Who Cares?

This was difficult to write. I had mixed feelings about preaching it.  But I could not remain silent.  What follows is my sermon from this morning. –PP

Mark 4:35-41
June 21, 2015

Racism.  That is the word that is on everybody’s mind.  There is no point in dancing around it.  The massacre in Charleston has left the entire country reeling.  Nine people dead.  Brutally murdered in a house of worship.  The perpetrator has admitted he sat among the victims, accepted their hospitality, almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him.  But it had to be done, he said. Some insist he was mad.  Others maintain he was driven, not by madness—but by his intense hatred of black people.  Most of us are left questioning where Jesus was on that dark night in Charleston.  Did he not care that nine among the faithful were about to perish?  Could Jesus not have shook off sleep long enough to quiet the storms of madness and hate and rescue nine of his own?

At least those are the questions we feel we are left with.  Had I sat down to prepare this sermon prior to Wednesday night, I would have probably written about Jesus being in the boat with his disciples—asleep, but very much present.  I inevitably would have gone on to mention how the “nave”—this area in our churches where the congregation sits—is derived from the same word as “navy”—and actually means “boat.” I might have expanded upon Jesus’ call to his disciples and to us to cross over to the other side—to bring the good news of God’s kingdom to foreign shores and among strangers who are nothing like us but whom Jesus loves nonetheless.  And I certainly would have assured us all that we, like the disciples in Mark’s story, need not be afraid.  Jesus is right here with us—in the boat.  But none of that felt true to the whole of God’s story as it has been unfolding across this country in recent days.

It occurred to me, more than a few of Jesus’ disciples were experienced fishermen, so being out on the sea—even in a storm—should not have necessarily caused undue panic among them.  No, there had to be something about the wind and sea that night that scared the begeebees out of them; a foreboding that so frightened them, they desperately shook Jesus awake.  “Do you not care?” they shout over roar of wind and waves.  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  I’ve never been quite sure whether the disciples were expecting a miracle or just wanted Jesus to lend a hand bailing the water out of the boat.  But one thing’s for sure, what happened next caught them by surprise.  Jesus rebukes the wind, calms the sea, then turns to his stunned disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?”  “Have you still no faith?”  Ouch.  Hey, wait a minute.  What just happened?  Who IS this guy?

Throughout the whole of Mark’s gospel, the disciples wrestle with that question.  Indeed, who is Jesus?  Who is this one that even the wind and sea obey?  When they finally reach the other side of the sea, Jesus and the disciples are greeted by a demon-possessed man called Legion—because he is many.  Anyway, Legion has no questions; the demons know precisely who Jesus is.  No sooner have the disciples pulled their boat up on the shore, that this crazed man throws himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  Jesus responds by calling the unclean spirit out of the man with the same authority as his voice had when he calmed the tumultuous sea   You and I, we who know the rest of the story, we want, at every juncture, to step into Mark’s narrative and encourage the disciples  to pay attention and listen up, to learn their lessons well.  If they think they were afraid in the boat, things are only going to get worse.  The day will come when Jesus will die, when they will really feel abandoned.

That’s what it feels like, doesn’t it?  Storms rage in Ferguson.  In Baltimore.  Now in Charleston.  We are left feeling frightened and helpless.  Where is Jesus?  Does he not see that people are perishing?  Ah, if God were to raise up a prophet among us to answer our questions and assure us we have not been forgotten.  Yet, even despite the storms that rage, we still gather, still cling to our Lord’s promise that he is indeed present:  In the bread.  The wine.  In the community of the baptized.  So, why then are we still so afraid?  Is our faith somehow lacking?  Have we lost sight of hope?  So many questions.  Do I believe Jesus was present in that Bible study?  Yes.  I am as sure of that as I am of anything.  Jesus was with those men and women just as he has been present with every man and woman who has died in the faith, beginning with the first Christian martyrs down through the ages, and yes, in Charleston as well as our own communities.

There is a demon raging on our shores.  In our cities and towns.  Even in our churches.  Its name is Legion, for he is many:  racism, hatred, greed, privilege, indifference.  Demons that can be and are exorcised little by little and every time a member of the Christ’s Body speaks with the power of his or her baptism.  No.  Your uncle may not tell his racist jokes in your home.  No.  The disparity of resources provided to our urban and suburban schools is not acceptable.  No.  Under no circumstances can discrimination be justified.  Black lives matter.  Every life matters.  We are all in this together.  Certainly no one can hope to eradicate racism on his or her own.  But, I believe one person can make a difference, that those differences can add up.  A friend of mine recently bought one of those dew rag bandana things.  It was red, white and blue, and seemed, to him, a fun accessory for the upcoming Fourth of July festivities.  As news of the Charleston tragedy spread, he called me, horrified—certainly by the murders, but there was something else:  that dew rag of his?  Dear God—it could be construed as representing the bold stripes of a Confederate flag…

You and I, all of us, are members together of the Body of Christ.  Our Lord dwells  in us and with us.  Ours are the only hands and feet he has on this earth.  Ours are the only voices he can raise to cast out the demons of racism and indifference.  Jesus once walked among us.  He taught his disciples and us everything we need to know about love and mercy and justice.  He has not left us orphaned.  The Spirit leads and inspires us; still raises up prophets among us to call us back to Jesus’ truth.  This past Wednesday, nine of God’s prophets died in Charleston.  Nine brothers and sisters numbered among the Body of Christ:  Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, DePayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra.   In their dying, they have, I pray, at last shaken us from our slumber; their memory pleads with us to listen up, to take notice of the evil around us, to pay attention to the Spirit’s leading and not stay silent.  I don’t have any answers, and I have absolutely no idea what a world devoid of racism might like.  But I know it begins with me.  It begins with you.  One dew rag.  One person.  One voice at a time.









Consequence of Choice

One of my biggest problems when I was still drinking—aside from still drinking—was I somehow had myself convinced that I would be totally unable to write without lubrication.  I can remember, a full two years before I gave up alcohol for good, I had managed to stay sober for about 30 days.  I was on medical leave at the time and feeling pretty awful, so my sobriety was more a consequence of circumstance than a choice.  After a few weeks, I was feeling better and planning to return to work.  I will never forget sitting in front of the computer, trying to write a sermon, and staring at the cursor mocking me from the blank page.  The pressure was on.  I had to write something.  And there was only one way I could imagine making that happen.  I went out.  Procured a bottle of Merlot.  And returned to the computer with glass in hand.  Voilá!  The words started flowing.

Unfortunately, the wine kept flowing long after that first sermon was written and preached.  It would be a full two years before I would find myself sober for any considerable length of time.  Again, more as a consequence of circumstance than anything else.  I ended up in rehab for 30 days—at the conclusion of which, I was, eh, shall we say, encouraged to resign my position.  I was sober alright.  I was also broken, depressed, and convinced I had been sentenced to a lifetime of repentance and misery.  I would never preach—let alone write—again.  The cursor would forever mock me from the blank page.  There would be no words:  no sermons; no poetry; no musings.  The flow of wine and words had dried up.  I think I started this blog to prove just that.  What I discovered, however, was it was still possible for me to coax words onto a page.  It felt clumsy at first, but the words eventually did come.

Before long, I was writing again!  Mostly about my struggle with sobriety at first, but then I started stringing nouns to verbs and crafting bits of poetry and fiction and actually found I was enjoying myself!  Discovering I could indeed still write without lubrication was, for me, the single most precious gift of my sobriety.  At around nine months sober, my bishop asked if I felt ready to supply—to fill in for pastors who , for one reason or another, would be away from their congregation on a given Sunday.  The previously unimaginable happened:  I said yes.   And last month I sat down and wrote my first sober sermon—ever.  My joy was nearly uncontainable.  It was actually pretty good.  And leading worship was, as they say, like getting back on a bicycle.  I took up the mystery and rhythm again without missing a beat.  I preached like a woman who truly did have something to say.  And I ended up having an absolute blast!  I was called upon again to supply last Sunday and I’ll be filling in somewhere else this Sunday, and have another half-dozen or so dates scheduled throughout the summer.

I am ecstatic.  Not so much about the preaching gigs—although those are a pretty big deal—as about feeling alive and forgiven and whole.  Maybe it does take a full nine months to a year for a career drunk to get comfortable enough in her sobriety to step out into the world with confidence.  At least that is proving to be my experience.  When I was drinking, I was as all but agoraphobic; ridden with anxiety and certain everyone “out there” was judging me.  In early sobriety, I felt humiliated and embarrassed and just wanted to be left alone to wallow and cry.  Slowly; ever so slowly, all that began to change.  The idea of living and laughing and writing and being happy began to feel like a real possibility.  Even for me.  And, what’s proven even more amazing is it’s turning out even better than that!  When I look in the mirror, I still see a middle aged woman, but on the inside, I’m feeling like a bright and capable somewhere-still-in-her-thirties kind of gal.

My sobriety is no longer a consequence of circumstance.  It is a life choice.  A gift.  One I want never to take for granted or risk losing.  People promised me it would get better.  I did not believe them.  And, aside from the merciful presence and encouragement of God, I cannot tell you how or why I was able to stick with sobriety through so many months that felt like deprivation and misery.  Somehow, I did it, though.  I stayed sober long enough to begin to live sober.  And life is good!  Oh, I still have plenty of problems.  Decades of drinking wreaked havoc with my health and my finances are in a shambles, but those concerns have receded into the background.  What is front and center now is—safeguarding my sobriety, yes, but—mostly wanting to smile like crazy because it’s summertime and the marsh grass is green and the sky is blue and I can write and life is so incredibly wonder-filled.  Thank you, God!


[The Pickled Pastor will be preaching again this Sunday!  Yay!  My sermon follows below.]

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Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

Anyone who has grown so much as a tomato plant in a pot recognizes the absurdity in Jesus’ story of the sower.  Crops require care in their planting and plenty of water and tending if one hopes to succeed in growing juicy red Jersey tomatoes or tender sweet ears of corn.  Had Jesus intended his instruction to be taken as agricultural advice, the fields of the faithful would have, through the centuries, ended up scorched and barren and taken over by weeds.  Jesus was not, however, talking about agriculture, so please feel free to keep watering your tomatoes!  No, Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, the coming of which does require patient and prayerful waiting on our part.  There really is little else we can do.  Once the seeds have been scattered, any effort on our part to insure a bumper crop for Jesus can only result in our risking doing more harm than good.

There is a resiliency and wonder to God’s creation from which we can, however, draw much needed encouragement in our waiting.  Take, for example, the lowly dandelion.  Have you ever tried to eradicate dandelions from your yard?  Such is no easy task.  They are stubborn little devils.  You can “Roundup” until the proverbial cows come home, but dare to sleep and rise night and day for a week or so and you’ll have a whole new crop of sunny yellow faces mocking you from your otherwise well-tended lawn.  A miracle of sorts, really.  Survival and proliferation are tucked into their DNA.  I smile every time I see a child pluck up a puffy white dandelion and blow.  I cannot help but wonder if children, too, were not part of God’s plan at the time of Creation, innocently helping the Sower in the scattering of His seeds.  Children have never tended to these plantings of breath and breeze, yet those pesky little dandelions do keep popping up everywhere—dancing happily in the summer sun.

We think of weeds as a nuisance to be plucked up and destroyed.   Still, after millennia of planting and tending and harvesting, weeds persist in their annual taunting.  Why do you suppose that is?  Might it not be God’s gentle reminder to amateur gardeners and farmers alike that, when all is said and done, any harvest that comes of our plantings is God’s doing and not ours?  I believe weeds are proof positive that human beings simply aren’t in charge.  Which is an incredibly good thing, because whenever we get to thinking that we’re responsible for the harvest, it’s like saying we are the ones who make tomatoes and corn to grow.  I don’t care how green you fancy your thumb to be, you can’t do that.  Only God can make tomatoes and corn to grow.  The same God that designed the DNA of a dandelion created tomato plants and corn stalks just so, so that they may grow and blossom and bear the very fruit that makes it possible for you to plant your seeds and kernels year after year.  It truly is a miracle.  Really.

One of my favorite places in south Jersey is the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge.  The broadness of the horizon somehow opens my eyes to new possibilities and, especially when I am feeling stressed, I find I can breathe easier there.   Along with providing a place of safe refuge for water fowl and other critters, it is also a place where weeds are free to grow unhindered.  Yes, Forsythe is one of those magical places where weeds are no longer considered weeds, but rather “native plants” given room and space to grow and thrive and give full expression to the design embedded in them by their Creator.  In early June, the vegetation in the refuge is beautiful.  There are dandelions, sure, but also mustard weed and clover and dozens of other flowering plants bursting with color and purpose.  Each one holding within itself the magic of its survival: seeds sown by bird and breeze, the scattering of the Sower.  The whole of creation sleeps and rises night and day, paying no mind to the harvest.  Winter comes and goes.  The snow melts in springtime.  And every year, by early June, the grasses, the weeds, the wonder—reappears.

I believe the same can be said of the Kingdom.  You and I, we tend to equate the coming of the Kingdom to the condition of the church.  We scatter the seeds of the Gospel and then we till and tend like crazy—as if we’re responsible for God’s harvest; as if we have the ability to raise up believers from among the weeds.  Seasons come and go.  The church thrives and we congratulate ourselves.  The church dwindles and we blame ourselves.  Surely there is something we can do.  Revitalize our youth ministry.  Incorporate a more contemporary style in our worship.  Introduce a new program.  All such efforts are to be applauded.  Potentially, they will make for an enhanced experience for members; maybe even get a few visitors to “stick;” but, no matter how successful we fancy ourselves and our church to be, we simply can’t make believers.  Only God can.   We have been entrusted with the Gospel, with seeds to scatter and sow.  But we can’t take credit for believers any more than we can for the tomatoes and corn we proudly pick out of our back yard gardens.  God does that.

Perhaps our role as church is less about raising up a hearty crop of Christians as it is about providing safe refuge for the fullness of God’s creation.  Who decides which stems to nurture and which need to be rooted out?  How can we possibly determine whether what appears to us as weeds may not, in fact, be the most treasured of the Sower’s plantings?  Certainly Jesus showed a certain partiality to the more scraggly stems among God’s people:  the poor, the leapers, tax collectors and prostitutes.  Somehow, Jesus was able to recognize in weeds such as these the embedded DNA of the Creator; saw in those the world may have regarded as undesirables the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.  The very last thing the Sower needs is gardeners the likes of you and me offering our conflicting opinions and haphazard willingness to help His harvest along.  Best we stick to scattering and leave the increase to God.

After a week of rain, I spent last Sunday afternoon at Forsythe breathing deeply and taking in the wonder and beauty of my surroundings.  The sky was clear and blue.  The sunlight reflected on the water like so many gemstones glistening.  And wildflowers were blooming everywhere:  yellows and purples and so many shades of white.  Yes, even the occasional dandelion by the roadside seemed to dance.  Here was the splendor and fullness of God’s creation as God intended it, all tucked safely within the refuge—far and away from the asphalt and misguided prosperity of the world.  And I got to thinking—this; this is the work to which the church is called.  Not with grit and determination to inch ourselves ever closer to the coming of the Kingdom.  No, the Kingdom is best left safely in God’s hands.  But rather to scatter the seeds of the Gospel faithfully, trusting the Sower, and then provide a place of safe refuge to believers and undesirables alike; recognizing, even in those we may regard as the weeds among us, the embedded DNA of the Creator.

The seeds will grow, though we know not how.  Tender sprouts finding refuge in our buildings, our prayers, and our hearts.  Joining their voices to ours, praying for the coming of the Kingdom.  Gathering at our Lord’s Table of Grace.  Washing one another in the wet promises of Baptism.  All of us together; growing in God’s perfect time; thriving according to the will and purpose of our Creator; safe in the refuge of His boundless mercy.  When the grain is ripe, the Master Gardner will return with His sickle.  All in God’s time, my beloved.  All in God’s time.  We are left to sleep and rise and wait and pray.  Do me a favor; just a single little favor for this week’s supply preacher:  next time you see a puffy white dandelion, before you run for the Roundup, conger up your inner child, reach down, pluck it up in your hand and blow.  Then take a moment to marvel at the mystery and wonder of Creation.    God is oh, so good.  May His Kingdom come.  Amen.

There Is A God

She was crazy attractive in a disheveled sort of way.  Work boots.  Torn jeans.  An over-sized shirt and a mane of thick tangled up curls.  I met her at an AA meeting I attended while living in a different city.  She was, and continues to be an inspiration to me.  Not because of anything she ever said, but simply because she was sober; and, so far as I was concerned, her sobriety was nothing less than a miracle.  I didn’t know a whole lot about her.  Only what she shared.  She had been cross addicted and homeless, I suspect both being the parting gifts of a relationship gone sour.  The old timers welcomed her at the club house.  Let her detox there on the old worn couch and later made sure she had something to eat.  The club opened early and closed late, and she was there every day all day for weeks.  Alternating between sleep and sobs.  Those old timers got her sober and, so far as I know, she still is.  The woman I met was living a life of joy and gratitude and freedom.  And though I have long since moved away, I will never forget her.

Sobriety takes a tremendous amount of courage.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.  The easiest, indeed, what seems the only choice is to “do whatever it takes” to perpetuate the madness.   Self-perpetuated insanity feels like a much preferable option to dealing with the dismal reality of life and circumstances sobriety would inevitably reveal.  There are those who have experienced what is referred to in AA circles as a high bottom: they recognize their lives spiraling out of control, assess their options, and choose sobriety.  It takes guts to admit you have a problem and set off in a new direction, but I’m not talking about that sort of courage.  I’m talking about hitting concrete at 70 miles an hour and having the courage not to die.  That’s what it felt like for me anyway.  Sitting there amidst the wreckage.  Never wanting the fog to lift.  I didn’t care if I lived or died.  No.  I take that back.  Death would have come as a welcome end to the tragedy my life had become.  Surely it would soon be over.

Except it wasn’t.  Someone appeared in that fog, alright, but it wasn’t The Grim Reaper.  Rather, it was a young upstart in a suit sitting behind a desk and two women from church who put me in their car and drove me to rehab.  I kept insisting I didn’t belong there, that I could do it on my own, that the whole rehab thing is just a scam to bilk money out of insurance companies.  But none of that was true and I knew it.  I didn’t have that sort of courage.  Not like the woman I had met some two years prior.  No matter the mess I had made of my life.  No matter that I was sick and getting sicker.  Sobriety was too scary.  I was terrified for the fog to lift.  When I insisted I could do it on my own, what I was really asking for is another chance:  let me try again.  I screwed up.  Okay.  But I can do better.  I can live in this fog and keep all my balls in the air.  Just let me show you.  Please don’t do this to me.  I don’t want sobriety.  I’m afraid.

I still am.  Nearly a year has passed since last August, and I am still scared.  But old timers have taken care of me, and a family of sorts has embraced me and, for the first time ever, I have found the courage—not to get and stay sober, but—to admit I can’t do it on my own.  I need the eclectic mishmash of folk who make up my AA home group.  I need the discipline of meetings and the support of those who have travelled this path ahead of me.  And I desperately need the companionship of the friends who have and continue to love me.  It has taken me a lifetime to do it, but I have finally found myself taken up by the Body of Christ: loved by others who , rather than holding me in high esteem because of my valiant striving toward perfection, cradle me in my brokenness with the healing grace of understanding and compassion.  I was lost.  I am found.  Much to my grateful surprise, I am now sober and alive and free.  Go figure.  Me.  Yes, beloveds, there is a God.


I Don’t Play Golf

015 (3)Never was much for watching it on TV, either.  Too slow.  Too quiet.  Just a lot of grass and whispering commentators droning on for hours.  I did, however, have an absolutely splendid time at the ShopRite Seaview LPGA Classic last week.  017 (3)Five glorious days of sunshine and exercise.  Anna Nordqvist won.  With an 8 under par.  I know that because everybody went crazy when she sunk her final putt.  I read the 8 under par bit in Monday’s paper.  I was not nearly as excited and involved with the game as I was the swelling crowds and the anticipatory atmosphere.  I was there for all of it.  Through two days of the ProAm (when amateur golfers—mostly men—play with the pros) and the qualifying games that led up to Sunday’s big event.

I systematically alternated between crop pants with long sleeves and shorts with tank tops hoping to get the most tan possible without risking a burn.  I hiked from hole to hole watching tee offs and putts and marveling at the rare sighting of a female caddy hauling an enormous bag of clubs.  I ducked into the shade when I wanted to get out of the sun and sat in the grass to lose myself in the warm breezes of late May.  I ate free hotdogs and sampled a variety of flavored lemonades.  There was minigolf and face painting for the kids and dozens of vendors hawking their wares.  And, in stark contrast to the carnival atmosphere by the entrance, hundreds and hundreds of spectators who all seemed religiously serious about golf.

028 (3)bAs for me, I was a stranger in a strange land.  For a non-golfer, non-golf enthusiast to venture into a professional golf event is akin to travelling to a foreign land.  The language—bogies and birdies and eagles—is unfamiliar.  The natives all conform to the same local customs of dress and move about in clans, following their chosen leader, trancelike.. And “the course” is completely set apart from all things familiar—worry, stress, and relentless obligations—providing a virtual oasis in the desert of reality.  For hours upon hours, there is only “the game,” the sunshine, and an endless expanse of green grass punctuated with clusters of trees and the occasional traps of soft white sand.   I dare say, it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had!

No, I don’t play golf, but I now have a far better understanding why so many people do.  And, while I still have no intention of ever picking up a driver or hauling around a bag of clubs, I’m already looking forward to returning  to the LPGA Classic next year!  Fore!