November 30, 2007

Sermon, November 18

"Good News!"
Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19

How do you get your news: TV, radio, internet, or the old-fashioned way – out of the paper? We are awash in news—or what passes for it – these days. And our news is a depressing mixture of the truly tragic and terribly trivial. But God’s news is different, and ironically, there is nothing new about it.

God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” That seems like enormously comforting news to me. When you look around at our world, all you see is a mess, isn’t it? The mess covers our earth and extends to the heavens. We have poked holes in the ozone, we have polluted the air and the water, we have dug up the deposits of the ages and used them the fuel our fancies – big cars, big houses, big appetites for entertainment.

And it seems that Jesus must have been looking far into the future when he spoke to his disciples, when he said: “You will hear of wars and insurrections. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plague.” That sounds like our earth and heavens, doesn’t it? And worst of all, most of the mess is of our own making. And so it is to our time, as well as to an ancient time, that God speaks: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

Imagine these new heavens and new earth, this new creation, for a moment. There will be no weeping or distress. There will be no infant mortality, no lives cut short. There will be no working poor. Those who build the houses will be able to afford to live in them. No one will be homeless. Those who pick the fruit and harvest the vegetables will not go hungry. People will have good and productive work, enough to be satisfying but not so much as to be exhausting and overwhelming. Those who do good will not feel that their work is in vain. No child anywhere will grow up in the shadow of calamity and terror. There will be peace. The wolf and the lion and the lamb will dwell together in harmony. And so will humankind. That is God’s new creation.

But it isn’t really new at all. This is, in truth, God’s old creation. It is the vision that God had for the world at the beginning of time, when the whole earth was like a green garden, when plants and animals and woman and man lived together, and the earth and the sky formed a great and beautiful dwelling where everything that was needed was available in overflowing abundance.

We have forgotten that vision of God’s good creation. It has been eclipsed by what we see day in and day out. But in the midst of our mess, the word of God still comes: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth like the heavens and earth at the beginning of time.” This is God’s news, this is good news. And it is not some abstract hope for a return to the good old days. It is a present reality, a reminder that the God who made the universe is still at work in our world. And it is a call to us to join God in that work, to be co-creators with God.

So against this backdrop, let me read you some of the news, our news, from the Hartford Courant, this week, on Thursday (November 15, 2007).

More than 35.5 million people in this country went hungry in 2006 as they struggled to find jobs that can support them, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday. Single mothers and their children were among the most likely to suffer, according to the study. Of the 35.5 million, 11.1 million reported that they had “very low food security,” meaning that they had a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat. For example, among families, a third of those facing disruption in the food they typically eat said that an adult in their family did not eat for a whole day because they could not afford it. (Section A)

And God says: “They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not plant and another eat. They shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain.”

And God says: “What will you do about it? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

A man charged with killing a two-year-old in Groton told police he held her face against jets in bathtub then left her there and went to watch football, according to a search warrant unsealed this week. …. He told police he got angry when the baby threw up and then cried while he bathed her. Police said: “He stated that he knew what he did was wrong but that he did not care.” (Section B)

And God says: “No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days. No one shall bear children for calamity.”

And God says: “What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

Nearly a third of Americans have at one point worried about becoming homeless and many more are taking in friends and relatives needing a home, a survey found. The homelessness issue has touched more than those who are living on the streets, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. “When people read the news and read about bankruptcies, home foreclosures and auto plants being closed, they worry that they may be next. (Section A)

And God says: “They shall build houses and inhabit them. They shall not build and another inhabit.”

And God says: What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?

The military is making backup plans in case the unrest in Pakistan begins to affect the flow of supplies to American troops fighting in Afghanistan, the Defense Department said Wednesday. Said Lt General Carter Ham: Certainly, any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that is experiencing a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is of primary concern. (Section A)

And God says: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

And God says: “What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

That’s the news – just part of it and just one day. And I’ve got news for you. Changing things will not be easy. Some of the powerful institutions that we have built and invested so much energy and effort in maintaining may need to go. When Jesus spoke of Herod’s mighty temple being tumbled, that might have been a prophecy for his time and a parable for ours. What we have made for ourselves, done for ourselves, constructed for ourselves will not matter – unless it gives us an opportunity to testify, to show with our very lives that we believe and trust that it is God’s way, not ours, that will prevail in the end.

Jesus told his disciples that the words and the wisdom they needed to do this would be given to them, and that is both a promise and a challenge, for us, too. It requires that we engage in radical trust, trust of the other, trust of God, not only of ourselves. As the old saying goes: It requires that we pray as though everything depended on God and work as though everything depends on us.

And I see that happening here. You feed the hungry; you support social service agencies that help the poor; you give money here that is used to promote economic and social justice in New Haven; you work for change in laws and policies; you speak up for what is right even if doing so is uncomfortable. You are at work with God.

And let me suggest a way to do this even more intentionally. However you get your news -- TV, radio, internet, newspaper -- use it as an occasion for prayer. Pray for the people and the tragic situations that are daily before you. Pray for our wounded world. Pay attention to what is happening around you. And then try reading the paper as you would read the Bible, as though it is God calling you to be at work in the world. Because it is.

God is still at work, with us, with creation. And what God’s creation is all about is shalom. We often translate that word as peace, but it has a more expansive meaning than that. It means wholeness, completeness, the full realization of God’s intention for the world. It means new heavens and a new earth. It means creation as God intended it to be all along. God is doing that, even here, even now. God is restoring shalom. And we are called to be part of that work.

God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” And that, dear friends, is really good news. May it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

Letting Go

These are truly the last of the tomatoes. The cold has made them a little shriveled, but it is a miracle to be finding them at all at this late date. They have hung on and on. The leaves on the trees seem reluctant to fall this year, too. On my street, there are trees still wearing the green of summer, although it seems a bit faded now and certainly out of place, like a woman going out to shovel snow decked in a summer sun dress. There are small forests of oaks in reddish-brown, with pounds of leaves still high overhead. We have raked away the obedient ones that kept to the assigned schedule. But the recalcitrants remain firmly fixed to their branches, hanging on tight. It will snow on them soon. They will be weighed down by ice, rattled by the cold wind. They will put a heavy strain on the limbs and there will be damage and loss as a result of their stubborn persistence. They should have let go a long time ago. And I wonder a little what will happen next spring when it is time for the new leaves to sprout. Will the old ones still be clinging to the branches, blocking the emergence of the new? Will the refusal to let go of what has become old and faded distort what might have been?
It is easy for me to see how out of season the tomatoes and green leaves are -- harder to see what hangs on in my life until it threatens to become a liability. That which is fresh and green, with the sweet taste of new, is so hard to let go, even when it has become faded and shriveled, even when its time has passed, even when what has been risks damaging what is and what might yet be. That is true for the garden, for the trees, and for my soul.

November 16, 2007

Holy Food

I've been going to the gym in the mornings. While I'd just as soon tread away in silence, the two TVs are tuned to the morning news shows -- pictures on both, sound track only from one. The news (if one can call it that) on the two TVs is not exactly in sync, but both TVs cover mostly the same stuff. Maybe it is the logical outcome of 24 hour talk TV, or the early morning hour, but a lot of what I see at 5:30 in the morning is pretty silly.

This week, there was a story about a holy pancake. A woman in Florida was cooking breakfast on Sunday (of course....), when she served up a pancake with an image of the Holy Family on it. Or it might have been Moses -- who could tell, for sure. (All those holy folks kind of look the same in the frying pan, don't they?) And then the big dilemma: What exactly do you do with a pancake that has a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, or Moses or some other holy person, as the case might be? Do you freeze it so you can take it out on special occasions and view it? Do you serve it up with butter and syrup, destroying the evidence of your personal miracle? And if you do that, who gets to eat it, and then does that person become holier than before, and holier than thou?

Well, what this family did was put the pancake up for auction on EBay with a starting bid of $35.00.

I don't know what I would have done. In the first place, I don't make pancakes, and then, too, I don't really look for pictures of Jesus in my food. I've never found a Madonna in a potato, for example, or seen the face of Jesus in a biscuit. And the truth is that I discount this sort of experience.

And then I am reminded of what happens to me on Sunday morning, not at the kitchen table but at the Communion Table. I break the bread and pour the juice, and it is holy food. I eat and drink and I know the mystical presence of Christ. I take all that in and, God willing, I edge toward holiness myself.

But what happens at that Table is not for sale, not even to the highest bidder.

November 11, 2007

All Saints Sermon

“Suddenly Saints”

Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

When Pope John Paul died, thousands and thousands of people came to pay their respects. I remember seeing an aerial photograph of Rome with this long line of people waiting to pass by to honor this man. Around St Peter’s, multitudes gathered in love and grief, many of them holding signs that read “Santo Subito:” santo – saint; and subito – immediately, or for you musicians, suddenly. Santo subito: make him a saint immediately. Whatever the Church’s process, the people believed that in God’s eyes, he was already a saint.

So what is sainthood? What makes John Paul – or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or anybody, or that matter – a saint?

Meister Eckhart, an ancient holy man, a saint himself, once said this: The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. Maybe a saint is one who know that, and then goes the next step of seeing the world through the eye of God. How does the world look when you do that – when you take a long loving look at the real?

Consider for a moment at two women, Ruth and Benita, who founded a non-profit fair trade organization that links the world’s most rural and economically-disadvantaged cooperatives to the U.S. market. Their company, called Mercado Global, provides both fair wages and investments in the long-term development of communities in developing nations. How did Ruth and Benita get started? While they were in college, they spent nine months in Guatemala’s western highlands working with rural women’s cooperatives that struggled to find domestic markets for their traditional handicrafts. Returning to the U.S., Benita and Ruth held fair trade crafts sales on their campus. They made enough money doing that to make a difference, and decided to make that part of their life’s work. Ruth and Benita are Yale College graduates, class of 2004.

And then there is Daisy. When she was six years old, she went to first grade in an elementary school in a very poor part of the rural United States. She was so fragile and tiny that she looked as though she would break into pieces if you touched here.
Daisy loved school. It was the best thing that had ever happened to her. And her favorite part of school was the cafeteria. It was a big room, linoleum floors and cinderblock walls, a kind of sterile place, but Daisy loved it, because there was food there: breakfast and lunch, and often a snack, too. And the only thing she got to eat was at that school. She tried to eat as much as she could, but it was never quite enough. And so she starting going through the trash cans, gathering up the food that had been thrown away- fruit hat someone had not eaten, unopened boxes of cereal or cartons of milk. Fridays were really hard, because she would most likely not have anything to eat after she left school until she got back on Monday morning. The cafeteria manager, a by-the-book kind of person, saw her doing this one morning after breakfast and ran out and yanked her away. “You can’t do that, you can’t have that food. And besides you already had your breakfast.” A teacher’s aide was watching this and lit into the cafeteria manager. And then she helped that little starving girl get together enough to eat. The cafeteria manager was just following the rules, and it would be good to get the rules changed, but that takes time and effort. And in the meantime, a child was starving and there was someone there to do what needed to be done.

I don’t know if Ruth and Benita are people of faith. I don’t know if Daisy goes to church or not. But they are saints, aren’t they? And so is that teacher’s aide who saw an injustice and did something about it.

Is that what saintliness is all about: seeing the wrong in the world and doing what you can to make it right? If it is, then the first step is the seeing. But why doesn’t everyone see the same thing? What is that clouds our vision?

I was in Washington DC for the past few weeks and I spent part of a Sunday afternoon walking around Georgetown. If you have ever been there, you know that it is a lovely place, full of expensive houses, very nice restaurants, and upscale shops. And there are a lot of homeless people, too – more so than it seems there are in New Haven. And then I wondered if I had just gotten used to the street people here, that they are just part of my daily routine, and so I don’t even see them anymore. I don’t know. I wondered if my life of privilege makes me blind to the pain around me.

And suddenly, it is as though I hear Jesus saying:

Blessed are you who are poor – women of Guatemala and homeless people in New Haven -- for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now – Daisy -- for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now at the injustice of it all – Ruth and Benita and that teacher’s aide --- for you will laugh.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, all the way to the bank, for you will mourn and weep.

There is a great reversal here. The blessing, the sainthood, goes to the poor and the hungry. The blessing, the sainthood goes to those who are grief-stricken by injustice, who see the world with God’s eye, who are not blinded by pride position or power. The saints are those who see with the eyes of their hearts enlightened. And where are we in all this?

In a short story titled “Revelation,” the gifted Southern writer Flannery O’Connor gives us a glimpse of what this might be like, this seeing with an enlightened heart. (Everything That Rises Must Converge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1975)

The story begins in a doctor’s waiting room, where Mrs. Ruby Turpin has an encounter with a girl who is, in Mrs. Turpin’s view, the wrong kind – ugly to look at, fat with bad skin, common, white trash. As it turns out, the girl, who is named Mary Grace, goes to Wellesley College, but clearly Mrs. Turpin is better than she is. In fact, she considers herself better than a great many folks.

She despises Mary Grace, and the girl knows that, but she also knows Mrs. Turpin in some deep and frightening way, “in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition” (page 207). Pushed to her limit by the woman’s sense of superiority, Mary Grace finally throws a book at her and tries to choke her.


“What you got to say to me?” Mrs. Turpin asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” [the girl] whispered.” (page 207)

The girl’s message stirs up a fierce anger in Mrs. Turpin. Later, back home, out by the pig pen, she gives vent to her anger before God.

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me too? How am I saved and from hell too? . . . “Why me?” She rumbled. “It’s no trash around here black or white, that I haven’t given to, and break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” … “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”…

A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”

The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. … She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it. … Mrs. Turpin stood there. … Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there… as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.

At last she lifted her head. … A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of the sunset] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.

She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and responsible behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (pages 215-218)

And so shall it be with us. And so it is already. We are in that holy procession, even if we are bringing up the rear. And when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened to see the world -- and ourselves – as God sees, then we will be able see our place in that great company. Santo Subito!

© Martha C. Highsmith

November 6, 2007

The Boss

The boss stone in a cathedral is a kind of keystone that sits in the ceiling at the intersection of stone ribs. The soundness of the structure depends on the boss stone. It absorbs the tension of the ribs, distributes the load, and bears the weight of the whole. Without it, the whole thing is always in danger of collapse. And yet, what you notice when you look up is the vaulting ceiling, the stone pillars curving inward, the soaring arches. You almost never even notice the bosses, and certainly you don’t accord them the kind of importance that they deserve.
This is a week when some big bosses in the corporate sector have lost their jobs. I wonder if it is because they wanted to be noticed, rather than providing the support for their organizations. I wonder if they were impressed with the weight of their own positions, rather than feeling the weight of being responsible to their employees and shareholders. I wonder if those of us who are flesh-and-blood bosses are prone to forget what the stones seem to know. And is that a particular, terrible tendency in the church?

November 2, 2007

November Tomatoes

There are some bug holes and cracks and spots, and they aren't perfect -- but this is November 2 and I have gathered vegetables from my garden. I don't know whether to rejoice in the grace of bounty from this little plot of earth at this time of year or to despair that global warming seems more imminent all the time. A hurricane swirls in the ocean, tomatoes and peppers and eggplant ripen in New England, and next door the bicycles are still in the yard. I thought I would return home and find all the leaves gone, but lots of trees are still green and the raking has not yet begun in earnest. I read in the newspaper about a little town in Tennessee that has run out of water. And I read about a town in Mexico that is inundated with too much. The times seem out of joint, somehow, as though nature is protesting our casual treatment of her, as though she is irritated that we have taken her so for granted. I hope this is just a small lover's quarrel, that we can make up for the damage we have done, that it is not too late to mend our relationship with the earth. And, in the meantime, I eat my November tomatoes.

November 1, 2007

The Turtle's Eye

The world is full of vast and strange beauty and most of it I never notice. To see the eye of this ancient-looking turtle makes me think that God must have greatly enjoyed creating the world. There are lots of exotic animals at this zoo. And mixed in are the squirrels and the chipmunks and the sparrows. In reality, they are no less exotic, no less beautiful. And I don't much notice them, either. So this wide-open eye is an eye-opener for me, too. It demands: Look! Watch! See!
Or as the Bible might say it: Behold!