2018-1-28 “Who Issues Your Call?”

“Who Issues Your Call?”

A meditation based on Mark 1:21-28

January 28, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Today is a party day!  Annual Meeting Day!  So we’re a bit more relaxed and reflective as we look back over this past year and make some decisions looking forward.  In light of this, today’s meditation is different than the usual. 

                   With today’s scripture story, Jesus calls out harmful spirits, and shows, without a doubt, his authority to teach and heal and represent God’s love to the masses.  He taught, the scripture author noted years later, “as one with authority…not like their other religious teachers…”  That’s a model for us!  To do what we do, called by God, with authority.  Notice the passage doesn’t say power over that descends upon, or command and control, or dominance, but it shows authority that resides deep within Jesus, and deep within you as well.  This is an authority give you by God, that leads you—with strength—from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from fear to trust; authority from God that, with your actions and words, leads you to be a beacon that leads other from hatred to love, and from war to peace.  

                   So today, I want to share with you a favorite children’s story that, when it was published, won all sorts of awards.  It speaks of power.  It speaks of that God-given authority.  It holds out a vision of just how much each of us—working together—can change the world for good.  I invite you to settle in, cuddle up, and listen to the story of “Old Turtle,” written by Douglas Wood and illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee.

Once, long long ago…Yet somehow, not so very long…When all the animals and rocks

and winds and waters and trees and birds and fish and all the beings of the world could speak…and understand one another…  There began…AN ARGUMENT.

It began softly at first…

Quiet as the first breeze that whispered, “He is a wind who is never still.”

Quiet as the stone that answered, “He is a great rock that never moves.”

Gentle as the mountain that rumbled, “God is a snowy peak, high above the clouds.”
And the fish in the ocean that answered, “God is a swimmer, in the dark blue depths of the sea.”

“No,” said the star, “God is a twinkling and a shining, far, far away.”

“No,” replied the ant, “God is a sound and a smell and a feeling, who is very, very close.”

“God,” insisted the antelope, “is a runner, swift and free, who loves to leap and race with the wind.”

“She is a great tree,” murmured the willow, “a part of the world, always growing and always giving.”

“You are wrong,” argued the island, “God is separate and apart.”

“God is like the shining sun, far above all things,” added the blue sky.

“No, He is a river, who flows through the very heart of things,” thundered the waterfall.

“She is a hunter,” roared the lion.

“God is gentle,” chirped the robin.

“He is powerful,” growled the bear.

And the argument grew LOUDER and LOUDER and LOUDER…until…STOP!A A new voice spoke.  It rumbled loudly, like thunder.  And it whispered softly, like butterfly sneezes.

The voice seemed to come from…why it seemed to come from……Old Turtle!

Old Turtle hardly ever said anything, and certainly never argued about God.

But now Old Turtle began to speak. “God is indeed deep,” she said to the fish in the sea;

“and much higher than high,” she told the mountain.  “He is swift and free as the wind,

and still and solid as a great rock,” she said to the breezes and stones.  “She is the life of the world,” Turtle said to the willow.  “Always close by, yet beyond the farthest twinkling light,” she told the ant and the star.  “God is gentle and powerful.  Above all things and within all things.  “God is all that we dream of, and all that we seek,” said Old Turtle, “all that we come from and all that we can find.”  “God IS.”

Old Turtle had never said so much before.  All the beings of the world were surprised, and became very quiet.  But Old Turtle had one more thing to say. “There will soon be a new family of beings in the world,” she said, “and they will be strange and wonderful. They will be reminders of all that God is. They will come in many colors and shapes, with different faces and different ways of speaking. Their thoughts will soar to the stars, but their feet will walk the earth. They will possess many powers. They will be strong, yet tender, a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer from the earth back to God.”

And the people came.

But the people forgot.  They forgot that they were a message of love, and a prayer from the earth.  And they began to argue…about who knew God, and who did not; and where God was, and was not; and whether God was, or was not.  And often the people misused their power, and hurt one another.  Or killed one another.  And they hurt the earth.

Until finally even the forests began to die…and the rivers and the oceans and the plants and the animals and the earth itself…

Because the people could not remember who they were, or where God was.

Until one day there came a voice, like the growling of thunder; but as soft as butterfly sneezes, Please, STOP.

The voice seemed to come from the mountain who rumbled, “Sometimes I see God

swimming, in the dark blue depths of the sea.”  And from the ocean who sighed, “He is often among the snow-capped peaks, reflecting the sun.”  From the stone who said, “I sometimes feel her breath, as she blows by.”  And from the breeze who whispered, “I feel

his presence as I dance among the rocks.”  And the star declared, “God is very close;” and the island added, “His love touches everything.”  And after a long, lonesome and scary time…the people listened, and began to hear…  And to see God in one another…and in the beauty of all the Earth.

And Old Turtle smiled.

And so did God.


                   Friends in Christ, Sisters and Brothers in faith, we choose to follow One who says to the storms, “STOP!”  We choose to follow One who calls to the unlikely, “FOLLOW ME!”  We choose to follow One who commands the spirits—the harmful ones and the helpful ones—we choose to follow this One whose authority is from God.

                   And we choose to follow this One whose authority from God lights the way for your own authority to grow into steady sure confidence so that you, in his name, teach and heal and bring moments of kindness and love through your actions, through your speech, through your decisions, and through your very lives.  And I can assure you, God will continue to smile very broadly in your direction!


Amen and Blessed Be

2018-1-21 “What’s Your Call?”

“What’s Your Call?”

A meditation based on Mark 1:14-20

January 21, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   This meditation is a bit different than you usually hear from me.  For these past two weeks have seen something we’ve never seen before in this country’s long history…a president using vulgar language to disparage whole countries of people…people who happen to have been born with darker-colored skin.  And I want to invite us this morning, in light of this occurrence, to revisit the principles of Jesus as we live them out in the United Church of Christ.  I am so very proud of our UCC national leaders, for within two days, they had written a powerful letter demanding an apology.  But more than the political aspects that have been part of us, from the beginning our 400+ year old denomination, more than the church’s involvement in the political sphere, we can hear in their letter the principles that guide us still.  And that is what makes me proud!  I invite you to hear the letter in its entirety, and then we’ll talk a bit about it.  Listen beyond the politics, if you will…listen for the life principles that make this world a better place.

January 13, 2018

The United Church of Christ believes it is called into being to express fully the love of God most powerfully known to us in Jesus, the love of neighbor, and the love of self. We believe our mission is to build a just world for all. We cannot remain true to such a calling and be silent in the face of racist language, especially when it comes from the highest office in the land.  Therefore we condemn the language used by the President in his recent outburst and call on him to apologize.  As we all gather as a nation to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. – a leader committed to racial harmony and justice – the United Church of Christ once again celebrates the rich tapestry of religious and racial diversity that America has become. We too dream of a land where all are equal and are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

The United Church of Christ is appalled at the President’s speech. We denounce it as racist. We have grown weary of efforts to either apologize for or normalize the bullying that we have all had to endure.  An inclusive denomination, we affirm the dignity and full humanity of all people of all nations. We are asking the president for an apology. A broken, divided nation will not fully heal without it. We are committed to building bridges of peace and understanding, of participating in the exchange of a love that can heal all wounds and bind together broken communities. Words of understanding and remorse are, we believe, a critical and necessary step in helping this nation heal from this new wound.

The National Officers of the United Church of Christ

The Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries

The Rev. James Moos, Executive Minister for Global Engagement and Operations

What life principles did you hear from our national officers?  I hope you heard:

  • We exist as church to express fully the love of God
  • We exist as church to express love of neighbor
  • We exist as church to express love of self
  • Our mission is to build a just world for all
  • We speak up in response to injustice
  • We are inclusive
  • We value all humans, all countries
  • We understand that healing requires apology
  • We are about building bridges of peace and understanding
  • We believe in love as that force that heals wounds and connects communities…we love!

                   When Jesus called those four fishers of fish—Peter, Andrew, James and John—they had no idea what they were getting themselves into!  They dropped nets and boats and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and we marvel that they did so.  When we take a look at their call, we often put ourselves in the place of these four individuals on the shore.  We marvel that they dropped all—changed their lives completely—and followed this teacher.  We ask if we would have been so inspired, so spontaneous.  Yet, according to preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor, to ask that question of this passage is to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable!  She suggests that this story is not so much a story about the disciples or about us, this is a story about God.  To focus on what the disciples gave up (and whether we could do the same), is to miss the real miracle of the story. 

                   This “miracle story,” as she calls it, is really about “the power of God—power to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before.”  What we’d best find along the way of our own lives, encourages Barbara Brown Taylor “…is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”  

                   What does this “smacking upside the head with glory” look like exactly?  In the case of the fishers, it looks like fishing, only instead of catching fish, they catch people.   In the case of the United Church of Christ, it looks like using one’s God-given gifts, mixed with a whole lot of courage, to live love and bring positive change to the world.  For Community Congregational Church, it looks like, perhaps, doing some of the same things but doing them in a new way, or for new reasons, or with new and renewed vigor.  You see, life with Christ, is a dynamic “call

and response” in which, in every moment and with each decision, we are invited to creatively, and sometimes courageously, respond to God’s call.  

                   What is your call, do you think?  What one or two words describe it?

Perhaps the United Church of Christ, with its long history of speaking out on social concerns, perhaps that gives you pause or motivation or a sense of direction for your own living out of your call.  Living our call is as simple as being who we really are; acting from that, deciding based on who you are, speaking from your deep and true self.  Remember what I said last week…your call is not to be Jesus, or anyone else for that matter.  Your call is to be you, full of God-given gifts unique to you, the best version of you that is possible.  That is your call.  And mine.

                   In a sermon delivered just after the terribly devastating fires here in southern California in the fall of 2007, Dr. Forrest Church wrote that, “Being who we are means embracing our God-given nature and talents, not someone else’s.”  He goes on to tell that he admired his father—Senator Frank Forrester Church, III, longtime U.S. Senator from Idaho.  Son wanted to be like father, saying, “I wanted, more than anything, to borrow his ladder to the stars.  I had more confidence in him than I did in myself.  I wanted to be like him, not like me.”  While working on a doctoral degree, the son was handed a political career on a platter, and when that offer occurred, he nearly followed its tempting pathway.  But his father interceded and called him a quitter.  Finish your doctorate, the father said.  Then go ahead and do whatever you wish with your life.  So the son persevered.  And, in persevering, he found his calling.  Two years later, he was installed as the ninth minister of All Souls [Church in New York City], a position he held for over thirty years.  Rev. Church referred to his calling as a privilege—fulfilling not his destiny, but answering a call that was his, not someone else’s.  He concludes his story with these words, “To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects.  In trying unsuccessfully to be who we are not, we fail to become who we are.”

                   Being who you are, you see, is not an end in and of itself.  Being who you are invites you to see others with the same respect as you see yourself, to honor the integrity of the neighbor, to connect with the stranger, one to the other, in the family of God.  Be who you are.  Loving.  Grumpy.  Honest.  Human.  Creative.  Hopeful.  Willing.  Courageous.  Be who you are. 

And our scripture today assures us that God will be who God is.  Calling you, just as you are.  Just as God has done with humans from the beginning of time, God will call you each day, and God will fill you every moment with what you need in that moment, and God will use you—being you—to change the world for the better.


Amen and Blessed Be!




1-14-18″“Call: Follow Me”

“Call: Follow Me”

A meditation based on John 1:43-51

January 14, 2018 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   One of my favorite Christmas and Epiphany solos is the popular song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  It begins with the night wind asking the little lamb, “Do you see what I see?”  I see a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite.  Then the little lamb asks the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?”  I hear a song, high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea.  Then the shepherd boy asks the mighty king, “Do you know what I know?”  I know that in your warm palace, there is a Child who shivers in the cold…we must bring him silver and gold.  The song concludes with the king saying to people everywhere, “Listen to what I say!  Pray for peace, people everywhere, Listen to what I say!  The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light.”  Beginning with the light of a dancing star, just barely observable in the dark night sky, the song becomes more and more embodied.  With each successive verse, the star becomes a song becomes a voice becomes a Child whose life makes all the difference in the world. 

                   Why?  Because this little baby, all grown up, shows us what it looks like—literally, physically, tangibly—to practice the love of God.  Jesus shows us in his life and his choices and his teaching and his words and his actions…Jesus shows us what it looks like for him to be the very best Jesus he can be…and in so doing, he shows you how you can be the very best you as well.  And that journey begins with call.

                   We are fortunate, I believe, to be part of a religious tradition that has always understood that the call of God is not just for clergy, but God calls each person.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what that call looks like for you, and today we begin with that familiar scene that, for the disciples, started it all.

                   The Baby Jesus is all grown up and we hear Jesus’ voice, “Follow me.”  Jesus is calling together the rag-tag band of followers that would eventually change the world.  In that general process, Jesus issues a very specific call to Philip, who immediately goes home and enjoins his brother Nathanael to come and see this prophet of God.  When Nathanael hears that the so-called prophet is from Nazareth, he really does not want to hear anymore.  Nathaniel’s view is clear: No good can possibly come from Nazareth, that poor town of destitute carpenters and low-scale laborers.  They are beneath the dignity of him and his brother, and all of a sudden,

Nathanael is no longer interested in hearing. 

                   The same discomfort at hearing is sometimes true for us, is it not?  We can talk with great conviction about the generalities of peace, of justice, of compassion, yet when it means money out of our pockets, or time out of our already over-committed schedules, or efforts beyond what we are already doing, well, then, we may not want to hear anymore.  You see, answering the call of God in our lives, begins with hearing that call.  And I’m proud of our United Church of Christ, which has always been at the forefront of hearing God’s call and then bravely acting on that call, even when the cost was great.

                   Today, this weekend, our nation honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor, prophet, political figure, one whose Christian faith was rooted in seeing the movement of God, and listening for the ever-present call of God.  As a result, Dr. King’s action was confidently settled in knowing and proclaiming the truth of God;       his every speech and sermon moved from the generalities of justice and peace to the particulars of just how those could be accomplished within the lives of the people in King’s audience.  I can remember that there were those who really did not want to hear what Dr. King had to say, sadly, some within my own family.

                   Yet, throughout his public life, Dr. King spoke out, tirelessly, against injustice as it was variously dressed in mid-20th century America.  The right to ride on a bus, the right to freely vote, the right to strike for a living wage, the right to live in a better neighborhood, the right to send one’s children to the best schools, all of these very specific issues of justice received Dr. King’s attention.  He spoke from the deepest places in his Christian soul, convinced that it was Christ himself who provided the prophetic model for such preaching and such action. 

                   Can we do less?  This morning, as difficult as it may be, I invite you to hear the words of Dr. King, delivered in our nation’s capitol, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  And as we contemplate our call to follow in the ways of Christ, hear these decades-old words from a brother in Christ, words that we may not really want to hear. 

“…I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.  Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.  I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal.  I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  This is our hope…With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood and sisterhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.  This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!  Let freedom ring from

the curvaceous slopes of California!  But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!  Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.  And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

                   What an inspiring restatement of the call of God in King’s life.  And the fact that it is steeped in and supported by King’s own thought, word and deed, motivates us to hear and respond to God’s call in our lives.  But how to get there?  How to get to that place of freedom, that place of justice for all people, not just the wealthy?  How to get to that place where brotherhood and sisterhood really is the law of the land? 

                   We followers of Jesus know the answer to that!  And Dr. King, as our Christian brother, later preached the answer of how to get there…I invite you to hear these words, from his much-less popular speech, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, just one year to the day before he was killed.  There, King spoke of the only pathway that will take us toward that dream of justice and peace…that pathway is love…

“When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response…I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme

unifying principle of life.  Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.  This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one

another, for love is of God.  And everyone that loves is of God and knows God…’ 

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation…We are now faced with the fact, my friends that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…  Now let us begin.  Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. 

This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response…”

Now, 50 years after Dr. King preached at Riverside Church, hate and fear are loud voices…far too loud.  And we may not want to hear Dr. King’s words because like Nathanael, we may believe that no good can come from namby-pamby nonviolence fueled only by love.  We may not want to hear Dr. King’s words, because they will require us, like Jesus, to hear and respond to God’s call to love despite it all.  Yet I believe on this day, we are invited by God to hear precisely what we may not want to hear.  The world Dr. King described is still a dream.  But we know how to make that dream a reality.  The answer is simple but it is not easy.  I believe we do our part by stepping out in faith, one step at a time.  We hear and realize the dream intoned by Dr. King by intentionally thinking peaceful solutions, by consciously taking actions that bring justice, one attentive step at a time.

                   Popular author Ann Lamott once observed that stepping out in faith is like driving at night with your headlights on.  You never see the entire road laid out before you.  But you eventually get from Point A to Point B because the headlights provide just enough illumination to move forward from moment to moment.  And the foundation of all our action is our faith in Christ as One who gave and loved and listened to even words he did not want to hear.  Our faith is in Jesus, who shows us the way, one step of justice followed by another, one courageous act of resistance followed by another, one loving word and one compassionate

deed followed by another and another and another.

                   Years ago, our Presbyterian sisters and brothers, in answer to the question of how to hear and respond to God’s call, wrote these words.  I share them with you in closing as a kind of mantra, a personal statement of faith you may wish to use yourself.

“I refuse to believe that we are unable to influence the events which surround us.

I refuse to believe that we are so bound to racism and war, that peace, brotherhood and sisterhood are not possible.  I believe there is an urgent need for people to overcome oppression and violence, without resorting to violence and oppression.  I believe that we need to discover a way to live together in peace, a way which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of this way is love.  I believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.  By the goodness of God at work within people, I believe that brokenness can be healed.”

Amen and Blessed Be!

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God, you create us and love us; you invite us to live together in a community. 

We acknowledge our slowness to do good, our blindness to injustice, and our complicity in deferring the dreams and hopes of the oppressed. 

We condemn racial injustice in our pronouncements, yet we cling to the privileges derived from inequity.  Forgive us, Gracious God. 

On this day, we thank you for Martin Luther King, Jr. and all your children who have been filled with your vision for life and who have worked to bring your vision into reality. 

May we join them on the journey of faith.

Fill us with your vision of love.  Guide us to live by your vision of compassion and justice, and empower us to work to build the beloved community where everyone is welcomed, all are valued, power is shared, privilege is no more, and all your children know wholeness and well-being.  In accordance with the commands of Jesus Christ, shake us from our sleep with your imperative to do justice; move us to action with the compassion of your grace; and give us courage to pay the price, however painful or costly, that the justice you intend, may be done,

on earth as it is in heaven. 

Hear us now, as we pray this prayer with one voice…


Benediction from John Wesley:

Do all the good you can, By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can, In all the places you can,

At all the times you can, To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

Amen and Blessed Be!

1-7-18 ““Light…Water…BOOM!”


A communion invitation based on Mark 1:4-11

January 7, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Epiphany begins with a bang today!  It is the season of light, the season where we open ourselves to the light of God through the life of Jesus the Christ, the season where, literally, the light shines a bit more each and every day.  And the Gospel of Mark gets us up and gets us going.  Honestly, it reads like the story of someone who is double-parked!  Action follows action.  There is little space between.  Jesus often scoots from one scene to another to another in a series of very busy days and equally busy nights. 

                   As an example of this fast-paced gospel narrative, the word “immediately” appears as many times in Mark as it does in the other three gospels put together!  In Mark, immediately, Jesus heals.  Immediately, Jesus teaches.  Immediately, Jesus leaves one place of service to attend another.  Immediately, Jesus sees a need and immediately he meets it.  There is little time for breath and little space for pondering.  Mark’s Jesus is a man of action.  The author of Mark doesn’t even take time for the birth stories we’ve just enjoyed once again…in Mark, there are no angels, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds, no wise ones…there’s not even a little Baby Jesus.  In this gospel—the first written—Jesus appears on the scene, light of the world, fully grown, announced by his cousin John as powerful, powerful enough for people to stop and take notice.  In Mark, the first sight of Jesus, he is at the water ready to be baptized…  Light of the world…water of baptism…BOOM…get to work, Jesus!  That’s the picture of Jesus we see in Mark.  Boom…no time to waste. 

                   This very first narrative of the life of Jesus shows us that his is a ministry of caring, immediately…of seeing needs, now, and meeting them…and, if we dare to call ourselves by his name, then his ministry becomes ours as well.  And, just as in the double-parked, fast-paced accounts in Mark’s gospel, our ministry in Jesus’ name has a similar urgency, a quality of immediacy that invites us to care now.

                   Fortunately for you, you are called by God to minister in Jesus’ name in a place that is already one of the top caring cities in this nation.  Yes, a recent survey completed just last month, showed that both San Diego and Chula Vista are among the top 100 Most Caring Cities in the United States!  The survey results read like the Gospel of Mark.  Its definition of “caring” was “having intimate and human connection with others; expressed in multiple ways — from helping an elderly person cross the street to fighting a house fire.”  The survey company, WalletHub, compared the 100 largest cities in the country using 36 key indicators, indicators that show a compassionate spirit.  These included three major categories:

  • Caring for the Community (crime rate, alcohol abuse, care for environment, social ties, civic engagement, favors to neighbors, income donated to charity, volunteer hours);
  • Caring for the Vulnerable (children, homeless, disabled, uninsured, pets and animals);
  • Caring Within the Workplace (physicians, nurses, social services, teachers, counselors, mental health counselors, personal aides, firefighters, paramedics)

                   As a whole, in 2016, Americans showed their care more and more in each of these important marks of compassion.  And San Diego was #12th of 100 cities; Chula Vista came in at #29.  Pretty good, I’d say!  Both are tangible examples of the immediacy of caring and compassion that Jesus embodies.  Following in his steps, your cities have a higher percentage of people doing favors for neighbors.  Your cities are among those with a higher percentage of income donated to charities.  Your cities enjoy the gift of more volunteer hours.  Your cities enjoy some of the highest percentage of workers who carpool, and thus put into action their care for the earth.  Your cities have some of the highest percentages of sheltered homeless persons and the lowest child poverty rates, the most caring teachers, and the most residents working in community and social services. 

                   In other words, your cities put into practice what Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is all about.  He is about doing good wherever good needs doing.  No fanfare.  No angel choruses.  No miraculous and inspiring birth stories.  Fully formed Jesus.  Light of the world Jesus.  Baptized in water Jesus.  Getting to work now Jesus.  BOOM!

                   My sisters and brothers, we are no different.  We came into this world much like Jesus arrived in Mark.  Equipped by God to do good.  Baptized in water.  Led by Spirit into some difficult seasons of growth.  Beloved by God as sons and daughters of the Divine.  Like Jesus in Mark, God’s voice says to each of us today, “You are my son…you are my daughter…with YOU I am well pleased!”

                   I invite you to hear those words, as you once again select an Epiphany word from the basket.  For those who are new to this practice, Epiphany words sort of select you.  In a few minutes, when you come forward for communion, let your hand linger over the basket of words, while your spirit quiets.  Then, without looking, select a word card…better yet, let it select you!  And as you begin to imagine how your special chosen word will come to life in your life in this new year, I invite you to hear those words of God, “with YOU I am well pleased…”  Hear God’s words spoken to you, “you are my daughter, you are my son.”  As you tuck that word into your pocket and place it in the center of your soul, as you pray with it in the coming months, as you chuckle at Spirit’s good sense of humor in helping you select just that one word and just for you…hear again and again and again that God is saying to you, “you are my beloved, with YOU I am so well pleased.” 

                   Over the years of practice, I have come to see these Epiphany words as light-filled as the season itself.  For at its core, Epiphany is a time of increasing light, a time when we are most aware of those sudden revelations, those immediate insights; a time of those “aha moments” when God seems closer than breath and pulse and heartbeat.  Your word, which really chooses you and not the other way around, guides you to all this and more.  I’ve seen how these words work in people’s lives, and it can be nothing short of miraculous.  One year I received a word that I tried my best to ignore.  It seemed ill-timed, simplistic, unnecessary, not at all me.  My ignoring it for that year, only made it grow, and I am chagrined and amused to confess that I am still working on its lesson years later!  Another year, I received a happy word that, whenever I thought of it in my prayer and meditation time throughout the year, it brought a smile to my face.  I truly felt like that beloved daughter of God. 

                   Some years, I’ve wanted to throw that gift of a word right back into the basket and draw out a more pleasant one, a better one, an easier one.  But friends, that’s not how Spirit works through these little words.  Spirit works by helping you receive the word that will help you grow closer to God and more compassionate and caring toward others on this planet we all share.  For that, in a nutshell, is the ministry of Jesus, in whose steps we follow.  And this year, you have a head start by living in one of the most caring places in this country.  So use your word to teach you to care more.  Use your word to help you care more creatively.  Let your word become the Word of God, made flesh, living now on earth, through you, beloved son, beloved daughter of God…for with you God is immediately well pleased!  BOOM!


* Amen and Blessed Be *

12-17 “Waiting Actively”

“Waiting Actively”

A meditation based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8

and Hosea 12:6

December 17, 2017

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   So far in this Advent season, we’ve been talking about the more inward parts of waiting: waiting in hope and waiting with times carved out for sacred silence.  These are important aspects of the spiritual life that make the seasons of waiting not only tolerable, but also enjoyable.  What would you say are the typical inwardly-focused practices of spiritual growth?  [Prayer, meditation, silence, reading, walking, mindfulness, coloring mandalas…] Nearly any type of individual activity, done with intention and a prayerful attitude, can be an inward pathway of spiritual growth. 

                   In fact, a man by the name of Brother Lawrence, who lived 400 years ago, wrote about the spiritual life in what is considered a Christian classic; his book is called “The Practice of the Presence of God.”  In that short text, Brother Lawrence detailed how his monastery tasks of washing the dishes and preparing food were spiritual practices that brought him into a close and intimate relationship with God!  Yes, even doing dishes can be a way to deepen your connection with God!

                   Yet, as we know, living a healthy spiritual life isn’t only an inward journey.  Growing in spirit is a two-way street, where our spirituality deepens by traveling both inward and outward pathways.  Today, we turn our attention to this other part of spiritual growth, which is the outward journey.  Put simply, the outward journey is what we do in response to the inward practices.  So, for example, we might pray that a loved one be healed—that is an inward spiritual practice, the practice of praying.  And those prayers of ours might move us to become more involved in the life of that loved one—taking food, or providing transportation, or simply visiting and letting them know they are not alone. 

                   Both pathways—the inward and the outward–are necessary to growth, and each pathway motivates and encourages the other.  If you are overly busy, working those outward spiritual muscles exclusively, you will wear yourself out.  If you are overly focused only on prayer or meditation or the other inward pathways, you risk becoming a navel-gazer.  Both the inward and the outward are necessary and feed one another. 

                   The Bible is full of stories describing the outward journey, and the two passages we read today are great examples!  In the short verse from Hosea we hear God’s injunction to Israel: “return to your God; hold fast to love and justice; wait continually for your God.”  During the time that the prophet Hosea was writing, the Israelites were unfaithful to their God, instead tempted to follow after the gods of their neighbors.  Hosea calls them out and calls them back with powerful metaphors of God’s love for them being like the love between two people who are married, but where one partner is being unfaithful—in this case, Israel.  And Hosea counsels Israel that the way to return to God is by living a life of love and justice.  That’s the outward journey, friends!  Love is a verb and justice must be put into practice to be taken seriously. 

                   The longer passage we read from the prophet Isaiah details what it looks like to put love and justice into practice.  And that passage—quoted a few hundred years later in Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown—that passage is filled to overflowing with verbs.  Bring good news.  Bind up the brokenhearted.  Proclaim freedom to the captives.  Release those who are imprisoned.  Comfort those who mourn.  Provide those who mourn with flowers instead of ashes.  In other words, help them move on beyond their grieving in tangible, palpable ways.  Build up ancient ruins.  Raise up former devastations.  Repair ruined cities.  This passage doesn’t advocate just “thoughts and prayers” when tragedy strikes.  Here, we are urged to put feet and hands to work in making justice and love true realities in this world.  No wonder Jesus read this text, in his very first teaching, as a way for his hometown neighbors to begin to understand what sort of public ministry they could expect from him. 

                   You see, the pathway of Jesus, the pathway we claim as our own, is one that practices both inward and outward, balanced, together, nurturing one another.  And on that pathway, it simply is not enough to just pray or meditate or concern oneself with only one’s personal spiritual connection to God.  That is important, yes.  That is essential.  But it is not the whole of spiritual growth.  That prayer needs to lead you to some sort of visible, tangible, verb-like action. 

                   You all know this!  As a congregation, you practice the inward/outward journey.  You don’t just talk about strengthening the friendship between this church and Congregational Tower residents, for example…you give money each month in the Missions offerings, and you use that money to provide a lovely holiday meal that shows those residents you care.  You don’t just talk about women’s rights…several of you put feet to pavement earlier this year to walk in the women’s march in downtown San Diego.  You don’t just show up for church, say your prayers, sing your songs, and leave…you remain and visit and catch up on how your sisters and brothers are really faring in their lives.  And then you use that information to keep praying.   You see how the inward and outward pathways work together?  One feeds the other, one is fed by the other, both are necessary to deepen your connections to one another and to God. 

                   It is true, that the UCC’s oft-quoted actions of justice and peace have not, historically, been ones chosen by this congregation.  Your outward practice of the faith is much more quiet, less public, yet nonetheless powerful.  Keep it up!  And, as these two passages urge, look for ways to expand those outward practices, to put love and justice into action.  For this, too, friends, makes for powerful waiting—waiting that has the power to do good for others and to change you for the better!

Amen and Blessed Be