Our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette, writes a regular column for the Saturday Religion page of The Reporter newspaper published here in Lansdale, Pa. The following is a recent edition of this column.
A Love So Awesome Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette June 9, 2018
The third chapter of John’s Gospel is familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike ~ not the entire chapter, but select verses and phrases that are lifted out of context and often used like weapons to attack those whose faith is considered suspect or deemed less than authentic. Author, pastor and seminary professor Tom Long refers to these words lifted out of context as “sound bites that have been pried loose from the narrative.” In particular, there is the phrase “You must be born again” (in some translations of scripture, “You must be born from above”) and the oft quoted “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . “ Tom Long goes on to write: “John 3 is about crisis, but it is not the crisis of God brooding in heaven, waiting on us to make a choice.” It is not the crisis of God withholding a verdict on our souls until we respond to an emotional altar call at a specific point in time.
Scripture is clear: God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world and to save us. Nicodemus, the religious leader around whom the narrative in John 3 revolves, thought he was the one coming to Jesus, just as we think we have to come to Jesus, when in fact, Jesus has come to us. In many respects, being born and being born again (or from above) are much the same: we did not choose to be born in the first place (as teenagers are apt to remind their parents every now and then!), and we do not choose to be born again. God made that choice when God sent Jesus to live and dwell among us because God loved us so much. When asked, “Are you saved?” by Christians skeptical of whether or not I am, given that I am a female pastor in a progressive denomination viewed as heretical by some, I respond with conviction, “I am indeed! I was saved when Jesus died on the cross.” Yes, I must make a choice as to whether or not I will embrace God’s incredible act of love embodied in Jesus, and allow it to change my life, but the saving is God’s act.
Also worthy of note is that God so loved the whole world: not just part of it, not just certain people, and not just the beautiful things. God so loved the whole kit and caboodle: the dark underbelly, the entire big, hot mess! And that love is powerful, transformative. The story is told of a two year boy who, when being baptized, heard the pastor say “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” The little boy responded to that proclamation by saying out loud “Uh-oh!” Uh-oh seems to me to be a very appropriate response to being reminded of from whence we have come and to whom we belong. This affirmation makes a world of difference! Annie Dillard, in her book entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, suggests that so powerful is the affirmation of God’s love for us that we really ought to be wearing crash helmets when we worship on a Sunday morning. The ushers ought to be handing out life preservers and signal flares and lashing us to our pews, because the God we worship ~ the God to whom we pray and in whom we have placed our faith and trust ~ exudes a love so powerful that it can, and will, change everything.
Take the time to re-read John, chapter 3. Pay close attention to the conversation in which Jesus and Nicodemus engage. The more I read the dialogue, the more I am convinced that what Jesus was getting at in all of his questioning was, “Nicodemus, do you know who you are?” Do you know who you are? Do you realize from whence you have come and to whom you belong? Have you experienced the transformative power of God’s love ~ a love so awesome and all-encompassing that there is more than enough for everyone in this world? May we dare to believe God’s love includes each one of us, and may we allow that love to free us to become all that God created us to be.
Lessons from the Ark Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette May 12, 2018
At the top of the list of Bible stories children learn early in life is the story of Noah and the Ark, and understandably so. It is, at least on the surface, the perfect children’s story: plenty of animals that can be grouped in twos and herded onto a really big boat, and a good guy named Noah who followed God’s instructions. Upon closer examination, though, we discover that the story of Noah and the Ark has a much darker side and a very grown-up message. Sadly, the earth had become a sewer, to use the words of Eugene Peterson. There was violence everywhere and evil prevailed. God’s heart was broken . . . this was not what God had intended for humankind. Because the people refused to listen to God, God finally concluded there was no other option but to literally wipe the slate clean, with more water than anyone had ever seen or experienced, and start all over again.
There was, however, one person who caught God’s eye, and in whom God saw reason to hope. His name was Noah ~ a righteous and blameless man who is described as being one who walked with God. I like that image: walking with God, being in step with God, in sync with our Creator. In order to walk with God, we must stay close to God, matching God’s pace rather than expecting God to match ours. Are you walking with God? Are you in step with the God who created you? If not, what might you do to change that?
To guide our pondering, I share with you a wonderful children’s story entitled Too Tired by Ann Turnbull. Too Tired describes Noah’s efforts to get all of the animals onto the ark, as instructed by God. Noah had a list to make sure he did not overlook a single pair, but as he checked his list, and checked it twice, he discovered the sloths were missing. Noah’s sons informed him that the sloths had been beckoned, but they refused to come ~ they said they were too tired! While Noah and the other animals tried desperately to persuade the sloths to come aboard, because they were, after all, “on the list,” their efforts were to no avail. “They cannot be left behind,” Noah insisted, so the animals persevered and finally, with the help of the elephants, rescued the sloths from the rising flood waters. Although the uncaring cats were rather annoyed that so much fuss had been made over the sloths, and the sloths seemed unappreciative of those who had saved their lives, they were all still included on God’s list.
The good news for us is that we, even if we are, at times, like the cats or the sloths, are on God’s list. God’s deep desire is to save us, to draw us near ~ each one of us. There is also good news in knowing that after the flood was over, God vowed to never again allow the earth to be destroyed in such a way. This is incredibly good news because I cannot help but think that God’s heart is broken as God looks upon creation today and observes what we have done to the earth and to one another. May the story of Noah and the Ark challenge us to live our lives differently. May walking with God be our top priority. May following God’s instructions be the desire of our hearts, and may we have a deep concern for all of God’s creation, not just for some of it. No more breaking God’s heart! Let us commit ourselves anew to living and loving in ways that heal the heart of God and the heart of humankind.
Oldies But Goodies Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette April 14, 2018
“Oldies but goodies” is a phrase that describes well how I would identify some of my favorite songs. Unlike songs that are popular for awhile but quickly fade into the background because of their trendy sound or shallow lyrics, “oldies but goodies” stand the test of time, their lyrics speaking to the human condition, their tunes touching hearts and sometimes even changing lives. Among the latter are the prayer songs we find in the ancient Book of Psalms, a book in the Bible familiar to Jews and Christians alike.
The Book of Psalms was the prayer book of God’s people. It was Jesus’ prayer book, and it can be ours as well ~ a prayer book full of prayer songs that are earthy, beautiful, raw, honest and refreshingly real. For the ancient Hebrews, any words directed toward God were considered praise, whether those words were full of joy or sadness, fear or anger, doubt or despair. When the people had nowhere to turn, they cried out to God, sometimes urging God to destroy enemies, to crush foes, or to be who God promised he would be. Praying and singing the psalms helps us embrace both the darkness and light of the world in which we live ~ a world filled with uncertainty, danger, beauty and hope.
Chances are good that if I were to ask you to identify a psalm with which you are familiar, you would mention Psalm 23 ~ the beautiful psalm that likens the LORD to a shepherd who provides for all of our needs and promises to be with us, not only in green pastures by still waters, but even in the valley of the shadow of death when we are surrounded by darkness and evil. You might also be familiar with those psalms that invite us to praise the LORD, to sing to the LORD a new song, to rejoice in the LORD, or to marvel at the awesome nature of God’s Creation.
While these upbeat praise songs are indeed beautiful, they represent only a part of what the Book of Psalms contains, for there are a multitude of psalms that strike a different chord, questioning God’s absence and accusing God of not caring about the human predicament. These laments describe feelings of abandonment, disappointment and distress. They demand to know why God has allowed tears to be our food day and night. They question why God has allowed enemies to gain the upper hand, why our groaning has gone unanswered or our souls remain downcast. The beauty of these “less happy” psalms is that they allow us to pour out our feelings to a God who really does listen, to a God who is not angered by our honesty or put off by our ranting and raving. And almost always, after ranting, raving, flailing and fist pumping, the writer of these psalms of lament concludes by acknowledging that God is the one worthy of our trust, worthy of our praise, and the One who will ultimately help us, if we dare to wait patiently and listen carefully for God’s voice.
The Book of Psalms is an ancient song book, yet its contents are as relevant today as when they were first written. Having had an opportunity recently to sit quietly in an idyllic setting and read through many of the 150 psalms contained in Scripture, I would encourage you to make time to do the same. Find a quiet place in which to contemplate these “oldies but goodies” and I assure you, you will not be disappointed. The God who gave the writers of the psalms strength and hope in their darkest hour is alive and well today, eager to help us find that same strength and hope as we seek to live our faith authentically in incredibly challenging times.
Remember Me Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 2018 – Holy Week-Easter Edition
At the recent Academy Awards celebration, Coco took the Oscar for best animated feature film, and its memorable Remember Me won the Oscar for best original song. When I watched this family-friendly film set in Mexico, with young Miguel as its hero and Remember Me as its theme song, I was drawn in by the lyrics that seem so very appropriate as we approach what is, for Christians, the holiest week of the year ~ a week of remembering all that Jesus did because of his great love for humankind. “Remember me though I have to say goodbye … though I have to travel far … remember me, for I will soon be gone … keep our love alive.”
Palm Sunday marks the start of this holiest of weeks ~ a week that begins and ends triumphantly, but the time in between is a different story altogether. Jesus was painfully aware that there were no shortcuts from Palm Sunday to Easter, no way to fast forward to the festivities. The only way through it was through it, and Jesus had no intention of taking the easy way out. The details of Jesus’ journey from Palm Sunday to Easter are details we must remember, as painful as they may be.
Greeted by a hopeful crowd yearning for someone to save them from an oppressive Roman government, Jesus heard the people crying out their “Hosannas” as he entered Jerusalem and set his sights on the cross that would be his by week’s end. On Monday of Holy Week, Jesus would overturn tables in the Temple, lamenting that God’s house, which was intended to be a house of prayer, had become a den of thieves. He would continue to teach with a sense of urgency exuded only by those nearing the end of their lives. By Thursday evening of that week, as Jesus surrounded himself with loved ones and celebrated Passover by sharing the traditional meal, the darkness would begin to descend as bit by bit, things would begin to fall apart. His disciples would drift off to sleep as Jesus prayed an agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas would betray him, the guards would arrest him, and in the wee hours of the morning, as a makeshift trial unfolded, Peter would deny him. Jesus would be beaten and mocked, and but for a handful of women, his closest followers would desert him. On a cross under whose weight he had almost been crushed, Jesus, wearing little more than a crown of thorns, would be crucified.
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, as they had broken bread together and shared the cup in that upper room in the midst of their Passover meal, were instructions focused on remembering: “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.” The invitation of Holy Week is an invitation to remember: remember Jesus’ refusal to take the easy way out. Remember his love, not only for his disciples, but for those who crucified him. Remember his words from the cross asking God to forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing. Remember Jesus’ compassion as he entrusted his mother Mary to John’s good care, and as he assured the penitent thief hanging alongside of him that he would have a place with Jesus in eternity.
Remember me. Jesus’ request is a simple one, but one we do not take seriously enough, for were we to truly remember him ~ not just during this holy season, but every day of our lives ~ this world would be a decidedly different and better place. May we dare to remember the One whose love for humankind will never die, and in remembering him, may we keep his love alive by embodying it and sharing it freely.
A Life Map for All Ages Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 10, 2018
It was the beginning of our son’s sophomore year of college. He had not yet declared a major, because like so many nineteen year olds, he had no clue about what he wanted to do with his life. I can still picture him sitting on our kitchen counter and posing this question: “So Mom, why doesn’t God just drop a 3 X 5 card down out of heaven with my name on it, telling me what I should do?” That sure would make things easier, but I suspect you know that is not how God works. This is not to say God leaves us to flounder and fend for ourselves, because God most certainly does not. Scripture is full of direction ~ full of valuable teachings and beautiful, life-giving laws to guide our living. While Scripture may not provide specific answers to specific questions, the life map we find in God’s Word is one that will serve and guide us our whole life long.
I am reminded of this especially during this season of Lent, when our focus is on Jesus struggling in the wilderness, in many respects trying to sort out what he was supposed to be doing with his life. While Jesus knew he had a high calling as God’s Beloved Son, he was not at all sure how he was supposed to live out that calling. He had questions ~ questions that were not answered overnight but rather required a tremendous amount of soul-searching and many days and nights. When all was said and done, it was Jesus’ knowledge of Scripture that helped him both find his way and ward off multiple temptations to choose an easier route than the one God had in mind.
At the heart of the life map God’s Word provides is the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:1-17. As familiar as the Ten Commandments are to me, what caught my attention recently was the statement that precedes the spelling out of God’s law: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is a declaration of freedom, not dreary obligation. These rules/laws are intended to buoy us up, not weigh us down, for without them, everything that matters most would be in jeopardy. God’s law has the potential to set us free, but unless we claim the Lord as our God ~ unless we allow God to hold sway over our being ~ God’s law will seem cumbersome and meaningless.
In Psalm 19, we find a beautiful reminder of the importance of laws, both in the ordering of Creation and in the ordering of our lives. Because knowing and understanding God’s law is not enough, however, the Psalm ends with this challenge: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Imagine how different our world would be if we were intentional about making sure our words and thoughts were acceptable to God. Imagine how different our nation would be . . . our churches, our schools, our places of employment.
Although I am fairly certain God will not be dropping 3 X 5 cards down out of heaven anytime soon, we do have everything we need to make decisions that are life-giving and pleasing to our Creator. We simply need to embrace the life map God has provided, write it on our hearts, and let God help us follow the map, one decision at a time.
Fly Eagles Fly! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette February 10, 2018
In almost 38 years of preaching, I can honestly say that I had never crafted a sermon that included numerous references to football until last Sunday, but then, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven! Not only was it Super Bowl Sunday and the hometown team was playing, but the designated Scripture readings for the morning ~ as prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary, followed by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches alike ~ included these words from Isaiah 40:31: “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Inspired by a multitude of faithful church members who were planning to come to church dressed in green on Super Bowl Sunday, it was clear to me that a “football” sermon needed to be preached.
Now I must confess that I am not an expert when it comes to football, but I am a huge fan of our hometown team, the Eagles, and it isn’t just because they made it to the Super Bowl and won. What they do off the field has inspired and impressed me as much as what they do on the field. I have observed a team of men who do much more than toss around a pigskin-covered ball, tackle opponents and score touchdowns. Several of the team members are unapologetic about sharing their faith, but are always careful to do so with great respect for those who embrace different faiths or no faith at all. They seek to embody their beliefs, as evidenced by the foundations they have created, the generosity they have spread far and wide, and the role models they have set. And judging from how they responded to adversity and disappointment throughout the season, I think it is safe to conclude that they understand the words of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 40:31 does not say that if we wait for the Lord we will lead a charmed life, nor are we promised we will never have to deal with loss, illness, tragedy or despair. What the verse does assure us is that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength: that is, we will have the strength we need to face whatever life throws our way. We will be able to endure the unendurable, face the unimaginable, and like eagles that are able to literally rise above storms ~ powered by the wind and their strong and massive wings ~ when we wait for the Lord we will be able to run and not grow weary, walk and not faint. Note that the Hebrew word we translate as “wait” can also be translated as “hope.” In Scripture, the words wait and hope are often used interchangeably, which makes perfect sense because waiting and hoping are inextricably interwoven. Think about it: if you have ever had to wait for something, you know that being filled with hope makes the waiting easier, and if you have ever hoped something would happen, you know that waiting is almost always involved.
While many are still savoring the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and enjoying the wonderfully positive spirit that has accompanied their big win, this won’t last forever. What will last is the promise of Isaiah 40:31, the promise that assures us we can all possess eagle-like qualities if we dare to wait for the Lord ~ if we dare to place our hope in the Lord and acknowledge that we cannot go it alone. We are part of a team, created by God to be in community. Not only are we are in this together, but God is in this with us, and as long as we remember that, we, like eagles, will be able to fly!
A New Rhythm for the New Year Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette January 13, 2018
One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a calendar to hang in my kitchen, where I have hung calendars for as long as I can remember. This calendar contains lovely art and memorable quotes, the one for January grabbing my attention immediately: “And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.” These words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke strike me as being both hopeful and challenging, reminding us of the clean slate that is ours as we step into a new year, but also calling attention to the uncertainty surrounding the unfolding of each new day. How will we approach the gift of yet another year? What if the things that have never been are worse than the things that have already been? Where will we find help and hope in the midst of uncertain times?
For years I thought that what I needed to do in order to cope with the challenges and uncertainty of daily life was to find balance, making sure that no one thing or person or task or responsibility consumed all of me, but if you have ever tried to balance standing on one leg for any length of time, or attempted to perform on a balance beam, you know just how challenging that can be. There’s a reason why performing on a balance beam is an Olympic sport! Then someone suggested to me that rather than trying to find balance in my life, perhaps I should seek to find a rhythm that worked for me, because rhythms are fluid and allow us to alter our course as the circumstances of our lives change.
Clearly, there are similarities between finding balance and finding a rhythm for our lives, but for me, the idea of a rhythm seems more in tune with what is described in the pages of Scripture. Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . “ Just as there is a rhythm in nature that brings about the changing of the seasons, so too in our lives. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. We love, we hate, we mourn, we dance, we speak, we remain silent, we gather things together, we throw things away . . . We don’t balance these things ~ we experience them, moving from one to the next, sometimes in a rhythm that is syncopated and fast paced, at other times in a rhythm that includes whole notes and rests that allow us to catch our breath and regroup.
I hear rhythm in the words of the prophet Isaiah when he describes what is in store for those who dare to wait for the LORD: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31) Walking, running and mounting up with wings like eagles are all part of the rhythm of life for those who choose to place their hope and trust in God. In the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus urging those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him to find rest. (Matthew 11:28-30) When the burdens we carry are weighty and impossible to balance, we are offered a “yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.” Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of this passage, has Jesus inviting us to “walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
While not a one of us knows what 2018 will hold, our faith assures us is that God holds 2018. There will be good days and bad, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, reason to hope and reason to despair, but our challenge will be to hold on to the rhythm that enables us to navigate the uncharted waters of the New Year with a peace that passes all understanding. Let us invite God to help us find that unforced, life-giving rhythm of grace, one day at a time.
Waiting Is Not Easy! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette December 9, 2017
Mo Willems ~ award winning author of numerous children’s books featuring Piggie and Gerald the Elephant, who are the best of friends ~ hit the nail on the head when he entitled one of those books Waiting Is Not Easy! Talk to any child at this time of year ~ or many adults, for that matter ~ and they will confirm that waiting is especially hard when you have made a list of things you want Santa to bring, or there are family members and friends you are eager to see, and Christmas is still days away.
Although Willems’ story is not specifically about Christmas, it speaks beautifully to this season in the midst of which we now find ourselves. As the story unfolds, Piggie announces that she has a surprise for Gerald, but he must wait to see it. As you can imagine, Gerald is not happy about having to wait and does a fair amount of groaning, wailing and complaining because he does not see the point in having to wait so long. Piggie insists that he must, and finally it becomes clear why: Piggie wants to show Gerald the beautiful star-filled night sky, and one cannot see the stars until it is dark.
The story is a wonderfully gentle reminder to us that it is often in the darkest of nights we are able to see beauty ~ beauty that would not be visible were it not for the darkness. In the darkest nights of our souls, in the darkness of despair, in the darkness of pain, grief and loneliness, God’s light is revealed in all its splendor . . . but we must WAIT.
I think it no coincidence that in the Bible, the words wait and hope are used interchangeably. Take, for example, one of my “go to” verses in Scripture: “But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Depending upon the translation you choose, verse 31 of Isaiah 40 may read, “But those who hope in the LORD . . .” or “But those who trust in the LORD . . .” Waiting, hoping and trusting are all ~ to use a phrase I have introduced you to before ~ inextricably interwoven, and in no case is that more true than during this season we have come to refer to as Advent.
During Advent we wait, not twiddling our thumbs, tapping our fingers or pacing back and forth anxiously. We fill our waiting with preparing, and we prepare, not so much by buying gifts or decorating or partying, but by making sure there is room in our hearts for the baby whose coming into this world changed everything. We prepare by paying close attention to those in need around us. We prepare by really listening to people, rather than simply waiting for our turn to speak. We prepare by facing the dark places in our lives head on rather than avoiding them, all the while hoping and trusting that God will meet us in those dark places, hold us close, and guide us toward the light. Waiting is not easy, but then, nothing in life worth anything is easy. As we journey through this season of waiting, may we be sustained by the One who gives us reason to hope, and in whom our trust is secure.
Saints Alive! Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette November 11, 2017
“Saints alive!” is an expression I became familiar with during my growing up years, spoken most often by folks of my grandparents’ generation. It was their “go to” expletive when something happened that was extraordinary, surprising or unexplainable. For some reason, these words came to mind in recent days as we at St. John’s, like so many churches, celebrated All Saints Sunday and took time to honor those saints in our midst whose lives on earth had come to an end during the past year.
While mention of the word saint conjures up images of those who have died, and in particular of those who were able to do miraculous things when they were living, almost all references to saints in Scripture speak of living people of faith who were rather ordinary and quite flawed. Scripture is full of saints alive, as are our faith communities, and we are challenged to be among them. The definition of a saint that I resonate with most is one I learned from my longtime colleague in ministry ~ Rev. Dr. John Touchberry. John used to say, “A saint is anyone who makes it easier for us to believe in God.” By that definition, do you qualify as a saint? Do others look at you and the way you live out your faith and find reason to believe in God, to have hope?
Martin Luther famously declared that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We make mistakes and bad choices. We stumble and lose our way. We get it wrong much of the time, yet still we are loved by a God whose mercy and grace are always available to us. Most often we lose our way when we forget that being faithful ~ being saint-like ~ is less about privilege and more about responsibility; less about power and recognition and more about being a servant.
When, in chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel, we encounter Jesus critiquing the religious leaders of his day and warning them of dire consequences should they fail to change their ways, it is not because their teaching is errant or their zeal for the Jewish law lacking. It is because they have lost their focus and forgotten about the very people God had called them to shepherd and serve. Jesus’ words to them are clear: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this familiar warning speaks volumes: “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
The lives of saints count for plenty, not because they are perfect but because they are lived faithfully with a deep awareness of their need of God. As I think about the saints alive in my life, what they all exude is a humility that is not spoken but displayed in acts of service and compassion. Their humility is not of the “wretched worm am I” variety: that is, it is not about thinking less of self, but rather about thinking of self less. And these living saints recognize the value of being in community. They recognize that no one can make it in this world alone. There is no such thing as a solitary saint, just as there is no such thing as a solitary Christian . . . or member of any faith tradition, for that matter. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A great man is always willing to be little.” May we dare to be small so that the greatness of the God who created us will shine brightly in our lives each day.
Who’s Counting? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette October 14, 2017
“Who’s counting?” tends to be a question we pose in a lighthearted manner, say, for example, when someone calls attention to the number of candles on our birthday cake or the number of times we have gone back for yet one more delicious homemade cookie. “Who’s counting?” we respond, suggesting that the number really does not matter . . . which is true in some cases, but not in others.
Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, would learn this the hard way when he posed a question of Jesus, presuming that he already knew the answer! “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Thinking himself rather generous in suggesting seven times because the law did not require that many times, imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus responded, “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times,” or as some translations read, “seventy times seven.” It was Jesus’ way of making clear that there must be no limit to the number of times we are willing to forgive those who hurt us or do us wrong.
After exhorting repeated forgiveness, Jesus shared a parable which showed two examples of NOT forgiving: the king in the parable takes back the forgiveness he initially offered to a slave who owed a huge debt, and the forgiven slave refuses to extend forgiveness to a fellow slave whose debt is small. (Check out Matthew 18:21-35) To say that the story does not end well would be an understatement! Some, in seeking to interpret this parable, have concluded that the king is God and we are the slaves, but I, for one, am counting on God to be far more merciful and compassionate than the king portrayed in Jesus’ story. Yet even if the king is not God, one thing is sure: failing to forgive has dire consequences. We may not be physically tortured for not forgiving (as is portrayed in the parable), but our souls will be tortured, our hearts will shrivel up, and we will destroy ourselves from the inside out.
I have the feeling you already know that forgiveness is hard work. In fact, I believe it is one of the hardest things we as people of faith are called to do, and it does not happen overnight . . . which is why the tragedy that occurred at Nickel Mines in October of 2006 captured the attention of the world when the Amish community quickly forgave the man who killed five Amish school girls, traumatized several others and then took his own life. In reflecting on how such forgiveness was possible, authors of the book Amish Grace point out that forgiveness does not mean what you did doesn’t matter, nor does it eliminate the consequences of one’s sin. Forgiving is not about forgetting, but about remembering in ways that bring healing. It is about taking the broken pieces of our lives and with God’s help, finding ways to “re-member them into something whole.” While forgetting a horrible offense may not be possible, we all get to choose how we will remember what we cannot forget. Because this is such hard work, we won’t always do it right or well, but maybe ~ just maybe ~ that is why Jesus stressed that we need to forgive over and over and over again. The more we sincerely try to forgive, the better we will become at it. After all, practice makes perfect, right? With God’s help, let us commit ourselves to giving the hard work of forgiveness our very best try, because God’s counting . . . on us!
Inextricably Interwoven Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette September 9, 2017
There are certain words and phrases I use often ~ just ask the faithful folks in the congregation I serve and they will tell you. One of those words ~ awesome ~ was high on my list long before it was popular, mainly because it is the perfect word to describe the God I worship and in whose image each one of us has been created. “Inextricably interwoven” is also high on my list, not just because I really like the way these words sound together but because they describe what I believe needs to be at the heart of our understanding of our relationship to one another and our place in the midst of God’s creation.
To be inextricably interwoven is to be connected in such a way that the items in question are inseparable, incapable of becoming untangled or parted. This kind of closeness/connectedness causes some to feel uncomfortable. Others refuse to acknowledge that this is, in fact, how we were created by an awesome God who calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. A God who calls us to remember that we are our sister’s and brother’s keepers ~ not in a possessive or oppressive way but as equals, recognizing that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. “I am a rock, I am an island,” lyrics from a Simon and Garfunkel song popular during my teen years, proclaims an ideology that simply does not jibe with the teachings of Scripture.
Because we are not all carbon copies of one another, this interwoven-ness can be messy and challenging. Some people are sociable, outgoing and love nothing more than to be with people every chance they get. Others prefer to work alone, craving solitude or the company of a select few. Regardless of our preferences and inclinations, however, we cannot relinquish our responsibility as people of faith to live, as much as it is possible, in harmony with one another. We are called to live with a constant awareness that everyone and everything on God’s good earth is connected, that, as Maya Angelou correctly observed, “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.” The decisions we make with regard to how we treat one another – not just some others but all others – and how we steward the earth God has entrusted to our care, matter more than we can imagine!
What has come to mind often in recent days, as I have listened to the heart-wrenching news of yet more terrorist attacks ~ both abroad and on our own soil ~ are the words of a song etched on my heart from the time I first sang them in Sunday School decades ago: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” With gusto and conviction, I sang those words ~ words that cry out to be embraced now more than ever before. There is no place in our faith for excluding or mistreating others because of the color of their skin. There is no place in our faith for a sense of superiority or domination over others or over the creation God has entrusted to our care. We are inextricably interwoven. We are in this together, and together we will either grieve the God who loved us so much that God came to live among us, or we will bring God joy. May we choose the latter, unapologetically reaching toward those on the edge and in the margins so that we might become the beloved community of God’s dreams.
When Our Lives Speak Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette August 12, 2017
For many, warm summer days are synonymous with trips to the beach or the local pool, fun in the sun and a more relaxed pace to the daily routine. For me, summer has always been synonymous with more time to read. I have fond memories from childhood of bicycling across town each week to the public library, where I would check out as many books as would fit in my bike basket and then pedal home to enjoy the bounty. More often than not, the books I chose were biographies and autobiographies of women and men who have changed our world.
Fast forward 50 years or so, and while I no longer bicycle across town to the public library for my books, I still love to read, and my summer reading list still includes books about people who have left this world better than they found it. This summer I have been deeply moved by the spiritual biographies of Jackie Robinson (authored by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb) and Eleanor Roosevelt (authored by Harold Ivan Smith), two individuals whose lives overlapped in some ways but who grew up in decidedly different worlds. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, grew up in poverty, painfully aware of what it felt like to be mistreated and verbally abused because of the color of his skin. Although Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a world of wealth and privilege, her growing up years were filled with a multitude of adverse experiences, including the death of her parents and one of her brothers.
Both Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt eventually found themselves in positions of power and chose to use those positions to fight tirelessly to end discrimination, to advocate for the poor, and to make equal rights for all a top priority. They also both chose to live their faith unapologetically ~ if not conventionally ~ challenging the status quo and speaking in opposition to much that organized religion had championed over the years.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that tolerance and care for the well-being of all must guide one’s living ~ that the answer to the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?” is YES! Believing that the value of a faith is measured in how one lives, Eleanor wrote that believers “must show by their own way of living what are the fruits of their faith, “ and “the reason that Christ was such a potent preacher and teacher was because He lived what he preached.”
Reading the spiritual biographies of Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt, along with several other books this summer, has challenged me to do some serious soul searching and to ask: Will I leave this world better than I found it? Will others know I am Christian, not by strict adherence to some narrow doctrine, but by my love? Will kindness, compassion and mercy be the hallmarks by which I am identified? Will I have taken to heart the challenge “To whom much is given, much is required?” Will I have been my sister’s and brother’s keeper in a manner that raises up rather than diminishes those I seek to help? As we dare to ponder these important questions, may our lives speak in ways that bring joy to the God who created us and hope to the neighbor God has called us to love.
Choosing What Matters Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette July 8, 2017
Some passages of scripture are just plain difficult! They are hard to understand and hard to stomach . . . like Jesus’ words from Matthew 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. “ Jesus went on to say that he had come to set family members against one another and made it quite clear that if we love our family members more than we love him, we are not worthy of him. We must be willing to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our life so that we might find it. When I read words like these, I am reminded of what I heard years ago with regard to the teachings of scripture: the purpose of scripture is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Surely, these words from Matthew 10 fall into the latter category!
To make sense of these challenging words of Jesus, it is crucial that we understand their context. Jesus spoke these words to his disciples as he was preparing to send them out into the world with the important but difficult task of spreading the good news. To do their work, it was critical that they understand family in a big way, reaching beyond nuclear families or chosen families to include all of humankind. It was also critical that they recognize there is always a price to be paid when we choose to devote our lives to doing the work to which God calls us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp because of his involvement with the Resistance movement during WW II, addressed this reality in his book entitled The Cost of Discipleship . . . the title says it all.
While the work to which we have been called as people of faith is a large work and certainly not for the fickle or fainthearted, even large work must start small. Mother Teresa’s words come to mind: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can to small things with great love.” And when doing the work to which God calls us sets us at odds with those who are closest to us ~ when following what we believe in our heart of hearts to be true compels us to challenge the status quo or speak out in the face of injustice ~ we are reminded of the good news that immediately precedes Jesus’ challenging words in Matthew 10. Jesus assures us that we have a God who doesn’t miss a trick ~ a God who is concerned about even the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant creatures on this earth. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” As Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, it was with the assurance that God, whose eye is on the sparrow, most certainly would have an eye on each one of them.
There is a statement in Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees that I believe gets at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew 10: “The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.” Daily we are called to accept the cost of discipleship, to do what is right in God’s eyes, to choose what matters to God. As difficult as that is, we are able to do it, knowing we have a God who watches over us, a God who will never abandon us, a God who has given us an identity as members of his beloved family ~ an identity no one can take away. With that assurance, may we dare to draw the family circle wide. May we dare to lose our life ~ that which drags us down and holds us back ~ so that we might find the life God envisioned for us from the very start.
A Nonpareil of Another Kind Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette June 10, 2017
My family often accuses me of finding sermon illustrations in just about everything, and I confess: I am guilty as charged. Case in point: as I enjoyed one of my favorite treats recently ~ dark chocolate nonpareils ~ it occurred to me that these delicious confections and God have something in common. Seriously! You see, the word nonpareil literally means without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled, matchless. If ever there were one who was without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled or matchless, it most certainly is God. And God, who is without parallel, possesses creative powers and a love for humankind that are also, in every respect, nonpareil.
Consider the story of Creation recorded in the first book of the Bible, in the very first chapter of Genesis. Sadly, many who read this account become so caught up in either defending or refuting the plausibility of Creation actually occurring in six 24 hour days that they totally miss the heart and soul of the story, which is a God who takes pleasure in the creative process, who sees possibility in nothingness, and who turns that nothingness into something so awesome and amazing we struggle to comprehend it. At the heart of the Creation story is a God without parallel, having no equal, unrivaled and matchless, without whom nothing that is would be.
This matchless God whom we encounter in Genesis 1 seems to be pleasantly surprised at just how good his creative efforts are. After each act of creation, God steps back, sizes up things and we read, “God saw that is was good.” The original language gives us the sense that it was almost as though God smacked his lips, as one would after eating something delicious, and said, “Um, um good!” It was not “I guess this will do” but rather “This is awesome, totally awesome!”
The Psalmist captures the incredible majesty of God’s handiwork when he writes in Psalm 8: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” In other words, “I’m blown away by what you’ve done, God, by who you are and by what you’ve entrusted to our care!”
In his paraphrase of Psalm 8, Eugene Peterson refers to God as brilliant, and marvels that one so mighty and powerful would even bother with us human beings, yet God does! Not only does God bother with us: God has given us responsibility for this incredibly beautiful but fragile masterpiece. Sadly, we have failed miserably when it comes to caring for the unrivaled and matchless Creation of our God, largely, I believe, because we have lost our sense of awe and wonder. We walk through fields of purple and fail to see the beauty, past flowers and trees in bloom and barely notice. We sit in traffic or hurry along the sidewalk annoyed by those who are not moving fast enough, rather than really seeing them and the God in whose image they were created. If we choose to live this way ~ and it is a choice ~ we will miss out on the nonpareils that make life truly sweet, and I’m not talking about chocolate this time. I’m talking about encounters with the living God, who is alive and well and very present in our world, if we will but pause long enough to notice.
All Gates are Not the Same Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette May 13, 2017
Decidedly different from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in both style and content, the gospel of John contains seven statements made by Jesus that begin with the simple words “I am” ~ claims that, if you or I made them, would seem outrageous: I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the good shepherd; I am the gate. It is the last of these ~ I am the gate (some translations read “I am the door”) ~ that particularly intrigues me.
Jesus’ claim comes in the midst of a conversation with his disciples about thieves and bandits trying to enter the sheepfold without using the gate, their intent being malicious and destructive rather than protective and caring like that of the shepherd. Although this imagery seems a bit foreign to us, it would have been familiar to Jesus’ original audience ~ a nomadic people accustomed to herding sheep and living off the land. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, references to God and Jesus as shepherd, and their followers as sheep, are common. This is all well and good if one reads the tenth chapter of John from the vantage point of being on the inside and part of the sheepfold, but for those on the outside, it is more troublesome.
Exactly what kind of gate is this Jesus, and who has access to the sheepfold? As I have sought to live into the faith that has guided my life for so many years, I have come to understand Jesus as being like a gate that swings wide and is open more often than it is not. Yes, there are times when the gate must be closed to protect the sheep from those who would run roughshod over them or who would seek to lure them away from the loving shepherd, but as a rule, the gate is wide open so all who desire to experience the care of the shepherd and the safety of the sheepfold might come in. The gate is also open so those on the inside might wander out, should they so choose, but the shepherd will pursue them because every single one of the sheep matters to him.
Reading Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, I cannot help but make an observation. Gates that are always locked (or that seldom if ever are open, and when they are allow only a select few to enter) are not gates at all: they are walls in disguise. Jesus did not say “I am the wall” but rather “I am the gate.” He also made it quite clear that his purpose for coming was so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus was ever eager to draw people into the sheepfold ~ that is, into the faith community ~ not keep them out.
Many of you reading these words are part of a faith community, while others of you are not. Perhaps you once were, but lost touch or interest as your life became filled with a multitude of seemly more important and pressing things. Maybe you intentionally left a faith community because you became disillusioned, burned out, or no longer found it helpful. Being in community ~ being part of the sheepfold ~ can be challenging and messy. To be sure, living and working with other human beings often is, but here’s the thing: when we dare to stay connected with the sheepfold, the shepherd is never far away, nor are the reminders that we have reason to be hopeful, that we can change, that new life is possible and that ultimately, God’s love will win. It just may be time for you to check out that wide open gate and dare to venture in!
Real Tears, Real Hope Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette April 8, 2017
Big boys don’t cry, and neither do big girls who want a seat at the big boys’ table! Statements like these cause me to cringe, but the more I thought about these in particular, the more I realized they contain some truth. The way I see it, anyone worth his or her salt doesn’t cry, or just shed a few tears. No, they don’t cry ~ they weep, uncontrollably at times, because they are persons who think, feel and love deeply. They are inclined to immerse themselves in the world and carry with them the pain of those who suffer . . . not unlike Jesus, whose weeping at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus, and whose actions following those tears, give us reason to be filled with hope.
I was fairly young when I learned that the shortest verse in the Bible (according to the King James Version) is John 11:35 ~ “Jesus wept.” Its shortness, however, is no match for its significance with regard to what it reveals to us about Jesus. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” That is, Jesus became a real, live, human being and entered our everyday world. This Jesus, whom Lazarus’ sister Martha identified as “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” was very human, experiencing exhaustion, anger and profound sadness. Jesus’ weeping was triggered by his own grief and the grief of those around him. Persuaded their brother would not have died had Jesus come immediately upon receiving word that Lazarus was gravely ill, Martha and Mary also wept, their tears flowing freely, their grief inconsolable.
The eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel contains a potpourri of emotions: Martha is resentful of Jesus’ delay, but in the same breath voices her trust in the power of his compassion. Mary blames Jesus, and then kneels at his feet. Jesus is troubled and so deeply moved that he weeps, but then springs into action as he instructs those standing nearby to roll back the stone covering the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb. Once again it is Martha who speaks up, urging Jesus to exercise caution because her brother has been in the tomb four days, which means there will be a stench. “The smell will be awful” is the way the Common English Bible translates her words, but my favorite is still the King James Version: “Surely he stinketh!” Stinketh or not, Jesus insists on the stone being removed, calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and then instructs those looking on to unbind him and let him go.
As Lazarus’ story unfolds, I am intrigued by the ever present crowd. Although Jesus does not call attention to them, they are always moving around in the background ~ watching closely, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, and no doubt struggling with their own emotions. They witness a miracle and then go away, some forever changed, others cynical, suspicious and disbelieving. This account forces us to look death in the eye. It challenges us to ponder: how close to death are we willing to get? And if we dare to get close enough to witness Jesus’ power and passion, will it scare us or set us free? God knows, the world in which we live provides us with ample reason to weep, but God provides us with ample reason to hope, for if Jesus could restore life to one who had died, just imagine what he can do for us! To experience what God has to offer, though, we must be willing to move beyond resentment to trust, beyond blame to worship, and beyond weeping to action. We must be willing to reach out with both hands to receive the life God offers. With tears of joy and a hope-filled heart, may we dare to do just that!
More or Less Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 11, 2017
In all of my years of ministry, no one has ever greeted me at this time of year by saying “Happy Lent!” or “Have a merry Lenten season!” and I am pretty sure I know the reason why. Lent is totally counter-cultural. Out of sync with what is going on in the popular scene, this season has no decorations, requires the purchase of no special gifts, and does not call for any wardrobe additions so that we might look our best at all of the special Lenten celebrations to which we might be invited! To the contrary, Lent is about doing without, or at least about doing with less. This season invites us to go off the grid for a bit, to humble ourselves, relinquish control and dare to let go of “stuff” rather than acquiring more. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, it is “a time to focus on filling the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.”
Of course, the irony is that often the best way to fill the empty place inside of us is by emptying ourselves so we can make room for God. Jesus did that by fasting as he spent time in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. During those 40 days and nights that are the inspiration behind our 40 day observance of Lent, Jesus chose to focus entirely on listening for God rather than on the many things that so easily distract us in our daily living. Also ironic is that as Jesus listened for God, he heard instead the tempter/Satan/the devil, whose challenges helped Jesus understand just what it was God wanted him to do and be.
If you have not recently read the account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, you may want to check out Matthew 4:1-11. The three temptations Jesus faced have often been identified in a more general way as the temptations of pride, power and possessions ~ temptations that we certainly recognize as real and relevant in our world today. As evangelist Billy Graham once said, “The devil doesn’t need to invent any new temptations; the old ones work as well as they ever have.”
Whether we are persuaded the devil is a sinister character clothed in red and garnishing a pitchfork, or are more inclined to see evil as a pervasive force far too vast to be contained in any one being, dealing with temptation and finding ways to live our God-given lives in the best way possible requires stepping away from the roar of the crowd and technology so that we might re-connect with the Source of Our Being . . . and Lent gives us the opportunity to do just that.
As we seek to make the most of this season, a suggestion: rather than focusing simply on what you will “give up,” let me invite you to think in terms of MORE and LESS. What do you want to see more of and what do you want to see less of, in our world as well as in your personal life? What do you want to experience more of and what do you want to experience less of? To get you thinking, here are some MOREs and LESSes that have been shared with me: more acceptance, less pushing away; more tolerance, less hate; more grace, less guilt; more face time, less screen time; more pausing, less pushing; more forgiving, less blaming; more hugs, less shrugs. Once you have composed your MORE and LESS list, offer it up to God, and with God’s help, seek to make it so. And because making it so may not be easy and we may fail miserably at times, I offer one final MORE and LESS to hold onto: there is absolutely nothing we can do that would cause God to love us less . . . or more. Now that is Good News worth pondering!
Flavoring and Brightening the World Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette February 11, 2017
Salt and light ~ where would we be without them?! Folks forced to eliminate salt from their diet know all too well what a difference even the tiniest amount of salt makes. And those forced to live in darkness learn quickly what a toll the absence of light takes on the human psyche. That being said, it should come as no surprise that salt and light are what Jesus calls his followers to be. In the words of Douglas R. A. Hare, our task is to “add zest to the life of the whole world.”
Jesus’ teaching about salt and light comes on the heels of the Beatitudes ~ those upside down values of a God who chooses to bless the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted, not with cushy lives or good fortune, but with lasting rewards that this world does not value. This same God chooses to commission salt and light for the earth, and chooses us to make it so.
How exactly are those of us who identify ourselves as Jesus’ followers supposed to be salt and light? What does it look like to flavor and brighten a world so divided and full of fear? Being salt and light involves giving ourselves away, not in part but completely. In order to flavor food, salt must dissolve, and in order to illuminate the darkness, light must dissipate, not remain concentrated in one small area. Here is where we get hung up, because our human tendency is to hold back, to cluster with like-minded people and eventually to become convinced of our own superiority, but that is not how salt and light work best. Bishop Brian Maas, in reflecting on being salt and light, wrote, “Called simply to bear the savor of our Savior, we bear instead the bitterness of our betterness.” Instead of reaching toward others, we clutch our fists, cross our arms and turn inward.
When Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world,” the “you” he used was plural, not singular. In other words, being salt and light is something we must do together . . . which is challenging because we may not all agree on how to handle important issues like poverty, violence, refugees or racism. Is it possible to be salt and light while also respecting and caring for those who view the world through a lens decidedly different from our own? I believe it is. We must find ways to work together ~ to listen deeply, to recognize what we share in common, and to acknowledge that at the heart of faithfulness to our loving Creator is not a set of rules and regulations to be adhered to at all costs, but rather relationships to be honored. Loving our enemy, praying for those who persecute us and welcoming the stranger are teachings that fill the pages of the Old and New Testament alike.
When I observe what is going on in our country and around the world, my heart aches because it feels like we have taken our God-given salt and dumped it into a river called FEAR, while burying our God-given light under a false security blanket called Christian values. It feels like the word Christian has been hijacked by our culture, causing it to no longer look anything like the beliefs that guide my life and challenge me to draw the circle wide while doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
Being salt and light is incredibly challenging work, but it is also vitally important ~ now more than ever. Should you choose to engage in this work, I encourage you to do so with humility and great love, always remembering: “We do not draw people to Christ be loudly discrediting what they believe, or by telling them how wrong they are and how right you are, but by showing them a light so lovely they will want with all of their hearts to know its source.” (Madeleine L’Engle)
- Choices, Choices, Choices Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette January 14, 2017We are now three weeks into a brand new year . . . so, how are you doing with the resolutions you made on New Year’s Eve? Are you sticking to that diet, exercise regimen, study plan, or have you begun to lose heart, go astray, bend the rules a bit? Maybe you are one of the many who no longer makes resolutions, deeming them futile and unhelpful to your overall well-being. Wherever you find yourself on this wintery Saturday, let me suggest another way of approaching the year that now stretches out before us.As the Old Testament book of Joshua draws to a close, Joshua reminds the Hebrew people of all God has done for them, beginning with leading them out of Egypt where they had been enslaved, journeying with them in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, and bringing them to a land of plenty. Because they were prone to forget God’s steadfast love for them, and at times even worshipped other gods, Joshua felt the need to challenge them with these words: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”Life is full of choices, and I’m not just talking about the big ones, like choosing a life partner (or not), choosing a vocation, choosing a place to live or choosing whom we will serve. Our lives are an accumulation of all the little, seemingly insignificant choices we make every day: how we treat the people we meet along the way, what we say and how we say it, the company we keep, or how we spend our time and money. Because we are human, we will make mistakes. Some of our choices will be terrible, but that does not mean we are doomed or that there is no hope.Musician Herbie Hancock tells of playing on stage with the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis was in the midst of an incredible piece of music, playing with great clarity and feeling, the audience holding onto his every note, when Hancock, who was accompanying him on the piano, played a wrong chord. To Hancock, it sounded like a big mistake, horrifyingly wrong. To his amazement, Miles Davis paused only ever so slightly, and then proceeded to incorporate the wrong chord into the music, making it right. You see, Davis did not view it as a mistake: it just happened. It was simply an event. The moral to the story: when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines if it’s good or bad!In the course of our lives we will, no doubt, hit wrong notes, choose unwisely, or fail to do the good we intended to do, but that does not mean we are doomed or done. Thankfully, our God is a forgiving God ~ one who wipes our slate clean and challenges us to take the wrong chord we have played and turn it into something good, perhaps even beautiful. Nido Qubein made the observation, “Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go – they merely determine where you start.” Regardless of what the first three weeks of this New Year have been like, the future depends on what we choose to do TODAY. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” May we dare to take that first step, persuaded of the truth of these words written by the apostle Paul: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Heartsongs for the Season Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette December 10, 2016
No other season of the year is like the one in the midst of which we now find ourselves. No other season has so many decorations, triggers so much shopping, inspires the baking of so many cookies or has generated so much music. In fact, while some grumble and complain when the Christmas music begins to take over radio stations not long after Halloween, the truth is that without the music that surrounds us almost 24/7 at this time of year, Christmas would not be Christmas.
While I enjoy singing about chestnuts roasting and red-nosed reindeer, figgy pudding and halls decked with holly, the music that speaks to me most deeply at this time of year is sacred in nature, inspired by the coming of God’s Son into a world desperately in need of the comfort and joy only God can offer. The images created by the carols of Christmas are hard to match: midnights clear, angels bending near the earth, heaven and nature singing, God abiding with us, silent and holy nights, the breaking forth of beauteous light, glad tidings of great joy, and Christ entering into our lives, forever changing our world.
One of the most moving songs of the season is the song Mary sang, bursting with news she could hardly contain and barely comprehend. A song that has come to be known as “The Magnificat,” its words both challenge and inspire us. The song begins as one might expect, with Mary celebrating God’s greatness and rejoicing that God chose her ~ an insignificant servant girl ~ to be the mother of Jesus (check out Luke 1:46-55). Then the lyrics become a bit more edgy and unsettling as Mary describes, with wisdom and insight beyond her years, how her baby’s birth will turn things upside down. In the tradition of Hannah and Miriam before her, Mary sings with certainty of the proud being scattered, the powerful being brought down, the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being filled, and the rich being sent away empty-handed. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this stirring song describes tyrants being knocked off their high horse, victims being pulled out of the mud, the starving poor sitting down to a banquet feast and the callous rich being left out in the cold.
Mary’s song calls to mind words from one of my favorite carols: “Christ rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove The glories of God’s righteousness and wonders of God’s love . . .” I am drawn to the carols of Christmas because they inspire me to be better, to do better, to better embody the truth and grace that came into this world in an unassuming baby whose first bed was a feeding trough for animals. Jesus’ birth challenges us to reflect the light his coming kindled, a light the darkness cannot overcome. Carrie Newcomer’s song Lean in Toward the Light reminds us: “The shadows of this world will say, There’s no hope – why try anyway? But every kindness large or slight shifts the balance toward the light.” My prayer is that the sacred songs of the season will stir within us a deep desire to do everything we can to shift the balance toward the light by filling our lives with acts of kindness and love.
Holding On To the Dependable Grace of God – November 12, 2016
For the record: I am not a fan of roller coasters. The only time I allowed myself to be persuaded to ride one was when the teenagers who were part of the youth group I was leading would not take “no” for an answer. As I was strapped in, I refused to let go of the bar securing me in place. While riders around me thrust their hands in the air and cried out in sheer delight, I held on for dear life, white-knuckled and fairly certain I would not survive to tell about my experience!
This story from my past reminds me that what we choose to hold on to for dear life matters. Are we holding on to our fears, our failures, our children, our parents, our partners, our hopes, our dreams? Perhaps the most important question to be asking is, “Are we ~ are you ~ holding on to faith?” Keep in mind that holding on to faith is not about holding on to a prescribed set of beliefs or doctrines, but rather about trusting deeply in a God who is real and generous and loving. It is about daring to place our heart ~ indeed our very lives ~ in God’s hands, which is not always easy but is always wise.
While some would argue that faith is absolutely about having a specific set of beliefs that one unequivocally endorses and embraces with certainty, true faith raises questions, struggles with doubt, and at times even sits alone in the dark, filled with confusion and despair. Peter Enns, local author and university professor of biblical studies, writes, “A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can do that.” A bit further on in his book entitled The Sin of Certainty he makes the observation, “Part of the mystery of faith is that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal that the journey is at an end but that we are still on it.”
The events of recent days serve as a powerful reminder that uncertainty surrounds us on all sides, this journey that we call life is challenging more often than not, and flawed human beings disappoint us over and over again. Faith, however, assures us that even when we cannot make sense out of the chaos of our lives and our world, God’s steadfast love is unshakable and God can be trusted to persevere with us.
The longer I live and am engaged in the privilege of “doing” ministry, the more questions I have, but in spite of those questions ~ and perhaps because of them ~ my faith is stronger and deeper than it has ever been. For me, having faith is not about having all the right answers but about trusting God and learning to live and love the questions. Poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them . . . Live the questions.”
If ever there were a time when learning to live and love the questions was needed, it is now. Of course, doing so requires listening intently, especially to those with whom we disagree; sharing with reverence and respect what is near and dear to our hearts; and being open to the possibility that God is quite capable of doing a new thing, often working through individuals we might consider highly unlikely or even downright unworthy. In the midst of it all, our challenge is to “stay in that place of wonder and wisdom that lies between the uncertainty of the world and the dependable grace of God.” (Anabel Proffitt) Having experienced the dependable grace of God up close and personal, I would highly recommend making that choice and holding on for dear life!
You Want Me to Pray for Whom?!? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette October 8, 2016
Called to lead a new church start in the town of Ephesus, young Timothy was struggling to make a go of things. The apostle Paul (or one of his protégés), eager to encourage and instruct him, sent Timothy two letters filled with pastoral advice, clear guidance and reminders of just how much Timothy was loved and prayed for by Paul. Lifting up the importance of prayer, the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to Timothy begins with the words, “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments . . .” (The Message)
Upon hearing these words, I imagine the response of Timothy’s church members sounding something like this: “You want us to pray for whom?!? We’re being persecuted by the Roman government and you want us to pray for them? You’re kidding, right?!?” Actually, Paul was not kidding. Knowing exactly what these early believers were dealing with, he urged them to pray for the very ones who were making their lives miserable, and he gave them the reason why: pray for them so that you might be able to live in peace.
Do we really have to pray for everyone, even for those we do not like? Yes, which means praying for those who have treated us badly, for the candidates we oppose, for those we perceive to be our enemy, and for those who embrace a faith different from our own. Easier said than done, you protest. Yes, again, so how do we pray for such challenging individuals? Very specifically, how do we pray as the November election draws near? A cartoon I came across recently depicted a man on his knees in church, praying fervently. What was he praying? That Christ would return and the Rapture would occur before the November election! Somehow I do not think that is what Paul had in mind.
So, let me pose a question: when was the last time you prayed for the presidential candidate for whom you will NOT be voting in November? An observation: both presidential hopefuls identify themselves as Christian, so perhaps we would do well to pray that they will each be who they say they are: that is, persons who live in ways that reflect Christ’s teachings and example. And how do we pray for those who, in the name of their God and faith, commit unspeakable acts of violence and terror? Perhaps we do so by praying that they will come to understand that their God is not a God of hatred and destruction but a God of love and peace.
It has been said that prayer is the serious business of the Church, the first and best service it renders for the world. When we dare to pray for those for whom it is difficult to pray, we are changed, and so are they. Our praying, however, must be more than an occasional shout-out to God when the going is good or a desperate cry for help when things are falling apart. Corrie ten Boom posed this question: “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” Is prayer the guiding force in your life 24/7 or is it a last resort, the thing you do when all else fails?
More than once I have reminded those in the congregation I serve that a church is only as strong as the prayer lives of its individual members. Taking that a step further, I believe a nation is only as strong as the prayer lives of its individual citizens, be they of the same faith I embrace or of another faith which has at its core a loving Creator who calls us to reflect that love in love and concern for our neighbor. May we dare to humbly pray, not just for those for whom it is easy to pray but also for those for whom it is difficult to pray so that one day there might be peace in this world God so loves.
What the World Needs Now – September 10, 2016
One of the hit songs of 1965 has stood the test of time and is still spot on in its message over 50 years later. Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and sung by Jackie DeShannon, its lyrics are familiar: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . . “ While I certainly agree there can never be too much love, and I do believe the lack of love is at the heart of many of our world’s problems, I would argue that love is not the ONLY thing that there’s just too little of. As I read Jesus’ words recorded in Luke 14 ~ words spoken while attending a dinner party at the home of an important religious leader ~ I am reminded that humility and hospitality are also lacking in our world today: humility that recognizes who we are in relation to our Creator, and hospitality that draws the circle wide and large so that those on the edges and in the margins are invited into the center.
After healing a man who is identified as having dropsy (most likely a condition we would identify today as generalized edema), and doing so on the Sabbath without anyone daring to challenge him about breaking Sabbath laws, Jesus proceeded to share a parable prompted by his observation that the guests at the dinner party were caught up in jockeying for position and claiming the best seats in the house. While Jesus’ teaching ~ “Don’t claim the seats of honor, lest you be embarrassed when your host asks you to move because those seats where reserved for more important guests” ~ sounds more like strategic advice than spiritual guidance, at the heart of his words is a call to humility. The parable ends with the oft quoted but seldom heeded words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus turned to the host of the dinner party, urging him to do things differently the next time he chose to entertain guests. “Don’t invite those who will most likely reciprocate and invite you to their home. Instead, invite the poor, the blind, the lame, the outcasts ~ those who will never be able to return the favor ~ and you will be blessed.”
At this dinner party, Jesus did what most of us cringe at the thought of doing: he raised questions and made statements that were confrontational. He dared to address issues that were controversial. People who do that are, in the words of William Lamar IV “arsonists in the hospitality forest.” They are dangerous. How many times have we gathered with people, abiding by an unspoken agreement that we will not bring up politics or religion because it is just too uncomfortable? Yet, these are the very things we need to be talking about with one another. Note that I said talking with one another: not shouting at each other or assuming that anyone who holds a point of view different from our own is either wrong or stupid, but speaking our beliefs with passion and a willingness to listen to others’ beliefs, and then engaging in questions that are thoughtful rather than attacking.
Of course, this kind of conversation is risky business and requires humility ~ humility which is not so much about thinking less of self, but more about thinking of self less. It is also a humility that recognizes we are not the only ones with good or right answers. When we dare to engage with others from a vantage point of humility, and with a willingness to invite into the circle those who are different than we are, I believe we are better able to see as God sees and to respond in ways that are pleasing to our Creator. As we reflect on what shook our world 15 years ago tomorrow ~ September 11, 2001 ~ may we commit ourselves to being the loving, humble, hospitable people God created us to be, knowing that it is indeed risky business and incredibly hard work, but ultimately will enable us, and others, to experience the life that really is life.
Rich Toward God Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette August 13, 2016
Jesus had just responded to his disciples’ request “Teach us to pray” by offering them what we have come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer” ~ a prayer that invites us to think beyond our own needs, focusing on us and our rather than me and my ~ when a person in the crowd asked Jesus to settle a squabble regarding his family inheritance. Knowing where his expertise resided and where it did not, Jesus offered instead a parable about greed and the importance of focusing on being rich toward God. (Luke 12:13-21) Let’s just say the man who wanted Jesus to solve his inheritance dilemma got far more than he bargained for, and we, 20 centuries later, are confronted with truth that is painfully relevant!
The rich man in Jesus’ parable had had a banner year ~ so much so that his barns were too small to handle his abundant harvest. Consulting himself, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Mission accomplished, he then rewarded himself by opting to relax, eat, drink and be merry for the rest of his days. Sounds a bit like some folks’ version of the American Dream, but one need not look hard to uncover the dangers that accompany such an approach to life. No sooner had the rich man propped up his feet and closed out the world when God informed him that his life was coming to an end. Wait, what?!? That wasn’t part of the plan!
On so many levels, the rich man had set himself up for failure. For starters, his motivation for building larger barns had not been so that he might store food in order to share it with others: he was concerned only about himself. He also failed to include God in his planning for the future. Instead of expressing gratitude to God for the abundance he enjoyed and seeking God’s guidance with regard to how best to use what had been entrusted to his care, he devised a plan in his own mind that turned out to be seriously flawed and shortsighted. When, unexpectedly, his life was cut short, he was caught with a full silo but an empty heart.
Thankfully, being rich toward God is something we can all engage in because it does not require being rich by the world’s standards: it requires, instead, that we be willing to open our hearts and hands to those in need. Being rich toward God is about loving God back. It is about trusting God enough to share what we have received. It is about recognizing that most of us have far more than we need, and to whom much is given, much is required.
The story is told of a well known ethicist who sought out Mother Teresa because he believed if she prayed for him, he would have the clarity he desperately desired. His assumption was that clarity was what Mother Teresa possessed and what enabled her to live such a godly life. When she refused to pray as he requested, her explanation was both simple and a bit surprising: “I have never had clarity,” she replied, “but what I have always had is trust. I will pray that you trust God.” Mother Teresa was, unquestionably, one of the poorest people on earth, yet she lived a life that was incredibly rich toward God because she dared to trust God. While we do not need to be Mother Teresa to live lives that are rich toward God, we do need to look closely at what we are doing with what we possess. So, what’s in your wallet, in your bank account, in your safe deposit box, in your barn? As we take stock of our “stuff,” may we dare to trust God enough to share what we have so God’s work might be done and God’s love felt by all.