Friday, May 23, 2014

Rainbow Garden - A Blessing of Promise and Promise of Blessing

I am a huge fan of Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods.  He argues that in order to save our children from "nature-deficit disorder" we need to get them unplugged from electronics and outside to play, get dirty, explore, and fall in love with the natural world.  The end of the book includes a list of 100 creative and simple suggestions for getting children engaged with nature.  One of them includes having them plant a garden. 
So when my 10-year-old daughter Rachel announced that she wanted to "redecorate" the weed-patch around the front of our house, I was thrilled.  She has been planning for weeks to create a "rainbow garden" around the steps of our front stoop.  Her 7-year-old brother Benjamin also wanted to be included in the work. Today we went to the local country store and bought flowers in all colors of the rainbow.  And they discovered the wonderful aroma of cocoa shell mulch!  "Smells like chocolate!" they exclaimed when they sniffed the bag.  They couldn't wait to get started.

I warned them that it would be hard work - all the digging, pulling weeds and mulching.  They assured me they were up to the challenge.   So we brought out the spade, trowel and diggers.  We spent an hour on just a 6-cubic-foot area taking turns pulling up the stubborn weeds, turning over the clumps of dirt, and smoothing the loosened soil.  We discovered a world of grubs, earth worms and ants amid the labyrinth of roots and rocks.  Eventually the ground was ready to receive the new plants.  Rachel placed them in appropriate spacing, carefully thinking through size and color.  I taught her how to dig a hole just the right size, how to turn over the potted flower, gently tap and squeeze it from the bottom, loosen the roots and set it in the ground.  We nested the plants in their new home.  Finally it was time for the spreading of the cocoa mulch.  They were tempted to chew on a few pieces, it smelled so chocolatey!
They were thrilled with how they had transformed the weedy area into a place of beauty that stimulated all the senses.  Just as we were finishing up, a light rain began to fall.  As we took the tools back to the garage, I remembered how just a few weeks ago we had taken these very items to church for Creation Care Sunday.  We placed them on the altar and the congregation blessed them, along with seeds, soil, and water.  Now these same recipients of blessing had returned the favor!

As I walked back out of the garage, I saw a rainbow appear in the distance, my son pointing excitedly. 

There was the arc of water and light refracted into the very colors we had just planted in our rainbow garden.  Coincidence?  If so, a blessed one.

Tags:  children, gardening, nature-deficit disorder, rainbow, creation-care

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Talkin' Turkey

The joys of serving in a rural congregation: inviting local turkeys to church

Ecotheological Commentary: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for Year A -- 2013 - 2014
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary by Leah Schade

Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year A

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” said Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2:4). What does it mean to be a living stone? How can a stone be alive?

Time magazine recently featured an article about a global effort to photo-document and study coral reefs using state-of-the-art technology (Bryan Walsh, "Ocean View." Time, April 14, 2014). According to the article, about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef. Coral is a living organism, even though at first glance it just looks and feels like colorful rock formations.

We might say that coral is like a living stone. “Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue. (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy.) Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef” (p. 43). The structure is sturdy and yet porous, allowing water to flow through it, absorbing nutrients, housing microscopic life forms. Coral reefs provide habitat, food and spawning grounds for countless species of fish and ocean plants. “In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral” (p. 43).
Coral reef near Fiji
Seeing images of these coral reefs brings to mind Jesus’ metaphor for the dwelling place of God: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). What better way to think about the infinite hospitality of God than to compare it to a beautiful stretch of coral reef hosting so many different life forms! Psalm 31 also reinforces the imagery of God as a sanctuary of rock, strong and protective—similar to the coral reef that hosts a dazzling array of life-forms. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge . . . Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2-3). The preacher with access to Powerpoint and a screen for worship services may want to project images of coral reefs so that congregants can have these colorful cathedrals in mind as they make the connection between God as sanctuary and rock and Jesus as living stone.

For some churches, May 18 is the day to celebrate Volunteer Recognition Sunday. It is a time to recognize the infinite variety of gifts that each of us brings to the church. We might think of the church as a beautiful coral reef, playing host to so many different individuals and families, an entire ecosystem of faith. Each person has something to contribute to the coral reef of the church. And as a spiritual house of living stones, we each are nurtured by this community, this ecosystem of faith. 

But like the coral reefs in our planet’s oceans, church ecosystems are sensitive to systemic and environmental conditions. The Time article listed overfishing, coastal overpollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs. 
Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened. In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years.
A parallel can be seen in the state of our churches as well. The ecosystems of faith that used to thrive in our society are now finding the conditions around us to be increasingly hostile to the life of the church. Secularization, competition for parishioners’ time, the “pollution” of Sabbath-time by commerce, the growth of “the nones” (folks who indicate adherence to “no religion” in surveys), and the perceived irrelevancy of churches and faith to growing numbers of people are all having detrimental effects on our churches.

What many do not realize, however, is just how valuable the church is to society. The same is true for coral reefs which often go unrecognized for just how much they contribute to our food supply, our economies, and even our medical treatments. Similarly, the church throughout history to the present day has been responsible for much good that most people take for granted. Charity toward widows and orphans, hospitals, public education, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the raising of children with strong moral and ethical values, have all had their origins in churches and other houses of worship, and have had a profoundly positive impact on human society over the centuries. Today, churches contribute much to their communities and society in general by addressing poverty and assisting the poor, responding to natural disasters, providing relief to refugees, advocating for society’s most vulnerable citizens, providing counseling and spiritual direction, distributing food and clothing, and providing leadership and resources for justice issues. Too, some of the greatest leaders lifting up and inspiring humanity’s highest ideals have arisen from churches.

The Time article noted that public attention to the plight of coral reefs has suffered because these underwater kingdoms are not easy to see. Very few people ever get to swim amid coral reefs. And there hasn’t been much photo-documentation of these fragile ecosystems. That’s one of the reasons the new 360-degree cameras they are using to photograph the ocean floor are so important (similarly to the way Google Earth has shown us the surface of our planet in astounding ways). Oceanographers have come to recognize the truth of a familiar adage: we will not save what we do not love. Thus they are doing their best to help us fall in love with our coral reefs so that as a human species we will take steps to preserve what is left.

Churches, too, have suffered from lack of visibility and accessibility. Very few people in society come into our churches—swim amid our coral reefs, so to speak. That’s why it’s so important to tell people what goes on in our churches, what great work we do to serve local communities and the larger society. I’ve often mused that churches need to hire publicity directors and public relations experts so that, like the oceanographers who bring these images of the reefs to light, the contributions of our churches can be highlighted in our communities. People will not save what they do not love. We should help people to fall in love with our churches, even if they do not attend them, so that they will come to cherish the incredibly valuable “ecosystems of faith” in our society and communities.

In the sermon, the preacher might show and pass around pieces of coral. Let them feel the strength and texture of the “living stone.” Let them see the tiny holes where the algae live. Let them imagine their church as modelling what God intends for the Peaceable Kingdom—a healthy, beautiful, thriving, protective—and protected—ecosystem that welcomes a stunning diversity of life that benefits the entire ocean of human and planetary life.

More ecotheological commentaries for upcoming lectionary readings can be found at

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mary Ponders: God-Bearer, Woman of Faith

A Liturgical Sermon
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
May 11, 2014

Kenda Dean and Ron Foster wrote a book called The Godbearing Life (Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 1998).  In one of the chapters (pp. 43-53), they talk about Mary the Mother of Jesus as being a “God-bearer.”  The Eastern Orthodox call her TheotokosTheo meaning God, tokos meaning carrying.  
On this Sunday when we celebrate women of faith, we will be looking at Mary as one example of a faithful woman bearing God into the world.  But we’re not going to focus on Mary just as a mother.  We’re going to look at who she was and what characteristics she exhibited that made her the kind of person God would entrust with bringing Christ into the world.  

Reading – Luke 1:26-38 (The Annunciation)

Mary ponders.  Did you catch that?  In verse 29 after hearing the startling announcement that she, a teenage girl engaged to be married, has found favor with God, Mary stops to think about that.  We’re told that she is perplexed and ponders what’s going on here.  The Greek word means that she is turning things over in her mind.  She’s thinking.  She’s not a vacant field in which God will plant the seed of the Messiah.  She’s not a servant to be ordered around.  She’s a thinking, feeling, turning-things-over-in-her-mind kind of gal.  I like that in a woman.  Apparently God likes that, too.  Because that is the kind of person Mary is, and that’s who God chooses to be the Theotokos, the Godbearer. 
Henry Ossawa Turner, The Annunciation
Of course, the menfolk in her day would likely not have noticed, nor much cared much about Mary’s capacity for wondering.  All most of them wanted from a woman was for her to be a vacant field or a servant.  God would have known that, too.  No man or women for that matter would have expected God to choose a young female of limited means and with no social stature to be the one chosen to help God save the world.  But what matters most is that God has claimed her and given her identity.  She is the Favored One.  And she is to be the Theotokos, the Godbearer.

As we heard in the children’s sermon, women can have many different identities over time, and even at any one time in their lives.  And a woman is often expected or pressured to take on the roles that best suit those who rely on her for what they need.   We need women to be mothers, because they are the only ones who can bear children.  But that biological need brings with it an incredible array of other roles that may or may not suit each woman:  house-cleaner, cook, scheduling supervisor, chauffer, nurse, and yes, even servant.

In Mary’s day women were not given a choice as to whether they would take on these roles.  But when Gabriel the angel comes with God’s message, it is not an order by fiat.  After Gabriel’s grand invitation in verse 37, the next verse records Mary’s response.  I would imagine there was a pregnant pause in the space in between Gabriel’s message and Mary’s answer.  The fact that the Bible records her as even having an answer indicates that Mary has a choice in the matter, a say as to whether or not she will enter into this covenant with God.  We don’t know how long it took for her to ponder, to turn all this around in her mind.  Maybe a few seconds.  Maybe a few hours.  Maybe even a few days.  But when she gives her answer she gives her body, her life, her womb of her own free will.  God gives her that choice, respects her body, respects her womb, respects her as a woman and as a human being.  I like that about God.  Apparently Mary likes that, too.  Because what comes next is one of the most beautiful songs in all of the Bible.

Reading:  Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat)

“My soul doth magnify the Lord.” That’s one of the most astounding lines I’ve ever heard in Scripture.  What does a magnifying glass do?  It makes things look bigger than they are.  How odd that a young pregnant unwed teenager has the capacity for magnifying God—making God appear even bigger than God already is!  A magnifier allows us to see something up close and in more exact detail.  So what details about God does Mary enable us to see? 

First, God’s presence brings joy.  But it’s not just your run-of-the-mill happiness.  This is the kind of joy that comes from someone who has lived all her life under the thumb of others, and is suddenly liberated and able to breath deep enough to sing aloud her newfound song.  It is joy that comes from seeing others experience the same kind of liberation.  Others who, like Mary’s people, have labored as second-class citizens, been treated with less respect than they deserve, now lifted by the mighty arm of God to a high place with plenty to eat, when before they fed only on the crumbs that fell from the tables of the rich. 

It is the kind of joy that comes from waiting faithfully and hopefully for a promise to be fulfilled, and suddenly realizing that the fulfillment is happening through you, inside of you.  That’s what was happening for Mary.  Her body was being transformed by the pregnancy, but the world was being transformed even more.  And just as a child grows slowly and secretly in a dark, protected place, so too does God’s promise grow slowly and secretly just out of sight.

How many women even now are filled with joy because they are serving as God-bearers in the world?  Not just women pregnant with new life, but women who incubate cells and treatments for diseases that will help heal the world.  Women who conspire together to make peace amongst themselves, even while the world is waging war all around them.  Women who meet in government offices to plan a strategy for moving a country forward toward helping its people, even while other doors are slammed shut around them.  Women of different faiths who meet together over coffee to plan interfaith service events to inspire hope in their communities, even while other voices shout angry threatening words around them.

Mary magnifies God and shows us that God is at work, knitting together new ideas, conceiving new friendships, weaving threads of community, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, saving the world.  Each woman, and indeed, each man and child, has this same capacity for magnifying the Lord.  How does your life, how do the actions you take, the decisions you make, the way you treat others, the way you spend your money, the career you choose for yourself, the way you interact with children—how do all of these things serve as a magnifying glass for others to see what God is up to, what God is doing in out-of-the-way places, how God is shaking things up in the highest places, who God is lifting up from the lowly places?

Your soul doth magnify the Lord.  You, like Mary, are the magnifying glass for others to see God in greater detail, to help others see God in an even bigger way.  And God is filling you with joy that causes you to stand and sing aloud your newfound song. . .

HYMN:  “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness” ELW 251

Again, Mary is pondering.  She has endured an incredibly difficult journey during the last month of her pregnancy when she should have been relaxing and having her swollen feet massaged.  She has given birth for the first time, not at home surrounded by her female kin and a familiar midwife, but in a stable surrounded by animals.  Her first visitors are not her male kin come to congratulate her husband and gaze admiringly at her son, but strangers—shepherds from the nearby fields.  
And they come with a message that is strangely reminiscent of the one she received nine months ago.  These sheep herders were also visited by an angel—most likely Gabriel—and told that the Messiah had been born that very night in this very place.

Mary, being the turning-things-over-in-her-mind kind of gal that she is, remembers how the angel had told her nine months ago what her son’s name was to be:  Yeshua, which means “God will save.”  And what were the shepherds told?  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Just as she sang with full voice after the Anunciation, so, too, the shepherds return to the fields singing the song they heard echoing across the heavens, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to God’s people.”  But no doubt exhausted from her labor and delivery, Mary does not sing this time.  She simply takes what the shepherds have told her and treasures and ponders them in her heart.  The words are syntero, meaning to keep, to remember; and symballo, meaning  to bring things together in one’s mind.

Once again, it is not just her body that has brought together heaven and earth, but her mind.  She is taking mental notes, making connections in her brain that will serve her and her child at some time in the future.  Little does she know that, twelve years later, she will once again be reminded of the purpose of her son’s birth.  But as so often happens between parents and their children, it often takes a moment of conflict or discord to remind us why we are here, and what God’s calling is for our lives . . .

READING:  Luke 2:41-57 (The Boy Jesus in the Temple)

How many of you remember a time when your parents were so mad at you, and you just could not understand what the big deal was?  And how many parents can recall a time when their kids did something that made you so angry you wanted to ground them until they were thirty?  I know my own mother could tell you a few stories about me doing to that to her!

Does it make you feel better that even Jesus had conflicts with his parents?  That even Jesus was a preteen who made his parents sick with worry?

It was a simple misunderstanding.  How could Jesus have known that his parents wouldn’t remember who he was and where he belonged?  How could Mary have known that her son, her baby boy, was destined to confer with rabbis before he had even reached manhood?
boy Jesus images
How can any of us understand what we put our parents through, until we become adults ourselves?  How can any parent grasp what path God has called their children to follow until we look back years later and . . . ponder.

And that’s just what Mary does.  Jesus, likely not much younger than Mary herself when she became betrothed to Joseph, is a chip off the old block.  He, too, is using his mind, turning things over in his brain, making connections, gaining wisdom, collecting insights.  She shouldn’t be surprised, really, to see her son doing exactly what she had done at his age.  It’s part of the reason she was favored in the first place.  Of course the Godbearer makes her own imprint on the child she births and raises.  All mothers, all women, in their Godbearing, make their own imprint on the people around them, even as the power of God leads us to destinies we can scarcely imagine.  How could Mary have known the destiny that lay ahead for her son?

MUSICAL REFLECTION:  “Mary Did You Know?” words and music by mark Lowry and Buddy Greene

On Friday evening we held a Daughters’ Banquet hosted by the men of the congregation, and we had about 90 women gathered in our fellowship hall downstairs.  At one point I just stood looking at all of them, thinking about the women of this congregation and the way they bear Christ in this world, whether or not they have born children.

I think about how women and men alike in this congregation have helped to parent my children, taking an interest in them, listening to them, shepherding them when they are in need of guidance, and just laughing and being playful with them.  I think of Kay Hilkert following Benjamin into the Sunday School room last week to listen to him practice his piece on the piano because he wanted her to hear his music.  I think of the girls who have babysat my children – Aliena and Brooke, Rikki and Carli, Krista, Kelsey and Alli.  Each of them teens, like Mary, helping to care for my children, knowing I could trust them with my little ones.

I think of Vivian Marsh putting together the Quiet Bags every week, filling them with activities to keep our children engaged during services.  And I remember back to Christmas time when she oversaw a project of making sun-catchers during the youth lock-in, which were given out on Holy Humor Sunday.

And I think of the women on our Rich Huff Fund Committee working so hard on the fundraiser that brought in over $5000 for children and families in our area.  Countless hours spent laboring in love to bear Christ into the lives of those kids in need.

All women have the capacity to be “God-bearers.”  In fact, all people—women and men, children and elders alike—each of us is Theotokos, bearing Christ into the world.  
On this day when we celebrate women of faith, especially focusing on Mary, we can join her in pondering, treasuring all these things in our hearts.  God’s Holy Spirit enters into us, incarnates in us, and brings Christ’s life- and world-changing grace into the world.  God gives you that choice, respects your body, engages your mind, opens your heart, and loves you as the fragile, courageous, creative, sinful and redeemed human being that you are.  I like that about God.  I’ll be you like that about God too. Amen.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ecotheological Commentary: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A; Good Shepherd Sunday

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an ecotheological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.

We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.

For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths... 

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