Monday, December 31, 2012

Wishes for a HAPPY NEW YEAR


happy new year

With hope into the new year,

Energy and experiences
So that with

Daring courage,
Awareness will enlighten and inform
Your path. Happy 2013!

new year's intentions
may i walk into this day with a
sense of expectation,
           of awareness,
           of excitement & awe.

may i carry with me the gifts of
         hope & peace & blessing,
         to welcome each person I meet
         with the sense of greeting a
         fellow-traveler with whom I
         will share the journey for
         a short while.

may i surround and fill each word
i speak with love & acceptance,
         aware at every moment that
         I am part of creating peace
         or disharmony in this world. happy new year, one & all!

2013...a new year

The first day of
whatever remains-
what lies ahead
is the fog-shrouded

    tentative steps
    daring stride?

i hold the light of
hope and courage
to light my way,
determined to
live fully, to
freely live-
and love
with head held high
and shoulders back,
i boldly walk
into the dark,

a song of joy
emerging from my
smiling lips,
as with overflowing heart
i welcome
the New Year

Dear ones, far and near, I wish you a Happy New Year. May 2013 be filled with both hope and joy, with both creativity and peace. May you recognize in each day the opportunity to re-shape and re-make this world we inhabit, aware of our connectedness with one another and with all created things. And may you be blessed to be a blessing. Love, Linda

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Here's to Friendship...

Amazing just how lovely it is to reconnect with an old and dear friend. It happened on Friday when Bonnie, aided and abetted by my son and daughter-in-law, surprised me as I prepared to lunch at one of my favorite Charlotte restaurants. Suddenly there she was, standing in front of my table saying, "May I join you for lunch?", her dear face wreathed in smiles- and then we were hugging and laughing, our words tumbling over one another in our eagerness to catch up with one another's lives. Wonderful hardly begins to describe it, the feeling of making contact yet again with this dear friend who has shared so much of my life, and I hers.

Our friendship dates back to our days in Florida in the early 1980s, when our families were part of a very special Lutheran church which became extended family for all of us. Since we both had teenagers, getting involved with youth ministry seemed a natural, cementing the bond which had begun to form form between us. When their family relocated to Charlotte, the loss was profound for me but, in one of life's lovely surprises, we moved there a year later and Bonnie and I reconnected easily as her family became my family once again.
Many years have passed. Our teenagers now have teens of their own. Time together happens far too rarely, but when it does, the re-connection is immediate and deep as two aging friends cherish the bonds which keep us held firmly in one another's heart. Bonnie, I love you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

In Memoriam...for the People of Newtown, CT

In Memoriam…

Heart to heart
In anguish reaches
Helpless hands clasp
Firm in prayer and
Yet stretch out to
Take another’s trembling
Hand in solidarity and love
Never more alike, never
More united than when
We stand in shock and grief
Bewildered by those things
For which there is no answer
Surrounded only by questions
For which no solution will
Be found in this life
Tears running down my cheeks
Blend with those on yours-
And hers and his and theirs
Forming a river of mourning-
Yet even in the midst of all this
Grief, we are borne along
On this current of sorrow
Shared, compassion’s life raft
Bearing us along together…
Today, tomorrow, to eternity
And so, in love, we remember…

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Baking Remembrances...

Reminiscence, remembrance…these are words of the heart as well as the mind. Words which resonate deep within, in those places where we store all of the most precious pieces of our lives, in that treasure chest from which we can retrieve them again and again, fingering them with our feelings and re-living the sights, sounds, smells as scene after scene becomes real and alive once more.

Such were my thoughts this past weekend as I stood in my one-person kitchen, baking Christmas cookies. Now, I know almost everyone bakes some special cookies at this time of year, but in my family, Christmas baking has always been taken to its extremity, with days and days and days devoted to the preparation of these once-a-year treats.

I don’t recall how much my great-grandmother baked, though she was in my life until I was nineteen, but since my mother and I lived with my mom-mom and pop-pop for the first four years of my life during World War II, I can see and feel and smell the kitchen of their small row-house for the weeks leading to Christmas, as this little blond girl, wearing an apron tied high under my arms and standing on a stool, watched as Mom-mom, her own bib-apron ever-present on her ample frame, mixed batch after batch of holiday goodies. The entire house was redolent with the scents of butter and sugar and yeast, cinnamon and chocolate, adding to the absolute joy I experienced at being able to lick the remaining batter from bowl after bowl. And Mom-mom produced dozens and dozens of melt-in-your-mouth treats for family and friends to enjoy during the weeks leading to the celebration of the Holy Birth. It was truly a magical time for me, a time marked both with the warmth of the kitchen and the warming love of my grandmother.

Then there was Mom, who took the whole holiday baking endeavor to dizzying heights, elevating the baking of dozens of cookies to the baking of hundreds- no, thousands of cookies- often twenty or so varieties- which were lovingly shaped and rolled, cut and baked, and then stored in cans in the basement, to be doled out carefully to our immediate family since their primary purpose was to present them as gifts to business associates of Dad, friends, and extended family on the day of Christmas Eve. Mom would carefully fill platters with the holiday delicacies, cover them with colorful cellophane wrap (does this even exist any more?), and then Dad and one or more of us girls would load up the car and begin the deliveries. I can recall feeling like Santa’s helper as we went to house after house, always warmly welcomed by people eagerly awaiting the arrival of these delectable treats from year to year.

And of course, during all of those tantalizing weeks until Christmas Eve (the time our family traditionally celebrated together) when Mom would prepare a heaping tray of cookies for the family and we could officially share in the fruits of our labors (yes, we four girls helped with the baking as soon as we were old enough), there were numerous forays to the basement to surreptitiously open a can here and there to “sample” some of the cookies. After all, who could wait for weeks to taste those wonderful, melt-in-the-mouth delicacies which came from Mother’s kitchen? Interestingly, over the years, the cookies became smaller and smaller, more and more delicate, as Mom perfected her technique. Her holiday trays were a delight to behold, though I highly doubt that many of the recipients took too long admiring the sight but moved quickly to sampling the wares.

Early on in my adult life, I, too, joined in the family tradition of holiday baking in the extreme, usually baking at least a dozen varieties and often as many as fifteen or sixteen, making sure I baked the favorites of each member of my family, as well as trying at least one new recipe each year. Some of those quickly joined the “favorites” list, while others fell by the wayside in the “don’t bother” pile. And somewhere along the line, the tradition of baking accompanied by the strains of Christmas music playing on the stereo/CD player became as essential part of the routine for me. Especially wonderful were the years when my growing-up children helped, all of us forming an assembly line in the kitchen to make certain labor-intensive must-have varieties.

So far this year, I have made 5 kinds of cookies- about forty-six dozen- with another four or five to follow next week. This will be a “light” year for me, since we are all trying to cut back on our holiday eating. But I can’t disappoint any of the grandchildren, can’t stand the thought of hearing, “Grandma Linny, why didn’t you make …….. this year?” And so I continue baking, my own kitchen filled with the sounds and smells and feel of the delightfully loving task of baking Christmas cookies. I revel in the memories unearthed, in the gift of love I am both giving and receiving…memory, reminiscence, at its best. Merry Christmas, one and all!

Friday, December 7, 2012

In Whose Image?

The supreme religious challenge is to see God's image in the one who is not in our image.  -Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

 in whose image?
Imagine...the Hebrew Bible commands us-
in more than thirty places- to love and
welcome the stranger, for each and all of us
have been a stranger...somewhere, at some time...
and in the stranger, we can see the face of God,
welcome angels unaware.

 But far too often- if honesty prevails-
the only god we can see is the one made
in our image...the one who looks like us
and acts the way we think God should...
and if God is indeed only the way I see
divinity, the way you see holiness, then we
can- with smug & self-righteous justification-
deny the image of God in those unlike us,
in our enemies.

Easier by far to "worship" God than
to love our neighbor (let alone our enemy!...
to see the person right in front us as
the unique, beautiful Child of God
she stand in awe of the unsolved
mystery of his see them not
just as characters in my own story
but as people in their own
holy places wherein dwells the Spirit of God.

 Simpler, far, to hallow the Wholly Holy
than to recognize...admit...acknowledge
that every encounter with every person
is holy...that every encounter with every
person takes place on holy ground- and
in deep humility, take off our shoes in wonder & awe.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

My work among the elderly brings me into contact with some very special people. The greatest gift I can give to them, I believe, is the ministry of presence...being with, listening, hearing what they have to say. And recently I have begun not only remembering but recording their words, trying to convey the essence of who they are- for myself, but also for you, my readers. I hope these "sketches" draw word pictures for you of 3 wonderful, uniquely different women who I have come to love and respect.  

Elizabeth’s thank you…
There were nine of us, she said.
Nine of us and mama raised us all, 
             ‘til she died…
Only forty-three, she was, and
I was twenty-one- married with two chirren
Of my own, but I raised them up, every one.
My sister next to me, she did the ironin’
And got them all a-dressed and fixed for school
‘Cause I went off to work.

Eight hours on my knees, scrubbin’ tiles-
Didn’t have no mops in those times,
Just time spent on my knees. Three places
I scrubbed floors, then went home and
Did the cookin’ and the washin’…
And somehow, we all made it,
And they’re all fine- good people, every one,
No drinkin’ or hangin’ with the gangs,
But good, God-fearin’ folks. You know,
My grandmother took us to church every Sunday-
Even when we didn’t want to go.

She saw to it we went- to church and Sunday school
And the BCYO- we was there all day! But that
Made no mind to her. It was God’s day and we
Was to be in God’s house. That’s just the way
It was- and now I thank her every day for
Bein’ how she was with us. It set our minds
Where they should be and kept us in the Lord.
And now my grandchirren walk that same good path-
My one granddaughter has got straight As all
Through her school but just one B- and now she’s
In her junior year and just as smart as she can be-
And good! She don’t hang with no bad’uns but
Has three friends and they’re good girls-
Go to the movies and such together and put

They studies first…well, next to God. She’s such a
Pretty girl, inside, too, you know…her heart is big
And full of thanks to God.
On Thanksgiving Day, I was just a-lyin’ here,
Tellin’ God how thankful I am for all I have,
And when I looked up, they was eleven of ‘em
Here- my family- come to surprise me and
Bring me Thanksgiving dinner. Chirren and
Grandchirren, here just to see me. My heart
Was overflowin’ with joy. How blessed I am!
And that night, when I laid here waitin’ for
Sleep to come, I thanked God for every one
Of them…and it come to me that every person
Everywhere is God’s own child- and that
I should pray, not only for my family and those
I love, but for people everywhere- in every place,
No matter where, no matter who. God made ‘em all.
         And so I do,
Because that is what I think God wants me
To do.

Anne’s sorrow…
I don’t know how I came to be
In zis place. It doesn’t seem like
Very long ago that I was young and strong,
Doing what I wanted, caring for my family,
Traveling with my good friend…
And now, look! Can’t even take a shower by
Myself or get into my chair. And my
Breazing- it’s not good most days,
But thank Gott for oxygen and these
Little tanks I can take with me.
I think sometimes that this is
Payment for my sins…for all zose
Things I did and didn’t do that I
Should have. I wasn’t a good person-
Not as good as I should have been. Even now,
I am not always kind or patient,
Though I try.  I try to pray, to ask Gott
For forgiveness. But sadness and shame
Sit heavy in my heart and I vonder
Vat vill happen to me in the days
To come. I vant to believe I’m
Forgiven…that I’ll go to Heaven
When I die, but I think instead I’ll
Be spending long years in Purgatory,
In payment for my sins.
Oh, Chaplain, pray for me, since I
Have such a hard time praying
For myself.  I miss my daughter still,
And vonder if I’ll see her again.
And none of it really makes sense
       To me…

Sallie’s complaint
My sons don’t come to see me…of
Course they live far away. My daughter
Comes sometimes but mostly I’m alone.
It seems like no one pays attention to
What I say, and I just don’t know why
I’m here, when I have a home and
Would rather be there. But I’m not
The one making decisions for me. That’s
All been taken out of my hands. It’s
The worst part about getting old, you know-
This inability to control your own fate.
And no one pays attention to what I say-
Like when someone comes into my
Room at night and goes through my
Closet and my drawers and takes
My things. Why would they want my
Things? There’s nothing new, just
Things well-used, so why would any
Person want them? I just don’t understand-
And no one pays attention to what I say.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

21st Century Franciscan Blessing. ..

I used this blessing in my sermon this morning and received so many comments about it, plus requests for it that I decided to share it more widely here.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths,
and superficial relationships, so that you may live from deep
within your heart.

 May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and
exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom,
and peace.

 May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from
pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out
your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you
can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what
others claim cannot be done.

A Wintry Sunday Morning...

Thoughts on a wintry Sunday morning

And suddenly

Winter is here

The near-full moon rising

Casting light upon trees

Bereft of their leaves

Benevolent feeders offer

Succulence and sustenance

To the birds of the air

And walkers on the street

Pass by bundled in ways

Unseen and unimagined

Only a few short days ago

While on other streets and byways

Those without shelter huddle

Neath overpasses, pulling

Their meager garments tightly

Around shivering bodies

Hoping the wintry weather

Will be short-lived

And here I sit- warm and well-fed

Risen after resting in a downy bed

The whys and hows of destiny

As much a mystery as ever

But certain that I needs must

Grant Gratitude a permanent place

In my heart and life

Friday, November 23, 2012

Christmas Grief...Sometimes

Grief is a peculiar thing. Even when we feel we have put it aside or worked through it, even when years have passed between the loss and the present time, it can re-surface without warning in unexpected and surprising ways. Such has been my experience as this holiday season begins, as I have found myself recalling the last Christmas my mom spent with us- the entire family- here at my house. She had not had a good autumn and I watched her getting progressively weaker, her pain level from the periodic vertebral fractures escalating, though she usually denied the pain, feeling that pain medication made her too drowsy. I was tired from the care-giving, from carrying the full burden of the household on my sometimes weary shoulders, and so I announced my intention of not putting up a tree that Christmas.

Mother received the news quietly, as was her way, but after several days had passed, she very gently asked me if I wouldn't reconsider as she would love to have a Christmas tree so we could carry out the family custom of having candles on the tree, something we had not done for a number of years. And so I went to the local nursery and found a "live" blue spruce (the best type for candles) and had it delivered the week after Thanksgiving. Donning my long-sleeved denim shirt and gloves (I break out from the pine needles against my skin), I lovingly brought my assortment of tree ornaments from the attic and decorated the tree which graced the front window of the living room. I placed my collection of Santas on the fireplace mantle and got a lovely pine wreath for the front door, all of my tasks being overseen by Mother, a benificent smile on her face.

When all was completed, Mom sat on the living room couch in front of the fireplace evening after evening, and saying over and over again, "Oh, Linny, it looks so beautiful. Thank you so much for doing this." I was so very glad I had done something which was giving her so much pleasure, and when the family gathered, we indeed burned the candles on the tree, listening to traditional Christmas music and choosing which candle would be the last to extinguish itself. Through it all, Mother sat in the midst of us, smiling and nodding and even shedding a tear or two, her pleasure so obvious, even through the veil of pain which never really left her.

It was after Christmas, after everyone had gone home, that her downward spiral began. Within days, she was spending most of her time in bed and by the end of a week, I visited the doctor to obtain some stronger pain medication for her. After several more days, Hospice became part of our lives, offering additional help as well as pain control.Dear Ruth, my trusty right arm, began coming nearly every day and another lovely woman, Rosa, came on the weekend. My days and nights became almost reversed as I was up many of the nighttime hours, sleeping during the day when one of my helpers was here. My daughter, Hope, spent 5 days here near the end of the month, providing both physical and psychological support...and then, on the last weekend of the month, we had a beautiful snowstorm and late on Sunday morning, with the sun shining on the new-fallen snow, Mother quietly slipped away. And I was left with a feeling of gratitude that I had helped to give Mom the kind of Christmas she most wanted.

Fast forward to the next two Christmases...and I did not put up a tree. Just seemed like too much work, too much bother- or so I said to myself and others. The Santas came out to grace the mantle, but there was no tree. I didn't need one, I said, to celebrate the season. And the grandchildren had trees at home, so why did they need one at my place? I honestly made no connection between that last Christmas with Mother and my lack of interest in holiday preparations. After all, I still baked cookies and cooked for the family...and that was what was important, wasn't it? I had done my grieving, hadn't I? Mom was ninety-two and had lived a full life and I am convinced that she was accompanied on that final journey by her sister, Anna, and my dad, and welcomed by a great multitude of friends and family when she finally reached her destination.

But the other day as I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner for my son and me- just the two of us this year- I was filled with the sense of Mom's presence and I knew that this year I would have a remembrance and honor of that dear woman. And so today, the Christmas season began for me, as I spent the afternoon putting up the lively artificial tree I bought on sale, decorating it with old ornaments and new ribbons, filled the mantle with Santas, and ironed the Christmas tablecloth for the dining room table. Tomorrow, I plan to purchase a fresh wreath for the front door and get some pine branches for the vase near the fireplace to give the house the fragrance of fresh evergreen. And to add to the feeling of the season, I attended a concert of "The Gathering" in Greensboro this evening, two hours of Appalachian Christmas music played and sung by 5 amazingly talented musicians, including the most beautiful rendition of "O Holy Night" I have ever heard.

I realize now that the dark curtain of grief which has covered the past two Christmases has been lifted, without my even realizing it had been there. And I am filled with a fresh sense of wonder and awe and joy at the beginning of this season of light and hope. Mom, I'll be thinking of you each time I sit in front of the fire and admire the tree. And I'll be thanking God for every moment of time we had together. An early Merry Christmas, wherever you are.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Giving Thanks...

Where has November gone? It seems like just yesterday the month was beginning and now Thanksgiving approaches. Most of the trees in my yard are nearly bare, though the lovely Japanese maple is clinging to her leaves which turned color only recently, setting the side yard aflame with an incredible red fire.

As I sit here contemplating the week ahead, I am filled with gratitude, perhaps more than ever before...and I am giving thanks for so very many things. First, I am incredibly thankful that my sister, Kathy, will be celebrating her birthday this week, after a long and challenging summer of surgery and chemotherapy. Her voice over the phone sounds so hope-filled and positive and I surround her with love and light and prayers each day, that there may be many, many more birthdays ahead for her.

Then, of course, I am thankful for my three children and nine grandchildren, such unique individuals and yet, collectively, a delightful conglomeration of faces and personalities and talents which fill my heart with delight and pride and thankfulness for their amazing presence in my life.

Thanks would be incomplete without remembering my friends, near and far- some very, very far indeed. Their faces create a lovely palette of many hues and features, their personalities each so uniquely special, and my life is made so much richer because of them, every one.

This year, I am thankful for my job at Trinity Glen, something which sort of fell into my lap and which has grown on me during the months of 2012. The residents and staff have become increasingly dear to me and I feel- at long last- an integral part of things there, my role and ministry significant and meaningful.

And I am thankful, daily, for my continuing good health. At nearly seventy-one, this is not something I take for granted any longer. I am exceedingly grateful for each new day, even those which bring some aches and pains. I am alive, I can think and feel and DO...
and for this great blessing, I offer heartfelt thanks.

Then there are those things which we most often take for granted but which so many people on our diversified earth do not have: sufficient food to eat, a warm and comfortable and safe place to live, a car to get me where I need to go; hot, running water whenever I want it as well as the luxury of indoor plumbing; an automatic washer and dryer and dishwasher. And I sit here typing on a computer with which I can stay in touch with the whole world. With all of these incredible gifts, how can I help be anything other than grateful?

If you are reading this, I am giving thanks for you, and I invite you to make your own "thankfulness list" this week. No matter how you know and experience the Divine, no matter what name you give to the force I call God, I hope you will take some time during this week of giving thanks to GIVE THANKS...and to reconnect with those you love and who love you. We all need each other, don't we? For without each other, life would lose much of its meaning and richness, its depth and breadth and wonder. So, Happy Thanksgiving, one and all. And remember- you are loved.
love, Linda

Friday, October 19, 2012

Awesome Autumn...

Seems like it was only a few days ago that the world around me was a rich, verdant green. And then, suddenly, it was as if a delightfully capricious artistic Deity danced across the landscape, randomly scattering colors from the divine palette- reds, oranges, yellows, golds…creating a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, a reminder of the many ways the Creator manifests love to all creation, to all creatures.

And perhaps the only appropriate response- after our breath is restored- is to breaathe a heartfelt “Thank you.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Celebrating the Ordinary...

There is something so satisfying about going to bed totally tired, isn't there? Accompanied by the sense of tasks completed, of things being put in order, of the newness of fresh paint and old things cleared away, or simply re-ordered. It seems to put life into a different perspective, to renew an appreciation for what is, to bring a brightness and clarity which had been lacking somehow.

This was my experience last evening as, bone-tired and aching, I stretched out on my comfortable bed at 8:30, preparing for a good night's rest. All week long the house had been disordered, disheveled, as painters performed their house magic, doing tasks which I was unable to perform myself- repairing ceiling cracks (the bane of old houses) and painting inside and out, here and there. My dining room had become the repository for items from my study while the painting was taking place and the upstairs hallway's photos and furniture had been relocated into the spare bedroom. Things were a mess, but I knew it was all temporary and the results would be worth it all. As indeed they have been.

A lovely, fresh, unbroken hall ceiling...a beautiful sea-foam study...
freshly sanded and painted back porch steps...a water-sealed deck...
and a bright yellow front door and stoop. Friday found me putting my study back in order, rearranging furniture, reshelving books, re-hanging only a few of the pictures which had graced the walls, replacing only some of the items which had filled shelves. More spare now, and oh-so-clean and lovely. A wonderful workspace...the white plantation shutters on the windows complementing beautifully the freshly-painted walls.

Saturday became another workday, this time filled with a variety of wonderfully mundane tasks: cooking homemade applesauce, cleaning the upstairs bathroom, painting woodwork in the upstairs hallway, doing laundry, and making a luscious casserole for dinner. Late in the day found me re-hanging some of the photos which had long graced the walls of the hallway and replacing the previous trunk with a small cabinet and chair from the spare room. The look is now cleaner, sparer, and I love the difference. A tiny thing, I know, but along with the fresh woodwork, the entire feel is different. And as I cross this landing countless times each day, feel matters.

Tasks remain to be completed...the dining room curtains laundered yesterday need to be ironed and rehung, the spare room vacuumed and reordered. And I promised myself to cook stuffed peppers today.
But I carry with me that sense of total satisfaction of an ordinary day spent putting this nest I call home back in order. And as my surrundings are ordered so, I find, is my inner self; my breathing slows and becomes deeper, my sense of appreciation grows and overflows, the feeling of rightness in my world sinks deep, and bedtime last night found me burrowing into the pillows, breathing a prayer of thanks for every ordinary thing which filled my day, which fills my life. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Drawing Lines, Choosing Sides...

Demons and hell and self-mutilation! This is the stuff of which our gospel reading today is made. In this reading, Jesus turns the spotlight on the disciples themselves, the story beginning with the disciples complaining to Jesus about a “rival” exorcist who was casting out demons “in Jesus’ name” and was apparently being successful, but who was clearly not one of “them”. Jesus, however, is not taken in by their gripes. Rather, he wants them to pay attention to their own behavior and where it will lead.

 The first audience to receive the gospel of Mark were those in early Christian communities who were struggling in the midst of persecution, who were in conflict over Jewish-Gentile relations, and who were dealing with all of the growing pains of an infant church seeking identity and faithful witness. Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other’s claims, and even sought to censure one another, to decide who was “in” and who was “outside”.

 It is within this context that Mark’s Jesus warns that finger-pointing and exclusion is not the path Jesus calls his disciples to follow. Even as the disciples point the finger outward to the other exorcist, Jesus returns the focus back to their- our- own behaviors, to the ways in which we speak and live the good news- or don’t- and the ways in which we place obstacles- or stumbling blocks- in the way of that good news.

Just before today’s reading, Jesus had asked the disciples what they had been arguing about.  And they dodged the question, because they had been arguing about who was the greatest and who had the power and who was up in the latest popularity polls and who would get to wear the shiny crown. And though they often misunderstand their teacher and friend, they’re not so dense that they are unaware of how frustrated and disappointed Jesus would be by their conversation. So Jesus sat them down and told them that whoever wants to be first must be last and must be the servant of all. Then he put a little child in their midst and said that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him and whoever welcomes him fully welcomes God into life and heart. Translation? Spend less time jockeying for power and more time practicing hospitality, welcome, openness. End of sermon number one.

 So, in behalf of the other disciples, John seems eager to change the subject, and he poses this question about a horrible outsider who is- gasp- casting out demons- and even claiming to do it in Jesus’ name! We just can’t have that, John is saying. We can’t have people changing the world for the better when they have no right, no permission to do so. The audacity! And Jesus tells John, who doesn’t seem to realize that they haven’t changed the subject at all, that they’re still talking about welcoming and including, Jesus tells him that it’s not his place to call dibs on  righteousness or faithfulness or faith, for that matter; not his place to check papers and demand credentials to decide who is IN the “Jesus club” and who is outside. Whoever is not against us is for us, Jesus says. End of sermon number two.

 But if we are being honest, truly, deeply honest, we must admit that we are so very prone to draw lines between those who are in and those who are out. Sometimes we do it by gender, sometimes by age or sexual orientation or ethnicity or income level. And sometimes we do it by religion- or what we call “religion”.                     

 Years ago, Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, said these wise words:  “Every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.” And how hard that is to hear, isn’t it? After all, we all want Jesus on “our side”, don’t we? Only to discover that Jesus has a problem with sides; he doesn’t take sides- except against injustice and lack of compassion and exclusivity. And perhaps he has a problem with us picking sides, creating them, and defending them, mostly because we have a terrible track record for being wrong.

 But back to our text. Just for good measure, Mark’s Jesus adds an even stronger punch…
even an axe. Jesus says that putting road blocks in front of other people is like sticking a millstone around your own neck, and you’d be better off cutting off your own hand or foot or poking out your eye than doing something like that. Perhaps Jesus upped the metaphorical ante here because the disciples then and now are so blinded by their power grabbing, by their concern for exclusivity, that they have yet to come anywhere near understanding.

 In these verses, Jesus makes the message even harder to hear as he uses the images of body parts as the stumbling blocks. And, remember, these are not other people or things
outside of us, but are rather a part of us…beliefs, ideas, opinions  we hold dear but which might serve to exclude or criticize or judge “outsiders”, those who are often the most vulnerable and need our loving concern the most.

 We’ve all heard the cliché that any time we point a finger at someone else we have three fingers pointing back at ourselves. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from pointing away, does it, and Jesus knows that. So rather than dismiss these rather overstated verses, as we are wont to do,  we should instead realize that perhaps the overstatement is there because most of the time the significance and impact of our own behavior gets lost on us, just as it did with those first disciples. And the issue here for Jesus does not seem to be one of taking actions in life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, Jesus tells us, the Reign of God is so present, so accessible in the here and now that we need only to remove the stumbling blocks of our own making to  realize and be part of that holy kingdom. Makes me wonder if sometimes zeal for the gospel isn’t really that at all but rather about our fear of those who are different from us…placing before them the stumbling block of making it hard to see in us the love of God in Christ.

 The final verse in this section of Mark says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another,” which I take to mean “Focus on how you live your own faith- and stop judging others!” Just think of what the Church would look like if we actually stopped drawing circles of exclusivity and rejoiced in and supported those people who are doing the things Jesus has called us to do, regardless of how we personally feel about that person’s race, age, gender, sexual preference, denomination, or political affiliation?

Perhaps we should take to heart these familiar lines written in the early 20th century by American poet, Edwin Markham:
             He drew a circle that shut me out-
          Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
          But Love and I had the wit to win:
             We drew a circle and took him in!

As I said before, most biblical scholars think that through this passage, Mark was most likely addressing some form of early inter-Christian disputes and was inviting those diverse followers of Jesus into a way of peace. But two thousand years later, after inquisitions and pogroms, after the Holocaust and Northern Ireland and the Balkans and the Rwandan genocide and 9/11 and the religious outrage and violence of recent days, if you’ve been following the news…after all this, can we not also imagine that Jesus is calling us to be at peace with those who look differently or live differently or even name God differently from us? Can we not imagine that Jesus would have us not only tolerate these “others” but seek and work for their welfare? Can we not imagine Jesus calling us to understand them, love them, and in all these ways, “Be at peace with one another.” And the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen