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.
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.
Responding When God Calls Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette July 9, 2016
When my son was in college several years ago, trying to discern what major he should choose ~ and in a much larger sense, trying to figure out what he was supposed to be doing with his life ~ he asked me: “Why doesn’t God just drop a 3”by 5” card down from heaven with my name on it, telling me what I’m supposed to do?” For better or worse, that isn’t how God usually works: we have to listen, search, pray and wait, and once we have discerned our calling, embracing that calling and giving it the best we have to offer is often the greatest challenge of all.
No one knew that better than the prophet Elijah, whose story unfolds in the Old Testament book of I Kings. Called to be a messenger for God and a conveyer of oft-times difficult truths, when we encounter Elijah in I Kings 19, he is running scared, having angered the rather mean-spirited pagan Queen Jezebel. The prophets of Jezebel’s false god Baal had just been slaughtered on the mountaintop, and Jezebel was hell-bent on making Elijah pay the price.
Exhausted, depressed and burned out, Elijah ran until he finally collapsed under a solitary broom tree, where he asked God to take his life and promptly fell sound asleep. Twice he was awakened by an angel who provided food for him and encouraged him to eat, then urged him on his way as he headed to Mount Horeb, where he sought refuge in a cave. Imagine his surprise when God confronted him, wanting to know, “What are you doing here?” The obvious answer was that he was running from Jezebel, but what God knew all too well was that Elijah was also running from his calling, from his vocation. Elijah’s response to God was defensive and whiney. Listening to him, one would think Elijah was the only righteous man on the face of the earth and that the success of God’s ultimate plan rested on his shoulders and his shoulders alone. That, of course, was not the case ~ not for Elijah or for any one of us!
God instructed Elijah to step out of the cave and wait for the Lord to pass by ~ which the Lord did, but not in the way Elijah expected. The Lord was not in the mighty wind that blew, not in the quake that shook the earth, and not in the brilliant fire that lit up the sky. Instead, God was in the sheer silence that followed. Some translations of scripture describe this silence as a still, small voice, others as a gentle, quiet whisper. However we translate God’s showing up, the message to Elijah was the same: “I need you to get back to doing what I called you to do!”
God was calling Elijah back to the people who did indeed challenge him, but who were also a much needed source of support and encouragement. When we isolate ourselves, we lose perspective and mistakenly conclude we are the only ones going through such a rough and awful time. No wonder God calls us to be in community, where there are others on the journey to provide support and to hold us accountable. I would also make the observation that running away from God’s call takes far more energy than running toward God and embracing our call ~ whatever that call may be. Being where God calls us to be and doing what God calls us to do can be scary at times, but knowing we are not in this alone makes all the difference. The words of St. John of the Cross come to mind: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light and safer than a known way.” May we dare to do just that as we respond to God’s call, confident God will show us the way, one step at a time.
What the World Needs Now Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette June 11, 2016
A popular song during my teen years asserted, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .” While I think it is safe to say that love is something we can always use more of, in recent days I have become convinced that even more than love, what our world desperately needs is compassion. Compassion challenges us to move a step beyond love and passion and invites us to feel deeply with ~ to suffer with ~ those around us. Compassion always possesses the desire to help, to spare, to heal. It calls us to remember that God created us to be in community, to work together, to walk together, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate; to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I do not believe Emerson was suggesting that happiness is a bad thing, but rather that it ought not to be our primary focus or priority. These words of the Dalai Lama help put Emerson’s words in perspective: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Long before Emerson and the Dali Lama were writing about compassion, Jesus was practicing it everywhere he went. Jesus made a habit of being where the poor and powerless were. He spent time on the edge, in the margins, seeking to alleviate the suffering of those often referred to in scripture as “the least of these” or “the little ones.”
In Luke’s gospel, the 7th chapter, we read of Jesus encountering a funeral procession at the gate of a little town called Nain. The man who had died and was being carried out was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. Sizing up the situation, Jesus felt compelled to respond by restoring life to the young man. Was Jesus seeking to call attention to himself or to impress the crowd with his power? Absolutely not! When Jesus saw the widow, he had compassion for her, no doubt recognizing that the loss of her own life was all but certain, given that she had no husband, and now no son, to care for her. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this account indicates that when Jesus saw the widow, his heart broke.
Compassion flows from hearts that have been broken wide open, allowing God’s love to pour in, and then out again, in acts of kindness and healing. Such compassion characterized Jesus’ ministry from start to finish. Even at the bitter end, as Jesus hung on the cross, compassion flowed from him as he asked God to forgive those who were killing him, as he entrusted his weeping mother to John’s care, and as he promised Paradise to the penitent thief who hung alongside him on the cross.
May we, too, be a people who are characterized by compassion, allowing our hearts to be broken wide open so that God’s love might fill us and flow through us, for the healing of the nations . . . one act of compassion at a time.
Reason for Hope Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette May 14, 2016
While I suspect I may be in the minority these days, I believe we have reason to be hope-filled, even as we are bombarded with headlines that cause many to conclude we are going to hell in a hand basket in a hurry. Note: I did not say we have reason to be optimistic, because optimism and hope are not one and the same. Unlike the optimist, who believes everything is going to work out just fine and we human beings can make it so, those of us who are hope-filled are convinced that things can be better than they currently are if we involve God in the equation and count on wisdom beyond our own to face what the future holds. On our own, we have no chance of fixing this broken world, but with God’s help, there is hope.
Throughout the ages, hope has captured the attention of humankind in a variety of ways. In Greek mythology, we encounter hope when Pandora, the first mortal woman, is given a box by Zeus that she is forbidden to open. Unbeknownst to Pandora, the box contains all human blessings and all human curses. When she can resist temptation no more, Pandora opens the box, releasing all of the curses into the world and allowing all of the blessings to escape, save one: HOPE. What becomes quite clear is that without hope, human beings cannot endure.
In the 19th century, Emily Dickinson described hope in this way: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” Hope is not easily daunted, not easily shaken, and even though there are those whose mission is to destroy hope, as fragile as it may seem at times, hope is not easily killed.
In the 20th century, French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus, wrote: “Great ideas come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, a gentle stirring of life and hope.” Often, that gentle stirring of life and hope comes at unlikely times, in unlikely places, and is embodied in unlikely people. The arrival of a baby in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, born to a young, unwed mother, continues to provide a source of hope for countless believers around the world.
This hope is characterized by the belief that God can and does work in and through people from all walks of life; that love will always conquer hate; and that there is more than enough of God’s grace and mercy to go around. While we fail miserably when we believe we are the only ones with a handle on the truth, with God’s help and a willingness to work together with people who view life from decidedly different vantage points than we do, healing can begin . . . we can be made new from the inside out. At the heart of our hope is the conviction that no matter how awful things may be at any given time, ultimately God will win and God’s love will prevail. So it is that I remain forever hope-filled.
Whose Words Matter? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette April 9, 2016
For a whole host of reasons, an appropriate question to be asking at this time in our nation’s history ~ or at any time ~ is “Whose words matter?” To whom should we listen? Whose voice is worth our attention? Do we listen to the person who is the loudest, the angriest, the most sensational, or perhaps to the one telling us what we want to hear and promising us what we are persuaded we need? In the Gospels, people listened to Jesus because he spoke with authority, unlike the other religious leaders of his day. That authority stemmed from the fact that his words and actions matched. There was congruence between what he said and how he lived, and Jesus’ words were life giving, not life draining or life destroying. While Jesus’ earliest followers often seemed clueless, and initially had difficulty figuring out that Jesus’ words mattered above all others, when the light finally flashed on, there was no stopping them!
Take Thomas, for example. Forever labeled “Doubting Thomas” because he dared to express skepticism when his fellow disciples told him they had seen and spoken with the risen Lord, Thomas clearly was not convinced their words mattered. He needed to see Jesus up close and personal: to touch the nail prints in his hands, place his hand in his side, and hear Jesus’ words for himself. When Jesus appeared again to the disciples exactly one week later, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were “Peace be with you.” Then he approached Thomas, not rebuking him, but inviting him to reach out and touch the nail prints in his hands and place his hand in his side. “Do not doubt, but believe,” was Jesus’ persuasive and loving invitation. And Thomas did, exclaiming “My Lord and my God!” From that moment forward, Thomas was a changed man. Choosing to embrace Jesus’ words, Thomas would go on to become a great missionary, building churches everywhere he went. Because he knew whose words mattered, the patron saint of doubters would become the patron saint of architects. Who knew?!?
And the rest of the disciples . . . they, too, would eventually figure out whose words mattered. In the book of Acts, we read of their bold witness after receiving the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost ~ a witness so compelling they ended up getting themselves thrown into prison by the religious leaders of the day who were threatened by the courage and conviction of these once clueless men. When we encounter them in the fifth chapter of Acts, Peter, speaking on behalf of his fellow apostles, is reminding their accusers “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The motley crew that had been Jesus’ disciples had come to understand whose words mattered and they were willing to act on those words, no matter what the cost.
What about us? Claiming to know whose words matter, are we willing to act upon them? Are we willing to bear witness to the joyous good news we celebrated just a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday? Keep in mind that bearing witness to the One whose words matter is not just about speaking up and speaking out. Words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi challenge us to “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Our lives preach. Our actions ~ both what we do and what we fail to do ~ speak loudly and clearly. In the flurry of words that bombard us at every turn, may we have the wisdom to discern which words are of God and the courage to act upon them so others may see God’s light in us.
What’s the Hurry? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette March 12, 2016
Living as we do in a part of Pennsylvania where road construction seems never ending, we have become accustomed to those flashing signs along the highway that warn us, “Construction ahead ~ reduce speed.” We groan ~ audibly or inwardly ~ and reluctantly apply the brakes, because slowing down is not what most of us like doing. I am convinced that our aversion to moving slowly is the result of being surrounded by those who are convinced slow is bad, fast is good, and faster is better yet. While that may be true when it comes to download speeds or getting from point A to point B when we are running late, it is not necessarily true when it comes to living out our faith.
Over the years, I have become persuaded that “slow” is a “four letter word” . . . of faith, that is. It is right up there with words like love, pray, hope, care and give. The slow I am talking about does not mean stagnant, set in one’s ways, resistant to change or inclined to digging in one’s heels. The slow I have in mind enables us to be observant, mindful, careful, thoughtful and prayerful. It is the slow that allows us to understand the change we are called to embrace, the slow that assures what we are creating will last. It is the slow I believe Jesus had in mind when he shared the parable of the fig tree. (Luke 13:6-9)
The parable describes a landowner concerned about a fig tree in his vineyard ~ a fig tree that had not borne fruit in three years. “Cut it down!” was his instruction to the gardener, but the gardener resisted, suggesting that he water it, dig around it and fertilize it with manure . . . give it another year, another chance. “Then if it doesn’t bear fruit, you can cut it down,” he told the landowner. I love it! The gardener refused to give up on the fig tree ~ in much the same way God refuses to give up on us.
A few observations about this parable: the landowner noted the fig tree had not produced any fruit in three years. Biblically speaking, three is a number that suggests a relatively short period of time (Jonah was in the belly of the large fish three days, Jesus was in the tomb three days, etc.). What seemed like an eternity to the landowner was a short period of time, all things considered. The fig tree deserved another chance. Note also that dormant does not mean dead. Dormant suggests that the tree in question has the potential to blossom and bear fruit, given time, tender loving care, and no doubt, some fertilizer . . . manure. Whether we are talking about fig trees or people, growth is slow, blossoming takes time and sometimes the process is messy and smelly!
Everything worth anything takes time ~ including being the church God calls us to be as people of faith. While faith may begin with a personal relationship, it will not grow or bear fruit unless it is lived out in community . . . and being in community is slow, hard work. We cannot do this on the run or while multitasking doing a dozen other things. To experience the life God intended for us, we must slow down long enough to see God in our neighbor, to build relationships with fellow pilgrims on the journey, and to discern what God is calling us to do next. Jesus’ life on earth was brief and filled to the brim, but we never have the sense that he was in a hurry . . . focused and driven, but not hurried. We would do well to follow his lead!
“What Happens on the Mountaintop . . . “Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette February 13, 2016
No doubt you’ve heard the expression “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” There are a multitude of variations on that theme: what happens at the party stays at the party; what happens at camp stays at camp . . . you get the idea. Some things are best not shared! There would be, however, one notable exception to the rule: what happens on the mountaintop does not stay on the mountaintop. This, I believe, is the message at the heart of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration ~ which happened on a mountaintop but flowed freely down into the valley of the world, touching the lives of many.
What was Jesus doing on the mountaintop in the first place? Not surprisingly, he had gone there to pray, taking along with him a few of his closest disciples. We read in Luke 9 (verses 28-36) that when Jesus was praying, his face changed; then his whole being became dazzling white. As if that were not enough to capture the attention of Peter, James and John, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. The great giver of the law and the prophet believed to be the one who would precede the Messiah were both right there with Jesus, in all their glory!
What should one do in the face of such a life-changing, transformative moment? Peter, often guilty of speaking before thinking, suggested that dwelling places ~ shrines ~ be created, one for each of the “super heroes.” Peter wanted to make time stand still, to hold onto this memorable moment forever. I have a feeling that if this event had occurred in our time, Peter may have suggested taking a selfie along with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Can you imagine how many “Likes” posting such a photo would get on Facebook?!?
While extroverted Peter meant no harm by making his suggestion, God clearly felt the need to redirect him, for we read “While Peter was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them.” The cloud overshadowing them was not the infamous cloud we hear so much about these days where all of our important data is stored, but rather a cloud that caused the disciples to feel overwhelmed, frightened and a bit confused. Ironically, it was in the cloud that everything became clear as God’s voice was heard proclaiming, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” And they did . . .
The story, though, does not end there. After the cloud dissipated and Moses and Elijah were long gone, Jesus remained, prepared to endure the trials and tribulations of real life right alongside his disciples. And although Peter, James and John may have wanted to stay on the mountaintop, Jesus made it quite clear there was work to be done. Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain, Jesus’ first act was to heal a young boy whose body was wracked by a power beyond his control. You see, mountaintop experiences must always translate into responding to the suffering of the world.
There is something within us as human beings that longs for the kind of awesome and memorable experience the disciples had on the mountaintop. To reach such moments of enlightenment and joy, some meditate or pray, others do yoga, and still others actually climb mountains. While we do not have to climb mountains to encounter the living God, we do have to be looking and listening for God. We have to make room in our lives to re-collect ourselves ~ to recharge our batteries, reboot our souls, refresh our spirits ~ and one of the best ways to do that is to make time each week to worship and to connect with others seeking to honor and serve the very same God we are seeking to honor and serve. What better time than Lent to make intentional choices to avail ourselves of opportunities to experience the mountaintop and commit ourselves to sharing it with others, because what happens on the mountaintop/in worship must not stay there. As I have been known to say on a Sunday morning: now that worship is over, let the service begin!
When More Is Better Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette January 9, 2016
Living as we do in a culture convinced that consumption is king ~ more is better and bigger is better ~ I prefer to think in terms of less and smaller, ever eager to do things more simply, more gently, using as little as possible. There is, however, at least one exception to my rule: when it comes to grace, more is definitely better. In fact, it is impossible to have too much grace. Let me explain . . .
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we read about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us ~ that is, God taking on human form in the person of Jesus and moving into the neighborhood. Because of this, we are the recipients of what John refers to as “grace upon grace.” The grace we have access to is abundant, with more than enough to share, but what are we talking about when we talk about grace?
In one of the most recognized hymns of all time, we sing about a grace that is amazing, capable of saving wretches like me and like you. Some say “It’s all grace,” while others often respond ~ when learning of someone’s unfortunate circumstances ~ by saying, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” One of the simplest definitions of grace identifies grace as God’s love, freely given. Another takes the word grace and turns it into an acronym: GRACE is God’s Righteousness At Christ’s Expense. Okay, so that may be a little too lofty a definition to wrap your mind around, so let’s consider some definitions that are a bit more down to earth.
Anne Lamott writes, “Sometimes grace works like water-wings when you feel you are sinking.” In other words, grace keeps us afloat. Grace buoys us up. Frederick Buechner maintains, “All moments are key moments and life itself is grace.” Arianna Huffington, in reflecting on grace, calls to mind all those bad things that almost happened but didn’t ~ the accident that almost happened but didn’t, or the bad decision we almost made but didn’t ~ and describes the distance between what almost happened and didn’t as grace.
Grace has an expansive feel to it. It comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and is hard to define, but we know it when we see it, we know it when we feel it, and we most certainly know when we have been the recipients of it. I remember being elated several years ago when I learned that one of the meanings of my given name ~ Susan ~ is “full of grace.” Ever since then, I have been committed to being my name!
How do we become living embodiments of this abundant grace to which God has given us access? For starters, we can be more forgiving, more patient, more grateful, more willing to give others the same benefit of the doubt we are counting on them giving us. We can be more thoughtful, more careful, and gentler as we go about living our lives each day. The best part of all is that when we don’t quite measure up in our attempts to be more grace-filled, God demonstrates grace toward us ~ grace upon grace as we experience the freeing gift of forgiveness and the invitation to try, yet again, to move in the direction God is calling us to go.
Are We There Yet? Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette December 12, 2015
“Are we there yet?” is a question I hear frequently, and children on long road trips are not the only ones asking! I would like to say that this oft raised question reflects our eagerness to experience what lies ahead, but I believe it would be more accurate to say it reflects our impatience ~ a characteristic that seems to define not only us as individuals, but also us as a society. During this season we call Advent ~ a season of waiting, reflecting and preparing for Christ’s coming ~ impatience is evident on many fronts.
When the season of Advent began two weeks ago, the suggested Gospel reading was from Luke 21: a passage of scripture describing the end of time, followed by a parable about the fig tree and the importance of waiting and paying attention to the signs all around us. Many, of course, would prefer to skip over the parable about the fig tree and go right to the figgy pudding about which we sing in familiar Christmas songs throughout the season. Understandably, we would rather forego the waiting and make a beeline for the sweet treats and festivities which are oh, so inviting!
Speaking of figgy pudding: did you know that this quintessentially British sweet treat dates back to Shakespeare’s time and actually is more cake-like than pudding-like? It is also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding and is chuck full of dried fruits, but must not to be confused with or mistaken for fruit cake, because it contains nothing bright red, green or fluorescent yellow masquerading as fruit! It was banned by English puritans in the mid 1600’s, most likely because of the large amounts of alcohol it contains, often in the form of brandy and rum.
That being said, before enjoying the figgy pudding, we need to pay attention to the fig trees from which the figs for the figgy pudding come. We return to the parable of the fig tree, which reminds us there is a predictable rhythm in God’s creation. When the fig tree sprouts leaves, we know summer is near and fruit will follow. The fig tree also reminds us that God can be found in the rhythm and routine of everyday life. God is not somewhere out there ~ God is right here among us, visible in the created order and in the universe so lovingly and painstakingly fashioned eons ago and still unfolding before our very eyes each day.
While there are certainly signs in the world around us seemingly indicating an imminent end to life as we know it, scripture has made it quite clear that no one on earth has knowledge of when the end will occur. So, rather than wasting time trying to predict the “when” of God’s plan, I believe there is a better way to live in the meantime, a better way to experience life fully in what I like referring to as the “between.” Instead of being consumed by the “Are we there yet” question, we are called to pay attention to the holiness that is imbedded in the routine of our daily lives. We are challenged to live with a heightened awareness of where God is present in our world, noticing that God is often most present in unlikely people and places. We are also called to fill our waiting time by praying without ceasing, which does not mean spending our lives with heads bowed, eyes closed and hands folded. Praying without ceasing is a way of being in this world that acknowledges God’s constant presence and weaves God into the fabric of all we do.
As surely as the fig tree sprouting leaves signals the coming of figs, and as surely as singing songs about figgy pudding signals the coming of Christmas, so God’s coming yet again into our world signals our reason to be hope-filled ~ even in troubled times ~ as we seek to live, love and serve in ways that honor the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate.
When Things Fall Apart Rev. Dr.Sue Bertolette November 14, 2015
In just five short verses, everything falls apart . . . everything. I’m referring to the book of Ruth, nestled in between the books of Judges and I Samuel in the Old Testament. The book begins with Naomi and her husband uprooting their family and heading to the foreign country of Moab because there was a famine in the land and they were concerned about having enough food to feed their two growing boys. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Her sons, by this time old enough to marry, each married Moabite women ~ Orpah and Ruth ~ but then, unexpectedly, both of Naomi’s sons died. Verse five reads: “Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.”
Talk about having the wind knocked out of you! Empty, alone, and understandably bitter, Naomi resolved to return to her homeland of Judah while urging her two daughters-in-law to remain in Moab with their families so that they might remarry and have a future. Orpah heeded her mother-in-law’s advice, but Ruth refused to leave Naomi’s side, insisting “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
Ruth’s words ~ often quoted in the midst of wedding ceremonies ~ reveal a fierce loyalty, a tenderness of heart and a willingness to claim a God she did not yet know, all because Ruth had, no doubt, seen faith in this woman she had grown to love. Two poor, husbandless women on the edge of survival, demonstrating faith and love against all odds, would change the course of history. How so? Ruth would marry and become the mother of Obed, grandmother of Jesse, great grandmother of David . . . and Jesus was of the house and lineage of David.
In the New Testament, we find these words in the midst of one of the Apostle Paul’s short letters: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6) Albert Einstein made the observation that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Faith expressing itself through love, however, both counts and can be counted ~ not by conducting a survey and tallying results but by observing how a person lives. Faith expressing itself through love is at the heart of the Great Commandment and the commandment that Jesus identified as being inseparable from it: we are to love God with our whole being, and our neighbor as ourselves.
We cannot love God and trash-talk our neighbor. We cannot love God and live in our own little world, oblivious to the needs of those around us. We cannot love God and turn a blind eye to the injustice that impacts the most vulnerable among us. When things fall apart ~ and they most certainly will at some point along the way ~ we are called to reach toward God and toward our neighbor, remembering that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. When things fall apart, it is love ~ from God, for God and for one another ~ that holds us together. May we dare to risk stepping into the unknown, as did Ruth, with faith in the One whose love will never let us go.
No Guarantees Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette October 10, 2015
Every now and then, the lectionary that many preachers follow ~ which provides us with prescribed scripture lessons for each Sunday of the year ~ presents us with passages that are troublesome and quite frankly, challenging to address in the context of a sermon. Case in point: a recent Gospel reading from Mark 10, which includes Jesus’ oft-quoted teaching on divorce.
What prompted Jesus’ hard words regarding divorce? The religious leaders of the day were once again attempting to entrap and discredit Jesus. Their question for him was a question to which they already knew the answer, but they wanted Jesus’ “take” on it ~ Jesus’ interpretation. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife,” they asked. Jesus responded to their question with one of his own: “What did Moses command you?” “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they replied, which unleashed a series of statements by Jesus that cause many people of faith to feel guilty and ashamed because they are divorced or have remarried following a divorce. How are we to make sense of these teachings which are often communicated with great zeal by people eager to point fingers of judgment at those who don’t quite measure up?
It is important to keep in mind that Jesus’ response was a legal response to a legal question, but Jesus was not in the habit of laying heavy burdens on his followers. In fact, he was highly critical of religious leaders who did just that while refusing to lift a finger to help those who were struggling. Instead, Jesus offered rest to those who were burdened: “Come to me . . . take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” What mattered most to Jesus was making it clear that God’s intent for persons entering into marriage was for two people to be faithful partners in an intimate committed relationship “until death do us part.” What he was adamantly opposed to was persons taking the marriage relationship lightly, treating another human being as an object or “thing.”
Sobering statistics, however, remind us that over half of all marriages end in divorce. Is this because people are bad? No. Marriages end in divorce because people are human . . . stuff happens . . . things fall apart . . . best laid plans go awry . . . people change. Chances are good that over half of you reading these words know firsthand what I am talking about because you have “been there, done that.” You have felt the pain, the anger, the hurt, the disappointment. You know the struggle and have dealt with the fallout. Of this I am certain: people who have not been divorced are not somehow better than those who have been. Scripture is quite clear on this matter: all have sinned and all have fallen short of God’s high hopes and expectations for humankind. While we cannot undo what has been done, what we can do is come to the God who offers us grace, mercy, forgiveness and love.
Throughout the course of my ministry I have had the privilege of performing well over 300 weddings and have signed as many marriage licenses ~ none of which, by the way, has come with a lifetime warranty or any written guarantee. If a marriage is going to work, the persons involved in the marriage must work at it, long and hard. And while we may not take literally Jesus’ words about divorce, we must take his words seriously, remembering that the only real guarantee any of us has comes from the God who created us and has promised to love us and forgive us, until death do us part, and then some! May this give us hope and courage as we seek to live with fidelity and integrity in the midst of all of our relationships.
There’s No Place Like Home Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette September 12, 2015
The Wizard of Oz has never been on my list of favorite movies, no doubt because as a child, watching it caused me to have bad dreams. I was frightened by tornados, wicked witches and the thought of not being able to find my way home. What I did like, though, was when Dorothy clicked together the heels of her ruby red slippers while saying over and over again, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” ~ and eventually she ended up back home in Kansas.
Are we not all longing to find our way home, wherever that may be, with whomever that may be? Home may not be where we grew up and it may not be with our families of origin, but this I know: once we connect or re-connect with the God in whose image we were created ~ once we find our home in God ~ we will always have a place to hang our hearts, a place to call home.
First heard by a people who no longer had a house in which to worship because King Solomon’s magnificent temple had been destroyed by enemies, Psalm 84 beautifully describes the joy experienced by those who are also able to make a home for God within themselves. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts . . . Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise . . . A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere . . . “ Check out the entire 84th Psalm and experience its beautiful poetry.
While our faith assures us that God is everywhere, and no building ~ no matter how massive or magnificent ~ can contain God, yet God’s presence is often mysteriously and powerfully experienced in houses of worship. It is no coincidence that we refer to the space in which we worship as a sanctuary, which means literally “a container for the holy.” Sanctuary also suggests a place of safe refuge: a place where people feel especially close to God, a place where we can imagine how things should and could be rather than how they are.
Indelibly etched on my memory is the image of people coming to St. John’s on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, as they learned of what was unfolding at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania. They came to church ~ to be in the sanctuary ~ not because they had a meeting or appointment, but because they needed to feel close to God. They needed to feel safe in a world that seemed to be falling apart.
While I am painfully aware that no building, no matter how sacred, can protect us from those hell-bent on destruction, there is still value in spending time in sacred places that we refer to as houses of worship so we might be better equipped to face life’s challenges. Yes, all ground is holy ground, and any moment is a moment when we might meet God, but I believe our ability to respond to God is heightened when our routine includes spending time in sacred places. When we choose to worship each week in a place where we feel at home, the world stops ever so briefly so that we might regain perspective and prepare ourselves to step back out into the world in which God has called us to love and serve. May our time spent in sanctuaries prepare us to be sanctuaries ~ containers of the Holy ~ so that those we encounter may see in us that which will help them find their way home.
Longing to Be Fed and Unafraid Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette August 8, 2015
“Far from the madding crowd” was a place Jesus seldom found himself, for everywhere he went, people followed, clamoring for his attention. Why? Because people saw what he was doing for the sick and for those whom society rejected, and they longed for the healing he had to offer. This explains why 5,000 hungry people surrounded Jesus on a mountaintop one day, providing an opportunity for him to feed them in more ways than one.
Whenever I read John’s account of Jesus feeding 5,000 people, followed by the description of Jesus walking on water to where his disciples were in a boat (John 6:1-21), I imagine modern day readers of these stories ~ particularly those who have not grown up in church and have no familiarity with the stories of Jesus’ signs and wonders ~ responding: “Really? Are you kidding me? You’re not serious, are you?” And sadly, those of us who are familiar with these stories barely bat an eye or stir in our seats upon hearing them read. Whether our response is skeptical or ho-hum, we have missed what is at the very heart of these accounts: a God who, in the words of the writer of Ephesians, is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” . . . a God who is both awesome mystery and awesome gift . . . a God who feeds us and calms our fears in ways this world never can and never will.
Whenever I read these accounts, I also find myself full of questions. For example: when Philip was unable to fathom how enough bread could be purchased to feed such a large crowd, what prompted Andrew to chime in by sharing information about a boy who had a lunch of five barley loaves and two fish ~ little more than an ancient “Happy Meal?” How did Andrew know about the boy’s lunch? And how in the world did Jesus and his disciples get a crowd of that magnitude to sit down in an orderly fashion so the food Jesus blessed could be distributed to all? Without the benefit of a sound system, large screens or a crew trained in crowd control, this, in itself, was something of a miracle! And after the crowd had been fed and went on their way, and Jesus’ disciples had gone ahead of him in a boat to Capernaum, how did Jesus manage to reach them by walking on the rough water that was rocking their boat and terrifying them? With just a few simple words ~ “It is I; do not be afraid” ~ Jesus turned the tide and calmed their fears. He was in the boat with them . . . and he is in the boat with us.
I do not know how Jesus fed 5,000 people with a young boy’s lunch and I do not know how Jesus walked on water, but this I do know: when we dare to gather together in communities of faith to worship and experience the God who loves us with an undying love, we are fed and our fears put in perspective in ways that are nothing short of miraculous. For those who are skeptical of the value of being together in a faith community or making time to worship regularly, I share the words of a wise older gentleman who, when questioned why he bothered to go to church every week even though he could not remember the sermons he heard or the details of what had taken place in worship, he replied: “I’ve been married for over 60 years to a wonderful woman, and during that time she has made me countless delicious meals. I can’t remember what she made last Sunday for dinner, or the Sunday before that, but what I do know is that I have been fed.” May we dare to worship and follow the One who can satisfy our hunger and calm our fears in ways we may not fully understand but our compellingly real.
Summer Blessings Rev. Dr. Sue Bertolette July 11, 2015
With Memorial Day (the unofficial start of summer) and Independence Day (the big summer holiday) now behind us, we are truly in the midst of what many refer to as the lazy days of summer. Even if you do not have the luxury of being out of school or off from your usual work, there is something about the pace, the rhythm and the feel of this season that sets it apart from the other seasons of the year. George Gershwin’s well known aria from the opera “Porgy and Bess” plays in my head: “Summertime an’ the livin’ is easy, Fish are jumpin’ An’ the cotton is high . . . “
There is much to be said for moving at a different pace ~ a less frantic and frenzied pace ~ than the one that characterizes the lives of many for so much of the year. During this season, folks are less reluctant to admit they are not busy. In fact, ever so briefly, they take off the medal of busy-ness worn proudly around their necks during the other seasons of the year and relinquish the need ~ if only for a short time ~ to be constantly going, going, going and doing, doing, doing.
Singer and songwriter Carrie Newcomer sings of traveling at the “speed of our souls,” which more often than not means moving at a speed that is at odds with the speed of our lives and of the world around us. In order to travel at the speed of our souls, we have to slow down ~ perhaps even stop every now and then ~ and pay attention to what is going on beside us and within us. Scripture invites us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). These things take time and cannot be hurried.
Jesus understood well the importance of being still ~ of relinquishing control, of ceasing striving. Unapologetically, he often stepped away from the crowd with its many demands and sought out a quiet place to pray, to breathe, to just BE. Jesus’ life had a particular rhythm to it, and although he was often busy, he refused to be hurried or rushed. He lived deeply in each moment ~ in sync with himself and the God who created him ~ not just during the season of summer, but during all the seasons of his life.
Shauna Niequist, in her book entitled Bittersweet, writes beautifully about the importance of finding a pace to our daily lives that is sustainable, reminding us that “full life is not the same as a full calendar.” The crazy schedules so many feel compelled to embrace are not life-giving but life-draining, leaving us at a total loss when all of the activity stops and we find ourselves ill equipped to be in our own company.
May the ebb and flow of these warm summer days teach us the value of finding a pace in life that is sustainable ~ a rhythm that balances doing with being, working with resting, accomplishing with reflecting, serving with savoring. In the work of creation, God established this sustainable rhythm by resting ~ unapologetically claiming and honoring a Sabbath day. As we seek to find our God-given rhythm, may we pray for the desire and courage to sustain it long after the lazy days of summer have come and gone.