. After two days in hospital, he died. His parents, grief stricken, understandably angry, made the decision to allow his organs to be harvested for transplant…to Israelis. Six people received his heart, lungs, and kidneys, including a two-month-old infant. Ahmad’s mother, Alba, said, “My son has died.
Maybe he can give life to others.”

These parents journeyed into a depth of compassion I find almost unfathomable, and fueled by a deep knowledge of the love of God, they loved their neighbor, and began to life into eternal life.

The demographic designations in these two contemporary stories mean something to us, don’t they? Likely, they mean different things to different people, but we understand something of the background tension, the conflicted history when I say: white police officer…young, urban black man…undocumented immigrant…illegal status…Palestinian…Israeli soldier…
The word “Samaritan” would do the same for the original audience of Jesus’ parable. The Samaritans were “those people…” The people you don’t want for a neighbor…the people you don’t want for a pastor…the people you don’t want next to you in the pew…they were outsiders…different…their religion was viewed as odd, even abhorrent by the Levite priests.

Who would we least expect goodness from? Who would we least expect to be helped by? Who are we least likely to help? Who, even, would we not want to stop, if we were vulnerable, by the side of the road? Who would we go out of our way to avoid, looking the other way, justifying our indifference, assuring ourselves that after all, someone else will likely come along soon…

That is who the Samaritans were.

This parable does so much more than endorse compassion, generosity, and kindness toward strangers. It demands that its hearers, that we, embrace opportunities to practice love for others in powerful ways…especially when it goes against everything we think we know. It challenges us, stretches us, invites us, calls us—to work with, rather than against, God’s transforming power, justice-love, and invitation into eternal life, in this life.

In the midst of these signs against hope, I want to share an image of hope, a glimpse of this parable beginning to be lived out, here.

On June 27, after worship, a few of us gathered downstairs in fellowship hall for the Coffee & Conversation about United Methodism that all of you were invited to. My beliefs changed because of this conversation.

We talked about John Wesley’s firm and unwavering belief that we, WE, are made perfect in love in this life.

I, along with most United Methodist pastors I know, haven’t quite found it in us to agree with Wesley. Perfect in love…in this life?

I want to believe it. I believe some come close. I believe even more earnestly try, and commit their whole hearts and lives and souls and strength to this sacred tasking. I believe this is the call, the ideal…But perfect in love? In this life? Maybe it is simply knowing how far I still have to go that has kept me from seeing this as a real possibility.

And, I am too aware of all the ways we hurt each other…In big, obvious, awful ways—like Oscar Grant’s death…like the law in Arizona, and all the ways God’s children are finding their humanity and sacred worth reduced with words like ‘alien’ and ‘illegal.’…like the countless deaths of unarmed Palestinian children at the hands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers…

And the ways we hurt each other in the small, daily, but still damaging ways: harsh words spoken in church kitchens, talking about each other behind backs, making assumptions, sharing gossip, telling half-truths, expecting others to be just like us, turning away from someone in need because, well, do they really deserve our help?

As a saying I recently heard goes, a saying I have taped to my office desk: “We hurt people and are hurt by people because we are people.”

Perfect in love? In this life? Whew.

But. As this small handful of us talked and thought through this belief of Wesley’s we came to new understanding, and I began to believe it might be possible. Not easy, but possible. And, that being perfected in love might be the same as becoming a Good Samaritan.

The root of “perfect” is connected to “purpose.” Meaning, our purpose is to love. Our God given, God created, God desired purpose, our very reason for being, is to love. Love our neighbors as ourselves. To hold as our purpose, to commit our lives to, to order our days around…Love.

That is what God wants from us. That is what Jesus teaches us. That is what scripture commands of us. That is what the Spirit enables from us…

What do we need to do to get eternal life? Love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and love our neighbor as our self.

Because we need each other. We need each other to learn to live and love. We need each other to fulfill our God given purpose. We need each other to survive.

God, help us…

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

july 4, 2010

Anna Blaedel
July 4, 2010
First UMC, Osage
Psalm 30
Isaiah 58

Last Sunday I preached about silence—listening for the still small voice of God in the midst of the noise and clutter of our busy lives—God coming to Elijah not in the rush of wind or roar of earth quaking and crumbling, but in the sound of sheer silence. I lifted up the words of the psalmist, words we pray and embody every Sunday morning together—Be still. Be still. And know God is God.

And, I still believe what I said last week. That we need to make more time for stillness, and silence. That God comes to us, abides with us, when we come to rest. Be still, and know God is God.

But. It isn’t that simple. When it comes to God, to faith, to living faithful lived ordered around our God, it rarely is. Just as we can’t ignore the call to silent stillness, nor can we forget the call to make a joyful noise to our God! To sing out our praises! Recall other words of the psalmist, other words you heard and prayed this morning: My soul praises you and cannot be silent. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you!

This morning’s text from Isaiah—the entirety of the 58th chapter—begins with these words: Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!

Even as I preached about the silence I treasured at the beach, the stillness that nourished and nurtured me, I was aware of the rhythmic crashing of waves, the sound of wind coming off the ocean, fresh and refreshing, the glorious boom of thunder as a storm rolled in, cooling the hot, humid air. Even, I admit, the joy and quickening of heart I have begun to feel when I hear the buzz of Vuvuzelas, the South African trumpets made famous by their incessant noise during World Cup games! I anticipated the boom of 4th of July fireworks, the sound of marching bands playing in Independence day parades, and the celebratory shouts and cheers that accompany floats, festivals, and gathered community…

This week I came across these words by Barbara Kingsolver, in her book that I’m reading, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She writes: “The afternoon was still: no car passed on the road, no tractor churned a field within earshot. It’s surprising how selectively the human ear attends to human-made sounds: speech, music, engines. An absence of those is what we call silence…But in that particular dot on the map I was struck with how full a silence could be: a Carolina wren sang from the eave of the shed; cedar waxwings carried on whispery bickerings up in the cherry tree; a mockingbird did an odd jerky dance, as if seized by the bird spirit, out on the driveway. The pea bowl rang like an insistent bell as we tossed in our peas…”
It’s not as simple as sound equal bad, silence equals good. It is more about, I believe, learning to be still so that we might know how to act. Learning to be silent, so that we might better hear and listen to God speaking.

Sound and silence isn’t so simple. Neither is this morning’s text from Isaiah. It is a prophetic text. It is a text that illuminates for us, on Independence Day, what God expects of a nation—as it has for centuries of human history that came before, and for countless nations and societies that were formed, that dominated, that reigned, that ruled, that collapsed, long before the USA was a gleam in the English revolutionaries eyes—a dream born out of hope for a new and better life.

The 58th chapter of Isaiah speaks of salvation, and freedom. It is not a simple text, however. It begs difficult questions, messy questions: like one my seminary professor used to ask, over and over again, when talking about salvation, and freedom. This professor, in an effort to get and grab our attention, liked being a bit provocative. He started one lecture, one on salvation and freedom, with these words. Listen carefully, and hear me through…He said: “Being saved, being free, doesn’t mean squat.” And then, he continued, “Being saved, being free, these words don’t mean squat, if we don’t ask the questions: Saved from what? Saved for what? And, free from what? Free for what?

What he meant, of course, was that grand ideas like salvation and freedom, ideas we celebrate today, and throughout our days, aren’t simple enough to stand on their own. We must ask…reflect…discuss…wrestle with…the deeper meaning. Through our faith, through God’s grace, what are we saved from? What are we saved for? Through the courage and work and bravery and sacrifice and witness and protest and endurance of those who have shaped this nation we call home, and through the courage and work and bravery and sacrifice and witness and protest and endurance of us, who continue to be called to shape this nation, we must ask: What are we free from? What are we free for? What are we do to, with this freedom?

They aren’t easy questions. But this mornings reading from Isaiah offers us some hints. Be warned, though, that the answers we might find in the 58th chapter of Isaiah, the guidelines God gives us to shape a nation that is in turn shaped by God’s will for us and God’s expectations of us…these answers aren’t easy, and the kind of life they require of us is not easy. Hear, again, these words from Isaiah, chapter 58. As you hear them, ask yourself: What has God saved us for? What does freedom—from God and from nation—require of us?
Isaiah 58

Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives, face my human family with their sins! They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side. But they also complain, ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

Well, here’s why: The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.

If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there—then you’ll be free to enjoy God! Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all. I’ll make your feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob. Yes! I, your God, says so!
May it be so. Amen, and amen.

june 27, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
June 27, 2010
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-19
1 Kings 19:1-15a

In the film The Pursuit of Happyness, a child is trying to tell his distracted father an old story, while his father is trying to figure out where the two of them are safely going to spend the night. The story goes something like this:

A shipwrecked man prays fervently to God to save him. A boat approaches, but the man tells it to go away because God, and God alone, will save him. The boat leaves. A second boat arrives, and the man turns it away, saying God and God alone will save him. Soon after, the man dies of exposure. When he gets to heaven, the man complains to God for not saving him, even though he prayed fervently, and believed with his whole heart. God tells the man that God sent not one but two boats to save him, but the man sent both of them away.

When we are sure about how God works, we are almost sure to miss God working in our lives.

When we are certain about God’s will, we are almost certain to miss the clues of how Thy will is done, on earth as in heaven.

When we are crystal clear about the meaning of God’s Word, we will clearly miss God speaking to us, in the wilderness, and the silence.

When we surround ourselves with constant noise, God’s surrounding silence is drowned out.

This morning’s text from 1 Kings teaches us, as one biblical commentator put it, that “God isn’t in the sound bites; God is in the silence bites.” God’s way of getting through to us is not only through the sensational, nor the bombastic; God gets through to us when we take time out from the frenetic pace of our lives and embrace stillness and silence. Then God’s Word comes to us.

Unfortunately for us, our world is packed full with sounds seeking to drown out the “still small voice of God,” the sound of silence in which God speaks. Writer Anne Lamott says, “There is not much truth being told in this world…” There is not much truth being told in this world, and I believe all one has to do is turn on the TV, or listen to talking-head pundits, or look at mass mailings set to stoke flames of fear, to know just how little truth is being told in just how much noise.

The prophet Elijah did not have to compete with 24 hour talk radio, and cable TV, and reality shows, and endless video games. He did not have to learn to drown out cell phones and Blackberries and iPhones and email and texting and Facebook and instant messaging and and and and and and and. But, he was still speaking a truth that applies to us today: The presence of God is not always obvious. The truth of God is not always clear, and it is rarely found in the words and mouths of those shouting the loudest. Sometimes we need to be still, and know God is God, and listen for God’s still small voice.

Silence. Pause. Quiet. Silence. Pause. Quiet. Invites us to experience God’s grace-filled presence.

Now, before I go much further, I want to make it clear that I am with you in this struggle. That I have a hard time making time for silence. That I am more likely to rush on through than pause to listen. That I am more likely to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to the sensational and bombastic, and more likely to miss entirely the still small voice of God’s silence. But. At least I know how much I need to grow in this. Knowing you have a problem, 12 step wisdom goes, is the first step to the solution.

Which is why I love the beach, why I needed to carve time for vacation. While we can’t always go away, can’t always be on vacation, can’t always set aside the “real world” with its real demands, I believe we need to step back from our lives, sometimes step back quite aways, to really see the readjustments we need to make.

My family has found silence. And quiet. And space to listen to and for God at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina for most of my life, since we first found it while living in Fayetteville, NC. This is where we go to listen. To each other. To the silence. To the waves. To God.

I turned off my cell phone, and left my computer behind. Their absence made me painfully aware of how incessant their noisy presence has become in my life. I hate to admit, to myself and to you, that I was a little lost without them. Thrown into the wilderness, you might say. And while it was a bit unsettling, it was necessary. A gift.

Rather than read email forward after email forward about what people are saying about God, I listened for, talked with, and sat in the quiet presence of God.

Rather than listen to endless streaming of NPR, I heard the endless washing of waves upon the shore.

Rather than searching for weather forecasts, I stepped outside, walked on the beach, looked for long stretches at the wide open sky, watched storms roll in, and roll back out again.

Rather than tick of day after day on a calendar full of meetings and to-do lists, I marked the days by watching the moon change shape each night, and saw the passing of time in the changing tide, and placement of the sun.

Rather than scour and respond to messages left at either of my two Facebook accounts, two email addresses, three voicemail mailboxes, or two mailbox boxes, I prayed for the people in my life, and gave thanks for the rich relationships, and considered how I might reprioritize my time, so that the people who are most important to me aren’t pushed into small pockets of time when I’m too tired to really attend to them.

Now, hear me: emails and news and phone calls, and yes, even Facebook and weather forecasts have their purpose, and it isn’t all bad. But it is not helpful, it is not even faithful, if we listen to the wisdom of the prophet Elijah, to let the noise overcrowd and overwhelm all else.

I do believe that constantly checking missed calls makes us more likely to miss a quiet call from God. I do believe that constant noise of video games and tv threatens to drown out important voices of our neighbors, our families, our friends, even our God.

Being at the beach helps me get back to basics, reorder my life according to God’s gifts and grace, and my responsibility to respond to and nurture these gifts. This is what silence does.

The beginning of our scripture passage from 1 Kings finds Elijah in a frenetic frenzy of his own. King Ahab had been on a murderous rampage, and there is a price on Elijah’s head. The voice of the ones in power have told him he has less than 24 hours to live. Elijah flees to the wilderness, and gives up. “Take away my life,” he resigns. His life isn’t even worth living anymore. In the 18th chapter, Elijah is confident, cocky, and sure of himself. Here, in the 19th chapter, he is defeated, resigned, and utterly unsure.

The angel gets him back to basics. Eat something nourishing, and good. Drink some cool water. Go to a sacred space—be it beach or mountain top or sanctuary or field or garden. When Elijah settles down, quiets down, he hears the Word of God. “What are you doing, Elijah?” God calls to him in the silence. Meets him in the silence. Gives him direction, not to escape from the wilderness, but to sustain himself while he is there. And Elijah listens to the silence, hears the call of God, and responds.

This week, I challenge each of us, myself included, to make a little time for silence. To, turn off the tv, unplug video games, put down cell phones, and sign out of Facebook. At least enough to notice the difference, the absence. To stop. Pause. Pray. Listen. Look. Be still, and know.

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

june 13, 2010

Anna Blaedel
June 13, 2010
First UMC, Osage
Psalm 5:1-8
Luke 7:36-50

Some of you, but not many of you, know I am a World Cup fan. World Cup, as in soccer. Or, football, as they call it in the rest of the world. The World Cup brings out every ounce of sports fanatic in me…Which usually isn’t much. Come Super Bowl time, I watch it because, well, everyone else is watching it. I like the sense of community connection…but, please forgive me, I don’t really care about the actual event. The NBA playoffs get a little closer…I am a Lakers fan… But the World Cup… I LOVE the World Cup.

And, since I don’t get ESPN, you might see me trolling the town and entering bars at strange times, trying to find coverage. And yes, the game that starts at 2pm today, covered on ABC, will be playing in one room of the parsonage during the Open House…

During another World Cup, friends of mine and I hosted World Cup parties for the month or so that this soccer tournament lasts…for each match we cooked a recipe from one of the countries playing…Tapas from Spain…homemade pasta from Italy…sushi from Japan…baklava from Greece…it challenged us to learn about the culture and cuisine of places usually not on our radar…Serbia. Cameroon. Ghana… When friends arrived for the game, we would say, “Welcome. Come in. Sit down.”

This year, the World Cup is hosted in the country of South Africa. This is the first time to be held in the African continent. It is a chance for a part of the world that has been through gruesome civil war, the horrors of Apartheid, a level of racism and racial violence that is hard for any of us to imagine, widespread poverty…this is a chance for South Africa to extend hospitality. To recognize the horrors in its history, and to move into a new era in the global community. The World Cup offers South Africa a chance to say to the world, “Welcome. Come in. Sit down.”

It is good to extend this invitation, and to welcome others in. It is good to receive this invitation, and be welcomed in.

Our scripture from the Good News according to Luke begins this way: One of the Pharisees asked Jesus over for a meal. Jesus went to the house, and sat down at the table….The story doesn’t stop there, but it does start there. It is a story where Jesus lays out the fundamentals of faith, the teachings that connect to the core of Christ, the core of Christian teaching. Forgiveness. Love that breaks down borders and barriers. Gratitude. Sharing what is precious. Grace upon grace upon grace.
Simon should be the one we learn from. He is a religious man, a religious leader. One of the chosen twelve, close to Jesus. But from Simon we learn only to do as he says, not as he does. He gets hung up on who is worthy, who isn’t good enough. Who he can call a sinner. He is lost in judgment—judging this woman. He even goes so far as judging Jesus for not judging her.

We don’t learn how to be faithful from Simon. Instead, we learn faithfulness from the woman of the town, identified as sinner…we don’t know what her sin is, just that this is how she is known…She isn’t given a name…simply SINNER, as though that says it all. And it is she who teaches us how to welcome Jesus. How to welcome others in Jesus’ name. Who can share and show others the abundant love of God? She who has been told she’s unworthy of God’s love. Who can share and show others the deep forgiveness offered by God? He who has the most to be forgiven. Who can show and share God’s generosity? She who has little to give, but gives all she has.

The story begins with an invitation. Welcome. Come in. Sit down. And then, it is the unnamed woman, not Simon, who shows us how to love. How to extend hospitality.

Today we are celebrating more than being in Day 3 of the World Cup. Last Sunday, Bishop Trimble, Bishop Job, and Bishop Kula from Nigera laid their hands on my head, as others laid their hands on my back and shoulders, and repeated the age old vows, ordaining me as an Elder in full connection in the UMC. It was a sacred event. A holy moment. The power in those words and actions, the weight of those hands, the authority bestowed, are still close to me, palpable. And, it was a shared event…with other ordinands, with friends and family and church folk who are like family…and with some of you.

I cannot tell you how much it meant, means, to me that some of you made the trek down to Des Moines, and sat through an almost THREE HOUR SERVICE!!! to share the moment with me. And, that you are celebrating with me today, in this community. The connection, our connection, is a gift.

After the service was a meal, an opportunity for my worlds to collide. Folks from Osage mingling with clergy colleagues, mixing with family friends, together with members from my home congregation. Even a dearly beloved high school writing teacher was there. Mark and Terry, who prepared, cooked, and served the food are friends and neighbors, people you all have heard me preach about… It was our opportunity, my family’s, to say to those who have supported, nurtured, walked with, and enriched this journey of mine, to say to you all: Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

The theme of this Iowa Annual Conference was “radical hospitality,” and at the final worship service, Tuesday afternoon, Cal, Courtney, myself, and the other Conference goers heard a District Superintendent preach on this same piece of scripture. She connected the theme of “Radical Hospitality” to this gospel story. Her sermon was titled, “School’s not out for the summer,” and she preached about the School of Love, God’s schooling us in love, this passage showing and sharing Jesus’ school of love, in which we all are called to be lifelong students. The school of love does not let out for the summer.

We are the students in the school of love, learning to love, and receive love in return. We are the students in the school of radical hospitality, learning to welcome others into God’s loving grace, and being welcomed in return.

Our homework, our assignment, our final exam, is to say: Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

Those of you who came to Des Moines for the ordination service saw a familiar sight. The rainbow of chairs made by Conference Artist, Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten. Chairs that have sat here, in this sanctuary in Osage. Remember the central message: The chairs, painted the full spectrum of the color wheel. On each chair is a plaque, printed with the name of a group of people…an ethnic group…the many ethnicities, races, and cultures present at Pentecost. And, when the chairs are in a circle, enemies are seated across from each other. Those groups with long held divisions, with animosity, with histories of conflict, across from one another. And, Ted reminded us, the colors next to each other, where there is no conflict, where there is much that is the same, there is also no contrast. It’s a little bit boring. The colors become striking, beautiful, only when there is contrast, difference, which means some sort of conflict, or at least potential for conflict. Enemies inviting one another, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Strangers saying, “Welcome. Come in. Sit down.”

This year Ted had cards available at Conference. Cards of many colors, each with a chair printed on it. Cards extending welcome in many languages. They say, Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

I talked him into parting with some of these cards, so I could share them with you. That is, after all, what we are learning to do together. What is enabling us to do ministry together. What is building our connection together as congregation and pastor…saying to one another, practicing with one another: “Welcome. Come in. Sit down.” Invitations extended from you, to me. Invitations extended from me, to you. Invitations we extend to people not part of, or not yet part of this community: Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

If we do nothing else together, practicing this will make us more faithful. If we do nothing else, extending this will connect us with Christian teaching, and invite Christ into our midst. Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

Each month, for the coming year, I am going to host a meal, each time inviting 7 people to join me at table. There will be a sign up sheet. All are welcome. It will be a way for me to practice what I preach, to gather us at table, to invite us to serve and tend and share with one another. Look for the sign up sheet. I hope you’ll join me. Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

When you come forward for communion, there is a basket with Ted’s cards in it. You are invited to take one. And, then, you are invited to keep it. Or to pass it on. Perhaps you will pray for the nation or group of people identified on the card.
Whatever you do with it, remember God’s promise, remember Christ’s teaching. You are invited. You are welcomed. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are worthy. You are precious. You are invited to receive all of this. And then, to share it, to pass it on, abundantly, and with joy.

Welcome. Come in. Sit down.

When we do this, may we hear Jesus’ words, echoing still, two thousand years after he spoke them: “When you show great love, your faith has saved you.”

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

may 30, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 30, 2010
Psalm 8
1 Kings 17:8-16

This morning’s lectionary text from 1 Kings is a prophetic one. It is one of my favorites. It is perplexing. It is full of miracles. It speaks of God’s power. It points to our power, as children of God. It is a story set in the wilderness. This is code, in Biblical stories, for a story set in struggle, and unexpected gift. Struggle, and unexpected gift.

It is the Sunday closest to Memorial Day.

It is Peace with Justice Sunday.

It is our final Sunday together before Summer starts in earnest, before Annual Conference, before my ordination.

It is fitting, I believe, to share the story from 1 Kings today. Struggle, and unexpected gift. Conflict, and finding ways to connect in the midst of it all. Remembering what has been, while looking toward what might be. Honoring the past, without allowing ourselves to be bound by its struggles.

Did you know that when Memorial Day was established, first called Decoration Day, many people in this country refused to recognize and honor it as a holiday? This holiday was established at the end of the Civil War, a day set aside to honor those who died. It was initiated by Union soldiers, former slaves, newly freed blacks, who exhumed the bodies of other former slaves from mass graves, built a fence around the graveyard, and insisted on remembering and honoring each one who had given their lives. May 30 was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of a battle, and therefore could be marked by honoring those who sacrificed and lost their lives, without glorifying the violence and bloodshed that took their lives. The division in this country over slavery was still bitter, however, and many of the states in the US South refused to celebrate Decoration Day. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Memorial Day was moved to create a 3 day weekend, a move many lament as shifting the focus from remembering the struggle, and through it, the unexpected gifts we celebrate today, to mere vacation—grilling out, boating, camping, drinking…

The prophet Elijah didn’t speak about the Civil War, didn’t have any idea this country would ever exist, and certainly held no loyalty to the United States (or any country, for that matter, since God’s message was that loyalty to nation can keep us from undivided loyalty to God.) But Elijah did speak of a world driven by conflict and urgent need. Elijah did speak of a thirst for miracles, a hunger for a new kind of world, one guided by God’s justice, and peace, and the sacrifices we often are called to make to create this new realm.

On this Peace with Justice Sunday, I am trying something different. I am not asking you to write checks or give money to the Peace with Justice Special Offering. In fact, we are not taking up a special offering. I am doing this because I know you all are being asked to give generously for many important causes, both within the church and beyond. And, I know you are giving generously…More importantly, I am doing this because I fear that I, that we, too often feel that writing a check is sufficient, that it is our way of contributing. Writing checks is important, and I don’t want to discourage generous giving. But Peace with Justice will never be established by writing checks, just like the sacrifices and lives honored through Memorial Day will never be adequately remembered by grilling, boating, camping out, and drinking.

So today, I want us to think. To consider. To reflect. To listen deeply, and look carefully to how this scripture might be calling us to live.

I want to share three stories with you. Three stories from my life, that connect me to the prophet Elijah, to this text from 1 Kings, to the wilderness which holds struggle, and unexpected gift.

The first is a story about going where I never thought I would, not because it made sense, not because it seemed wise or clear, but because I felt God calling me, like God called Elijah. “Get up. Go. It will not be easy, but it is what you need to do.”

The second is about seeing God’s Peace with Justice being brought to the world. To Minneapolis, precisely, because ordinary people are taking the time to care, to connect, to create.

The third is about recognizing that practicing what we preach, that living our faith, and following Jesus and letting scripture guide our lives, that this almost always takes us out of our comfort zone, and sometimes, outside the zone of safety, and security.

Story number 1: The prophet Elijah heard God say, “Go to Zarephath, the land of Sidon, and live there.” I heard God say, “Go to Iowa, the town of Osage, and live there.” Some of you have heard the story of how I came to say “yes” to this appointment. It is a long story, with many acts. This is the abbreviated version: I was planning on staying in Northern California. I loved it there, I loved my community, my colleagues, my friends who had become family. I love the cultural diversity, the racial diversity, the religious diversity of that place. I was fulfilled by my work as a hospital chaplain. The Iowa Conference approved my staying there, and was willing to allow me to continue the ordination process without coming back to Iowa to serve a church. I didn’t want to serve a church. I had heard too many stories about the challenges of being a pastor serving a church. Conflict. Constant criticism. Little time off, long hours, isolation. If you preach for 15 minutes, some complain it wasn’t 10, while others are sure anything under 20 is slacking on the job. Never living up to the expectations of those you serve. Always letting someone down, even if it is as you are serving another. Etc. So. My District Superintendent said I needed to put this request, the one they had already granted, in writing. One sentence. “Please appoint me to extension ministry so I can remain in ministry in the California-Nevada conference, while maintaining my official relationship with the Iowa Conference.” Simple enough. Except that I couldn’t do it. I tried. And something was holding me back.

After a week of trying to write this short, simple letter, the deadline loomed, and the final day arrived when it needed to be postmarked in order to get to the cabinet in time for them to appoint me to extension ministry. This was late May, 2008. On this final day, I sat down at my desk, took out a clean sheet of paper, lit a candle, and started to write my request. A breeze stirred, strong enough to lift my paper off my desk, carry it out of my open window, and blow it into the alley behind my apartment building.

I don’t always listen to God as carefully as I should, but this was obvious enough even for me.

I called my DS, and mumbled something about rethinking it, about feeling called, about thinking this was a God-thing, about being terrified. He asked me what I wanted in a congregation I might serve. I told him urban. In a city or college town. Culturally and racially diverse. Justice-oriented. Reconciling, United Methodist talk for, committed to inclusivity and intentionally welcoming gay and lesbian folk. Acting as an associate, not a solo pastor, so that I wouldn’t have to be the administrator, and instead could focus my energy on worship, program ministry, small groups and spiritual formation. A church paying 100% of apportionments. The district superintendent laughed. He said, “And you’re wanting to come back to Iowa?” They had already made most of the appointments. Remember, this is late May. But, he said, there is one appointment I’d like you to consider.

Less than two weeks later I was back in Iowa for Annual Conference, and my commissioning as provisional clergy. Less than a week after that, I was meeting with the SPPRC in a town called Osage, a place I had never been before. Less than an hour after meeting with SPPRC, I said yes to being appointed here.

I am grateful that piece of paper was carried out of my window. I am grateful I stepped out in faith, terrified, and said yes to coming here. I am grateful for the work and ministry we are doing together, for the relationships and community we are building, for the service and witness we have the opportunity to share, for the faith, we are deepening and practicing together.

When God told Elijah to go to Zarephath, scripture doesn’t tell us whether or not Elijah hesitated. Whether he had a moment of wind picking up and blowing his carefully constructed plans out of the window. But he set out and went to Zarephath, and God met him there, and miracles started happening. So too, with us.

Story 2: And, for those of you still concerned with the time, the stories get shorter and shorter… Last Thursday I rented a bike in Minneapolis, and rode around the city…rode literally in a circle around Minneapolis on the Greenway, and throughout the city streets. You now know, if you didn’t before, that I love cities. But, I also know cities are places with crime. With a particular kind of poverty. With the tension and sometimes violence that comes when people of vastly different income levels, cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, etc. come together. I rode around expecting to see signs of this. And I did…some…graffiti, folks without a home, making theirs on the street, bikes and cars and patio tables locked up, blocks that housed both expensive corporate buildings, and run down abandoned houses. Liqour stores, strip clubs, evidence of various kinds of addiction…

But. What I saw far more of, what caught and kept my attention, were community gardens. Garden after garden after garden, dotting the city with green and red and yellow, vibrant colors and new life, and signs of care and commitment to community and connection. As I rode, I met people of every race, hairstyle, clothing style. Not a single one failed to smile back, when I smiled at them. I watched as a young man, younger than I am, stopped and sat on a bench with his young daughter, and patiently listened as she told him, in Spanish, because that is what they spoke, about paper after paper after paper of drawings from school, and he smiled a smile of pure fatherly pride and held her with an embrace of pure fatherly love that can be recognized across any language barrier.

I saw sign after sign after sign of embodied efforts to invest in beauty. Community. Connection across difference. Peace with justice. Not by writing checks, or even doing grand, elaborate things. But by planting gardens. Making art. Smiling at strangers. Getting out of cars and onto bikes. Finding ways in daily life to chip away at the pandemic challenges of hunger. Violence. Division. Disconnection.

Each day we make decisions about whether we will ignore injustice, or confront it. Whether we will reach out to each other, or turn away. Whether we will expect goodness from strangers, or reasons to fear them.

God’s Peace with Justice comes when the widow is willing to share her last bit of food and water with a strange stranger, even though she had every good reason not to. Peace with Justice comes when we are willing to share what we have, to care for creation, to care for each other, and to live out the belief that what connects us is far stronger than what divides us.

Story 3: I had been working on my sermon while in Minneapolis. Thinking about how each interaction offers the choice to reach out and trust each other and trust God, or to fear each other, and distrust each other, therefore distrusting other children of God. I had been immersed in this text from 1 Kings, and was feeling pretty convicted that fear is not of God, that faith takes us out of our comfort zones. That sometimes the faithful thing is not the safe thing, and that sometimes following Christ comes with real risk.

Driving back toward home, I made it about 20 miles south of Minneapolis on I-35, and then saw two people by the side of the road. Two people about my age, maybe a little younger, a young woman and young man, looking for a ride. Now, I do not pick up hitchhikers. Each time there is a part of me that wants to, but when I am on my own, a woman traveling alone, I feel the risk is too great, and I drive by, trying to remember to offer a prayer for the traveler, for safety and care. As I approached these two people, however, I saw in them all of my friends who have travelled the country relying on the kindness of strangers. One had a peace sign affixed to his bag, the other had a rainbow flag on hers.

My life has taught me that people who love peace and confront the fear of homophobia are some of the most trustworthy people in the world. I heard my mom’s voice in my head, “NO! Your life is too valuable for this risk! Think about all the things that could happen! They could rob you! They could hurt you! They could kill you!” And, I heard the text from 1 Kings, saying back, “What value is your life if you don’t live your values? The widow was alone, utterly vulnerable, yet she welcomed Elijah. She gave what she had. She heard the care in Elijah’s voice when he told her not to be afraid. She opened her home to him, a traveling stranger, from a different place, a different culture, breaking all the rules about safety and security.”

I pulled over. I gave them a ride. They were lovely. We talked theology. One was raised Catholic, the other United Methodist. Both had left the church, as so many my age have, because of the hypocrisy they found there. People talking about the goodness and gift of creation, but then giving no thought to chemicals and pesticides and sustainability. People talking about God creating us in God’s own image, but then failing to remember that extends to immigrants, too, whatever documents they have or don’t have. People reading scripture about Jesus’ love, and being brothers and sisters in Christ, and judging not lest we be judged, and then justifying all sorts of judgment in the name of Christianity and values and religion.

A hundred miles or so later I left them by the side of the road with warm good byes. I know I got lucky. I know the ride could have gone very differently. I admit, if my sister were considering doing the same, I would likely try to talk her out of it. But. These hitchhikers led me to a deeper understanding of scripture. They led me to an encounter with God’s wide grace and deep power and unending love. They let me to remember how human we all are, how in need of care and connection and the kindness of strangers.

God told Elijah to Go. To live in a strange place with people who were not his own, and to trust in God’s grace, and the power of Christ’s connection. Elijah told the widow to not be afraid, to trust God when it made no sense to do so, and to share what she had.

May we hear the call of Elijah. May we heed the call of God. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

may 23, 2010

Anna Blaedel
May 23, 2010
First UMC, Osage
Acts 2:1-21

Last Tuesday, I glimpsed the glory of Pentecost. Prayer flags waved in the wind as hundreds, thousands of people curved in a snaking line, waiting to get into the stadium. The anticipation was palpable. The Spirit, moving. Once inside, a hush fell, and spread, throughout the crowd. Choirs sang, orchestral swells swept across the space, and French Horns called me into worship.

The Dalai Lama stepped onto the stage, ushering in a Spirit of peace, of connection, that cannot be described, only felt. When he spoke, I heard him share the central truth of Pentecost. He didn’t read from the book of Acts, obviously. He didn’t use the language of Christian scriptures, of the Holy Spirit, of the Triune God, of the birth of the Christian church, but it was still the story he told.

He spoke of the two different levels that shape humanity, that connect us with one another, and help us know how to live with and love each other. The second tier, he said, were the parts of us that are important…sometimes very important…but that can also create false divisions among us…the pieces that shape our lives…the language we speak, the nation we claim and call home, the color of our skin, our race, our religious tradition, our gender, our sexuality…whether we are rich or poor, young or old. This is the second tier.

But more fundamental than that, more real, more true, more important, more holy, than these pieces, is our common humanity. Being sisters and brothers. A human family, sharing one Earth.

Because I am a Christian pastor, I call this the Body of Christ. Buddhists call it the sangah. Muslims name it as the ummah—community of believers. Different names, pointing to the same truth.

It is, in the words of scripture, amazing…perplexing. Some respond, saying, “What does this mean?” Others simply sneer as the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. Not some flesh. All flesh. Invoking new visions. Calling for new dreams. Until the many are made one…Saved…Whole again.

I love Pentecost. I am not Pentecostal, but I do seek to be Spirit-filled. I do not speak in tongues, but I do seek to speak words of God’s powerful love and grace, to a world and people in deep need of powerful love, and grace. I do not claim to understand all languages, all native tongues, all expressions of faith, but I do seek to listen for the words of truth spoken by people very different from me.

I love Pentecost because it is wrapped in mystery…sighs too deep for words…movements that are unpredictable…new visions…new dreams…new prophesies…the fire of love in our flesh and our bones…

No matter how stuck we are. No matter how closed off we have become. No matter how entrenched we might be in false certainty. No matter how sure we are we know it all.

The Spirit moves. And we cannot help but be changed. Renewed. Revived. Reborn, of water and Spirit.

Ruach. Hebrew for breath. Wind. Spirit.

Pneuma. Greek for breath. Wind. Spirit.

One in the same. Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Breathe on me breath of God. Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Sweep across the face of the earth. Move us, and shake us up. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

Hear these five testimonies, five different people, five different voices bearing witness to how the Holy Spirit Moves Today, in 100 words or less:

(Carl Gregg)
The Spirit is at work wherever there is community. The Spirit is at work wherever there is gratitude. The Spirit is at work wherever there are "sighs too deep for words." The Spirit is at work wherever there is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," for these are the fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit is at work as the "whole creation groans in labor pains" birthing new life. The Spirit is at work wherever "young people prophesy" against injustice and "see visions" of hope and wherever elders still "dream dreams" of a better world.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

(Byron Wade)
Many people question if the Holy Spirit is at work in the world today. Put on some different eyes and see --
The claiming of an infant in baptism
The faith of a spouse in the loss of a loved one
The building of a Habitat for Humanity home
Strangers assisting in areas of a natural disaster
The grace exhibited to one another after a difficult discussion
And the ability to awaken to see a new day . . .
Then you can say the Holy Spirit is at work.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

(Monica Coleman)
when we put the gospel
to hip hop
and host u2charists,
when we share the church building
with the Korean congregation,
when we preach against homophobia
when we break bread
with jews and muslims,
when the teenagers lead worship
on a regular Sunday (not just youth day)
when we invoke the ancestors
and learn from their lives,
when we live at the borders
offering water to those in the desert
harbor to those in danger
and community when we don't fit in. . .
it is then that we speak in tongues

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

(Sam Hamilton-Poore)
Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit -- quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit -- and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world -- so spectacularly broken and burning -- needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.
(Bruce Epperly)
The Spirit is found in "sighs too deep for words" that move through creation, giving us life, energy, imagination, and courage to face the challenges of today. Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." With every breath, we can receive that same life-giving power that breaks down barriers of ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, age, and faith tradition. With every breath, we can experience Spirit, enabling us to receive and give the divine inspiration that transforms all things, mind, body, spirit, relationships, and the planet.
Breathe deeply God's Spirit; be transformed and inspired.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

may 16, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage—Graduation Sunday
May 16, 2010
Jeremiah 29:11
Acts 16:16-34

Suddenly the season is upon us…The season of Pomp and Circumstance…of caps and gowns…of final transcripts…college applications….job interviews…fresh starts…of Open Houses and Baccalaureate and Commencement and Senioritis…

Today, I’m preaching this sermon to you, graduating seniors. To you, Courtney. You, Alicia. You, Angie. You, Justin. You, Jonathan. The rest of you are invited to listen in, too. Let us pray…

I love this palpable sense of expectation. Anticipation. Of dreams and possibilities and imagining what might be. And, I’m a sucker for the quotes that are tossed around this time of year—written in cards…printed on invitations…echoed in speeches…printed on bulletins…

Henry David Thoreau—Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

William Arthur Ward—If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.

Anatole France—To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.

Eleanor Roosevelt—The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Ralph Waldo Emerson—Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Confucius—Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

Les Brown—Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

Mark Twain—Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Judy Garland—Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.

e.e.cummings—To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight…never stop fighting. It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

Even Dr. Suess—You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the one who’ll decide where to go.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 16:13-14—Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

And, the prophet Jeremiah—“I know what I’m doing, says God. I have plans already in mind for you—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you a future with hope.”

It is a time when we, not just you, the graduates, but everyone it seems, remembers to remember…that dreams are vital…the possibilities are almost limitless, if we believe, and act…that imagination matters…that the world is wide open, waiting to be reshaped, recreated, reinvigorated, reimagined. That was is is not all that might be, and how we are is not all that we might become…

One of you, one of this community’s graduating seniors recently spoke to me about the benediction I give, more or less the same, most Sundays: As you go forth into your one wild and precious lives…it begins. She said she likes that it is the same, because she is able, after all these Sundays in worship, to say the words along with me. If all I accomplish in ministry is that I offer you, offer these young adults, a blessing that can stay on your lips and live on in your hearts, I think it might just be enough.

I can’t take credit, however, for the benediction. It came from a mentor, a wonderful pastor, Rev. Odette Lockwood Stewart, serving Epworth UMC in Berkeley. And, neither of us can take credit for the opening words of this benediction. They come from a poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. The poem is called, The Summer Day. Close your eyes, if you like, while I read it.

Mary Oliver writes:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

This is, it seems to me, the perfect question to ask graduates: Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

And, it is the perfect question, it seems to me, for us to keep asking ourselves, over and over and over, throughout the years of our lives.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, she writes, I do know how to pay attention. They are very close to being one in the same. When we pay attention, our hearts become vulnerable to beauty, and to the pain of others. Our minds open to truth, and question injustice. Our souls stay centered in the peace and love of our living God.

Tell me. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? This isn’t so far from the question raised in this morning’s lectionary text from the book of Acts. I’m going to read the story again. But first, I want to point out a few of the lessons I take from it, a few of the kernels of truth I believe are offered to us through these words of scripture.

First, the world often teaches us that it is good to make money, in any way we can, given the opportunity. God teaches us that making money off another humans, on the backs of others, is nothing to be proud of. If our profits come to us at the cost or harm of another, we are not really profiting at all.

Second. When people fear their wealth is threatened, they often get angry, and lash out. Just look at how huge multi-billion dollar insurance companies sqwuak at the idea of all people receiving the heath care they need. Or how big oil companies respond to people who say we should drill and drive a little less, conserve a little more. How factory farms treat family farms. How global corporations treat local business. Love of money can take over, and keep us from loving each other.

Third. Angry mobs are dangerous. Even smart people turn stupid when they’re shouting at others, or out for blood.

Fourth. Powerful people will do what they can to shut up people who threaten that power, or call it into question. Look what the religious and political leaders did to Jesus, when he threatened their policies, and told them God was greater than they would ever be.

Fifth. Our faith, our Christian tradition, our scripture, is filled with examples of how, when people dig deep down into the core of their faith, no matter how bad it seems, there is still, always, some reason to sing songs of praise to God.

Six. When things look so bleak you are sure there is no chance for anything to get better…when it all feels hopeless…when there seems to be no way out…God is already at work, and something miraculous just might be waiting around the corner.

Seven. Trusting in God is never foolish. Believing we should do nothing while waiting for God to do everything is also foolish.

Eight. Following the teachings of Jesus will save you. Following Jesus will not make you rich, or famous. It will not keep you from hardship, or tragedy. It will not ensure promotions, or social power. But, following the teachings of Jesus will save you.

And finally. It is always good to gather at table with people you love, and share in celebration. Celebration is best shared. Spend time with those you love. Sit down and eat together. Find reasons to celebrate.

Hear these words, again, from Acts 16:16-34…

And now, hang with me here…I’m about to close…I want to share one more poem with you. Another one written by Mary Oliver.

This one is called Wild Geese. It echoes, to me, the promises of God. The power of grace. The necessity of connection, human and divine. The unique place in the world, and in the heart of God, each of you holds.

She writes:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you over and over…

So tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life? May it be so. Amen, and amen.

may 9, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
Mother’s Day 05.09.10
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29

Last year, on Mother’s day, I preached about my mama—her faith, her nurturing and shaping of my faith. I shared stories about how she learned to live Jesus’ teaching, the core and key commandment of scripture—love your neighbors, no matter who God gives you as neighbors. My mom learned this Great Commandment as move by move, new neighbor by new neighbor, God kept giving my mama every kind of neighbor she feared, or dreaded, or in her heart of hearts didn’t want, or knew would push her out of her comfort zone. It started with an African-American family. Next, a Jewish one. People with mental health issues. Then, two gay men, now married, raising adopted children.

So, last year I preached about my mama, and this year I’m going to preach about my mama. I feel certain that, with all my mom has taught me, I could preach about her every mother’s day, plus a few other Sundays along the way, for the rest of my preaching tenure, and I wouldn’t run out of stories, or teachings, or lessons imparted with love. Let us pray…

This morning, I want to share 5 things my mom has taught me. Five things that touch to the heart of Christianity. The heart of Christian faith.

First, she taught me that showing up in worship each and every week was the bare minimum of practicing faith. Sunday morning worship was a non-negotiable when I was growing up. We did not miss Sunday worship. We did not miss Sunday worship. From the day of my baptism, when I was 5 years old, until when I graduated high school, I could count the number of Sundays I wasn’t in church. This isn’t hyperbole, or a preacher wanting to make a point. There were under ten missed Sundays, in over 12 years. When I fact checked this with my mom, she said, “Surely there weren’t TEN!” It was likely closer to five, but we are sure it was under ten.

When sports clubs held practice on Sunday morning, we didn’t play on those club teams. When we were traveling or on vacation, we looked for the nearest cross and flame, there always was one, not too far away, and we went into worship. My family has worshipped in the United Methodist churches of Texarkana and Texline, Winnemuca and Reno…

In fact, being on vacation sometimes left my mom inclined to double or triple up on services, just for the sheer enjoyment…this was NOT about guilt or rigid religious obligation. When we were at the beach, when we still go to the beach, we go to beach church—a service right on the beach. And, sometimes, into town afterwards for church at the little beach chapel. When we were in London, we went to Wesley chapel, one, two, three times…in ONE day. I have a picture of me, age about 14, standing in the pulpit John Wesley preached from—this is many years before I first considered becoming a pastor, looking, perhaps, a little weary of Wesley, and his worship!

Mothers impart habits, both good and bad, on their children. Habits these children later learn and commit to keep, or to break. My mom instilled in me the habit of regular worship. Showing up in worship each and every week is the bare minimum of practicing faith. I don’t feel at all sure I would be a pastor today, or even part of the church, if I hadn’t been in worship each week growing up, thanks to my mom.

Lesson 2: Showing up for worship each week will never make you part, really part, of a faith community. You will not feel connected, be part of the connection, develop deep relationships, really know your pastor, really deepen your faith, if your only contact with the church each week is sitting in the pew Sunday morning. It takes Sunday School, book groups, outreach to the community. Cooking meals. Serving meals. Reading scripture. Leading a small group. Teaching a class on a subject close to your heart. Visiting other members of the congregation. Praying for each other, regularly and intentionally. Going on retreats together, marching together, witnessing together, working together. You already know this, I suspect. Part of how we develop closeness is through regular contact.

Those of you who are here often…who peel potatoes, and attend bible studies, and teach Sunday school, and attend circle, and yes, even serve on committees…those of you who set up tables, and ready the sanctuary for the next liturgical season, and attend midweek services, and come to the United Methodist 101 study, and mow the lawn and tend the garden and tend to the children’s folders…In order to be and become the body of Christ, we have to have contact with each other. Showing up for worship each and every week is the bare minimum of practicing your faith, but. and. Showing up for worship each week will never really make you a part of a faith community.

Lesson 3: Think back to last year (and try not to feel too guilty, but maybe a little bit convicted, if you weren’t here this Sunday, last year!). Being a follower of Christ means loving your neighbors, whoever God gives you as a neighbor. When my family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, not everyone welcomed us. We were Yankees. And this still, truly, can be an issue for folks in the deep South, where the Civil War is still taught, in some schools, as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Our next door neighbors were the Heater-Lees. They were a nice, fairly traditional, family—mom and dad, and two little boys not far from the ages of myself and my sister. They had a gentle, loving Black lab, a pool with a slide, awesome toys. The perfect neighbors. And, they were black. And, this was enough to make most of the neighborhood turn away, turn against them, not let their children play with them. My sister and I were allowed to play with them, and were eager to play with them, which points to other lessons taught by my mom.

Last week, I called my mom, distressed. Really, upset, actually. Scared. I learned that there are 7 active groups of the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, within 60 miles of here. Spread throughout the country, and the state of Iowa, are active hate groups, including the KKK. Looking at the Hate Map of Iowa, however, brought me to tears. Made my heart pound. Made me sick to my stomach. There is one dot, indicating such a group, in Cedar Rapids. One in Des Moines. One in Boone. One in Cedar Falls. And, a big, bright red cluster of dots, right around Osage. Charles City. Clear Lake. Rockwell. Mason City. New Hampton…the list went on and on. I felt, I feel, sick, and scared.

Then, within a few days, I learned of a Facebook group, organized solely around “Praying for President Obama’s death.” Praying for someone’s death, for anyone’s death, is really appalling to me. For the death of our nation’s leader, elected by the people. This is not a Republican/Democrat issue. This is not about who you voted for, or whether you agree with the new health care plan, or not. Praying for his death. There is so much racism in the attacks against him…not part of the “real,” read, “white” America…it goes on and on. I felt, I feel, sick, and scared.

So, feeling sick and scared, I did what I do when I don’t know what else I can do…I called my mama. And, she reminded me of our time in Fayetteville. Of learning that our neighbors, across the street, members of our church, Haymount UMC, refused to talk to our next door neighbors, the Heather-Lees. That only one other family in our neighborhood had contact with them, spoke with them, build connection with them. My mom loved a lot about Fayetteville. She loved our church. She loved our neighborhood. She loved our neighbors. She still does. And, she knew then that she could never live there for long, that she could not stay, and raise her children in the kind of environment where people who call themselves Christian can be so un-Christ-like, where people who call themselves Christian will turn away from kindness, compassion, connection, turn toward hate, prejudice, fear, because of the color of someone’s skin.

My family is still in contact with the Heater Lees. They are one of the few families we still see regularly, with whom we have stayed connected. And, my family no longer lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

My mama taught me, being a Christian means loving your neighbors, whoever God gives you as a neighbor.

Which, brings me to lesson 4. Being a Christian means standing up for people who are pushed to the margins, of the church, and of society. Standing up for love, and standing up against hate, no matter the consequences. Just a few years ago, my family went to our family farm for Memorial Day. The farm where my grandpa grew up, down in Southeast Iowa. Our extended family still owns a small piece of timber connected with the farm, and every year we gather there for our Bell family reunion. There is a little cemetery, where my grandpa, uncle, and countless other relatives are buried, where my grandma, and parents will be buried. And, there is a little church, built sometime around 1840, in which my family has gathered for many years. Recently, we have been part of the work and the financing to restore this old, one room sanctuary. So, we drove down for Memorial Day, to put flowers on graves and go to a church service held in that little church.

Within a few minutes of the pastor starting his sermon, my mom, dad, sister and I were getting nervous. The sermon was, well, to call it “Fire and Brimstone” would be a gentle understatement. You can imagine the kind of language, the message. Unfortunately, it is heard all too often these days. Filled with hate, and fear. The horrible, evil people bent on destroying “us,” whoever the “us” is…The pastor started by lambasting Muslims, followers of Islam, then went on to gays and immigrants and feminists, and …well, you get the point. We didn’t know what to do. Again, that sick, scared feeling was settling in the pits of our stomachs. It got so bad, the language turned so violent, we knew we couldn’t stay. My mom turned to me and whispered, “You speak. I speak. Or we leave.” I was in favor of fleeing. My mom, fueled by faith, not fear, felt called to witness.

At the end of the sermon, she stood. She named her connection to this church, to the Christian faith. She quoted scripture, the teachings of Jesus. She preached. Perfect love casts out all fear. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. What does God require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? The greatest commandment is this—love God, and love your neighbor.

I was filled with fear, imagining all that this angry, hate filled crowd could do. My mom was filled with faith, and the call of faith: Being a Christian means standing up for love, and standing up against hate, no matter the consequences.

And finally, briefly, lesson 5: Practicing our faith as disciples of Jesus means constantly re-evaluating our beliefs. Rooting ourselves in the teachings of Jesus, and opening ourselves to the whispers of the Holy Spirit, the Friend, the Advocate, whom God sends in Jesus’ name—remember the gospel text from John we read this morning—the Holy Spirit who will teach us everything, Jesus said, and remind us of how, in this time and this place, we might follow and be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, the call of God.

It is hard to shift beliefs. Think, if you can, of the last time you did a 180 with a deeply held belief. A time when your conviction changed, because of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Doing this requires deep listening, deep faith, deep humility, and deep trust in the spirit of our Living God. My mom does it well. My sister and I have dubbed her, in fact, “The Queen of Transformation.” It is not that she is wishy-washy, or easily swayed. But she is willing to rethink, to reconsider, and to reorient her beliefs, when she feels the Holy Spirit calling her to be more open, more loving, more compassionate, more gentle. To draw the circle wide, and then wider still. The Queen of Transformation, seeking to live her living faith.

“Jesus answered Judas by saying, “Those who love me will follow my teachings, and my God will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the teachings you hear are not only mine, but from God, who sent me.” Jesus continued, “I have said all these things to you while I am still with you. But the Friend, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God sends in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” May it be so. Amen, and amen.

may 2, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
May 2, 2010
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6

I want to share a story with you. It takes place in the Washington DC Metro, and though I wasn’t there, I have encountered a similar set of events in the San Francisco Metro BART station…

On a cold, January morning in 2007, a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, about 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes later, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes later, a 3 year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes later, the musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 people gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this, but…The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate, difficult, and mesmerizing pieces ever written, with a violin worth about $3.5 million. Only two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the tickets averaged $100.

People go to great lengths to seek him out. People talk about him, write about him, admire him, stand in awe of him. And, when he showed up in the middle of their daily lives, they were too busy to notice…They walked past the beauty, they passed through the grace.

This is a true story. It was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, and people’s priorities. The questions raised:

In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

Do we stop to appreciate it?

Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

The story concludes with these lines, “One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing?
How many other things are we missing? I think this is the question this morning’s scripture from Revelation asks us to ask ourselves, over and over…

How many other things are we missing? And, how might we stop, look, listen, and praise God for the good gifts all around?
This reading from the book of Revelation is one of my very favorite passages in all of scripture. It is a text I often use in funerals, when we celebrate someone’s mortal life, and their transition into life eternal. It is a promise—one that seems too good to be true. All things, made new. A new heaven, and a new earth. The people of the new creation as eager for God as a newlywed is for her beloved. God, making God’s home, here. It may seem too good to be true, but the promise is that it is true!

When I lived in Berkeley and commuted every morning into San Francisco to work as a hospital chaplain at UCSF Medical Center, I treasured my time on the train. I love people watching, San Francisco makes for great people watching. I also loved hearing the street musicians who would pick a spot in the underground tunnels, and play. It was a simple, daily pleasure that reminded me to praise God for the beauty around me, for the other mortals around me, making their home with God in their unique and varied ways. Some people played beautifully, startlingly so, incredible musicians trying out new pieces on a half-listening crowd, playing for a few extra dollars, sharing their gifts with a city that appreciates and encourages music.

And, some played not so beautifully. I remember one old man, probably homeless, and obviously struggling with mental illness, likely schizophrenia, and if he was taking his medicine, he sat quietly on an old overturned crate, making a racket on an old battered violin, sounding awful, but with a look of pure, quiet, calm on his face. And, if he wasn’t taking his medication, he walked quickly back and forth, waving the violin frantically plucking at the strings, calling out, “Music! Music! Hear the Music!” I do not know what music he was hearing. I do know I remember him, that he made a mark on me, and taught me something about human beauty and human vulnerability.

But anyway. Music in the San Francisco subways as I made my morning commute. After about 6 months of long hours, overnight shifts, and working daily with death and trauma and crisis—I remember, very distinctly a day I realized my spiritual life needed attending to, that I hadn’t been being faithful to my spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, scripture, and music. One morning, I found myself walking through the subway without noticing the music. I was rushing, my mind was on the patient cases I knew were waiting for me. It wasn’t until the man ran up behind me, recognizing me somehow from our many chance morning meetings, and tapped me lightly on the shoulder with his bow, and screamed, with a huge smile, “Music! Music! Hear the music!”

If only the reminder was always that clear. If only, when we get too distracted to notice God’s new heaven and new earth coming into being around us, we could get a light tap on the shoulder, and a smiling scream, “Listen! Look! God is here!”
God, making God’s home, here. God, dwelling with us, God’s people. God is with us! God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more and mourning and crying and pain will be no more…

This is, after all, when this passage from Revelations is all about, and what the Psalmist is crying out for us to do! Remember the words of Psalm 148—Praise! Praise! Every animal, every place, every person, every creature, in every season, every circumstance, called to praise God, to notice God, to celebrate God, and for God’s sake, not to miss it all! “Let your praises sing out, all who love God, you, intimate friends of God!”

This scripture, and the promise it holds, makes me think of one of my favorite new hymns. You can find it in the little black Faith We Sing. It is called “Gather Us In.” Here in this place, new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away. See in this space our fears and our dreamings, brought here to you in the light of this day. Gather us in the lost and forsaken. Call to us now and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name. Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place, a new light is streaming, now is the kingdom, now is the day!”

And then…then it feel like the scripture was written just for me, which, if we actually think about what we believe, don’t we believe that scripture was written, inspired, shared, brought to life, for each and every one of us, that we might have life? Many of you know that if I want to remember something, I write it down. If I don’t write it down, it is likely to get lost in the clutter of my mind. So the scripture speaks to me, especially: “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true…” Or, according to Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, “Write is all down—and remember to return to it—each work of this promise is dependable, honest, and real!”

Now is the Kingdom, now is the day!............Are we missing it?

To close, I want to share another story with you. Or rather, a little bit of wisdom, compiled by Erma Bombeck. When Erma found out she was dying from cancer, she wrote a list of the things she would change, if she had her life to live over. Those things she wouldn’t want to miss…the small, sweet pleasures, like happening upon a world renowned musician on your daily commute…

Erma wrote:

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day.

I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.

I would have talked less and listened more.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded.

I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandparents ramble about their youth.

I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair might get messed up.

I would have sat on the lawn with my grass stains.

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television [or, I would add, online, or on Facebook] and more while watching life.

I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.

When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, 'Later. Now go get washed up for dinner.' There would have been more 'I love you's' More 'I'm sorry's.'

But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute. look at it and really see it . . live it and give thanks for it…

Write this, remember this, for these words are trustworthy, and true. “Look! Look! God is now our neighbor. God is here, among us. God’s home is no longer far away. We are God’s people. God’s beauty, all around us, within us. Will we stop to appreciate it? To tend to it? To share it?

Help us, God, not to miss it…

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

april 25, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
April 25, 2010
Psalm 23
Acts 9:1-20

In 1968, the year, coincidentally the year that The Methodist Church joined with the EUB—Evangelical United Brethren Church—to form The UNITED Methodist Church, a movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was released. It was based on Neil Simon’s Broadway play from 1965. The premise of the movie centered around two friends (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) trying to share an apartment. In this process, they find that their ideas of housekeeping and their lifestyles are as different as night and day. The movie was called…The Odd Couple. This odd couple faces just how different they are. They experience the almost inevitable rub when very different people, very different cultures, mix and mingle. They learn how challenging it is to build connection and be in relationship across deep difference. And, they show us how difficult, but also how funny, how profound, and how heart-warming the results of this work can be.

This morning, I want to explore, together, four other odd couples. I believe each shares and shows us something about how to live faithfully and love faithfully. First, let us pray…

Couple #1 Amory Peck, and Richard Hearne. Amory is the conference lay leader of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the UMC. Richard is the conference lay leader of the North Texas Conference of the UMC. Amory is an out and proud and partnered lesbian. Richard is a self-proclaimed conservative, a traditionalist. Both are people of deep, engaged faith. Both orient their lives in service to the church. Both serve with me on the General Board of Church and Society. All of us serve on the Human Welfare subcommittee of this board, and are tasked with writing and reviewing legislation that goes to General Conference to be voted on by the delegates regarding our language, believes, and understanding of human sexuality, including policies about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks in the church.

Amory, Richard and I are tasked with drafting this initial statement. I don’t need to tell you, it is no small, no easy tasking.

Recently, on a conference call, Richard, Amory and I were divvying up the work for each of us to do, and then arranging for the next conference call to share and build from our individual efforts. We testified to the sacred connections we have built with each other, across incredible difference—theological, political, experiential, cultural.

Richard spoke of how his relationship with Amory has opened his mind and his heart to ways of living and loving he had deep, deep bias against and resistance toward, bias and resistance born from his faith, and his fear. Amory spoke of how her relationship with Richard has opened her mind and her heart to ways of believing and feeling she had deep, deep bias against and resistance toward, bias and resistance born from her faith, and her fear.

We all spoke of experiencing, and modeling, a kind of relationship we long to see happen in congregations, and throughout our denomination. Where we look, and listen, and pray, and love—together. Where we all have a space at the table. Where every child of God is part of the conversation, and treated with sacred worth. Where every relationship with God is respected, and valued, and recognized. We all wanted to say to the church as a whole…Take a good look! If we can do it, if Anna and Richard and Amory can do it, what’s our excuse?

Couple #2 Frank Meeink and the Anti-Defamation League. As a teenager, Frank was one of the most well-known Neo-Nazi Skinhead gang members in the country. The Anti-Defamation League is a civil rights organization fighting anti-semitism and bigotry in all forms. Frank had his own public access talk show, called The Reich. He regularly recruited members of his South Philadelphia neighborhood to join his racist, violent gang. He served as a spokesman for neo-Nazi topics.

The Anti-Defamation League was formed in 1913 to counter the rising tide of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country, to build bridges for communication, and to encourage understanding and respect among different and diverse groups. They monitor and expose hate groups, offer educational programs, probe the roots of hatred, and mobilize communities to stand up against bigotry, hatred, and prejudice-fueled violence.

When he was 18, Frank Meeink spent several years in prison for kidnapping one man, and beating another man senseless for several hours. While in prison, Meeink says, he was exposed to people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Meeink says, “It had already come to me [while in prison,] maybe I need to start looking at things, and reevaluating what I believe. But I still always thought my purpose in life was, you know, that God wouldn’t have put me in this purpose of being an Aryan Christian soldier if he didn’t want me here. [I believed I was doing the will of God.].”

The relationships Frank built in prison, and the support he received from Black, Latino, and Asian prisoners when white supremacist groups began to inflict their violence on Frank, led him to keep returning to his racist beliefs with questions… Frank says, “I felt so evil. Throughout my life, I felt like maybe I was bad on the outside, but good on the inside. Then, one day, it switched. I felt OK on the outside, but I felt so evil inside. I had no one to talk to. So I went to the FBI…and I told them my story. I said, I don’t have any information on anybody, but I just need to let you know what it’s like. And they listened, because the Oklahoma City bombing had just happened.” The FBI recommended that Meeink contact the Anti-Defamation League. He did. Frank Meeink recently wrote and released a powerful memoir, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. He now regularly lectures to students about racial diversity and accepting difference, and using relationships as a tool to dismantle fear-based hate, rather than violence.

Take a good look! If Frank Meeink can be transformed, if he and the Anti-Defamation League can work together to build a better world, what’s our excuse?

Couple #3 Jesus and Saul. You heard the story read from the ninth chapter of Acts. Saul was out to get the disciples of Jesus, and he was out for blood. Search warrants in hand, he set out to track down and turn in anyone seeking to live their lives after the example of Christ. It took a dramatic meeting with the Risen One to turn Saul around.

And Saul had a lot of turning around to do. He was a persecutor. He thrived on a reign of terror, using fear and intimidation and violence. The people, understandably, were hesitant to trust this transformation. Their very lives depended on fearing and avoiding Saul of Tarsus. But Jesus, as Jesus does, creates an-other way.

Jesus zeros in on the most despicable of characters, the most misguided, least trustworthy, least Christ-like guy on the block, and decides this, THIS is who he will use to teach the community, the world, about the way of Jesus, the life of Christ. This is who will bear the Good News of forgiveness. And compassion. And lifting up love over fear. And being the united Body, when the world tells us we are divided.

Saul, at the beginning of the story, at least, is filled with hate. Jesus overflows with love. Saul proclaims power through violence, and might. Jesus proclaims power through compassion, and care. Saul knows a world in stark black and white, right and wrong, with us or against us. Jesus knows a reign in rainbow, where diverse and different folks come together, united in faith, being and building the king-dom come.

Take a good look! If the scales can fall from Saul’s eyes, if even he can be transformed, and become a sign of Jesus’ creative, redeeming work, if he and Jesus can work together, and invite us to join, in building the Body, in ushering in the reign of justice and love, what’s our excuse?

And finally, briefly, couple #5. Bella, and Tarra. Bella is an Asian elephant, weighing in at 8,700 lbs. Tarra is a dog. I’ll let the folks at CBS share this story with you…

(watch clip)

Recall the final words of the broadcast: “They harbor no fears, no secrets, no prejudices. Just two living creatures who somehow managed to look past their immense differences…

Take a good look! If they can do it, what’s our excuse?”

May it be so. Amen, and amen.