December 31, 2008

A New Year

The snow is white and crisp and clean. It fell all day, covering up the grayness of mid-winter. Tonight the air is so cold that it gives a kind of purifying shock to the lungs. The sky is black velvet clear with all those distant stars twinkling as bright as the Christmas lights reflecting on the icy walkways. The old year is now as gray and dull as the winter landscape was before the snow. Soon we will turn the calendar, learn to write 2009, look for a fresh start. May this year be like the cold brightness of this night, beautiful, erasing the old dinginess, giving us a sparkling landscape so pure and new that it takes the breath away. May we be able to begin again, right the wrongs we have lived into, turn our backs on the past. And may the bright shining stars light the way into a future where we learn how to be the best selves that we can be, our true selves, the ones who are made in the image of God.

December 28, 2008

The Christmas Parrot

Psalm 148
Luke 2:22-40

Did you get what you expected for Christmas? Or did you spend the last few days standing in line somewhere, waiting to exchange? It is always nice to get the perfect size, the right color, the preferred item, at the outset, but sometimes, in spite of our lists and our not-so-subtle hints, that just doesn’t happen. Usually we can – and do – swap for something else, but there are those things that we just get stuck with – no exchange, no gift receipt.

This happened a number of years ago to friends of mine. On Christmas morning, one member of the family received a huge box. I imagine it was far and away the biggest gift under the tree. Everyone waited in anticipation to see what it was.

Well, what it was – was a very large, ceramic parrot. The parrot was about three feet high, painted a really bad shade of green with orange and yellow trim. It was pretty awful.

I don’t know if the gift-giver meant it as a serious gift or not but the Christmas parrot became a great tradition in that family. After the first year, the object was for the previous year’s recipient to foist the parrot on another relative. And, as I understand it, the rules of this tradition mean that once you have, you have it until you can get somebody else to receive it. The Christmas parrot roosted in my friends’ sun porch for several years, actually.

After the flannel shirt is frayed and worn and the sweater is moth-eaten, when the box of candy is long-gone and that year’s hottest toy is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, the Christmas parrot endures. How ironic that what seemed to be a joke at first has become one of the most lasting gifts in my friends’ family.

Now, you probably don’t have any Christmas parrots in your family – it seems a unique tradition, fortunately – but I imagine almost everyone has received a gift that was not quite what they expected. And that should not be a surprise or a disappointment to us, because when you think about the story of the first Christmas, almost no one there got what they expected either. From the very beginning, Christmas is about the unexpected.

Old Zechariah in the temple is visited by an angel who tells him that after he and Elizabeth have given up, they will indeed have a child. And that child, John, will be the one to prepare the way for the messiah. Zechariah’s reaction: “How can this be? Are you sure?” The angel also visits Mary and gives her unexpected – unbelievable – news. Her reaction is the same: “How can this be?” And Joseph, an orderly, measured man, no doubt, a carpenter, receives life-changing instructions in a dream. It would not be surprising if in the cold, bright light of day he asked himself: “How can this be?” Then the two of them, Mary and Joseph, find themselves in Bethlehem, a baby needing to be born, and no provisions. And we might ask ourselves: “How can this be – that the son of the great God of the entire universe should come into the world in this way?” Yes, from the very beginning, what people got was not what they expected.

And the beginning is even before Mary and Joseph. The prophets told of the unexpected as well – a messiah, a savior, coming in a world of disarray and disappointment, a world of sorrow and sadness and sin.

And even that is not the beginning, perhaps. If we had the vision to see, it might be that we would know that the beginning is without beginning. We would know the most unexpected thing of all – that the Lord of all the world cares even for us; that before we even existed, a great and powerful love was built into all that would come into being; that this love would not depend on our merit or worth or goodness, but it would come to us as an amazing unexpected gift of grace. We would know what Simeon and Anna knew – that God has not abandoned us, but instead has provided for our salvation, even when that means saving us from ourselves.

But this knowledge of the prophets is not an easy knowledge. It defies our expectations. All the waiting and anticipation for deliverance comes, not through power and might, but gathered up in a tiny baby. The prophecies are fulfilled in the strangest way imaginable, wrapped in fragile flesh and completely helpless. God wears a human face, and is called by a human name, and lives a human life. And almost everything about that life, the life of Jesus, is unexpected: his birth, his ministry, his friends – none of it what the people were looking for.

The one who fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the messiah was born to a poor unmarried couple, far from home, with no place to stay. The first witnesses to the miracle of his life were shepherds – unsophisticated, uneducated, unwashed field hands. He never wrote a book, built a church, had a family – never did any of the things that we might think memorable. For his entire, brief ministry, he associated with the most unlikely types – not the rich and powerful, not the religious leaders, not the respected of society. He spent his life with common laborers and IRS agents, with fallen women and contaminated lepers: the outcasts of society, the least and the last and the lost.

Even during his lifetime, the good news he brought was a strange kind of good news. So why should we be surprised if the gift of the presence of God still comes in strange and unexpected ways. Just like the first Christmas when it seemed nothing quite went right, and yet the Lord was in the midst of it, so it often is in our own lives. And sometimes it almost seems that everything has to fall apart in order to make room for his coming. Perhaps Simeon’s words to Mary are also meant for us: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many. . . . And a sword shall pierce your soul, too.”

“A sword shall pierce your soul.” The cross is in the cradle and we do not receive the baby of Bethlehem without also embracing the man of sorrows. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner explains it this way:

“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there, too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” (The Hungering Dark, pp.13-14)

“Just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” God comes, in loss and disappointment and broken dreams. God comes, disguised as illness. God comes, through unlikely companions and disrupted plans, through heartbreak and betrayal. It is all gift, but it is gift cloaked in mystery, because what seems at first to be a joke turns out to endure through our lives, bearing the presence of God in a way we least expect.

When your marriage has not lived up to your hopes and dreams, when your children turn out to be a disappointment, when your life seems dull and unfulfilled, for the face of the savior. He will be there, born to you in a form that you least expected. When you are sick, really sick, or worse still, when someone you love is ill, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, leading you into a new way of life, showing you how precious the ordinary days can be, offering healing whether or not the doctors can promise a cure. When nothing seems to be going right, when everything is falling apart, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, born in the midst of the world’s chaos.

That is how it was at the first Christmas. And that is how it is now, too. We sing “all is calm, all is bright”, and that is true of the places where he is, but it is also true that he does not wait until everything is calm and bright in order to come. He is to be found in the places of fear and unrest, in pain and suffering, in the darkest of times. His presence is a gift, a soul-piercing gift, and it comes in the most unexpected ways.

Especially at Christmas, we want a God who will lift us out of our troubles and instead we get one who comes to be with us in whatever mess we are in; one who will use anything, even the woes of the world, to touch our hearts, to turn our heads, to get our attention; one who knows both the joy and the sorrow of being fully human. We get a God who comes to be with us, because this is the one who loves us with an everlasting love, and that is the greatest gift of all.

So let us take what is offered, this amazing, unexpected gift. And like Simeon and Anna, let us seek to live out our days in peace, because with our own eyes, we have seen our salvation. And let us praise God and speak about this child to all who will listen.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Jesus.

In Our Hands

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20

There is so much about this story that tugs at our hearts: the animals in the stable, the shepherds carrying lambs, the new mother, the father standing watch, and, in the center of it all, a baby. It is a scene written in our memories even though we were not there to witness it when it happened. We have seen it on Christmas cards, in museums with famous paintings, on our lawns and in manger scenes on the mantel so much that it seems as though we must have been present.

But is it not just a picture. It is also music. Of course, it is music in the hymns and Christmas carols that we sing, but especially this night, it is somehow the music of the angels. And their song is a powerful and precious part of Christmas because it speaks to some of our deepest hopes. “Peace on earth,” they sing, and “good will from God” and isn’t that what we want? God’s good will -- the certain presence among us fulfilling all those ancient promises so that the world becomes the way it was at the beginning when there was peace everywhere. That is what the angels sing.

But listen carefully to their music. What they are singing is not about some future time. They are singing about the here and now. When this child comes among us, then there is peace. That is why the heavens open and the music pours down on us. In the coming of the baby, everything that God has ever promised is here and now. Except that it doesn’t exactly seem like that, does it? The world is filled with wars, big and small. There is famine and hunger and financial disaster. Many people are losing their jobs, and those who have them can barely get by. And it is not just the world around us; sometimes there is no peace in our homes, no peace in our hearts. So what do we make of this song that the angels sing, these words from on high proclaiming the reality of God’s presence in the world? What do we make of them? And what does God call us to do to make this Christmas promise a reality?

Let me tell you a little story about an ancient holy man, a saint, known as Kevin. He lived in Ireland 1500 years ago and he was a good and gentle soul. There are many stories of his kind and loving ways. One of those stories tells of a day when he was praying with his arms lifted out. He prayed and prayed, deep in prayer for a long time -- long enough for a bird to come and make a nest in his hand and lay an egg. And as the story goes, Kevin remained with his hand held out until the egg hatched.

It’s a fanciful story, a legend hard to believe I suppose, except here’s the truth of it. The same thing can happen to us. The same thing does happen to us.

Every time we reach out to God, every time we open our hearts, God puts the precious gift of life and love and peace in our hands. And once we hold it, then it is up to us, like Kevin, to protect and nurture it, to watch and wait, to be gentle and patient and to persevere. And it is ironic, I suppose, that the almighty, all powerful God, creator of the universe, ruler of all that is, that this God of awe and might gives us a gift that somehow looks so small and fragile.
Like the gift we receive here tonight. That gift looks like a small piece of bread that we take from each other—a little ordinary insignificant piece of bread -- but that bread has the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection in it, a power that overcomes death and promises eternal life. And then there is the gift that looks like a thimbleful of juice, a tiny little sip, barely enough to taste, but that gift has the life-giving power and healing strength of the blood of Jesus and we taste it and it is a transfusion of love that saves our souls. But above all, on this night, there is the small and fragile gift from God that is a baby. And maybe that is the most fragile of all, because a baby is one who requires our care and protection to grow into life. It is fragile, and it is astonishing, because Jesus, God’s gift to the world, is given to us as one of us. It is what the church calls the incarnation which one preacher describes as “nothing less than Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed.” (Frederick Buechner)

We have a new baby in our family this Christmas, born on December 20. It is easy to forget how little a newborn is, how tiny and fragile. It is easy to take for granted the miracle of new life -- until you hold it in your hands. All life is a gift from God, and on this night, and when we hold a new babe, we are reminded of how amazing that gift is.

But God’s ultimate Christmas gift is kind of surprise, isn’t it? Think about it: God does maybe the last thing on earth that we would expect, coming among us as one who is fragile, helpless, defenseless and dependent. It was certainly not what people wanted two thousand years ago. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people were looking for a savior -- someone powerful and strong, someone who would lead an army to defeat those who oppressed God’s people. They were looking for someone who could wage the kind of war that would restore the land to them, reclaim their power, take over the government. That’s what they wanted, and it’s not so different from what we want, really. We want God to solve our problems, fix what is wrong, take care of us. That’s the kind of gift we want, and instead we get a gift that we have to take care of. That is what happens tonight. We open our hearts, and the gift of life and love is given to us all over again, but it is not always what we expect. In my life, in your life, this gift may seem small and insignificant, whatever it is that God has given. But it demands a response from us, it calls us to care. Our task is to hold our gift gently, to wait and watch with patience and faith as it opens in our midst, to do all we can to make that life and growth possible. The gift is like a newborn baby. The gift is a newborn baby.

When Jesus was born, people wanted peace on earth, and God’s gift to them was one called the Prince of Peace. The angels knew it first and they announced it from the heavens: “Peace on earth.” The shepherds heard and believed and told what they had seen and learned. And some who found this fragile gift within their reach held it with care and patience, watched over it, and nurtured and helped it grow. But others ignored what they had been given and went on their way, leaving God’s great gift shattered and broken and ruined, crushed and abandoned.

That is the way it was then when the angels first sang, and it is still that way now, because we, too, want peace; we, too, listen for heavenly reassurance; and we, too, have the gift within our reach. That gift of peace, of the Prince of Peace, is a reality in God’s kingdom. It may seem that it is not fully realized in our world, especially in these days of war and bankruptcy and bailouts. But on this night of nights, this holy night, the gift is revealed to us and we know that all is possible, that God’s promise is kept, here and now, as it was in Bethlehem. And we are called to cradle God’s great gift in our hands, not to lose heart, not to give up, not to go our own way and drop what we have been given. We are called to hold and protect it, to wait, to watch, and keep faith because it will come to fullness in time. At Christmas, the angels sing to us, and we, like the shepherds, know the promise of peace born as a baby, and like it was for them, he is give to us to hold in our hearts.

As a bird grows in the egg, as a baby grows in the womb, so peace grows in our world through the great gift of Jesus Christ. May we be those who hold it and protect it while we watch and pray.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

December 16, 2008

Thrift Supervision

At the corner of 17thStreet and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is the Office Thrift Supervision. As federal buildings go, it is pretty nondescript – no soaring columns, lofty domes, or splashing fountains -- just a kind of blank façade suitable for housing an anonymous bureaucracy. The purpose of the Office is to oversee savings and loan institutions, which are known in the financial industry as “thrifts.” But I find myself thinking that maybe we ought to have a federal agency actually charged with supervising thriftiness. What if all government spending had to pass a thrift test? Such scrutiny would certainly cut down on bridges to nowhere and special projects benefiting lawmakers’ hometowns. Federal employees would work long and hard, being thrifty with the money the government pays them. Programs to serve the poor would bypass all the red tape, eliminating the expense of multiple hands to pass the money along.

And what if this Office of Thrift Supervision had services for private citizens as well as the public sector? What if we could have our own expenses supervised by a wise and thoughtful entity, one that might whisper in our ear as we are considering buying yet another pair of shoes, or avoiding the car pool because it is slightly inconvenient, or getting a $4.00 cup of coffee instead of filling up the travel mug? And what if our personal thrift supervisor encouraged us to be thrifty with ourselves so we could be generous with others?

I heard a story on the radio recently about a man in England who had saved carefully his whole life. With interest rates slashed to compensate for an economy tanked by greed, at worst, and overextension, at best, he cannot rely on his savings for the income he needs to support his retirement. He was bemoaning the fact that there is no reward for the thrifty. It certainly seems that way, as institutions and industries that have blown through millions now get in line to be bailed out. But it isn’t just the “economy” because, after all, we are the economy. So I’m planning to supervise my own thrift, to watch over what I spend, what I save, to put my money in the places were it will be most useful (whether that is the offering plate at church or the drive-through window at the bank).

December 14, 2008

The Magnificat, continued

No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God -- for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
that someone is God.
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.
Oscar Romero


Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3), and it is an odd blessing unless you think carefully about it. It is ironic, too, that we spend this holy season, well, spending. Most of my friends are poorer than they were six months ago, but, in truth, none of us are really poor. We have more than enough. For us, perhaps, the task of Advent is to hear Mary's song as instruction and as warning. If we are forever full our ourselves, if our souls are as crammed to the rafters as the inn at Bethlehem, the Christ may pass us by, and we will not know what Christmas really means. "Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God." Without emptiness, there can be nothing to fill. Without an understanding of how needy we really are, there can be no way for us to receive the Gift.

December 12, 2008

The Magnificat

Mary's powerful song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) begins: "My soul magnifies the Lord." What would happen if we took this as a command for ourselves; and what would it mean to interpret it literally?
When you cannot see something clearly, a magnifying glass is a useful tool. When I'm tying a fly onto a leader, I have a little magnifier that helps me thread the almost invisible line through the tiny eye. People who stitch use magnifying glasses to help them. And anyone who wears glasses or contacts understands their necessity.
So what would our world, exterior and interior, be like if our souls were magnifiers, if we held them up to God so that God became clearer and easier for the world, and us, to see? Mary goes on to sing of the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being fed, the proud and the rich and those who think they are big stuff being brought down to size. That is what God looks like, and the soul that makes that clear acts to bring about God's vision.
In the life of faith, Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas: buying and wrapping and cooking and decorating. Instead, Advent is meant to be our anticipation of God's promised presence in the world. God has come in Jesus long ago, and the scriptures inform us that God will come again. And in my soul, I know, too, that God in Christ is here and now. So, I take as my Advent task (along with the shopping and the celebrating!) figuring out I can make that presence as clear as possible with my own life, how I can hold my soul up to God so that God shines through, magnified, bright and clear!

December 7, 2008


This morning, I woke up to find snow! Everything was wrapped in white, all lovely, clean and sparkly. It was as though the world itself was a gift, something precious and lovely, unexpected, and a cause for celebration.
Then I went to church, and had a tiny piece of bread and a thimbleful of grape juice, and that was a gift, too -- precious and lovely, valuable beyond all expectation.
And I came home to find a little bag at my doorstep with a book and a note from a dear friend.
All day long, everywhere I looked I found a gift. And I think, really and truly, each day is like that, but most of the time, I am too busy or distracted to notice. Today, though, I could see with the eyes of my heart, and it was wonderful.

November 30, 2008

Summer's Shroud

Yesterday I finished cleaning up the garden and putting away all the summer yard furniture. The table and chairs on the porch were marked by the leaves that had fallen. They are gone now, but they have left their imprint behind. Like the Shroud of Turin, the surfaces still bear the shape of that which was alive and green. Look closely and you can see summer -- even though it is snowing this morning and another kind of shroud will soon wrap the earth. But the promise is in the images that remain, and the promise points to another summer yet to come, to the life of the leaves that remains behind now to nourish the earth with rich humus, the promise of summer waiting underneath the wrappings of winter.

November 23, 2008

Two Parables of Travel

The plane was full and the overhead bins were all occupied, so folks had to check their carry-on bags. One woman carefully removed a plastic bag containing pottery bowl from her suitcase before it went into the baggage compartment. On the plane, she tucked it into the side of the bin over her seat. During the flight, another person opened the bin and the bowl came crashing down. We could all hear the sound of the pottery shattering. As we left the plane and she was leaving behind the broken bowl, she was telling me how careful she had been, all for nothing. And I said: Well, it's important not to travel with anything you're too attached to, isn't it.

We drag ourselves through endless airports, burdened with all the things that we must have with us at all times. People line up at check-in counters, weighing their stuff. Bags are opened and contents shifted to meet the requirements and avoid the extra fees: underwear and pajamas, medicine, shoes, computers, makeup, books and pillows. But I never see anyone giving the excess things away.

October 19, 2008

The Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

When Jesus said to the good religious folk "Give... to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's," I wonder if they heard in the background the words of Psalm 24: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." I wonder if some of their fury with him was his skill in putting them in their place, a place where they had to remember that there is no hierarchy, no division, no us and them, just the world, God's good earth, a treasure on loan to all of us. And when we pay our taxes, aren't we sharing that treasure with others -- paying for schools and health care, for groceries and roads and public transportation, for police and firefighters and trash collectors? Jesus reminds us, the good religious folk of our time, that what we have is meant to be given to God. And what would this precious world look like if we really lived that way?

October 4, 2008

Stress Fractures

"A stress fracture ... occurs when muscles become fatigued and are unable to absorb added shock. Eventually, the fatigued muscle transfers the overload of stress to the bone causing a tiny crack called a stress fracture. Stress fractures often are the result of increasing the amount or intensity of an activity too rapidly. They also can be caused by the impact of an unfamiliar surface; improper equipment; and increased physical stress."

Of course, this definition from the orthopedics association focuses on what happens to the body. But I think there are stress fractures of the soul, too. There are times when the pain of the world is too much and the soul is unable to absorb any more. We live in the midst of madly increasing activity, constant availability, and daily pressures that seem never to relent. One's soul can be battered by the unfamiliar, lacking the equipment to withstand the impact.

The treatment for a stress fracture is rest. As Jesus once told his disciples: "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." (Mark 6:31) It is hard for many of us to find a deserted place without going to a lot of effort and often expense. But even so, obeying this commandment is essential for wholeness and healing.

So I rest today. I give thanks for cool fall air and bright warm sunshine. I cook and get my little house ready for my friends to come tomorrow. And I read and pray and ponder my ministry. I come away, out of my usual too-busy routine, sit by myself, with myself, and I rest. And all the little stress fractures that have come to criss-cross my soul begin to mend.

September 15, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Hand Out

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

If you are not disturbed by this reading from the gospel, then you must not be paying attention. It is so counter-cultural for most of us -- down-right un-American. What Jesus is talking about is not the way the world is supposed to be. We believe that you should be rewarded for hard work and good behavior, that merit matters. What kind of a place would the university be, for example, if anybody and everybody could get in? And how about the work required of students? Imagine that you spend eight hours working on a problem set, your roommate spends thirty minutes and makes lots of errors, and you both get the same credit. Or you write a term paper that is twenty pages long with 35 citations, and your classmate turns in two-pages – double spaced – with no references and you both get an A. Not fair, right. Those who work harder ought to get rewarded for that. Those who produce should benefit. That’s the way the world is.

But Jesus tells it differently. He speaks of a world with a different set of rules. He speaks of the world of the kingdom of heaven.

A landowner – we’ll call him Robert Mondavi – goes out to hire some day laborers to pick grapes. He goes early, before 6:00 in the morning, before someone else gets all the most able-bodied and best workers. He sets those he hires to work with a promise to pay them the usual daily wage. But Mr. Mondavi must have a lot of grapes to pick because he goes back to hire more folks at 9:00 and again at noon and yet again at 3:00. He tells these additional workers that he will pay them what is right.

Finally, at 5:00 he goes back one more time to the Napa Valley equivalent of the New Haven Green and finds some folks just standing around doing nothing. You know who they are. They are the ones who might have wanted to work but they were too old or too young or too slow or too weak. They are the ones who were hung-over at 6:00 in the morning and couldn’t get out of bed. They are the ones who didn’t have a car and couldn’t get downtown to look for work. They are the ones who maybe can’t make more working than they get in their government checks, so they can’t really afford a full-time job. In other words, they are the ones that nobody in his right mind would hire. These folks are not productive. They are the ones usually just looking for a hand-out. But Mr. Mondavi seems to be lacking in judgment. He sends these folks to work anyway, even if it is only for an hour or so.

At the end of the day, all the workers line up for their pay. For some reason, our vineyard owner puts the welfare moms and the winos at the head of the line. And what do you know: those folks get a full day’s pay even though they only put in barely an hour and really didn’t break a sweat doing that.

Well. You can imagine the stir this causes up and down the line. The ones who have worked really hard, who have been there all day, the productive ones, are all excited, thinking about
how much more they will get since they have worked so much more –ten or twelve times more. There they are in line, mentally spending all that extra money, that money they deserve since they have worked more than the Johnny-come-latelies. Then, they get to the head of the line and put a hand out for their wages and what they get – is just what everybody else gets.

What an injustice! Everybody gets treated equally regardless of individual effort or the worth of one’s contribution. What kind of a system is this? You can understand their complaint, can’t you? It’s not fair. What kind of business owner would act like this? What kind of God would act like this? It makes no sense to those of us at the back of the line.

But maybe we should not be too surprised by this behavior. God has been engaging in these irrational acts since the very beginning. Out in the wilderness, the people complained because their new life was not to their liking. They had been freed from slavery, delivered from Egypt, they had seen the guiding hand of God, and they had the nerve to complain about the menu.
And how does God reward that ingratitude? By blotting them out from the face of the earth? By leaving them to their own devices? By sending them back to the fleshpots of Pharaoh? No. God gives them quail and manna, food in abundance. They don’t even need to work for it. It falls from heaven almost right into their hands. Do they deserve such generosity? No. No more than the day laborers in the vineyard, the ones who came in the morning and the ones who came at the eleventh hour.

That is how God is. God does not deal with any of us as we deserve. God is not controlled by our behavior. God acts in freedom, complete freedom. We do not convince God to hand out favors by doing good deeds, nor do we earn God’s wrath by our personal failures. The world may work that way but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we are talking about here is grace.

Frederick Buechner, explains it like this:

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. …

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. [And] maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
(Buechner, pp 38-39, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC)

That is grace. And in the kingdom of heaven, it is all grace – the gift itself and the giving of the gift and the ability to receive it. It is all grace. But how does that work in the world where we live?

For the past few weeks, we have watched the horror of the aftermath of several hurricanes. We have seen death, destruction and loss -- here at home and in neighboring island nations. We have seen people who have lost everything. And somehow, it seems, that the ones who lose the most are those how have the least to start with. The poor, the sick, the marginalized all seem to be hardest hit somehow. Just as in New Orleans three years ago -- all the least and the last and the lost, herded together and abandoned in the midst of what seemed like total destruction. Did they deserve that -- that kind of suffering and pain, that kind of devastation? No, of course not. That’s just how things are, isn’t is? Those who have the wherewithal to get of town do. Those who can afford generators have power. Those who lose a beach house have another house, or two, on higher ground. And the poor suffer disproportionately, but, unfortunately, that’s just the way the world works.

But remember this: it is not the way the kingdom of heaven works. It is not the way God is. In God’s eyes, we are all equal. We are not entitled to more because we have earned it. We do not get special blessings because we are smarter or richer or willing to work harder than others.

You see, the truth of the matter is this: we are all equal. God would give us what God would give everybody – the abundance of enough. Everything we have is a hand-out – a holy hand-out, given to us by the grace of God.

In the world out there, you will still have to compete. You will have to work hard, study hard, strive to be better than somebody else. That’s a reality. But it is not the sole/soul reality. Remember that you also live in the world of the kingdom of heaven – a world where everyone is equal, everyone is loved, everyone has enough. That is God’s way of doing things, God’s irrational grace.

And if we would be godly people, we would seek to embody that grace in our own lives: to see all others as we see ourselves, as valued, as precious, as loved; to promote an irrational equality; to understand that no matter what we give away we will still have enough.

It is hard to live in these two worlds, in the tension between the ways are and the way things are meant to be. We cannot do it on our own. We can only do it by God’s grace.

When we come to God's Table with our hands out, it is God who gives us bread – our daily bread. When we travel through our own wilderness, it is God who supplies the manna. When we are talented and bright and energetic and hard-working, God loves us just as much as God loves any other human being – but not more.

All that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Open your hands and your hearts, and share God’s grace to you. In this time of offering, give abundantly. Give without expecting reward. Give in the same irrational way that God has given to you. And reach your hand out and receive more grace than you can ever deserve.

© Martha C. Highsmith

September 11, 2008

September 11

We have a soaring and lovely bell tower on our campus. Everyday at 5:00 p.m., a student climbs the steep, circling stairs to play the carillon. Students choose what to play. Sometimes it is classical music or pop, sometimes “Happy Birthday.” The music is always lovely, those giant bells singing out, but we hear it all the time and so it often fades into the background, an unappreciated gift from anonymous hands.

This afternoon I was walking across campus when the bells began. The music was “The Star Spangled Banner.” It made me think about baseball games and the Fourth of July, about veterans at parades saluting when the marching band goes by with the flag. The music played and, on campus, people were sitting on benches reading, walking with friends and laughing and talking, getting ready to leave work for the day, making plans for the evening. I don’t know if they were paying much attention to the music or not; certainly I did not see anyone saluting or placing a hand on heart. But the ordinary, business-as-usual activities seemed to be a good form of patriotism, a good way to celebrate freedom and the preciousness of life in the kind of country we want to have.

So we all went on with whatever it was we were doing, and all the time the sweet music of the bells was floating like a blessing over our heads in the blue September sky.

September 6, 2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s an old saying about the church that paraphrases scripture: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be conflict.”

Apparently this is not a new phenomenon. When Jesus was among his disciples he gave them instructions for dealing with just this kind of situation:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew 18:15)

It’s good sound advice – isn’t it? If you are having a problem with someone, go directly to that person and talk about it. No triangulating. Don’t talk behind someone’s back to other people because that quickly becomes back-biting or gossip. And don’t just stew over what you feel is an injustice; confront the problem head on and deal with it. But what if it doesn’t work? Well, Jesus addressed that too. Don’t give up try again but, this time, take a couple of trusted companions with you. Maybe they are there for moral support or as witnesses, but whatever the case, it is clear that we are not supposed to give up after one little try. It is possible, of course, that even the second measure will not be successful. If you fail to make peace on the second try, then tell the whole church about the matter. And now here’s where Jesus’ instructions get interesting. If you try all this, he says, and it still doesn’t work, than let your offender be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

In Jesus’ day, the Gentiles and the tax collectors were the outcasts of religious society, which was all of the society that mattered. Good Torah-abiding citizens would have nothing to do with them. The Gentiles were ritually unclean, failing to observe the purity laws and ignorant of the ancient teachings of the faith. And the tax collectors? Well, they gouged the rich and the poor alike, skimmed from the coffers, and lived it up on the livelihood of others. And when one who has sinned against you will not listen to you, Jesus says, then let him or her be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector.

What do you suppose he means by that? Traditional religious folks would have heard this as an instruction to avoid the one who refused to meet, to listen, to be forgiven and reconciled; to treat that person as an outcast, someone to be despised. They would have understood that Jesus was telling them that, after a couple of tries – three at the most -- it was ok to give up on making peace and reestablishing relationship.

But as with many of Jesus’ teachings, there is a catch. The Gentiles and the tax collectors, the poor and the prostitutes, the lepers and the sinners -- these are the ones to whom Jesus reached out. He spent his time with the outcasts and the rejects, with those written off by polite society. And he also spent his life on those who sinned against him at every turn.
I’d rather hear Jesus tell me that it is okay at some point to give up on the one who has offended me. And instead what I hear is that I must invite that person to dinner, sit down, talk, listen, and try for relationship, whether the other seems willing or not.

What I hear is that Jesus is never ready to give up, on the sinners – on us – and that if we are going to claim to be Christian, then we have to keep at it, too.

September 5, 2008

The Art of the Spirit

There are moments in worship where something indefinable somehow breaks open and you find yourself in a whole new space. That happened to me yesterday. My friend and I, both now “churchless,” were in chapel, and it was a really lovely service. The music was amazing; the preaching was good; there were warm welcomes and sweet blessings. And then – all of a sudden – we were in a new landscape. In ways too mysterious even to consider, there was an unexpected public affirmation of a ministry that had seemed now to be on hold, and the gathered community was shown a new understanding of art and spirit.

It was a carefully planned service, with every detail scripted out, I’m sure. But there are some things that transcend planning, and it was that part of our worship that brought tears and joy and the sharp mixture of regret at what has been lost combined with gratitude for what remains. In other words, the Spirit works in ways we do not control and when we least expect it, and we are bowed low with wonder and awe in Her presence. And so it was for me yesterday. Thank God!

September 2, 2008

End of summer

Every Thursday during the summer, we gather on our street for happy hour. The host provides some snacks and everyone brings his or her own drinks – beer, wine, soda, juice boxes, formula. We stand in the yard and talk. The kids ride tricycles and bikes, play with hula hoops, and write on the sidewalk with chalk.
The host house is designated by a flock of flamingos. We eagerly look to see who is hosting each week. In fact, my very young neighbors call the gathering itself “the flamingos.”
It is very sweet – all these folks who are bound together only by geography, this tiny slip of pavement called Hilltop Drive. We visit, we trade stories, we catch up with each other. We grieve with M-P and with J whose husband and wife, respectively, have died from cancer since our last summer’s gatherings. We celebrate with A and T as they wait for their new baby. We ooh and aah over T who is two months old and having breathing problems, still on a monitor but gaining weight and doing better, so his brand new parents are finally getting some sleep. We observe birthdays and anniversaries. We meet neighbors who have new dogs and new neighbors who have new houses. We talk about books we are reading, where we will go or have gone on vacation, what is happening in our work or life. We exchange phone numbers for folks who clean gutters and mow lawns and are reliable and charge fairly. We gently discuss politics, some ignoring the lawn sign of a candidate they do not support and others finding kindred spirits.
Winter will come all too soon, and we will retreat to hibernate in our snug little houses. But in summer, we are out and talking and sharing.
I hosted the flamingos this year. People came and stayed until it was dark and the mosquitoes were biting. It was very nice, standing in the twilight and laughing and talking, and feeling the preciousness of a summer evening on Hilltop Drive.
The pink birds have flown to their off-season nesting location, probably a roost in someone's garage. We are back to school and back to fall schedules and back to our own little houses. But we are neighbors, and we wave to each other as we drive off to our various heres-and-theres. We know we can call on each other if we have to, and we know that the flamingos will be back next year, calling us together once again!

September 1, 2008

A life line

Today I put up a clothesline. I washed and then hung the sheets and t-shirts and underwear up in the bright sunshine. It was almost meditative. I paid attention to my laundry -- the pillowcases with the hand-crocheted trim that my friend made for me; the comfy pants that I wore almost every day at the beach; the tablecloth we used for our outdoor brunch yesterday; my favorite pajamas. Usually, I just toss it all in the dryer without a second, or first, thought. But this little act of hanging up the wash was an occasion for thanksgiving, for the clothes I have, for the remembrances of friends and good times, for awareness of the warmth of the sun and the blue of the sky.
I know that, in many places, a clothesline is a necessity and a chore, something that takes time and energy: lugging the wet clothes out, hoping that it will not rain, washing and hanging and folding enough clothes for a whole family, and then doing it all over again the next week. For me, though, it feels like a little luxury, something unnecessary, almost frivolous, indulging my memories of childhood, and simpler times and places where the sheets smelled like sunshine.
And as we approach September 11, I find myself wondering where we would all be if the President had urged us to hang out our laundry instead of telling us to hang out at the mall and shop. Maybe we would have come sooner to an awareness of the need to conserve energy, to live closer to the land in our own ways, to give thanks for the small goodnesses of life. Instead, we got bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger mortgages, bigger national debt, and bigger conflict. Is my clothesline a life-line? I don't know. Does it make much difference in the world? No, of course not. But a million of them might. And as Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “You are not required to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

August 10, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Question of Identity

Matthew 14:22-33

When Jesus was in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, he faced three tests (Matthew 4:1-11). All three were fundamental questions about who he was and how he would use his power – in other words, they were questions of identity. In fact, in the first two temptations, the devil began by saying “If you are the Son of God…” It was as though he was demanding of Jesus, “If you are who you think you are, then prove it to me by doing what I ask.” Isn’t it interesting that Peter made the same demand when Jesus came walking on the water to the disciples in the battered boat? “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Jesus had already told them that it was him, but Peter seemed to need proof.

But I wonder if Peter was questioning Jesus’ identity, or his own. Peter asked Jesus to give him the same power Jesus had; Peter asked to walk on water. And, while Jesus refused the devil’s test, he complied with Peter’s demand. I think that is because, in the wilderness, the test had to do with Jesus’ identify; on the water, the test was about how Peter was.

As with Jesus in the wilderness, Peter was in a dangerous, life-threatening, life-altering place, the kind of place where one comes face to face with questions of survival, survival both of body and of soul. In the wilderness, Jesus and the devil both seemed to know that he had the power to do whatever he wanted. The question was how he would use that power, whether in service to others as God intended…. or, as the devil demanded, in self-serving ways. On the sea in the storm, Peter wanted the power that he saw in Jesus, and Jesus granted him that power. But it was a self-serving power that Peter craved, a power that could not be sustained when he became distracted by where he was and what he was doing rather than keeping his focus on Jesus.

What happened in the storm on the sea, as in the wilderness, was a question of identity, but this time, it was Peter whose identity was in question. In giving in to temptation born of fear, Peter demanded the power of Jesus. He wanted to do what Jesus did. He wanted to be like Jesus. But Peter was called to be himself. It is as the wise old Rabbi Zusya once said, "When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead, he will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" Jesus did not want Peter to be Jesus; he only wanted him to be Peter – fully and completely who God intended him to be.

The psalmist writes: “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (Psalm 57:2). On the water, Peter cried out to be saved, and he was. Maybe in that moment, he began to understand God’s purpose for his life. And here is a holy irony: when Peter began to live his own identity, his own ministry, his own life – instead of wanting to do what Jesus was doing -- then he began to become more like Jesus.

And, in truth, maybe we are all more like Peter than we ever know or want to admit. Maybe we all find it easier and more appealing to be like someone else, instead of living into the fullness of who we ourselves are. So for us, the question of identity has already been answered, answered by God. All we have to do is be the persons God intends. And in becoming fully like ourselves, we will become like Christ.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

August 1, 2008

Back from vacation

The Lord is my shepherd -- I shall not want.
He makes me lie down on sandy beaches;
He leads me beside crashing waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in unmarked paths along the shore and all is right.
Even as we tiptoe through the valley of the shadow of death, saddened by loss and worried about what is to come, You comfort us and we are not alone.

You prepare a table for me, and those I love most are gathered around it. We eat and we laugh and we are blessed with overflowing abundance.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord -- which is the whole of the world -- forever.

photo of Charlie's rainbow on Topsail Island
by Jane Highsmith

June 29, 2008

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sacrifice or Offering?

Genesis 2:1-14
Matthew 10:37-42

The story of Abraham raises a hundred questions for me, and I do not have the answers to any of them. It isn’t so much that it is hard to understand what happens; the difficulty I have is understanding why. Why would a father be willing to sacrifice the son he has been waiting for his whole life? Why would he go without question to a distant mountain, take the time to build an altar – not an easy or short task – presumably have his son help him with that job, and then prepare to offer that same son as a burnt offering? Why?

And I have to wonder about Isaac, too -- Isaac who asks the single question: Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? – and then is not heard to speak again in this story and very little in the rest of the record of scripture. It is as though the implicit answer to his question, that he is the lamb, shocks him into silence. I don’t understand why he didn’t try to run, why he didn’t resist, why he didn’t argue, why he didn’t try to save his own life.

That the story is told in such a flat, factual, and unemotional tone is even more horrifying. “When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22:9-10) I want to know what lies behind these words that are presented in a manner so straight-forward and matter-of- fact, but are so unbelievably terrible. Did Isaac struggle? Did Abraham try to explain himself? Did he weep? Were his hands shaking? Was his soul screaming in protest even as his body carried out what he thought God was commanding? The story is silent.

Biblical scholars and others have worked for centuries to understand and rationalize the story. But in the end, what we are left with is a father raising a knife over his bound child. If this is the definition of the kind of sacrifice that God requires, I am not interested. It is asking too much, more than I am willing even to contemplate.

And the larger set of questions has to do, not with why Abraham did what he did, but rather why God did what God did. Why did God test Abraham in this way? It seems too hard, not the kind of God I want in my life. So I have been thinking about what it is that God requires of us in light of the story about God and Abraham – doing my own rationalizing, I suppose. What kind of sacrifice does God demand of us?

The dictionary defines sacrifice as “the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” That’s a fine definition, I suppose, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. To me, sacrifice implies something involuntary. When you sacrifice, you give up something precious to you, you give up something you wish to keep, and you do it because it seems you have no other choice.

For example, parents sacrifice for their kids, right? They give up sleeping through the night, having a quiet dinner for two, taking grown-up vacations. They give up their privacy, their freedom and their money – all valuable things that certainly they might rather have for themselves if only it were possible. But to raise their children and respond to their children’s needs and pay for college and do all that, they must sacrifice. In many families, the sacrifice is done in a loving and willing way, but not always. So, to me a sacrifice has a kind of involuntary component.

A sacrifice can also be a way to prove oneself: If you really loved me you would -- fill in the blank: give up smoking, change jobs, study harder, let me have this thing that I want. You sacrifice to show your commitment, loyalty, love, devotion. You give up something because it demonstrates how much you care about something else.

That’s kind of how I think of sacrifice – involuntarily relinquishing something precious and doing it to prove a point. And it seems, on the surface, that this is exactly what God asked of Abraham: Give up the most precious thing in your life. Surrender your son, your Laughter. And do it to pass my test of faithfulness.

I confess that I cannot accept that this is how God acts. I cannot understand how an all-loving God would demand this kind of wrenching sacrifice as a test of loyalty. So I wonder if maybe what God wants from us is not sacrifice so much as offering. Is there a difference? I think there is. When I hear the word offering, I think of something given voluntarily, not coerced. I think of generosity and freedom.

But there is a kind of shadow side to offering as well. An offering is often a form of bargaining, isn’t it? You make an offer on a house, you make your best offer for a used car, companies have offerings of stock. If sacrifice implies an involuntary act, offering seems exactly the opposite – something completely voluntary, something that I decide to make available or give up, but I do it in order to get something in exchange. The location of coercion shifts. You know: Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.

You know how this works. You say to God: “If you will just help me out of the jam, cure my friend, get me this job, whatever, I’ll go to church every Sunday, I’ll put money in the plate, I’ll read my Bible and pray every day.” We seek to shape God’s behavior, earn God’s love, by the good deeds we offer up.

And in the end, it seems to me that neither sacrifice nor offering governs the kind of relationship God is ultimately calling us to enter. That relationship must be based on an acceptance of the complete and incomprehensible sovereignty of God. For all our brilliance and ability, we can never know the mind of God. The prophet Isaiah had it right: “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is the one who tests and provides, the one who demands and delivers, the one who always acts in love, even when that love is too terrible for us to contemplate.

But where does this leave us? Do we blindly follow the kind of commands that make every fiber of our being rise up in horror and dread? Do we go through the motions with an arrogant self-confidence that God will bail us out in the end? Do we become bitter in our losses or try to bargain for what it is we think we want?

Where I come out on this is that what God desires from us is neither sacrifice not offering but rather gift. That is how God is in relationship to us, and how we are to be in relationship to God. When you come right down to it, everything we have and everything we are – everything – is a gift from God. How would it be to live your life with that same kind of holy generosity, to live as though you yourself were a gift from God and a gift to God?

It’s not as easy as it sounds, you know. "Gift" means that we give everything, freely and fully, expecting nothing in return. No coercion, no bargaining, no strings attached. For Abraham that meant being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Isaac who was the living sign of God’s promise, to show that he trusted completely, not in the evidence of the promise – the child – but in the promise itself. For Jesus, it meant letting go of the knowledge of God’s presence at the end and clinging only to the hope that God might still be listening. For the disciples, it meant leaving behind home and family, giving up everything that was familiar, to follow the call of Christ, to live in and with the reality of God-with-us, Emmanuel.

And how about you? What is it that you have come to cherish because it is for you the symbol of God’s love? Are you willing to imagine giving up the symbol for the substance? What would it mean for you to live as though you were both gift and giver?

The God who has withheld nothing from us, not even God’s only son, calls us to live in radical obedience, to follow Christ, to give all that we have and all that we are – not as a sign of sacrifice or an exchange of offerings, but only as a free and faithful expression of love.

That’s all. That’s everything.

God only asks of you what you have to give, which is your life. And you have to be willing to lose your life in order to find it. You have to be willing to give your life to God as a gift in order to find the gift that God would make of you.

And may God grant all of us the grace to be this gift. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

June 24, 2008

This Week's Bounty

My half-share from the CSA this week includes swiss chard, a bunch of scallions, two tender yellow squash, lettuce, and... garlic scapes. I have never cooked or eaten the scapes, but I will make a "from scratch" hummus with them, and if there are left-overs, I'll do a pesto. The vegetables are so beautiful, and it is wonderful to receive this bounty as a kind of weekly surprise. It feeds my body with goodness, it feeds my soul by connecting me in a much more direct way to the kind of farming life that was my growing up, and it feeds my spirit by stretching me to be creative and thoughtful about what I cook and eat. Last week, I made stuffed cabbage: pale and lovely Napa cabbage bundles filled with onions, mushrooms, garlic, carrots, herbs, and tofu -- so good!
I'll let you know how the scapes turn out.

June 23, 2008

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

An Undivided Heart
Psalm 86
Philippians 2:1-8
Matthew 10:24-39

It’s official: as of yesterday, it is summertime. You know, when the living is supposed to be easy. That may – or may not – be true in your world, but certainly here there is nothing easy about today’s gospel. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, and when that happens, remember this: if you love your family more than you love me, then you are not worthy of me.” No, nothing easy about this. What is going on here?

Here is the context of what Jesus is saying. He has just sent his disciples out on their own. It would not have been an easy mission. There was hostility and skepticism about him and his followers. It seemed to many that he thumbed his nose at the religious establishment. He broke the rules. He hung out with the wrong kind of people and now he had gathered up a whole bunch of others who were doing the same things. They went in the power of his love and that power enabled them to do the kinds of things he did.

But he wants them to know that it will not always be this way. They will not always have success; they will not always find a welcome. If they are looking for a life of peace and ease, this will not be it. The sword that he talks of will slice through their lives, cutting out the old ways like a surgeon cuts out a cancer, even if those old ways include love and loyalty, people to whom they have grown attached. If they want to follow him, Jesus seems to say, they have to choose. They cannot follow him if their heart is divided, if their love is parceled out, a little over here for family and friends, a little over here for God. They have to decide. That is perhaps why Jesus speaks of bringing a sword. In the Greek of the day, the word we translate as “decide,” krinos, means to cut through, to separate. The sword Jesus brings is the sword of decision.

On its face, at least, the decision-making is simple, isn’t it? Just cut out loving and desiring anything that is not God. Simple to say, but it seems impossible to do. It runs counter to almost everything we have been taught to believe, doesn’t it? Certainly that bit about honor your father and mother. But we’ve also been taught to believe that we can have it all, that there are infinite possibilities and we don’t need to make any difficult choices.
It is easy in a place like this to feel entitled to that kind of freedom. But I wonder if it really is freedom. I see a lot of people who are pretty frantic with the effort of trying to have it all:

Trying to have a brilliant career and a close and loving family;
Trying to get ahead at work by putting in long hours and also maintaining a social life and an active network of friends and volunteering for worthy causes;
Trying to have all the latest gadgets and toys even if it means maxing out the credit cards;
Trying to be active in Dwight Hall, participate in a singing group, play a sport and make Phi Beta Kappa.

It doesn’t sound like freedom, does it? And Jesus’ words cut through the accumulated obligations of our lives and it is as though he says to us: none of that stuff really matters anyway. All the things you think are important are nothing. The only thing that matters is loving me. You just have to decide.

And if this was hard for his first disciples, when he stood before them, spoke with them face to face, taught them, touched them and ate with them, how much more difficult is it for a world who has not seen him in 2000 years. Plus, our lives are infinitely more complex than theirs, filled with distractions, debts, duties, to-do lists a mile long. How do we get our arms around what Jesus is telling us? How do we embrace this hard saying? Don’t get excited; I’m not going to tell you anything that will make it any easier, but I am going to try to open up a bit of the meaning of this teaching.

Do you recall Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees (Matthew 22:34-40)? They were seeking to test him and catch him in a public blasphemy that they could use to discredit his ministry and demoralize his followers. They came to him and asked him which was the greatest commandment? It was a trick question because there are many great commandments. Even if you narrowed them down, you’d probably still count at least ten. But Jesus took all of those ancient instructions and summed them up like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. This,” he said, “is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is just like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In other words, all love begins with the love of God. That is to be first and foremost. But this kind of love is not disembodied. The true and wholehearted love of God is always grounded in the context of this world. If we do not love those whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:19-21)? How can we love one another if we do not love our own self? And how can we truly love our self if we do not love others?

So how do we go about this, doing as Jesus teaches, loving God with our all of our heart?
Well, for one thing, we seek the strength of community. On Sunday, you know, you can stay home and read your bible, Google a sermon, and hum a hymn all by yourself, but it isn’t the same as coming here and being together, is it? We need each other. Dietrich Bonheoffer said “I need my brother to speak the word of Christ to me, because the Christ in my brother is stronger than the Christ in me.” Being a Christian is not something we can do solo. To be Christian is to be part of the body of Christ. And it is in the body, the church, with each other, that we find the strength to love as Jesus loved.

And that kind of love, loving God with a whole heart, means that we take seriously our own calling. Every Christian has one. We are all called to ministry – not just those who go to seminary and become pastors. You may not know what your calling is but God does. Have you ever heard about the practice of sealed orders? As a way of protecting the integrity and safety of a voyage, a ship’s captain would receive an envelope that was not to be opened until the ship was at sea. When the contents were revealed, then the captain would have instructions for the journey. Some people believe that each one of us has our own sealed orders, holy orders from God, and the work of our lives is to discover what they are, to come to the place where the instructions for our own journey are revealed. That revelation is the result of discernment -- prayer and listening and faithfulness. It is finding out what God means us to do, who God means us to be. It is understanding the ministry to which God would have us give our heart, our whole heart.

And, finally, in order to love as God loves, we must honor our origins. I think it is easy to forget that humankind was created in the image of God. When we remember and honor that, we start to know what it is to be Christ-like. As Paul put it: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” (Philippians 2:3-6).

And what exactly would it mean to have the same mind in us that was in Christ, to live out the imago Dei that is in each of us? It would mean learning to love the world as God loves. God watches over those who are so numerous as to be almost invisible, those who are lowly and worthless in the eyes of the world. God’s eye is on the sparrow, on the least and the last and the lost. And if we are to love God, then our eyes must be opened to see the preciousness of everyone, not just those who are near and dear to us. There is to be no hierarchy of love, no division within our hearts. Is this easy? No. So we come here to be together, we pray and listen for our own calling, and we remember that we are the reflection of God’s love in the world.

And we take heart in this: the God who watches over the sparrow is always watching over us, in love and tenderness and mercy and grace -- whole-heartedly watching.
And we are called to do the same: to keep our eyes on God so that we can see the world – the whole world –with the radical, inclusive love that comes forth from an undivided heart.

May it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

June 11, 2008

A Half Share of Produce, A Full Share of Life

This year, I signed up for one of the local Community Supported Agriculture projects, Holcomb Farm. This was the first week. My half share included a bunch of white salad turnips, two green garlics, a lovely lettuce, and two heads of pak choi. Tonight I made supper from this wonderful harvest. I sliced the turnips in halves and quarters, tossed them with olive oil and sea salt, and roasted them (450 for 10 minutes, turn, another 5 minutes or so). I sautéed the turnip greens with olive oil and added the green garlic with lots of the green scapes, also sautéed. I had a bit of good bread leftover from dinner last night, contributed by a friend, and a slice of cherry upside down cake made with fresh cherries, from another friend. It was so good, this food from the earth, from my friends. It was like eating summertime. Tomorrow, I will have a salad with the tender green lettuce. Or I will steam the pak choi and sprinkle it with soy Parmesan cheese. And next week, there will be more vegetables and maybe even some strawberries.

Taking part in a CSA is like real life somehow – often good, a bit unpredictable, not something that can be easily planned, but challenging and surprising, pushing you to try things you never even imagined or knew existed. So I will not plan my menus this summer but will instead take what comes and do the best I can with it. I imagine there will be things that I like a lot (pak choi) and others that I don’t much care for (fennel), but it will all be nourishing and I will give thanks for it.

I will do this with my half share of produce – and with my full share of life.

May 30, 2008


Today is a celebration for me. It is the sixth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. That means six years of "free" time, six years of life, six years of overflowing abundance. This will sound odd to some, but I am so thankful for my cancer, in part because it has shown me how precious the people in my life are, how wonderful the world is, and how much love surrounds me. In life before cancer, it was all too easy to take for granted all the wonder that supports and enfolds me. Now I know that I live a rare and valuable life. All that has happened has been gift and grace. And today I celebrated by remembering all the care that came my way in those early days of diagnosis, surgery, surgery, surgery, surgery, and treatment. I celebrated by giving thanks for all those, known and unknown who tended to and cared for me. I celebrated by planting many flowers in my garden, by cooking a lovely supper, and by saying "I love you" to at least some of the people who are dear to me.
It was a good day -- but then aren't they all? Thank God!

May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

The First -- and Last -- Word
Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
Psalm 8
Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning when God began to create the world, God did that work by speaking the world into being. Have you ever noticed this?

“God said, let there be light” and there was light. “God said, let the dry land appear” and it did. “God said, let us make human kind in our own image” and man and woman came into being.

Where there was absolutely nothing, or so it seemed, there was this word from God calling forth everything, the heavens and the earth, all living beings -- you and me. What power was contained in those words!

But that was then and this is now, and whenever the beginning happened, and who really knows, it was a long time ago. And if we are honest about it, God’s ability to speak a new creation into being seems to us like a fairytale, a myth, something that might have happened once upon a time in a faraway place but just seems impossible now.
It is hard to see how God’s word still brings a new world into being. After all, the old world seems pretty entrenched. And we are awash in words, even if they aren’t from God. Billboards fly past us on the highway full of words, the radio is on, the television is on pouring words into the air around us. Our computers have made words ever present, instantaneously transmissible, plentiful and cheap.

It might be that we have minimized the impact of words by their proliferation, but I wonder. I think there is still great power in the words we speak - life-changing, life-creating power. Just consider the impact of these words:

I love you.
Congratulations, you have been admitted.
Will you marry me?
You have cancer.
You’re having twins.

In the instant those words are spoken, someone’s life is changed forever, recreated on the spot. And if there is such power in our words -- we who are human, only human -- then how much more so is there power in God’s words.

You know, we think of the Bible as the word of God and so it is. But is the Bible the record of all God has ever had to say to the world? Is this it from beginning to end, all done, so to speak? Has God fallen silent? Is the bible the last word that God spoke? I don’t think so. I think God is still speaking a powerful creative word in our world. But I think it is harder for the world to hear that word now than it was in the beginning when there was nothing. We are surrounded by distractions and noise, by conflict and war, by death and destruction, and all that makes it hard for us to hear the eternal word that still dwells among us.

The poet, T.S. Elliot, understood this dilemma:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise
and deny the voice

(T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” The Waste Land and Other Poems.
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: New York, 1962, p 64)

Well, we will never have enough silence, will we, and no question about it, we walk among noise. Do we also avoid the face, as Eliot says? Do we allow our rejoicing to be drowned out by the world’s noise? Do we deny the voice?

It does not have to be this way. Let me suggest one approach to hearing the word of God’s creative voice. In the Hebrew, “word” is dabar. And while dabar is usually translated as word, it also has the meaning of an action or a thing. I think that is how we can hear God in our world, through actions and things.

When someone shows us an unexpected kindness; when people reach across racial and cultural lines to offer aid and assistance; when the pain of another’s loss becomes our pain; when we pray and give and work and act on behalf of the world, all of that is the word of God. And when we take the things of the earth – bread and wine, water and oil -- and celebrate God’s presence through them, that also is God’s word.

We are surrounded by the power and presence of God’s word, but these days, that word may not be so likely to come as a clear and unmistakable voice in our ear. Instead, listen for the word in the actions of the faithful. Listen for it in sacramental love. Expect God to speak in unexpected ways, like out of the mouths of little ones. The psalmist says that it is out of the mouths of babes and infants that God builds a fortress against all that would attack our faith, our belief, our sense of the presence of God.

Think about that for a minute. When we baptize these twin boys this morning, these little babies are speaking God’s word to us. Here they are, created out of nothing, nothing except love, and it is through them that God can speak to us of love. It is their gurgling and cooing and crying and babbling that somehow can keep the enemies of God at bay. They are, after all made in the image of God -- and so are we all.

You are made in the image of God. You are God’s reflection in the world. And you are a word spoken by God. You have in you the potential to be life changing, life creating. You have the potential to bring into being the goodness that God intends for our world. You have the power to speak God’s word in the word. Claim that power and act God does: loving, creating, transforming, bringing light and life to the dark and dead places.

And here is the last word from God, or perhaps I should say the lasting word. It comes to us from Jesus, the one who is also called the Word, the eternal Logos. His last word to his disciples -- then and now -- is this: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Dear friends, this is the good news of the gospel. Believe it, trust it, and let your life speak it.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

May 14, 2008


I watch this terrible, terrible news from China -- we all do. It is so hard to see but harder still to hear. These are families who have put all their hopes into one child, and now that child is lying dead outside his (and yes, most of them are boys) school, or worse yet, buried under rubble. The mothers wail in an almost unbearable cry. And I know it doesn't quite apply, but all I can think of is Rachel weeping over her children and she would not be comforted because they were no more. It breaks my heart.

April 15, 2008

Easter 3

On the Road
Acts 2:14a; 36-41
Luke 24:13-35

It is often the case that, when a woman appears in the scripture, she is not named. Of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, one is named and the other is not. I can imagine that unnamed disciple as a woman. And I also think that because the second disciple is not named, that person might be us. Somehow we are invited into this story. Somehow we, too, are on the road. So reflect on me with this story, of how it might have been then – and how it might be even now.


I hardly know where to begin to tell you this story, so I guess I’ll just start in the middle of it -- when Cleopas and I were on the road. We were going back to Emmaus, leaving Jerusalem. There was nothing for us there anymore, no reason to stay, no future really, so we were giving up, going back to the old way of life.

It had been awful, just awful. More horrible than anything I have ever seen before, or since. Jesus, crucified, dying a terrible death. I had been there with the others; I watched the whole thing. And then there was the news we had heard only that morning, from the other women who had been to his tomb. I didn’t go; I didn’t think I could bear to see his poor dead body again. But the women who went came back saying that they had seen angels, that his body was not there. For me, this was beyond belief and, quite honestly, it was like insult added to injury. First he was killed and then his body was gone.

With something so bad as all of this, you would think we would have just wanted to forget the whole thing. But it seems it is human nature to need to talk through terrible things. That’s what we were doing on the road – that long and lonely road -- talking through it, going over and over it, trying to figure it out.

We had so many questions. How could it have gone so wrong? How could the crowd have turned on him that way? Why did Judas do it? And wasn’t there something we could have done, should have done?

We walked and we talked, pouring out our grief and guilt to each other. I felt so heartbroken that I could barely pay attention to anybody else on the road. So when one of the other travelers fell in with us, I hardly even noticed. He walked alongside us, eavesdropping I suppose, because after a bit he asked us what we were discussing. Cleopas turned to him and said, “You’re coming from Jerusalem. Are you the only person who’s been in that city who hasn’t heard about the things that have happened?” Well, apparently he hadn’t.

So Cleopas and I told him all about Jesus. Seems strange now looking back on it, us telling him about Jesus, but it wasn’t strange then. We told him how Jesus was a prophet mighty in word and deed and how we had hoped, oh how we had hoped, that he would be the one to redeem Israel, to save us. We told him how our hopes were as dead as our Lord – dead and buried and gone. And we told him the unbelievable tale from our friends, that he wasn’t in the tomb anymore.

The stranger listened to us and then he said an odd thing that I didn’t really understand at the time. He told us that we were foolish. He said something about our being slow of heart. And then he began to explain to us about the Messiah, opening the scripture for us. He went all the way back to the beginning, to Moses, and then all the prophets, explaining how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die and then to enter into his glory.

I listened and I began to feel a flicker of hope, my heart warming a little as he talked. Maybe, just maybe, it was true. Maybe it was not over. He seemed to know, and listening to him, I could almost believe it, too.

Well, we were so intent on what he was saying that we reached our village in no time. But the stranger seemed to be traveling on, like a man with a long journey ahead of him. I couldn’t bear to see him go and we begged him to come and stay with us. He agreed and we took him home.

We were tired, worn out with grief and despair, exhausted from all the activity in Jerusalem, and it was late, but we had a guest. So we began to prepare a meal. Cleopas made a little fire, and I unpacked our bags from Jerusalem, laying out some cheese and dried fruit, a small container of wine. And then when the fire was going, I got out the flour and a little oil to make some cakes of unleavened bread. And that simple ordinary act almost overwhelmed me with grief, because I remembered being in the kitchen near that upper room and mixing the unleavened bread for another supper, the supper that turned out to be the last one. It all came flooding back to me and I think I must have salted the dough with my tears. But there was hospitality to be offered and so I set aside my feelings and brought the meal to the table.

The three of us gathered there to eat, and then the most amazing thing happened. Our guest became the host. He took the bread, the bread that I had made, and began to say the blessing: “Baruch et ta adonia elahaynu melech ha olam ha motzi lechem mean ha aretz.”

And as he broke the bread to give it to us, I saw, I knew. He was holding my bread in his ruined hands, and my eyes were opened. I remembered what he had said the last time he held my bread like that. “This is my body broken for you, do this and remember me”. I wasn’t at the table that time, I was watching from the door, but I saw, I heard, and this was no different.

It was, somehow, his own life that he was holding out to us -- blessed and broken and given away. It was true. It was the kind of thing that was impossible to believe, and at the same time impossible not to believe. It was true, he was alive, in a different way, a new way, but alive.

And I have to say, I think the same thing was true for me. In that moment I was alive in a different way. I saw him holding my bread and it was as though he had taken hold of my own life. I received his blessing. And when he held that broken bread, it was as though he laid his hands on my broken heart. His life was given to us just as the bread was, and I knew in that moment that it must be the same with us. Our lives must be given away, too. We were to become bread for a hungry world..

Well, he was gone, all too soon, but somehow our grief had vanished, too. It was late, it was dark but there was no question about what we would do. We got up and went back to Jerusalem. We found the eleven and all the rest of our companions, and they were telling similar stories, that he was alive. And we told them how he had been with us on the road, how he had opened the scripture, and how he had been known to us in the breaking of the bread.

And that’s the end of my story. But, to tell you the truth, this story doesn’t have an end. It goes on and on because he goes on and on. He is alive. And he will be made known. This is a promise. And the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far away, all whom God calls.

This is the promise:

Wherever two or three offer what they have to a stranger, he is there. Wherever broken-hearted friends seek to comfort each other, he is there. Wherever life is hopeless and the road is long and lonely and dark, he is there. Wherever the Word is opened and bread is broken and lives are shared, he is there. Wherever his friends gather around the table in faith and love, he is there.

He is alive. It is true. He is alive and he is here.

April 12, 2008

Lead me not into temptation

I have been working to simplify things. I have too much stuff and everywhere there is the push to accumulate more. So I have been trying to avoid temptation by stopping the catalogs that come unbidden into my house. There is a web site that allows you to opt out. So far, have 114 on my "do not send" list. Need I say more....

March 23, 2008


Easter Expectations
Matthew 28:1-10

We come to Easter worship expecting the ringing of bells, the scent of lilies, the sound of brass and organ and choir, bright banners and joyful music – and we are not disappointed. It is a celebration! And it isn’t just at church. At home there might be colored eggs and chocolate bunnies and perhaps a special brunch or dinner planned for later today. It is still early in the year but spring did arrive officially on Thursday and you can feel the promise of new life – bulbs popping up, more hours of daylight, robins returning. We rejoice, and it seems that even the earth itself joins in. Our Easter is a joyful occasion and that is why we come this morning – to celebrate that joy. That is what we expect.

But in truth, Easter defies any ordinary expectations. Certainly the first Easter did. The women came to the tomb expecting it to be sealed, expecting to express their grief in the place where Jesus had been buried. They did not expect an earthquake, they did not expect the stone to be rolled away, they certainly did not expect an angel saying, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

They probably should have expected this, though, shouldn’t they? After all, as the holy messenger reminded them, Jesus himself had told them it would happen. And probably even before the angel instructed them to “Go and tell,” they were on their way -- hurrying, running, stumbling. They were terrified by what had happened and, at the same time, they were overjoyed by the possibility of what might yet be.

And then, the thing they least expected – they met Jesus himself. And his words spoke directly to their fear and their joy. “Greetings,” he said – although a more accurate translation of the Greek might be Rejoice! “Rejoice,” he said, and then he added: “Do not be afraid.”

Rather than being paralyzed by their fear, they were to go and tell. And this would be possible because he would be going ahead of them. He was sending them all to Galilee. Instead of remaining in Jerusalem where it all seemed to end, they were to go back to Galilee where it all began. They were to go there and pick up where he left off – that is what he expected of them. They were to go to the place where he taught and touched and healed, where he showed the power of God’s love, where he pushed the limits of conventional religion until it stretched so wide that everyone was included. They were to go back to Galilee and take up that same work – preaching, teaching, healing, touching, loving, including – inviting everyone into this new way of life that he had lived among them.

It would not be easy. They knew full well what had happened to him – these women who had remained at the cross, who had stood by him to the end – or at least what had seemed like the end. They must have known how hard it would be to do what he said. But there he was, right in front of them, giving them a set of new commandments, telling them what he expected of them: “Rejoice, do not be afraid. Go and tell, and I am going ahead of you.” And suddenly all of their expectations were transformed and everything was possible again. They could change the world, because he had changed everything.

Well. That was then and this is now. And how about you? What is it that you expect, really expect? Do you expect to change the world? Have you come here excepting to meet the risen Christ?

If not, take comfort that those women in Jerusalem didn’t expect that either, at least not at first. But there he was, alive somehow, and calling them into a new life, too. There he was, God’s eternal “yes” spoken to the “no” that the world tried to say at the cross.

And the world is still trying to say “no” to God’s power and life-giving love. But God will not be silenced; God is still speaking an eternal, resurrection “yes.” It is still happening, because Christ is alive! We sing it; we say it; let us believe it and live it, too.

And what would it be like to meet him these days? Where would you expect to find him? He himself has told us: he is the hungry and homeless one with no warm jacket to wear on a cold spring day; he is the one who is thirsty for love, a stranger who is lonely and far from home; he is sick or in prison and scared (Matthew 25:35-36). He still wears the face of humankind.

And just as he did then, he is sending us to Galilee, our Galilee, to the place of ministry and service. We are to engage in the same work he did – preaching, teaching, healing, touching, loving, including – inviting everyone into a new way of life.

And what he expects of us is that we embrace joy. He expects us to live without fear even in the midst of a dangerous and uncertain world. He expects us to go and tell, to speak a word of faith, to speak God’s word of “yes,” with our very lives.

That is what he expects of us, and here is what we can expect of him. Wherever we go, wherever we are called, whatever we do in faith, he has gone ahead of us and he is there, waiting to walk with us in our own discipleship.

So remember his Easter commandment: Rejoice and do not be afraid. Be joyful; as the poet has said, be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts (Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front). Live without fear and expect to meet Jesus in the midst of our weary and wounded world. Because that is where he is, and he is waiting for us to join him. He is expecting us.

Rejoice and do not be afraid. Go and tell! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! He lives! And remember this: he is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20b).

(c) Martha C. Highsmith