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The Apostle Paul: Slave or Free
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 22, 2010
Text: Paul’s letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As we have been digging deeper into the letters Paul wrote to Churches and fellow Christians in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s controversiality feels in some ways never-ending. Even those topics we might never have expected to be controversial, something such as slavery, Paul seems to make it so. Our text this morning is an entire book of the bible (though a short one) and remains perhaps the only personal letter written by Paul in our New Testament. The letter to Philemon in many ways exemplifies much of Paul’s ethic, that is, Paul’s understanding about how the gospel should effect our daily life, and so it does us well to spend some time with it.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the one personal letter in our New Testament that is unquestionably written by Paul himself. I won’t go into detail about how scholars determine these things, but the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t seem to have the marks of true Pauline writing. However, this short letter, so often passed over in our New Testament, is Pauline through and through.

In it, Paul writes to a leader in the church in Collosae named Philemon, whom he seems to know quite well. The letter is brought to Philemon in the hands of a man named Onesimus, formerly a slave belonging to the household of Philemon, a runaway. As I mentioned last week the caste system was quite elaborate and culturally supported in the Greco-Roman world which Paul writes. A runaway slave was at the very bottom of the heap. The act of Onesimus returning to his former owner’s household would inevitably and necessarily result in severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is sending his dear Onesimus, his heart, into the lion’s den.

But why? What is Paul doing?

Once again Paul leaves us hanging. We want our scriptures to stand up for what we know to be right and true. We want Paul to say that slavery is an abomination. We want him to say, outright, that Onesimus should be freed, or even to say something like. “I’ve met your former slave and he’s staying with me.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says something more like: “I know you know what you’re supposed to do and I expect you to do it…”

While we don’t read this text very often, you might see quickly that it was read and preached quite frequently during the time of the Civil War in our country. Both sides had their opinions. The South preached that Paul allowed for slavery, pointed out that he sent Onesimus back to his owner to continue in his former life. The Northern anti-slavery preachers instead read between the lines of what Paul says and doesn’t say, and suggest that Paul “implies” that he expects his friend to be set free. He all but threatens him when he tells Philemon to prepare a bed for him, I’ll be there in a week. “Charge me any debt he owes you,” he says, “I expect you to do this…” But whatever we might try to argue – Paul’s inference is not as clear as we would like.

Is he ever? What is the deal? Is Paul against slavery or not? Why doesn’t he make things clear? Then again – Jesus didn’t make too much clear either.

This past week I got into a short conversation with a beloved family member about scripture. The conversation was familiar, since I’ve had it many many times before with many different people, and in that way I felt somewhat on edge and exasperated. It began in reference to my sermon last week, and my tendency throughout this series to speak of what Paul says, rather than what God says through our Holy Scriptures. “Aren’t these the words of God inspired by the Holy Spirit?” he asked…

The question of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to Paul. There is much of what Paul says that seems heavily loaded with his cultural context. His assumptions: that women are in the image of man, that slavery is an institution we should accept rather than rebel against, that the purpose of marriage is to quell our enflamed passions. Paul contradicts himself often, leaving much of what he means somewhat unclear. The reality is there is much in our scriptures – even beyond Paul – that is hard to swallow. Stories sometimes called “texts of terror,” stories for which we should have no tolerance, texts which contradict themselves. None of this is easy to sort out.

So as thinking, believing people, how do we read these texts? How do we live out a life of faith that accepts some but not all of our scriptures as divinely inspired? How do we determine which to follow and which to leave out? It’s a good and necessary question for any faithful Christian.

The truth is, all Christians make these choices. We make choices, like I did in this conversation, about whether or not to engage or to look away. We make choices about whether or not we’re going to read the whole bible or just the parts we like. We make choices about which text will be our guiding principal, the text through which all other texts are read. Will it be – “Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the father except through me (John 14:6)”? Or will it be “God is love. Whoever loves knows God.(1 John 4)”?

The point is that it is a conversation. Divine inspiration means not that the texts were inspired once a long time ago and now we’ve got the truth in our hands. It means that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through our texts again and again if we only read them. And so as we discover new truths about gender equality and slavery and homosexuality we read our scriptures with new insight and new questions. They are the living word. A word that is not static but elastic, growing and revealing new truths at every turn.

As we look back at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could point out that Paul does not explicitly say that Onesimus should be freed. In fact, the truth is that if he were freed, Onesimus would likely have been worse off than he was as a slave. With no protection and possibly no way to earn power for himself in his world. Please know that I am not, in any way, suggesting that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was like modern-day slavery; I am not suggesting that any slave today is better off. But in the Greco-Roman world, freed slaves were exiled and ostrasized, and their survival was often only through even more abusive and disgraceful means.

But Paul has said there is no longer slave or free. And if he truly means that, then how can he send a newly baptized Onesimus back to Philemon acting as though nothing has changed?

Everything has changed. Whereas we might fault Paul for coming up short, we miss Paul’s understanding of just how far the gospel of Christ goes to change the world in which we live.

Paul does not suggest that Philemon should free his slave, instead Paul suggests that he should treat his slave as a brother. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” he says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

This is no small thing. Brothers in the Greek and Roman Social systems were supposed to have close bonds of trust and affection. Slaves, on the other hand, were orphans. They may have been born to slave parents, but their familial connections were unrecognized. As one commentator puts it, “A deep, broad, menacing chasm cut slaves off from legitimate children and free blood siblings. A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one.”

Paul’s suggestion was outrageous. It was a joke. In Philemon’s cultural context, bringing this slave into his family tree makes any sense whatsoever. And yet, Paul suggests not only that Philemon can, and should take his former slave in as a full member of his family, but that it already is so. Paul suggests that in Christ these two men are already brothers, with those close bonds of trust and affection, and merely asks Philemon to act accordingly.

When Bill Nathan appeared on the stage at Purdue University during our Triennium worship, he already had us in the palm of his hand. We had just watched a video produced by ABC News about how one of their writers, Ben Skinner, had put everything on the line to charter a plane to Haiti in the first few days after the earthquake to save Bill’s life

Bill and Ben had met years before, when Ben was writing a book on modern-day slavery; Bill was one of the directors of an orphanage that took in former child slaves. During his time in Haiti Ben contracted a severe case of malaria and Bill tracked down the medicine he needed and nursed him back to health. Bill saved Ben’s life.

And so, when he learned Bill had been severely injured in the earthquake, Ben chartered a plane, got himself to Haiti, and evacuated Bill to Florida for treatment. Bill would not have survived if Ben had not made such a daring move.

The story of the earthquake is only half of it. As Bill Nathan walked back and forth on the stage he told us his own story of slavery. Bill had been orphaned at the age of five. Like many orphans in Haiti, had been given to a family who at first assured the nun who knew him that they would take him in and treat him as family. They lied. A few weeks after Bill’s parents died he began serving his new family as a slave. He slept on the dirt floor of a shed in back of the house. He ate only what was leftover and only alone in the dirt, never at the family table. He worked dusk until dawn, and if he resisted he was beaten severely.

After a few years the nun who had cared for him at the death of his parents rescued him and brought him to Saint Joseph’s orphanage, where they continue to help former child slaves. Bill grew up there. He was educated. He was hired. Now he works at the orphanage that saved his life. He spends his life returning the favor.

Both men in the story were visibly moved by their connection. The debt of life is a hard one to put into words. The newscaster asked Ben why he went to all these lengths to save his friend. “It was a debt I owed him,” he says… His pilot and friend in the rescue operation said, “When your family is in need – you show up.” Bill said, “God was watching over me.”

Brothers. Beloved. Free. What we see as impossible, God makes possible. Where we see no bond, God sees family.

Somehow, in Christ, these two men have been changed. Yesterday they were slave and master. But today, something new has formed. The old has gone, the new has begun. Today they are beloved family members. They share food at the same table. They share inheritance.

Paul’s ethic tells us that we are to go above and beyond what is required of us for one another. We do more than the minimum. We do more than write the check; we make the meal with our own hands and sit down and eat with together. We do more than put the welcome sign out; we sweep the floor and make the bed and put on the tea. We do more than forgive; we become family. We do more, more than we imagined, more than we can spare, much more.

We don’t always have the opportunity to save another’s life. We don’t always have the opportunity to bring another up out of slavery or poverty or hunger. But Paul’s ethic is one of boundless, irrational love. A love that is from God. A love that has already been set in motion through Christ. What he shows through his letter to Philemon is that the rules have changed even if the landscape has not. We are a part of a family that is beyond our vision or understanding. And when family is in need, you show up.

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Open Heart, Open Home
Texts: Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At The Larchmont Avenue Church
6th Sunday of Easter, Mothers Day, May 9, 2010

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

I’d like to start by reading a poem titled, “I stop writing the Poem,” by Tess Gallagher

To fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

On this day celebrating the prevailing faith of women we read about Lydia, the first convert to Christianity in Europe: a woman and the head of her household. Lydia is another of those women who seem to confound and confuse scholars – a woman unattached to a man and so strange. Perhaps she was a widow or divorced, they posit. She is a dealer in purple cloth, which may or may not make her wealthy but certainly means she worked with those of means, since only the wealthy were allowed to wear or could afford to wear the color purple. Since she is not mentioned to be with a man, the text makes us believe she is on her own. A worshipper of God, though a Gentile, she has joined a group of women on the Sabbath for prayer.

Paul’s presence among these women is strange as well, since in his previous tours of evangelism he has begun his preaching in the synogogue. Perhaps it is because this hasn’t always worked out that Paul and his companions are trying a different route. They have come to Macedonia because of a dream – searching for a man who called to them, “Come and help us!” And so Paul and Silas and their entourage travel to Macedonia, to Phillipi and are looking for the man in their vision. Instead they meet Lydia.

But it’s not just Lydia’s gender that makes her special. It’s her openness. She is open to hear the word of Paul even as he is a stranger offering a faith that must have seemed foreign and bizarre. When she converts she has everyone in her home baptized – probably slaves and children as well, and is at least part of the reason Calvin argued we should baptize babies. Like the woman in the poem by Tess Gallagher, she is a living example; as soon as she is baptized, she is inviting others into the faith.

Lydia’s sense of vision is of what God is doing – in her presence, in her life and home, and in the work and life of Paul and Silas. After her conversion, she invites these strangers into her home, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful, come and stay at my home.” Later in this story of Paul and Silas, before they leave Phillipi, they stop again at the home of Lydia, now a burgeoning house-church. Not surprising that Luke writes about this dynamic woman, “And she prevailed upon us.”

My own mother was one of those who is always inviting extra people to stay at our house for dinner. Did you have a mother like that? With two teenage boys in our house there was always an extra boy or two hanging around, and so an extra mouth or two to feed. Growing up everyone called her “Ma Hoek,” since she seemed to be a mother to everyone we met. Friends whose parents were going through divorce found solace at our table and on our couch. Hairdressers or church members struggling to make ends meet would be showered with huge baskets of food on the holidays, and invitations to join our family gatherings were always constant.

There were, at points growing up, that I didn’t so much appreciate having extra teenage boys at our table, given that I was the natural recipient of incessant teasing. There were times that I wondered if my mother’s endless invitations and gifts meant that I had less: less of those goodies being sent away, less attention. And yet now as a parent myself I long for many, many Lydias in the lives of my boys. Men and women both, I long for people who open their homes to them and invite them in.

As a mother I am aware every day that parents cannot do it alone – that as the saying goes it takes a village to raise a child. I hope for every child I know to be welcomed in by women and men of all paths and stories, some parents and some not. I hope for them men and women who take them under their wings and feed them good food and good advice. I hope for them people who show them the love of God in all her fierce and creative whimsy. I hope for them people who show them not just what the church is but what the church can be – whether or not those people are members of any particular church.

I hope for them people with vision and openness like Lydia – living without fear of strangers, without fear of the world, with openness to the Spirit at work in our midst, and with openness to each other. It is a hope I have for them, and for each of us too.

Openness to strangers, though, seems to be a bit countercultural these days. If you don’t see this as a parent you have perhaps experienced it as a stranger when your innocent “hello” to a child at the park is met with wary eyes and suspicion. Once I was in a store rumbling through my purse and I saw a young child standing there, watching me, so I offered her a piece of candy I happened to have. A smart girl, she refused, and I caught myself aghast. “I am the stranger my mother warned me about!” I thought.

We are wary of strangers, what they offer, what they represent. A few months back, in the New York Sun, a woman named Lenore Skenazy wrote an article titled, “Why I let my 9-year-old travel on the Subway alone.” She wrote later that she expected some backlash, but got significantly more than she bargained for as the people of New York wrote in to assert their opinions. There were some people who wrote back championing her courage and grit as a parent raising children in the world today. But the vast majority of parents called her crazy, and even negligent or abusive to let a small child travel unattended through what seemed to them the fires of hell – the New York City public transportation system.

Perhaps she is crazy and negligent. But perhaps not. Perhaps she is living out a certain amount of openness that is our call as parents, or even more important our call as Christians.

It is Easter season: Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed. And the question for each of us in this season of Easter is to ask ourselves, what do we do now? Now that Christ is risen, how then shall we live?

Jesus says all the time throughout the gospels just as he does in the passage from John’s Gospel today, the words “Do not fear, do not be afraid.” He says this even when he knows that he will soon die, and leave his disciples alone. He says this knowing the despair they will face, the grief, the pain. He tells them that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be with them always. He tells them to be at peace.

It isn’t easy to do. In a world where car bombs are left in Times Square and the market continues to drop and the world seems so unpredictable, the natural tendency is for us to live out of fear. Fear for our loved ones, fear for what will happen tomorrow, fear for the future. Not only mothers but all of us can easily slip into that space where anxiety rules the day: What if I forget something? What if I never accomplish what I set out to do? What if I don’t make the cut? What if I get fired? What if something awful happens?

But the path of Christ is a path though fear into hope. It is not a hope that is naive or cheery in the face of pain and suffering. It is instead a hope that, as one scholar puts it, stares into the face of evil and despair and answers with the knowledge that God will win.

When the earthquake hit Haiti the devastation was colossal. Some of you saw some of the photos of Haiti in my father’s slideshow a few weeks ago. The images are still startling. The world mused at how a country that had already been barely scraping by could weather such a disaster. How could they face this new, overwhelming destruction.

But then reports came back of the singing. Do you remember? As that first night fell in camps of thousands that had been set up around the city reporters could hear voices floating on the air in song: hymns of Salvation that they knew by heart. Reminders of the love of Christ that conquers even the worst evils, waves of hope prevailing in the darkness. They were singing, singing, singing. As the days moved on the world answered with an openness of heart and home. People shared what they had, people gave time and resources, gifts and skill. There was and is sorrow, yes. There was and is fear, yes. There was and is suffering, yes. But hope, love, prevails.

As Christians we believe, and that means that we trust that God loves us more than we could possibly imagine. As Christians we trust that God will guide and protect the people we love. As Christians we trust and do not fear. As Christians, we have hope. It is a hope that sings in the dark. It is a hope that opens our hearts to the great possibility of the Spirit at work among us. It is a hope that opens our homes to strangers knowing that God’s vision is bigger than our sight. As Christians we have faith, and so we believe that in spite of it all, God wins, Hope conquers, Love prevails. May it be a hope that lives in each of us – this day and forever. Amen.

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Our Epistle lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12. Today we will be reading the passage that precedes the one we heard last week, When Paul describes the church as a body with many members. In Paul’s introduction to that great and well-known metaphor, Paul reminds the Corinthians of some of his basic teaching about Spiritual Gifts – who has them, what they might be, and where they come from. Let us listen to these words to us this morning:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another interpretations of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…

This past week, we celebrated my youngest son’s second birthday. Amidst the busyness of our families many activities, we squeezed in a visit to the Aquarium in Norwalk, and a birthday dinner on the day complete with a balloon guy and singing waiters. Watching Chase tear open presents I smiled as I remembered the sign posted on the LAC Preschool office door: “All children are gifted, some just open their packages earlier than others.”

Gifts and giftedness is what makes us who we are as individuals – and it is wonderful as a parent to see those gifts come alive as they grow and learn. This one has an affection for music, this one for sports, this one is brilliant at math or science, this one at writing. As parents and teachers, we look for those things that our kids are good at, prone towards, knowing that as they grow older those things are pieces in the puzzle that may one day guide their vocation, their heart’s delight, their calling in the world.

We also notice where they struggle, perhaps even a bit easier than where they thrive. We see how they may fumble through relationships, or battle with homework. We see how transitions seem to trip them up, or how certain teachers rub them the wrong way. Even more these days in our psychologized we see those stumbles and perhaps we wonder: is this a little struggle? Or a big one?

A few days ago, an article was placed in my hands by a well-intentioned congregation member appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It is an article that will be a jumping off point at a discussion gathering in a few months, and so in some ways I am reluctant to say too much about it here, this morning. And yet as I read, it seemed to converse with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in a way that is too irresistible to ignore.

The article is about “orchid children,” and describes some new interpretations of the scientific evidence that certain variants of key behavioral genes make people more vulnerable to certain mood, psychiatric or personality disorders. This idea has been gaining steam and influence over a number of years – so much so that in some ways it is assumed: certain genes make people more vulnerable, and in challenging environments you are more likely to struggle or even fail.

What is interesting, though, is that as some scientists are looking at the studies, they find that those “vulnerable” genes may also be “possibility” genes. That is to say – given the right environment and care, children with these genes have a propensity towards skyrocketing success – even beyond children without the gene. In a twist of perspective, what was in one situation a risk becomes possibility in a different context. “Vulnerability here becomes plasticity and responsiveness there.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians does not bring up the science of gene variants, but here in the 12th chapter he deals heavily with the issue of diversity, and it struck me as I read about gene testing and studies with monkey communities that Paul knew what these scientists are working on even back in 56 CE, that gift and struggle are inexplicably intertwined.

As we read our text for this morning, we notice clearly: Paul has a problem in Corinth. It’s what the commentaries say at least. And a good reader can detect his tone throughout this letter – a bit strident, more than a bit directive. He is annoyed. He is miffed. We get hints at what gets his dander up a bit earlier in the letter – it seems the community at Corinth is filled with surprising diversity – demographic and otherwise – and they don’t see it as an asset.

The wealthy folks aren’t sharing well – at the Lord’s table or otherwise, and there seems to be a infection of pride sweeping through the community. There are people who seem to have some amazing and shining gifts for ministry, and then there are people whose gifts are not quite as noticeable. The shining stars, likely those who are speaking in tongues, are putting the others down, making it sound like their gifts are greater, better, than the others. And these others, are quietly agreeing.

Our community here at LAC is diverse as well – perhaps similar to the metropolitan Corinth. We may be quite like that small early church community – a gathering of people from varied backgrounds and countries, with different means and professions. And while certainly each of our members has unique gifts and talents, for the most part no one holds their own gifts above another’s. For the most part we don’t struggle right now with disunity quite like what the Corinthians experienced.

If anything – we find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum: downplaying ourselves for the sake of lifting up others or protecting our energy. We are perhaps doubtful that our gifts are worthy for the work of the church. We are suspicious that others are better suited, better able to serve than we are. We see the ways we are inadequate, rather than the ways we are gifted.

In this month of New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t know about you – but when I survey the demands on my time and energy it is way easier to see the liabilities than it is to see the assets. It is way easier to see what time I need than what time I can give. My life is filled with vulnerabilities – those things I could do better, those things I want to change, the time I need to create for myself, for my family.

It is not an easy thing, agreeing to serve. As a working parent I am all too aware of the push and pull of family and work, and the constant feeling that there is not enough time to do everything that needs to be done. With every “yes” comes an equal and opposing “no” that frames the time needed to protect that commitment. If we say yes to being on this committee, we may need to say no to coaching our kid’s soccer team; If we say yes to this board, we may have to say no to that dinner invitation.

So I am always quite honored by those who agree to serve on one of our three boards, like those who were ordained and installed just a bit ago. I am always impressed by those who step up and volunteer every week at HOPE Community Kitchen, or who faithfully attend committee meetings. It is hard to say “yes,” when saying “no” might mean more time for family or leisure or work.

Fredrick Buechner is known for saying that our vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need – but sometimes it can be difficult to see how living out that vocation might be sitting around a board table and making decisions about church property or finance, or worrying about who will help with coffee hour.

These are the age-old questions that last for a lifetime: what are our gifts and how should we use them? What are our deepest struggles and how can we overcome them? How do we live these gifts out in community – supporting each other through our struggles as well as in our giftedness?

What perhaps ties all of this together: gene studies and Corinth and giftedness and vocation – is community. The thing that Paul is getting at is also the thing that these scientists are asserting: context is everything. Our gifts, our vulnerabilities, they are meant to be lived out in a community that supports us through them all, allowing us to respond to those gifts with a sense of possibility and hope. The Church community is meant to be a place where we live this out: lifting up each member of the body to act out it’s fullest and best potential.

Perhaps the first step in this is one we have already taken this morning: ordaining into leadership those willing to share their gifts for “the common good” as Paul writes. Perhaps it is up to the community to see those vulnerabilities as possibilities? Perhaps it is for us to show how a “no” might become instead “yes”? How can we create an environment that leads us to see our vulnerabilities as assets – in time, in struggles, in gifts of the Spirit.

How can we lead in ways that make others want to join in? How can we teach in a way that helps others see what they have to offer? How can we serve in a way that invites others to offer what they have however small (time, resources, energy) so that who they are becomes bigger than what they have? How can we live out our calling, offer our gifts, so that the gifts of those around us grow and bloom as well?

All of this because we are already the body of Christ. Because it is the same Spirit in all, the same Spirit calling you, too. Amen.

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Dreams

Wow. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything – which says something about how my last month has been both at home and at work, but I thought I’d come back with a Friday Five post to get me going. Sophia at RevGalBlogPals posted this on dreams:

With the beginning of my college teaching semester I have been having some unusually intense and memorable dreams lately–especially related to my Women and Religion class. With the beginning of a new calendar year many of us are engaging with dreams of another kind: planning, brainstorming, setting intentions or resolutions, etc. And many churches will celebrate the baptism of Jesus this Sunday, reading the Gospel account of his vision of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the “beloved child” words of Godde that set him off on his mission sharing Godde’s dream for the world. So let’s take a few minutes on this (where I am at least) lovely snow-blanketed Friday morning and share about the many different dreams and visions in our lives.

1. Do you tend to daydream?

I have always had my head in the clouds – from childhood into present – I find it sometimes challenging to pull myself down and get to work, so yes, I still daydream as much as possible. The daydreams that come most often and easily are of the *hopefully* near future when we might find some family stability, but I also dream of travel, opportunities to explore my creativity, exciting new endeavors for church and home. Just about anything could get my mind to wander off the beaten path and into new territory… care to join me?

2. Do you usually remember your night dreams? Do you find them symbolic and meaningful or just quirky?
I don’t often remember my night dreams, but when I do they have been usually quirky and strange. Very occasionally I find that they are meaningful, but those often are meaningful warnings: fearful or anxious dreams that are signs of what might be going on for me during my days. Those mornings are good, in that I often don’t realize how worried I am about something until I dream about it. And I see those dreams as a signal to move back to a place of love and faith; to learn to let faith guide me rather than fear.

3. Have you ever had a life changing dream which you’ll never forget?
I can think of one daydream that was life changing. I was riding in the back of a truck after a beautiful fall day in Haines, Alaska. The day was exquisite, the leaves were yellow and circling up behind our truck, and I found myself thinking of my *then* boyfriend (I was very much in love). We had been living out a long-distance relationship for almost 2 years, and I thought of him often. And for some reason, with the season and the colors and the day, I dreamed that he would be my husband, and I dreamed we would get married in the fall. (As I write this I realize it is totally completely cheesy! Blech!) But the thing is – I wouldn’t be writing it unless it became true. And now we have two beautiful boys and are living out that daydream… I’d say it was life-changing…

4. Share a long term dream for one or more aspects of your life and work.
I have lots of dreams for my life and work, but I’ll share only two. I dream of travel – both for life and work. I dream of going to exotic places for ministry and vacation, learning about different cultures, exploring places I read about in books. It’s a dream I hold lightly – since I have small children and no money, but I dream of it nonetheless. I also dream of seeing my name, however small, in print, on paper, in a book. (don’t we all?)

5. Share a dream for 2010….How can we support you in prayer on both the short and long term dreams?
I dream that 2010 will be a flagship year: for home – that hubster will finish that awesome dream of his (the doctorate!), that we will settle ever more in our new home, that we will find a community of friends. I dream of *just a little bit* of stability, so I can delve into this writing thing a bit more. I dream of more time outdoors, away from it all. I dream of health for my family and time with my friends.

Bonus: a poem, song, artwork, etc. that deals with dreams in general or one of your dreams:
This poem is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. Perhaps it is about dreams – the desires and dreams we have for ourselves – perhaps I just love any excuse to share it. It speaks to me often and much, I hope it will to you too…

Thirst
by Mary Oliver

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

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“What are you waiting for?”
Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16
A sermon preached by Rev. Julie Emery
Larchmont Avenue Church
November 28, 2009

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

The evening was crisp and windy. As Katie crossed the street she looked down to check her phone for the time. She would just make it before the post office closed. Katie rounded the corner and fit her arms in tightly around her body as she mounted the concrete steps. Normally she would have had her mom drop the application off. But today, she wanted to be the one to take it there. It was the last one. The last one in a long line of applications, the last essay, the last list of accomplishments and characteristics, the last one; It was over. She walked up to the big metal mailbox and swung open the drawer, slipping the flat envelope in. She heard the swish and the thud as it hit the inside of the mailbox, opened it again as she superstitiously peeked in to see if she could see it. Now all she could do was wait.

Wait. Katie had spent the last years planning and praying; taking on volunteer roles and jobs to fill out her application: the trip to Nicaragua that had been the foundation for her main essay, the summer jobs as a camp counselor, the clubs, the violin lessons. All told there were fifteen schools she had applied to – more than most, but not out of the ordinary.

How long had it been? As Katie headed home she started to think about how long she had been thinking about college, talking about college, dreaming about college. It seemed that her whole life had been spent preparing for this next thing. The future. Now all she could do was wait, hope, pray. She offered a prayer that went something like, “Please God, please…” Her pace slowed down as she felt the air smooth around her body, slipping around her as if her clothes were somehow lighter. She noted every step felt stronger, her posture straightening, her cheeks tightening into a smile. All she could do now was wait.
***
Tom set the box down and looked at his watch inadvertently. It was a habit. He didn’t expect to hear back from his interview today – knew it would take a few days – but looking at his watch was this reflex he had developed since he had begun interviewing again. Somehow connecting with the time made it seem like he was doing something. The waiting was harder to bear when there was nothing to do.

He had gotten to see Katie play the violin more – that was something new. And he had started to help out with Josh’s hockey practice. Before he was often out of town or working late, never with a consistent enough schedule to commit to regular practices. And while years ago he had made it a point to get back home in time to see at least some games or concerts, in the last couple years he had let it slide a bit. He had let lots of things slide. The economy had been so precarious that everyone had been putting in long hours. Then, it felt like desperation – like the other shoe was going to drop at any minute. And then…it dropped.

The months he had been out of work had at first been oppressive with the stress of finding something new. But now, he had grown accustomed to the space that had developed. He had grown accustomed to the waiting. He had built in a cushion, new they could survive on less if they tightened up, and so he gave himself the space to dream, the space to wonder what new seed might take root and grow.

With this flurry of interviews right before the holidays, he found himself more hopeful than he had been before – hopeful in a way that was different. Not anxious or desperate; not grasping at something that seemed never to materialize. But thankful for the moments he had with his family, grateful for the space that had been given him to really wonder what he was supposed to be doing, what God was doing. Hopeful in a way that was awake, especially now. And all he could do now was wait.
***
Lynn rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 4 am and she had been up for an hour trying to get back to sleep. It wasn’t going to happen. She slipped carefully out of bed and tiptoed downstairs to put the coffee on. Her hand moved instinctively over her side, still a little sore from the biopsy. The results should be back tomorrow – they had promised. So she had the entire day and a half to wait. Wait for news, wait for verdict, wait for future.
Lynn and Tom had talked about the possibilities, but she had downplayed it even more because of his interviews. They had not told the kids – no need to worry them yet, and they had wanted Katie to be able to celebrate the end of her applications. She took a deep, slow breath as the coffee pot began to gurgle. She fed the dog and let him out the back. The sky was still dark. The wind pushed at the windows.

To kill time Lynn ticked through the day ahead and the places everyone needed to be, she began a grocery list, thought about starting lunches. It was 4:30 am. Then, slowly, her thoughts turned again to the results. She imagined what it might be like if the verdict was not good. Imagined the kids – how Katie would respond, with college just ahead. Whether or not Joshua would understand, really. She imagined Tom – how he would take it, this after such a hard year. Imagined friends – who she would tell and when.

She forced herself too to picture the news as good. It was harder. Somehow she knew that no matter what happened this scare had changed her a bit, had made her more aware, more present. She wondered if it would stick. Her mind halted, suddenly, on each of the faces of her family. She saw them laughing together last night at the dinner table – Tom’s great belly laugh that shakes the house, Katie’s beautiful smile, Josh’s erupting giggle. She saw them laughing together –caught up in joy, in the present, in the now. She felt the emotion well up in her throat and tighten there.

“Mommy?” Lynn heard Josh call from his room. She wiped at her eyes and took a sip of her coffee before she whispered back to him and went softly up the steps into his room. The dawn sunlight was just angling through his window, casting a soft glow at the edge of his bed. He was still so young. Lynn and Tom had been surprised when they got pregnant again after so many years with Katie, but it had been such a miracle too – to live with a child in the house again.

“What’s up babe?” Lynn said to Josh through the receding darkness. “It’s still pretty early…”

“Is it Christmas yet?” Josh said with excitement in his voice. Lynn smiled. She noted the anticipation in his eyes, the hope that hovered in his voice.

“Not yet.” She whispered, and then remembered… “But come with me – I’ve got something special for you.”

She lifted Josh out of his bed still snuggled in his blanket and carried him downstairs where she had begun to open the box Tom had set by the mantel. She moved a chair over to the mantel so Josh could reach it, and handed him what looked like a ball of paper.

“What is it?” he asked her.

“Just open it – but be careful not to drop it.”

Joshua slowly unfurled the ball between his hands until it revealed a small wooden figurine. His sleepy eyes brightened instantly. “A shepherd!” He exclaimed, and he reached to place it carefully on the cleared mantel.

Lynn and Josh slowly unwrapped each figurine, marveled at it’s beauty, turned it around to decide which it was. This is the angel, this is Joseph, here is a donkey, here is a sheep…

Quietly behind them, Tom and Katie had wandered downstairs to watch, rubbing eyes and curling up together on the couch. They watched as Josh placed each figure carefully in its spot, smiled as he reminded each of them the story they represented – the one they all knew and loved. Soon the paper was scattered on the floor and there was one left to unwrap, and Josh opened the paper with such care you would have thought he was holding glass. His face was filled with hope as the piece revealed itself, but then he stopped with a look of confusion.

“But…” “Where is Jesus?”

Katie was the one to answer, with the care and concern of a big sister. “He hasn’t come yet,” she said, as she lifted Josh up into her arms and helped him place the manger at the center of the scene. “He doesn’t come until Christmas…we have to wait.” She looked softly at Josh.

“But he will come. I promise…he will come soon.”

In the name of the One who comes. Amen.

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It has happened to us… a bit too soon I might add. We have become part of the sandwich.

As a pastor I am terribly aware of the “sandwich generation.” That is, those folks who are mentioned in articles and sermons and commercials, who are in the middle of raising their young children and caring for ailing loved ones. In my few years as a hospice chaplain I was poignantly aware of this issue, caring for and praying with families who struggled between visiting newly born grandchildren and sorting through mom’s cancer medication. The strain is excruciating – a bit like the medieval torture where a criminal’s four limbs were tied to four horses and sent off in different directions. Okay – a bit graphic, but still… To be torn between two loves – the love for our parents who raised us and cared for us through scraped knees and hockey tournaments (which can be terribly complicated), and the love for our children and our children’s children (which is in some ways more pure and full of longing.)

As my husband spends the next week out of state caring for his father who has been in the hospital, we find ourselves squeezed between the needs of our parent and the needs of our young children. His dad is still very young – but this illness has been surprising and more intense than we could ever have imagined. The blessing is that we all expect a full recovery (doctor’s included), but we are aware that the journey to that recovery will be long and arduous, and require a decent amount of care. Out of this experience, we have gained a new empathy for those who are trying to balance the push and pull of this sandwiched lifestyle – how to prioritize, how to make choices between two people you love, two families who need you, two sets of circumstances each of which will suffer for your missing presence.

There is no clear path. There is no way to make an equal choice, no way to compare a beloved parent to a beloved child. There is also no family that is the same. While one family can easily share the load between many members, other families have fewer hands to help, or have family dynamics that prevent people from being supportive through it all. What may seem an easy solution for your family may be totally unworkable for mine. We do the best that we can. We cobble together what we need to stay afloat and offer what we can to be of assistance to the people we love. Sometimes that is a little, sometimes it is more than we even knew we had. And so it goes. Life is always a balance and this is no different, although the balance becomes weightier and more challenging to get right.

As we learn our way through this process we are learning new skills – how to have difficult conversations with family members. How to assert ourselves from a long distance (with doctors, family, friends) to get information, assistance, clarification. (carefully, cautiously…) What documents our parents should have in place and where they keep them. And the sticky wicket of family finances. None of this is easy, none of it is enjoyable. But it is the nitty gritty of “family,” and in some ways it is the absolutely essential lesson of what it takes to be in real relationship with one another through whatever bumps we hit along the way.

Through it all the thing that comes to mind most is this ethereal and changing thing called “community.” The concentric circles that surround us and spin outward seem to tighten around us in times such as these. People from our past suddenly stop by with soup or send an email with a word of prayer. This is such a blessing. As I have mentioned before we have learned firsthand the cultural shift away from community – as our generation tends to move often and live far from the town or city of our youth, it is harder and harder to maneuver through family crises or illness. The help that is offered makes it easier to choose both our children AND our parents in times such as these.

So I wonder – how do others of you “sandwiched generation” make your way through these crises? I wonder if more people are choosing to move back “home” so that they live closer to family? I wonder if anyone uses services that have helped them (we have found a great resource in www.caringbridg.org to keep family and friends informed)? I’ve also heard of patient advocate services that can be hired to help take care of mom or dad – does anyone use those? How do you make these choices that are so hard?

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This past weekend, my second child escaped. It was in some ways, inevitable. He has always been a bit precocious – he tends to wander farther from me and his papa than his older brother ever did. He takes risks before his body can physically manage them, and so ends up getting hurt a lot – As most younger siblings tend to do. And, since I am a pretty relaxed mother, I tend to give him more freedom than I should. Letting him play by himself while I run upstairs to grab something, letting him go up and down stairs without my help, etc. He is a surprisingly coordinated guy, for his 20 months of life – climbing, walking, running, jumping. But I digress…

On Friday, a gorgeous, sunny perfect day, I was home with the boys for the day as Friday is my sabbath. We had been playing outside a lot, enjoying the weather, running errands here and there. We were getting ready to go to a friend’s house for a gathering of folks, and Jason was finishing up some work. I left the boys out in the backyard for a few (maybe 5 or 10) minutes while I ran upstairs and put a bag together with pj’s, blankets, sweatshirts and other necessities for the night. My oldest boy followed me inside shortly after, but the youngest was playing happily outside with bikes and cars, so I let him stay. A few minutes later I heard some rustling downstairs and assumed the youngest had followed suit, coming inside to play.

A few minutes later I heard only silence downstairs and wondered… so I headed downstairs to see what he was up to. He was not downstairs. Perhaps he went back outside? Nope. Hm. Perhaps he snuck upstairs without me seeing him? Nope. Wait…Outside? No. Downstairs? No. Upstairs? No. Basement….would be a surprise..but…? No. Upstairs.Downstairs.Backyard.Basement? Nowhere to be found. Ah! I started to totally panic, knowing the only other option was that he got out the front door, where the street was very close, and took off somewhere… Jason had gotten on board with the search, we started calling his name, checking the streets (we live on a dead end), and the neighbors joined in to call and look.

I found him, finally, in the neighbor’s backyard, swinging on their swingset, happy as can be. I almost puked.

He was safe as can be, of course. But there was about 10 or 15 minutes when I had no idea where he was – imagined him walking down the middle of the street, imagined my arrest by CPS, knew absolutely that I had been a neglectful mother. Like I said, I almost puked.

Don’t get me wrong – I know this happens to even the best mothers, and I know I will still be a pretty relaxed mother. I will still let them find their own way and get into trouble. I will still let them climb things without my help and take risks and fall down and get bloody without my gasping and running immediately to their aid, because well, that’s the kind of parent I am and want to be. I strive to be a parent that watches from a distance rather than hovering closely so as not to let them ever get hurt, but frankly, that means that they might get hurt. But the consequences of that kind of parenting can be completely and utterly frightening, even if I believe in it. And well – I guess I have to learn my own boundary, and perhaps I won’t let the little guy play outside alone for quite as long… at least until next summer….

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