18 November 2006

turning

From Joel 2:21-27, “. . . and my people shall never again be put to shame.”

This week I am traveling back to the church that I served for three years. The last year and a half hasn’t exactly been easy for them . . . or for us. The following is the sermon I am preaching. It follows the lectionary text for Thanksgiving.

What a difference a year makes, huh? I know that I can see the differences around here since I left: a new roof, the landscaping around the parsonage. And I can also see the differences in many of you. Children grow into teenagers. Teenagers begin to look like adults. And it reminds us that we are all a little older; some of you may feel older than others. What a difference a year makes.

And I suspect that you can see the differences in us too, in Libby and Eli, in Dena and myself! The two children who left at a time when Dena and I were still using sign language for “more” and “please”, well they have learned to say those words . . . most of the time. We don't carry around as many diapers as we used too and are on the verge of not carrying any at all. Libby and Eli are running and playing. On Saturday mornings they have a gymnastics class they attend. They have friends in the neighborhood that they play with, India and Sedarian and Haley. And although for us these changes were slow; for you, it may seem sudden. What a difference a year makes.

We can all pause and look back and see the good things that have happened over the past year. And we can give thanks. But then sometimes . . . sometimes we look back and see the difficult too.

One tradition that happens for me nearly every Thanksgiving involves the family reunion on my mother's side. This is the Payne side of the family, that is P-A-Y-N-E. And every Thanksgiving, we gather at Bluewater Baptist Church off of Highway 441, just south of Dublin. And there we find ourselves in a circle at some point before we thank God for the year and for the long table of food. We remember the new additions to families, whether it is by birth, adoption or marriage, but we also take time to remember the members of that family that have died. And last year, as we gathered we remembered the loss of both my aunt and uncle who lived in Fort Lauderdale. My aunt was the last sibling that my mother had. And my Uncle Cullen used to know exactly how to have so much fun. I remember sliding down a hill in the woods with him and my cousins. It was the closest you'd get to sledding in Dublin, that is sitting on a broken down cardboard box, sliding down a muddy hill.

And so last year we remembered Hazel and Cullen, and others who were no longer there, in that fellowship hall at Bluewater; they were now part of a greater fellowship.

You see, Thanksgiving can be one of those times when we look back. When we celebrate what we have, most assuredly, but with full knowledge of the difficulties that we endured. This is a holiday of harvest, a holiday where we celebrate that harvest, but we may feel the aches and pains of what it took to plant the field, so to speak, to pull the weeds, to protect those sometimes fragile plants, to see that fruit and that grain come to be full and ripe. And when it is ripe and we have pulled that fruit from the vine. And we prepare it. And we feast on it.

And as we gather here this morning, I wish I could say that the last year has been easy for Dena and I, but it hasn't. The kids have been a joy, but my father's condition has worsened a bit. And in the last month we helped Dena's parents move her grandmother into a nursing home; MeMa, as Libby and Eli call her, has Alzheimer's and just couldn't live at home any longer. And it's been a year of adjusting to my new place in Warner Robins too. And part of the difficulty of that is that even though I left here to take a position as pastoral counselor at First United Methodist Church, Warner Robins, that is not where I ended up. The kind of work that I do now is fee for service; I don't have a salary. So when the end of September came there at FUMC Warner Robins and I was still getting very few referrals, I spoke with the director. It wasn't an easy conversation; and at the end, it was clear that I needed to find other work. And you know . . . that's the kind of event that sometimes makes you wonder if God knows what God is doing after all, when you pray and hope and expect one thing . . . only to experience what feels for all the world like failure. And it is that experience of having things not go the way that they were “supposed to go” that gets hard on us, on me, on us . . . and on you too.

And I say “you too” because I have gotten the impression that things have been easy here either. News finds it way sometimes . . . all the way up I-16, to a little place just below Macon, called Bonaire, home of your governor by the way. And I have the impression that money has been tight here. I suspect that there has been some disappointment and even sometimes anger.

I hate that that happened. And I hate that it happened to us too.

And there was a part of me as I planned to come here that wanted to tell you all about this pastoral counseling center where I work, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. After all it is a part of the mission and ministry of the church to be with those who suffer. And for Mizpah, this Thanksgiving time, this Thanksgiving service, has traditionally been a time to focus on service to others. But I am not at the pastoral counseling center. I landed in a secular private practice, with two psychiatrists and another clinical social worker. You see, sometimes things don't work the way you plan.

And that part of me that wanted to share a mission and ministry with you, especially when Rev. Boyles called me to come nearly a year ago, is almost embarrassed to say that things didn't work out there. But they didn't. And you know, it is easy to feel shame when things don't work out, when things go wrong, when the world and people are just as broken as they can be sometimes. And sometimes we do feel shame, not just for what we've done, but for what has been done to us. But that is not what God calls us to do. It is not who God calls us to be.

In this passage that I read this morning, the scripture for Thanksgiving Day, the Hebrew scriptures state that “God will no longer put us to shame.” It even says it two times. Sometimes that's how you know God means it. This passage is about a God that wants good things for us, for all of us. “The threshing floors will be filled with grain, with grain and new wine, maybe even as sweet as Louis Scott's, with grain and new wine and oil.” God says to you and to me, “You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed.” God acknowledges that the locusts have ravaged the crops in previous years, those locusts are the things that have eaten at you and eaten at all of us. They are the things that have made us afraid that we wouldn't have enough, that we couldn't see the hope of harvest, that maybe even we wouldn't survive this year. Those locusts buzz around us, gather in such numbers sometimes that they darken the light from the sun. And God knows this too.

And God asks us to turn again . . . to turn towards God . . . to turn towards each other. Just before the passage that I have read this morning from Joel is the passage that is generally read on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It reads, “'Even now,' declares the LORD, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.'” It is there that God calls a for a fast, a time of not eating so that you focus on God more than your food. But now we read about a feast, not a fast. Today we read about having more grain than we need, new wine and oil. This is the God who wants us to have life abundant, that gives us love and grace, that gives us more than we need.

Dena and I had more than we needed in our garden this year, during this past summer and now this fall. Now we've got collards and broccoli and cabbage that we are already harvesting. And over the summer it was peppers and tomatoes and eggplants, more eggplant than we knew what to do with. We gave a lot of it away, took it in a basket to church with us and people took what they needed. And Libby and Eli knew where the vegetables came from. They helped plant them during the summer . . . well it was mostly Eli that did the planting. Libby has begun to turn into a bit of a little princess who doesn't exactly care to get dirty. Eli on the other hand, if there is dirt to be found, if there is a puddle of water in sight, he's splashing or digging. And he will look up at you proudly and say that he is “messy”. But both children knew that the vegetable came from the garden. And a few weeks ago as we finally pulled up the tomato plants we've been trying to figure out what to do with so many green tomatoes still on those vines. And we still had a variety of peppers. And as we pulled up the plants to make room for more plants, it felt like a harvest. It felt like a reminder that God had given us peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes and beautiful sunflowers, and a whole lot of eggplant!

Last year this time it had been just a few weeks since I had left First United Methodist, the place where I was “supposed to be” when we moved to Warner Robins. And I must say that I really do love where I am. I have a ton of work, which is overwhelming sometimes, but is good. Sort of like having so many eggplants that you scramble to make what you can. And you see God has provided for Dena and I and the children, more than we have needed. And where I work now people come into that office with their worries and their fears.

And many times people call and are so happy to find someone that is a person of faith, a Christian, that their insurance will pay for them to come to talk, to meet with their family, to talk about the hopes and hurts that have happened in their marriages. And sometimes I think that the gift of being within a secular practice is that I get to ask, “So do you have a church or faith group that you belong to?” And people start to tell about how the church hurt them; and these are folks that wouldn't go to a “pastoral counseling center.” Or maybe they tell me about how God was a part of their life, but now not so much. But it is important to them. So we talk about that too. And it is an honor, to be present for that conversation and for God to be present there too.

And even though the journey was rough and I couldn't see the sun for all the locusts a few times, God provided the place where I believe God wished for me to be all along.

It is hard when things don't work out the way you plan. Sometimes that's because we focus more on our plan than what God is telling us to do. And sometimes we do feel great shame in what might look like failure to others. But we are reminded in the passage from Ash Wednesday, before the fast, we hear God say, “Return to the LORD your God, for God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”

And as we approach this Thanksgiving holiday, we form our own circle here too, not ignoring or being ashamed of the tough times, but knowing that God still provides. We turn again to God, and we hear God say to all of us, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm — my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.”

Amen. 11/19/2006 Mizpah UMC

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