"Dwelling in the House of the Church"

Rev. Laura Young
Summit on 16th UMC
Psalm 23
“Dwelling in the House of the Church”
May 7, 2017; Easter 4A

Let us pray: Loving God, let the words of my mouth help each person who hears them find a word from you. Amen.

Intro: I don’t know about you, but this week, I’ve felt like I’ve been soaked by a firehose every time I read the paper or turn on the news, and even when I’ve been in churches a few times this week. Things are intense. Here, for our Community Lament Tuesday night and Rev. Smith’s teaching here Thursday on the moral resistance movement, and Thursday at the National Day of Prayer at St. John’s UCC with Planned Parenthood and Crazy Faith, protestors lining Mound Street in front of the church….

Thank God for the 23rd Psalm. Really!

We had: United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto’s ruling last week about her consecration as being unlawful due to the fact that she is a married lesbian; (I was going to preach about that today but I decided not to – you know what’s going on….)

We had the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare repeal and replace vote in the House, which will now be sent to the Senate; and

We had an Executive Order by the president on religious “freedom,” which really amounts to religious discrimination.

All in a week.

I recited this Psalm a lot this week, and not just because I was preaching on it today. Thank God for the 23rd Psalm because we can say it, even when we don’t feel it… It can buoy us and help us articulate our trust in God, and we can read it, recite it from memory, even in times that it’s hard to trust God.

Ok, Psalm 23. I’m going to use the New Revised Standard Version and – hang on to your hats -- I’m first going to use feminine pronouns for God, just for a different perspective of this radical care and provision from God. Don’t worry, God is still God.:)

Scripture:

Psalm 23 (NRSV – with feminine pronouns for God)

The Lady is my shepherd

I shall not want.

She makes me lie down in green pastures;

She leads me beside still waters;

She restores my soul.

She leads me in right paths for her name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil.

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

In the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lady

My whole life long.

We think of this Psalm as one we hear at a funeral or graveside service, or in a setting in the midst of death and dying. My sister and I said the 23rd Psalm, alternating it with the Lord’s Prayer – for an entire long night when my 96-year-old grandfather was quickly nearing the end of his life – over and over again, in his delirium, he would be calmed as soon as he heard the familiar words of this Psalm, and he would join in, half-conscious, perhaps using muscle memory to say the familiar words.

Many of us were raised with the 23rd Psalm. I memorized it quite literally at my Nana Voorhees’s knee one summer when she lived with us. It is beautiful poetry. But really, it’s even more important to use this Psalm in our everyday lives to acknowledge and give thanks for the provision of God in our lives. This week, I saw God in so many places! I saw God provide an unexpected waft of lilac scent coming from the newly blooming bush into the open window of my bedroom… the perfect cup of French-pressed coffee with some heavy cream left over from a recipe… my son’s safe arrival at his destination…. Forgetting my New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary at the office and finding it at the library down the street from my house – God provides!!…. Unexpectedly getting to sit at a beautiful piano in a beautiful church and play There is a Balm in Gilead surrounded by beautiful women singing, verse after verse…. God provided Tina singing Precious Lord Tuesday night…. God provided Beautiful heavy spring rain showers…. What did God provide for you this week? Did you notice? Thank you God, for providing for me!!!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book on praying the Bible, from the one on Psalms, says our entire life becomes worship, the offering of Thanksgiving. Bonhoeffer says that to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands, is what the Psalms wish to teach us. This is to help us live a radically God-centered life.

For a sheep, to be able to lie down in green pastures means to have food; to be led beside still waters means to have something to drink; to be led in right paths means the danger is abated and proper shelter is attained. God restores my soul, or, better translated, God keeps me alive. We lack nothing, because the shepherd provides the basic necessities of life: food, drink, shelter.

The Psalmist speaks of darkness here…. That even in the most life-threatening situation, God’s provision is sufficient…God is right here, intimately present in our lives. The rod represents royal authority and rule, but what comforts us is that God is sovereign and god’s powerful presence provides for our lives.

This Psalm shows God as the gracious host. God is shown as loving, merciful, and good.

I find it very interesting to think about goodness and mercy following the Psalmist. In Hebrew, the verb here has the more active sense of pursuit. God actively pursues us. This makes perfect Wesleyan sense when we consider Prevenient grace – God chasing us down, awaiting our response.

God provides, and this Psalm helps reminds us of that. And from that provision, we can gain trust. It’s a beautiful thing, trust. And this Psalm celebrates it.

A good friend of mine, who converted to Judaism as an adult, uses a daily blessing that she says, sometimes dozens of times a day. I won’t try to say it in Hebrew, but in English, it goes like this: “Our Praise to you, Eternal God, Sovereign of all the Universe, may the divine sparks of this beauty – or whatever it might be she’s asking a blessing upon – delicious food, a creature in nature, a moment of love – may the divine sparks of this thing be lifted to heaven and if you so find it pleasing, I humbly ask that you make it sacred.”

I am just captivated by this blessing and I find the song of trust that is Psalm 23 to be in this spirit. She explained that it is her way of gathering up the blessings of the world, acknowledging them, and being thankful for them. Moment by moment. She talks of the Jewish Mystics who believe that everything in the world has a divine spark within it, but those sparks are enveloped with “husks,” that represent our corporeal – or bodily – existence. They believe that our mission on earth is to lift all of the divine sparks to heaven – and when that finally happens, the goal of the creation of this world will have been accomplished. So, one can lift the divine spark to heaven, simply by noticing and appreciating it!

Imagine if we used this song of trust to celebrate and notice and recognize our daily activities, noticing and appreciating each simple meal, or quenching drink of clean water, or roof over our head when it’s raining. Imagine centering our lives on God in ways that challenge our usual ways of thinking – especially our very U.S. American way of wanting more and more and caring only for our self, and relying on our individualism. Well, this is a communal song of trust. It’s not just about us. Psalm 23 gives us assurance as individuals, but it also reminds us that we are all together in the household of God. We are dwelling in the house of God together.

And I want to pause here and reflect for a minute to remind us that we indeed are called to dwell in the house of God – in the House of the Lord, or the House of the Lady – the house of God – and most decidedly NOT the House of the church. For the church is broken. And yet, and yet! We are here. And so in the midst of the challenges and struggles, we give thanks for God bringing us together in this place, and we keep working to expand what is good, and clear out what is not. Too often, we focus on the church as the place to find God, and when we struggle in the church, we struggle to find God. But God’s gift of faith equips us to find God wherever we are – inside the church or out.

As always, I’m asking: as people attempting to follow Jesus, who modeled the perfect way to love God and our neighbor, how do we translate the events of our lives this week in light of our faith?

One of my favorite bosses throughout my whole career is Chris Glaros, who was the managing director at Children’s Defense Fund – he’s a lawyer at OSU now. Chris is a very sharp guy – an involved member of First Congregational UCC on Broad Street, very politically active. You might remember the TV commercial that he and his wife Lauren did after Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist – they talked about their daughter Grace, who is disabled, and how everyone at school know never to make fun of Grace, who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair. Chris’s wife and both parents are teachers. He’s from East Cleveland but lives here now. He’s just one of the best and smartest people I know. He and his wife Lauren have two children, both now elementary-school aged. Chris’s family’s story is an example of what it means to trust God; trust, which we think about every time we think of Psalm 23; and what it means to be truly pro-life and pro-choice; and how important it is that our government, including every politician and citizen, are responsible for making sure that every person who needs health care has it.

Chris and his wife Lauren learned after a 20-week ultrasound that their baby would be born with spina bifida and face a lifetime of enormous health challenges. Chris said that the first thing he did was open his Bible, where he found comfort in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” He gave thanks for his good health insurance for the family, paid for by the taxpayers of the state of Ohio, provided by the job he had at the time, knowing that the baby would bankrupt them if they didn’t have that insurance. They talked with a doctor and then decided together – without the help of government -- that terminating the pregnancy was not an option for them. Chris notes that Republicans are eager to profess that this child’s life was precious. He trusted our society, our government, Republicans and Democrats both, to ensure a safety net for their baby’s life after their choice was made. Chris explains that Grace would not be alive today without this safety net, without protections against a lifetime limit on her insurance coverage, without protections from denying coverage because of her countless preexisting conditions, without Medicaid. Grace has had some 30 surgeries and spent a good chunk of her life in the hospital. She requires 24/7 care. Chris reiterates that every life is precious and we need to care for one another, and expressed his heartbreak over the callousness of House Republicans to vote to cruelly deny millions of Americans the health care required to live the lives God intended for them. Chris shared that he likes to sing Amazing Grace to his daughter Grace at bedtime, and that on the night of the House vote on health care, he prayed for our elected officials’ blindness to be cured so they could see, as the line in the hymn declares, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

There is so much blindness in the world and in the church right now. Selfishness and fear. If only we could trust God the way this Psalm calls us to.

So, in this time of uncertainty and perhaps even fear, how can we use the 23rd Psalm to lift us up? Perhaps we can consider praying something like this:

For people who don’t have health insurance or who fear they won’t have the health care they’ll need: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD, I SHALL NOT WANT.

For 24 million Americans who have insurance now but might lose it next year: “HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES; HE LEADS ME BESIDE THE STILL WATERS; HE RESTORES MY SOUL;

When states are allowed to charge more or completely eliminate people from accessing coverage because of pre-existing conditions, we say, “HE LEADS ME IN RIGHT PATHS FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE.”

When millions of people could lose coverage due to deep cuts in Medicaid, we trust, saying, “EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE DARKEST VALLEY, I FEAR NO EVIL;

When religious freedom becomes religious discrimination, we trust saying, “FOR YOU ARE WITH ME; YOUR ROD AND YOUR STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.”

When employers can scale back what they pay each year, or small businesses are free to drop coverage, we trust, saying, “YOU PREPARE A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES; YOU ANOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL; MY CUP OVERFLOWS.”

When the UMC’s highest court says a lesbian bishop’s consecration is unlawful, we trust, saying, “SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE, AND I SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD MY WHOLE LIFE LONG.”

It is so important to pray together and to share our stories with one another. When we dwell in the house of the church, we will often be disappointed, but when we dwell in the house of God, we will be reconciled with God and one another – right with God and our neighbor, resting in God’s peace and giving thanks for God’s blessings, and dwelling in the house of the lord all the days of our lives.

Amen.

 

Nevertheless, We Rise!

Intro: The stone is rolled away, indeed. Thank you Summit singers!

Let us pray: Almighty and loving God, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be instruments of your love. Amen.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

This ends our scripture reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 11-18.

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So… the tomb is empty. But what does that mean? We know the story: Jesus is risen from the dead. Love wins! Repeat after me: Christ is Risen! (Christ is Risen!) Christ is Risen, Indeed! (Christ is risen, indeed!) Indeed!

Ok, but so what? What does that mean for us today? A Jewish prophet was turned over by religious authorities and executed by the state 2000 years ago, and was raised by God. What does this death-conquering, life-restoring God do in my life today? What else is possible for this God?

Our theme throughout Lent has been, “Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Lenten Journey to the Resurrection Through the Hearts and Voices of Women.” (Why have a one-word theme when you can have a 16-word theme?) Well, we’ve reached our destination and we are hearing this most wonderful “Good News” through the hearts and voices of women! In all four gospel stories, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, women are the first to learn of the resurrection. Jesus reveals himself first to women after the resurrection. Jesus sends women to tell his disciples he is risen. The essential message of Christianity is delivered first through women.

We women can be persistent – people of all genders can be, of course. Especially when in resistance mode. Persistent resistance. During Lent, we’ve kept in mind the idea that people persist, despite reasons they might not feel they can, but nevertheless, do – kind of like Senator Elizabeth Warren being censured in the senate, remember? She was warned, but nevertheless, she persisted?

Well, our scripture tells us that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, but nevertheless, he rises, and persistently calls us to new life! Despite experiencing little deaths, some that might even feel as painful as crucifixion, nevertheless we rise! Each act of love is a little resurrection.

With the power of this loving God, today, we can rise, with him, to new life. Do you want to rise to new life? Do you want to do that????!!! Me, too! :)

Last year at this time, I was about to experience a couple of little deaths, and then, I experienced resurrection.

If you had told me last year at this time, that the next Easter, I would be giving my first Easter sermon ever – never even wrote a practice one in my homiletics class in seminary – my first Easter sermon, on my first Easter in my first church, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t plan to be back in the local church any time soon. I had been an associate pastor at a Columbus church, working with youth and families, but I left, honestly, in large part because I refused to be appointed “in the closet.” And living life in the closet, whether it’s about your sexuality, or something you’ve done that your ashamed of, or a mistake you’ve made, is straight-up tomb living. And God won’t have it! I am not called to tomb living, and I know you’re not, either. So, I left the local church and spent six years in the non-profit world.

But, I always worked a lot in the faith community, I even worked with Summit, helping put a Freedom School here, and raising money for it. I found that most of the organizers and non-profit leaders I met were not part of a faith community. Some were LGBTQ people who had left the church years ago because they didn’t feel welcome. Some just weren’t raised in church and never saw much use for it. For some, church had become irrelevant -- deemed watered-down and boring. People have been leaving in droves. We church people ring our hands over it all the time!

Well, I’ll tell you what. I found that the non-church-going people -- the progressive, open-minded, justice-oriented folks I met who were not in church, certainly looked a lot like people here at Summit, and in general were a lot more loving and Jesus-like than what you find in many churches or hear about mainstream Christian culture – judgmental and hypocritical. If I’d known you were like this, I might have come sooner, but then I wouldn’t be the pastor here now, so it all worked out.

You know what? I really didn’t want to go to church either. After all, official church doctrine deemed me “incompatible with Christian teaching.” That hurts. I know it’s not true. But still, do you really want to stay in a club that doesn’t want you as a member? I think that’s the reverse of a Groucho Marx quip….

So, I was content not serving the church directly, I was doing meaningful work, and living life out loud -- I was happy.

But then, about a year ago, my entire life changed in the span of one month. I lost my appointment and a formal complaint was filed against me for coming out as a lesbian.

I thought, well, I am gay, and out, and I do reproductive rights work. I might as well give up here. It was getting exhausting to be a progressive battling well-funded, highly-strategized conservative anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive rights forces both inside and out of the UMC. But I did not want to leave the church that I loved so dearly. The church of my family. The church where I belonged and spent eight hard years getting ordained. I had earned my place, just by being a child of God. I also felt the church needed this woman’s heart and my voice.

Have you ever felt like nothing is going your way and you might as well hang it up? It can be a lonely place. It can feel like being in a cold tomb. I was experiencing little deaths, losses, endings.

But then, I experienced resurrection and new life. The bishop dismissed the complaint against me (it was a technicality, but I’ll take it) AND, he called with an appointment. So, I went from a lost appointment and complaint pending, to new appointment and complaint dismissed. I felt I came out of the tomb and turned my face toward the sun, and was warmed.

And know who helped provide that warmth? That resurrection? You. YOU took me. Summit accepted me, an out gay clergyperson who did reproductive rights work, and had never led a church before. I’ve come to learn that you are a radically welcoming congregation. Not only accepted me, but welcomed me with open arms. What I’ve found is that here, you can be yourself. You can come as you are and you’ll be loved. And I experienced resurrection and new life, here, at Summit. Not very many churches that would let me be who I am, fully. But you do. And I say that because all are welcome here. That’s why you say, “No, seriously, this is church.” You mean it.

In my first sermon here, on October 2, it was World Communion Sunday. I was preaching about feeling welcome – about feeling like we all have a place at the table.

I told a story from our congregation’s history that you might not have known then, and I’ll tell it again: In the late-’70s when this congregation was first being formed out of three Methodist institutions in the neighborhood, for six months a transgender woman came to worship every Sunday. They celebrated Communion, every Sunday then. Before she came forward to receive the bread and cup, she put on her white gloves. The pastor did not know why she did this until he was leaving and he asked her about it -- she told him that she wore those gloves because she didn’t feel worthy of receiving the elements of Communion. But she felt welcome in this congregation. You are a church that is welcoming. Radically welcoming.

This church is a home and a refuge for many who wouldn’t otherwise be in church, including me. Thank you.

Often, I think of all the people who are grieving – and everyone is grieving something -- and I think about how they could find love, hope, and healing in our community – or in a truly welcoming community like ours here. And the world needs Christianity like this.

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church have been and can be used to guide us about military action, healthcare, care for the earth, LGBTQ civil rights, women’s bodily autonomy, education, poverty, hunger, and more. We have the blueprint. This kind of church – this church – is worth fighting for. We have a rich history, and we do not check our brains at the door – we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors – this morning, even literally!

We are a hospital for the sick. We walk in here broken, and we bind one another up. That is church. And we welcome the community in to do very good work, like the farm workers working for fair food policies, and college students who make food and feed folks on the street, and Susan Smith’s Crazy Faith Ministries operates from here and partners with us, and the laughter and tears that happen in the trusting community that makes up the ironically named “Fight Club” Bible Study, and folks playing instruments together and singing….and welcoming ministries you just don’t find in other churches.

We’re seeking community and we’re seeking communion, and I still think church is a great place to do that. And even in a culture where the church of Jesus Christ is known for doing harm, I still think Jesus is the one who reveals the kind of salvific, saving, love God desires for us.

THE DEAD church might not be relevant, but the ALIVE church sure is! THIS church sure is. And we need to be relevant, for our children’s sake, particularly our children who otherwise might hear negative messages about themselves and those they love.

Lisa and Justin Kelley, who are joining our church next month, tell me they were “actively seeking a church for their kids that would never put stumbling blocks in their spiritual path.” Lisa said she wanted to find a church that “provides stepping stones” so her children “know God's true love,” and that they found that with Summit! Praise this risen God who gives birth to new life.

We love and serve a God who hung a beautiful pink full moon in the sky this week, and a God who put a spot in us that weeps when we see a person yanked from an airplane seat and dragged by his arms down the aisle and out the door. A God who cries with us when continue to wage war, and when we drop the ‘Mother of All Bombs,’ and when we are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, because this God has the power to raise love from a place of hate. A God who resurrects us from all of the little deaths we experience. We worship a God that helps us feel our humanity because he came to earth and lived, human among us, and experienced a most humiliating death, and nevertheless rises.

This is the God who sent a man who lived a life that modeled a love so radical – so forgiving, so inclusive, hard love! The kind of love that makes you want to forgive someone not just once, not even seven times, but 7 x 77 times, Jesus taught his disciples! A God that teaches us to stop and bind up the bleeding man on the road. The priest and the Levite walked on by, but the Good

Samaritan stopped and loved in a way that cost him time and money and set him off his course – no small thing in the ancient world.

At the end of our passage, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” --------- Well, let me tell you that I have seen God in each one of you since I arrived here – on good days and bad. And I know that ‘resurrection living’ is when we look for – and see -- the God within and among us, in the faces of our siblings in faith. And each day is a new opportunity to experience one another and God.

At noon on Good Friday I stood here and read the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death. And I read the timeless words of Pontius Pilate -- who asked the religious leaders who brought Jesus to be persecuted by the Roman authorities -- “What is truth?” In an era of a troubling rise of “fake news,” that question is even the more poignant, despite relentless obfuscation of the truth, and lies that would make Pinocchio blush, and nevertheless, we rise.

And even though the United Methodist Judicial Council, our Supreme Court, is gathering this week to deliberate over the worthiness of the ministries of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, and intersex clergy persons, including our dearly beloved, married lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, nevertheless, we rise!

And even as a married gay clergyman, right here in our conference, faces an impending trial because he married his same-sex partner, nevertheless, we rise!

And we take comfort and we trust, knowing that God is always on the side of those who suffer. God turns tears of pain into joy, as with Mary in our gospel lesson today. And God is always on the side of those who are oppressed, marginalized, or powerless. We serve a God who loves unconditionally – a God of hope and new life. And resurrection breaks death’s hold.

What is truth? Whatever it is, it cannot be restrained in a tomb. Even as each one of us faces the little deaths in life, and at some point the big one, and we all do, we persist in love with confidence, toward the resurrection. In a Good Friday world, it looks like death has had the final say. But we… are Easter people, and we rise.

Amen.

CLOSING:

And now, you are invited to a time of prayerful reflection. There are flowers in baskets at the foot of the cross -- select a flower and place it on the cross as you consider a personal prayer for forgiveness, new life, healing, love, life and light. May you feel the love of God this day and always. Please, come to the cross.