Lust, Power and Bread

by Rev. Scott Summerville

II Samuel 11:26- 12:10, John 6:1-14

When our son was a little guy, maybe four or five years old, and his sister was seven or eight, he would sometimes notice when she was going into the shower, and he would just happen to lie down on his back outside the bathroom door. He would say, “I think I’ll just lie here a little while.” His sister was on to him from the start. He was not going to get any peeks under her towel! After one of these episodes she came to the dinner table and said with a sigh, “Boys! They want to look at girls with their clothes off. It starts when they are about four and ends when they are nine.” She declared this with calm assurance, as though she had researched this subject thoroughly.

“It ends when they are about nine…” I don’t think so!
Little boys love to look.
Little girls too.
Men look.
Women look.

There is a built in connection between sexuality and sight – the innocence of a child – who wants to see – the naturalness of the fascination humans have for bodies. Without that fascination there would be no love songs, and there would be no sweet little babies to baptize. Sexuality is a gift of God.

Today we are continuing with the story of David and Bathsheba which we began last Sunday, and we are continuing the story of Jesus feeding the hungry in the Gospel of John.

I spoke last Sunday about the contrast between King David in the Second Book of Samuel, where he uses his subjects for his own gratification, and Jesus in the sixth chapter of John, where he uses his power to feed those who are hungry and to quiet the souls of those who are fearful. The story of David and Bathsheba, a story of sexual desire and the abuse of power, begins on a roof top in Jerusalem:

One day King David in his palace in Jerusalem – his troops were off at war – according to scripture it happened late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof that he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

David at this point had some choices. He could have enjoyed the moment. He could have turned his eyes and gone inside. He had done no wrong to this woman. But the seeing was not enough, and when he did turn away, it was to plot a great evil. King David devoured Bathsheba, first with his eyes, then he devoured her in his bed.

Some biblical commentators refer to the “romance” between David and Bathsheba. One calls it “an evening romance.” As I said last week when we began this story, this was no romance. David committed royal rape. She was his subject; her husband off in battle, fighting David’s battle. She had no voice or choice. She was summoned and she came. He said lie down and she lay down. And then when her husband Uriah became inconvenient, David had him killed, not in a fit of passion, but in a calm deliberately laid out conspiracy to murder and deceive.

And he shed no tears – David shed no tears for Uriah – it was Bathsheba who wept when Uriah was killed, and when her tears were barely dry, David called for her again and took her as his wife. The scriptures do not call this an evening romance, especially since, after all, it happened one afternoon.

When kings abuse their power who is there to stand up to them? Usually there is no one, but in this case the story takes place in the land of Israel, and in the land of Israel there were prophets who spoke the truth of God, even to kings. Soon after David took the wife of Uriah whom he had murdered to be his wife, the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to pay the King a visit. He greeted the king with the story of a man, a rich man who the stole the lamb, the beloved pet lamb of a poor man, the poor man’s only lamb, and cooked it and fed it to his guests, because he did not wish to take a lamb from his own large flock.

Hearing Nathan’s story King David became enraged and declared that such a person deserved to die! Then Nathan looked the king in the eye and said, “You are that man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel …. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him ….. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me…”

God took this very personally. In the bible God is not impartial. God takes sides. God takes the side of the poor when they are abused by the wealthy. God takes the side powerless when they are abused by the powerful. So David had to reckon with God for his crimes.

There is a woman who was once a member of this congregation. She had been abused in her childhood. When she was in her 20’s she rented a little off-off-Broadway theater space, where she put on a one-woman show she had written, and she told her story to the small audiences who came to watch her. A few years later she had moved away, and her talents earned her a place on a national television reality show. On national television she told her story. Once she had been a little girl abused and tormented, hopelessly vulnerable to what was done to her by someone who should have protected her. Out of the torments of abuse and betrayal, she emerged as a talented fiery brave young woman, and the truth was told. It was quite a thing to see her face on the television screen telling the world what she had once spoken only in private. There was justice in that. And it was powerful. Maybe seeing her face and hearing her story gave hope to a lot of people who never got a chance to do that.

In Jesus we have a shepherd who protects and feeds the sheep. We have one who came as a servant, not to use those who follow him for his own gratification, but to serve them and to give himself for them. Today we hear Jesus speak the words:

“I am the bread of life.
Those who come to me shall not hunger.
Those who come to me shall not thirst.”

Jesus did not just talk about hunger, and he did not offer people spiritual bread alone. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John he offers himself as spiritual bread for the spiritually hungry, but when the people in front of him have empty stomachs, he first feeds them and fills their stomachs.

Our congregation sends volunteers to the Sharing Community soup kitchen in downtown Yonkers. Yesterday a group of volunteers was there and served beef stew to about one hundred and fifty people: women and men, children and elderly, the homeless and the working poor. One hundred and fifty souls. That is just one soup kitchen on one street corner on one day. The scene is multiplied thousands upon thousands of times all over this nation. How can this be, in the USA? In this land that is the breadbasket of the world?

The Scripture today presents the ancient challenge of the Hebrew prophets, Nathan’s challenge to king David, the challenge to those who have power to use their power for the benefit of the people, not to use their power to gratify their own desires and greed.

The gospel today presents us with the challenge of Jesus. It is a challenge to us as a nation – it is a challenge to us as a church: the challenge to remember that people are hungry. People are spiritually hungry and empty and longing for their lives to mean something. And a large chunk of humanity is hungry in the belly – too many people don’t have enough to eat.

Jesus is the bread of life – that means hope for empty hearts.

It also means justice for poor and hungry people.

So be it.

Grace and peace to you.

What Power Do You Have?

by Rev. Scott Summerville

And Jesus could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Mark 6:5-6
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Have you ever felt powerless? Someone does something that hurts you or hurts them. You tell yourself you could have done something. You should have done something. You could have stopped it. But you cannot imagine how…. you recognize that you are powerless. Someone gets sick; someone dies; a global financial crisis wipes out half the equity in your home. Things are happening all the time that we cannot control.

We can all think of many ways in which we are powerless. But have you ever felt powerful? I suspect that is a more difficult question for most of us. Maybe you scored a goal on the soccer field and for an exhilarating moment you felt powerful. Maybe you got an A on a difficult test. Maybe you had a baby, and you said, “Oh my God, look what I just did!”

Maybe you found the courage to face something that was terribly difficult to face. Maybe you suffered some great setback, and you gathered your strength and made a comeback. Maybe you faced a life threatening disease and discovered you had powers within you that you never knew you had. It is important to recognize that we all have power. It may not be as great as we wish, but we all have power.

A strange thing happened in the story told in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is powerless. He is unable to do his powerful deeds in his own hometown of Nazareth. That’s an amazing thing to ponder – even Jesus did not always have the power to do great things.

Mark 6:
1 He ….came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.
2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Mary Ellen recently completed her seminars on marriage, based on the book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. One of the seven principles for making marriage work, principle number four, is: Let Your Partner Influence You. I quote from pages 100 and 101 of the book:

There was a time when a husband’s macho attitude wasn’t necessarily a liability…. [paraphrase].
“But our data suggest that this is no longer the case. In our long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, now in its eighth year, we found that even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives influence. Statistically speaking when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.

Our study didn’t find that men should give up all of their personal power and let their wives rule their lives. But we did find that the happiest, most stable marriages in the long run were those where the husband treated his wife with respect and did not resist power-sharing and decision-making with her. When the couple disagree, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.”

Some people need to control others in order to feel powerful. But there is a deeper kind of power, a power that is shared, something today I will call “relational power.” Relational power is when two people allow themselves to be influenced by one another, and in doing so they feel their individual power grow through the sharing of that power, rather than attempting to feel powerful to their forcefulness or ability to dominate another person.

In the Bible there are two images of Jesus and his power. In one image his power is absolute. He can do anything he wants. He can calm storms at sea. He can feed hungry people miraculously. Nothing ever surprises him, because he knows everything. But we see today that the Bible does not always present Jesus this way, and at times Jesus’ power was not absolute and unlimited. At times his power is made possible only by the response of others. It is “relational power,” as opposed to absolute power.

The idea of relational power is similar to what the marriage book was talking about. If a husband or wife can only feel powerful by exerting their will over their spouse — if a husband or wife is not open to being influenced by their partner — the data shows that in more than 80% of cases the marriage will die.

There are clergy who see their power as power over others. They believe that their role is to influence other people and not to be influenced by them. They tend to impose decisions on other people, believing that they have the right and the wisdom to exert their power in that way. But a mature leader understands that real power comes from exerting an influence over others and being willing to allow others to influence you. That’s what I’m calling relational power. It is power that is interactive and responsive to other people.

So let’s look at this strange Bible passage where Jesus cannot do what he seeks to do.
We are told that Jesus is in his home town of Nazareth in Galilee. It is the sabbath, the Jewish day of rest and prayer. Jesus was in the synagogue teaching. He already had a reputation; people had heard that the hometown boy was making a big name for himself. As he spoke in the synagogue the audience sensed something powerful in his presentation, but they were skeptical at the same time. It’s hard to be impressed by somebody you know really well, especially if you watched that person grow up, if you knew them before they had their big success. The hometown people listened to Jesus for a while, but then the grumbling began. They said, “Where did this guy get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Where did he get these grand ideas – and where does his power come from – if in fact he has the power they say he has?” They knew him as one of them. They knew him as young man who had practiced a common trade – he was no philosopher to them, no prophet – he was a carpenter with his father – they knew his family – they knew him when he was nobody – they were not going to be easily impressed, now that he had made a name for himself.

Mark tells us that they said among themselves: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

If you were raised as a Catholic, you may be confused by this reference to Jesus having sisters and brothers. Catholic doctrine is that Mary was a virgin all her life — so how did Jesus get brothers and sisters? Were they adopted? Catholic doctrine is that the sisters and brothers referred to here were cousins, not the children of Mary. Protestant doctrine does not tend to see it that way; we tend to assume that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and that Mary and Joseph got them the old fashioned way….. but I digress.

The people in Jesus’ home town were at first amazed at his words, but the more they thought about it, the more skeptical they were. They were not going to be carried away by this fellow – they knew him too well. Jesus sensed the shift in the mood of the people; he knew there was a barrier between himself and the people of his home town; he was not going to get through to them.

He summed it up this way: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Then comes that strange and startling thing that Mark tells us: after the people pulled back from Jesus and resisted him – his power there was lost:

Mark puts it this way:

“And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief…”

Jesus could do no deed of power there. Jesus – he oozes power – he has all power – he knows everything, sees everything, can do anything. He can stop the storms on the sea! He can heal the sick! He can turn water into wine! How can the words “Can’t do” and Jesus be found in the same sentence? And how can someone who knows everything be “amazed” by anything? But he was – he was amazed, Mark tells us. Jesus could do no deed of power in Nazareth, his home town.

As our nation celebrates its independence, the history of its freedoms, we find ourselves beset with crises and great challenges. We are awakening to a time in history when no nation can dominate planet Earth. No nation, however great or powerful, has the power to control the course of history. No nation has the power to solve the great problems of its own terms.

To stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to bring about the elimination of all such weapons is something that no nation can undertake on its own.

Seriously to confront climate change could bring about real change in the way human beings live in relationship to planet Earth is something no single nation can accomplish.

Women and men, especially men, are needing to shift out of a need to dominate, and instead to find their power within a relationship. Human beings, so long accustomed to pretending to dominate the forces of nature, now must learn to live in a relationship with nature. And even the most powerful nations must accept that in many ways they are powerless unless they act together with others.

Each one of us is also part of a vast mass of humanity at a time when humanity is in great crisis.
It would be logical for each one of us to say, “The problems are so vast, and I am the merest speck of a being; I am powerless to affect the world.”

There is a spiritual challenge in the present crises facing humanity. When we feel powerless, we need to remember that we are never powerless. Each of you has powers within you far beyond what you imagine. Some of you have already discovered that. Others of you will discover it in time. We are never powerless, and when we do feel powerless we should consider that even Jesus felt powerless.

In relation to the great crises of the world I may indeed be powerless as an individual. When I realize how powerless I am as a solitary individual, I can retreat and do nothing, or I can join my life with other people, who individually are just as powerless as I am, and person by person, speck by speck, powerful movements of change and hope are born. And that is what must happen now.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

My Friend! My Child!

Rev. Scott Summerville

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet
and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”
But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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There are days when the Bible speak to us in quiet words of comfort: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul….”

But this is not one of those days! The Bible speaks to us today in stories that are drenched with passion and emotion.

A young man cries out in stinging grief at the death of his dearest friend. A father cries out in anguish to Jesus for the life of his little girl and a crowd of family and neighbors gathered around a house shrieking and wailing as the word goes around that the child has stopped breathing. A woman pleads for relief from chronic illness. So many deep passions are touched upon in these few verses.

These are intense times in which we are living, and these are intense words we hear today from the Scriptures:

“O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

The voice of David, sick with grief as he learns that Jonathan, his soul mate, has been killed.

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live!” The voice of a father, Jairus, a proud and powerful man, devastated and desperate, throwing himself before Jesus and begging for help.

As my secretary Barbara and I were preparing the worship bulletins this week, she was sick with worry over her son and awaiting word from the tests on his bones, and I, the preacher, was pondering the story of a sick child and a desperate parent. How wonderful that the news was so positive for Barbara and her boy.

It was in this same week that we were all seeing the video and still photos of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot in the heart in Tehran a week ago. In the video it is her poor father who cries out her name again and again, as life bleeds from her body, and that haunting look comes over her eyes and pierces the heart of anyone who sees it.

In the gospel Jesus took the girl by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about… and the word went out to the crowd gathered around the home, and shrieks of grief turned to shrieks of joy. It is the joy every parent and relative has felt when a child has escaped from danger. It is like life beginning at home over again.

There was and there is no such joy for Neda’s father and mother, and in fact the government issued an edict prohibiting mourning for her in the mosques of Iran.

For now the clubs and the bullets have spoken in Iran, and for a time brutality has silenced the passionate voice of freedom. But only for a time. Passion for freedom is a powerful force, ultimately more powerful than any tyranny.

As I was preparing for worship this week and looking at the scripture readings I also thought of those in our congregation who, like David, have lost dear friends. Some of those friends who are now gone were people who lived long and full lives and the sadness of parting is mellowed with thankfulness for the long sharing of life enjoyed with them. Some of these friends did not live to enjoy the full span of life, and that is hard to comprehend and to accept. The grief for those gone too soon burns and hurts inside. David’s grief today is grief for a young a friend. I know for some of you that strikes close to home.

King David was in the news this week. The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, compared himself to King David last week. It never ceases to amaze me how much religion there is in the news these days. The governor said to reporters:

I have been doing a lot of soul searching on that front. What I find interesting is the story of David, and the way in which he fell mightily, he fell in very, very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there. I remain committed to rebuilding the trust that has been committed to me over the next eighteen months, and it is my hope that I am able to follow the example set by David in the Bible – who after his fall from grace humbly refocused on the work at hand. By doing so, I will ultimately better serve in every area of my life, and I am committed to doing so.

What do you think about that?

Governor Sanford is being called a hypocrite, because he has proclaimed himself to be a family values politician while living by very different values himself. He had to cancel an upcoming speaking engagement at a family values convention. Fair enough; he certainly left himself open to that criticism. Some people are saying that conjuring up King David is cheap political trick by the governor: he confesses to adultery and then in the next breath compares himself to the greatest of Israel’s Kings.

Even if those criticisms are valid, as I looked at the face of the governor at his press conference I saw strain and anguish and confusion in that face – and I did see something of King David. I saw a highly intelligent and gifted human being caught in a sordid mess, tangled up in his own passions, wounding himself and injuring those dear to him.

If the governor wants to play King David just for convenience, to reclaim his power and authority, then he deserves all the criticism he gets. But if he wants to play the whole part of King David, he will have to suffer the way David suffered, not just to keep his power but to keep his soul. And, believe me, David suffered plenty. If he really wants to play King David, Governor Sanford will have to deal with the people he has injured, and he will have to deal with God. If he really intends to play David, he has not chosen an easy way out. There is no figure in the whole Bible who suffered more sorrow than King David.

It’s easy to judge people; it feels good to do that, and public figures make themselves such tempting targets, but if the story of David teaches us anything, it is that leaders are human, and life is not a straight clear path, and any one of us can find ourselves on the wrong road and in deep trouble.

It is an interesting coincidence that we read about David and Jonathan on this day of the Gay Pride Parade. Many gay people who have been told that the Bible condemns them and God condemns them and religion condemns them, have taken some comfort to the story of David and Jonathan. According to the biblical account, David and Jonathan had an extraordinary friendship, and as we heard already, David cries out at the death of Jonathan, “My brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

Quite a statement. Does this hint that between David and Jonathan there was a relationship that was more than just an intense friendship? Probably not, after all David’s greatest crime was his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Josiah, and that was a result of lust for a woman, not for a man. Even so, many gay people take comfort in this notion of intense friendship – this profound love and the connection – openly and passionately expressed – between a man and a man.

One reason that I have chosen to make the trip into the city and to participate in the gay pride parade is what happens at the very end of the march. When the march starts out, you are in a wide avenue with crowds all along the sides waving and mostly cheering, though a few people are holding signs telling you that gays are going to hell. In the broad avenue it is a parade, a happy time.

At the end of the parade you are walking through a narrow street in Greenwich Village; you are so close to the spectators that and you are seeing people’s eyes, making eye contact, reading the emotions in their individual faces. And you know that some of these eyes are the eyes of young people who are homeless and rejected by their parents because they are gay. You know that all of them who are gay have heard very harsh shaming messages coming from religious people all their lives. When they see the church groups and church people marching in solidarity with them and offering signs of affirmation it means something very special. You see the effect it has and you realize that this witness is a ministry, that is reaching souls with the gospel message of Jesus’ love. You realize that you are participating in a work of healing in the name of Christ and the Church.

Jesus spent his life in the midst of human intensity: grief, sickness, shame, hunger, political oppression. Day in and day out he extended a healing hand and a healing word everywhere he went. How blessed it was to hear those words and feel that touch.

And even now we can hear his words, open our lives to him, commit our lives to his work, and feel his touch. It is even possible that others may feel his touch through us.

May it be so.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

The Pastor’s Remarks for Choir Recognition Sunday

Rev. Scott Summerville

Once a year we recognize our choirs. Last Sunday we recognized the Junior choir. Today we will recognize our other two choirs. You may be surprised to learn that we have a total of three choirs; perhaps you thought they were only two – the Junior and the Senior. Ah… you are forgetting the most important choir of all: it is you – the congregation.

We have a large number of visitors today, many of whom are probably not United Methodists. If you are not a Methodist, you may not know that the Methodist Church began as a singing church. Our denomination was founded by a man named John Wesley in England in the 1700s. He was assisted by his brother, Charles, who was one of the most gifted hymn writers in the history of the Christian church. Charles Wesley wrote the words to over 2,000 hymns, many of which are now sung all over the world in hundreds of denominations.

“Christ the Lord is risen today, alleluia…” – that’s Charles Wesley.
“Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…” – Charles Wesley.
“Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down..” – Charles Wesley.
“O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great redeemer’s praise …” – Charles Wesley.

And what would Christmas be without: “Hark! the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…..” by CW himself?

The Wesley brothers understood that the most important musical instrument in the church will always be the human voice. They knew that cooking maybe the best way to a man’s heart, but music will always be the most direct route to the human soul. Actually Methodists have combined these two principles. Methodist churches are based on two things: singing and food. Today is just a typical day for us – we make music, and then we eat.

The Wesley brothers also understood the people need songs they can sing with their whole heart. So they picked up the popular tunes of the day and put words to them to glorify God. They took the tunes that people were singing in the taverns and gave them new words. The goal of the Wesleys was to reach human souls, to touch human hearts, to convey the love of God in Jesus Christ, and to heal wounded hearts. And the main instrument they used to do that was congregational singing.

Some of us grew up in churches that still have that Wesleyan heritage – where the congregation sings out its heart and soul. Some of us grew up in churches where the congregation sang quietly and politely, careful not to inject any strong emotion into the singing, and careful not to sing too loud.

Today I wish to honor you, the congregation, as the primary choir of this church.
I urge you sing with all your heart and soul, and if I may gently suggest – not to sing so politely and cautiously.

Please turn in your hymnals to page VII. Here we have John Wesley’s own words from 1761, reminding us of how Methodists should sing. I will draw attention to several points of instruction made by Mr. Wesley:

DIRECTIONS FOR SINGING

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

[You may have noticed that we will be singing a hymn at the end of the service with words that I altered considerably. I am allowed to do that because I am ordained, but the rest of you have to follow Mr. Wesley’s instructions.]

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.

Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

[You can’t sing with the congregation, if you are home in bed. Back in Wesley’s time people liked to sleep in on Sunday mornings as much as they do today. But Wesley knew that when we make a commitment to give the highest priority to our Sunday worship, we will seldom be disappointed. Even if we are weary, if we make the effort to join other souls in worship, we will be blessed and renewed.]

IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan…..

[It’s not often that in church we are encouraged to be doing anything lustily – but there you have it – sing with gusto – sing with the voice God gave you – don’t be ashamed of it!

Wesley could not abide moaning and droning and half-hearted singing.]

VI. … take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

[Good singing requires a good tempo to sustain its energy.]

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.

__________________________

In a moment we are going to honor you, the congregation.

Your voices are the most important instrument in our worship.

I wish to say this … gently… we would do well to remember Mr. Wesley’s instructions for singing.
Sometimes, if I may say so, our congregational singing can be hesitant, polite, and quiet.
So remember: sing lustily and with good courage. “ Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan…..”

Grace and peace to you.

_______________________________________________________

Here is the full list of John Wesley’s instructions:

DIRECTIONS FOR SINGING

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.
Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

The Visible and the Invisible

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost

There is an ancient Jewish festival, the Festival of Weeks; or Shovuot. It was the day the first fruits of the wheat harvest were presented to God. God was honored as the source of rain and of the fruitfulness of the earth. The Festival of Weeks came to be known by a Greek name, Pentecost. It was a kind of Hebrew Earth Day. For Jews the festival of Shovuot also became connected to the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. For Christians the Jewish Festival of Pentecost became associated with the gift of the holy spirit to the church, and with a strange event that occurred in Jerusalem:

Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other ‘languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…… the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

The Christian Pentecost is about finding a universal language – a universal human connection. The Jewish Festival of the wheat harvest became for Christians the festival the Holy Spirit who enables people to communicate across the boundaries of nationality and language.

Wouldn’t it be great to bring these two traditions together – to put together the Jewish festival of the harvest and the Christian festival of the Spirit? To hold together the love for the earth and the visible world and reverence for the spirit – for all those things that we cannot see and touch that our lives also depend on?

Ponder this: on Pentecost the spirt came upon the church as a rush of wind. People say the universal language now is English or maybe Spanish – or some say it may one day be Chinese – in truth the universal language is the air we breath – these precious molecules we suck into our bodies and exhale every moment of our lives. Having bronchitis for a couple weeks as I have had makes you really appreciate breathing. The future of earth – the future of all that we love and hold dear – depends upon how we treat this precious invisible mix of gases that sustains our lives.

On Pentecost we honor the invisible spirit that gave birth to the church, the spirit that came as a rush of wind – a movement of air. If we are faithful to the Lord of Creation – the God of earth – we will also honor the air itself.This is now an urgent matter. The time for fine words and sermons about the state of our air and water is over. What we need now is concrete specific intelligent actions.
Last week at the invitation of our Board of Trustees we were visited by a specialist in energy usage. He was sent by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). NYSERDA was established in 1975 to encourage the efficient use of energy and to reduce the consumption of petroleum in the State of New York.

The auditor from NYSERDA did not interview the pastor. He did not ask me any theological questions. He did not ask to see any of my sermons about ecology. Instead he wanted to see electric and fuel bills, thermostats, light bulbs, boilers, windows, and air conditioners. I asked him, “Are you sure you don’t want to read some of my sermons?” No, no time for that. The trustees will be receiving a report from NYCERDA, and they will be investigating everything from insulation and lighting changes to solar energy and geothermal power.

We have come to a time in this world when we need concrete action to change the very relationship between the human species and the rest of the living systems Earth. We are creatures of habit. Habits are hard to change. But we are also creatures of enormous creativity, and we are capable of wisdom and foresight. It may seem that none of us can possibly do enough to make a difference. What can one person do? What can one church do? We must not buy into that kind of thinking. We have to do what we can, where we can, in the time we have. We need to have to have faith that a greater thing will come out of many small and humble efforts.

That is the spirit in which our Outreach Team is helping us to expand our ministries with people in need in our vicinity. We can do very little in relation to the scale of the need, but what we can do matters. Again, we have to have faith that a greater thing will come out of many small and humble efforts. Ours is just one part of a larger whole.

Last Sunday and today and next Sunday, the seventh of June and the following Sunday, the 14th of June – four Sundays in a row – we will celebrate the sacrament of baptism. Seven children in all will be baptized over this four-week period. When we baptize a child we experience in a fresh way the awesomeness of God. When we look into the infant’s face, we have a direct experience of the holy.

It is humbling as a preacher to realize that I could preach a thousand sermons, but never achieve with words the powerful immediate effect that is created by the face of a single child. Of all the things that we do as a church, it is the baptism of children that may be the most sacred of all.

In the act of baptism we make a sacred commitment to these children, to nurture and guide and protect them. That sacred commitment requires us to do the hard work of changing habits and thinking in new ways. To them we must pass the most sacred gifts: air and Spirit.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

The Peace of the Lord be with You

Memorial Day Weekend
by Rev. Scott Summerville

This week we lost a dear friend, Muriel. She was a regular at the Wednesday discussion group. For five years she made lunch for me every Wednesday. That makes me a biased observer of her qualities, but she was a remarkable person. From the time she got her diagnosis of untreatable cancer earlier this year until her death on Friday, she maintained the same serenity and gracious spirit.

Because she was able to be at home under hospice care, the congregation was able to be in a continuing relationship with her over these months. The Wednesday discussion group continued to meet every week in her home when she was no longer able to go out. In fact the group met there last Wednesday, and the topic of discussion was: the things that matter most in life.

On the Memorial Day Weekend, with Muriel’s passing, my thoughts turn to her husband Herb, who died four years ago. Herb was a World War II combat veteran. It seems fitting to mention him on this day. Despite becoming legally blind, Herb led a very successful business life. He had a way with people. He once described to me an experience in combat that transformed his life.

He was an 18-year-old kid. He had waded out of a boat with thousands of other soldiers onto a beach somewhere in the Pacific. It was chaos. Unimaginable noise. Unimaginable violence. Death was all around. On that beach he had a sudden experience of calm. He said that from that moment on and continuing into his later life there was the assurance that whatever he went through, he would not be alone. He would have to draw on that faith many times before the war was over, and again when he lost his vision, and again when he lost his son, who died tragically as a young man.

Some people survive war and find clarity and focus about life from their experience of war. Other individuals survive war physically, but they are devastated emotionally and spiritually. When I was a young pastor visiting families in the neighborhood around my church, I met such a person. He, too, had served in combat in the Second World War. He participated in the bloody battles to liberate Italy. I knew something was not right with him, but I did not know the cause of it. I knew this man for quite a while before he shared with me an event that shattered his life.

One day when his unit was in combat in close quarters with the enemy, he threw a hand grenade into a basement. As the hand grenade flew through the air he saw a woman gesturing toward the basement – she was screaming something he did not understand at first: “Bambinas! Bambinas!” There were no enemy soldiers in the basement as it turned out. There were children.

These things happen all the time in warfare. When they do, there are the visible victims and there are the invisible victims, who carry spiritual scars for the rest of their lives. On this Memorial Day I think of a member of this congregation who has a smile that could get him a tooth paste commercial. At one of our men’s breakfasts he told the story of when he was a young soldier in the Second World War, driving a jeep, when a plane swooped down with its machine guns blazing, strafing them. He managed to jump out of the jeep into a ditch, and he was not hit. The story stuck in my mind. Sometimes when I see his warm smile it occurs to me, “Somebody was trying to shoot you! Why would anyone ever want to shoot you!”

Then there is George, husband of our minister of music. He was a kid too, 18 years old, when people were shooting at him. It was Vietnam. This time the bullets did not miss. They tore up his legs. Decades later he continues to undergo surgery and to endure much pain.

Some of you have your personal recollections of war as a combatant. Some of you have memories of relatives and friends killed, wounded, scarred physically and mentally by war. War can be glorified, but only from a distance; up close it is always personal and tragic.

It is a custom among Christians to exchange the peace of Christ: the peace of the Lord be with you … and also with you. It is very easy to say these words.

But think about what we are saying: we are claiming that each of us carries inside ourselves this thing we call the peace of the Christ – and we are able to offer that peace to one another. It is not the same as, “Hi, how are you?” These are not just words being exchanged. We are extending to one another the peace of Christ. When we exchange the peace of Christ, we are making an affirmation of faith and we are making a commitment to peacemaking.

If I claim to be able to offer the peace of Christ to another person, I am saying that this peace is already at work in me and at work among us. If we extend to one another the peace of Christ, it means we have made a commitment to working on broken or difficult relationships; we have made a commitment to seek and to offer forgiveness. It means that we are part of a community of faith that is committed to peace.

Today in our Memorial Day ritual we cast the ashes of grief
and the stones of anger and the stones of our own self-ighteousness and hardness of heart and the blossoms of hope upon the waters of life, and we have prayed to God to heal the broken and to renew our commitment to peace.

In that spirit I send you out to share the peace of Christ. As a member of this church, be one who makes peace. As a part of your family, be one who makes peace. As a citizen, as a human being, work for things that make for peace.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

Belly Buttons, Subway Cars, and Deep Connections

By Rev. Scott Summerville

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

John 15:4-5

In the gospel reading today from the 15th chapter of John, Jesus asks his followers to use their imaginations. He asked them to imagine that they are a branch on a vine. He asked them to imagine how the branch draws its life from the vine and cannot have life, if it is broken off from the vine.

It is intriguing that this particular gospel lesson happens to be read on Mother’s Day this year. If we use our imaginations a bit further, we will realize that each of us was once a little branch connected to a larger vine. As each of us came to life within our mother’s womb, we were connected to her and received our life from her; our whole existence depended upon that fragile living tissue connecting us to our mother’s body.

I was three years old when my youngest brother was born. I remember my mother bringing him into the house. I remember wanting to hold him. I also remembered that there was some discussion about a cord that was connected to the baby. I was in the room when he was being changed one day, when I heard someone say, “umbilical cord.” By coincidence there was a standard brown electrical cord on the ironing board next to where my brother was being changed. In my childhood brain I concluded (quite logically) logically that this brown electrical cord was in fact my brother’s umbilical cord. I simply accepted that all human beings are born with one of these. They are exactly the same as the ones you buy at the hardware store, and after you are a few days old they unplug it from your belly button. I held this belief for many years – one of those odd little things that get planted a child’s brain and stays there.

Each of us was once a branch on a larger vine. And each of us has a belly button to prove it. I once gave a sermon on belly buttons, or navels, if you prefer. Navel-gazing is generally synonymous with wasting one’s time. I disagree. I would say that it is a profound thing to contemplate your navel. And what better time to do it than on Mother’s Day?

It is spiritually useful to contemplate our navels and to consider why they are there, and thus to remember that our umbilical cords were once attached to that spot. It is spiritually useful, because it centers us in the middle of our bodies; it reminds us that no matter how independent we think we may be, we exist only because other life has given us life, and we can continue to exist only if we are in tune with and respectful of the system of life that we are part of.

Interdependence is the most crucial concept on the planet Earth in our time. We will grasp our interdependence as the human species, and we as a species will grasp our interdependence with all other life, or we shall have no future. Especially on Mother’s Day, remembering that each one of us once had an umbilical cord and that each one of us still bears the imprint of that cord right in the center of our bodies is a very direct and powerful way to contemplate our dependence upon a system of life larger than ourselves.

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” Jesus offers himself as the vine, as that which draws nourishment from the soil and transmits it to the branches, so that they may bear fruit. Jesus offers himself as a living connection between his followers and the Holy One. In our time we cannot separate this spiritual truth of our living connection to God through Christ from the biological truth that we are a living part of the living Earth and completely dependent upon the earth to sustain us.

I have been talking with a number of people lately about what it means to be a member of a church. One way of thinking about being part of a religious community is to emphasize the differences that a particular tradition has as compared with other denominations or traditions. That can be a useful thing to do. But more than anything, becoming part of a spiritual community in the 21st century should mean that we are seeking deep connections with other beings on this earth. Our primary concern is to become more deeply connected with others and with God. Our primary concern is not what makes us different from others; it is finding our common humanity.

I attended the annual district conference yesterday at St. Mark’s Church in Harlem. The preacher for the day was Rev. Richard Rice. Richard is finally trying to retire as a pastor in our conference after serving more than 50 years. He was ordained when I was two years old, in 1954. Richard has preached here at Asbury church. We have another connection to Rev. Rice in that he as much as any single person is responsible for the fact that our beloved Camp Olmsted is still in existence. In his message yesterday Richard spoke of a time that he was riding on the New York City subway. In that subway car there were a dozen or so people. All of them were playing the game that people play on the subway. The rules are quite simple. You do not speak to strangers. You do not make eye contact with others; you do not smile directly others; you keep your feelings to yourself.

Richard said he was reading his newspaper when he realized that the little girl seated next to her mother opposite him was not playing by the rules. She was staring directly at him. As he raised and lowered his newspaper and glanced over at her, he saw her eyes gazing directly at him. After a while the little girl turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, I love you.” With these words the child changed the game in the subway car. Immediately, all of those people who were prohibited by the rules of the game from looking at one another directly, smiling at one another, or speaking to one another, were all smiling and glancing at one another, nodding and chattering. They had been liberated by the child to acknowledge one another, because the child did not know the rules.

Reverend Rice said that the Church needs to be a place where we break out of subway car rules, and through love find connection with one another, and use that connection to make a difference in the world.

Deciding to follow a spiritual path and to join one’s life to a spiritual community means that we are looking to play the game of life with a different set of rules. We are hungry for some place where the rules of the game are different, where we can look one another in the eye and speak to one another from the heart, and where we can express the deep longings of our hearts. We hunger to acknowledge the mystery and wonder of being, to reach out to God, and to be known and loved by others.

We need to be connected.

Physically, organically, biologically, and spiritually we are beings who must be connected. We cannot live in isolation. We are branches on a vine.

Shalom, Salaam, grace and peace to you.

Making Marriage Work

By Rev Mary Ellen Summerville and Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury UMC, Yonkers, NY

SCOTT:
You may have been surprised to see both Mary Ellen and I listed as the preachers for today. We will both be speaking this morning on the subject of marriage. Mary Ellen and I used to work together professionally. We were a clergy couple. In two different churches we actually split one job. Eventually we decided that working that closely together was not good for our marriage. So we quit doing that. Mary Ellen is an ordained elder in the UMC, as I am, but her paid job is as a director of pastoral care for a Hospice.

We had two children together when we were young and foolish and then we decided that if we kept doing that it would not be good for our marriage, so we quit doing that. We used to give sermons together as well. We have not done that for 25 years. We decided that was not good for our marriage either. You get the idea. Marriage is an experiment that requires a continual process of learning and adaptation. It requires paying attention to what works and what does not.

A survey was done with children, asking them questions about marriage. Here are some of the results:

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHOM TO MARRY?

Alan, age 10 answered: “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming.”

Kristen, age 10 answered: “No person really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”

HOW CAN A STRANGER TELL IF TWO PEOPLE ARE MARRIED?

Derrick, age 8 says: “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”

When we think of marriage we picture two human beings. Because society is becoming more open we may picture a woman and a man, two women or two men. We may picture people who are young or who are not young. We can imagine that people who are married, but we cannot actually see their marriage. The most crucial part of the marriage is completely invisible to anyone on the outside. It is something that occurs in the intimate spasce between two human beings. All of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of being startled by a couple that we thought we knew well who announce that they are in marital crisis or separation. Only individuals who are in a marriage really know the nature of the marriage. Only those two people know the feeling, the mood, the texture, the fullness or the emptiness of the space connecting between them.

In the part of the world in which we live, we place a lot of importance on what a house looks like from the outside. But there places in the world where the exterior of house is not nearly as important; the exterior of a house may be quite plain, and the beauty of the house is only known once you enter. If you have traveled for instance in Italy, you can walk down city streets where the homes have very plain exteriors, but every now and then you catch a glimpse into a courtyard, and you see flowers, fountains, and warm and colorful interiors. The emphasis in such places is on creating a warm and embracing interior space, not on having an impressive exterior appearance.

One of the questions that I ask engaged couples when I interrogate them is: “Statistics suggest that more than half of marriages will end in divorce. Why do you think that your marriage will be the odds?” Some denominations and some individual clergy have become so concerned at the frequency of marital crisis and divorce that they have instituted very extensive premarital requirements. Couples must spend months in counseling, workshops, and preparation for marriage. It will be interesting to see whether over time these more strenuous requirements will have an effect on the success rate of marriages. Can anyone claim that they have the course that will do the trick – a course or workshop that will either help people to realize they are making a mistake or provide them with knowledge and insight that will make their marriage more successful?

This is one of the things that Mary Ellen is going to speak about, and it is one of the things that is being explored in the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which she will be using for her class. Is marriage just a matter of luck and chemistry and fate, or can one learn how to improve and strengthen one’s marriage?

If you buy a car and it has chronic mechanical problems, it can change your life. You can spend countless hours with great aggravation and expense trying to get where you need to go and keep your car on the road. Believe me, I have much experience in this realm. If you marry someone and give your heart to them and set your hopes on your life with them, and find your marriage has chronic troubles, it can change your life a lot more than buying a lemon. And while it may be hard to find a good mechanic, it is even harder to find someone who can fix broken relationships.

Is there anything that can be useful to people want to strengthen their happy marriages or revise marriages that are tired or hurting?

MARY ELLEN:
Scott said we used to give sermons together but that we realized it wasn’t good for our marriage. Last night I found out that he’d listed me in the bulletin today as co-preacher. So either he forgot the lesson he learned, or he thought that after 31 ½ yrs we could handle it. We’ll see.

One of the best wedding gifts that Scott and I received was a given to us by a Catholic brother, Brother John. Scott had worked for Brother John for a year after college in a group home for delinquent boys in Providence, and we invited him to our wedding. He gave us a subscription to a Catholic magazine, called Marriage and Family Living. We received it monthly for several years. It contained articles on how to communicate, solve problems, how to keep your marriage strong, and how to guide children. This magazine was important to us. It was as if we were allowed to look inside the walls of those houses Scott mentioned and see how other people did things.

Because, let’s face it, most of us only intimately know some things about the marriage of our own parents. We observed how they talked to one another treated one another, solved problems or avoided them or kept battling over them. With that limited perspective we’re then supposed to make our own marriage and family.

If we were fortunate and our parents had a happy marriage, we may have learned some things about how to do that. But still our sources of information are so limited, and maybe what worked for our parents doesn’t necessarily work for us. Some of us were raised in homes that weren’t happy and harmonious. How do we learn?

I’d like to see the church be a place where we can learn and prepare ourselves better for these most important relationships. So much depends on them: our happiness, our children’s happiness, their children’s happiness, the well-being of our churches and communities.

John Gottman is a psychologist and a leading expert in research on marriage. He and his wife, Julie, are co-founders of the Gottman Institute, which trains therapists in how to help people improve their marriages.

The statistics on marriage are pretty sobering:

67% of first marriages end in divorce over 40 yr period
Half of divorces occur in first 7 years
Rates of breakup for second marriages are 10% higher

He says that many of our ideas about what makes marriage work are simply ideas, theories. He and his team have conducted extensive research. Randomly selected couples volunteer to stay overnight in a fabricated apartment with cameras, and with sensors tracking signs of stress. Couples are asked to try to be as normal as possible and to discuss the things they’d discuss at home, bring their books, games, anything that would pass the time.

What they found may be surprising:

Loud arguments don’t necessarily harm a marriage.

People with personality problems can have happy marriages.

In fact, most of us have our “crazy buttons.”

Common interests aren’t the key.

Some happy couples avoid conflict, and other happy couples jump right in, discuss and resolve conflict.

What they did find was a simple truth: happy marriages are based on a deep friendship, an abiding mutual regard expressed in big and little ways, mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.

Here is an example from the book (page 20):

Take the case of hardworking Nathaniel, who runs his own import business and works very long hours. In another marriage, his schedule might be a major liability. But he and his wife Olivia have found ways to stay connected. They talk frequently on the phone during the day. When she has a doctor’s appointment, he remembers to call to see how it went. When he has a meeting with an important client, she’ll check in to see how it fared. When they have chicken for dinner, she gives him both drumsticks, because she knows he likes them best. When he makes blueberry pancakes for the kids Saturday morning, he’ll leave the blueberries out of hers, because he knows she doesn’t like them. Although he’s not religious, he accompanies her to church each Sunday, because it’s important to her. And although she’s not crazy about spending a lot of time with their relatives, she has pursued a friendship with Nathaniel’s mother and sisters because family matters so much to him.

In simplest terms the Gottman program teaches us how to nurture a deep friendship.

In his research Gottman found that there were seven principles or types of behaviors that happy couples engaged in to nurture a deep friendship. They didn’t always realize what they were doing. They’d stumbled into these behaviors. Maybe they’d observed someone, even their parents, doing it. Or maybe someone gave them good advice. Or, maybe it was the trial and error Scott mentioned.

Principle 1 is “Enhance your lovemap.”
By lovemap he means the knowledge you have in your brain about your spouse:

what she or he likes and dislikes
what has happened in their childhood, life
what they hope for in the future
what they’re afraid of, worried about
what happened at the job today, this week
what’s coming up in the future.

There are exercises, suggestions about things to talk about. The more you know and respect one another’s individuality, the deeper your friendship and love will grow.

So, that’s one of the things you can do to nurture your deep friendship – make time to get to know one another well, and keep making time to update that knowledge over the years.

He also teaches us how to avoid behaviors that will cause irritation and anger to accumulate, and wear away positive feeling and friendship. For example, he says we will always have complaints about the person we live with. A complaint addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. That’s okay. But the problem is when we move from complaint to criticism. A criticism is more global, adding on negative words about your mate’s character or personality.

Complaint: “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it.”

Criticism: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care.”

This is a little taste of what we’ll discuss and explore together. And if you can’t make the course on these three Wednesday nights, please indicate your interest, and we’ll contact you to try to come up with another format or time to meet.

Scott:

Well, dear, you did not look too happy when you came to bed at half past midnight, after finishing your part, but we have made it through our first sermon together in 25 years. You did very well. We’ll have to do this again sometime — maybe in the year 2034.

Whether you’re married, divorced, hoping to be married for the first time or hoping to be married again, whether you’re taking a course or not, it is lasting relationships grounded in friendship and love that are the most important factors in our happiness and perhaps also our health.

In times such as these, when the world seems to be falling apart much of the time, it is even more important to remember this and to take every opportunity to strengthen the bonds of love that are the foundation of our lives.

Shalom.

The Road Home

by Rev. Andie Raynor

Luke 24:13 – 35

Today’s Gospel lesson is- for me – one of the most comforting and yet mysterious passages in all of the New Testament. It is about being on this journey we call life, about the times we feel devastated, disappointed and afraid, and about how Christ journeys with us… sometimes silently, sometimes without our being aware, but always, always available to us- especially in times of trouble- if only we are willing ask.

If you’ve never been confused or lost or heartbroken, perhaps this is not the scripture or the sermon for you. But if you, like me, like so many of us, have struggled or are struggling right now with burdens that threaten to undo you, then welcome. Welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, two unknown, shell-shocked people were heading home after a devastating disappointment. Only one is known by name – Cleopas – and neither is ever mentioned in the scriptures again. They are walking what must have seemed a long and lonely road from Jerusalem back to their hometown of Emmaus. It was a seven-mile stretch that afforded them an opportunity to discuss the dramatic events that they had just witnessed. The two friends had probably traveled this same road to get to Jerusalem – only that journey had been filled with excitement and hope. The one many were calling the Messiah had arrived there, healing and teaching and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And now? Now they were trying to come to terms with the violent end to that great dream… and the horrible image of their battered teacher hanging and dying on the cross.

As they walked along, they tried to figure out exactly what had happened. They earnestly tumbled the events back and forth, going over every detail, all the while knowing that this journey home would mean the end of their dreams, the end of their hope for a new and better life… And then, as if out of nowhere, a stranger joins them on the road.

One of the things I love about these two men is that they are not counted among the famous twelve disciples. They are not remembered for any particular acts of courage or loyalty or faith. They haven’t been healed of an affliction or recognized for a contribution to the cause; they are not part of the inner circle. They are just two people who followed Jesus. They, like you and I, are part of the every day rank and file of believers. And yet, and yet, Jesus appears to them, as if to say: you are just as important as Peter or Thomas or Mary or John. Your hopes and your dreams, your pain and your fears are known to me, and I am with you.

Have you ever been on a road like that – literally or figuratively? Have you ever gone in one direction, burning with hope and enthusiasm, just to find yourself turning around disappointed and defeated? Maybe this road has involved a relationship that started beautifully and full of promise but ended painfully. Maybe it’s a job or a career that didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s a prayer for healing that didn’t seem to be answered. Whatever the case, these are the times (believe it or not) when Christ walks most closely with you – and with me. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see him, to recognize him, to feel him.

Theologian John Jewell suggests that “the point of deepest despair in our lives can also become the point of healing… When you lift up your broken heart and maybe even cry out, ‘Why …. O, God why?’ It is then that the presence of the Risen Christ is already beginning to emerge. It may be that he will remain hidden from your recognition for a time. But when we “hit the wall” and begin to reach out — even with our questions, we are facing the stranger on the road! This is a crucial recognition for the life of faith. Crying out to something beyond ourselves — even if it feels like there is nothing there — that very act of reaching out is a tap on the shoulder from God.”

Don’t you love that? Our cries are a tap on the shoulder from God. I think what Jewell is saying is that we have to know we’re in trouble in order to cry out. We have to recognize that something is very wrong with our lives, that we need help, that we can’t go it alone, before we can truly make a positive change. And so God taps us on the shoulder, God nudges us just enough to make us turn around and say, “Is anybody there? Can anybody hear me?” Crying out, we may discover that we have been joined by a stranger on the road.

Many years ago, a young soldier found himself far from home, hitchhiking alone on a snowy road late one Christmas Eve. A few months before, he had watched most of his platoon being shipped off to Korea, while he, by some strange bit of luck, had been pulled from line at the last minute. “We need a finance clerk at the base in Colorado,” the sergeant had growled matter-of-factly. “I see you have a background in finance. Step out of line, soldier.” That simple command had spared him from the battlefield, but it could not spare him from his own inner turmoil. Besides carrying the guilt of the lucky, he bore the burden of a conscience. And his conscience told him that his life was in trouble, that he was in trouble, and that somehow he was made for more than the drinking and carousing that dominated his time when away from the army base.

Though it was Christmas Eve, this night was not much different from any other night of furlough from the base. It entailed a ride into town where he was a regular at the bar, slugging down beers to numb the feeling of how pointless his life seemed, keeping at bay the bitter disappointment over how his dreams of being a professional baseball player had been interrupted by this war, most probably for good. He felt alone, more alone than he ever had since the death of his mother when he was a small boy. Perhaps that is why he never shied away from trouble; he never started it, but he wasn’t afraid either. A solid punch could never compare to the pain that he often tried to ignore in his heart.
And so, by the time he helped close the place down on this particular night, he was, as they say, feeling no pain. His buddies had left hours ago, leaving him to find his own ride back. Stumbling outside, the bitter winter air slapped his cheeks, making him regret missing that last ride home.

The snow was falling steadily and heavily when he began walking the long road toward the base. “No point in sticking out my thumb for a ride,” he thought. “No one’s gonna be out tonight… not in this weather, much less on Christmas Eve.” Maybe he was thinking of his mother, as he often did when he was alone; maybe he was just thinking of how many miles he had to go before he could warm his cold feet; but before long, he was engulfed in a halo of light. Car lights, to be exact. Jackpot. The car approached, slowly rolling and crunching it’s way through the snow, the beam of its headlights throwing a shadow from his back.

“Need a ride, son?” the old man said, rolling down his window.

“Sure. ‘preciate it,” the soldier replied, amazed at his unexpected good fortune, and grateful to get out of the cold.

“What are you doing out here all alone on Christmas Eve?” asked the driver.

The young man looked out the window at the starless sky, at the darkness and the endless, swirling snow. “Just another night, Mister,” he sighed. “Just another night.”

Years later, he would tell the story of how the stranger began to talk with him about God. How the man had spoken with such warmth and genuineness about his faith and how Christ had made a difference in his life. “You’re not alone, son,” the old man had said gently. “Christ is right here walking with you. You just have to let him in.” At first the soldier tried to maintain his cynicism, though he politely kept it to himself, because a ride with a lunatic beat a walk in the cold any day. Just a few more miles, he thought. Then we can go our separate ways.

When they finally reached the army base, the soldier met the man’s gaze for the first time. His eyes were the color of silver stars, emanating a light that seemed to go right through him. It startled him and snapped him to attention. It was the same feeling you get when the phone rings in the middle of the night, suddenly rousing you from sleep and causing your heart to pound. Who was this man, and why was he saying these things? Before the soldier could steady himself, the man smiled and said, “Do you mind if I say a prayer?”

“Sure. Whatever,” the young man replied. Part of him wanted to run from the car, but the other part yearned to stay. Something was holding him, like gravity, to the seat, while images of his life, of his disappointments and sorrows, were spinning in his mind.

The man shut his eyes and leaned his head on the steering wheel. And then he began to pray. The words are lost now, but the echo of them reverberates still. When the man finished his prayer, there came the sound of church bells ringing softly in the distance. “Midnight,” they signaled. “Merry Christmas, son,” said the man gently, kindly, a mysterious smile crossing his face. “God bless you.”

“Uh, and you, too,” the soldier stuttered awkwardly.

When he got out of the car, he wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he knew his life would never be the same. The journey home had changed his life.

This story is true, and it is precious to me because that soldier was my father. And my father has always been a spiritual guide and mentor for me. Sometimes when we talk about that night, he shuts his eyes, picturing the stranger, and wonders aloud if that man could have been some sort of angel- or perhaps was merely guided there by God. What was he doing out on that road at that hour? In a way, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that, through this man, this stranger, a flame was lit in my dad’s heart, a burning recognition of divinity, of holiness, of the presence of God-with-us.

Cleopas and his friend walked with Jesus for seven miles never recognizing who he was. And then, as Jesus began to move on ahead of them, they called out, urging him, imploring him, “Wait! Come in! Rest. Share a meal.” Even in their grief and despair, they suddenly knew that they had to invite this stranger in. They didn’t say, “Hey, see ya… nice talking to ya. Wish we could have you in but, you know, we’ve had a rough few days and all.” Instead, something stirred in them, something like recognition, like answered prayer. Perhaps it was precisely because their hearts were broken that Jesus appeared to them – these two nobodies, these two average Joe’s just making their way home. Such is the extraordinary tenderness of God.

If we make room for Christ in our lives, he will always respond. Always. When we are despairing, when we question our faith, when we feel abandoned by God, when we feel like giving up, that’s exactly the time that Christ walks most closely by our side. We may not always recognize him, but he is there. Every step, every mile. All that is required is that we simply make room in our hearts. Invite him in. Urge him to stay. Jesus doesn’t break into our lives like a robber, forcing change, taking what we are afraid to let go of (even if it means holding on to our pain) – he enters by invitation only. His healing energy needs only a crack to seep in; but we’ve got to open the door at least that much, at least a small crack.

On this journey, you don’t always have to know what you believe. You can be mad sometimes. You can be afraid, or so sad that you can’t imagine ever being happy again. That’s okay. But you don’t have to stay there. At every turn, in every moment, the love of God is coming to you, surrounding you. Maybe you don’t understand what it means to invite Christ in to the depths of you. That’s okay, too. Just call out. Just invite him, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, even if he feels like a stranger to you. It may not change the circumstances of your life, but God will give you the courage and the faith to change yourself. After all, Cleopas and his friend eventually had to return to their lives, to their homes and their families and their jobs – but they were not the same people.

Sometimes the Holy One comes in the darkest of nights, unexpectedly pulling up to offer us a ride. Sometimes Christ taps us on the shoulder, reminding us we are not alone. If you are open to the ways in which the Divine comes to you, is coming to you even now, I am certain that your life will change. Does this mean we won’t know heartache or that we will be spared adversity? No. But we will live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in our midst, with hearts that are burning with compassion and joy, and with minds that are open to inspiration and insight. And we will live with courage, and with hope, and with a peace that passes all understanding.
Amen.

We Are All in This Together

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Acts 4:32-35
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

John 20:19-21
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit..”
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My wife and I have a debate as to what our daughter’s first word was. She claims it was “Ma,” and I say her first word was “Mine! Mine! Mine!” We have lived through a time of extraordinary material wealth and greed. There was a time when people found it natural to do many things cooperatively. People would raise a barn together. People would build a house together. People joined clubs and civic organizations. They put on plays and musicals. They sat on front porches or in backyards and talked to each other. They had family reunions. My parents’ generation, the World War II generation, included all kinds of talented and ambitious people, but that generation tended to place a very high value on community. These are very broad generalizations, and you may have a different perception based on your own life experience, but I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own heart a change that occurred in our society during my lifetime.

Somewhere along the line – and in a way that most of us were probably not even conscious of – something shifted, and the emphasis on community in all its forms seemed to grow weaker, and the message that came from our culture was: Mine! Mine! Mine! Get what you can. Personal achievement, personal success, and personal material comforts – these are the things that matter. People who invest their lives in things that have no personal benefit to them in terms of their status or comfort, are suckers and chumps.

Again, I am taking the liberty of speaking in very broad generalizations, but I believe there is truth in them.

Today many people are raising the question: is the economic crisis – and particularly the extraordinary greed and recklessness that has come to light during this crisis – an opportunity for us to rethink the message that our culture has pounded into our ears: “Get what you can for yourself. Material well-being comes first; the other stuff you can take care of later.” Many people are now saying to themselves, “Maybe the things I thought could wait until later are the things that mattered the most all along.”

In the season of Easter we hear the strange and remarkable stories of the appearances of the risen Christ to the women and men who were his friends and followers. Noticed today what Jesus says again and again when he appears to the apostles: “Peace be with you – peace be with you – peace be with you.” In the benediction at the end of the worship service we often hear the words: the peace of God – the peace of God – that passes human understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of the Savior Christ Jesus. In these words we declare that this is what matters. There are all kinds of other messages floating around in the world about what matters, but here we say it is the peace of God that matters. Here we say to one another: peace be with you – keep in your heart and mind that knowledge of God’s peace and presence. God’s peace is a binding force; it is a force that draws people together in mutual affection, in mutual care, and in service to the world.

The other resurrection story we heard today is one that may have sounded very strange to you, if you never heard it before. In the time shortly after the resurrection of Christ the followers of Jesus were so excited and so filled with the Holy Spirit and with the message of the risen Christ that they threw caution to the wind; they surrendered all their personal possessions, gave everything away, and shared everything they had.

Jesus told the rich young man who came to him for advice, “Sell all that you have and give to the poor and follow me.” After Christ was risen from the dead, they remember these words, and the early believers just started giving everything away. The result was that, at least initially, no one was in need.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Pretty remarkable. In the book of Acts the writer, Luke, makes it sound like this was an ideal situation. And it does sound like a great idea, until you try to figure out how this system is going to work.

Who is going to keep all this money?
How will the money be invested?
Who is going to check to see whether people did in fact turn over the proceeds from the sale of their belongings or if they put most of it in a Swiss bank account?
Who is going to determine how much each person needs? Will the apostles just take their word for it?
Where will these people live once they sell their houses and give all the money to the apostles?
Will the new people who join the church be asked to sell all their property and goods before they can join the church?
What if someone does not want to participate in the plan? Can they still be part of the church? Can they receive communion? Can they be baptized and have their children baptized?
What if the person has a shoemaking business in their house – should they still sell their house and give away the money, even though they will be giving away their means of livelihood?

You don’t have to think for very long to realize why we don’t hear much more about this plan. Luke tells us about it as if this was the most wonderful thing in the world, but before long he drops the subject. We must assume that this was a short-lived experiment on the part of the early Christians.

We learned well from Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao that the only way to get people to relinquish their personal property is to kill a lot of them. That is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. So many people – so many millions – lost their lives in order to fulfill someone else’s idea of a perfect society.

We might say that Luke tells us a charming story: in a rush of enthusiasm after Jesus was risen from the dead, the early Christians sold or gave away all they owned, pooled their resources; everybody was happy. It apparently did not work for them, and we know that it has not worked as a social system. But I would like to take another look at this snapshot today of the first Christians. These people that had such faith and enthusiasm and were so carefree that their possessions meant nothing to them, and they were willing to offer all that they had to see that no one was hungry or in need.

Here we have these idealistic spirit-filled people giving away all they own, caring nothing for bank accounts, homes, possessions – caring only for the community of which they are a part and the needs of every person in the community. Alongside that image we see a snapshot of a modern human being who has swallowed the message of the consumer culture hook, line, and sinker, and who believes that the only thing that matters is personal gain, personal status, and personal pleasure. It may be a myth that people can live in perfect harmony sharing all things, but it is just as much a myth that you can live totally for yourself and still be human. But that is the myth that has seized so many hearts and minds in our age.

The economic crisis we are in challenges each of us to live in that resurrection spirit that led people to use their resources so that none would go hungry. The economic crisis challenges those of us who have the things of this world to consider what is ours and what we possess that is truly God’s and intended to be given and shared. We need to recover some of the community spirit that motivated former generations to value public service and the common good, and to see that a life lived for self alone is hardly a life at all.

I have said many times that we need to learn to read our scriptures with ecological awareness, because nothing less than the health of the planet earth and the well-being of human life is at stake in our time. This past week there were two important items in the news, coming from opposite places on the earth, but deeply connected.

The first report came from India, where leading environmental scientists reported on a new insight into the warming of our planet and the melting of our glaciers. This insight has only come about in the last several years, and it is the awareness that almost 20% of the pollution causing global warming is produced by poor people in tens of thousands of villages who burn dung and other simple fuels in their stoves to cook their daily bread. Scientists have known for a long time that this is very damaging to the health of the children and the adults in the home, but only now are we realizing that the carbon – so called “black carbon” – created by these stoves is one of the major problems in global warming. It is a problem that can be corrected, and correcting it can have immediate benefits, directly to the poor who rely on the stoves and directly to the earth and the rest of humanity.

On the other side of the world, in Washington, DC, two days ago, came the following news:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration declared Friday that carbon dioxide and five other industrial emissions threaten the planet. The landmark decision lays the groundwork for federal efforts to cap carbon emissions — at a potential cost of billions of dollars to businesses and government. The Environmental Protection Agency finding that the emissions endanger “the health and welfare of current and future generations” is “the first formal recognition by the U.S. government of the threats posed by climate change,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a memo to her staff. The finding could touch every corner of Americans’ lives, from the types of cars they drive to the homes they build. Along with carbon dioxide, the EPA named methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride as deleterious to the environment. Even if the agency doesn’t use its powers under the Clean Air Act to curb greenhouse gases, Friday’s action improves the chances that Congress will move to create a more flexible mechanism to do so.

This is history in the making. This is the stuff that will determine what chemicals and pollutants will go into the blood streams of our children and grandchildren. And what is so striking is that the air that absorbs the soot from the simple stoves of the poor also absorbs the pollutants from our cars and our powerplants and is the same air breathed by the rich and the poor.

That image of the early church community sharing everything in common is an ecological parable for this moment in human history. It is no longer a fantasy, a wild ideal; our very survival depends upon this physical and spiritual fact: as earthlings we share this earth and its resources in common.
We hold all this earth in common.
What affects one person’s air or water ultimately affects us all.

The message of the early Christians was: we are in this together.
And that is the truth.
We are all in this together.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.