Her Tears Have Turned to Laughter

The Heir (Sarah Laughed) by Hannah Garrity

a reflection on Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

As we begin our time of reflection this morning, I invite you to spend a few minutes with the painting that illustrates today’s scripture reading. This painting by Hannah Garrity is titled, “The Heir,” and its subtitle is “Sarah Laughed.” The painting depicts, of course, Sarah gazing into the eyes of her newborn son, Isaac, both of them laughing with delight. As you take in this beautiful picture, I wonder if you might remember a time when you or someone you love has experienced this kind of delight: the kind that makes you laugh out loud with sheer joy. This kind of delight at the fulfillment of a long-held hope is one of life’s most beautiful gifts, and when this gift arrives, we are called to celebrate it with grateful and joyous laughter.

Of course, the arrival of a child is cause for delight and celebration whenever and wherever it happens. But I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand the delight that is depicted in this painting unless we know the story of what came before: years of painful yearning; decades of dashed hopes; the better part of a lifetime consumed with unfulfilled longing for the child that Sarah believed was promised to her by God.

This summer, we are making our way through some of our most ancient stories as we explore the idea of unravelling: What happens when the fabric of our shared life, the fabric of our plans — for own lives and for the world — all seem to be unravelling before our eyes due to circumstances beyond our control? It turns out that this kind of unravelling happens again and again in the Bible, as it does in our own lives. If ever there was a person who knows what it feels like to have one’s hopes and dreams unravelled by unforeseen circumstances, our foremother Sarah is that person. When we meet her today, Sarah has given up on ever bearing a child. By her own account, Sarah and Abraham have grown very old and are long past childbearing age. So far past, in fact, that when the mysterious visitor announces that Sarah will yet bear a son, Sarah’s response is to laugh out loud at him! And we can be sure that this is not a chuckle of delight. On the contrary, this is the cynical laughter of a woman who has long since given up hope; a woman who has long since given up on her heart’s deepest desire. Yeah, right, Sarah laughs. A child. That’s a good one!  

I wonder what our foremother Sarah might say to us if she could visit us here in this summer of our collective unravelling; this season in which so many of our own hopes and dreams, from vacations to weddings to college dormitories, are dissolving before our eyes or being postponed into the indefinite and murky future. If you’re so inclined, I invite you to spend some time with Sarah this week. It’s not hard to do. Just find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed for a while and take a few deep breaths to center your body and mind. Then, closing your eyes, invite Sarah to come and visit with you in the form of a waking dream or meditation. Ask her anything you like about your own waiting or your own unravelling; about the promises of God for your life and for the life of the world God loves. As you ask each question in turn, be sure to leave enough space, enough silence, for Sarah to offer her own wisdom and guidance. If you want to, you can pause this recording now to visit with Sarah and see what she might want to tell you about the experience of unravelling. When your visit feels complete, I encourage you to write down whatever you remember from this conversation, knowing that you can return here to talk and listen some more whenever you need to.

My guess is that when you enter into this kind of deep listening relationship with Sarah or any of the ancestors, you will hear the particular guidance that your own soul needs to hear at this time. But I can tell you what I heard when I listened on our behalf this week. I heard Sarah laughing with delight. I heard her laughing with delight at the fact that we are taking enough time this season to even listen — we, who are so fond of rushing and scheming to accomplish our own plans in our own human time. Inviting Sarah into my meditation this week, I see her standing before me with her dark skin and thick, coiled hair, laughing as she proclaims, in the words of the African-American church: God is good all the time. All the time, God is good! God is good, mother Sarah says. Even when things do not happen in our time, on our human schedule. God never leaves us, she says. Even when all our plans seem to be unravelling. God can work with that, child, she says. Sarah reminds me that God does not will or cause our painful unravelling: we humans have free will that can bring about all kinds of painful events, and of course, the world itself has sharp edges, cliffs, viruses. But whatever comes to pass, God can work with that, mother Sarah says. Sometimes, things don’t happen on our schedule, she says. But that doesn’t mean God is absent. All along the way, no matter how long it takes, God is working alongside us and inside us. All along the way, God is calling us to keep faith, and to take whatever actions are ours to take. All along the way, God is working beside us and within us for justice. For healing. For the restoration and rebirth of all creation. 

You were made just like me, Sarah whispers. To be a vessel for the future that God is fashioning from whatever circumstances have arisen. Do your part, she whispers. And do not despair.

And so, beloved, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving. For the One who calls us, even as our own plans unravel, to watch for the healing plans of God. And for the wise ones who teach us, even now, to be a vessel for God’s healing plans. For all these we say: Thanks be to God.

Unraveling, Unveiling, Unfurling

a reflection on Joel 3:13-16 for Pride Sunday 2020

All through this month of June, all over the world, rainbow flags are unfurling over city streets and small town roads. All over the world this month, citizens are taking to the streets to unfurl the rainbow flag of promise, of dignity, and of liberation for every body — particularly the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer bodies who continue to fight long and hard for liberation and justice and joy.

What a beautiful sight this is: the sight of the rainbow flag, representing the diversity of our lives and the infinitely diverse ways we love. All through this month of Pride, the rainbow flag represents the difficult and often dangerous work of making this world safe for all kinds of love. As our rainbow flags unfurl this month, they remind us of the power of this fierce love, and of the work that love still has to do in the world.

And I wonder if we might remember this day that these flags we wave did not unfurl overnight. Before our beautiful rainbow flags could unfurl in celebration, there was a great unraveling that had to happen. An unraveling not unlike the one the prophet Joel speaks of this morning. A necessary and at times disorienting process by which, with God’s help, we are called to unravel systems of prejudice and oppression. A great unraveling that must take place before any real liberation can come about.

As Joel describes it, and as we know from our own experience, the unraveling of long-held social norms can be painful, confusing, and exhausting work. The job of the prophet at a time of unraveling is to speak the truth about the injustice that we humans have created and to tell the truth of the harm we are doing to one another even when that truth is hard to hear. 

This day, the prophet comes to remind us that before any flag of liberation is unfurled, we must intentionally unravel the institutionalized systems of oppression that are so familiar, so commonplace, that we often don’t even see them unless we ourselves are the ones who are being strangled by their bonds. Systems of oppression that we unconsciously enshrine in our language, in our laws, in our policing practices, our school curricula, and in our courts.

Beloved, we are living through a season that the great Hebrew prophets would recognize. A season in which the prophets among us are working to unveil the painful truth of our shared life. On video. On the streets. In the testimonies of our black siblings. 

This Pride Sunday, as we celebrate the victories of the LGBTQ liberation movement, we are called to remember that before anyone could unfurl a rainbow flag, there was a long, difficult process of unveiling and unraveling that had to happen. I am praying that we will remember those who risked their lives to unveil the systemic oppression of queer folks: the targeting of queer bodies and lives by unjust laws and, yes, by the very police departments that are sworn to protect all citizens. 

Let’s remember that our Pride celebrations happen here in the month of June to commemorate the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising. A great uprising and unraveling in which LGBT folks, fed up with constant police harassment and rampant discrimination, took to the streets. And we can be sure that to those who witnessed the full-blown riot that ensued on the streets of New York, it looked like the unraveling of the social fabric itself. 

That’s because it was. Friends, let’s remember that often, the laws and customs that are woven into our social fabric are even now strangling the life out of precious, breathing bodies. Let’s remember that before we can unfurl the flags of liberation and celebration, we must first unravel the unjust laws and customs that have been woven to oppress and silence so many voices and lives. In this month of Pride celebrations, let us not forget the cost of this and every liberation movement. Let us not forget that the prophetic work of naming and unveiling systemic injustice continues, beloved, wherever God’s people live and speak out and march.

As we unfurl our rainbow flags; as we lift our voices and our banners for the sanctity and protection of black lives; as we take to the streets on behalf of the earth and of earth’s most vulnerable — the ones who have no vote and no voice — I wonder: What work of unveiling is yours to do? What work of unraveling is yours to do? Which of the ongoing movements for justice and liberation is breaking your own heart open right now? Which life, human or more than human, is yours to protect? 

This day, may we unfurl our flags in thanksgiving for those who risked and lost their lives in the struggle for liberation.

May we unfurl our flags this day as a promise to those who are not yet free. 

May we unfurl our flags this day as a promise that there is no such thing as freedom as long as anyone, as long as any body, is in danger.

May we have the prophetic courage to unveil and to unravel the bonds of oppression. Next year at this time, may we unfurl the flags of liberation for all beings. The flags of justice. The flags of God’s own joy.

One Body, One Voice

a reflection for Music Sunday 2020

Today is Music Sunday here at First Congregational Church. Traditionally, this is a day when we gather in church for a whole morning of music. We give thanks for the gifts that Marcia brings to every keyboard she plays. We thank our Choir Director for a whole year of teaching and learning and laughing together. And we sing. On Music Sunday, we pick out the songs we have loved best over the year just past, and we lift our voices in thanksgiving and joy.

It is hard for me to find words for the grief I am feeling on this particular Music Sunday. A Sunday that is dawning all over the world without choirs, without hymnals, without the beloved community gathered for worship and for song.

I have no doubt that many of you are feeling the same sense of loss and bewilderment. Who are we if we do not sing together? Without the spiritual practice of song, how will we give voice to our gratefulness, to our sorrow, to our joy? For many of us, the act of singing together as one body, as one voice, brings us a felt sense of our oneness — with each other and with God — that we have never experienced anywhere else.

But despite this season apart, the fundamental truth of our oneness with God and with each other remains.This is the unshakable truth of our life in God.  And because this is true — because, as the Apostle Paul says, nothing can separate us from one another or from God — then our task during this strange and songless season is to confidently claim the deep truth of our oneness in God and to ask what other practices might embody this truth for us? In the absence of song, what new practices might help us experience the truth of our deep communion and joy? 

I will be honest with you: I don’t yet have an answer. But I am willing to bet everything on the conviction that God does. I am convinced that God is doing a new thing here just as God is always doing a new thing among us if only we will keep our eyes open for a sign of that new life. 

Maybe we don’t quite see it yet. Maybe we can’t yet imagine where we will find the essence of what music brings us — the joy, the togetherness, the hope — anywhere but in the choirs, the hymns, the chants, that we have always known and loved. But if we believe, as we proclaim, that God is still speaking, then we can be sure that God is still speaking of oneness and beauty and joy among us this very day, even as the familiar forms of our life together continue to change.

And so, we will keep listening, this season and far beyond. For the one who calls us to beauty and joy. For the One whose voice continues to sing in and among us. For the One who is doing a new thing among us even as we tearfully set the old forms aside this season. 

I invite you to join me in a prayer of thanksgiving. For Marcia and the beautiful gifts of music and learning and humor she brings to all our worship. For Sam, who stepped up as our Choir Director this year and has led us all into songs of exuberant hope and spirit. And to the First Congregational Chancel Choir, rehearsing late on Thursday nights and early on Sunday mornings, so that they might lead us all into deep prayer and into God’s own joy. For all these musical gifts and for the dear ones who offer them so generously, we say together: Thanks be to God.

I invite you to join me now as we listen to the offerings of Sam and Marcia and the choir this Music Sunday. I trust that even as we listen, God’s wild Holy Spirit is even now singing to us of what is to come.

“Teacher, Tell Me How to Live”

a reflection on Matthew 22:25-40

“Teacher,” says the man who comes to visit Jesus in our gospel reading today. “Teacher.” Today, which is Education Sunday here at First Congregational Church, I think it’s fitting that we remember the title by which Jesus was known during his lifetime: “Teacher.”  

In Jesus’ day, as is still true today in Jewish communities all over the world, people came to their rabbis, their teachers, for instruction in religious law and in the teachings of the prophets. These are the ancient Hebrew scriptures that contain the Jewish people’s collective wisdom regarding how to live in this often difficult and always holy world.

So we find this morning that an expert in this religious law has come to see what Jesus himself might have to say about how one should navigate the scriptures’ myriad instructions regarding how to live and how to do the work of justice in his own time. Of course, these are questions that we ourselves are still asking. Questions about how to live, how to serve, how to be a blessing to the world, and how to stand up for the most vulnerable among us. In fact, these are questions that we ourselves might long to ask Jesus. Questions that keep us awake at night. Questions that make us anxious and edgy as we wonder what work we are called to do as individuals, as congregations, and as citizens of earth. 

Now, it’s possible that the man who approaches Jesus this morning was simply trying to test Jesus. This is the way this text has often been interpreted. But I think it’s just as likely that this student of the law was a regular guy just like us. A guy who was anxious. Maybe a guy who, like us, just wanted to get it right. Maybe he was confused about how to best use his particular gifts to serve a world that was suffering in so many of the same ways that our own world is suffering: with poverty, with sickness, with injustice and murder at the hands of the state police. Friends, this is the world Jesus walked through in his day, just as he walks with us through ours.

So it may come as a surprise to us — or at least to those of us in the United Church of Christ who pride ourselves on taking action in the world — that when Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment of all, he answers, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” You’ll note, of course, that Jesus does not ignore or neglect care of one’s neighbor. He simply insists, as do all the prophets before him, that attending to our relationship with God is the most important commandment of all because it is meant to be the foundation for all our acts of justice and healing in the world.

So I’d like to take a deeper look at this greatest commandment today. Because it seems to me that as we ourselves wrestle, just as Jesus’ questioner wrestles, with our own anxieties, with our own needy egos, with our own genuine longing to bring healing and justice to the world — I believe it is wise to take a careful look at the advice Jesus offers this morning. 

And to do that, we need to keep in mind the very nature of God. And by that I mean the nature of the God whom Jesus himself knew so intimately. Let’s remember that Jesus’ spiritual lineage belongs to the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. If we look at Jesus’ words as they are presented in the Christian gospels, we find that Jesus often quotes these Hebrew prophets, even verbatim at times. In fact, we find Jesus speaking out as a prophet himself: calling his people, as every prophet does, back into intimate and faithful relationship with God. This is what all the Hebrew prophets do. When the people fall out of relationship with God, the prophet’s job is to call them back into right relationship with God. When the people get overwhelmed by all the healing work there is still to do in the world — as our lawyer friend is perhaps overwhelmed today, wondering which commandment is most important to follow; which work of justice is most urgent — then the prophet’s job is to remind the people of this crucial truth: the way to know what work you are called to do in the world is to get yourself into deep, ongoing relationship with the God who not only knows the pain of the world, but who knows you. Our most important work, says Jesus to the lawyer this morning, is to maintain an ongoing, intimate, listening relationship with the God who made and formed you; the God who equips you with your own particular gifts; the God who calls you yourself to bring a unique gift of healing to this world. A gift that only you can bring. 

Now, let’s be clear. There are some people who seem to be born knowing what their gift is. People who are already so connected to their Source (whether or not they ever call that Source by the name of “God”) that these folks are able to set off on their healing path in the world and never look back. This unwavering knowledge of God and self, friends, is a unique and beautiful gift to the world! 

But for many people, this lifetime is a journey of discovery. A journey on which we are meant to discover which of our particular, unique gifts meet the deep needs of this beautiful, broken world. This is a journey that requires listening and discernment; a journey that often takes a circuitous route. And this, friends is where spiritual practice comes in. I bet you knew I was heading there, didn’t you? 

When Jesus says that the greatest commandment is love of God, he is talking about the kind of spiritual practice that brings us into daily, ongoing, intimate relationship with God. The God of justice, friends. The God of all the Hebrew prophets. The very God who is always breaking into the world on the side of healing and justice for all of creation and for the most vulnerable among us, no exceptions. This is the God with whom Jesus and all the prophets insist that we spend time loving and listening to every day.

For most of us, this takes time and practice. For most of us, learning to answer Jesus’ call to deep, listening relationship with God takes some work. There are so many needs in this world. So many ways we get lost and overwhelmed. So many people who are eager to tell you every day what you should be doing for the world; people who are more than willing to tell you how to live, how to help, how to make yourself feel better when you feel like you aren’t doing enough. No wonder this poor, confused student of the law comes to Jesus this morning begging Jesus to just please just tell him, once and for all, which of the thousands of ethical commandments in the sacred scriptures is the most important one to follow. 

Look, Jesus says. There will always be more work to do than any human can accomplish. There will always be thousands of ways to help and to heal this world. If you want to know how YOU are called to live, Jesus says, then you must get into intimate relationship with the One who calls you. Only then will you know who you were made to be in this lifetime, and what particular work of healing and justice you are called to bring to this world.

Beloved, I can’t tell you what your own particular call is. But I can tell you mine. My own call, my particular work in the world, is to help people find their way into deep and intimate relationship with the God of justice and healing, and to help them hear God’s unique call to them. I do this work because I know from my own experience and from the experience of hundreds of others that it is not possible to be in intimate, ongoing relationship with God without being called to the work of justice and healing in the world. Let me say that again. If we are listening, if we are in deep, intimate, ongoing relationship with the Divine Presence, we will always hear that Divine Presence calling us into the work of justice and healing in the world.

And I am here today to tell you that God’s call to us — as individuals and as congregations — is never one-size-fits-all. The work you are called to do in the world, the particular gifts you were made to bring, will not be the same as mine, and they will not be the same as the person who lives next door to you. That’s because the God who formed you, the God who made you, the God who has loved you from before always, has uniquely equipped you for a particular work of justice and healing in this world. God has not equipped you to try and do someone else’s work. You were made for some particular work of justice and healing in this world. And unless you take the time to discern this particular work, it will go undone.

And the same holds true for congregations. I believe that God calls and uniquely equips every congregation to a particular work of healing and justice in this world, and that each congregation must do the deep and prayerful work of listening in order to discern that call. Because it is very likely that your work — the work God calls you to do —  will not look anything like the work of the congregation across the street or the UCC congregation in the next town. It is only when we listen prayerfully that we discover God’s unique and often very surprising call to us. A few years ago, a church in the San Francisco Bay Area began to listen very carefully and prayerfully for who God was calling them to be. To everyone’s surprise, what they heard was a call to sell their church building and to use that money to fund their ongoing work for social justice in their community. Now that is not something you hear about every day. It’s not something any other church around was doing. But because they were so open to God, so open to the unique plans God had for them, they were joyfully called to sell their building in order to become the church God is still calling them to be. Who would have guessed? 

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that this is every congregation’s call. In fact, I am insisting that every congregation, and every individual, has a unique call. I am convinced that when we are willing to get into ongoing, intimate relationship with God and to listen deeply, then we will hear God calling us to the very particular work that is ours to do in the world. And this call is likely to surprise us. It is a call that on our own, left to our own human imaginations and egos, we are unlikely to hear.

My work among you and in the world is to help congregations and individuals find the spiritual practices that bring us into relationship with the Divine Presence, and then to help everyone listen for the particular ways in which we are called to the work of healing and justice in the world. Friends, I cannot tell you what your unique call is. But I believe that God is always offering to do just that. And it is my vocation, as well as my great joy, to offer you the spiritual practices that will help you discern God’s particular call to you. 

Here in the United Church of Christ, we love to say that “God is still speaking.” Jesus asks us this morning whether or not we are willing to listen deeply enough to hear the call of our still-speaking God. 

And so we offer a prayer this day of thanksgiving and hope. For all the prophets who urge us to listen, for all the teachers who show us how, and for the One whose wild Holy Spirit calls us into this beautiful, broken world in unique and healing and infinitely unpredictable ways. Thanks be to God.