District Superintendent Rev. Gwen Drake was our guest preacher on Sunday, November, 2015
November 1, 2015
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Mark 12:28-34
Prayer of Preparation: We give thanks, O God of sacred stories, for the witness of holy scripture. Through it, you nurture our imaginations, touch our feelings, increase our awareness, and challenge our assumptions. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Frederick Buechner wrote: “In God’s holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”
When I was a child, I went to church because my Mom required it. My Dad didn’t much care. My Mom did. So we went a little Methodist Church in Heppner, Oregon, where everyone knew everyone. I remember drawing on the bulletins and offering envelopes. I remember long and loud prayers. I remember not feeling good enough. I remember the week the evangelist came to town and told me if I didn’t accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior I would be doomed to hell. I had to decide between embarrassing myself by walking forward to the altar or living with guilt by sitting in the pew. At 12 years old, I chose to embarrass myself.
When bad things happened after that, I felt I was being punished. After all, wasn’t God ultimately and divinely in control of the universe? I learned that in church. When good things happened, I wondered what I had done to deserve it. When bad things happened, I wondered what I could do to make it better. I was living through a faith crisis, but didn’t really know it. I did know the burden was heavy. Church was full of people whom I thought weren’t like me. And I yearned to break free from it all. So I did, when I left Heppner for college.
Still, growing up in that little church was important as I look back. I felt needed. I was part of a group where I definitely belonged–in a weird kind of way. I was baptized there. My baptism was confirmed there soon after I responded to that totally embarrassing altar call. I went to Vacation Bible School — one of my fondest memories of church. I attended Sunday School in a little tiny room where I remember one of my teachers telling the class that I didn’t talk much, but when I did it was always good (I’ll never forget that). I played the organ there when they were desperate, which was quite a lot after my older sister went off to college. My Dad’s funeral was there (he was killed in an accident when I was 14). My sister got married there. My Mother was very active in that little Church. It will always be my home church as long as it is still standing. Church was a big part of my growing up years. Many of the people in the church were handkerchiefs that God dropped into my life.
So, when I went off to college, I broke free, especially from church. My Mom went off to seminary to be a United Methodist pastor much to the surprise of the whole Heppner community when she was 52 years old. I became a “preacher’s kid” as a young adult. Secretly, I was very proud of her, because she broke free also, of the small town, and all the expectations that were put on her as a farmer’s wife and then a farmer’s widow in that community, in the family, and in that little church. That single decision my Mom made gave me much courage in my life to make unexpected decisions. She was definitely one of God’s handkerchiefs.
The next ten years or so I call my wilderness time–an extremely important time for me. I was out on my own, exploring, experimenting. I was being the prodigal daughter with the church. I took my inheritance (all my learnings) and left to find my own way. I seriously believed that the church did not have anything for me at all, except for making me feel not good enough, not worthy, not whole. I had to leave to find myself. Those were great years, confusing years, growing up years, exploring years, wild years. They weren’t “God-less” years. They were years without church. It was as if I needed to leave church to find church. God was around, I kind of knew that and I almost dared God to come after me and bring me back. The way I see it now, God yearned for me to figure out my life in my own way.
It was big life questions that brought me back to church when I was in my late 20’s, living in Eugene, OR. I had a turning point incident happen in an instant. A random act of violence that didn’t harm me physically but changed my life forever. It woke me up. It clobbered me. It messed me up. It threw me into a crisis with my identity and my purpose. I didn’t know where to turn for relief. For awhile, I just wanted relief, that’s all. I joined a support group and that helped. I had a very close group of friends I hung out with regularly and that helped. I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon and that helped to keep me focused and working on something. But it wasn’t enough. It simply wasn’t enough. God dropped several significant handkerchiefs in my life during this time…a few close friends.
It was my Mom who suggested I go to church, so, one Sunday before Thanksgiving, I got up and went to the biggest United Methodist Church in Eugene. It was huge compared to the little church I grew up in. I sat in the back. I don’t remember having to participate in a greeting time or a passing of the peace or anything remotely social or I might have been out of there. I didn’t stay for coffee fellowship. And I got away with going for (I don’t know how many Sundays) without anyone, (that I remember) noticing me, which was how I wanted it. I knew the songs. The prayers were familiar. I was a poor graduate student so I didn’t put anything in the offering plate. I came back Sunday after Sunday and listened to a pastor named Askew Crumbley talk to me like no one else was there. He was definitely one of God’s handkerchiefs. I only remember him preaching one message every Sunday. Seriously. This was the message. God loved me, yes, even miserable me, no matter how awful I felt, no matter who I was, what I was thinking, how unworthy I felt. God loved me, no question about it, and that love was unconditional, no strings attached, a gift, and not only that, it made me somebody special and important even if I felt like nobody. The pastor said, God loved me so much, God sent Jesus to the world to show me that love and it cost Jesus everything, his whole life. Jesus came because of God’s love. The pastor told me, God loves me and there was nothing I could do about it.
Now, I am sure that that wasn’t all the preacher said, but that was all I heard because that is what I needed to hear at that time in my life.
I tell you this story because it led me to where I am now, with God dropping handkerchiefs along the way. I was called back to church by a God who loved me way too much to leave me out in my own personal wilderness, wandering around with too many questions. Not that all my questions have been answered….
What I believe happened was, I needed to feel and believe in the unconditional love of God before I really faced head on what really mattered to me, where I finally went down into the depths of the darkness and God’s silence and my grief and my anger and my fear. I needed to go there before I could come up and breathe and listen and live and actually begin to forgive and reconcile all that happened all through my life, so far, as part of who I am. It was in the depths and out of the depths, when the call to do something more with my life came from God. For after I actually started to believe that God loved me no matter what, the next thing I heard was God calling me to be a pastor….thanks to a few more of God’s handkerchiefs being dropped into my life.
I wrestled with that call for awhile—seems to be my way of dealing with God my whole life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. What matters to me is the wrestling. What matters to me are the questions I keep asking God…even the most basic ones like, what kind of God are you, anyway? And where the hell are you when the world really needs you? I am a wrestler, in my gut. I am a questioner in my head. I am a doubter, in my heart. When I am not those things, I am numb, I am asleep.
You see this God we have calls me out of the despair of thinking I am invisible, I don’t matter, I am alone. Because in this body, this body of Christ called church, we are all needed and connected and affected and loved. The whole mess of us. We are God’s handkerchiefs for each other. And it is what keeps me in love with God and my neighbor, even in this ugly, messy, messed-up world that regularly breaks my heart wide open.
Where else am I going to be reminded on Christmas Eve, that we are in the presence of an absolutely vulnerable God who turns the world upside down, where we look at circumstances of the birth of Jesus and open our eyes to the rubble he was born into and the rubble we live in? And in the rubble and from the rubble– we see, we feel, we experience glimpses of God-given hope in tiny little flickers of candles being lit in the dark. We see that flicker of light passed to the next person and the next until the church is full of little lights of hope. We have candle light vigils whenever tragedy hits us because we know that even a tiny little light of a single candle will pierce the darkness. Those gatherings are church. One of us hurts and we all hurt and we come together to remember what matters to us. And in those gatherings are God’s handkerchiefs.
Here is how Lillian Daniel, an outspoken UCC pastor says it in her book, “When Spiritual, but Not Religious” Is Not Enough,
“If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. If we could just kick out all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible would turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.
“But in church, as everywhere, we are stuck with one another, and being stuck with one another, we don’t get the space to come up with our own human-invented God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In church, in community, humanity is just way too close to look good.”
Just look at yourselves and what you know about each other and you will realize that we didn’t invent ourselves, God invented us, each one of us, and all of us together. And there is that whole community of folks who, for two thousand years, have followed a man named Jesus who was willing to die alongside a motley bunch and to be raised from the dead, and tell us there is so much more to life than we can possibly come up with by ourselves. Two thousand years later we are still trying to be the body of Christ, so utterly human, not all that enlightened, and still in need of a savior like Jesus.
All Saints Day is the day to remind us we all belong to God and we don’t have to be famous, or perfect, or dead to be a saint. You simply have to be you—the one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated human being whom God created you to be—to love as you are loved, to throw your arms around this messed up world, to shine like the sun.
And we do not do this alone. We have all this company. All these saints sitting here who you can see for yourself, plus those you cannot see, who have been named, and then there is that whole cloud of witnesses—all of them egging you on, calling your name and shouting themselves hoarse with encouragement. We are part of them and they are part of us, and all of us are knit together in the communion of saints—God’s handkerchiefs—dropped on the world for the love of Christ. Amen.