Monday, October 1, 2012

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones


“Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones” 

Katelyn B. Macrae
Christ Lutheran Church, Washington, DC
September 30, 2012

Prayer:  All Powerful God, even though we may ask you for a deal, you give us grace at full face value. Thank you for never giving us a discount on your love. As we recover from Day 1 of the Yard Sale and think about the people lining up outside – help us quiet our minds and refresh our souls while we tarry awhile here in worship of you. May the words of my mouth and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Holy One. Amen.


I’ve been thinking about my Aunt Kathy a lot lately.
She had a stroke recently, and so she’s been on my mind, especially when I cook things.
She loves yard sales and estate sales.
I bet she would enjoy the sale here at Christ Church because she enjoys taking old, used up items and turning them into something new and beautiful.
Her specialty is refinishing kitchen things.
She bought a Dremmel tool just so she could sand and refinish pots and pans!
Aunt Kathy has stocked my kitchen, and the kitchens of all of my cousins.
She has a gift to see the potential in things others might overlook.

Whoever started the yard sale back in 1981 at Christ Lutheran also saw the potential in stuff that others might overlook.
They imagined that used furniture, clothing, and kitchen items could be sold as a fundraiser. 

But in your yard sale this “trash” becomes “treasure” not to one, but at least two people.
1)      There’s the treasure for the people who buy it,
2)      Treasure for the people who are positively impacted by the charities who receive the yard sale proceeds
3)      Treasure for the charities that glean leftover items
4)      (And as someone pointed out after worship – treasure for people who donate items and get the stuff out of their house!)

What I find most amazing is that it’s all volunteer labor.
You spend all year getting ready for the sale.
And then you turn around and freely give away the proceeds!
Since 1981, funding has been disbursed to 247 organizations.
Total funding raised by the Yard Sale since then is more than $650,000.
And I hear reports that this year is better than ever!

As we turn to our story from Mark, let us hold these positive images in mind.
Last week in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were in Capernaum arguing who is the greatest among them.
Jesus flips their argument on its head by placing a child in the center of the circle and saying, “Whoever wants to be greatest of all must be servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”

The story we read from this morning picks up right after that.

Despite Jesus’ visual parable about humility and radical reversal, it doesn’t seem to stick with the disciples. Not even one verse later they’re having a hard time seeing beyond the immediate situation.

The story begins with John talking to Jesus.
John says, “Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Now we should give John a little credit here.If we consider the cultural context, this was a legitimate concern to the disciples for others to be healing in Christ’s name.

In those days, lots of people were healing. It was common practice to invoke a revered name while healing.
The disciples were a small group and whose movement was just beginning to gain traction.
They were concerned that others healing in God’s name, but who weren’t part of their group, might undermine their credibility.

But Jesus, ever the teacher, invites them to see the potential and possibility beyond their obvious concern. He says, "Do not stop him (from healing), for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Whereas the disciples’ emphasize drawing boundaries around who can do God’s work, Jesus emphasizes the expansiveness of God’s love.

And isn’t it true?

We don’t know the impact that our actions will have and how they might help someone to have a positive experience of God.

We don’t know the impact of the Yard Sale and how it may transform someone’s life.

It would be much easier for all of us if the passage ended there – but it doesn’t.

Just as we don’t know how our actions might positively impact others, the reverse is also true.
Jesus’ uses some graphic imagery to caution the disciples against erecting stumbling blocks that keep people, especially children, from having a positive experience of God.  When he talks about chopping off hands, cutting off feet, and tearing out eyes, He’s using hyperbole – exaggeration. And as challenging as these images, they also serve a purpose in getting our attention.

Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus was addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and other sexual transgressions in his community.

As twenty-first century followers of the way of Jesus, we too have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable members of our community - both here within these walls – and out beyond them.

We are called to care for children, orphans, widows, people living on the margins, in poverty and situations of abuse.

We are called to care for the hungry, the hurting, and the aching.

We are called to be Christ to one another.

But in order to be Christ to one another, in order to work for transformation in the world, we also need to be open to God’s transformation in us.
Sometimes we might feel like rusty pots and pans overlooked at the church yard sale.
The Good News is that God sees the possibilities for transformation in us, even when we cannot.

Over the past few months I’ve struggled to find work.
I ended up working at the YMCA in Alexandria, at the front desk greeting members and checking them in early in the morning.

At first I was ashamed of my work. I wanted people to see me for more than the girl behind the front desk. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree and I wanted to use it!

Sometime in early September I realized that my pride was getting in the way of my ability to just receive the grace and joy of being with really lovely people.

I was spinning my wheels in frustration until, through talking to one of my co-workers, I realized that I was my own problem! With this awareness, I found myself more open to having deep conversations with Y Members about their families and the concerns of their lives. I realized I didn’t need the title of “Minister’ to be doing ministry.

In hindsight I see how God has been working in my life to turn my stumbling block of pride into a stepping stone. I had to get over my pride in order to experience the grace of the space I was in and begin to move forward again.

What about you?
Are there any rusty pots in your life pantry that you’re overlooking?
Where has God helped turn your individual and collective stumbling blocks into stepping stones?
And what helped you move forward? Or, what might be keeping you back?

I don’t have any easy answers.

But I do know this – There is deep power to be found in the power of prayer.
There is deep power to be found in a community such as this one where God’s love is freely given and received.
There is grace in this space if we will be open to it.

For God is ready and waiting to sand off the rust and shine us up.
God wants to help turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
And God is calling us to use all of our hands and feet,
our eyes and our ears,
our hearts and our minds
to help clear the path for others,
especially the most vulnerable,
So that we may all walk together as travelers on the road.

I pray it may be so. Amen. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Turning the World Around

Sunday Evening Reflection - September 23, 2012

The scripture from this morning from Mark begins with the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest among them. In the midst of debate, Jesus gives them a visual parable by placing a child in the middle of the circle.

When we think about the questions - Where does our wisdom come from? Where should our focus be? Who is the greatest? Jesus' lesson illustrates that our focus should be on the people that, though  the world shoos them to the margins, God places at the center. Jesus brings a radical reversal - blessed are the innocent, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. 

As Pastor Renata remarked, "Jesus did not say, 'Blessed are the middle class.' Instead he blessed the people who would give anything to be there.'"

As my faith journey evolves - I find myself brought, yet again, to a new employment circumstance where I will be working with people struggling with very difficult challenges - mental illness, health challenges, homelessness, addiction, and poverty. Over the years, I've learned a thing or two about humility and human resilience from people that society places on the margins.

Which is why it's so frustrating when our national discourse says, "why don't you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Why do you feel so entitled to government help anyway?"

The reality is that people who are constantly rowing against the tide know how to muster every ounce of energy just to move a few feet. And many folks have had to fight just to get to the place where they are now, or, with the economic downturn, to stay there.
The sermon today at church reminded me the theme of radical reversal the fills the Bible. God places marginalized people at the center, and calls them blessed! 

God says, "the world may have shut the door, but My House is unlocked, and my Table is set to serve you a meal that will fill you with more than bread."

The world may say, "There's not enough to go around. And you're already using too much anyway - too much that you didn't work for and that you don't deserve."  But Jesus tells us a story about loaves and fishes. The baskets had more in them when they were done than when they started. 

In the Gospel stories, Jesus shows us time and time that we don't need to do anything other than be God's blessed creation in order to get an overflowing portion of God's grace. Jesus pours out this grace and breaks down the social barriers of his time by dining with tax collectors and Roman centurions, by healing foreign woman at wells, and helping the blind to see.

I don't quite know how to define my call to ministry other than this - I've been called, you've been called, we've each been called, to share the story of God's love with the world.

And God can, and God does, work through each of us. We are not only recipients of that Grace, and Peace, and Love. But we can be agents of grace, and peace, and love. We can be seekers of justice. We can be channels of change.

For God is turning the world around. Right now.

We are each called to share the radical, mind shifting good news with the world - that the last are first, and the margins are the center, the broken are made whole, and the abundance of love is for everyone for all time!

So, let's get going. 

What are we waiting for?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Standing by the Highway - Labor Day Sermon 2012

Katelyn B. Macrae
Labor Day Sunday 
September 2, 2012

Deuteronomy 24:14 (New Standard Revised Version)
14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.

2 Corinthians 8:1-4, 13-15 (New Standard Revised Version)
1 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.    
13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

PRAYER: Worker God, you shaped us each uniquely, and equipped us to respond to the call you have placed on our lives. We hope that the cumulative efforts of our daily labors can transform the world and bring it more in line with how you created it to be - a place where there is enough for all; a place where peace, justice, and equality reign.
When this vision feels far off, grant us courage to seek your way.
Holy Spirit, as I prepare to preach I ask you to move in and make your presence known here. Please give me words to speak. Help our ears hears what they need to hear. Set our hearts aquiver with your presence.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, Our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I first moved to Virginia, I drove down Little River Turnpike each day and saw young men, mostly Latino, congregating outside of paint stores, McDonalds, and at certain designated spots, waiting for work.[1] They are hoping that a contractor, landscaper, or painter might choose them to work that day.
These men have to be strong and savvy and smart because they are working without insurance, guaranteed wages or safe and fair working conditions. Certainly there is no promise that they’ll be treated with respect. There is probably little legal recourse or protection if something does go wrong.
In Fairfax County, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, why do people have to stand on street corners and in McDonalds parking lots looking for work? Yes, there are complicated political answers about immigration and economics we can give to try to explain it.  Or, explain it away. And this is just one example.
Labor Day Weekend was founded over 100 years ago by Labor Unions in New York to celebrate the value of the worker. That first year more than 20,000 people marched down the streets of New York City with banners that proclaimed “8 Hours Labor, 8 Hours Recreation, 8 Hours Rest.” In 1909, the American Federation of Labor’s convention named the Sunday preceding Labor Day, “Labor Sunday” and dedicated it to “the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.”[2]
Today on this Labor Sunday, I’d like us to think about work in light of our Christian faith, as we consider how people of all ethnic backgrounds, educational attainments, and socio-economic statuses are currently unemployed, underemployed, or struggling to make ends meet.
MIT’s Living Wage Calculator[3] estimates that is costs $13.22/hr or $27,500/annually before taxes for a single adult working full time to live in the City of Alexandria, and pay for rent, food, health car, and transportation expenses. For a single adult supporting two children, the suggested living wage jumps to $29.40/hour or $61,000/year.
In Virginia the minimum wage is $7.25/hour or $15,080/year. Someone working full time at minimum wage for a whole year earns ten thousand dollars less than the estimated Living Wage!
When you look at MIT’s Calculations– most of the professions that we rely on each day, and probably many of the people working on this “weekend off” are earning below the living wage needed to live in this area. Sales, custodial, food prep, customer service, farming, fishing, forestry, transportation, childcare providers, health care assistants, office staff, and construction workers all earn less than a living wage. Only management, legal, medical professionals, architects, scientists, engineers, computer and business operations folks fall above the “red zone” on MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
In our first scripture this morning from Deuteronomy it says, “14 you shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns,” (24:14). Thousands of years before modern labor laws, our ancient sisters and brothers understood the importance of paying workers (whether citizens or aliens), a fair wage!

I find this incredibly significant in light of things about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food[4] that I shared with the Church School Children this morning.[5] , Or, thinking about those men waiting for work on Little River Turnpike, or the thousands of people who come to the US each year (legally and illegally) seeking economic opportunity.

In our second scripture, Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth from Macedonia. He is asking the congregation in Corinth to share some of their resources with the people in the Jerusalem church who were struggling in poverty. In Paul’s time, Corinth was a trading center. Located on an isthmus between Athens and Sparta, the city controlled two harbors – one leading to Asia and the other to Italy. It was a diverse city with Romans, Greeks, and Jews living there.  Money, goods, and people flowed in and out.

Paul is not asking the Corinthians to give up everything for their Jerusalem friends. Instead he is seeking a “fair balance.” Paul elaborates – 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

Paul provides a community model of sharing where people share their gifts out of their abundance. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Paul says that the people in the Macedonian church experienced spiritual blessings because they were able to share with the church in Jerusalem. Paul writes that the people in Macedonia were “overjoyed.”

Let’s imagine what it might be like for our economy if we applied these biblical principles of 1) paying fair wages to all laborers and 2) seeking a fair balance, today.

Yes, there would still be rich, poor, and middle class. Yes, there would still be foreigners working in the land. But, if we applied these biblical principals, laborers wouldn’t be exploited in order to make enough money to eat. We would have living wages for all. In seeking a fair balance, everyone would share his or her gifts, with the rest of the world. Furthermore, we would all be blessed in the sharing!

It’s kind of like the Loaves and Fishes story. When Jesus and his disciples were gathered with the crowds and Jesus tells the disciples to go feed everyone but they only have so many loaves and fish. Some biblical scholars think that miracle of the story is that as the baskets began to be passed around people took out the food they were hoarding for themselves and began to share. At the end of the meal, they had more food leftover in the baskets than they began with! Generosity and sharing begets generosity and sharing.

Or, as Proverbs says,  “the world of the generous gets larger and larger,” (Proverbs 11:24).

On this Labor Sunday we can begin to help God’s vision of a more just economy come into being. And it starts within each of us.

1) God created each of us with a unique call on our lives. It’s our vocation - the place where the worlds deep needs and our deep gladness meet.[6] Whether this is our paid work or not – God has gifted us with something special to share and share abundantly.

As Hope UCC goes through our visioning process, it is also an opportunity for each of us to think about our vocations and spiritual gifts. How can we share them with this faith community? And in turn, how can we share them with the world?

So that’s the first thing that we can do and it’s a big one! We’re each called to discern God’s call on our lives. And as we discern we are also called to act.

2) The second thing we can do is to educate ourselves, and our workplaces, about the Living Wage.
a.     Find out if your employer pays a living wage to their workers.
b.     If not, ask why? You can educate them about the Living Wage and encourage them to develop a plan to increase wages to become more livable.

3) Third, we can be choosy customers!
Go to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website and learn about their Campaign for Fair Food. Support business that are working with Immokalee, and let them know this is why you are choosing to shop there.

4) Fourth, we can advocate for an increase in the Federal Minimum wage. Currently the minimum wage is $7.25/hour. If there is energy at Hope UCC around this, maybe we could plan a visit to our local legislators.

5) Finally, we can put our faith into our vote. As this next election cycle approaches, let’s think about these biblical principals of fair wages and fair balance as we follow the current political conventions, and when we cast our ballots in November.

On this Labor Day Weekend, as we think about work, worth and biblical economics, let us return to that all to familiar image of the men on Little River Turnpike waiting, hoping, praying for work!

Friends, we already have enough people standing on the side of the highway. We do not need to stand on the side of the highway waiting for change, or for someone to pick us up and do this work.

The ride is here, the time is now, and God is calling us to work for a world where all have enough to eat, where all are treated fairly, and where abundance for all means scarcity for none!

So let us go out and labor for a world that looks more and more like the kingdom of God – a place where peace, and justice, and righteousness reign.

I pray it may it be so. Amen.

[5] The CIW are paid $0.50 for every 32lbs bucket of tomatoes that they pick. They need to pick enough tomatoes to equal almost an elephant each day! As part of the Children’s Sermon, I asked for a volunteer to stand in a big plastic bucket, and some other children helped me lift the bucket up. Then, I demonstrated that farm workers actually carry these heavy buckets on their shoulders and dump them into large bins or trucks. The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, which has involved several church organizations and the use of boycotts, has been successful at getting Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other businesses to pay the workers $0.01 more per pound for tomatoes harvested.
[6] Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation from Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (1973) is, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”