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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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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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