Worship Alternatives - SERMONSTo find your choice, click on the title or key the item number into your "find" function (usually control-F).
Although these sermons may be uneven in quality, some are marked * as especially noteworthy. The sermons were solicited through a contest. Read the Contest Guidelines here.
- Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons
- Lent/Easter seasons
- Pentecost season
- * 130-God, Creation, and Us (Holy Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1; Psalm 8)
- 131-Christmas in July (John 3:16 & Luke 2:1-20)
- 132-Traveling Light (Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: Mark 6: 1-13)
- 133-More Than Enough (Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: John 6: 1-21)
- 134-Sowing Seeds (After Pentecost: Isaiah 55:10-13, Mark 14:1-16)
- 135-Black Friday (Sunday after Thanksgiving: Matt. 3: 1-12)
- 136-God Leads... As a Shepherd... As a King (Christ The King Sunday: Ezekiel 34: 11- 24; Matthew 25: 31-46)/a>
- Other Times
- *NEW--Take Back Your Time: Celebration of St. Francis with John De Graaf
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
Second Sunday in Advent - December 8, 2002
Isaiah 40: 1-11
The beloved text that we hear from the prophecy of Isaiah this morning is, in my view, the most comforting passage of the Bible. The very words themselves are comforting in their poetry and imagery.
"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem...
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep."
(Isaiah 40: 2, 11)
I suppose some of the appeal comes from the wonderful way that musicians across the centuries were able to set this Word to music. For many it is an annual tradition to hear Handel's amazing oratorio, Messiah.
A big source of comfort from this passage also comes from the promise of justice. For some, life is just not fair! Others seem to get all the breaks...and none of the burdens. It is indeed good news to hear that when the kingdom comes, everything will even out.
"Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain." (v. 4)
Some people really do have a lot of rough places in their lives. At this time of year, it is especially hard on folks burdened by illness, family breakups or job woes; people victimized by crimes or accidents. A funeral director told me that this is their busiest time of year. We all know that death doesn't take a holiday, but somehow it seems to hurt more to be so freshly grieving at this time of year. I wondered if the increased death rate was merely a combination of the flu season and more dangerous driving conditions - but I know that there are also reports that depression increases during what the Muzak pipes out as "the hap, hap, happiest season of all." A lot of people are very needy right now - but, there's a tendency to become very isolated because you feel you just don't fit in. Another reality that we try to squelch, even though it affects every one of us, is the world situation, with war looming large.
A lot of people are in need of a lot of comfort these days - so it's good to hear the voice of God this morning, spoken with such compassion and mercy.
It's also good to hear that we can do something too. God uses us to help usher in the kingdom through our repentance of sinful ways. We can be peacemakers, we can prepare the way, we can be cohorts in the distillation of comfort. Sometimes it's our sin that makes the way rough for others - and when Jesus came the first time, he was pretty good at pointing out where that was. John the Baptist did a pretty good job of that as well.
The songwriter of one of my favorite Christmas songs died recently. Noel Regney, along with his wife, Gloria Shayne, wrote the beloved classic - "Do You Hear What I Hear?" I enjoyed reading the story of its creation in last week's paper. It was written'"...as a clear and plaintive plea for peace at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in October, 1962." (The New York Times, December 1, 2002, p. 58). The song begins with that comforting image of a lamb: "Said the night wind to the little lamb. Do you hear what I hear?" and then the story of Jesus' coming unfolds through a succession of characters, including a shepherd boy and a powerful king. The king learns from the shepherd boy who Jesus is - and why Jesus has come. And he exhorts his people: "Pray for peace, people, everywhere. A child, a child, sleeping in the night, he will bring us goodness and light..."
We know the story too. And we can tell it to others. We can tell about the one whose "...rule is peace and freedom and justice, truth, and love." (Lutheran Book of Worship # 26)
"Do you hear what I hear?...Do you know what I know?" What comfort that can give us. What comfort for others to hear. Amen.
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
Third Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2002
Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11; Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
When John the Baptist was first approached by the priests and Levites sent to scout out the background of this person who was baptizing and calling for repentance - it was somewhat like a guessing game. John told them at first, by saying what he was not.
"Who are you?"
"I am not the Messiah."
"What then? Are you Elijah?"
"I am not."
"Are you the prophet?"
Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
Finally John says who he is, instead of who he is not.
He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
The other John - the author of this story about John the Baptist - had already clued us in on the identity of this rather strange character. Last week Mark described this cousin of Jesus this way: "...clothed with camel's hair...he ate locusts and wild honey." (1:6) John says, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."
It seems to be a common technique of description - to say what you are not - as a kind of roundabout way to saying what or who you are.
A choir anthem uses this technique.
"Thou shalt know him when he comes, not by any din of drums,
nor his manners, nor his airs, Nor anything he wears...
Not by his crown or by his gown,...
And then the anthem speaks about the presence of something, instead of the absence of something:
"But his coming known shall be, by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee."
Ah...that's what we need to look for - a bit of holy harmony. It's what we're looking for today, in these last weeks of Advent. It's how Jesus will make himself known - at the last. Peace on earth, good will to all.
Today is Gaudete Sunday - a day of joy set aside in this season of repentance, of preparation. We heard Paul's final instructions to the saints in Thessalonica: '"Rejoice always." It is our wish, isn't it? - to celebrate Christmas all through the year, not just for one day. To celebrate the coming of the one who adopted the prophecy we heard from Isaiah as his mission statement. (Check it out in Luke 4.)
"...he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted...
to comfort all who mourn... (Isaiah 61: 1,2)
What a beautiful picture of the torchlight procession honoring President Jimmy Carter, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. And how apropos was his testimony, quoting Ralph Bunche, the American who won this prestigious award in 1950.
"To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of war-mongering...The world has had ample evidence that war begets only conditions that beget further war." (The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 11, 2002, p. A1, A14).
News seems to push the prospect of "holy harmony" even further out of reach. To hear of war makes me wonder if the horrors of Hiroshima have been forgotten.
Who are you? John the Baptist claimed his calling. Have you claimed yours? How is God calling you to rejoice today?
Not at the mall, where the glitzy, gold decorations decry the poverty of that first manger scene? (I haven't spent too much time at the mall this shopping season, but when I went into one department store, the glitz and the gold was overwhelming - that and the signs plastered all over, almost screaming-"BUY! BUY! BUY!" I felt quite uncomfortable and just wanted to leave instead of shop.)
Is God calling you to be: Not too busy, too tired, too stressed - to pray or to spend time each day reading and meditating on the promises God has for you?
Not preoccupied with power and pride, with blinders to obliterate the sufferings of people around you - the lowly ones waiting to be lifted up - across the street and across the ocean.
God is calling you to rejoice this day. In the words of Isaiah:
"I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness...(v.10)
God is calling you...
To reach out with the good news...
You could join a group of carolers ministering to the folks confined to the hospital during this holiday season.
You could spend even more time with what some have come to bemoan as a chore - sending Christmas cards - adding a personal note of hope and peace for someone who really needs to hear it.
You could follow the lead of John the Baptist, and point to the light of Jesus. Point with your actions. Words are powerful. But actions are even more powerful.
Jesus' coming will be made known by the "holy harmony" that fills each and every one of us. We can rejoice as we wait for that day. Amen.
St. Mark Lutheran Church, Sioux City, Iowa
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2005
When angels sing, God is about to do something. Tonight they are singing, and the glory of the Lord pushes back the darkness of a cold night. Darkness is our experience - violence, injustice, powerlessness, despair. Luke's story full of that. Glory is God's doing. Luke's story is about that.
The angels sing Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth... a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This registration was not just a counting of people. The registration was for tax purposes, an abusive tax that paid for Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee, an insidious tax in that the victims of the oppressors paid for their oppression. This registration was like systems and powers that oppress and abuse people in our world, people who are overwhelmed and powerless, people who fall through the cracks, people who receive no benefit from the bounty of business or from the decisions of government. In the darkness, the angels sing.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth... there were shepherds living in the fields. Shepherds performed a job that honorable people of the time would not do. Contrary to all the cute shepherds in our Christmas pageants, the job of the shepherd would be similar to being a garbage collector today - something that needs to be done for the sake of the community, but not a vocation a mother would ordinarily be proud of for her son. The first to see glory of Lord and the savior of world were among the least of the world. In the darkness, the angels sing.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth... a child lying in a manger, because there was no room in the inn, is how the story goes. But this was Joseph's home town, his family's village, and family had an obligation to care for family. People did not venture far from home and family in those days. Why was there no room for Joseph and Mary? Was it because Joseph had dared to leave town? Was it because of the reason that Joseph left town? Was it because of Mary's condition? The closed doors of Bethlehem are like rejections that continue in our world. In the darkness, the angels sing.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth... the shepherds went to see this thing that the Lord had made known to them. A child lying in a feed box would have narrowed the search a little, but according to Luke, there is no star to guide the shepherds through the dark streets of Bethlehem. The star appears to the wise men, according to Matthew, and that may well have happened two or three years later. There is no obvious sign to the place where God enters our world. The angel's song proclaims the savior of the world, hidden in the darkness, lying in a feed box, amid the smells and waste of animals, in order to turn our eyes away from the attractions of wealth and might, power and privilege, importance and fame to the shadows and edges, the least and lowly, the weak and powerless, in order to behold an awesome God in the midst of an awful mess.
If Luke were telling this story today in such a way that it lands upon our ears as it did upon the ears of those for whom Luke wrote, it could well be about a homeless, unmarried mother who has lost her job and then her apartment because of missing work, which was because of complications with her pregnancy, which were further compounded by limited access to health care. On a cold, dark night, she gives birth to her child in an alley beside a dumpster, because the shelter was full, and she was not pushy enough to demand a place. She wraps the baby in rags and lays it in crib fashioned from greasy pizza boxes, which she found in the dumpster. The first witness of this holy event was the driver of a garbage truck on his nightly rounds as he came to empty the dumpster. Her privacy was suddenly flooded by the glare of the headlights, accompanied by a song blaring from the truck's radio, with the exhaust from the truck hanging close in the cold, damp air. It's a harsh story because the darkness of our world can be harsh. If God can not enter into that darkness in order to embrace the least or the lowest among us, then we would always be left to wonder if God could ever come close to us at all. Luke's story was intended to reveal the violence and the brokenness of our world in order to show the depth of God's love and breadth of God's power, to open eyes to presence of God in the surprising places of our world, among least, in the shadows, on a cross, and tonight in bread and wine. Tonight, the glory of the Lord pushes back the darkness as angels sing Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth... hope is born, all are included, God is close. Gloria in excelsis Deo, and on earth...peace!
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
First Sunday After Christmas, December 29, 2002
Luke 2: 22-40
As the year draws to a close, we try to savor the present moment but some of our thoughts will dwell on the past, while we also anticipate the year to come. What will the new year bring? We can imagine a few scenarios, some not very pleasant to contemplate. Some take time to make New Year's resolutions. Whatever the new year brings, I'm going to do what I can to make my part of the world better. I'll lose weight, exercise, become a healthier person. I'll take the time to pay attention to the needs of others. I'll go to church, read my Bible, pray every day. I'll be more giving, more patient, more tolerant. I won't waste time worrying about money - or my job. I'll laugh more, I'll love more, I will enjoy life. Carpe diem!!
We heard a couple of stories today about prophets who were blessed to meet the newborn baby Jesus and his family. How did they know when to come? Had they heard the story from the shepherds?
Luke tells us that: "Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple..." (2:27) Then Luke records this beautiful song of peace - the song we sing in our liturgy so fittingly as a post-Communion canticle.
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (v.29-33)
How wonderful it would be if each one of us could end our lives as Simeon did - on such a note of acceptance and joy.
It is remarkable that Simeon sings this song in the temple, because Simeon is one of the first ecumenists - rejoicing that God has come down to all peoples - "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." If only Simeon could be alive now to be the mediator between those struggling for control in Israel right now...
We also hear Anna's story. Women of that era did not command much attention usually, so the inclusion of Anna's witness is especially remarkable as well. She does have credentials - we're told of her lineage which connects her to the tribe of Asher, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. And we're also told that she was recognized as a prophet - and had the wisdom that old age brings to many (something we sometimes don't recognize in our time, unfortunately).
As a widow, Anna probably didn't have many options. There's no mention of children to care for her needs. But Anna was called by God to a ministry of prayer. "She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day." (v. 37)
Anna must have also been guided by the Spirit, as Simeon was. "At that moment, she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." (v. 38)
Both Simeon and Anna knew that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah - the one sent to save. And both of them did not keep this wonderful news a secret - but had to tell others. It must have been especially difficult for Simeon to be the bearer of bad news as well - to tell Mary, Jesus' mother, that "...a sword will pierce your own soul too." (v. 35)
How do these stories help us to celebrate the good news of Christmas? How do they help us carry on into the new year? A year that for some will include war, disease, poverty, despair?
We hear about teens - even out in what is perceived as the safe suburbs - addicted to heroin, some to the point of death.
We fear that some of our own will go marching off to war - and won't be coming home.
We wonder what will emerge from the Pandora's box that has been opened by experiments with cloning.
Simeon and Anna's stories can give us hope. They point to Jesus, the source of consolation, of redemption. Jesus is the way out of this mess and chaos that we've helped to create.
Simeon and Anna were servants of the Word, open to God's direction. They were blessed with peace and the power to praise and to proclaim.
What a gift their stories are for us to share! Go and tell someone else about the hope you've heard. Take some peace with you today and pass it on. Amen.
Lenten Sermon #1
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
John De Graaf
Thank you. I'm both honored and humbled to be asked to present to you during this Lenten season... and more than a little daunted as well. I must confess that my credentials as a theologian are shaky at best, and that while I've always been a person of faith, I have never been formally churched, just as I have always been an eager learner, but never formally certified as "schooled." Nevertheless, your rectors have invited me here and I hope that what I have to offer is at least a bit worthy of that invitation. They've told me to go ahead and be provocative, so, with prior apologies, I will be. And if my theology is full of holes, I beg your forgiveness.
I grew up in a nominally protestant family, but as far as I remember, neither my parents nor our church did much to honor Lent. I heard more about it from my Catholic friends, who talked of it primarily as those 40 days when you gave up meat, like they always did on Fridays, and something else that was dear to you as well. I thought of it as a time of sacrifice.
I think of it now a little differently-as a time when we reflect on what is important to us and ask why, a time when we ask whether those things to which we attach great importance are really the important things after all.
It is a time when we lay down heavy burdens, desires that have become addictions, and begin to turn our lives around.
It is a time when we ask what is tempting us which interferes with our real participation in the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert to prove his power by turning stone into bread, he responded by saying that we don't live by bread alone. And of course, we certainly don't. Not those of us who live in this world's richest nation. Yet if we think of bread in a different way, as a symbol of material possessions, then we are awash in breads of every variety-plastic bread and metal bread, bread of every shape and size. Bread for bread's sake. Addicted more and more to bread... alone. So it is in the consumer society.
If we think, on the other hand, of things of the spirit, of relationships, of love, of family, of healthy bodies and minds, of creation stewardship, of joy, of being rather than having, then I would contend we are growing hungrier by the day.
We hunger especially for that which these things of the spirit require most-free time. Time unburdened by the demands of earning and spending, producing and consuming.
We are stuffed with things and starving for time. And yet, time is a family value, without which families crumble. Time is needed if we are to eat properly, exercise properly, and sleep long enough to be healthy and alert. Time is required if we are to be servants in our communities and stewards of creation. Time is necessary to love and to live. And we are running out of it.
I invite you to reflect during this Lenten season on what has happened to our time in America... what has happened to your time? Why have so many of us come to feel so burdened by tasks we haven't time to accomplish? Why, for so many of us, has life become a rat race?
Why are we Americans laboring longer today than we were a generation ago? More, by far, than the citizens of other industrial countries. Leaving little time for other purposes. It wasn't supposed to be this way.
My personal interest in this issue goes back some 35 years-to the fall of 1968. I was studying sociology in college in Wisconsin, and we were considering what important social problems would face American society at the end of the 20th century, problems we sociologists would be called on to help solve. Of course, there was racism-1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated after all...and overpopulation...and real hunger...and war-we were at the time smack dab in the quick sands of Vietnam.
But then there was this other problem. A US Senate subcommittee had predicted that by the year 2000 we'd be working only 14 hours a week, with 7-10 weeks of vacation a year. Some of you probably remember those predictions. The conventional wisdom was that with automation, and "cybernation"-a popular word then to describe the computer revolution we knew was coming...with all the labor saving devices we were creating daily... we'd have so much leisure time on our hands we wouldn't know what to do with it.
As Dave Barry says, "I'm not making this up."
Now I have to admit this was a problem I thought I could deal with. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to it. I figured I could find things to do with my extra free time. But of course, the problem we now face is precisely the opposite.
For many of us, the idea of leisure time is a distant dream, like winning the lottery. We are not worried about what to do with too much time; we are trapped with too little. Darn...don't you just hate it when that happens? So what went wrong with those predictions'of leisure? We got the technology. Our productivity per worker hour has more than doubled since 1968. More than doubled.
Theoretically, we could be working about half as much as we were then, and still have a material standard of living that would even today be the envy of more than half the world. We could have taken part of our productivity gains in wage increases and part in more time. We could have, but we didn't.
Unconsciously or otherwise, we chose as a society to take all of our increased productivity and trade it for more goods and services... more bread, if you put it in biblical terms, instead of more time. We chose what all of our great religious traditions have warned us not to choose.
Thirty years ago, I first saw "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," Franco Zeffirelli's film about the life of St. Francis. I'm sure many of you have seen it. In many respects, it was a typical movie, all Hallmark pretty, every scene shot at the golden hour. The violence was there, but understated, the way violence was in those days, and is no longer, as Mel Gibson's new film about the death of Christ makes perfectly clear. Then too, Lady Claire always looked like she'd just walked off the set of a Lady Clairol commercial.
Nonetheless, the film contained a valuable message. It spoke to the essence of Christianity. It portrayed Francis as a Christian rebel against the growing materialism of his day. Francis challenged his father, a very rich textile merchant whose wealth came from the exploitation of his workers, and whose life revolved around calculations of economic profit and loss. "What's it all for-this business-this-busy-ness-that so consumes my father?" Francis asked.
Instead, Francis called his peers to savor the wonder of creation and to care for it. To embrace Lady Poverty and her lepers. He reminded them of Christ's words about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap, yet are clothed more beautifully than Solomon in all his glory. He warned them that they could not serve both God and money. And he asked them to take the time to discover what really matters.
He asked them to slow down and be here now. And that was at a time, when by modern standards, they were all tortoises anyway.
The music in the movie was performed by the folk singer Donovan, and it was too sappy for most people's tastes, including mine. But the words to one of the songs have stayed with me all these years: "If you want your dream to grow, take your time, go slowly. Do few things but do them well. Simple gifts are holy."
We live in a very different world with ideas very different from those Francis was about. Our dream is a different dream. And to keep up with this material dream we're actually spending more time on the job than we were in 1968. More time on the job. If Donovan wanted to write a song expressing our temporal values, it might go something like this: "If you want your dream to grow...work all day, go faster...Do a lot, then do some more...Work should be your master..."
I'm afraid that in America, Work has become our other deity, right up there with materialism. Zeus and Hera. Gods before God.
After all, we are Number One. We are the workaholics of the modern industrial world. According to the International Labor Organization, which measures such things, we Americans now average 1979 hours on the job per year, roughly forty-nine-and-a-half 40 hour weeks.
Compare that with 1399 annual hours in Norway, or 1842 hours even in Japan. On average, we work nearly nine full weeks more each year than do our counterparts in western Europe. Nine weeks. Put more simply, they work a full year less than we do every six years! Those Europeans get about six weeks of paid vacation a year. We average two. And 26% of us got no paid time off at all last year. Zero. None.
For the most part, European stores are still closed on Sundays, while we've gone 24/7. Even the Sabbath is no longer considered a day of rest. We've created a new commandment: remember the cell phone and keep it handy. We're always on call.
Now all of these hours don't even count the hidden work we're required to do more and more of. Think about the time you spend sorting through junk mail because you can't tell your real bills from come-ons. Think about how much time you spend dealing with email spam, or even telemarketers, if you haven't signed up for 'do not call.' Think about the time it takes to choose between 40,000 items on supermarket shelves. Think about how long your commute has become. Hidden work-all of it. Unpaid overtime.
Let me put it to you bluntly: medieval peasants worked less than we do.
Don't laugh. It's true. We know, for instance, that around the year 1500, work hours in Europe averaged nine per day-more in summer, less in winter. But the pace of work was much more leisurely than it is today, and work was abandoned entirely during scores of holy days. At the dawn of the renaissance, these holidays-celebrations of the feasts of saints, captured in works of art like the paintings of Pieter Bruegel-amounted to about 150 a year. All of this changed with the industrial revolution and the full development of unregulated capitalism, with which the Reformation was an unwitting partner.
Karl Marx was never known for having the sense of humor that Groucho did. But consider what he wrote about the loss of free time that came with the industrial revolution: "Protestantism dethroned the saints in heaven in order to abolish their feast days on the earth." No saints, no holidays. Not a bad deal for the captains of industry. The work ethic was born.
People were forced to work as much as sixteen hours a day, with only Sunday off. The earliest industrial workers didn't take kindly to being stripped of their old religious holidays. They came up with a new one-St. Monday. On Mondays, they'd often refuse to come in to work. For more than a century, they fought for shorter working hours.
In the United States, the new regime of work without end was challenged by our most honored thinkers, like Henry David Thoreau. "Let us consider the way we spend our lives," he wrote in Life Without Principle. "The world is a place of business... there is no Sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work... If a man should walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer, but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen."
American labor and religious leaders alike believed that workers needed time just as much as they needed higher pay - time for their families and communities, for education, for knowing God..."Hearts starve as well as bodies," declared striking textile workers at Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. "We want bread, but roses too." And, of course, the time to smell them.
During the 1920s, Monsignor John Ryan, editor of The Catholic Charities Review, pointed to St. Augustine's claim that natural law demanded a maximum standard of living as well as a minimum one. "The true and rational doctrine" Ryan wrote, "is that when men have produced sufficient necessaries and reasonable comforts, they should spend what time is left in the cultivation of their intellects and wills, in the pursuit of the higher life....they should ask, 'what is life for?'"
Jewish scholar Felix Cohen pointed out that in the biblical tradition work was a curse visited upon Adam for his sin in Eden. Cohen suggested that with wasteful and unnecessary production abolished, it would soon be possible to reduce the workweek to ten hours!
By the 1930s, we got it down to 40 hours. In 1933 the US Senate actually passed a bill that would have made the workweek 30 hours! Anything extra would be overtime. At a time when our economy was a sixth as productive as it is today. When I mention that to people they say, "Oh you mean 40 hours." No, 30 hours. But the bill failed to reach the House of Representatives.
Everybody expected the workweek would keep getting shorter, or at least, that annual working hours would continue to decline. And so they have-everywhere but here. We'll talk more about that next week.
But now you might ask, what's the problem-people like to work, what's wrong with that? Who are you to tell them they shouldn't? We'll consider that question next week too. In the meantime, I invite you to think about your own feelings regarding time and its uses-your own, and our society's. And I encourage you to take a moment of silence now to ask, "what is life for?"
February 29, 2004
John De Graaf works as an independent film producer at Public Television, KCET, Seattle. He produced the "Affluenza" and "Escape from Affluenza" films and coauthored the "Affluenza" book. More recently he produced "Silent Killer: The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger," all available from Alternatives. He is a founding member of the Simplicity Forum and serves as national coordinator of two of the forum's initiatives, "Take Back Your Time Day" since 2003 and "Affluenza Vaccination Sunday," beginning in 2006.
Lenten Sermon #2
John De Graaf
In the book of Mark, chapter 6, verses 30-31 we find the beginning of the story of the loaves and fishes and the feeding of the multitudes: "the apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, 'come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.' for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat."
Coming and going... no leisure even to eat...and not even a fast food place on the corner...
Picture them scurrying, anxious, busy with their commitment to the important work they were doing.
Sound familiar? Can you think of friends and family who are often too busy even to eat?
Surely, in the mind of Jesus, there could have been no more valuable activity than that which his apostles were about.
And yet, he instructed them to rest, to take leave from the burdens of their work.
Don't we need even more to hear that instruction, especially'where our work is concerned with short term achievement and material gain?
In last week's remarks I spoke about the problem that wasn't-the coming age of leisure that was supposed to leave us with so much free time on our hands we wouldn't know what to do with it.
That, after all, was the predominant prediction 35 years ago.
We were supposed to be working only half as long today as we did then.
Instead, we're working longer-as much as five weeks longer per person per year, according to some studies.
Dad's working longer. Mom's working much longer for pay, and still performing most of the chores at home. Even the kids are often working.
Now, I appreciate the fact that for some people this will sound like great news. After all, more work means a higher standard of living, right?
And besides, meaningful work is essential to our happiness and development as human beings.
What's the problem, you might ask-people like to work, what's wrong with that? Don't idle hands do the devil's duty?
Let me be perfectly clear-there is nothing wrong with good, honest, hard work.
But just because something is good doesn't mean that more of it is always better.
Not when it crowds out other activities and values that are also essential to a happy life.
Today, I ask you to join me for a look at what overwork-let me repeat, that-overwork- is doing to-American life. To our lives.
Now, I want you to know that I'm not casting stones here. My sin in many of these areas may be greater than most people's.
In fact, now that I'm trying hard to end overwork, I've been working more than I used to.
I want to acknowledge my guilt. In fact, I've formed a new organization for people like me.
It's called "aha"-the American hypocrites' association.
I'm preaching what'I have to learn, and trying to change.
Still, I trust that my own imperfection does not falsify the facts I would convey.
First, consider health. Overwork reduces the time we have for exercise, and encourages the consumption of calorie-laden convenience foods. I know this has been true in my life.
TommyThompson, America's secretary of health and human services, says all of us ought to exercise an hour a day for optimum health, but he doesn't tell us where to find the time.
Some doctors believe that "time urgency," frequently resulting from overwork, is the most important single factor in our high levels of heart disease.
Physicians I have spoken with tell me that as much as 80 or 90 percent of the physical complaints they hear from patients are rooted in stress resulting from time pressures.
Of course, physicians are overworked themselves, and, with the average doctor-patient visit lasting seven minutes, they have little time to explore the life changes that would really improve their patients' health. So they often resort to the quick fix of pills instead.
Health problems created or exacerbated by overwork contribute to the mushrooming cost of medical care in America.
According to a recent study by Middle Tennessee State University, job stress and burnout now cost our economy 344 billion dollars a year in absenteeism, lost productivity and the price of treatment. 344 billion dollars a year.
Stress from the overload of work and our fast-paced lives also leads to insecurity.
More than half of all Americans get too little sleep. Many of us are just plain worn out. Thousands of traffic accidents each year are the result of drivers' falling asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, most of them aren't fatal.
Stressed drivers, frantically hurrying from place to place, increase the risk of accidents, and the incidence of road rage.
Don't you just want to...shoot them?
Doctors Ichiro Kawasho and Bruce Kennedy, of the Harvard School of Public Health, point out that in terms of general health, including such key measures as average longevity, the United States has dropped from the middle of the pack among industrial nations in 1980 to dead last today.
In their powerful recent book, The Health of Nations, they put much of the blame on overwork, exacerbated by our "keep up with the Jones's" consumerism.
Our mental health suffers as well. Many studies show an alarming rise in clinical depression, while the number of Americans taking mood-enhancing medications has reached an all-time high.
Now take relationships.
Time is a family value, perhaps the most essential of family values. And yet our family values discussion in America seldom mentions it.
Overwork threatens family life as we find less and less time to be together. Dual income American couples spend fewer than 15 minutes a day talking to each other.
One study found that American parents spend 40% less time with their children than they did a generation ago.
Not so, others find. But they suggest that use of that time has changed.
Today, we are more commonly spectators in our children's lives, driving them from one event to another.
We watch them and cheer them frequently, but interact directly with them less often.
About one-third fewer families regularly eat dinner together than in 1970.
And by the way, a long-term University of Michigan study found that the best predictor of how well students would do in college was having regular dinners with their families!
Remember the summer vacations of your childhood? Nearly a third fewer families take them today. The typical vacation has become the long weekend.
Last summer, nearly half of all Americans didn't even take a full week off for vacation.
Does it matter? Doctors think so. People who don't get vacations are far more susceptible to heart attacks than those who do.
Our frantic, hurried schedules are too often duplicated by our sons and daughters, who rush between over-scheduled activities with little time to be children.
Ten year olds now carry appointment calendars and teens boast schedules that used to be reserved for corporate CEOs.
Recently, I read Gary Nabhan's wonderful book, The Geography of Childhood, which points out the importance of nature in the lives of children.
I remember how as a child I used to roam the hills near my home south of San Francisco, with friends, catching snakes, and toads, and sometimes bringing them home to my mother's displeasure.
I remember the long hours we spent making rafts at nearby ponds.
I remember seeing the magic of thousands of frogs' eggs appear each spring, hatch into tadpoles and eventually grow legs.
I think those days forever imprinted me with a love of nature, and a sense of awe for the wonder of creation.
But in our hurry-up world, where even instant gratification is too slow, children have little time to appreciate the natural world and its slower rhythms. Little time for awe.
Our children are losing their connection with nature, and even with the outdoors itself.
Kids today spend less than half as much unstructured time outside as they did a mere generation ago.
They feel as constantly hurried as we do, and as a result, rates of childhood depression and suicide have been rising rapidly.
Then, consider those furry and feathered members of our families. Parade magazine suggests that America is in the midst of an epidemic of animal abandonment and neglect.
Veterinarians tell us they commonly see animals that chew off their fur out of boredom because we're too busy to spend time with them.
Sad, isn't it? Even a dog's life isn't what it used to be.
There are, of course, exceptions. Some people hire others to spend time with their pets. In affluent Marin County, California, the fastest growing businesses include doggy day care centers, and pet walking services.
And what about our communities? It takes time to be your brother's keeper.
President Bush encourages all of us to volunteer to help our communities, and I applaud him for that. But he doesn't tell us how to find the time.
As Robert Putnam points out in his fascinating book, Bowling Alone, just as many Americans volunteer in their communities and contribute to charities as ever.
But he adds that hours spent volunteering are sharply down and many non-profit organizations, including communities of faith, are feeling the crunch.
In a vicious cycle, our loss of community, family and friendship connections also takes a heavy toll on health.
Doctors have found that strong human bonds are at least as important to good health as lifestyle issues like smoking and exercise.
The French smoke twice as much as we do, but get heart disease and cancer less often. Some people say it's the wine. But other doctors credit long family dinners, and greater time spent socializing.
What about civic life?
A third of non-voters in the 2000 elections said they simply didn't have time to vote? Do you believe them?
I don't. It doesn't take that long to cast your vote.
But what is true is that many of us have little time to figure out what we're voting for. This comes at a time when we've got complex initiatives on our ballot, and when Californians had to choose between 135 candidates for governor.
No wonder the 30 second commercial has become the essence of politics.
Overwork also reduces employment, as fewer people are hired, then made to work longer hours.
Overwork and unemployment are two sides of the same coin.
By sharing work more equitably, we could provide work for everyone. That would put upward pressure on wages at the bottom, which now leave even some full time workers living in poverty.
Overwork actually increases the cost of living. Consider how absurd this becomes where food is concerned. Much of our dependence on fast, overly processed, foods is a defensive action against time famine.
You can now buy pre-scrambled eggs to heat in the microwave. They save you five minutes time, but cost twenty times more than if you cooked them yourself.
In fact, they cost the average worker 12 minutes of worktime just to buy them. And I can't vouch for their taste.
And finally, overwork contributes to the destruction of our environment.
Haste makes waste, encouraging reliance on convenience and throw-away items. Friends have told me they don't even have time to recycle.
There is an additional problem: on a finite planet, unlimited economic growth is unsustainable. Already, we'd need four planets if the rest of the world suddenly duplicated our lifestyle.
We need to offer free time rather than more money and stuff as the reward for increasing productivity.
I want to repeat that I'm not against work. In fact, I understand that useful and creative work is essential to happiness.
But American life has gotten way out of balance. Way out of balance.
Producing and consuming more has become the single-minded obsession of the American economy, while other values-strong families and communities, wholesome food, good health and a clean environment, active citizenship, social justice, time for nature and the soul-are increasingly neglected.
It hasn't made us happier. In fact, studies show that Americans are less happy today than they were in the 1950s.
Why has this happened? What led us into this predicament?
What can we do about all of this?
I'm going to try to answer those questions next week. I promise to begin talking about how we can get out of this trap.
How do we tame the tiger of overwork in a country where the issue isn't even on any of our leaders' radar screens?
I realize that I've done little to raise your spirits today. You might even think that what I gave up for Lent was hope.
But that's not true. I'm really very hopeful that we can change things. I don't intend to leave you feeling low and wishing you were an ostrich.
There's actually a lot of good news out there. And in my final two homilies, I want to focus primarily on the good news, on what we can do...if we take this problem seriously.
If we understand that when 60% of Americans, or more, have the same personal problem, it's not just a personal problem. It's a social problem.
This problem comes in many forms-overwork, over-choice, over-speed, over-scheduling, overload, over-consumption.
It is in some cases the result of voluntary choices, in other cases, the result of coercion and lack of choices.
And we will need to address it in many ways to solve it.
We will need to begin with a national dialogue like that which other countries have been having for many years.
We can learn from what they've discovered.
I invite you again to take a silent moment and ask yourself that essential question: what is life for?
Thank you for your time and God bless you.
March 7, 2004
Lenten Sermon #3
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
John De Graaf
Last week, I told you that I hadn't given up hope for Lent.
I promised to lighten up, and offer some good news, some solutions for the time poverty that has so many of us in its grip.
And I will. I really will. I promise. Just give me some time...
You've stayed with me so far, and I'm grateful to you for that.
I'm grateful also, for the fact that even though I've worn the same shirt each day I've spoken here, there are still no tomato stains on it.
So thanks for being both patient and polite.
Last week, I also promised to offer my own analysis about how we got where we are today. Why didn't the promise of leisure come true? What happened?
Today, I want to offer that analysis, and then begin providing solutions, starting at the macro level.
Looking at what is happening around the world that is relevant to this inquiry.
In chapter six of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities."
Theologian Walter Wink suggests that Paul means there are social patterns, structures and institutions that lead us into sin and keep us from redemption.
Among these, he includes racism, militarism and economic exploitation.
Wink doesn't think these "powers and principalities" can be overcome by personal piety alone.
He believes that wrestling against them requires collective social reform as well.
I would argue that the solutions to time poverty are also in part institutional and structural, and I will explore these solutions today.
Next week, I'll get personal. Trust me.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus suggests that where our treasures are, there will our hearts be also.
It is as true for nations as for individuals.
And what is it that nations treasure?
Or more specifically, what is that this nation treasures?
I would suggest that the answer lies in what we choose to measure, what we keep score of.
What we seek more and more of.
So what do we measure, and how do we measure it?
Since about World War II, the scorecard that tallies our treasure has been the gross national product, the GNP.
We've been persuaded that if we have the grossest national product, then we're doing OK. We're number one.
And it doesn't matter which major political party is in power. They both believe that.
What they argue about is who can be more gross, or rather, give us more of the gross, or...well, you know what I mean.
It's been 35 years since a prominent American politician questioned the importance of unlimited economic growth.
The one who did was a candidate for President of the United States.
In 1968, at the University of Kansas, Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave one of the most unusual and courageous speeches in American political history.
Few Americans now remember what he said, so I want to read to you a part of that speech.
"We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods.
"We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones average, or national achievement by the gross national product. For the gross national product includes air pollution and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
"It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them.
"The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of lake superior.
"It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads and the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children.
"And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend.
"It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.
or the joy of their play-my emphasis...
"It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of public officials.
"The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.
"It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth while."
Less than a month after he delivered that speech, Robert F. Kennedy was dead, the victim of an assassin's bullet.
He was one more addition to the carnage the GNP counts as a plus.
Consider more closely what GNP measures...what we value...what our treasure is.
Essentially, it measures the flow of money through our economy.
The more money that changes hands, the higher is the GNP.
So stuff, consumer goods, bought and sold, count. And so do services, bought and sold. Doesn't matter what the service is.
Say you divorce, move into separate houses, buy your own of each appliance. The GNP goes up. Now let's say it's a messy divorce. Big legal bills- the-GNP goes up even more.
Say one of you breaks down, needs expensive counseling, pills... you may be miserable, but the GNP goes up...up....up.
No slacker, you. You're doing your part for the economy.
But now, let's say you stay together, spend lots of time together-walking, gardening, hanging out with the kids, helping the neighbors. You're happy. You've got a good marriage and a well-adjusted family.
Well, let's face it, you're pretty much useless. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
You're not spending money, or at least, not very much.
You're wasting your time as far as the measurement that matters is concerned. The best things in life may be free, but they're not worth anything either, at least, not according to GNP. They don't count.
Bobby Kennedy had it right. We should have listened.
Instead, we've made a golden calf of GNP. Our media tell us breathlessly that GNP "grew by 8.2 percent last quarter." They don't tell us that most of that was the result of longer work hours, not increased efficiency.
Longer hours that meant less leisure time, less family time, more stress, more burnout, less personal happiness. But
GNP was up. What else matters?
One reason why the Europeans work so much less than we do is that they've had a dialogue about what to do with increased economic efficiency-that is, productivity per hour, not per quarter.
So, the Toronto Globe and Mail reports that Norwegians are 10 percent more productive per worker hour than Americans are, but they earn 16 percent less each year. Their buying power is 16 percent less.
So what gives? Well, they make less because they work much less-29 percent less than we do.
I was talking about a year ago with a woman who is actually a Republican State Senator. She told me she sympathized with much that I advocate, and I asked her why.
"Well, you know," she said, "last summer my family went to Norway to visit our relatives. And it was just like you say. They didn't work so long, they had a lot of leisure time and they had a lot of family time. They just enjoyed being together."
And then she said something that stopped me in my tracks.
"And the best part of it all," she said, with glee in her eyes, "was that everyone wasn't trying to get filthy rich."
You know, I think that if Leif Ericson sailed to America now, he'd turn right around and head back home.
Where your treasure is...
One more thing about Norway. Shortly after we started the take back your time day campaign, I received an email of solidarity from a Norwegian organization called 07/06/05.
And of course, I thought, well one thing the Norwegians don't work too hard at is coming up with names for organizations.
But it turns out that 07/06/05 is June 7th, 2005, the hundredth anniversary of Norway's independence from Sweden. And the idea is that by that date, Norway should be well on its way to another kind of independence-ecological sustainability.
According to 07/06/05, the keys to such sustainability are consuming less and working less.
And the key reason for consuming less is so that the poor countries of the world can consume more, since many of their people lack the basic necessities of life.
This sense of solidarity with the poor is important to Norwegians, who already contribute sixteen times as much per capita as Americans do to development assistance for developing nations.
Well, I have to admit that as I read about 07/06/05, I assumed the organization was some marginal ultra-green group led by some Norwegian Ralph Naderson, or somebody like that.
But I discovered that the entire campaign, including slick advertisements urging Norwegians to take quarterly time-outs from work to discuss the future, was completely funded by the Norwegian environment ministry and endorsed by the prime minister.
And I thought, my god, what planet.....?
Wow! Can you imagine any American politician of any party saying we'd be better off if we consumed less and worked less?
But that's what they should be saying.
And that's what Rude Lubbers, the conservative...let me repeat that, the conservative...former prime minister of Holland, said when his Christian Democratic Party joined with labor to pass a series of shorter work-time laws that may represent the most comprehensive pro-time policy in the world.
Quoting Lubbers: "It is true that the Dutch are not trying to maximize gross national product per capita. Rather, we are seeking to attain a high quality of life, a just, participatory and sustainable society. While the Dutch economy is very efficient per working hour, the number of hours per citizen are rather limited...We like it that way." Imagine that...
"Needless to say, there is more room for all those important aspects of our lives that are not part of our jobs, for which we are not paid, and for which there is ever enough time."
Could you imagine any American politician saying that?
In the 90s, Dutch churches took the lead in a "take time for life campaign," that included what they called "action against the 24/7 society."
As a result, Dutch citizens now work the shortest hours in the industrial world. Nearly forty percent of Dutch workers are part-timers, because a law allows any worker to reduce his or her hours if he or she is willing to be paid commensurately less.
Indeed, couples with children are encouraged, with tax incentives, to work no more than 60 combined hours per week, so as to have sufficient time for their children.
Tax credits reduce the burden of lost income because the Dutch believe that time is a family value.
Part-time workers continue to keep health benefits, and their other benefits are pro-rated.
The average fulltime work-week is 37 hours.
And the average paid vacation time is six weeks.
With the birth of a child, parents receive a combined year of paid family leave.
Some critics suggest that if Americans had so much time off, they'd spend it all watching television, and we'd see a sudden epidemic of couch potato blight.
But the Dutch watch less TV than we do. They spend much more time socializing with families and friends.
Indeed, counter-intuitively, studies indicate that the longer a country's annual work hours, the more its citizens watch television.
TV, after all, is the perfect activity for weary, worn-out people. Nothing to do but sit back, push a button and snack on chips and soda.
Work-time policies similar to those in Holland can be found throughout the European Union.
The European Union has established basic minimum work-time directives, which include four weeks of paid vacation, and a cap on mandatory work of 48 hours a week. Any overtime beyond that must be agreed to by the employees.
One clear difference between the United States and Europe that encourages our longer hours is the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. Indeed, the gap is about double that in Europe, and growing.
While the top 20 percent of Americans earn more than nine times as much as the bottom 20 percent, the average European ratio is less than five to one.
The growing gap encourages Americans of all income levels to work longer. Wealthy Americans are putting in longer hours now because they see that they can keep a higher percentage of their earnings. They look to spend them on investments and possible early retirement.
They also splurge on conspicuous luxuries, which set the standard for The American Dream.
As the wealthy become the new Jones's with whom the middle class must keep up, and the bar of expectations continues to rise, average income Americans can only keep up by working longer and often, by going into debt, which also encourages them to work longer.
And for the poor, the gap means falling real incomes.
They must work harder-two or three jobs without benefits sometimes-just to obtain the necessities of life.
So the rich may get richer as the poor get poorer, but only in a material sense. Every class of-Americans becomes-more time poor.
More egalitarian-European economic policies that lead to shorter work-time do not bankrupt the countries that have them; indeed, U.S. companies operating in Europe live by them and still make money.
Moreover, the bulk of American overseas investments is precisely in those Western European countries with excellent work-time policies.
I want to let you in on a little secret: our country was once the leader in time-friendly policies. We should try to be again.
We were the second country to get the 40-hour week, but we almost became the first to have a 30-hour work week.
I'm not making this up.
As I mentioned in my first sermon, on April 6, 1933, the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have made the U.S. workweek 30 hours, anything more-overtime.
While the bill failed to reach the House of Representatives, many American companies adopted the 30-hour week voluntarily. The most famous was the company that brings-"the best to you each morning."
W.K. Kellogg instituted a 30-hour workweek in his Battle Creek, Michigan, cereal plants in 1930. Kellogg once wrote to his grandson that his great disappointment in life was that he "never learned to play." He believed in leisure time for his workers.
In fact, Kellogg believed that leisure time, not economic growth, would be the crowning glory of capitalism.
He built libraries, parks and recreation facilities for his workers so they could learn to enjoy leisure time.
He employed several hundred more people in Battle Creek.
Productivity rose. Within a couple of years, Kellogg was able to pay his six hour a day workers what he'd previously paid them for eight hours.
After Kellogg died, the company phased out the six hour day because benefits had become a much larger part of the earnings package, and the company wanted to reduce the number of workers it paid benefits to.
In 1985, Kellogg's ended the last of its six hour shifts. The workers, mostly women, were sad to see them go. They held a mock funeral for the six hour day, complete with a makeshift casket. Ina Sides, an African American worker, wrote a poem for the occasion:
"Farewell to thee, old six hours/
now you're gone and we're all so blue/
so get out those vitamins, give your doctor a call/
cause old eight hours has got us all."
I met Ina Sides in Battle Creek a few years ago, along with several other six hour workers. They remembered the 30-hour week fondly, as a time when they had time-for families, friends, community and church.
Their treasure changed...
They told me the crime rate in Battle Creek went up in 1985, because there were fewer people around in the daytime to watch things.
They said their children have much more stuff than they did, but much less time, and that as far as they could tell, they were happier earning less and living more.
The Kellogg's workers were pioneers in a new land of time affluence, a promised land that still lies before us like Canaan before the Israelites, beckoning us to seek different treasures.
Someone will always say, when I mention these things: "but won't it hurt the economy?" And my reply is that if you ask the wrong question, you'll get the wrong answer.
The real question should be: "What is an economy for?"
If it's not for health, and happiness, strong families and communities, spiritual growth and sustainability, then what is it for?
Is it only for being able to say, "We have the biggest GNP. We're number one?"
I think not. But I invite you to take a moment of silence now and ask yourselves that question, "What is an economy for?"
March 14, 2004
Lenten Sermon #4
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
John De Graaf
I want to thank you all for the kindness you have shown me while I was your guest homilist during this season of Lent.
I have heard from many of you and I am touched by your warm responses to my often provocative message. It gladdens me to learn that many of you find reasons in your personal experience for changing our relationship with time and work.
Alice Poinier reminded me of William Wordsworth's words of worth: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
I was even surprised last week to hear from a member of your congregation that her father was one of those Kellogg's six-hour a day workers of whom I spoke.
She told me that even as a company manager, he worked only six hours a day until he retired in 1987.
Here is the proof that it can be done-we don't have to work forever to produce what we need. We can have a life off the job. We can find time for families and community, for taking care of the Earth, and, for God.
I will deeply miss the time I've spent here at Emmanuel, and I want especially to thank your rectors, Randy Gardner and Carla Pryne, for inviting me here, not knowing what I would say, nor fearing that my remarks might embarrass them.
I hope I have been worthy of their invitation.
Yesterday, the sun stood directly above the equator, and spring officially began.
Outside my home, all manner of trees and flowers are in riotous bloom-camellias, cherry trees, magnolias, daffodils, heather, and so many more.
How can one be anything but optimistic at such a time?
Life in our hemisphere springs back; all is renewal and re-birth.
Life calls to us and says, "Look at me! Stop your mad rushing, and smell the new blossoms. Stop and savor the wonders of God's Creation."
Slow down and take time to truly live.
Last week, I promised to talk about personal solutions to time poverty. So now I want to offer some ideas that you might find useful.
I don't want to suggest that these things are necessarily easy, nor that I am anything more than a novice myself when it comes to these matters.
I know what I need to do. But finding the will to break with long-time habits takes real effort.
There is certainly no instant solution to the time dilemmas we face.
I don't believe that the answers lie in better "time management," as we usually understand that term.
You will find shelves full of books in the bookstores telling you how to get more done in less time.
They'll tell you it's about putting things in the right "in" boxes, and having the best mix of technological gadgets.
They'll show you so many ways to do more with less, you might end up believing you can do everything with nothing.
With so many ways to do everything faster, you'll be convinced that you can have it all.
And when you realize you can't, you'll end up feeling even guiltier than before.
I remember the old slogan that appeared on the ads for McCaw Cellular Company before it merged with AT&T: "Imagine, no limits."
Imagine, no limits.
It was supposed to be a revolutionary concept. But in fact, we've been imagining that there are no limits for a long time.
No limits to resources. No limits to the biosphere. No limits to growth. No limits to consumption. No limits to work.
We need to start imagining that there are limits. God has not made us all-powerful. And we are stretching our limits and the Earth's limits past the margin for error.
So, imagine limits. And start setting some for yourself and your family.
My friend Cecile Andrews has a couple of great ideas. Don't keep adding to your to-do list. In fact, this might be a good time to cross off some of the items on that list even if you haven't done them. Try it.
Cecile's second idea, offered only partly in jest, is to cancel something. Invite friends to a party, then call them the day before and tell them you have to cancel it. You'll hear their sighs of relief-ahhhhh.....a free evening!
Cancel a meeting at work-pure joy!
Of course, what limits really impose on us is the necessity to prioritize. Try this:
Create a big pie on a piece of paper. Then divide the pie into pieces according to what feels most important to you.
Where do you put worktime-purely for the satisfaction and meaning, not the money, it brings you?
What about family time? Exercise? Conversation with friends? Television viewing? Quiet, alone, time? Commuting or driving around? Travel? Volunteering and helping others? Reading? Rest? How much time do you want to spend shopping?
Ask what truly brings you pleasure and a sense of true accomplishment and reward it with an appropriately large piece of your pie.
Then keep track of how you spend one week. Write down what you've done most of each hour of the day. Now count up the hours devoted to each activity, and divide by 1.68.
That'will give you the percentage of time you've spent doing each thing.
Now, make another pie with slices based on your percentages.
Then compare the two pies. If you're like me you'll find some big differences. For instance, one thing I know brings me great satisfaction is long walks in nature with my family. Yet most weeks, I never make the time to take them.
So your task, and mine, is to consciously try to close the gaps between the size of the slices of your ideal pie and those of your real one.
So, let's say you find you're working longer than you'd like. Can that be changed?
Well, that may be the hardest thing for some of you, because for many Americans the only way to reduce their working hours is to find another job and risk total financial insecurity in the meantime.
But others of us find ourselves trapped for different reasons.
Debt is a big one. In the last four years, consumer debt in the United States, not including home mortgages, has doubled. The average American is carrying nearly $10,000 worth of credit card debt.
In each of the past seven years, more Americans have declared personal bankruptcy than have graduated from college.
Let me repeat that: in each of the past seven years, more Americans have declared personal bankruptcy than have graduated from college.
Yet, the credit card offers continue to fill our mailboxes.
Debt, as the old adage goes, is a trap-and in our society, it's a socially-encouraged addiction.
Many people find they actually need to work overtime, just to keep up with their debts-and these aren't just poor people.
One reason for our debt load, ironically, is the proliferation of cheap stuff and big stores.
When Wal-Mart moves to a town, the claim is that this will be good for poor people because they can get what they need for less money.
But what happens? When people come to a Wal-Mart, or any huge store, they see so many things that look so desirable.
And if they're cheap, as they are at Wal-Mart, there's a natural tendency to say, "Oh, why not get one of those? We can put it on plastic. It's only a few more dollars."
Only a few more dollars... a few more here, a few more there...
As prices drop and vast choices of products proliferate, debt rises because shopping lists are thrown out the window.
Impulse buying prevails.
It's one more reason to support your local small businesses instead of the chains. You may pay more, but in the end you're likely to spend less and get less trapped in debt.
You're also likely to spend less time shopping. As it is now, Americans on average spend seven times as much time shopping as they do playing with their kids.
And what about those pesky, tempting credit cards. Well, I recommend getting a little envelope to put yours in. On the outside, write a few questions:
Do I really need this?
Could I borrow it from a friend?
How many hours will I have to work to pay it off?
Are the resources that went into it renewable?
Things like that.
My friend Vicki Robin gave me the idea for the envelope. She calls it a credit card prophylactic.
If you use one, you can practice safe shopping.
And remember, don't leave home without it.
But let's assume you're free of debt, and willing to live with less in order to gain more time.
Talk with your employer about it.
See if he or she is willing to let you work a day less each week if you're willing to accept a commensurate pay cut.
Consider a job share. Is there someone you know you could share a job with? Can you convince your employer that it's a good idea?
My friend Carol Ostrom, a reporter at the Seattle Times, did, but it was a major struggle at first.
She and two colleagues asked if the three of them could share two jobs, each working eight months of the year. Resistant at first, her supervisor finally agreed to the plan, reluctantly.
But when I talked to her editor at the paper, he said the three were performing spectacularly, and getting far more done than two full time reporters would have.
The job share gave Carol a chance to take care of her elderly mother-to put her time where her treasure was. Things have changed now and carol is no longer job sharing, but other reporters are.
Here's another idea. Next time, you're up for a raise, ask for time off instead. Let's say it's a two percent raise. If you're working 2000 hours a year, two percent of that is forty hours-a full week more of time off!
You may get turned down, but as more and more of us begin to do this, employers will get the message.
But time pressure in America isn't just about overwork.
My friend Bill Doherty, a professor of family therapy at the University of Minnesota, documents how American families, particularly in affluent communities, are over-scheduling themselves, and especially, their children-to the detriment of all.
What suffers? Real, face-to-face, family time.
Bill suggests making family dinners a priority. If kids' activities interfere too often, talk to the people who are scheduling them. Parents in many communities are now banding together to do that.
In Ridgewood, New Jersey, parents have created a program called, "ready, set, relax!"
Once a year, the town takes a designated night off-no practices, homework or classes. Just time for parents to be with kids, and friends with friends.
But it needs to happen more than once a year. How about once a week?
Television is another time sink for families-consuming about half the leisure hours we actually do have. Set limits on TV viewing, and turn the set off completely during TV Turnoff Week, held each year in April.
Barbara brock, a professor at Eastern Washington University, recently conducted a study in which participating families didn't watch the tube for a month. Most found their family lives improved appreciably. Quite a few decided never to go back to the set; others set limits for themselves and their children.
Around the world, people are finding cultural ways to change their approach to time.
The Slow Food Movement is one answer. It was started in Italy as a reaction to a plan to open a McDonald's restaurant at Rome's famous Spanish Steps.
Now Slow Food is an international campaign with thousands of members, including some 60,000 in the United States. Its symbol is the snail.
Each Sunday, we share the Eucharist, consecrating the bread and wine, in remembrance of Jesus' words at the last supper.
The Slow Food Movement asks us to remember that all food is a sacred gift from the Creator, encouraging us to take the time to consider where it comes from, to prepare it carefully, and to savor it in the company of friends and family.
I admit to you that this has been a hard thing for me to do. I've been used to inhaling food, and the result is unfortunately all too visually obvious.
I've got a long way to go to live up to what I believe, but reminding myself of this helps, and I am doing better now, though certainly not well enough.
Slow food led to slow cities. Italy now has a league of slow cities, sixty members strong. They do things to slow traffic down, encourage two-hour lunch breaks, and so forth.
In Japan, there's a growing "slow life" movement, and major cities and counties are signing on, issuing what they call "take it easy declarations." They ask citizens to think about slow food, slow education, slow rituals like the ancient tea ceremony, slower workplaces. Their goal is to calm a country that had become frenetic.
Now, for some shameless promotion. I can't leave here without mentioning our own initiative here in the United States. We call it "Take Back Your Time Day," and we celebrate it each October 24th.
We chose that date because it falls nine weeks before the end of the year, and symbolizes the nine full weeks more each year that Americans work compared to Western Europeans.
Much later, we found out that, serendipitously, October 24th is also the anniversary of the day in 1940 that the U.S. officially established the 40 hour work week.
Remember Earth Day? Within three years of the first Earth Day, congress passed the most significant environmental legislation in American history-the clean air and water acts, the endangered species act, the environmental protection act.
Like Earth Day did for the environment, the Take Back Your Time Day initiative hopes to greatly raise awareness of overwork, over-scheduling and time poverty in America and promote personal, workplace, cultural and legislative solutions.
I encourage all of you to take a peek at our web site: www.timeday.org, and to join the campaign if you see fit.
We hope that churches throughout the United States will use the day to discuss our time poverty, and to begin a campaign to restore the Sabbath and keep it holy.
The Massachusetts Council of Churches has joined in a partnership with Take Back Your Time Day, and will be creating materials that can be used in all churches.
The council is advocating that churches encourage their members to take "four windows of time" between labor day and time day to spend quietly with their families and friends, with no scheduled activities or entertainment distractions.
I hope this church will do that too.
Finally, I want to thank you again for being open to my provocations and for your attentiveness and kindness to me during my time here at Emmanuel. It is obvious to me that you are a wonderful, supportive and caring community of people and I have been honored beyond expression to be invited to share my message with you.
Again, I invite you to take a moment of silence and ask yourselves the questions that I fervently hope America will soon ask: what is an economy for? What is life for?
God bless you.
March 21, 2004
475 (also found in Worship Items folder)
Materials needed: illustrations of the metamorphic stages of a caterpillar/butterfly and butterfly stickers
Show the children pictures of a caterpillar. Ask them what they know about caterpillars. Ask questions like, "Did you know the caterpillar is not always going to look like this?"
Next, show the children pictures of a cocoon. Ask "Do you see a caterpillar in this picture? What happens to this caterpillar?"
Then show pictures of a butterfly coming out of the cocoon. Ask "What's happening in this picture?"
Tell the children that the Easter story is similar to this caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Say something like, "Jesus lived many years serving God. Many people did not like what he did and taught, so they did a bad thing and killed him. But, just like the caterpillar doesn't stay in the cocoon, Jesus did not stay in the tomb where they buried him. And just like the butterfly is beautiful when it comes out of the cocoon, Jesus was also beautiful when he came out of the tomb."
Give each child a butterfly sticker and say something like "This sticker is to remind us that Jesus is alive and beautiful. When we act like Jesus, we are beautiful, too."
LeAnna Bryant is an elementary school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. The above was first printed in Sacred Seasons, Seeds of Hope Publishers, Lent 1998. The butterfly art #475 is by Robert Darden.
Preached April 7, 2002 (Sunday after Easter), Gladwyne Presbyterian Church
Text: John 20:19-31 (all translations are author's, unless specified as NRSV)
Thomas: What do you think of him? Few people in the Bible have aurae as notorious as Thomas'. Who on earth wants to be a "Doubting Thomas"?
I have two questions about this. First, is the notoriety fair, or is it a bad rap? Did he do something so horrendous? Second, if the distinction Thomas has received is indeed fair, do we judge or blame all people with such careful scrutiny? What about ourselves? Do we judge our own thoughts or doubts so? I think of the older brother of the Prodigal Son, whom we also might sometimes reject for his very real human thoughts and emotions, without asking if we, too, might need to change the way we look at other people and the world.
Thomas doubted. He heard a report of the miraculous, and he doubted. Not usually considered to be his finest hour.
I think we really have to consider his state of mind, and what he had just been through. Thomas was with Jesus until the end. Really!
When Jesus persisted on a mission that was surely leading to a feeling of unrest among the people and consequent suspicion among the authorities, it was Thomas who said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16 NRSV). Thomas had fire in him! He devoted three years of his life to Jesus, and then he had to watch Jesus suffer and die. Publicly. Painfully. On a dark day.
Thomas did not know where to go then. Angry. Bereaved. Afraid. To risk faith would be to risk being hurt again. "If I do not see in this hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of those nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe (John 20:25)!
Jesus alive?! Given all that's happened? It must be some sort of a cruel trick. The time for dreaming is over. That vision of the Kingdom of God died. I just want to get on with my life. So maybe thought Thomas.
How can I believe God is, how can I believe God loves me, how can I believe God is all loving and all just and all powerful, when all things are not clear or simple, when I might get hurt, when humanity is abused, when people inflict pain on others? Thomas, the disciple, had to have been asking. How do we feel when we see a homeless person suffering? How did we feel after the many deaths on September 11? How do we feel when we struggle with some part of our lives-perhaps an addiction-that seems difficult to change? Angry? Helpless? Alone? Doubting? Seeking?
For some reason, emotional responses are sometimes seen as bad things, and in religious circles, doubt seems to be one of the worst emotions you could have! Calm acceptance and calculated response we often perceive to be much more appropriate. The truth is, however, doubt is the start to all theology, all that we confess about God. Theology needs a question. We see things in the world that arise feelings and questions in us. How could this be? How could this happen? Where was, or is, God? What questions do you have? Where doubt meets God, there is theology. Jesus spoke to Thomas, "Bring your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and place it in my side, and be faithful rather than faithless." Thomas' response? "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:27-28).
This is why I think Thomas has been historically misjudged, and why I think we all may need to be a little more honest with our own doubts and feelings of pain. God is able to meet us in our honesty, much more freely than in any puffed up self-assurance. The setting we choose to be in can help us immensely!
For some reason, unknown to our text, "Thomas, one of the Twelve...was not with them when Jesus came [the first time]" (John 20:24). This one time leader among the Twelve who said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him," was lost from the community of disciples, for even a week. "Then after eight days, again [Jesus'] disciples were inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being barred, and he stood in their midst and said, 'Peace to you'" (John 20:26).
It appears that the disciples were meeting as a regular Sunday assembly-imagine that!-after Mary Magdalene had informed them that their Teacher's tomb was empty. Out of fear of persecution, perhaps, for their daring to believe the incredible, they came together. "It was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were barred where the disciples were, due to their fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). The same time, the same place, each week, with peers. Such regular Sunday worship allowed them an encounter with the divine presence that was taken from them at the crucifixion. It is where Thomas is again strengthened and makes an ardent profession of faith, "My Lord and my God!" Thomas needed, we need, that community of faith and its rituals, in order to stop hiding and allow ourselves vulnerability, to name our doubt and meet God. Broken and risen flesh. Thomas' fire restored!
The community of faith allows for the forgiveness of sins. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:35). Think of how we corporately confessed our sin this morning, and then corporately sang a song of praise that in Jesus Christ, we are all forgiven.
The community of faith allows for a strengthening of souls. Someone called the church a "trauma center for wounded people."
"These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that in believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). A pastor of a large church in Kentucky tells about a woman who came to visit his church. Now in her fifties, she hadn't attended in years because she was "mad at God." She had contracted polio while she was seven and now couldn't walk. Her brother invited her to come with him, and she started going again regularly. Soon afterwards, she exclaimed to her family, "Now I love Jesus and my life is so different now." She decided to give away all the money she had been raising for a handicap-accessible van "to God through the church." The pastor shared this story with a group of financial consultants who had asked him to speak and two days later, the president of the group called and told him they had raised $48,000 for a new van for her.
At the beginning of time, according to Genesis, "the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Gen 2:7 NRSV). In parallel fashion, Jesus breathed on the worshiping disciples as he stood in their midst, thereby recreating them. This is the only appearance of the Greek verb "to breathe on" in the New Testament. "Jesus said, 'Peace to you. Just as my Father sent me out, so I send all of you.' And having said this, he breathed on them, and he says to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:21-22).
This passage from John is full, in Greek, of present tense verbs. "Jesus came and stood in their midst, and he SAYS to them, 'Peace to you'" (John 20:19). "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you. Just as my Father sent me out, so I SEND all of you'" (John 20:21). "Having said this, he breathed on them, and he SAYS to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:22). I really like these present tense verbs, because I hear them as making a continuing voice of Jesus to his disciples today. A promise of peace, joy, and life, as was to the disciples, as was ultimately to Thomas.
But not peace, joy, or life-light. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (John 14:27 NRSV) spoke Jesus, the night before he was to die.
Life which is restored from lowness in community. Peace which is claiming a wounded Jesus and with his presence following in his path. Joy which is being close to this Jesus alone.
"[Jesus] says, 'Peace to you.' And having said this, he showed his hands and his side to them. Then the disciples rejoice, because they were seeing their Lord. So Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you. Just as my Father sent me out, so I send all of you'" (John 20:19-21). As Jesus gave up his life, we may find ourselves needing to give something up. Thomas had to let go of the corner he had created for himself and believe. And us? Our security?
Especially in times of doubt, a real, fleshy Jesus, one who was wounded-who rose from the dead, spiritually, maybe, passing through locked doors, but one whose wounds in his hands and place in his side were yet touchable-directs followers to touch his wounded flesh, to encounter the pain humanity can inflict on the human body. -"Bring your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and place it in my side, and be faithful rather than faithless."
We have to ask, as even those among the first Christians did, "Who is my Lord and my God?" A Jesus who suffered, or human forces that cause people to suffer?
"Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe" (John 20:29). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Cost of Discipleship before World War II, discusses ministering to parishioners who wonder how they can believe in God in a world of increasingly modern society. Rev. Bonhoeffer chose to instruct them to do, first, and then believe. Jesus gave us some very concrete things to do, namely, to serve the poor and suffering. What we do becomes what we believe!
I do hold the radical belief that people who are poor or oppressed have available to them a special relationship with God, which the materially gifted may find more blocked. The first question that such a feeling often causes to arise is, "How do you preach this to the poor?" Knowing how to get by with surprisingly little. Finding strength in community. Daily fighting poverty, evil, the denial of people's health and fulfilled life. The question that follows is, "How do you preach this to the rich?"
How do we reach out and touch the wounded body like Thomas did? We have lots of positions we can take in life: consciously choosing to live in or invest in a neighborhood; finding a way to talk to or spend time with a homeless person each week; making a decision by putting yourself in someone else's shoes; taking risks.
Educating ourselves about people's needs. Carefully considering what lifestyle choices we make, since not everyone has enough.
The pain is real. The responsability is real. Where is the community that allows for the expression of doubt, the asking of questions, and the touching of wounds? Can there be hope after loss? Can we encounter Jesus in our midst?
We call Thomas Doubting. His dreams had been destroyed. How could he be anything but disabled? When he was directed, he discovered all that he demanded.
Sunday, May 22, 2005 [Holy Trinity Sunday]
Genesis 1 (selections); Psalm 8
Is there really an ecological crisis? And if there is, how much are Christians responsible for it because of their beliefs about creation? We will get to the question about whether there really is an ecological crisis, but let's begin with the Christian beliefs about creation.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins with the ringing affirmation that God created the world and that because God created it it was good. In the creation stories humankind is distinguished from other animals as being created in the image of God with dominion over all other living things, including plant life. The poet in Psalm 8 looked at the magnificence of creation and wondered about the role of human beings. What are they that God should be mindful of them? Then, the poet echoes the theme from Genesis 1, "Yet you have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet." The poet concludes, however, not by rhapsodizing about the glory of humankind, but about God: "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"
From the beginning, many in the Judeo-Christian tradition got it wrong. Some assumed the earth and everything in it belonged to humans. There have been Christians from time to time - I call them "latter day Gnostics" - who have believed that the earth was of no lasting importance; the human soul was the only thing really valuable. One of these was a U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the 1980s, named James Watt. In an article published in the Saturday Evening Post titled, "Ours Is the Earth," and in numerous articles he has written since, he said that the earth is "merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life. The earth was put here by the Lord for his people to subdue to use for profitable purposes on their way to the hereafter."(1) It would not be incorrect to say that many of the environmental policies advocated and implemented during his tenure reflected this "disposable" view of creation.
The words about "dominion" and putting "all things under" our feet are enough to make one wonder about the consequences for the environment. And many have wondered. In his still frequently quoted book Ian McHarg described it this way: "The Genesis story in its insistence upon dominion and subjugation of nature, encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts of man, rather than those that are deferential and creative. God's affirmation about man's dominion was a declaration of war on nature."(2)
Professor Lynn White at UCLA made an even more influential assessment in a paper he wrote in 1967, a paper subsequently reprinted in numerous textbooks and anthologies. "We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution can be expected from them alone."(3)
White paints "orthodox Christian arrogance" with a broad brush. Not mentioned is the Biblical claim sounded in Psalm 24, "The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains." Not mentioned is the Biblical claim that we are stewards and accountable to God for our stewardship. In terms of what the Biblical teaching actually is, John Calvin, a reformer in the 16th century, may have come close to having it right. For him, you couldn't talk about humans having dominion over the earth without talking about the "Fall" in Genesis 3. For Calvin the mandate to have dominion over the earth was lost when humans opted for sin. I know we don't like to talk about "Original Sin" because of its seeming claim that sin is passed on by heredity (as in our DNA). If you try to understand why such a doctrine ever came to be you may see that it was a way to explain the apparent universal human propensity to sin. Calvin believed that only with a restored humanity could dominion be exercised by responsible care and keeping that does not neglect, injure, abuse, degrade, dissipate, corrupt, mar, or ruin the earth.(4)
While I believe that both the Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 texts have been misinterpreted, what I cannot contest is that the misinterpretation of these texts has been as much or more by Christians as by non-Christians, and that their misinterpretation has contributed significantly to the great environmental destruction of our planet at the hands of a civilization in no small degree shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The human record on caring for the environment is almost enough to look for an explanation in a doctrine of "original sin," and more than enough to discard some of our most cherished notions of "progress."
But that brings us to the question of whether or not there really is an ecological crisis. This is a matter on which people of good faith can and do disagree. Over the past weeks I've been reading Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jared Diamond's, new book titled, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.(5) This professor of geography at UCLA began his scientific career in physiology and has expanded into the new fields of evolutionary biology and biogeography. He asks the question: "What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?"
Weaving an all-encompassing global thesis, Diamond traces a fundamental pattern of catastrophe, spelling out what happens when we squander our resources, when we ignore the signals our environment gives us, and when we reproduce too fast or cut down too many trees. These were all factors in the demise of the doomed societies he studied, but there were other societies who found solutions to those same problems and persisted. He finds that serious environmental problems facing us in the present fall into twelve groups. Eight of these were significant in the past, while four have become serious only recently. You can probably guess what many on the list are: 1) the destruction of natural habitats; 2) the decline in wild foods, especially fish and shellfish; 3) the loss of genetic diversity in wild species; 4) the decline in farmlands used for growing crops; 5) the declining availability of major energy sources, especially fossil fuels; 6) the decline in available freshwater; 7) the decline of energy fixed by sunlight for natural plants and forests; 8) pollution of the air, soil, oceans, lakes and rivers; 9) the increase in species (plants and animals) moved from where they are native to where they are non-native; 10) increasing damage to the protective ozone layer; 11) population growth; 12) high impact population growth - consumption.(6)
While one may quibble about details of his analysis, few would deny that all twelve groups of issues are serious. Diamond says that people often ask, "What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?" A flip answer, he says is, "The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!" But he says the flip answer is essentially correct because all of them are interrelated and that unless we solve all twelve we will ultimately fail.
In addition to reading the book itself, I read a lot of reviews of the book. As well as receiving enthusiastic acclaim from many scholars and scientists, his work is also severely criticized and even dismissed by some who would be called "environmentalists" as well as those called "anti-environmentalists." That said to me that Diamond must have done something right. Diamond says he is "cautiously optimistic" because of individual, corporate and government initiatives in the twelve areas. That said, however, Diamond insists that the problems we face are "time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years," around the time when those we confirmed in faith last week will be retiring and when their children will be adults.
This takes us back to Professor White's assessment that I mentioned earlier about how even our science and technology are so "tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution can be expected from them alone." Professor White is not a secular humanist scientist; as some imagine, he is a deeply committed Christian. What I didn't tell you earlier about this man of faith was the next line in his article: "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and re-feel our nature and destiny."
In my estimation, our Christian faith should compel us to make several contributions to that critical rethinking:
First, creation is good because God created it. This earth is worth saving because God made it. It is not a disposable commodity on the road to eternal life. It is under our care not at our disposal.
Second, it is our egocentricity, not God, that whispers in our ear that the earth is for our exclusive use. We have a word for the exclusive self-interest claims to the earth - "sin."
Third, the role of humankind on earth is not as "owners" but "stewards" of what belongs to God. We are accountable to God for our stewardship.
Fourth, as John Calvin saw, we need a humbled humanity committed to not neglecting, injuring, abusing, degrading, dissipating, corrupting, marring, or ruining the earth. And as persons in the Wesleyan tradition we know that what counts is not just what we believe but what we actually do.
Fifth, Christians are called to affirm the standard of justice. In every ecological issue there is also the issue of justice - Who is receiving more than their fair share, and who is being denied a fair share?
I am deeply grateful that we have in this congregation an Earth Care group and that through study and actions they are sounding the new Christian voice about ecology. I am also excited that there will soon be a Social Concerns group working with others in the community on justice issues. None of these issues are easy or simple, but for Christians they should not be optional. We have an important role to play at this moment in history.
I have never enjoyed a desert spring like this one. The dogs and I walk in the sagebrush almost every day. I have never seen shades of gray, green, and yellow as I have in the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, in an area where we walk regularly, I discovered that the ground was just matted with tiny four-petal magenta-colored flowers. They were everywhere, even popping out of the rocky track on which we were walking. It reminded me of words I received yesterday morning from a friend who had gotten them from her daughter when she decided she wanted to be an elementary school teacher. "All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today." What kind of seeds are you planting for all of the tomorrows?
Milo Thornberry is Alternatives' former director.
Get to know Milo at Post #181.
"Why do you want to do it?" That was the question a couple of you put to me when you heard about this week's and next week's sermons. "You've only got four weeks left before you retire and you are addressing two of the most difficult issues not only for people of faith but for all people." I propose to talk about "ecology" today and "evil" next week, not because I believe that I somehow have THE word on these issues that I must impart to you before I leave. I do it in the full knowledge that I don't have some definitive truth about them. I do it because you are my friends with whom I am able to share my concerns and questions, knowing that whether or not we agree we respect each other's perspectives, and because during the sermon series on science and faith over a year ago I promised that I would.
(1) James Watt, "Ours Is the Earth," Saturday Evening Post (January/February 1982), 74-75. See also Susan Bratton, "The Ecotheology of James Watt," Environmental Ethics 5(3): 225-36.
(2) Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1969)
(3) Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 21 (June 1969) pp. 42-47.
(4) John Calvin, commentary on Genesis 2:15 in Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids: 1948).
(5) Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).
(6) Ibid. pp. 487 - 496
John 3:16 & Luke 2:1-20
Just in case you are beginning to think that my heart attack may have affected my brain, let me assure you that I am aware that it is July and not December. The hymns and the scripture readings were chosen to remind you of something that we never think of in the middle of the summer. At least I had never thought of Christmas in July until one year we received a letter from a good friend, Ken Hobbs. It arrived about this time of year. The closing paragraph of that letter meant so much to me that I saved it and I want to share it with you this morning. Ken wrote:
"A parting thought - do you remember how frantic and rushed things were last December? Most of us longed for the Christmas Spirit but suddenly there was no time left - the day had come and gone - we were left standing knee-deep in Christmas wrappings. If you feel there must be more than that to Christmas, why not sit down one of these summer evenings and reread the story about Mary and Joseph and a child born in a manger - of shepherds whose fears were transformed to hope - of Wise Men who traveled in faith and expectancy. If you do and think on it for a moment, you'll surely feel the joy and inner peace that come from knowing you are cared for - and that, it seems to me, is the real spirit of Christmas."
Now the fellow who wrote those words is not a preacher and for the most part he is not the sentimental type. Actually, at the time they were written, he was a busy lawyer with a family and all the frustrations that most of us have. I might account for these comments about Christmas in the middle of the summer by the fact that Ken is a skiing enthusiast, and perhaps the heat of the summer had brought on visions of snow covered mountains and that in turn brought up the subject of Christmas. But I'm more inclined to think that my friend is constantly thinking about the meaning of his faith and that this particular summer as he sat down to write his annual letter to all of his friends, he had a burst of insight into the real meaning of Christmas and wanted to share it.
And that's what I'd like to do this morning. Malcolm Boyd has reminded us that one of the greatest mistakes we make about Christmas is placing it back there - by confining Christmas to Christmas. On December 24th it has not arrived (Santa Claus doesn't come until tomorrow, Johnny). On December 26th it is all over (We've got to think about getting the tree down, sweeping the room and cleaning up. Thank heavens it's all over for another year).
As a result, the danger is that we don't let Christmas come at all. Why? Because, by its very nature it cannot be contained within a tight time period, any more than God can be bottled up inside a church building to be visited once a week for an hour, or Jesus invoked in prayer to act as a convenient magician on call. We will miss the real impact of Christmas if we try to confine it to December 25th.
But, despite our efforts to confine Christmas to a twenty-four hour period, it is here all year round - three hundred and sixty-five days - twenty-four hours a day. What we call "a Christmas style of life" is merely the acknowledgement of Christmas as an everyday reality. It testifies to an intense awareness of Jesus as Lord and Savior in this life and in today's world.
Perhaps this truth can best be grasped when we are not in the midst of preparing for Christmas. In the middle of summer, when we least expect it, is a good time to be reminded that ours is a religion of a presence - there is one who bridges the gap between heaven and earth for us and who continues to bridge that gap if we will only let him. That means that we are never alone. When things are going badly and we are discouraged, we have a friend. When illnesses strike, one who was called the Great Physician stands by our side to aid in the healing process just as surely as do the doctors and nurses whose skill is God's gracious gift. When death takes a loved one, there is a Comforter who binds up our broken hearts and begins to restore our spirits. When joys abound and all is going well, there is one who shares our pleasure and our high spirits just as surely as he did when he visited the marriage feast in Cana years ago.
Soon after we arrived in Austin, we received a Christmas card from a family who faced pain and suffering and death, but who were able to celebrate life while it was there because they were very much aware of Christ's presence even as they walked through the valley of the shadow. They, too, could have written their message at any point in the year. It read:
"The traditional days of 'joy and peace' come to our household with a new depth of meaning this year. The experience with malignancy during the past year has served to open our calloused eyes to new dimensions of the love that comes into such clear focus in this Christmas Season.
"In ways quite unexpected we have discovered the sheer gift of a day's life and the equal joy of sharing life and love with many friends. Doctors say, 'Wait and see' and each day we see more the wonder of that love made known in that event that began in a manger.
"Thanks be to God . . . .!"
On the page opposite this message there were four words: WE HAVE A FRIEND! Below these words was this explanation: "This was the message sent by Dr. Paul Scherer on the day of one of Walter's operations. This indeed, is the delightful reality of each day's life."
This is the message of Christmas - God is with us in our illnesses - in our sorrows - in our joys - in our triumphs - in all of our days - and that message is good the whole year round. But that isn't all of the message of Christmas. It has a second part. God's presence in Christ brings not only comfort and encouragement and companionship. It also brings a heightened awareness of our relationship to our brothers and sisters and their needs whatever they may be.
I have always been disturbed by the disproportionate amount of money that we spend on gifts for family and friends compared with what we give to those in need at home and around the world. When I watch our grandchildren unwrap (or "tear into" would be a better description) their pile of presents, I wonder what we are teaching them. Is the meaning of Christmas to see how much you can get or is it to see how much you can give?
A passage of scripture keeps coming to my mind - "For God so loved the world that God gave - gave something very precious to humanity." Jesus told us that the way we please God is not by what we believe but rather by how we respond to the needs of the less fortunate. We love because God loves us - we give because God has given to us. And we give not just to each other but more importantly we give to those who have nothing to give back in return.
I wonder how much more meaningful Christmas would be for each of us - for adults and children alike - if we were to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas - God's gift which leads to our giving to those who need our gifts. I wonder what would happen if we decided as a family to limit our gifts to each other so that we could give to those in need at least 1/2 as much as we spend on ourselves. If we spend $500 on gifts, then we would give to those in need $250. You can do the math for your family.
Now this is why it is so important to think of Christmas in July because a decision like this can't be made at the last minute. Children have to understand why the presents won't be as numerous or grand. Adults have to look at their budgets and decide what they have to spend on Christmas. It's hard to change old habits and it will happen only if we are convinced that we need to recapture an aspect of Christmas that has become obscured.
We also need to do some planning and research so that our giving to others is well informed. I'm talking here about more than throwing a few dollars in the Salvation Army Christmas kettle. I'm talking about giving of yourself as well as your money. What are the causes and needs that touch your heart and stir you to action? Where do you want to meet a need as a reflection of God's love for you?
Last Christmas we received a card which read: "Dear Mona & Keith, As we reflected on today's world and it's overwhelming needs, we've chosen to celebrate and express our love and friendship with a gift in your honor to Eye Care Paramedics in India, Nepal and Tibet. May you have a joyful Yuletide." The couple who sent that card had done some planning and had decided to do a lot of their Christmas shopping at the Alternative Christmas Market which is held at UPC each year at the beginning of Advent. And it was one of the best Christmas presents we received!
You have the time between now and Christmas to open your eyes and your ears and your heart to become aware of a particular need that you would like to invest some time and money in this Christmas. And maybe you will find that you can't wait until Christmas to start giving of yourself and your resources to meet that particular need - maybe you will discover that Christmas isn't limited to December 25th - that you can have Christmas in August and September and October and November - maybe you will discover that Christmas is every day of the year!
But, in order to make that discovery, you and I will need one thing more. We will need some quality time. The extravagances of Christmas bother me greatly, but I am even more concerned by the all consuming busyness which surrounds this holy season. There is no time to kneel at the manger - no time to contemplate the meaning of this great event - no time to reflect on how all this impacts our lives and calls forth a response. In the conclusion of our text there is an instructive comment. Luke says, "Mary treasured all these words - words that the shepherds told them about their child - and pondered them in her heart." With all of our busy schedules during the Christmas season, where in God's name can we find time to ponder anything?
Nobody is going to give us more time this Christmas. If we find the time to be silent - to reflect - to ponder the meaning of these old, familiar stories, we will have to make the time. And, once again, that requires a conscious effort and some planning. It means not over committing ourselves - not filling every moment on our calendars - finding a balance between activity and reflection. So easy to talk about in July and so hard to carry out in December!
This is part of what we talked about last Sunday as we looked at Mary's and Martha's struggle to balance contemplation with action. [And this is, I believe, part of the usefulness of the brochure "Practicing the Presence." It contains a guide to the balance we seek in the Christmas season and throughout the year.]
Are you ready for Christmas? That question doesn't shake us up today as much as it will on December 20th. But it is still worth asking this early because the spiritual impact of Christmas this year will be in direct proportion to the thought you give in the days ahead to how you are going to manage your time and energy and money five months from now.
With that in mind, listen to that old, old story and let it touch your heart right here, right now, right smack dab in the middle of summer!
In July, 2004, I preached a sermon which I called "Christmas in July" to alert all of us to our wasteful spending habits at Christmas. I preached the sermon in July because it gave those who heard it plenty of time to plan for a different kind of Christmas that would be more reflective of God's concern for those whose needs are great.
I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA. I retired in 1993 and have spent the last six years as a Parish Associate at University Presbyterian here in Austin. Keith Wright
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost - July 6, 2003
Mark 6: 1-13
I overheard a conversation in the drugstore the other day. One clerk said to another: "So, how's the move going?" The woman stared back with an unhappy expression. "It's over," she said, "and it didn't go well. We had a 24 foot truck; the apartment was empty. Then my son said to me, 'Where are the keys?'"
The keys to the truck were, unfortunately, in the woman's purse...which had been packed in a box - one of the first boxes loaded into the truck. It was now buried behind lots of other boxes and furniture which had to be unloaded before the keys were retrieved.
"(Jesus) called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics." (Mark 6: 7-9)
I guess Jesus' disciples didn't have to worry about who was holding on to the keys!
Whenever I pack for a trip - whether it's a short trip or a long trip - it's hard for me to imagine being what it was like for the disciples to leave home without taking along some of those things that seem so basic. An extra change of clothes even! No bread, no money...how many of us could survive for more than a few hours?! How hard it must have been for them to place their trust in God and in the children of God who would be called upon to provide for their needs while traveling. True, they had something to give in exchange - healing for many who were sick. I suppose it didn't take long for people to begin to welcome them with open arms. Even if the disciples did come also bearing a challenging call to repentance.
The disciples must have been changed by this experience of traveling so unencumbered with what we think is so necessary. Imagine leaving for a family road trip - what's on the packing list? DVD's or video games to keep the kids in the back seat occupied. Plenty of snacks, books, clothes, sports equipment, cameras, and yes, of course, money - or at least a couple of credit cards!
The disciples left home with one staff each. But they each brought along a trunk full of trust.
The hosts that welcomed them were dispensers of trust as well. And mercy and hope.
In cities and towns and neighborhoods across our country, we've been celebrating freedom this weekend. Patriotic fervor is intense - made more poignant by the terrible reality of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. The fireworks are fun to watch even though we grapple with the news of freedoms being denied not only here but across the globe; the protests and demonstrations and the letters on the editorial page force us to acknowledge that life in our world can be fraught with worry and concerns.
One of the new books in our library has lots of true stories about the worries and concerns that preoccupy people and prevent them from living the life of true freedom that God intends for us. Max Lucado wrote-Traveling Light, using Psalm 23 as a guide.
Here are some of the things Max writes about: "The suitcase of guilt. The trunk of discontent. A backpack of anxiety and a hanging bag of grief. Add on a briefcase of perfectionism, and overnight bag of loneliness, and a duffel bag of fear. No wonder we are so tired at the end of the day." (W Publishing Group, 2001, back cover)
Imagine the possibility of life without these burdens. Imagine a life uncluttered by things that distract you from your call to show others what you know of God's love. Imagine leaving home with only the staff of the Good Shepherd to support you on your daily walk.
Traveling light...it's the only way to go!
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - July 27, 2003
John 6: 1-21
In Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001) the author argues, "Though created by a handful of mavericks, the fast food industry has triggered the homogenization of our society. Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad."
It doesn't exactly sound like a fun, "beach read" - does it?!
The fast food industry has been the target lately of legislation and lots of media attention lately. We Americans have got to find something to blame - right? It can't be my fault I have no willpower!
This phenomenon is not just a social issue - it is also a stewardship issue. A couple of weeks ago, one of our lessons reminded us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit - and we should not abuse them but treat them with respect and care. It's hard to think of chocolate or ice cream or French fries or pizza as harmful substances...but, in excess, yes, they can be.
David Batstone, the editor of Sojourners' free weekly email-zine, SojoMail, wrote an article using words that are even more discomforting:
"Given the fact that more than 840 million people in the world are malnourished, gluttony is a sin of social injustice. Hordes of children are more than happy to send their peas and squash to the other side of the world, of course, but the structural mechanisms for a just distribution simply are not in place. Put simply, there is more than enough food to go around the planet, but too much of it stays on our kitchen tables." ("What's eating you?" July 2, 2003)
For the next several weeks of lectionary readings, we're going to hear a lot about bread. Today we heard the story of that miraculous feast - the feeding of more than 5,000 people.
We don't know how Jesus did it. Just as we can't comprehend how a person can be healed with just a word - or a touch. But this we do know - everyone's physical hunger was satisfied - and there was food left over! The disciples discovered that what had seemed so meager - was more than enough!
The initial offering - five barley loaves and two fish - came from a boy.
Sometimes, when church folks talk about youth ministry they make the claim "children are the future of our church." But here's a story that proves that "children are not just the future of our church." Children are the church!
After this miracle, people were more willing than ever to follow Jesus. But, as we'll see, Jesus wants to feed more than their physical hunger.
Recently on Dr. Phil's afternoon TV show, the guests included a Mom and her daughter, who had been one of Dr. Phil's first guests after going on the air. Dr. Phil had been able to help the mother see how her attitude - her criticism and nagging - contributed to her little girl's weight problem. Plus, by withholding hugs and expressions of love and acceptance, her daughter was looking to food for comfort - and to satisfy her other needs besides hunger.
When Jesus tells us "I am the bread of life," Jesus is talking about more than what fills our stomachs. Jesus is talking about what fills the hunger in our hearts.
Today's reading from the letter to the Ephesians drives home this point. It's a beautiful prayer, really...
"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God." (Eph. 3: 16-19)
Filled with the fullness of God...full of love, forgiveness, acceptance, truth, joy...
Anybody hungry? Amen.
22 August 2004
Isaiah 55:10-13, Mark 14:1-16
[Optional opening] "Bazalwane, bathandekayo, Ngiyalibingalela egameni likaJesu Kristu." - An Ndebele greeting from Zimbabwe, a greeting that we'd often use to open a worship service. I'd like to teach you the response. My line is, "Bathandekayo, ngiyalibingalela egameni likaJesu Kristu." And now for your line. It's not too hard...It's "Amen." Let's try it. Bathandekayo, ngiyalibingalela egameni lika Jesus Kristu. Amen. You pass your first Ndebele 101 lesson! Pray with me: God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all of our hearts be acceptable unto you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. [end of optional opening]
Pastor Tod Gobledale tells this story about his service in Africa.
Come with me to Zimbabwe. Sunday morning, I bounce seventy-four long kilometers over roads corrugated by country buses. The last stretch of ten kilometers winds along what can be described, at best, as a path. Thorn-covered branches scratch the sides of the truck. Goats and donkeys claim the right of way and I wait in the baking African sun for them to pass. This has been my journey to church at Muke, Zimbabwe.
Now the quiet of the classroom in which we will worship calms and comforts me. I set out the wooden cross and the communion elements. This is a moment of peace for me after the demanding journey from home.
My reverie is broken by a voice, "Umfundisi (pastor), remember Sipho Dube?" This question comes from the church deacon, Mr. Bulibisa, who has just entered the room.
Do I remember Sipho Dube?! While I haven't met Sipho, how could I forget the story I'd heard of the young crippled boy unable to walk and with no wheelchair. How could I forget the image of Sipho, each morning, being trundled the two kilometers to school in a wheelbarrow? Deacon Bulibisa has told me about the days when the wheelbarrow's work is in the fields, and someone has to carry Sipho to school, how Sipho crawls when the one carrying him tires out. How can I forget thinking about Sipho, twelve years old and in the fourth grade, always at the mercy of those who will help him get around.
I remember my last visit to Muke, when I heard Sipho's story from Deacon Bulibisa. I hear Bulibisa's passionate desire to find a wheelchair for Sipho. I leave determined to find help for Sipho. I feel like the sower who sows the seeds and I will watch them flourish into fruits of success. I optimistically head to Plumtree Hospital a stone's throw from my home. The hundred-bed facility with two doctors serves the 100,000 people of our district, Bulilimamangwe South. I wait in the queue with scores of others wanting medical care for loved ones with handicaps and chronic problems. After hours of waiting it's my turn; "I am here to get a wheel chair for one of my church members, Sipho Dube of Muke." I say.
"The hospital has wheel chairs, but to get one, Sipho's case must be documented with the Department of Social Welfare. You'll have to go there and register Sipho," I am told.
Off to Social Welfare, another queue of people hoping for help. A worker takes down the details of Sipho's case and speaks of needing to go and see Sipho before she can authorize the release of a wheelchair. She looks at me suspiciously and says, "People make up stories to get a wheelchair. Then they sell them. Sipho lives way out at Muke," she continues in a doubtful tone, "We don't get there very often..."
"I can bring him here," I respond, still optimistic.
"No...," she says, "we like to see the clients in their home setting..." (pause)
Do I remember Sipho Dube? Facing Deacon Bulibisa in the quiet of the classroom, my feeling of defeat hangs on my shoulders, like a weight. "Yes," I answer, my voice hollow, "I remember Sipho Dube."
Mr. Bulibisa and I speak in a mixture of Ndebele and English. He is sensitive to my meager Ndebele and my almost total lack of Kalanga, his first language. I understand clearly, though, when he suggests, "Sesiyahamba" (Let's go see him. Let's go visit Sipho.) "There's time now before the service." Bulibisa's voice emits an influential power. I set aside my task, pick up my worship books, and follow him outside, into the sun.
The brilliant sky shimmers from horizon to horizon over the flat land. The trees are leafing out with that neon-green colour of spring growth. God's creation, on this mile-high African plateau, spreads out magnificently before us.
Yet, I dread this expedition to visit Sipho. I do not like to admit that the seeds I have sown have fallen on the rocky ground of failure. I do not like to feel helpless. I also do not like to see, close-up, the dehumanizing results of poverty. I do not like to have to justify my prosperity in the face of another's profound need. It would have been so easy to just buy a wheelchair and give it to Sipho. How good that would have felt. But I am in covenant with the local church and the Mission Board which has sent me not to be a sugar-daddy-not to provide easy American feel-good solutions, but to walk with my parishioners, not ahead of them nor over them. So now I feel defeat and frustration. Yet my deacon, and perhaps my God, has called me. - "Let's go visit Sipho." In obedience, I climb behind the wheel of the truck while Bulibisa climbs in beside me, I reverse, back to the path, onto the bumps, and through the thorns.
The track to Sipho's home follows the tree-lined edge of the Tokwana river-bed, lying dry now-scorched sand awaiting the summer rains. We approach the Dube's kraal, a group of eight round mud houses encircled by a stick fence. I drive up to a spreading acacia tree, beneath which an old woman sits weaving a grass mat.
We climb out of the truck and greet the woman, grandmother, Gogo. As we shake hands, Mr. Bulibisa, explains in Kalanga who I am. Gogo gives me a toothless grin. She claps with delight and nearly wrings my hand off as we shake in greeting. I wonder, "What is she so happy about?" I know it is special to have a minister make visit but it's not that big a deal, is it?
As we approach the simple gate, I see someone crawling across the swept dirt towards us. This must be Sipho. I greet him by name. As I take his outstretched hand, I realize that the nature of his disability is far greater than I had imagined. Each curled hand, more like a claw, has only a thumb and a finger. Each foot, merely a stub, has only two toes. I feel embarrassed and angry that my attempts to sow seeds to help Sipho have been futile. (pause)
Sow the seeds. That is what we are called to do. We are not promised bountiful crops with every harvest, but oh, isn't it hard to bear the burden of defeat. Just sow the seeds. We do not know where our seeds will fall. Perhaps on rocky ground, arid ground, or fertile soil. We don't know where the seeds will fall.
Sometimes I get caught up in the "paralysis of analysis." I try to guess the outcome of my actions. How successful will I be in sowing seeds? What will the results be? I get so worried about the chances of success that I talk myself out of even trying at all. I forget that my job, our job, is to keep on sowing seeds, to keep on doing what God wants us to do. The success of our sowing is in God's hands. Whatever God calls us to do to further the Kingdom: working with the elderly, with children, with the handicapped, being good stewards of the environment, caring for asylum seekers and refugees, trying to make our communities more hospitable for newcomers, spreading the Gospel in word and deed, on whatever ground we find ourselves-rocky, arid or fertile-we are called to sow the seeds of God's love and justice and leave the results to God.
Back at Muke, I take a deep breath and squat beside Sipho. His face radiates intelligence and pleasure. I ask him about school, and he enthusiastically describes his subjects and teachers. He is proud of his ability to read and write. I wonder how he can even hold a pen. But when Deacon Bulibisa tells me to give Sipho one of the pieces of paper in my Bible and a pen, Sipho smiles proudly and writes his name with ease, "S- I -P -H- O." I remember, as I see him write, that "Sipho" means "gift."
Then Sipho takes off, crawling, beckoning us to follow him to one of the thatched huts. Stepping across the threshold, I move cautiously while my eyes slowly adjust from the brightness outside to the dim interior. Through a small window, a ray of sunlight reflects off something leaning against the wall. Sipho beckons me closer. A metal object takes shape...I'll give you one guess as to what it is!...a wheelchair! My mouth drops open with astonishment.
"But, but, but how...?" I stammer out the partially phrased question.
Mr. Bulibisa explains, "Remember, Umfundisi, you asked at Social Welfare and the Plumtree Hospital? You gave them Sipho's name."
"Yes, but, I had no luck..."
Bulibisa continues, "Well, when the headmaster of Sipho's school went to plead for a wheelchair, they said they had heard from you already. They are suspicious about giving things away, but when both an Umfundisi and a headmaster say Sipho needs a wheelchair, why they were convinced and they released this one to us for Sipho.
I remember my sense of frustration and impatience at the hospital and Social Welfare. I remember my sense of futility, feeling the scorched earth upon which I was sowing those seeds-so optimistic I was, then failing and feeling so dejected. But now I can scarcely contain my joy. Now I understand Gogo's vigorous handshake. Now I understand Sipho's pleasure. No more wheelbarrow rides for Sipho Dube! (pause)
The family has gathered, everyone is laughing and talking. Sipho hoists himself into the chair and literally spins around the room. He celebrates this rich harvest with dancing wheels!
Tears in my eyes, I join my hands to others. We give thanks that God gives us seeds to sow, and that these seeds have flourished and provided fruit.
As we step out of the hut, Gogo grasps Mr. Bulibisa's hand. Her smile recedes as her tone becomes serious, almost pleading. They converse in Kalanga. A child of about six stands by Gogo holding her skirt, watching as they speak. Deacon Bulibisa turns to me, "Umfundisi," he says, "this child cannot talk...."
I react immediately. There is a knot in my stomach as a feeling of almost complete helplessness descends upon me. What does he expect me to do about it? I know nothing about helping someone who is mute and probably deaf. My mind goes back to Plumtree Hospital and Social Service. Where does one begin to find help for a child in rural Africa who cannot speak?
Then Sipho rolls up in his shiny wheelchair, his dancing wheels, and I am reminded of the power of God at work through servants who are willing to sow seeds. "Let's see what we can do," I say with a reluctant smile. "Yes, Umfundisi. Let us see what we can do, with God's help," Bulibisa boldly proclaims.
I am not a miracle worker, but I have seen miracles-and the miracles we pray for are not always the miracles we get! God calls us to sow the seeds, to do the footwork, to grow the kingdom. We are God's hands and feet on this earth. Sometimes we like to sit aside saying that it's someone else's job, someone who knows more, an expert, someone stronger, someone with a deeper faith. Sometimes we start out enthusiastically, but when the going gets tough, we'd rather give up than keep going. How often do we throw up our hands in despair and say, "What's the use? What can I do anyway?" But where would we be if a stammering Moses declared, "I cannot do this. It's too hard." Where would we be if Mary had said, "I'm just a teenage girl, I do not want to be pregnant out of wed-lock. I do not want to be the mother of the Messiah!" Where would we be if Jesus had said "I just want to go back to the carpentry shop. Leave me alone. This is too hard." And, where will we be, each one of us, if we do not sow the seeds of peace, justice and love, the seeds of the Kingdom of God? Seeds given to us by God's son, Jesus Christ, our Lord? Seeds to be sown by us whenever and where ever the opportunity arises. Where will we be if we say the work is too hard and the results are too meager? Where will we be?
God does not promise us a perfect harvest, or even a plentiful one. But Jesus reminds us that some seeds will fall on fertile ground, and when we leave the results to God, we will be amazed at the fruits.
Let us pray. O God, You have blessed us with many seeds to sow where we are. Grant us the willingness and courage to be the sowers of all that is a part of the garden of your blessed realm in this world. Amen.
Theodore (Tod) Gobledale
Chaplain, Churches of Christ Theological College
44-60 Jacksons Rd., Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia 3170
Tod, with his family, has served as an international missionary through Global Ministries-a common ministry of the United Church of Christ USA and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) USA. He was seconded to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) in South Africa (1984-1991) and Zimbabwe (1995-2000). Tod was ordained by the UCCSA in 1985, and currently holds standing in the Churches of Christ in Australia, the United Church of Christ USA and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) USA. Since 2003, Tod and his wife, Ana, have served as Chaplains at the Churches of Christ Theological College near Melbourne, Australia, seconded by Global Ministries.
December 4-5, 2004
St. Theresa's Church
Matt 3: 1-12
Who knows what Black Friday means? Raise your hands. As I expected - 90% of the women know, but only 10% of the men.
In the November 27th Maui News, the headline story was titled "Mauians join in the shopping rush." The article started with "long before dawn Friday, Santa's helpers were moving to their action stations. Rem Enomoto was at work at KB Toys at Queen Kaahumanu Center by 3:30 a.m. By the time the doors opened at 5 o'clock, the line of shoppers stretched out past the American Savings Bank almost to the curb. In line was C. J. Palma, 4, and her auntie, Velma Hidalgo. They were after Power Rangers. Hidalgo said she'd waited in line'"three or four hours" last year and this year hadn't planned to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, usually the biggest single day of the year for America's retailers (guys, Black Friday). But a girlfriend called and suggested they should go, so they went. Along with half the island, it seemed."
Contrast that image of an ever-increasing appetite for the last toy or gadget with John the Baptist wearing "clothing made of camel's hair and ... a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey." This cousin of Jesus and herald of his coming preached "prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." If John lived among us today, we would probably call him a worthless, homeless bum speaking nonsense.
But how do we make straight the paths to the Lord in our over-consuming society as we search for that perfect Christmas present for that special someone. One way is by living a life of voluntary simplicity. Voluntary Simplicity is a lifestyle of integrity, living as a disciple of Jesus, and walking our talk. It embraces five life principles: Learn from the World Community, Cherish the Natural Order, Do Justice, Nurture People, and Non-Conform Freely. Allow me to share some thoughts on the last three.
20% of the world's population (mostly residents of The United States, Western Europe, and Japan) uses 80% of the world's resources. Biblical Justice is based on God's great love for the poor and our call to respond to their needs. The biblical writer James asks this question of us, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?" In addition to our prayers and our contributions, we help the poor around the world by taking seriously the phrase, "Live Simply that Others May Simply Live. For example, when are the people of faith in the million dollar homes on Wailea golf courses going to give of their time and talent to solve the affordable housing problem for those born and raised on this island? Do Justice.
We find meaning in life through our relationships with God and with people, not through stuff. If we let them, the stuff we own would own us. First we may go into debt paying for stuff and shortly after we buy it most of its glimmer is lost. Then we have to maintain it. And secure it so nobody steals it. Who owns whom? We can learn to discard stuff and put relationships first.
One day a father and his five-year-old son went to the Kahului Airport to experience the people and the planes. The son asked "Where are all these people going, Daddy?""All over the world, " came the reply. The father and son were just hanging with each other as people rush back and forth to catch their flights. Often, we are too busy to nurture our children like this dad. But it is so simple because all it takes are parents who care enough to spend time, to pay attention, and to try their best. It doesn't cost a cent, yet it is the most valuable thing in the world. Nurture People
I am not talking about overthrowing our government, but resisting the pressures created primarily by advertising.
What's objectionable is advertising that creates false needs, wants or desires. Advertisers play with our heads by telling us that parents will be making their kids happy by buying them the latest x-box game, or that a man will win over that special woman with a big dazzling diamond ring, or that we will be more popular or successful if we wear certain kinds of clothes or perfume.
In a 1989 interview with Time Magazine, Mother Theresa was asked, "Is materialism in the West an equally serious problem? Part of her answer was "the more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have the more free you are." To live simply, some have turned off the television for a week, committed to eat a one-meal daily together, or agreed not to shop on Black Friday. Non-Conform Freely
John the Baptist preached and lived frugally so that he could focus totally on preparing the way for Jesus. Are we going to live simply by doing justice, nurturing people, and nonconforming freely? Are we going to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our lives?
I hope this helps the movement. I asked our parishioners to check your website so I hope my homily help to move some to change. Thanks for what you do.
Deacon Stan Franco
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Havertown, PA
Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2002
Ezekiel 34: 11- 24; Matthew 25: 31-46
On the power and prestige scale, the occupations of shepherd and king seem to be worlds apart, don't they? I expect the income gap is fairly wide as well. But in the time of Ezekiel's ministry, it was actually a common association to make - a king, a shepherd - same difference. Both are charged with the task of leading the flock, protecting the people. Ezekiel prophesied that the scattered sheep would be rescued, given good grazing ground, strengthened for service. The flock he referred to was the chosen people of God, the children of Israel, scattered in exile. But, he was also talking about us - the ones who look to Jesus to be our shepherd.
I wish the leaders of our world were more interested in developing their shepherding skills. It is disheartening to hear of wars and rumors of war; to hear of a crippled tanker refused portage; to hear that clean air is, after all, less important than the almighty dollar.
Ezekiel speaks for the Lord: "I will shepherd the flock with justice." (34: 16)
For some reason, our lectionary omits a few verses from today's first reading. It is a word of judgment. "As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?" (v. 17-19)
It's hard for us North American consumers to hear this word of judgment. Especially as we acknowledge the disparity between our lifestyle and the conditions that so many of our neighbors around the globe suffer.
One of my colleagues just returned from Tanzania a couple of days ago. He told of a group of 18 women - essentially, they were members of a house church - who had taken on the task of building a shelter for their meeting space out of mud bricks that they made. They still needed to obtain a roof. A tin roof would cost about $150 - but in a country where the average annual income might be $500, it might take a while. Pastor Smoose, who told this story yesterday with the zeal of a prophet, promised to send them a check as soon as he returned to the States. It sounds so easy for us, doesn't it? $150!! How many will be spending many many times that on their Christmas celebrations next month?
The good news is that we have Jesus. Jesus to lead us - to teach us. Sometimes the teaching is hard, like the gospel reading we heard today. Come judgment day, will we end up on the side with the sheep - or with the goats?
Nancy Roth, an Episcopal priest, wrote in a meditation for Christ the King Sunday:
"The great Indian prophet Mohandas Ghandi once said that there were only two successful ways to deal with worldly power. One was to have all the power. The other was to have none. Ghandi...chose the latter." (A Closer Walk, New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1998, p.238) Parenthetically, she mentions that Ghandi was
"...once a student of Christianity (he said he thought it was a wonderful religion - it was just a pity people didn't practice it)" (Ibid.)
Roth continues. "Inevitably, we will discover flaws in our human leaders, whether they be presidents or princes or priests. No amount of patriotism or politicking can cause it to be otherwise. We may wish with all our hearts that we can put our fate in the hands of our leaders, but we cannot. Power in the hands of human beings is always flawed by our lack of wisdom, our character traits, our timidity, and our egocentricity. We must never be blind followers; we must modify the power of our leaders by empowering ourselves and our communities, as well.
"There is only one leader whom we can safely trust: Christ our King. He is a strange kind of king: a king who was powerless politically, an itinerant preacher and healer who was crowned with thorns and put to death as a criminal. Because his reign is based on love, he in fact, has more power - and that, uncorrupted - than any earthly leader has ever glimpsed. In him, we dare to put our trust..." (Ibid., p. 239). Amen.
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(originally ©2005 Alternatives for Simple Living)
Worship Alternatives collection compiled, edited and prepared by Katie Cook from Seed of Hope and by Gerald Iversen.Besides sermons, the collection contains many other worship items and art. It is part of the CD-ROM Simply the Best: Over 30 Years of Alternatives, available from the ELCA Archives.
A free copy of the popular "Ten Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Christmas" and many other resources are available on the website, click on Archives, scroll down to Ten Tips.
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