Posts Tagged grace

Morning Worship: Put trash in mulch pile and let new, beautiful things grow


“Humor and laughter are the most powerful gifts in life,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The congregation this morning is a visual reaffirmation of faith in the church, in that the numbers here this morning rival the numbers at a screening of ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Senior Pastor Susan Sparks Delivers Her SermonDuring The Sunday Morning Worship Service . PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Her sermon title was “The Mulch Pile,” and the theme was letting go. The Scripture reading was Colossians 3:1-2, 8-14.

Sparks said she and her husband were traveling across the country, and to the west of Minneapolis they saw a billboard that had a picture of a casket “Minnesota Cremation Society — Think Outside the Box,” it read.

“That is what humor does — helps you think outside the box, see in fresh ways, and it builds community and bridges,” Sparks said.

Sparks quoted theologian Karl Barth, saying that humor is the closest thing we have to God’s grace.

“We can feel hope in our hearts,” she said, “because humor is there even if the world tries to beat it out.”

Sparks recently ended a three-month sabbatical. For the first month, she and her husband rode their Harleys around the country.

“That’s right, you have a biker chick and a comedian for a chaplain this week,” she said.

The second two months they spent in their cabin in Wisconsin — a place they visit regularly. It is near a town much like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: 2,000 people and 17 Lutheran churches.

They have a ritual for their first morning — first, making “really bad coffee,” and then fishing for bluegills and other small fish and then cooking breakfast. During one visit, they threw the fish guts and egg shells into the trash after breakfast and went out to run errands. They had no air conditioning and the day was 93 degrees — “you can see where this is going,” Sparks said. When they got home, they were hit with the smell.

“I made a small gas mask out of wet paper towels and went in and got the trash and ran it out to the mulch pile,” Sparks said. “As you gardeners know, the trash turns into rich, dark soil that grows daylilies or tomatoes.”

In the Scripture reading, Paul tells the Colossians to get rid of their anger and malice and clothe themselves in a new self.

“Paul was writing in 60 A.D. and the danger he was writing about was gnosticism,” Sparks said. “He urged the Colossians to clothe themselves in the teaching of Christ. Paul is reaching out to us in the same way today and asking two questions — What trash are you carrying that needs to be put in the mulch? And what beautiful new thing can grow in its place?”

This is the arc for the week in her sermons: to look at what the trash is that needs to be put out on the mulch pile and, on Friday, to sum up what beautiful new thing might grow in its place.

“What trash are you carrying?” she asked. “Do you even know? Are you carrying anger, resentment, fear or self-doubt? Are you carrying racism, homophobia or other hatreds?”

Sparks said that sometimes when we are in denial, we don’t know that we are carrying trash or we have lived with generations of disregard for the problems. As an example, she said she threw her back out once and had to lie on the floor for almost a week. On the fourth day, after having read every newspaper and magazine in the house and binge-watched reruns of “Dr. Phil,” she was bored and her only view was under the furniture.

“I saw dust balls the size of ferrets, some leaky pens and paper and a strange orange square thing. It turned out to be a cheese appetizer from a cocktail party two years before,” she said. “I would not have known it was there unless I had been forced to look. You can’t take out the trash if you don’t know it is there.”

The second action in taking out the trash is letting go, and that is easier said than done. There are many things that we are used to but are useless to us.

“My father had a big old Buick boat of a car and he kept two spare tires, food, water, blankets and a foil space blanket in his trunk — in case there was a blizzard — to drive the 0.1 mile to from our house to his office in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she said.

We, she told the congregation, need to let go of privilege, apathy and ego as much as a foil blanket. She told the story of a man who fell off a cliff and was dangling from a tree, calling for help. A voice came from the heavens, saying, “Let go, my son, I have you.” The man thought for a moment and said, “Who else is up there?”

It can be hard to let go, but if we carry this trash too long it begins to define us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said what we worship, we become.

“I have a friend who calls it the 3Bs — believe, behave, become,” Sparks said. “What we believe drives our behavior and what we believe drives who we become.”

Sparks cited the first part of the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

She prefers the Senility Prayer: “God, Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

“We have got to let go and throw things onto the mulch pile and in that moment, greater forces will take over,” Sparks said. “When we hand things over to a greater power, to Jesus Christ, it fades and changes into something beautiful and new.”

For instance, she said, we have to throw out our judgmentalism of others in order for mercy, empathy and forgiveness to grow.

“We judge people by the craziest things, like color, language or religion that have nothing to do with their being a child of God and our brother and sister,” she said.

She told a story from Jack Kornfield about two prisoners of war. The first one asked the second if he had forgiven their captors. The second one said no. “Then they still have you in prison,” the first one replied.

“We have more in common than we think and we have to start living like it,” Sparks said. “We have to begin with ourselves and forgive ourselves so we can forgive others. We have excuses for why we can’t do that, but if we have any lesson for today, it is that this body is our house, this heart is our house, this country is our house, this world is our house and it is our responsibility to take out the trash even if someone else brought it in.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“If you care about this gift, don’t waste it on what weighs you down,” Sparks said. “Fling it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something beautiful and new.”

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Morning Worship: God is holding you and all this beautiful, broken world  o

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   The Chautauqua Daily


The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli Presents Her Sermon During Sunday Morning Worship In The Amp On Sunday, July 23, 2017. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli was serving as a youth minister, she was asked to preach one Sunday. One of the youth, Phil, wanted to see her before the service.

“I knew Phil liked me and he had been on mission trips and retreats and was aloof, as fitted a 16-year-old,” she said. “He asked if I was preaching and I said yes. He said, ‘Make it interesting.’ ”

Gaines-Cirelli was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Hear and See,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 30:8-18.

“That is such good counsel if you have ears to hear,” she said. “To invite people to receive God’s love and liberating grace, to share God’s life.”

This message has always been a challenge to be truly received.

Hearing is more than physical; it is not just intellectual assent or an emotional response. To truly hear “adjusts the core of our being and we are changed from the inside out.” Gaines-Cirelli said the most difficult journey is from the head to the heart and it is a round trip — a quote she attributed to 20th-century preacher William Sloane Coffin.

The prophet Isaiah had fully received God’s message and a vision had taken root in his heart of a community living in covenant faithfulness. It would be a community that rescued the oppressed, beat swords into ploughshares; it would be the vision of the peaceable kingdom.

“This vision of peaceful living and interdependence guided all he did; it was his grounding and he invited others to live it,” Gaines-Cirelli said of Isaiah. “He looked at Judah in crisis and saw it rejecting the vision and turning toward oppression and cunning that brought increased suffering and the presumed necessity of violence.”

It is only in quiet and trust that Judah could remember who was able to liberate them.

“In response to this blessed assurance, they said, ‘No thanks, we are good with oppression and cunning,’ ” Gaines-Cirelli said.

Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, calling it the city that killed the prophets and stoned those sent to it. Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen, but they were not willing.

“Why? Why did they reject the words of God’s prophets?” she asked. “They were unwilling or unable to receive the word and change course.”

The prophet could see the writing on the wall if things did not change, but his announcement of destruction made no impact. The people told Isaiah to stop telling the truth, to quit speaking of God all together and “tell us what we want to hear.”

“Why?” Gaines-Cirelli said. “What is your answer?”

She imagined that for some, in a message-saturated culture, they want to keep their illusions because they are tired. People just want to get through the day; they have enough to do and are not interested in doing more, or learning more or caring more. They are on information overload.

Others “prefer to keep their illusions about their life, relationships, country, world or culture because the truth is too painful, too overwhelming.”

“They grow complacent and think things aren’t so bad and that it will all work out,” she said.

This is only possible, she continued, for those who live in relative safety or ease.

“They will resent those who threaten their relative comfort,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is called privilege, and it works overtime to prove those who are suffering wrong, even in the face of data. What would be required of the privileged would be too costly if the vision took root.”

Prophets tell inconvenient truths that require real change.

“There are things in my life I need to change, that if left uncared for will have negative consequences,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “I know I need more rest and exercise, so I decided to do ‘vigorous sitting.’ I don’t have a primary care physician because I don’t want to deal with the insurance company.”

She said that there are difficult conversations she needs to have, and her husband tells her to do what needs to be done.

“I could kill him, metaphorically,” she said. “But exhaustion, guilt and regret are things that keep me from doing what needs to be done and when I don’t want to see, I lash out.”

Smart, accomplished people who care can inadvertently miss what God is trying to do or say, she said, because “they think they understand the situation and can handle it themselves, with no assistance from God, because they know what the problem is and it is up to them to solve it.”

She gave the example of the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center, holding up the world on his shoulders.

“He is the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand,” she said. “That is one way to live.”

Across the street, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is a statue of Jesus as a boy holding the world up with one hand.

“We have a choice,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We can try to carry all the injustices, hurts, doubts, confusions, fears and anxiety — that is, it is up to us, we know best — or we can let God help us. I can just see Atlas saying ‘no thanks’ to God’s offer of help.”

She told the congregation “our overactive sense of knowledge keeps us from seeing God’s saving love and mercy.”

“The prophets made the message interesting and painful to get our attention,” she said. “We have heard God’s call to love, serve, give, live with the creation. We know this stuff, right?”

We cannot do it by ourselves, she continued. It is one thing to know something intellectually and “another to change our lives. Where are you on the round trip journey from head to heart? God is with you on that journey and holding you and all this beautiful, broken world.”

God’s love is at work in, through and all around you in quietness and trust, she said.

“God is waiting to help grant you mercy and grace in what work is yours to do in the living of these days,” she said. “Hear. See. Receive. God bless you, amen.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. Susan McKee, founder and executive director of Knitting4Peace, read the Scripture. She is a United Church of Christ minister, working on interfaith relations in Denver. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir, which sang “We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” arranged by Undine Smith Moore. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.

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Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges Elected Pres. of Baptist Seminary of Richmond

I met Dr. Bridges at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State in the summer of 1991. She was the Chaplain of the Week. She is one of the many reasons I fell in love with the place. Her sermon, “Grace upon Grace,” describes my life and has stayed with me to this day. She grew up in the area above Greer, South Carolina. Her father was a well-known mountain preacher. At the time Joan Lipscomb Solomon, a classmate at Furman with me, was writing the Daily Religion Column for the Chautauqua Daily. Joan and I met Linda for lunch one day and had a great time exploring our South Carolina connections. I have continued to follow Linda’s career and her outstanding Christian service.

“On Tuesday morning (March 21), trustees voted unanimously to welcome Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges as the third president of BTSR. Dr. Bridges was selected after a comprehensive nationwide search led by a BTSR committee consisting of trustees, faculty and staff, with assistance from AGB Search. She will serve as the third president of BTSR, and comes to the seminary at the culmination of BTSR’s 25th anniversary.

In her comments, Dr. Bridges vowed to, “listen first, revere the symbols of the past, all the while ruthlessly renewing and revisioning theological education for the future.” Rev. Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges will transition to her new role as President-Elect in May 2017, and will officially begin as president of BTSR on July 1, 2017.

The trustees at BTSR have chosen wisely. I am thrilled with the choice. She joins Dr. Molly Marshall, President of Central Baptist Seminary, as a second woman president of a Baptist Theological Seminary. “The mills of the Gods grind exceedingly slowly but exceedingly fine.”

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A Holy Disruption: No Lamb Chops Tonight: Rev. Julia Rusling*

Isaiah 65:17-25 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – November 13, 2016

julia_ruslingThe journey had been long. Forcibly removed from their homeland of Jerusalem, driven to live in exile in Babylon for nearly seventy years, the people of Judah are now, at long last, beginning their return home. They have such hope. Surely all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.  And yet, in the years following their return, God’s beloved people find all is not well. They are bone-weary exhausted from their exile, an exile whose losses and fears permeate their every breath, an exile that literally overturns the very ground of their being–family, land, temple, culture, life.

In their release from exile, in their return to Jerusalem, to the very place for which they had yearned for generations, the exhaustion and the confusion of God’s beloved people somehow does not begin to dissipate, but rather deepens. Why is this so? Why is it that rather than freedom, they find oppression? Rather than joy, they find broken heartedness? Rather than peace they find injustice? Rather than flourishing they find their lives stunted in every way–body, mind, spirit, family, community?

Why is there fear so deep they feel it in the very marrow of their bones day and night?

Was this not the holy land of God? Was not this place, Jerusalem, filled with the presence of God? And if so, why do God’s beloved people continue to experience chaos and fear so deep that even to imagine or to hope for something else seemed beyond even the most desperate of grasping hands and hearts. Shouldn’t they be flourishing? Building and planting, inhabiting and celebrating? Living? Isn’t God here in their midst? And shouldn’t that change everything?

Chaos and fear, oppression and injustice–they are disturbing, disruptive environments in which to live, are they not? They consume us. They pull the very breath from our lungs. And we become desperate to find a way out, desperate to become free of their crushing weight. Perhaps this experience resonates in your own life or in the life of your community?

And so we commit ourselves–we commit ourselves in our churches and in our homes, in our schools and in our workplaces to the creative work of God. It’s the same work Jesus proclaims at the start of his ministry, when he comes to the synagogue in Nazareth, opens up the scroll of Isaiah and reads in proclamation:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We commit ourselves to this work. We deeply believe in it, we proclaim its gospel promise and truth. And we remind ourselves, over and over, that God is in our very midst, and so all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

And yet, in the midst of fear, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of anxiety and doubt, injustice and oppression, we find ourselves, perhaps more often than we would like to admit, responding to one another and to ourselves, in ways that rather than freeing one another up, in fact perpetuate the very fear, injustice and oppression from which we are seeking and hoping and striving to be free.

Perhaps it can help us to see this piece of truth. The truth, my Beloved, that, for the most part, we are a people who are patterned in our responses. We are patterned in the way we live and move and have our being. And it can be so very hard to break free.

It’s a truth contained in the biblical narrative itself. Think of the flow of the biblical witness we hear over and over! The people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through an unwilling prophet of sorts, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere, usually just a stone’s throw down the road…the people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through another unwilling prophet of another sort, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere not too far down the road…. You get the point, yes? And if we’re honest, I imagine we find ourselves, at least to some degree, in this same kind of pattern. Just sayin’.

The truth is that we are patterned powerfully by past experiences—both the gifts and the wounds. So that more often than not the way we respond to one another, particularly when we are in chaos, deep distress, or anxiety, is more reaction than response. And we often don’t even know why. We may catch ourselves a moment or two later, or perhaps weeks or years later, and wonder–why did I ever respond in that way? Oh, my God–why did I respond in this way? And why over and over and over???

Call them ruts. Call them grooves. Call them patterns. Call them whatever you will. But I imagine we all know this experience deeply in our lives, yes? And we know this experience both as the giver as well as the receiver. And sometimes, just sometimes, we are lucky enough that it gives us pause to notice and to reflect and to wonder. Why do I lash out that way? Why do I not notice how I am stomping this other person down or perhaps even stomping down myself? And even if I do notice, why can I not stop? Why does my fear consume me so much I cannot truly see and respond to the need of my neighbor? And why do I respond in these ways over and over and over? Where is the grace of God?

These, my Beloved brothers and sisters, are deeply holy wonderings. Because through these holy wonderings we begin to notice that perhaps the rememberings, the patterns once needed for survival, the patterns that have become incarnate in our very beings, have in truth become the very tools of the destruction of one another and of ourselves, perpetuating fear and chaos, strengthening injustice and oppression.

It is here, beloved, in this very place, that God speaks to her people–“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

It is the voice, the presence of God, offering good news. Offering release to the captive. Recovery of sight to the blind. A chance, a breath, a real hope to let the oppressed go free. It is an invitation, an opening to nurture the full growth and blossoming and peace and joy of all God’s beloved people, and of all God’s beloved creation. And it begins with release from the binding and blinding remembrance of the former ways of being. Not to forget what brought about their emergence, but to let go of the dominance of their pattern over us. This is grace. This is grace in its fullness. And we sure do need a lot of it. Amen?

Recent scientific studies back up this holy noticing, as they reveal to us the reality of the patterned thinking of humans. What has emerged in these studies is that approximately 93% of our thoughts are repetitive and useless. Shocking, isn’t it? But it gets even better! Of this 93%, nearly 80% of our thoughts are negative. Fear and anger and anxiety truly are all around. It makes sense of the overall flow of the biblical narrative, doesn’t it? It makes sense, perhaps too, of our own narratives, both individually and collectively.

So what do we do with this? What is God’s holy, healing, living invitation in this place?

We begin with noticing, and the gift of a holy breath to catch ourselves in the middle of a patterned response. And perhaps we commit ourselves to seeking to practice another way of being. I say practice, because that is what it takes to learn a new behavior. I say practice too because it is a deep truth that in practice, in the intentional seeking and striving to live in a new way to which God is calling us, grace does abound as an ever flowing stream.

But this is hard work! Just ask the lamb and the wolf! Did you catch that little image in our reading? The one where Isaiah proclaims, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox….” It is an image that, while so deeply loved, has in many ways become domesticated in its commonness, to the point that it perhaps no longer catches our breath with its powerful proclamation of transformation.

For transformation, and that is what we are talking about, while deeply filled with grace, can be disorienting to our very core. This image of the wolf and the lamb thus points powerfully to the disruptive power of God’s grace to change, to transform, even the most ingrained ways, the strongest patterns, in which we habitually live and move and have our being.

So let’s explore this just a little bit more. And let’s start with the wolf, because this is a major game changer!!! Can you even begin to imagine the wolf’s confusion at that first inkling of an urge to have table fellowship with that lamb upwind from him, without the lamb being the main course??? What would the wolf’s mother think? And what would they possibly eat for dinner that night?

And what about the lamb? Taught by her elders from day one to stay far away from that mean old hungry wolf and to run like the wind with that first whiff of his presence! What would her flock say if it ever knew of that strange desire that bubbled up in her to invite the wolf over to play, to romp in the grass?!?

It’s disruptive, is it not? And yet the image holds within its offering the proclamation of the truth and the good news of God’s power and grace to transform even our most ingrained ways of being.

This is not to say that it happens right away. Transformation just doesn’t seem to be instantaneous, at least 99.999% of the time. Transformation rather seems to emerge and to blossom over time–one noticing, one wondering, one opening to new possibility, one trusting of the realness of God’s presence and grace with us, at a time, and often just enough to have the courage to choose something new in that moment. It is truly a journey that unfolds one grace infused breath at a time.

And yet as we are on this journey, we notice that the world begins to open up to us. We notice that the fear that ate at the very marrow of our bones begins to lose its grip. We notice that the very places and circumstances where we never thought we could choose differently, begin to blossom with possibility infused with the goodness of God–we begin to notice the possibility of a real opportunity to choose to respond in love and presence, to find and work for ways to lift up the brokenhearted, to join with God and one another to do the work that will let the oppressed go free, to move into a new way in which we live and move and have our being so that our every act, or at least a good sized chunk of them, are the embodiment of proclaiming the presence and the blessing of God in this very place.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is how we join with God in creating God’s holy mountain in every place we stand. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being free of fear, free of injustice, free of oppression. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being in fullness of life and joy and vitality and delight. A place where all can flourish–where all can enjoy the work of their hands, where all can dwell in the homes they have built, and where all can delight in the fruits of the vineyards they have planted. Where all can live together in peace and wholeness.

This takes works, brothers and sisters, co-creating with God this holy place. But it is exciting, is it not? It’s wonderful, is it not? And it is the most real ground of our being, of our life with God and one another, and so we rejoice as we let these words from God forever reverberate in our hearts:

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

We rejoice because we are active participants with God in this great ongoing act of creation, creation that is filled with joy and delight, that is filled with justice and love and fruitfulness as it comes into being one sacred breath, one sacred noticing and grace-filled choice at a time, this creation, this holy ground, in which all are invited to live and move and have their being in the fullness and goodness of God. Amen.

*Rev. Julia Rusling is a Priest Associate at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody, GA. This post is used with her permission.




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