Keep It Simple

Jeffrey Sartain September 10, 2017

Scripture Romans 13:8–10

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light

Prayer: Love Spirit of God, meet us in this time of speaking and listening and make your love known—the love we depend upon, the love we need. Amen.

The last few days I have been thinking about Irene Kobernus. She is gone now, I’m sure. She was 80 when I arrived at my first congregation in 1990—so while that seems to me like it was about 10 years ago, of course it is quite a while longer than that. I’m sure her spunky little 5-foot flame long ago joined the eternal light of glory, but she’s been on my mind.

Irene was nearly as round as she was tall, and she liked to serve her new young minister comfort food—steak and mashed potatoes for lunch whenever I stopped at her farmhouse for a visit. I went for encouragement, which she served with gravy, and she always said to leave room for pie.

Irene was a widow, but sort of an exuberant one. I suspect that her husband had been sort of a wet blanket on her spirit. While she missed him after he was gone, she seemed to enjoy being able to celebrate her full “Irene-ness.” She gave me a glimpse of this when one day I complimented her outfit. She always matched from earrings to shoes. She said it was nice to hear a straight-up compliment. She said, “I used to get dolled up and then ask my husband how I looked. He always said, ‘You look about as good as most of them, Irene.’” She said, “The idea was to look a little bit better than most of them.” Once her doctor told her she should lose weight, but she told him she didn’t believe in that. She said, “I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror and I say to myself, ‘Irene Kobernus, how can you feel so good?!’ That’s what I go by.”

I’ve needed a little of that Irene Kobernus attitude lately, that upbeat, try-to-find-the-bright-side attitude. Let me clarify that Irene wasn’t a Pollyanna. Often she wept at her kitchen table when she talked about her son who had passed away when he was just 40, and her husband, too, whom she missed despite his grumpy attitude. Her tears flowed generously over her round face. Irene also kept no dirt under her rug; she aired it all with no shame—her failings and foibles and fears and frustrations. She cried as easily as she laughed and integrated it all as she dried her tears, put me into my car with a hug, and then squeezed herself in her own behind her steering wheel, which was pressed right up against her bosom so her feet could reach the peddles. She zipped off to bingo, or to circle or to visit a friend. Irene lived openly and with integrity but she also kept her joy alive—and I loved that about her, and hope I can do that, too.

This old world is a weary place these days. This is nothing new, but it is hard. It is hard to read the paper. People with open and tender hearts cry over the devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires. People with deep values and faith worry over political standoffs, war-crazed despots and legislative actions that come down hard on our society’s most vulnerable members. And there is trouble closer to home, too; a church in transition with big questions before us. Not to mention the trouble in our own lives—our kids, our jobs, our illnesses, our relationships. These are real and present realities. So, I’ve needed to find some role models, to think about how I want to show up—and that is why Irene Kobernus came to mind.

Her guiding rule was to love—to love others and to love her life in all its complexity, to weep when it calls you to weep, but also to laugh, because life is beautiful and brief. And so I’m grateful to Irene today, and hope my little tribute to her will give you some hope, too.

Last week I had lunch with a group of interfaith colleagues—rabbis and pastors and spiritual directors and activists of all ages and races and orientations and theological backgrounds—a wonderful mix. Together in a church basement we asked one another: What is giving you hope? What is helping you be the kind of spiritual leader you want to be in the world where trouble comes on every day—when the news shows images of Nazis marching in front of synagogues, not on the History Channel but on the evening news, and when in our members’ lives, those whom we are called to love, their pains break our hearts?

Someone quoted social activist Adrienne Maree Brown from Detroit, who wrote, “Things are not getting worse; they are getting uncovered.” And then she goes on, “We must hold one another tight as we pull back the veil.”

Another pastor at the table said, “You’d find me rocking in a corner if it weren’t for all of you.” She said: “But I get up and I love the best I can because I know that’s what God needs me to do.”

Someone else quoted, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships were built for.” So out to sea we went again, but not before we went around the room and we each spoke one word that summarized what we were taking away. People said hope, determination, resolve, vulnerability—and one man just hugged himself and said, “I don’t have a word, but it feels like this.”

As we come to this new church program year, with all that is happening, that is what I want to put before us—the question: “What is giving us hope?”

The staff met this week and we asked that question. We were mindful that there are some very heavy hearts among us. We held in prayer those here for whom our senior minister’s departure is distressing. We held in prayer those who are worried about the world, those who can’t even turn on the news. We held in prayer those who struggle for a myriad of other reasons. And then we said to ourselves, What gives us hope?

Someone noted that Plymouth was founded in 1857—and has faced harder times than these: a civil war and world wars to follow; the leveling of our church by fire; the death of a beloved minister just a year into his tenure, Reverend Henry Nichols; a roiling debate among us over denominational affiliation more than once; countless deaths of our beloved saints; ministers coming and going under varied circumstances. It is a long history, and it is an inspiring one.

160 years ago last April a group of idealists met and established this church. Think about the context. Minneapolis was a rough frontier town, teeming with immigrants and lumber barons. There were more bars than churches to be sure—not that you can’t find some good people in a bar, but you know what I mean. It was a rugged place. And in our country, what was the context? There was great distress and division. In 1857, the same year the church was founded, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Dred Scott decision that stated that a slave was “an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic,” and that slave owners had the right to hold onto their “property”—even in states and territories where slavery was illegal, states like Minnesota. This had launched a national, passionate, divisive and urgent debate.

In that complex and tumultuous time, our church, our brand-new church, knew what kind of congregation we wanted to be. We—and I say we because this is our church—we passed a resolution. The American Tract Society, a group in New York devoted to producing Christian literature, had refused to openly condemn slavery, and so we demanded that the organization “reverse its erroneous and time-serving policy” and “wipe away once and forever the reproach which it has attached to the Christian name.” Those are strong words coming from a fledgling little congregation on the Western frontier. That was a loving and bold resolution; and we made it together. We knew what kind of church we wanted to be.

Slavery was not a simple issue. There were layers of economics and politics that created strange alliances and caused thinking people to stop and wonder what cost might be borne by undoing an institution that was woven into the fabric of our life as a young nation, evil as it was. But even though it was a complicated time, we had no choice but stand for liberty and for justice. It was for us a matter of the soul; it was a matter of love—and of being the church God was calling us to be.

St. Paul wrote in our lesson today that the one who loves has done everything that is required. Paul wrote that this complicated life of faith is really not so complicated. He wrote that everything complex about life answers to this one demand: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Professor David Jacobson at the Toronto School of Theology wrote, “This simple passage lifts up the importance of love. Yet at the same time it refuses to set up love as a big, shadowy ‘ought.’ Instead, it sets love firmly in the light, that is, God’s dawning light of the new age. In other words, we don’t love because we should love. Rather, we love because God’s ever-loving day is about to dawn.”

Keeping all that in our hearts, our staff—Paula, Beth, Philip, Seth and I—chose a theme together as we thought about the program year beginning today: “160 years of daring spiritual community transforming the world with love . . .” and then we added, “Now more than ever.”

We are not naïve about this theme. It is a very bold statement. But what else can we be in these days if not a daring spiritual community? It is what this church has always been. Why come together if not to make a difference in the lives of those who most need us? Why worship the God who calls us to justice if we want only to remain comfortable? Why sing praise to the God who walked the human path, and struggled world-weary, and was at home with the world’s lost and littlest and least, if we are not going to bravely bind up our wounds, whatever they might be, and walk together in all God’s ways?

The times are complicated. Our emotions swirl and change by the day. Our lives are a mix of heartbreak and ecstasy, but God calls us to just one thing. God calls us to love this world and to love our lives—not as a command but as an invitation to joy. Even when our hearts are breaking; when we’ve failed; when anger consumes us; when we feel alone; when change unsettles us. Love is the one response to whatever life brings, it is the one response that moves us closer to the heart of God.

In words from Maya Angelou’s poem “Touched by an Angel”:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life. . . .

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Plymouth Congregational Church, in our 160th year, dare to love, simply love, and be the brave doers of justice we know God is calling us to be.


Saying the Wrong Thing

Paula Northwood February 21, 2016

Scripture: Luke:9:28a-35

Prayer: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Quiet our minds that we might hear your word for us. Amen.

I remember the first time I really noticed what is written about Peter in this text and I felt embarrassed for him. Peter makes a fool of himself. He’s talking before he thinks and a voice from above says something akin to: be quiet and listen to Jesus. The text reads, “he didn’t know what he was saying.” It infers that his suggestion was, to put it kindly, misguided and not so kindly, stupid and here we have it . . . recorded for everyone to read for thousands of years. It happens to us all. We say something that we wish we hadn’t. Politicians seem particularly gifted at this. I know in my family when we gather for the holidays around the dinner table, we tell stories. There will be a few stories about when someone said something silly, stupid and regrettable. My Swiss Mennonite grandmother tended to speak before she thought. When I was eight and needed to get eye glasses. The first time she saw me, she said in her thick Switzerdeutsch accent, “Paula, that don’t look natural!” My tender 8-year-old ears didn’t quite know what to make of it. I had just endured a barrage of classmates calling me “four eyes.” But she pulled me in for a hug so I survived. Ten years later, when I showed up sporting contact lenses, she took one look at me and said, “Oh Paula, that don’t look natural!” I just shook my head.

I could share many examples of when I said the wrong thing at the wrong time but I’ll just share one and it’s a doozy. My most public mistake was when I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Philadelphia convention center for a youth conference. I was to speak on the scripture text from John 8.32. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” I wanted my sermon to be relevant, pithy and humorous for the young people. I started with a David Letterman countdown of 10 things we used to think were true but now we know are not, such as: We used to think the world was flat but now we know it is round. We used to think the universe revolved around the earth and now we know that our earth rotates around the sun. I can’t remember all my examples but the last one was: We used to think that a certain autoerotic activity would make one go blind except that I used the “M” word. Back in the 1990s it wasn’t okay to say the word “masturbation” in front of an audience of 5,000 Mennonite teenagers. I was hoping for a few laughs and they didn’t disappoint. But apparently I wanted more and said to the audience. “It looks like there are a number of people wearing eyeglasses” and then declared that the rest of us must be wearing contact lens. I thought it was funny but I had managed to offend most of the audience. Like Peter, I did not know what I was saying!

So when I read that Peter, this dear apostle of Jesus, flubs up a number of times, I take solace in that. From the gospels we know quite a bit about Peter. We know that he was a fisherman. We know that when Jesus called him, he dropped his net and followed Jesus. He was the first to be called. I imagine that he might have taken some pride in that. Peter is portrayed in the gospels as solid, passionate and often clueless.

When the disciples are boating in a terrible storm, it is Peter who steps out onto the water into the storm because he sees Jesus coming across the water. He starts out with bravado and then panics and has to be rescued from drowning. Peter was at Jesus’ side as he has healed the sick, performed miracles, feed multitudes and preached with authority. It is Peter who, when asked by Jesus, Who do you think I am? answers, “You are the Christ, the messiah.” But it’s also Peter who Jesus calls “Satan” when Peter doesn’t understand the mission and thinks Jesus is going to use force defeat the Rome Empire. Peter misunderstands what kind of messiah Jesus is.

We also know that Peter who swears his allegiance to Jesus, promising his loyalty even to death, is the first one to deny that he even knows Jesus after his arrest. What makes that story so compelling is that Peter is the last person we suspect will deny Jesus. We feel for Peter, because we know that any one of us could do the same.

But back to our text, we’re not really sure what Peter was trying to say. Jesus. James, John and Peter were on the mountain top when something unexplainable happened. I suppose one could say they had a deeply spiritual experience and Peter wants to hang onto it so he suggests putting up tents. But since the other two are ghosts, supposedly Moses and Elijah, that doesn’t really make sense. Why would spiritual apparitions need lodging? But we understand Peter’s impulse, don’t we? Most of our disappointment in life stems from wanting this, wanting to live up here on a higher plane but instead we live down here.

After all the humiliating things Peter said and did, what made him stay faithful to the mission of Jesus? The answer might be found in another story about a conversation between Jesus and Peter when Peter asked, How many times do I need to forgive my brother who sins?” As many as seven times? And Jesus responds, “Seventy times seven.”

There are a couple of important parts to this conversation. The first one is who Jesus is speaking to. He says it to Peter. Jesus is speaking to the one who, perhaps more than anyone, will soon need forgiveness for he will betray Jesus on a very deep level. Jesus is not telling Peter how many times to forgive his brother; he is telling him that HE is forgiven unconditionally and indefinitely.

But the number seven times seventy or four hundred ninety is also important. Not the number per se but the idea. Forgiveness is just excruciatingly difficult and needs to be repeated over and over again. It makes intellectual sense that forgiveness is a cornerstone of all major world religions. But while we know its benefits have been proven, forgiveness remains a thorny subject.

Forgiveness is about what you decide to do with this space in the middle between who we want to be (loving, kind, forgiving) and the very worst of who we are (fearful and confused). We may know how we want to be in the world but too often we get it wrong and our words and actions do not reflect our intentions. We say the wrong thing all too often. Our words cut into the heart of those we love and we do damage that is often difficult to repair. The only way to suture up the tear is to ask for forgiveness.

From the field of psychology, we know a great deal about forgiveness. If we have been hurt, it doesn’t mean we forget. Sometimes we are damaged badly at the hands of another person—some of us, beyond repair of the body. And even if the offender comes to us and says, deeply and sincerely, “I am sorry,” it does not undo the damage. Yet we know that holding onto anger is destructive. This is the paradox. There is a terrible cost in choosing not to forgive. The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.” And this is true. Forgiveness may offer an incredible grace to the one forgiven, but most of all, it begins to heal the one who forgives.

Rev. Mary Luti, a UCC educator and pastor, tells the story about a man driving drunk who ran a red light, killing the driver of another car, a young mother of twin toddlers. At the man’s sentencing, the woman’s relatives delivered enraged witness impact statements. Faces contorted with grief, they screamed at him in open court. The kindest thing they said was “Rot in hell!” Watching the news, Mary thought, I don’t blame them one bit. How else should they feel about a careless man who caused them this terrible loss?  Then it was the husband’s turn. He faced the man and said, “I’m a Christian. Jesus commanded us to forgive. So I forgive you.”

At that, the man let out a wail and slumped over in his seat as if struck by a mighty blow. Mary felt struck, too. How could the husband forgive him? Was he in denial? Didn’t he need more time, more therapy, more something, before offering forgiveness? Wasn’t the pardon too easy, too cheap?  Then Mary wondered why it felt less alien to her to be enraged and vengeful than it did to say, “I forgive you.”  Mary Luti goes on to say, “Sometimes I’m asked to name Christianity’s most distinctive practice. I always say forgiveness. Some people object. Not love? Doesn’t Paul (or the Bible) say love is the greatest of all? Won’t it be the last thing standing when all is ended? Yes, I say, but I am certain that on the day of love’s triumph, it will appear in the shape of a bewildered enemy inexplicably absolved.”

What is it that makes forgiveness possible? It seems to be an easy thing for Jesus. And yet, he is the one who says it must be done over and over again. Four hundred and ninety times. Jesus gets it. It’s not easy. You can make a choice to forgive but the hurt, resentment and anger can sneak up on you. It cannot be rushed. If you have been deeply hurt, the truth is, you must take time to heal. It doesn’t happen all at once.

I think we know that carrying “burning coals” affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. When we carry the burden of these burning coals, we can suffer from depression, despair, high blood pressure, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, emptiness and we may be more susceptible to addiction. Feelings of being disconnected, spiritually numb or abandoned by God are common, and bitterness can allow us to lose the capacity to care about anything else except our pain. We lose our sense of self to that burning coal lodged in our hearts.

Sometimes there are actions that are so egregious one may never be able to fully forgive. I think this is where God’s mercy comes in. I don’t know if you know that Pope Francis has called 2016 the year of mercy. You can read about it in a little book titled The Name of God is Mercy. Mercy is God’s way of forgiveness. The pope tells the story of a little donkey who along the road falls onto the cobblestones. What should you do? You don’t berate and beat the donkey to get it up. You extend your hand and take hold of the halter and say, “Up, let’s take to the road again.” God extends a hand to all of us when we fail and falter and say, “Up, let’s take to the road again.” God’s mercy is for everyone. And God forgives us even when we cannot forgive.

We all carry burdens of guilt and shame for things we have done that were wrong or that have hurt someone. How many times have you asked yourself, “How could I have been so stupid?” or said, “I’ll never be able to live with myself for doing that”? Some of us believe that we don’t deserve forgiveness—that we are worthless, unlovable, or “less-than.” We talk ourselves into believing that we deserve to be punished, that we deserve to feel horrible. Somewhere in the core of our being, we are convinced that we are justified in causing ourselves pain for something we did. Sometime we fear saying the wrong thing and it keeps us from saying the right thing. Our fear of making a mistake keeps us from reaching out to a hurting friend, helping a neighbor, guiding our children, communication with our spouse, attending a funeral and participating in work on race relations. Can we move beyond our fear and into something deeper?

A wise person once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to discover that prisoner was yourself.” It is a hero’s journey, to offer or ask for forgiveness. During the season of Lent, let us look in the nooks and crannies of our souls or at the elephants in our personal living rooms, and see the places where we need to ask forgiveness or offer forgiveness. In our families, at our jobs, in our neighborhoods and as a nation wherever there is injustice, there is need for forgiveness. Withholding mercy, robs all of us our humanity.

As David Whyte writes in the poem “What to Remember When Waking,” read earlier:

“To be human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others. To remember the other world in this world is to live in your true inheritance.”

This inheritance is not only God’s love but God’s mercy.

“You are not a troubled guest on this earth, you are not an accident amidst other accidents you were invited from another and greater night than the one from which you have just emerged.” Every morning is a little resurrection, we awake from the dead of night to bathe in God’s mercy to live a free and forgiven. May it be so. Amen.