25 February 2008

So That the People May Drink - Exodus 17:1-7

Exodus 17:1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I remember standing on the shores of SamanĂ¡, Dominican Republic, looking at the beauty of the vast sea ahead of me. Waves can be so beautiful, their power, their sound, their forcefulness, their messiness, their carriage of sand and grit and salt and memories and decomposition. SamanĂ¡ is on the eastern tip of this small country packed with poverty, hopes for an economic way out of a homeland that is ferociously loved. As I stood with the sea ahead if of me, I wondered if I looked hard enough if I could see the shores of Puerto Rico just a stone’s throw away.

My mind wandered to thinking of those thousand refugees who climbed little boats, or yolas, every year finding their way to Puerto Rico with hopes of a better life, more opportunities, promises of entering the United States, too often thought of as a Promised Land. They journey by stages, coming from their home towns or plots of country land to the SamanĂ¡ peninsula. They save money to pay someone to help them get over. They climb boats, sometimes inflatable rafts mounted in tucked away corners of the world with just a little water and food for the journey. A great many of these people are caught approaching the shores of Puerto Rico, to be charged and sent home.

In my time living in the Dominican Republic, I have never met anyone personally who has tried to make the passage from shore to shore and so I hesitate to speak about their experiences. All I have is what I have read and the stories I have been told and what I can imagine. This week I kept thinking of all the people who journey in stages crossing boundaries on their way to something different, hopefully something better, people risking their lives over borders between Mexico and Texas, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Cuba and Miami, Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, and many other places whose names I and you do not know. I think also of slaves who traveled from north to south in the United States, of Harriet Tubman who helped hundreds enter relative freedom, trip by trip, stage by stage.

As I think of all kinds of refugees I wonder how often there was no water to drink on the journeys to a new place. How often on an inflatable boat in the middle of the sea, in the middle of waves that aren’t so beautiful when they are crashing in on you, in the middle of water that is undrinkable, people have cried out with fists in air: “Give us water to drink!”

The journey north with Harriet Tubman was not an easy one, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It was known that she carried a revolver and was not afraid to use it, often as protection from slave catchers and their dogs. She also used it for those times when morale would become low and bodies would fatigue. Once a slave agreed to join her expedition, there was no turning back – and she threatened to shoot anyone who tried to return. Tubman told the tale of one voyage with a group of fugitive slaves, when morale sank and one man insisted he was going to go back to the plantation. She pointed the gun at his head and said: "You go on or die." Several days later, he was with the group as they entered Canada.[1]

Cannot we hear the conversation from the text this morning again: “Moses said to the slaves he was freeing, “Why do you quarrel with me? Do you not trust? The people complained and complained and said, “Why was it your idea to bring us out of slavery in Egypt, to kill us and our children and animals with thirst?”

This is about those times, you know when they are, those times when we are half way through and fear takes over. Those times when we are in the middle somewhere, implementing decisions we made, callings we have received and we have to just throw up our arms in the air and say that life is too hard, that God expects too much, that we don’t have what it takes.

Our career hasn’t been going so well lately and we know it is time for a change. We know it and we are waiting to see what happens, and money is a little bit tight, and we don’t really see what the next step is going to be. And how easy it would be to go back to what we know, even though that old way of putting food on the table is killing our soul. And the temptation is there…

We left a relationship that was killing us. We knew it wasn’t right, it may be have been at one point, there were moments of magic. But now we are living in separate places and we just want to be held, we just want dinner left on the table when we get home late at night, we just want a good fight so it can feel like old times, we are having a hard time paying the bills and juggling child care and it would be so much easier if we could get back together; even though it is not right, the temptation is there…

There was the day the diagnosis came. And then there were the appointments, the treatments, the times when we realized who our friends really were. We were ready to beat this, we were ready to fight it all the way, we weren’t going to let go. And then there are the in between times when our body aches all over, our spirit is just tired, no matter how many baths we take and treats we receive the desire to fight this through just isn’t there anymore. The temptation is there…

We knew it was time to tell the parents that the roommate for the past many years isn’t just a roommate, but their son-in-law. It had been made clear before, the worst thing in the world was for the parents to have a gay son, but the hiding couldn’t continue. The hiding, the potential missteps, the fear of them finding out the wrong way just has to stop. To be faithful we must tell. We have made the plans, we have scheduled the trip, we have made up our mind. But then there are the doubts, how will mom and dad respond, how long will it be before we feel their love again, will we regret this move, we are more comfortable with our relationship how it has always been all these years, the temptation is there…

The people, they journeyed by stages and they were thirsty. The thirst for newness, the thirst for difference and change overpowered them and so they began to thirst for what had always been. But there was no going back. As Harriet Tubman said, “you go on, or die.”

To go on they had to cry out, they thought they were being killed, that their thirst, their destructive desires were signs of God leaving them. To be so thirsty certainly meant that God had taken a break, wasn’t really as concerned as they may have thought at one time when enough had been enough and they made the decision, or the decision was put on them to go out on the sea and trudge through the desert.

And so we turn to our leader and accuse him of having the bad idea in the first place. We turn to Moses and we complain and complain, we quarrel and we fight, and we blame him for killing us, for giving us nothing at all to drink, for bringing us this far and yet we are abandoned and alone, we are convinced. At least when we were in slavery life was predictable. And so we know, we just know that we certainly won’t make it to the other side of this, growth has never felt so hard before, this isn’t working, and so all of our destructive desires come together and we plan on stoning our leader, for sure this would help us feel better.

This is a tricky road to follow on the day that we acknowledge our leaders, our elders and deacons, those in whom we put our trust to make decisions on our behalf, to care for us. This is a challenging road to follow at this very particular moment when we know your Pastor will be moving on in a few months to pursue other things and your leadership will be more important than ever. This is a road you may want to turn back from in this great time of transition as a congregation when some of our people here in the pews this morning will be especially anxious and want to throw stones.

For sure most of you, if not all of you who will be ordained and installed today, those of you who will experience the warmth of the hands of those who have gone before you upon your back and your head and your arms, you don’t feel as patient or prophetic or as called as you can imagine Moses to be. There may be some of you who come to this place of humbly kneeling before God and those who have gone before you stunned that you have been asked. There may be some of you who have accepted the nomination by your people and yet aren’t so sure that you are good enough, holy enough, ready enough to serve. There may be some of you holding deep secrets, some of you who think, “if they really knew who I was I wouldn’t be here.” There may be some of you who know how very contentious and painful the issue of ordination is for those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and therefore come to this place with ambiguity.

The thing about ordination is that when the hands are laid, when the questions are asked, this is not the end. The questions that will be asked of you are not in relationship to your perfection or your readiness. They are not questions that will ask how many hours you will spend devoted to the task or how much money you give to the church. They are not questions regarding your past or your plans for the future. They are questions that acknowledge an intention, a commitment, a devotion to the ways in which Jesus our Christ lived and died. They are questions that ask you to take seriously the tradition from which we come and to challenge that tradition to keep it alive and fresh and relevant for the people today. They are questions that ask if you are willing to stick in it for the long haul and guide your people through 40 years in the wilderness when you don’t even know if you will be able to make it to the other end.

This is a time when a new stage begins. We ordain for life, not a 3-year term. This is a life-long stage of acknowledgement of your leadership skills, of your skills for compassion and reflection of the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
When Moses knew the people wanted to stone him he asked God what in the world to do. How was he to lead when they were so thirsty, so fed up, so very much in the middle of the crises that the other end could not even be dreamed of?
God told him to take some of the elders. Go ahead of the others and take the staff that pulled off miracles at the Nile. Stand in front of a rock, which appears to have no water whatsoever, and strike it, and the water will flow forward. Not salt water from the ocean that would do damage, not water from fire hoses that would burn, but good and pure and healthy water that will quench all thirst and crankiness and disbelief that God isn’t anywhere to be found.

Elders, Deacons, all Members of this Congregation. When we are so thirsty we think we may die we are called to turn to each other’s leadership and seek the Water that quenches all thirst. We are called to look in the very places that may cause us the most pain for a rock that has inside of it the gift of water. It is through the leadership and trust of Moses, as imperfect as he was, that we believe God provides the necessary resources for life outside of bondage. It is through this leadership that we bathe in the waters of liberation. So drink abundantly, beloved, drink in your imperfection and your fear and your doubt. Drink and go on, choose life.

--The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
Riverdale Presbyterian Church
Ordination and Installation Sunday
February 24, 2008

[1] This paragraph is taken primarily from Wikipedia entry on Harriet Tubman.

18 February 2008

Traveled So Far - Psalms 27 & 121

Psalm 27:1
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is
The strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 121:1
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills -from whence comes my help.”

1972 - Winter
I did it! I graduated, well almost – I was in my second week of student teaching speech and drama and not sure I would make it to week ten. As I traveled back from my morning shift at the high school to Monmouth Medical Center for my 3-11 shift - my speedometer crawled along at 40mph.

I had been so excited about my first job as an adjunct recreational therapist in the Department of Psychiatry. Unheard of at 22, with only an undergraduate minor in psychology, my passion had always been to work as a part of a triage team – following in the footsteps of my family who had all found their work place in the “mind fields”.

My job duties had not been a surprise; checking charts for admitting diagnosis, drug dosage, and which patients would be recovering from electro shock treatment. I would then make my rounds getting patients up and on their feet for - yes – Recreation – whatever form that would take. All this certainly much easier than dodging spitballs from unruly sophomores who cared less about Lady Macbeth, obsessive-compulsive behavior, or why Willie Loman wanted to be a salesman in the first place.

I stopped the car on the shoulder of the parkway, and pounded the steering wheel for yesterday, a total blur - and today, the tears had come. I was scared, not of delinquent students, or manic patients - but of two new patients: a gay man and a lesbian who had come in for depression and were immediately scheduled for ECT, thorazine, and a rigorous treatment plan for “deviant” behavior.

God help me! A sexual prisoner myself, afraid and hiding until history could somehow transform our tragic flaw - and now - a keeper of those just like me – electrocuting an impulse - that no wattage could ever erase - no amount of recreating ever fix.

I knew we were all feared losing jobs, families, and friends because of our lifestyles – and did. Some permanently – had lost the will – to live, and found their way in - and sometimes never out of psych wards.

I almost quit life that day - and both jobs. It was the opened hospital chapel door that pulled me in after my 3-11 shift that day, and every day for another year - to pray - and a letter arriving from my mother telling me if I could make it through student teaching & a new job – I could do anything. She always closed with: “Don’t forget that God holds the key. And - don’t forget to pray. God loves you, no matter what.” Love, Mom.

2007 - Christmas
We did it! The word “deviant” erased from the Psychiatric Association’s description of us long ago in 1975. The rest - all these years later - is history, or is it?

Just yesterday I once again found my eyes tearing, my fists raised above my desk at work. A colleague and new friend proclaimed that we had to bring down gays and lesbians from the pulpit - that they must not be allowed to serve in any official capacity in the church – and what did I think?

I said, “you may want to rethink your invitation to me to join you for the holidays”.

“What?” she exclaimed.

I proudly said, “ I am a deacon, a trustee, and a lesbian, and you may want to rethink your invitation.”

On Christmas Day sitting around a festive table with 11 evangelicals each reading Presbyterian reflections from our Advent booklet - was the highlight of my holidays! I had walked where Jesus would have wanted me to walk.

And, yes, Mom, I do pray – most every day. “Guess Who’s Coming To Christmas Dinner?” - I say.

As you and I travel back in time - we realize we have traveled so far. We can’t stop now!

--Bev Thompson

Whenever I feel afraid, or outcast, or that I begin to “lose heart” that there is goodness
in the land of the living - I hum the lyrics from this song:

I Wanna Know What Love Is
by Tina Arena

Gotta take a little time
A little time to think things over
Better read between the lines
In case I need it when I’m older

This mountain I must climb
Is like the world upon my shoulders
Through the clouds I see love shine
Keeps me warm as life grows colder

In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now - I traveled so far
To change this lonely life

I wanna know what love is?
I want you to show me
I wanna feel what love is
I know you can show me -

Gonna take a little time
A little time to look around me
God - nowhere left to hide
Looks like love has finally found me.

I wanna know what love is?
I want you to show me
I wanna feel what love is
I know you can show me.

Lord - help me to be strong
On this road I travel on
When I’m lost and lonely – find me
My journey’s just begun and I’m
Not the only one.

I wanna know what love is
Yes, I found out, I want you to show me
I Wanna feel what love is
I Know you can show me.
I wanna know what love is –

11 February 2008

Temptation - Matthew 4:1-11

Though Mae West passed away years ago, she summed up U.S. culture
today when she said, “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t
resist it.” You don’t have to look far to be tempted. Our sexual
desires are tempted in exploitive advertising, be it seductive TV ads
or barely clad models on eight-story billboards. Our coarser drive to
judge others is tempted by a driven competitiveness woven into every thread of our society. Our material desires are tempted by unrelenting sales pitches. Everyone in my house (save my 19 month-old daughter) is on a diet and one can hardly go two blocks without being tempted to gorge on an abundance of food. We are tempted to reduce political discourse to a Sesame Street-level game of matching like with like when our media assumes women will of course vote for women and African Americans will of course vote for African Americans so who will African American women vote for? We are tempted to forget about our real connection to every other living person when a one-minute news item on the carnage in Kenya is followed by a 30-second commercial for the most comfortable ride in a Lexus. Indeed, we need not travel to a far away reality show island to be bombarded with temptation.

And the general consensus is: give in. If it feels good, do it, buy
it, eat it, consume it, use it.

So much comes to mind as I read of the temptations of Christ. Being
in a Jewish-Christian family, I appreciate how it reveals the depth of
Judaism in the life of Jesus as He quotes Deuteronomy. I think of my
classmate Kellie who speaks of Scripture like praying without ceasing, that Scripture is always there, ceaseless and always speaking. A friend of mine who has wrestled for a long time with a sex addiction recently confided to me that he finally turned towards God to help him through the periods of temptation, and this is what has helped him turn the corner in his struggle. Of course, relying on God is what Bill W and Doctor Bob discovered in their pioneering work that created A.A. What a mighty force to combat temptation.

It is easy to take Lent for granted. It is easy to create a sacrifice
for these forty (or so) days and reduce it to a symbol, a gesture, or
little more than a positive habit. It can feel like an “exercise” in
resisting temptation. The promise of Lent, though, is to actively
walk a road to a deeper connection with God. None of us are dedicated to lives of solitary prayer lived in social isolation. We are Presbyterians, we find in our worship transformation and renewal for service in this world and in community. These days offer a special opportunity to refocus how we offer our lives to -- and deepening our connection with -- God.

May God bless you in this special time and keep you always.
--Paul Mowry

03 February 2008

Matthew 17 - Transfiguration

They went up to the top of the mountain, just a few of them, by themselves, just the boys. In my brother’s words, they went on a “mancation,” Peter, James, John, Jesus to be visited miraculously by Moses and Elijah. It was just the boys up there on their mancation and they were instructed not to tell anyone about what happened, until later, so who is to know if it really ever did, whatever it really is.

In the days leading up to this little trip to the mountains, back in the towns, the people were utterly befuddled, wondering whom on earth this Beloved of Humanity was. Some were saying John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah, others names of prophets we know to this day and some prophets whose testimonies were never recorded. Peter though, Peter when asked, he got it right. The disciples had been let into a secret, Jesus was the Beloved of Humanity, but again, it was inside information, they were told not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

In letting them in on this information Jesus also thought it prudent to warn them that the end was in sight, their Beloved’s days were numbered. Which made absolutely no sense. Jesus’ body was sound. He was strong; he was eating well and still knew how to share a healthy glass of wine. His legs were moving just fine and all the signs of impending death, of a body failing, were not showing.

Good Peter, the one with all the right answers took him aside to deny this claim that Jesus had made, that they wouldn’t have many more days together, begging for Jesus to take it back. Take it back! It is not to be! Peter terrified, needy, his entire being slipping between his fingertips thinking about his beloved Jesus gone.

It had been a long day of explaining to the disciples and putting up with Peter’s fears and doubts. Having enough, Jesus lost his temper, and was terse: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!”

Realizing that the disciples were regressing in their anticipatory grief and that Jesus himself was in need of a break, it was time to take some time away, to go to the mountains.

This keeping of time, taking time, is what Jesus did when he was in need of refreshment. He went to the mountains and I imagine he hiked and sat on a plateau and took in the gaze of the wonder of creation. Perhaps he assured himself that life is bigger than just us with our problems. He talked with God and was told in his prayers that he was faithful, even when he lost his temper. He reflected on how hard it was, the balancing act he was living, holding the secrets of the world along with his public life, being present in all moments while knowing that his days were numbered, enjoying, laughing with, loving his people while preparing them with life-changing knowledge. He went to the mountains to feel the earth underneath his body holding him and his feet on the ground. It was perspective he gained.

And the boys, they needed some perspective. It was time for a retreat. It was time for some time. It was time for a mancation.

It took six days to prepare, to finish some healing ceremonies and a few revivals, several necessary and hard conversations with local politicians and quality time with his mother. All the agenda items were ticked off, the list had been crossed out, the simple food prepared, the sleeping bags freshly laundered, and up they went to the high mountain, by themselves. Or so they thought.

The disciples for sure knew who Moses and Elijah were. I mean, they hadn’t met them before but they knew. They had heard stories passed down for generations about these ones on whose shoulders they stood today. They had a consistent presence in the lives of the people in the towns and countryside alike. And there was the question swirling about, the question of “who is the Messiah?” The reasonable guess would be to think of Moses. Or Elijah perhaps. They were great leaders. They were to be revered. They were patient. They both had unusual deaths so maybe they had never even really passed from this life.

For all these thousands of years there may have been rumors that Moses and Elijah weren’t yet gone. For Moses, he died at 120 years with strength and vigor. He could see farther than the regular person when he supposedly left the earth. And he died on the mountains, probably not all that far from the mountains where Jesus and his boys stood this day, while gazing at all that his people had been promised. He was grieved, yes, but to this day no one knows the site of his grave and so we wonder if he ever really was buried and gone. We wonder how it was he lived in a transitory state, 120 years of life and more energy than you and me combined, buried, but no one knows where, dead and yet plaguing the memories of all those on the earth.

And then there was Elijah, walking along with Elisha, sure of his end at any moment, and a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Here one minute, gone the next. One state of being and then another, so fast. Transitory still with his body whipped in a stream of fire and screaming horses. Not how people usually pass from this earth, his transition so very strange and unusual, so very fast and incomprehensible.

And so it was, their deaths most strange, their lives even more unusual, their spirits extraordinary, their legacy unquestionably present.

One minute the disciples were roasting marshmallows over the fire and singing songs, just like we did at church camp, and then the next was nothing like the first.

Jesus followed suit of extraordinary stories. I can imagine they didn’t know what had hit them. They had just been told a few days before that Jesus was the Messiah, not any of the ancestors that had gone before, none of them would come back to visit again. But you know how it is, when we realize something and think we don’t have to realize it again but how easy it is to forget. Illustrative lessons are easier to remember than anything else.

And so he gave them one and was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Peter, James, John, they realized that this was not just some normal mancation. Jesus is not just a buddy that they could drink with and tell jokes around. He was the Messiah so he had to have moments like that of Moses and Elijah, those transitory moments of not quite here but not quite there, transitioning in between states of being with relative ease.

So this is what Jesus did when he went on the mountain to pray. Moses and Elijah came from out of nowhere, a cloud, a pillar of fire, maybe from the dirt itself and they began to talk, Moses, Elijah, Jesus. This is where Jesus went to find his colleagues who had gone before him, the balance of the Law and Prophecy themselves. And by appearing before Peter and James and John he illustrated quite dramatically the lesson that Jesus was of this world, and not of this world.

Elijah, Moses, Jesus they all were there and all were talking and Peter he wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing with the right answers. He compensated by appealing to his manners. “Lord, it is good for you to be here” he says to Jesus. Jesus never asked what Peter thought, but Peter wanted all to feel welcome. And so he asked if he could make dwellings for Moses and Elijah and Jesus, just so everyone could have their personal space when they felt it was necessary. And then he kept speaking, the others looking on “Lord, I would like to cook up the food we have brought for a special meal to welcome our….guests…this evening and if we could it would be nice if we could sit around the fire and perhaps we could ask Moses and Elijah a few questions since it was nice enough for them to come and visit us, and would you like a cup of tea right now? Or how about a glass of wine, I know you are particularly a fan of red wine, but what about Moses and Elijah? I think it would be…”

And then came the bright cloud that drowned out Peter’s chatter and brought him and all the others to attention. “This is my Child, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Yes, listen, shut up. Peter had gotten the quiz right earlier, he himself said that Jesus was the Messiah, the Beloved of the Living God, but no one really knew…

It was scary, really frightening. If Jesus was the one then the king was not the one, if Jesus was the one and they really believed it then they would have to risk their lives too, Jesus couldn’t do it for them. If Jesus was the one they were to follow then it wasn’t status quo that they could accept anymore, then they too would have to be transitory, in between many different worlds, cultures, traditions, classes. And Jesus said that his days were numbered. They would have to do this alone. Or maybe they could go up to the mountaintop and spend quality time with Moses and Elijah. After Jesus was gone was this where they would find him? They weren’t sure, but they were scared and they fell to the ground in fear. Jesus wasn’t gone yet though and as the ground was holding their bodies, Jesus came over and healed them like he had healed so many others, gave them his touch so they could remember that feeling when he was physically gone. He touched them and whispered in their ears, “do not be afraid. Get up.”

It was the most peculiar mancation they had ever had. They really didn’t know what they were getting into, thought they may get a few more well-meaning lectures by Jesus, a few parables told around the fire at night. But it was more than that they got. It was assurance, assurance to not be afraid of the life that they were called to lead. It was affirmation, affirmation that indeed they were committing their lives to one very powerful, one more powerful than any other human they had ever met. It was affirmation that the lives they were to lead were different than the lives they thought they had been raised to have. It was assurance that as they lived in between, transitory, transfigured, here they would find God and God would claim us all as God’s beloved.
-Rev. Mieke Vandersall

Transfiguration Quote

“Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling to it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of transcendent in their midst, then the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst -- on the way to the cross."

~ Walter Wink