December 31, 2010

Godly whiffs....

A conversation in an old book, between a vicar and a young woman, told in her words:

“How the intelligent young do fight shy of the mention of God! It makes them feel both bored and superior.”

I tried to explain: “Well, once you stop believing in an old gentleman with a beard …. It’s only the word God, you know – it makes such a conventional noise.”

It’s merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

“And do religious people find out what it’s all about? Do they really get the answer to the riddle?”

“They get just a whiff of an answer sometimes. …..If an – well, unreligious person, needed consolation from religion, I’d advise him or her to sit in an empty church. Sit, not kneel. And listen, not pray. Prayer’s a very tricky business.”

“Goodness, is it?”

“Well, for inexperienced pray-ers it sometimes is. You see, they’re apt to think of God as a slot-machine. If nothing comes out they say ‘I knew dashed well it was empty’ – when the whole secret of prayer is knowing the machine is full.”

“But how can one know?”

“By filling it oneself.”

“With faith?”

“With faith. I expect you find that another boring word. And I warn you this slot-machine metaphor is going to break down at any moment. But if ever you’re feeling very unhappy…. well, try sitting in an empty church.”

“And listening for a whiff?”

We both laughed and then he said that it was just as reasonable to talk of smelling or tasting God as of seeing or hearing Him. “If one ever has any luck, one will know with all one’s senses – and none of them. Probably as good a way as any of describing it is that we shall ‘come over all queer.’”

“But haven’t you already?”

He sighed and said the whiffs were few and far between. “But the memory of them everlasting,” he added softly.

from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, pp 234-5

December 28, 2010

At the Mall

I usually try to avoid going to the mall to shop during the days before Christmas. This year, I needed one thing that I could only buy there so off I went. After about 20 minutes or so, I found a parking spot and entered the fray. The mall was full of folks, some old men sitting on the communal couches, waiting with packages piled around them, teenagers roving in groups, some smiling and laughing but most wandering around with blank stares. As I joined the crowd, I had the unbidden thought: “What in the world would Jesus think of all this – all this consumerism and stress and lost expressions?” And then almost immediately, I heard in my heart these words of scripture: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9.36). And it was all right, there in the mall, in the midst of the mess of Christmas. God was with us: Emmanuel.

December 27, 2010

Christmas Eve

Through the Eyes of the Infant

Luke 2:1-20

This is one of the most beautiful nights of the year. We gather here to listen to this ancient story and we see the stable in our mind’s eye: Mary robed in blue looking peaceful and serene, Joseph standing by worried and protective, and the baby lying in a manger, fat and smiling and wrapped in sparkling white clothes.

That is our picture but it wasn’t that way at all. We are so used to the story that we miss its shocking reality. The child of God, this child who was God, came into the world in a place of muck and manure. When he opened his newborn eyes, he saw a rough stable, dimly lit at best, full of animals and their accumulated dirt and dust. The one who labored to bring him into the world was a poor unmarried peasant girl and his first visitors were common laborers, not accepted in polite society. Everything that baby laid his eyes on spoke of a world of bone-crushing hard work, struggles to survive, poverty and powerlessness.

And yet for all this hardship, that little baby saw love: the love of his earthly parents; the worship of the shepherds; even the much-maligned innkeeper who had provided a place, however crude, for him to be born. That little baby saw love and he was love, and maybe that is why we dress him up and clean up the stable and make Mary look beautiful in our manger scenes. After all God’s love is beautiful, isn’t it? And we want this most powerful sign of that love coming into the world to be beautiful too.

But the true beauty of God’s love, the great power of Christmas, is that God sees us as we really are – muck and all – and loves us anyway. And we understand the miracle of that love all the better because it comes to us, not as a king or an army or a judge, but as a baby.

We have little children in our family now, including a brand new baby. When F… arrived last month, his was a well-attended birth in a spotlessly clean place with expert medical care to ensure his safe arrival. There were no shepherds who came to visit, at least as far as I know, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the angels were singing because his birth was no less a miracle then the one we celebrate tonight.

Our new baby’s cousin just turned two years old. She has been hearing stories about the baby Jesus and paying close attention to these accounts of the young woman who brought forth her first-born son. W… has put two and two together and has come to the conclusion that new baby boy in our family must be the baby Jesus.

It is a sweet little confusion, isn’t it? Or at least that was my first reaction. But the more I’ve thought about it, I am reminded of the words of the palmist, “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” I think the two-year-old is on to something.

Just as Jesus was the son of God, the child of God, so is every baby born into this world. Every child is holy, and every child lays claim to our love and care just as the baby Jesus does. We are all made in the image of God, after all, and that godliness can seem stronger and clearer when we are fresh and new. Somehow as the years pile up, we make mistakes, act unkindly, live selfishly, we sin, and it becomes harder to see the image of God in each other. But it is still present – in all of us – no matter how young or how old. We are all children of God, with a holy DNA that shapes who we are and how we are to live. In this sense, W… is right about her new-born cousin. And it is true for all the rest of us too. We aren’t Jesus, but we are created to be Christ-like.

Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if we lived as though this were really true. It would change our behavior, I think, it would change everything, because we would all want to be seen as good and holy in the eyes of the infant and we would all see the world through that infant’s eyes.


There is an old story about a poor monastery somewhere, struggling to survive. No one was interested in being a monk anymore and there were only five old men left, trying to carry on and hold things together. At his wit’s end, one day the leader of the monastery, Brother David, went to visit the wise man who lived in the forest. He told his sad tale of the once beautiful monastery, with many brothers tending to the poor and doing good works – now falling down and about to come to an end. He begged the wise man for advice. But the wise old man had no easy answer to give. Instead he said to the old monk: “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

Brother David returned to the monastery without the help they had hoped for. He told his brothers what the wise old man had said, but none of them could figure out what it meant. “The Messiah is one of you.” So they went on with their daily business, doing the best they could, but they kept wondering about this. How could the Messiah be one of them? And if it was true, then which one?

It couldn’t be Brother Peter, could it? He was always in a bad mood before he had his second cup of coffee. It couldn’t be Brother James; he was forever falling asleep during prayers. It certainly wasn’t Brother John who would often go for a walk and get so distracted he would forget to do his work, which annoyed all the others. And Brother Luke scorched the oatmeal every single morning; he meant well but he just wasn’t very attentive. He didn’t seem likely to be the Messiah. And Brother David was a good and holy man, yes, but he was very, very old and that didn’t seem like one that God would choose to be the Messiah.

On the other hand, the monks had lived faithful and prayerful lives for a long time, and they knew that God often does surprising things. They knew that God could work through grumpy folks and distracted folks, and those who were tired or old or slow or inattentive. Maybe, just maybe, one of them really was the Messiah.

A curious thing began to happen at the old monastery. The way they saw each other and even the way they saw their own selves began to change. They began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

The whole place changed. Nearby neighbors and travelers from far away who stopped to rest at the monastery saw the change. Something special was happening and people began to want to be part of it. New brothers joined the old ones, the monastery grew, and its good works were a blessing to all. And all because they saw themselves and each other as the Messiah, as Christ-like, all because they saw through the eyes of the infant.


I do not know how the Messiah is present here tonight, but I do know that Christ is among us and within us and we, too, are God’s own children.

So this Christmas, may we see the world through the eyes of the infant, looking on each other as Jesus did, with compassion and love and forgiveness. And may we remember that we are all precious are in God’s eyes, even with our own faults and failings. Because just as the baby was born in the stable all those years ago, so Jesus still comes in the midst of the dirt and decay, the muck and mess of our own lives, looks on us with love, and watches over us all our days.

And when we see with the eyes of the infant, when we love as Jesus did, and live as the children of God that we are, we can change the world. And that is the true beauty of Christmas.


October 11, 2010

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Refugees, All of Us

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

Luke 17: 11-19

Our world is filled with refugees. The floods in Pakistan this summer left over 20% of that nation completely under water, including 17 million acres of the most fertile farmland. Twenty million people or more have been forced from their homes. Many of those will never be able to return. The devastation is beyond our comprehension. In Rwanda and the Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is war that has forced people to flee, leaving behind everything, trying to find a place of safety. In our own hemisphere, thousands of people in Haiti are still living in tents, if they have even that much shelter.

Yes, our world is filled with refugees. The physical toll and the emotional upheaval are awful. A million or more personal tragedies play themselves out every day, and for the most part we are protected from that. If we are forced from our homes, it is usually temporary – the power goes out or something like that. We don’t face the kind of hardships that so many others deal with every day of their lives. But I do think we experience our own kind of dislocation. Rather than physical, it is a kind of spiritual dislocation.

If you grew up in another time and place as I did, you were at home in a world where faith was central to life. On Sunday, people went to church; before meals and at bedtime they prayed; during the week they read the bible and did their best to act as it instructed. But we don’t live there anymore. We find ourselves in a very different kind of world. In a way, we have been exiled in place. Physically we have stayed put, but spiritually we have been moved away from God. Forces in our world beyond our control have pushed us to another way of life.

Those forces are, for the most part, not natural disasters or civil war. Instead they are things like a cultural fascination with material goods; the constant presence of technology that has the effect of distracting us from the present moment; economic disasters that require us to uproot our families in order to find work; illness that sends us into the land of medicine, and – take it from one who has been there -- that is indeed a foreign country.

It takes a lot of energy to live in exile, to live as refugees, and one reason for that is grief. Exile is a place of loss. Those in exile mourn a way of life that no longer exists except as a distant memory. They long to return to that place of familiarity, of home, but also know somehow that it will never be possible.

When God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to a people in exile, God spoke to their loss and their grief, to their dislocation. And the surprising word of God to those exiles came as a set of radical commands: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and raise children; encourage your children to marry and raise children.” In other words: “Settle down and settle in, put down roots, be fully and completely where you are, live your life in this place.”

These commands must have come like a splash of ice-cold water thrown in the faces of broken-hearted people who were longing for a return to their home in Jerusalem. God said, in essence, stop looking back. This is the life you have; start living it.

The people must have known somehow that the life they longed to return to no longer existed, if in fact it ever had. In exile, you know, we tend to idealize the past. Things were so much better back in the old days. Well, the old days had their own share of problems. And to become consumed in the present by a longing for things to be the way they once were is to lose sight of the way things are in the here and now. The other temptation in exile is to hope only for the future, to put things on hold and wait for life to get better.

But God calls the exiles to what one holy person has described as the sacrament of the present moment. The sacrament of the present moment is an attitude of heart that sees everything as holy, everything as sacred, and sees all that is present as holy and sacred. To live in the past, longing for a way of life that no longer exists, is to miss the blessing of today. To reach forward to a future that does not yet exist, always hoping for a time when things will be better, is also to miss the blessing of today. In fact, traditional Judaism sees that as arrogance — like picking God's pocket, taking that which does not yet belong to us.

It is easy for us to become consumed by the past or obsessed with the future because we are finite creatures, and we are bound by time. But there is another dimension to time, akin to the sacrament of the present moment, and that is what Paul Tillich called the “Eternal Now.” He wrote:

People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present. …. They are held by the past and cannot separate themselves from it, or they escape towards the future, unable to rest in the present.

This Eternal Now that Paul Tillich spoke of is where God dwells, and if we would dwell with God, that is how we must approach our lives as well. In the place of exile, when we find ourselves feeling like refugees from the present, it is easy to live in the past or long for the future. But instead, God tells us to build houses and plant gardens, to put down roots and settle in, to see the inherent blessing where we are and how we are.

And there is one more radical command from God: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray for it, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” In other words, it is not enough just to be where we are. We have to bind ourselves in prayer and practice to the well-being of our present location in time and space.

This congregation does seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you. You engage in ministry and social justice; you feed the hungry; you reach out to the poor and homeless; the very presence of this building in the heart of the city serves as a kind of physical testimony to Christ’s presence here. I think you know that we all benefit from a city that is vibrant, diverse, lively, and safe. You know that and you work for that outcome, for the welfare of this city.

But I think God might be challenging us to see our city as larger than Hartford. In reality, we live in a global city. The world is our neighborhood. And from our own place of spiritual dislocation, we are to seek the welfare of the world, to pray for it, to practice peace and justice and compassion with and for all peoples.

The floods in Pakistan drown our neighbors. The wars in Africa wound our children. The earthquakes in Haiti uproot our sisters and brothers. If the welfare of the world is in jeopardy, so is our own.

This may not be where we wanted to find ourselves. It is hard to put your energy into caring for others when you are worried about your own survival. And you do have to worry about that, if you are to be a responsible human being. Some here are concerned with the survival of this church; others are dealing with physical or financial survival; some with spiritual survival. But all of us probably experience some sense of dislocation; all of us are refugees of one kind or another. And here is the good news about our own exile. Sometimes it takes this dislocation to help us see what God is doing.

Jesus once encountered a group of exiles, ten lepers forced out of their homes, exiled from society, refugees on the move with no place to go. They cried out to him for mercy, for help. And he answered them with healing. But only one came back to say thank you. And that one was a Samaritan, the one who experienced a double dislocation – from his leprosy and his status as a religious outsider.

Maybe that dislocation prevented him from taking for granted Jesus’ intervention. Maybe his losses had attuned his heart to gratitude at the unexpected gift. Maybe he had lived with hardship so long he had given up thinking he deserved anything better, so the healing came as pure grace. The others, as they were healed, went back to the priest, and, implied in that action, returned to their old way of life. But the Samaritan did not. He turned instead to Jesus, with praise and thanksgiving, with a new understanding of the healing, saving power of faith.

There is blessing in exile. There is help and healing and home for refugees. Sometimes we are in a position to offer those gifts of God to others who are in need, and sometimes we ourselves are the ones in need. Either way, we are called to seek the welfare of our world, to be at home in our dislocation, and to give thanks to God for all God’s gifts.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble, in the time of now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

September 29, 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Welcome Table

Luke 14:1-14

There is an old spiritual with verses that start with these words:

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table, hallelujah!

I’m gonna feast on milk and honey, hallelujah!

I’m gonna tell God how you treat me, hallelujah!

All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah!

This song originated among those who believed that they were God’s honored guests,even though they were not welcome at the tables where they were. After all, Jesus himself was not exactly embraced with open arms at some of the dinner parties he attended. In today’s gospel story, the invitation to the meal at the house of the Pharisees was not motivated by welcome and hospitality so much as by wariness and hostility. In one of their most bitter condemnations of him, the Pharisees observed that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This was a serious matter. But Jesus did not seem to worry about who should be in and who should be out. No, he acted as if there was a place at the table for everyone and everyone was welcome there.

For the religious leaders of the day, this was more than they could stomach. What was the use of being in if no one was out? How could you consider yourself one of the haves if there were no have-nots? If love was not limited, how could the religious leaders have any special claim on it.

Well, Jesus had little patience for those kinds of views. As far as he was concerned, everybody was in, there should be no have-nots, and love, his love, could never be limited. Yes, as far as Jesus was concerned, unlike the Pharisees, everybody had a place at the table.

And maybe they could have coped with that. Maybe it would not have seemed too bad if Jesus had stuck to at least some of the rules of protocol. Maybe it would be okay for everyone to come the dinner as long as the really important people got to sit at the head table. But Jesus would not allow even that. He told them a parable, one that might be entitled “the humiliated guest”.

When you are invited to a fancy dinner party, he said to them, do not take it upon yourself to choose the best seat in the house because you might be embarrassed when the host comes and says “You have to move to the children’s table. Someone more important has arrived and needs to sit here.”

Jesus told them that it was better to seat yourself at the children’s table to start with than to presume on a seat of honor. Besides, there was always the chance that the host would relocate you to the head table.

And the teaching of the parable is this: Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, but everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. It is a kind of double reversal. Not only will the lowly be raised up, but also the high and mighty will be brought down.

I like to think that Jesus learned this teaching from his mother. After all, she proclaimed it before he did, before he was even born, in that wonderful song that is known in the church as the Magnificat. Listen to the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. … He has shown strength with his arm: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary knew from before the beginning that her boy-child would turn things upside down. His cousin John knew it, too. He proclaimed that this one would fulfill the ancient prophesy: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

The hungry fed and rich dismissed, the lowly lifted and the powerful dethroned, mountains leveled and valleys filled: This was the good news that Jesus would proclaim, did proclaim, the good news of the gospel. But whether it seems like good news to those who hear it might depend on where they sit. If you are used to sitting at the head table your whole life, you might have a hard time giving up your seat, especially for one you don’t think belongs at the dinner party in the first place. But remember Jesus’ teaching: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Pharisees heard this as a loss of privilege and status, and certainly it was. And I suppose they found all this even more offensive because it went hand in hand with the elevation of those they saw as unworthy. In their eyes, it must have seemed that their loss was another’s gain. But I don’t think it felt like that to Jesus. I think he was telling them something very different. I think he was saying to them: “You are all made in the image of God. You are all equal in the sight of your creator. “ Those who had placed themselves above others had forgotten this, and those who had been stuck at the bottom never had a chance to understand it. What Jesus was doing was bringing about equality: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These two groups shall find themselves face to face, equal in the sight of the world and in the sight of God, equal in the sight of each other.

That is what Jesus had in mind, I think, and it made folks down-right uncomfortable, at least the folks who were accustomed to the reserved seats. I suspect some of them would just as soon not even come to the table if they had to do it that way.

Whether it is the Pharisees of long ago, or the Pharisees of our own times, there have always been some who will not accept the invitation Jesus offers because it comes on his terms, not theirs. They are the ones who think they can be holier than the Lord – imagine that -- but what happens is that they are not holy at all. I suppose they think the party won’t happen without them. But this party goes on, no matter what, and what happens is that they end up missing the celebration altogether.

In the world where we live, a world dominated by the powerful and important, there are lot of little folks that seem to have no place. There are a lot of folks who seem to have missed out on the world’s celebrations. But they are the very ones for whom Jesus is saving seats at the table.At his table everyone will be welcome, and everyone will get the best seat. In the kingdom of God, the high and mighty and the low and least are made equal. It’s the gospel. And it really is good news.

And there is one more thing about this party that Jesus hosts. He doesn’t expect a return invitation. There is no obligation, no expectation of repayment. There is only grace, the free grace of God, unconditional love with no strings attached. And those who would live in the kingdom with him are supposed to entertain in the same way. “When you give a dinner,” he says”, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Not only does he want some seats saved for the least and the unlikely, but he also wants us to go out of our way to invite them to the table in the first place. Not because they can repay our hospitality – they can’t. Not because they deserve it – they don’t. But then, we don’t deserve it either and Jesus has welcomed us.

There are a lot ways to obey this commandment. You open your doors to any who would come. You minister to those who have no means of making any contribution to the church. You put a lot of effort into programs for a bunch of children, for heaven’s sake,who certainly aren’t putting anything much in the collection plate. This is the kingdom way. Everyone is equal, and the gift is free.

Now there are some that will think this doesn’t make any sense, and they will pay no attention to it. There are others who will throw up their hands in despair because what Jesus asks seems impossible. And there are some who will read this scripture and nod and smile and go away unchanged because they think this teaching of Jesus is just a nice story for church but not very useful anywhere else.

But every now and then, someone will take this teaching seriously. That is one of the things I love about being with you. You think the gospel is important. You act as though Jesus really meant what he said. You live as though the kingdom is coming.

You do this in church, but I think you also know that you don’t have to be in church to live this way. Sometimes the kingdom breaks through in the midst of everyday life. Sometimes the welcome table is spread where we least expect it.

Let me tell you a story about this, a true story and a kind of parable of the gospel, about a woman named Kathleen Gooley. It happened several years ago but her story has stayed with me.

Kathleen was living in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she was planning to be married. Her June wedding included a fancy reception and she had met with the caterer and planned the menu and paid her money. Then Kathleen’s groom had second thoughts, and the wedding was canceled. But Kathleen learned could not get all her money back for the reception.

So she decided to throw a party and invite people who could really use a celebration. As she said to a newspaper reporter, “Why waste a good party?”

Kathleen invited a lot of ill and elderly homeless folks to her party. She had 118 places reserved at a sit-down dinner served on fine china, with real linens, and fancy hor d’oevres and dessert.

You see, Kathleen herself had been homeless once, only for a couple of nights, but she ended up in a shelter with her 2-month old baby. She knew what it was like. So when she had a party that needed guests, she knew who to invite: Not her friends or her family or her rich neighbors – certainly not her would-have-been in-laws. When Kathleen gave a party, she used the same guest list as Jesus: she invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. She had been one of them; she knew. Why waste a good party?

And isn’t that what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows, too. After all, he was also one of them, a homeless man, persecuted, arrested unjustly, executed as a common criminal. But he also knows that the kingdom of God is waiting, like a great party lacking only the guests. He knows that the table is set and the places reserved. All is ready. He knows because it is with his own body and blood that the Table has been prepared.

The welcome table is for us, all of us together. It is the place where we are equals, made in the image of God, and our invitation to the table comes with unconditional love. It is the place where we sit together and eat together and know the kingdom of God.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, O Lord, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Holy Touch

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

These two stories from scripture – the call of Jeremiah and the healing of the woman in the synagogue –have some common threads. What strikes me first about the stories is the way they illustrate God’s unusual choices. They remind me of the little ditty: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” How odd of God to choose a child and a woman as agents of transformation and grace. But that is exactly what happened.

God’s call came to Jeremiah he was only a boy. The Hebrew word used to describe him is na’ar. A na’ar was a child no older than 12 years. God was calling this boy to a daunting task. Jeremiah seemed justified in his protest. “Oh Lord God, I won’t know what to say. I am just a kid.” How could he go to the rich and powerful and call them to account? How could he confront the religious leaders of the time with a call to repentance? How could he presume to speak the word of God in his wicked world? And yet all that is exactly what God intended him to do.

Jeremiah was wiser than his years. Even though he was just a na’ar, he understood that this was hard and disruptive work that God was setting before him. God gave him six things to do: “To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s interesting isn’t it, this list of the six things that God called Jeremiah to do, this list of the prophet’s tasks? Two-thirds of the list is about clearing out and getting rid of that which is no longer useful. It is the prophetic equivalent of taking out the trash. It is only then that the last little bit of the task, the building and the planning, can take place.

Some of those who seem to me to be self-appointed prophets, rather than God-anointed, lean to the first part of the list, the plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing. They are more interested in pronouncing judgment than sticking around for reconstruction. On the other hand, the folks I know in many congregation, maybe including this one, seem to be mostly drawn to the last two things on the list, the building ad the planting part, making something new, bringing something exciting into existence. We think that’s the good stuff, the true holy work. Whether it is a new program, a new mission, planting a new church or just building up and growing an old one – yeah, that’s the good stuff.

But the call of God is clear: The holy work of the prophet has both aspects. Tearing down does hand in hand with building up. And building up cannot take place until the old structures are gone. What lesson is there here for us? How does God touch us through these instructions?

Probably very few of us would gladly welcome destruction and overthrow. We want to keep the structures of our live in place, not pull them down. Isn’t it much better to have the same familiar patterns and people around, even when they aren’t perfect? You know the old saying: Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.

But think about this: if you have ever remodeled a kitchen or started a new garden or called a new pastor… you’ll know that there is a lot of plucking up and pulling down, a lot of disruption that has to precede the building and the planting.

That work is hard and sweaty. You have to get your hands dirty; you have to live in a place where you can’t see anything new and exciting except in your own imagination.

When God reached out to touch Jeremiah, to call him to a holy work, God set before him a difficult task. Jeremiah had to get his hands dirty, he had to put himself at risk, he had to be unpopular, to put it mildly. He was God’s messenger of restoration and wholeness, but he was also the one who reminded the people that they needed to change their ways in order to find that shalom. And remember, he was just a boy.

Like Jeremiah, the woman in the synagogue was also a most unlikely choice as one to embody God’s healing message. For eighteen years, she had been a prisoner of her own body, bound up in a terrible, crippling disease, one that left her bent over, unable to stand erect and look up. Eighteen years is a long time to live with the kind of limited perspective she must have had, full of pain herself and painful for others to see. When she came into the synagogue, she would have stood in the section with the other women, not in the place to speak or even be counted. Women would have been strictly segregated since there was always the danger that contact with them, even accidental, could render a man unclean and therefore unable to come into worship.

Given this practice, what Jesus did was especially astonishing, even offensive. In the middle of the services on the holiest day of the week, in the presence of all of them, he seemed to violate the very laws that had called them into being as God’s chosen people. He spoke to the woman. He singled her out and called her to him. He brought her into the center of worship. And he touched her. She was healed and began to praise God.

Just as God’s call and contact to the boy Jeremiah seemed odd, so was Jesus’ call and contact with the woman. The leader of the synagogue was furious. There was Jesus, participating with this woman in ways that seemed counter to some of the most precious teachings of the faith. If there was anyone there who was bent out of shape, it was not the woman, but rather the leader of the synagogue. Like the religious and political leaders of Jeremiah’s day, he was offended, irate, and (hmm) more than a little self-righteous. But as an old preacher once said: It is always dangerous to try to be more spiritual than God!

Both Jeremiah and the woman were odd choices. The fact that they were singled out for a holy role upset the status quo and angered those who were in charge. And there are other similarities in these two stories. Neither Jeremiah nor the woman was seeking a position of power. In fact, they both understood their place in society as being on the margins, not fully accepted or respected or valued in society. But it starts to seem that is where God might work the best -- on the margins. God seems to choose the least and the last, maybe because those are the ones who have the time to hear what God is saying.

Another common thread in the stories is an attentiveness to the word. Jeremiah and the daughter of Abraham were both listening. They may not have liked what they heard, it may have taken a lot of courage to respond, but they were paying attention. They were ready to hear.

And finally, they were both transformed by a holy touch. God reached out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Jesus laid his hands on the crippled woman in the center of the synagogue and healed her and she was able to look up.

Both the boy and the woman responded to the holy touch with words and action, prophecy and praise. And both of them created controversy.

God’s holy touch demands a response that might be prophecy or praise or both. God’s holy touch is transforming. Nothing will be the same after you experience it. God’s holy touch can lead you into a place of controversy and chaos, a place where you find yourself plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, confronting and offending, associating with those on the margins. It is only then that you can build and plant. It is only then that you can look up and see what God has in mind for God’s creation.

God’s holy touch is a transforming, healing action. Those whom God touches are called respond in the same way, with their own actions of transformation and healing, their own words of prophecy and praise. Without a doubt, the world needs people to do this work. Are you one of them, one whom God is touching, one whom Christ is calling?

You are, all of you: women and children, young and old, men and boys and girls. God is choosing you, Christ is calling. Pay attention. Do not be afraid to answer and act. Let the holy touch transform and heal your life and then go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God -- may it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

July 5, 2010

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Taking Liberties?

2 King 5:1-14

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

As we celebrate the independence of this “sweet land of liberty,” this is a day to pause and reflect on the wisdom and foresight of our nation’s founders. Theirs has been a great gift to the world, the vision of freedom and liberty, safeguarded in the rule of law.

We have come a long way since 1776, transformed from a small collection of little colonies into one of the greatest power the world has ever known. It seems there is nothing we cannot do as a nation once we set our minds to it. It seems there is nothing we cannot have if we really want it. From science and technology, to democracy and education, we can be justifiably proud of many of our national accomplishments over these last two plus centuries. In a great many ways, the United States has been a force for good in the world, seeking to do what is right.

But this self-appointed task of global transformation is complicated by our independence and power. When you are able to do anything you want, eventually that is often exactly what you do: anything what you want. While some of you may have a different view, that is how I see the war in Iraq. It was something the United States did because we could. It was an exercise of power.

In a book titled The Superpower Syndrome, the author psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, explores our national mindset in the post 9/11 era. One of Dr. Lifton’s observations is this:

At the heart of the superpower syndrome . . . is the need to eliminate a vulnerability that . . . contains the basic contradiction of the syndrome. For vulnerability can never be eliminated, either by a nation or an individual. In seeking its elimination, the superpower finds itself on a psychological treadmill. The idea of vulnerability is intolerable, the fact of it irrefutable. One solution is to maintain an illusion of invulnerability. But the superpower then runs the danger of taking increasingly draconian actions to sustain that illusion. For to do otherwise would be to surrender the cherished status of superpower. (p 127)

Vulnerability is weakness, imperfection. Dr. Lifton defines it as “the antithesis of omnipotence,” and he says that whether we acknowledge our vulnerability or not, it is still there.

It is interesting to me to see how we how we have been forced to confront this in the past few months. Right now, there is an unrelenting flow of oil, fouling the waters and wild life of the Gulf coast. Perhaps you saw that iconic photograph of the oil-soaked bird, struggling on the sand, unable to fly, held captive by all that goo. That single bird (ironically, it was a laughing gull) has become a kind of symbol of our flawed approach to nature. That bird, like a silent witness to some hidden sin, has exposed our vulnerability.

And maybe the gravest flaw opened up for scrutiny is a pride that has slipped into arrogance. Because we wanted cheap oil, we did what it took to get it. We took liberties with the environment, with human lives and livelihood. We closed our eyes as oil companies took risks in the name of profit, following the dictates of supply and demand – the supply is out there and so we demand access to it. After all, it’s our water, our freedom to live the way we want, our liberty and independence. Who could imagine that we would get ourselves into such a mess and be unable to fix it? Who could imagine that we would be called to account by a captive bird?

And we have read this morning of another captive, a nameless Hebrew slave girl who, like the bird covered in oil, also speaks truth to power. She knows that Naaman can find healing for his flawed body in the land that he has conquered. And he must be desperate, at least at the outset, because he takes her word and he goes.

He doesn’t exactly go with humility, however. He goes with his power and his pride and a great pile of stuff: 650 pounds of silver, 105 pounds of gold, ten sets of garments, his horses and chariots, and his retinue of servants. After all, he is a powerful man and rich, too. He is used to getting what he wants, either with wealth or with war. And now he sets out to buy his healing.

But it doesn’t work that way. This man who is used to snapping his fingers and moving armies can’t even get a private audience with the prophet. And furthermore, the instructions passed along to him are insulting and humiliating. He is to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. Just like anybody else – nothing special about these instructions; they are common in the law and tradition of the day for those seeking healing (see Leviticus 13 and 14). He is to strip off his clothes, exposing his flawed body and then bathe in a muddy stream. And not even for the promise of wholeness can he bring himself to stoop that low. He stalks away in a rage.

And again, it is those with the least power, the unnamed servants, who call him back. “Father,” they say, “if you had been given a very difficult task, you would have done it willingly. Why can’t you do this small, easy thing?”

Naaman turns back, washes in the river, and is cured. And maybe he is healed also. Cure of course is the absence of disease, but healing is the restoration of wholeness and peace and harmony with God’s intention. Healing is shalom.

And part of healing is humility, perhaps. It does seem to me as I read this story that one of the first steps toward healing is a willingness to let go of pride – the kind of pride that often draws its power from a misplaced view of self-sufficiency and a corrupt understanding of personal liberty.

Jesus warns his followers about this. He has sent them out in pairs and they have had great success with their evangelistic efforts. “Even the demons submit to us!” they tell him. And how does he respond? “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” he says. Or to paraphrase: “Don’t be so proud of yourselves for these accomplishments.” “It is not your power that is changing the world, but rather the power of heaven. Whether you succeed or fail is immaterial. In either case, the kingdom has come near.”

This is not what we’re used to. It feels like the opposite of liberty and independence, doesn’t it? Whether we admit it or not, we are probably a lot more comfortable relying on ourselves than truly trusting in God – or even in each other. Trust requires vulnerability, and we don’t have a lot of practice with that. We’re more than willing to take on the hard tasks – why can’t we do the easy thing? Maybe we are too much like Naaman, afraid to confront our own vulnerability, afraid to let go of a flawed view of liberty that can lead to arrogance and isolation. Like him, we need to find the courage to admit that we are all in need of healing, from the least of us to the greatest. We are all in need of healing, in our nation, in our churches, in our families, in our deepest selves.

But remember that healing does not come to us on our own terms. All our power and personal liberty and freedom and independence cannot change the fact that shalom is something that God initiates. It is not up to us to change the world. Some of you will find this a great relief, and others of you will find it a personal challenge, an affront to your commitment and competence, perhaps even an offensive notion. In either case, it is still true: it is not up to us to change the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to be at work with God, doing the small things, helping create the conditions where healing can occur.

That requires humility. It requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to stop taking liberties with God’s good gifts. It requires us to depend on God’s power more than our own. We are more than willing to take on the hard tasks. Can we also do the easy thing – even if it requires us to be humble and obedient, trusting in the liberating love of God more than our own self-sufficiency? For healing to happen out there, it also has to happen in here, in here.

So on this Independence Day 2010, instead of taking liberties with our world, let us vow to give liberty. Let us really mean the words we say in the pledge of allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.” And may the words of the hymn become our prayer: “America! America! 
God mend thine every flaw.” Let us pray for peace and the transformation of our nation and of our world. And let us pray for peace and the transformation of our own souls.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

June 30, 2010


When I teach prospective pastors about leadership in the church, I have urged them to find terms other than "volunteer" to use for those in their congregations who do the work of the church. That word has always implied to me something optional, voluntary, rather than an irrevocable calling (Romans 11:29). But I may be rethinking all that. You see, in my garden, I have had these amazing volunteers this year. I have three tomato plants that have just appeared -- the seeds sowed by last year's plants, coming to life in the new season, and growing as well as the plants that I bought last month. My neighbor has an amazing vine, huge and green, that might be a pumpkin but could be a squash -- we will have to wait to see. It was born from her compost, from the fruit of last year that has now put forth its own fruit. And a planter in my yard that sat outside all winter has produced a pink petunia from two years past.

These are all volunteers. And these experiences make me wonder if we are doing enough self-seeding in our churches. Are we raising up the right leaders, helping them bear fruit in their own generation, and then allowing the seed of that fruit to ripen and mature into a new crop that can provide nourishment in a subsequent season? I'm not sure. I think we all too often wear out our lay leadership so they have nothing left to pass along that will create volunteers for the future.

I will probably eat tomatoes this summer from plants that I set out in another summer. I am hoping that might be the case in some of my churches: that the work I have done in a past season will bear fruit for the future, that there will be volunteers that sprout up to nourish a new generation.

June 28, 2010

Vegetable of the Week

It is round and yellow, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. It looks like a lemon with funny little spines on it. But when I slice it open, the secret is revealed: It is a cucumber! It has the transparent seeds, the cool pulp, the taste and clean smell.

The great naturalist, scientist E. O. Wilson, has long been a proponent of biodiversity. I think he is mostly thinking about creatures, not vegetables, but I'm sure he would appreciate the lemon cucumber. I don't know what benefit there is in the world having a round yellow cucumber, except that it is a beautiful thing. And maybe that is all the justification that needed.

June 25, 2010


I made the first pesto of summer, with basil that I brought home from our farm in my suitcase. It has a lot of garlic -- so I can only eat it when I am going to be alone. It has the sharp, bright greenness that is both a color and a flavor. If my garden yields even half as much as my mother's, I will have lots to put in the freezer. Then, in the depth of winter, I will take some out, cook a little pasta, and have a taste of summer.... all by myself!

June 14, 2010

Where Love Lives

The twelfth floor is where love lives. I walk down the corridor, and most rooms have open doors. Very few people are alone here. A middle-aged man is feeding a small woman with thin white hair. Another person missing a leg is gently supported as she makes her way slowly down the hall. A young mother has her almost-new baby with her as she sits with her father, the generations keeping vigil. The man’s wife comes with food made at home in the kitchen where he has cooked for her for years. Machines beep and whir and drip and count. Those who were once full of vitality have their vital signs carefully monitored. The staff is quiet, polite, efficient, responsive.

When I leave, the middle-aged man is sitting by the bed just holding the old woman's (his mother?) hand. She is quiet and so is he. The next day, the room is empty, and I think to myself that she has gone home – whatever that means. I wonder how long he stayed there with her, and I know that his love somehow lingers.

This is what love is: watching and feeding and touching and talking when there is nothing else left to do. It is not moonlight and candlelight and wine and roses. It is biopsies and bedpans, tears mixed with laughter, sadness and pain and memories and prayers. And it is all there, on the twelfth floor.

June 8, 2010


Two minutes after I finished planting my garden -- literally -- we had a hail storm. The rain came down in torrents with chunks of ice the size of giant marbles. I could have collected them and cooled a glass of iced tea. The chard and the beets look a little smashed, and some of the peppers, but I am optimistic that they will bounce back.

I garden for fun and because I love the feeling of wandering out to the back yard to see what I might have for supper. But I think of all those folks who grow things because they must, and I hope for them that the weather is fair and the growing season is long.

This year, the new thing I have planted is dinosaur kale. Even with its tiny leaves, it has a kind of prehistoric look. The beet greens are already red, the rainbow chard yellow, green and magenta. I have two colors of peppers, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes. And I am going to see if it is possible to grow okra north of the Mason-Dixon line. I'll keep you posted!

June 6, 2010

Beulah Land!

Last Sunday, we sang an old Southern hymn, "Dwelling in Beulah Land." You won't find it in the hymnals in the kind of churches I attend in Connecticut! The chorus has stayed with me all week:

I'm living on the mountain underneath a cloudless sky,
I'm drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry,
O yes! I'm feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply
For I am dwelling in Beulah Land.

There is one place in the Bible, Isaiah 62.4, that speaks of Beulah Land. It is a powerful statement of the promise of God's love fulfilled in the land itself, in the place of grounding, where the people find their life and livelihood. The prophet reminds them: "You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Beulah (Hebrew for Married); for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married."

It is odd to think of the land being married, but the old hymn explains the meaning. It is to come to a place of abundance and joy, a place where all that is needed for life is present in overflowing measure. Maybe Beulah Land is all around us but our culture has become so soaked with fear and greed that all we see is scarcity. It is a fact that there is enough food in the world for everyone to be fed, and yet countless numbers die of starvation every day.

I was in my own Beulah Land when I sang the hymn. In the few days I was there, different people showed up with various little gifts: a cabbage freshly cut from the garden, a dozen eggs right from the chickens, potatoes and onions newly dug, squash and blueberries just picked. It was a bountiful supply of manna and we indeed had a feast, several actually!

And the first verse of the hymn starts with these words: "Far away the noise of strife upon my ear is falling." I did, in those few days, feel that the noise of the world's strife was far away; not absent, but not overwhelming either. To live in the place of abundance is to be able to be present in a world that is far from perfect and still to know that God's intention for all the earth -- people, animals, plants, and everything -- is only good, always shalom. It is to remember that the whole universe is, indeed, as Brian Swimme has said, "bottomless vaults of generosity."