This morning I heard these words spoken out loud.
Not once, but several times.
Some of them said our loud over and over again.
A place for all.
Loved…as in I am and you are.
Church (or another place to worship) may not be for everyone.
I know all too well how judgmental and insular and narrow churches can be.
But for me, one of the things I value about the church I attend is the language.
Words I don’t hear anywhere else.
Said out loud.
Words which stand counter to so much of what we hear
In the news.
And, on our social media feeds.
And, in the midst of our daily round.
Words which remind me and challenge me and turn me towards what I desire and hope for.
Not just for myself.
But for us and for all.
We went to church again last Sunday.
It was nice.
The people around us were welcoming.
The pastor was honest and thoughtful with what she said.
In a variety of different ways we were reminded of the communities around us.
From those down the street to those across the world.
But, what I left with was this.
For one hour
Out of the 168 hours in my week
I was reminded of goodness.
Those words were said out loud.
Both to me and for me.
And, more than that, I said those words out loud.
To me and for me.
And also to and for you.
I was reminded of the larger circles around my life.
And, that we are made for each other.
And, are to care for each other.
And, that I am not (and neither are you) the center of that circle.
I was also reminded I was not perfect.
(Something I already know all too well.)
But in the next breath,
I was reminded that, even though I am far from perfect,
I am valued.
And, have the ability and the opportunity
In the moment before me
To make myself better.
And the world around me better.
All of that in one hour.
Only one hour.
Out of the 168 hours in my week.
In the other 167 hours of my week
Between the news
And the social media posts
And the grocery store checkout lines
I am reminded how petty we can be.
And, how thoughtless and uncaring we can be.
And, how inhuman we, too often, are.
For 167 hours each week we are bombarded by the reminders of our worst selves.
But for that one hour….
We dare not forget the horror and the heartbreak with which so many people live.
But, we should not forget the goodness either.
And, in each other.
I, for one, need the reminder.
Four years ago, when you were in Confirmation, there were probably one or two times when I said to you: “I want to make sure that, at least once, you have heard a pastor say this…” Whether that was about ways to read and understand the Bible or about sexual orientation and being inclusive or about my understanding of and relationship to those whose faith tradition is different than ours. Today, I want to that again. Before you go off to college and step towards that new tomorrow, given the public perception of Christianity, in particular, and faith/religion, in general, I would like to remind you of this. To make sure, at least one more time, you have heard a pastor who takes God and Jesus and faith seriously say this. Four things.
First, God is…
Maybe it is easier to begin with what I think God is not.
A number of years ago I attended a national gathering of church leaders. One of the buttons being handed out read: God Is Not a Boy’s Name. The message of the button was primarily about the patriarchy which is still prevalent in both church and culture, but it also serves as a reminder that, even though he is the pronoun used far to often, God is not male. Or female. Or up in the sky. And, God is not Christian. Or Jewish. Or Muslim. Or…you fill in the blank.
So, if that is not God, what or who is God for me?
I can respond to that question in several ways, but for this morning let me remind you of what I probably said to you four years ago in Confirmation. What if we thought of God as more of a verb than a noun. More as an action than a person. What if God is the source, the inspiration, to be found in acts of:
In those moments when you do those things or experience those things or see those things, there is God.
Here are places I see and experience God.
I experience something of God when the Cherub Choir sings. I see God when meals and conversation are taken to someone who is sick. I stand in God’s presence when we stand in front of a house we have helped to build in Nicaragua and the family talks about their 16’x16’ home as their mansion and the gratitude they feel. I am surrounded by God when I leave my phone at home and walk in the woods or look up at the night sky. God is present when I and we work with others to make our congregation and our community and our country and our world a bit better today than it was yesterday.
In all those times and places God is.
Where is God for you?
I hope you take the time to notice.
Second, how large a circle and which way will you face?
Religion or faith or God…whatever word you would like to use…is about the circle around your life and about which direction you will face. Some people use their faith to make the circle around their life as small and as tight as possible in order to define who is in and who is out and who is right and who is wrong. Do it my way or our way and you are in. Don’t and you are out. Believe this way and you are in. If you don’t you are out. Look like me. Talk like me. Dress like me and you are in. If you are different you are out. I think, more often than not, that way of thinking about God or faith or religion is harmful and does violence to others. And, those who define God that way look like a football huddle.
Only looking at each other.
Backs turned to the world.
My understanding of the witness of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus is that we are to make the circle around our lives not smaller, but larger. Not only inviting people in, but moving it outward until it encircles more and more. The witness of the Bible is that all are made in the image of God.
All of us are named as children of God.
And we are called to be neighbors to each other.
And rather than facing inward and walking backward, we are to face outward; to see and to recognize those in front of us for who they are. And to walk forward until they are encircled.
Third, know the story.
I have never read the Bible cover to cover.
I have tried, but I have gotten bogged down in genealogies and lists and laws.
And, I am not asking you to.
But, I am encouraging you to know enough of the story that when those moments of decision or judgement or choice come up in your life you have a touchstone and a point of reference which will help you decide what to do or how to act or which can be a source of understanding and strength.
Includes what I read this morning.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
You are the light of the world.
Treat others as you would like to be treated.
And, what about the stories in the Bible about confronting giants, because there continue to be giants in our world. Or, what about the stories of not wanting to do what you know you are supposed to do or called to do? For those moments will arise in your life. And, what about the stories of sowing seeds of making a difference or being blind and then being able to see.
Know those stories.
And, notice I said story and not Bible.
That is intentional.
Again, going back to Confirmation. I urge you to read the Bible as story and poetry and not as science or a newspaper. The Bible is inspired and contains truth, but it is not meant to be read literally.
Look around you.
You probably know some of the people here.
You probably recognize a few others.
But there are many here you probably don’t know.
That is okay.
But, here is the thing.
All these people are the ones who, in ways large and small, have cared for you and prayed for you and supported you. These are the people your parents chose to stack around your life to help you grow up to who you are today.
As a community, we are far from perfect, but we try.
We try to care for one another.
We try to support one another.
We try to challenge one another.
We add our faith and our hope and our money and our energy to the community called Bedford Presbyterian Church in order to do what we can to make the world closer to what we think God intends.
The question I have for you is this. As you step towards what comes next in your life, what is that community going to be for you? The community which will support you and encourage you and challenge you to do and be your best?
Where are you going to find it?
What is it going to look like?
What values do you want it to hold out in front of you?
What I think I know is it will look different than this. Different from what I have known and from what you have known growing up here. What I hope is you is this:
That you have the vision and the courage to find it and shape it and to be a part of it. That it does for you tomorrow what this community has done for you as you grew up.
The comedian, Jimmy Fallon, was the surprise guest speak at the graduation ceremony at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Do you recognize the name of the school? It is where, on Valentine’s Day, a fellow student killed 14 classmates and 3 staff members. Taking that that tragedy and pain, a number of those students launched the #NeverAgain movement and, this summer, will be traveling the country registering young adults and encouraging them to vote. I read Jimmy Fallon’s speech and would share this part of it with you because it applies to each of you, as well.
Most commencement speakers, they’ll get up here and talk in the future tense. ‘You will succeed. You will make us proud. And you will change the world. Most commencement speakers say, ‘You are the future.’ But I’m not gonna say that, because you’re not the future. You’re the present. You are succeeding. You are making us proud. You are changing the world, so keep changing the world and keep making us proud.
There is a picture a friend took of me with a group of children from Las Conchitas, Nicaragua. Then there is the batik which my parents gave me with a picture of an angel and a quote about angels being able to fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously. And there are the stones in a jar from a high school retreat long ago and the card with the quote we used as our focal point for our work trip last summer. And a shadow picture of my wife and I which I took at Arches National Park alongside a picture our grandson. Then there is a lump of coal I brought home from Hurley, Virginia. And a prayer cap from Nepal given to me by a young man from our congregation who had spent two years there in the Peace Corps. And a carving I did of St. Francis. And, on the mantel, Gandhi’s quote about being the change given to me by a colleague.
I sit surrounded by reminders.
Reminders of where I have been and who was with me.
Reminders of moments which changed me and shaped me into who I am today.
Each of them, in their own way, a reminder of what is important to me and of the values and experiences which have shaped my life and of the type of person I most want to be.
What reminders surround you each day?
After my old one quit working, a week or so ago Fed Ex delivered my new Fitbit. Not only does it tell time and remind me of the date. It also displays my pulse rate and tracks how many steps I take each day and how many calories I burn and how much I exercise. Whether it has to do with my compulsive behavior or my competitiveness or some combination of both, I like it. I find it a helpful tool to remind me to exercise and to walk my 10,000 steps each day. But my new Fitbit has one other feature which my old Fitbit did not. Each hour it reminds me to get up and to walk at least 250 steps. When I have sat for too long, my Fitbit vibrates and a little figure appears on the screen asking me to take it for a walk. I appreciate the reminder because without it I would too easily forget. Or become distracted. Or sometimes just get lazy.
In whatever way you do…
We build reminders into our lives to keep us in touch with what is important.
The question for this morning is what are those reminders you build into your day and into your week and into homes to remind you of or to reconnect you to God?
A couple years ago, a young man who grew up in this congregation and who now works in underdeveloped and developing countries around the world through an international economic development organization sent me an email from Somaliland where he was working for several months. The community in which he was living and working was predominantly Muslim. He wrote to tell me about his experience with the Muslim practice of praying five times a day. When the call to prayer sounded from the mosque, no matter what they were in the middle of, all work would stop and his Muslim colleagues would gather, turn towards Mecca and join in the obligatory prayer. Rather than being put off by the fact that what they were talking about or working on came to a screeching halt, he found those moments renewing. While he did not join in the Muslim prayers, he grew to appreciate the reminder to pause and to take those few minutes to meditate and to pray and to pay attention to that inner part of his life.
The scripture reading for this morning from Deuteronomy tells of a similar reminder.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.”
This affirmation of faith…
Stands at the very center of the Jewish faith.
For many Jews, this verse is written on a piece of paper, rolled up and place in a mezuzah and attached to the door or the gate or strapped to an arm. A concrete reminder of who they were and how they were called to live which they would see each time they entered or left their homes or each time they touched their arm.
Which brings me back to you and me.
While it was never really enough, because we were Christian and Christian in this country and because most of the culture around us called itself Christian, the assumption became that attending worship once a week or once a month or, for some, once or twice a year was enough.
Cultural Christianity may work that way and get by with that, but…
If you believe faith calls you to something more…
If you believe that a relationship with the Holy goes deeper than that…
If you believe things like gratitude and seeing others as neighbor need nurtured and supported and practiced…
Then, how do you do that?
What are those reminders you structure into your life which, if even for a moment, pull you…
Out of the routine of the day,
Out of the tasks that just have to be done,
Out of the tension of the situation in which you find yourself
And open your eyes and mind and heart to that Something Else? That Something More?
Open your eyes and your mind and your heart to who you are and how you are called to live?
What about something like this?
Maybe before you check your email or check in on Facebook or read the morning paper you read a verse from the Bible and take a moment to be quiet or read some type of devotional guide which helps you orient or reorient your life and your day.
Or, maybe you begin your lunch break or begin dinner by taking a few moments to remember the gift of food and those who do not have enough.
Or, maybe you sent the alarm on your phone to vibrate two or three times a day and when it does for you to stop what you are doing and to say thank you for two or three things.
Or, maybe you try to learn to pray constantly (see 1 Thessalonians 5).
Pick a Bible verse – “God’s steadfast love endures forever…” or “Remember, I am with you always…” Or a simple phrase like – “Be with me God.” And, practice saying it over and over again until it is just there in every moment of your day.
Or, maybe each day you take a moment and sit with your children and each of you write down two things you were thankful for that day. Put the scraps of paper in a jar on the table where you eat meals together. Then sometime during the week you take turns pulling out what was written and reading it to each other.
Maybe when you go grocery shopping or buy school supplies or buy new clothes you purposefully buy something for someone else. Those who don’t have enough food. Or don’t have a notebook for school. Or seldom, if ever, get new clothes. And, don’t just do it, but remind each other why you do it.
So, what do you do…
What reminders do you or will you put in place…
So your days look different?
So your home looks different?
So your eyes see new things?
What will you do so your hearts take a new shape
Each day closer to the image of the heart of God?
In this moment, O God, we ask to be reminded.
Reminded that all fall within the circle of your care and concern.
Reminded that all are to fall within the circle of our care and concern.
Reminded, too, that we are to see not only what is, but, also, what might be.
Remind us that we are to be agents and angels…
And of hope.
And of compassion.
Doing what we can…
What we are called to do…
To bring that distant day close.
And so we pray…
Not just upward, but more importantly outward…
Wrapping our prayers around those whom we know and have named;
And, around all that has been entrusted to our care and keeping and so many more which we would remember and name in this moment. And added to all that this, too, O God. May our lives follow where our prayers first lead.