Sunday, January 17, 2010

Child, Where Were You??

Click here for disaster relief programs for Haiti, centered around women and children. There are several organizations and a list of supplies needed. TinyChurch will be accepting donations of items on the list for the next 2 weeks. Feel free to have things sent to the church or bring them to me personally. We'll take a load to Haitian Woman for Haitian Refugees in Manhattan the following week.

Please keep the people of Haiti in your prayers. Today is the 5th day since the earthquake and time is running out to find survivors in the rubble. There are still huge needs for food, water, and basic medical care. Without the basics, more people will die. Here are two excellent organizations:

Direct Relief International: A U.S. based non-profit that supplies local partners with medical supplies.  They have been working in Haiti for years and have existing partnerships in place to accept and distribute supplies. Nearly 100% of donations go to relief work as they have an endowment which funds their administrative costs.

Partners In Health: Based in Boston, PIH provides healthcare in 9 countries, including Haiti. Several of their hospitals and clinics are in outlying areas outside of Port au Prince and are able to provide medical care. The U.N. is working closely with them to provide triage care in Port au Prince as well.

So then, today's sermon, written with a prayer that I do no harm.

January 17, 2010
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 18:1-19
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 2:39-52

This week, as images of the destruction in Haiti have poured through the television and internet, I have been struck by this persistent question: "Where is God?"  I know that this is not everybody's question or reaction to the death and destruction occurring in Haiti, but it is my question and so I bring it to you this morning.  Others have said to me this week "Why does God let such things happen?" or "We cannot know the mind of God." or "There is no God, it's just tectonic plates." or "This is God's judgment on the Haitians, the French, the United States, the bourgeois, the rich, the greedy, the corporate, the poor ."  I have heard people say on both ends of the political spectrum in the U.S. that the other side will use this disaster in Haiti to perpetuate agendas. I have listened to Haitians say they do not wish to be used in this way.  This week I have heard people praising God for their survival next to the strangled cries of those who are dying or have lost loved ones.  I have noticed extraordinary acts of heroism and watched others walk away. I have struggled with my own guilt and helplessness that I cannot do more--that I cannot fly to Haiti yesterday and fix everything, because it seems like we should have that power.  And so in the middle of this, this question haunts me, "Where is God?"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Earthquake in Haiti

I just read with sorrow the news of the earthquake in Haiti tonight. Haiti has been hit hard by several hurricanes these last few years in addition to dealing with intense poverty and political difficulties.  

Direct Relief International is a non-profit organization that is sending emergency medical supplies. They have an excellent track record of sending medical relief into regions that are badly in need, and they are efficient with donations and volunteers.  I highly recommend them as a place to send donations.

Also, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has created a fund specifically for Haiti.

Please pray for the people of Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere, and they are still hurting badly from previous disasters.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Today's Mess

A confession: I am a manuscript preacher, and ought not preach from notes. I also struggled greatly with this passage. The end result this morning was rather graceless. Preachers have those days.

That said, here are my thoughts about Isaiah 43:1-7, gathered together from my notes and preaching this morning.

I found myself troubled yesterday as I was contemplating what to say this morning. On the one hand, these are beautiful words:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
These are words people live by in the most difficult of circumstances, and I do not mean to diminish their power. On the other hand, the next verse continues:
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
When I get to these words, I stumble over the thought of what it means for one person's salvation, or one nation's salvation, to come at the expense of another's.  While I long for God in my most difficult moments, I hesitate to pray or hope for the death or pain of another in order to save my own skin. Or at least, I hesitate to say it out loud. There is a certain competitive viciousness in the human spirit that comes to mind when I read this passage. Let me give you two examples; one is somewhat frivolous, and the other somber and horrific.
On Friday I took my sons to a monster truck rally in Trenton.  The arena had replaced the ice hockey floor with mounds of dirt and wrecked cars to make an obstacle course for the six monster trucks that would be competing that day. If you've never been to a monster truck rally, it was exactly as you might imagine it. Extremely loud, exhaust fumes, humongous trucks smashing up old cars and revving their engines.  At the half time, the arena brought out 3 sets of youth to run motocross races (basically youth on motorcycles racing through and obstacle course)
Two of the motocross races were with young children, but one was teenagers on bigger bikes. It was exciting to watch them fly off the top of hills, and two of the racers quickly took the lead. They jockeyed back and forth for first place, cutting each other off at corners; it was all fairly sportsmanlike. Until. The home stretch. The racer in second place came from the side and knocked the first place racer off his bike, then crossed the finish line to secure his win. It was a cheap shot. The would be winner, instead of taking second, stood outraged next to his boke and then flipped the other guy the bird. Finally, he got back on his bike, finished last, and rode his bike back to the starting line. Where he proceeded to run over the kid celebrating his stolen victory.  A fight started to break out, and adults took charge, holding the boys back from each other.
There is something in the human spirit that desires a win at all costs and revenge when we are unjustly treated.  There are times when our deepest emotion (which we dare not express) is delight in the misfortune of others. There's even a word for it: schadenfreude.
The second example is terrible and heartbreaking. It comes from Primo Levi's book If This Is A Man or Survival In Auschwitz. Primo Levi was an Italian Jewish man who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, a nazi concentration camp during World War II in Poland. Trained as a chemist, Levi wrote of his experiences there with precision and a keen awareness of the extremes of human nature, brought out by the horrific conditions of the camps. He describes an afternoon where the entire camp of 12,000 men is evaluated by the guards and marked to either live or die. Naked, they run a few steps between dormitories, and the guard gives each man's card to another guard on his left or right. The men are not told which side means death and which means life, although they speculate and quickly figure it out. It is still two or three days before the condemned men are executed, during which they all continue to live and work together.
Now everyone is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as not to waste the last drops of the soup; a confused, metallic clatter signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which propritiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer.
Desperate circumstances bring out our survival instincts. None of us wish to live or die in exile or under oppression by another. In times like that we turn to passages like Isaiah 43

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Song of Songs

No sermon today as we had a more experiential response to the Word and then shared communion. But for those who really like sermons, here's one I preached in the summer of 2008 as a guest preacher. I love to preach on the Song of Songs...

Sermon by Katie Mulligan
July 6, 2008

First Scripture Reading: Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:8-14

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth; 

the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance. 
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
O my dove, in the clefts of the cliff, 
let me see your face, let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28-30

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

So, a love poem and a few words from Jesus. Our theme this morning is love and desire, passion, and finding peace in the arms of a beloved other. I am tempted to hide behind the lectionary by saying that these texts were assigned for today, July 6, 2008, because to speak of love and desire is always risky. In our Prayer of Confession this morning we prayed these words: “Almighty and merciful God, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws.” It may be that we too often follow the devices and desires of our own hearts, but I wonder sometimes if we Presbyterians might be more guilty of following our rational heads too much. So I’ll come clean with you and admit that there were several texts assigned for today, but these were the two that spoke to my heart.

The Song of Solomon is also known as the Song of Songs, or the Canticle of Canticles. It is spoken of in this way as THE song of songs, as in the best of the songs, because the poem is about two lovers who are magnificent in every way. Tradition holds that the song was written by Solomon because his name appears once in the text. It is a difficult text to date, however, and it was fairly common to ascribe literature to Solomon or David or another prominent figure. Some scholars believe that the song was written by a woman. Regardless of who wrote the song, perhaps what is remarkable is that it has been preserved as scripture in our Bibles. The Song of Songs is eight chapters of scripture that speak frankly of passionate longing for another person. It begins with the woman calling out for her beloved. She desires to meet with him, and he tells her where she can find him, in the pastures at noon. They flatter each other playfully and sweetly, with tender words of love and adoration. She claims to be a rose, a lily; to her friends, the daughters of Jerusalem, she tells how wonderful is her companion. And then she says, “The voice of my beloved! Look, here he comes.”

Do you remember how it feels to be in love like that? Close your eyes for a moment and conjure the image of somebody you have loved. Perhaps it is the person sitting next to you in the pew. Perhaps it is somebody long gone from your life. Perhaps your beloved is no longer living. Perhaps there is a hole in your heart where he or she resided. Do you remember how you longed to be with that person? The thought of your beloved brings a smile to your face, causes your breath to catch, changes the way you see the world. The woman in the song says, “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!” Our human hearts hold so much longing for love, don’t they? The sound of a beloved’s voice is unmistakable, even across a crowded room, their laughter fills our heart. When we are madly in love, we know the way our beloved walks; from a distance we can pick them out with our eyes. As a teenager I fell madly in love with a young man who met me at my bus stop to walk me home one day. I was not expecting him, but every day after that I looked for him. Years later I rode that same bus to my parents’ home, and even though he’d been gone from my life for a long time, when I stepped off the bus, I half expected him to be there. The people we love passionately leave a deep imprint upon our souls.

The woman tells to the daughters of Jerusalem the words of her beloved. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land...Arise my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” Can you imagine such beautiful words? Who would you call to tell about your beloved? A former youth group student called me out of the blue a few months ago. It had been some time since I had heard from him, so when I heard his excited voice on my cell phone say, “Katie, guess what?” I said, “You’re getting married!” “How did you know?” he asked. In the background I could hear his fiancĂ© squealing with joy as she too called everybody on her phone list to tell them the good news. Three thousand miles away, their joy bounced off a satellite over cellular phone networks. Romantic, passionate love is a powerful emotion.

And so the song goes for six more chapters. The lovers meet, separate, meet again. They whisper sweet words of love, appreciation for the other’s physical beauty. They call to one another, they play, they love.

If you are a grown up, you have probably already figured out that romantic, passionate love, for all its power and beauty, does not always end sweetly. The Song of Songs is a vignette, a sneak peek into the romance of two lovers. Real life gets in the way of such things. There are children and dishes and laundry and bills, the IRS, the boss, homework, and tragic endings. Unrealistic expectations have killed more than one marriage or relationship. It is tempting to give up on the kind of love written about in this song, but there’s something there that’s hard to give up, isn’t there?

From the very beginning the Song of Songs has been interpreted in different ways. For some it is a love poem between two lovers and that is that. But for those of us in the church, those of us with a religious bent, the Song of Songs carries additional meaning. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible says, “Both Jewish and Christian traditions agree that the Song of Songs mirrors the love relationship between God and people.” An ancient Christian theologian, Origen, who lived in the second and third centuries, believed that the Song of Songs was written as an allegory (or metaphor) for the relationship between God and the Church. For although God is never directly named in the Song, the Song is, after all, included in our canon of Holy Scripture. Origen says, “If these words are not to be spiritually understood, are they not mere tales? If they contain no hidden mystery, are they not unworthy of God?” According to Origen (and many other theologians over the ages) the man of the song was God and the woman was the Church. It is hard to imagine reading the Song of Songs only as a metaphor of God’s love for the Church. The very human love of the man and woman in the poem fairly leaps off the page. Yet Origen is right—this love poem is included in a book of Holy Scripture. This song of all songs has been preserved for us in our Bibles. As we turn to the gospel of Matthew, keep in mind the memory of your beloved.

Our second text comes at the end of chapter 11 in Matthew. Jesus has been teaching his disciples, and he has been teaching them many hard things. In chapter 10, Jesus said things like, “You received without payment; give without payment.” In other words, being a disciple meant not drawing a salary. Jesus said to his disciples, “Brother will betray brother to will be hated by all because of my name.” And on it goes in chapter 10, difficult teaching after difficult teaching. In chapter 11 we learn that Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned for his religious teachings in the wilderness, and Jesus reproaches the cities where he had done most of his miracles, because even after he performed deeds of power, the people of those cities did not repent and believe. Perhaps in exasperation, Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” It seems that only children and fools follow after this Jesus.

And then, suddenly, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Immediately following our text this morning, chapter 12 picks up with the Pharisees attacking Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals a man, also on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees begin to plot to destroy Jesus. Can it be that Jesus was also weary? Between verse after verse of exhausting teaching, healing, and defending against those who sought to destroy him, Jesus offered rest to the souls of those who would come to him. It is as if Jesus held out his hand and said to his followers, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” These are a lover’s words, surely. Come to me. Arise my love.

Do you remember your beloved? Do you remember what it is like to be in the presence of your beloved? To hear your beloved’s voice, to behold the face of your beloved? There are many ways to understand or experience this mysterious God of ours. I am not suggesting romantic love is the only way to know God. But perhaps we might glimpse, if only imperfectly, what it is like to be loved by God through the eyes of our beloved. When we are head over heels in love, the whole world is different, isn’t it? Our bodies, our minds, our souls, long to be with that other. When we are apart, it is painful. Perhaps there is something of that experience that correlates to our love for God and God’s love for us. Do we not long to be loved like that, to love like that?

I once knew a couple passionately in love. They were a youngish couple, who had been married for a few years, and who were utterly devoted to each other. Ten years later, two kids and a mortgage, they were still utterly devoted to each other. Often the woman spoke to students about experiencing God’s love in her life. In particular, she spoke about the blessing of her husband's love for her. She told the story of how one night she was terribly upset. Crying, unable to sleep, she lay in bed with her tears soaking into her pillow. He took her into his arms and held her. He prayed out loud over her body and gently stroked her hair until she fell asleep in his arms. When she told the story, the room was utterly silent. From all of us, adult and student alike, came an overwhelming sense of longing. A longing to experience that kind of love, to give and receive that kind of tender care to another.

Her husband is like me, preferring to work late into the night. This meant that he was often sleepy at retreats and meetings. Sometimes he would doze off mid-discussion. One weekend we asked the students to lie down on the floor for a guided meditation. We imagined ourselves as meeting up with Jesus in a place of safety and comfort. We asked the students to go off on their own for a half our to pray, to spend 30 minutes talking with Jesus. My friend got on the floor with the students, put his head down, and promptly fell asleep. Later I teased him about falling asleep on God, and he said, “Nah, I was just resting in the arms of Jesus.”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We have in the Song of Songs a short interlude of two lovers head over heels in love. My friend told the story of one night in her marriage. And another time her husband rested in the arms of our Savior for an afternoon. Jesus called sweetly to us in three short verses. The rest of it all is a mess, isn’t it? Love dies or we kill it out of fear. There are demands on all sides for our time and attention. In the midst of the complications of life we can become so weary and so fearful that we can no longer hear the voice of our Beloved calling out to us.

But we have our Holy Scriptures. And here we are, gathered together to worship in church. Let us reach out to one another in love, tenderly and sweetly. In our Prayer of Confession this morning we did indeed confess that we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. But we also confessed that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done. With abandon and joy, let us fall in love again with each other, with the world, with Jesus. For Christ loved us passionately and without reservation. This indeed, is the good news of the gospel. Let us throw caution to the winds, and open our hearts to God and God’s creation. Let us lay down our burdens and rest in the arms of Jesus. Through the words of the poet, through the words of your beloved, know that you are passionately and joyously loved by God.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away...let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”