Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Backside of God

Gratuitous photo of my cat, Bast.
Because no picture of anyone's backside would be appropriate.

Sunday, July 7, 2013
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
and thank ye kindly for the invitation!

Scripture Readings: 
John 3:1-10



"But you know, grandson, this world is fragile."

The word he chose to express "fragile" was filled with the intricacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filament of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku'oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love.
 
~Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Our church finds itself in a strange place, doesn’t it? We are in an in between place—stuck between what was and what might be. We are dependent upon committees and people’s schedules, the presbytery, the fickleness of preachers and pastors, and perhaps most challenging of all, we are dependent upon each other.

Here I am this morning with a last minute sermon, and here you are, perhaps unsure of who was preaching today. Pam in the office took it all in stride and made up the bulletin as if she’d had my material weeks before. Our musicians play as if they had practiced this music for decades. We have our
liturgies and habits and ways of being that keep us together as a church in an in-between time. But the truth is we are a church in the wilderness, wandering, and some of us want to know when we’re going to get to the Promised Land. Are we there yet?

Oh, the Promised Land! The Land of a Full Time Pastor. The Land of Milk and Honey. Some of us miss the last pastor, some of us miss the one before her. If you’re an old-timer around here, maybe you’ve seen enough pastors come through that you just miss having a pastor, and you’ve come to the realization that the church keeps going, no matter who the pastor is. A few of you rascals here this morning might be enjoying the chaos of being in the wilderness without a pastor. There’s something freeing about going rogue—when the cat’s away, the mice will play.

I was thinking about my own life this week. It’s summer time and the tyranny of the school year has ended for a few months. My kids are staying up late and sleeping late. We eat when we feel like it. There’s no homework, no schedule, no have tos—it’s a pretty glorious time. Except that there’s no structure beyond what I provide. I can feel the days slipping into each other—I wake up and wonder often, “What day is this?” I even have to remind myself of whether the kids are with me or their dad. Slipping slipping, sliding sliding—there is still so much that needs to be done, even over the summer. I find myself longing for structure but wishing I wasn’t the one who had to provide it!

It must be something of that slipping sliding life not having a pastor. This wilderness time of having to figure out who is going to preach, who’s going to visit people in need of pastoral presence, who’s going to chair the committees, who’s going to sit on the comittees, who’s going to decide when the committees meet, what they will do, and who gives them permission to act? Who is going to gather together all the disparate threads of our ministries and make sure we are headed in some kind of coherent direction? It’s summer! The days are slip sliding and it seems unreasonable, even, to create structure in the middle of this heat, this humidity, this glorious sunshine.

It’s the wilderness, and Moses keeps heading up the mountain to talk to God, leaving the congregation alone to figure things out. Who can blame the Israelites after 20, 30, 40 nights for thinking their pastor wasn’t coming back? Who can blame them for being discouraged and turning to Aaron to build their Golden Calf? Who can blame Aaron for stepping up and taking leadership as best he could—heck, maybe Aaron was a part-time youth pastor with a talent for preaching…

Oh, the temptations in the wilderness! Perhaps we are tempted to make new idols in the absence of clear spiritual direction. Perhaps we are tempted to break camp—certain that no leader is returning. Abdandon ship! Maybe our own tired souls can go on vacation too—no pastor, and where is God anyway? I always joke that in the summer God must go to the shore—so what are we doing here anyway? Who has a beach house—lets move church to a tabernacle on LBI! Slip sliding away these days—oh the temptation to just let the days slip until the fall, when outward pressures will once again structure our lives.

It’s been a long journey for this church this last year. We lost a pastor at the beginning of December. We’ve lost many other people since then, for one reason or another. It’s summer, so it will be hard to tell until the fall how many people we have lost. And our Moses just went up the mountain again, so here we are, a bit rudderless, forced to create our own structure, and isn’t that the pastor’s job??

I don’t know about you, but being without a leader makes me quarrelsome. I keep asking, “Are we there yet?” And the various answers I get amount to, “Not yet, honey, just a few more minutes.” And I want to throw my shoe at somebody to get an answer. When are we getting a pastor? Who’s in charge in the meantime? Does anybody know what’s going on? And I know I’m not alone—being without a pastor is a difficult time.

I’m not new to church committees! I was an elder for several years before I went to seminary. When I first joined session I was part of the worship committee, as the liaison to our ill-fated contemporary service praise band. The second year, when our worship committee chair rotated off session, I discovered that I was now the worship committee chair—but I didn’t discover this until March or April that year when somebody asked me when I was going to call a meeting. Who’s in charge? What’s going on? Does anybody know? These are not new questions.

Do you remember what it’s like to have children in the car for a long trip? I remember a few years ago that Nebraska had instituted a Safe Child Act. Parents could drop off their children at a hospital, and they would be taken into state custody, no questions asked. The intent of the law was to provided a safe haven for babies whose parents could not properly care for them. But Nebraska forgot to put an age limit into their law. So a woman drove from Tennessee to Nebraska to drop off her teenage child. Somebody remarked to me, “Don’t you think somewhere along that long car ride that woman would have second thoughts and take her child home?” But I know better—long car rides with children are pure hell, and with every mile that passed that mother was probably more determined than ever. Have you traveled with children in your car? Driving 80 down the interstate, and it’s starting to storm. The children have been at it for hours, bored with the entertainment kit you brought along. They’ve started smacking each other randomly, just to not be bored, but now one is screaming that the other one hurt him: “He started it!” “I’m not touching you!” “I HAVE TO GO TO THE BAAATHROOM!” And so you stop and they beg for overpriced snacks at the overpriced interstate highway pit stop, and you snarl “No!” and hand them the bag of stale potato chips somebody stepped on and the chips are all broken and crumby so no one will eat them. It’s at that moment that you realize somebody spilled the chocolate milkshake all over the seat, and it’s melted and poured down into the seatbelt well.

You get back in the car, one child in the front, one in the back, thinking that will fix things. Going 82 now, because every second counts to keep you from driving to Nebraska and leaving these children in a hospital. But the kids are tired of the journey and so they just get mean, and the trucks are passing at 90mph. The child in the back is jealous and wants to sit in the front. The child in the front is lording his privilege, but he’s also simultaneously angry that you blamed him for the milkshake he says he didn’t spill. The thunder and lightning start now and rain in earnest, the trucks are zooming now, nearly blowing you off the road. The one in the back starts repeating the same word over and over, and you realize he has gotten out of his seatbelt and is crouched low behind your seat. The one in the front is trying to open the passenger side door screaming, “Let me out, I hate you!”

Not, that this has ever happened to me. I’m just saying. For a friend.

If you’re in leadership in a church, in whatever capacity, perhaps you might resonate with that car ride.

Moses had led a quarrelsome, diverse, often bitter group of people through the wilderness. He had mediated for them with God. They were hungry, he fed them. They were thirsty, he found them water. They needed sructure, he got them a tablet of commandments. He went up the mountain to commune with God, and when he came back down they had built a giant Golden Calf and ignored the structure they had asked for. And it became evident to God that the people could not handle God’s holy presence, and so determined that the people would go on to the Promised Land, but God would not go with them.

And what does this have to do with us, you might ask? Only this: leaving behind the quarrelsome people, Moses went back up the mountain and attempted to mediate with God another time—spare us! Be with us! Do not leave us! God, unable to turn away from a heartfelt plea, decided to grant Moses’ wish. “Stand here on the mountain, “ God said, “And I will show you my backside.”

Because I work with jr. high youth, I am infinitely amused by this image—this image of God mooning Moses. This God of ours has a wicked sense of humor, and I think humor might be our only way forward as a troubled, quarrelsome congregation (and there actually isn’t ANY congregation out there that isn’t a troubled, quarrelsome congregation). As we journey on this summer, patching together our ministries as best we can, feeling the lack of a pastor keenly, have we lost sight of God? And as we ask God for a glimpse of the divine, for some vision, for insight into how to move forward, does it seem like sometimes God is just mooning us and laughing?

After that long car ride with the children, is there anything one can do except laugh about it? Can we not see how ridiculous it is that God brought together this particular configuration of people at this time in our lives, and covenanted with us to be a worshipping community? As we fumble through and we’re not sure we want to be stuck in this car together, is there a way to keep things light?

A pastor of mine years ago told the story of his children on a road trip. The older two had been on many car rides together, but the youngest was new to the grueling, long hours stuck in a car with people she loved and hated at the same time. The older two siblings taught her on that car ride to keep it light, to keep it easy, to bring humor as a shield against the strength of fury and injustice that inevitably arises while stuck in a tin can going 82 miles per hour down the highway. And so I offer you this, that in the middle of Moses’ worst moments, in the middle of his 40 year road trip to the Promised Land, Moses went and asked for God’s presence. And the Lord said, “ok, stand there on that mountain, and I’m going to moon you.” If that’s not ridiculous, I don’t know what is.

Our New Testament scripture reads “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” There is a lightness of being that comes with understanding the Spirit as a wind that dances through our lives. Who knows where it comes from, and who knows where it will blow us. But we can see the Spirit blowing the leaves all over the place—perhaps in this time of unknowing, this time of frustration and change, this time of being without a pastor, we might simply stand back and laugh at the comedy of God showing us her backside. Because if we’re going to be stuck in this car together for the long haul, we might as well keep it light. The chocolate milkshake sure made a God awful mess, but if we can laugh about it, the clean up will go smoother. Go back and read that opening meditation. And remember that we are fragile, that our connections are fragile. Know that this work of being in community takes great patience and love. And take care of one another as best you can. And laugh with one another. Don’t forget to laugh.

3 comments:

  1. Ha ha, this is wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Just remember that God's backside was glorious!

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  3. oh driving to Nebraska or thru Nebraska... goodness... it's enough to make anyone snap, really... especially if it's a snarling hot day.

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