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Things change

This is the post excerpt.

A few years ago I signed onto a new blog site that was very simple, clean and crisp. Unfortunately not enough other people stayed with it and it wasn’t profitable, so it is shutting down on 1/31/18. I’m sorry to see it go, but I’m now signed on with WordPress–which I don’t think will be going away any time soon. I will port over a few posts from my old blog, which was mostly sermons, but since I have other copies, I won’t export all 71 posts! So, in a way, I’m starting over. In a way that’s appropriate since I will be retiring  from congregational ministry the end of April (2018).

The photo below is a more complete version of the picture that I am currently using as my “header image.” I expect to change that image as the seasons change.

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Winter morning on Rainy River January 2018

Transported

My daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter just sold their townhome and bought a new, larger townhouse. They’ll be moving in just over a month. They don’t have many boxes yet, but today I started packing china–they’re definitely not going to use it in the next month–who has good china any more? Or if they do, who uses it any more? It took months to sell my mom’s when she moved out of her house.

But my daughter has my grandmother’s china.

I lugged the stepladder upstairs from the garage and climbed up to take dishes down off the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet. Fortunately these dishes were on the side of the kitchen away from the wall adjoining the unit behind them which harbored an electrical fire 3 years ago. The firefighters ripped those cabinets off the wall and threw some of them off the balcony in order to get to, and put out, the fire. Little on that side of the kitchen survived.

So I carefully lifted down–in segments–a stack of dinner plates. Oh yes, I remembered that pattern clearly. But then I took down this serving bowl … and I was immediately transported 60 years and 2,000 miles to my grandmother’s house in Stockton, CA and to Sunday dinners. I clearly visualized that bowl full of piping hot mashed potatoes being passed around Gram and Pappy’s oval wooden dining table. And I remembered my grandfather, “Pappy,” saying that my dad needed more meat or potatoes or whatever it was that Pappy actually wanted more of but didn’t want to seem greedy. Oh the memories! That table could be extended with leaves to accommodate a large family dinner when all the relatives came. One summer there was a home-made ice cream tasting contest to see if my cousin could tell the difference between his dad’s hand-crank ice cream maker and my mom’s electric one. (He couldn’t.)

Just like odors can jog our memories, so can an object such as a china serving bowl. How fortunate I am to have these fond memories of a happy and loving childhood. Hopefully this bowl will once again serve mashed potatoes or pasta or something else delicious, creating new memories for my granddaughter to relive some day.

How to be Retired …

Take lessons from a cat!

Today is the first day of my second week of retirement. It’s been raining most of the day. Yesterday I took this photo. That’s how it is in Minnesota, especially in the spring and fall. I call it “rollercoaster weather.” But I can tell you there’s nothing much better in the morning than relaxing with a cup of coffee and watching your cat basking in the sun. Cats know how to relax and enjoy whatever comes their way–live in the moment; enjoy the now.

That’s what I did with that cup too. My friend Sylvia and I were buying balloons for my mom’s 100th birthday party in September, 2016. I saw that mug and loved it because I always drew smiley faces on my college papers and everything else back in the early ’70s. Sylvia said, “If you like it, buy it for yourself because no one else will.” Just a little over 3 months later I was back in California for Sylvia’s memorial service. And I treasure the memories of that day spent with her. And the mug reminds me to enjoy the moment; enjoy life; celebrate those special friends; live and love.

(And I still feel like a minister, so I want to put an “AMEN” at the end of the above sentence! But I resisted… I’m starting to get the hang of retirement…)

It’s All About Love

final sermon preached by the Rev. Sue Judson Hamly as pastor of Faith United Church of Christ in International Falls, MN on April 29, 2018

scripture reading: 1 John 4:7-21

It’s not easy writing a farewell sermon or a last sermon or whatever we want to call this. I tried to write it on Wednesday night because we had our family coming. But it wouldn’t write—which really didn’t surprise me because I’ve always said the Holy Spirit doesn’t get around to me until late Saturday night.

And then I considered getting up here and saying, “It’s been fun, folks. That’s all. Let’s go party!” but I decided that wasn’t appropriate. So I’m going to talk about one of my favorite subjects—LOVE.

If there has been a theme to my career in ministry—and I believe there has been—that theme is LOVE. And the mission of our church is to share God’s love. God calls us to love one another. Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you.” So…love those you know; love those you don’t know; love your neighbors and love your enemies. Love those who are different. Love everybody!

And you know why—even if you hadn’t just heard it in today’s scripture reading… it’s because God loves us ALL so much, and God calls us to love one another.

I know it’s not always easy. In fact sometimes it’s easier to love people we don’t know than the ones we do. Usually, however, it’s easier to love the people we know and are comfortable with. 

That’s why something else attributed to Jesus has always stuck with me. You’ll find it in the 6th chapter of Luke and I’m using one of my favorite translations here, the Message Bible: “If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—i promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way [God] lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our [God] is kind; you be kind.” (Luke 6:32-36, MSG)

 Of course, I’ll admit, not everyone is easy to love and sometimes we have to exercise tough love. Jesus never called anyone to be a doormat, but challenging ourselves to show love in some way is so much better than stewing in anger or hatred or mean-spiritedness.

I have seen and experienced so much love here in this congregation and in our community. I’ll always remember when my dad died only 10 months after I became your pastor and Dave Trompeter filled in that Sunday because I didn’t come home as scheduled, and the church sent flowers, and oh the cards! And when Shirley and Dawn took over the Christmas Eve service so I could attend the funeral in California of my friend I’d known for 50 years.

You have been so loving and welcoming to everyone who has walked through our doors on Sunday mornings. A couple times we knew they had mistaken us for the Church of Christ, but you made them feel at home, even if there was no chance they’d come again.

You all give so generously of your time, talent and treasure to this congregation and to so many different organizations in the community. When I interviewed with the search committee, I was told that wherever I went in the community, I would find someone from Faith United involved. And it was true—and mostly still is, even through we are all at least 18 years older than we were then.

And of course I remember the baby shower just 3 years ago this past week for Rowland’s and my amazing granddaughter, Lyra. You haven’t gotten to see her in person often, but you’ve graciously admired photos on my phone and shared in my grandmotherly pride.

I can’t begin to name all the ways you’ve shown love to me and to one another. And yes, sometimes it has been hard—and there will be times when it continues to be hard—but we try to do the very best we can, and that’s sharing God’s love as best we know how to do. And because God loves us, I trust that doing the best we can is acceptable and pleasing to God.

Today’s scripture reading says that the commandment we have from God is that “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:21) That’s a challenge because loving everyone is a challenge, but I believe we are all up to the task, in whatever form that love needs to take. 

I’m keeping this short because all I really want to say today is this: Thank you for everything. I love you all. God loves you. And don’t forget this: never place a period where God has placed a comma because God is definitely still speaking! AMEN.

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Giving the final blessing on my retirement Sunday.

God’s April Fool Joke

a sermon preached by the Rev. Sue Judson Hamly on Easter morning, April 1, 2018, at Faith United Church of Christ, International Falls, MN

scripture reading: John 20:1-18

Do any of you remember the last time Easter fell on April Fool’s Day? Don’t feel badly if you don’t, it was 62 years ago! I wasn’t quite 4 years old then. It will happen again in 11 years (2029) and in 2040, and then it won’t happen again until 2108. So, if you’re going to “Easter prank” anyone, you might want to do it today.

My sermon title, however, is not a prank. I’m serious. I came up with the title for this sermon sometime last year when I learned that Easter was going to be on April Fool’s Day in 2018. And I’m not being facetious with that title, nor do I think it’s sacrilegious. I believe God has a sense of humor, but Easter is entirely serious. And yet—oh how I love that phrase, “and yet!”— God has the last laugh.

Resurrection isn’t the easiest concept to grasp. None of us have ever seen it or experienced it the way it’s meant on Easter, yet most of us believe in it, at least to some degree. That’s because we have faith and we have—in some way—experienced God’s presence and the love of Jesus Christ.

Have you ever thought about it, though? There is only one person who witnessed the resurrection—Jesus, to whom it happened. There were NO other witnesses. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him AFTER. What happened to him in that tomb happened in the dark.

I’m guessing most of us usually imagine that first Easter as a beautiful bright sunny day—even though we don’t always get that kind of Easter day around here—and we also associate lilies and trumpets, bright colored eggs and spring weight clothing and lots of light with Easter. But the first Easter didn’t happen that way. It happened in a cave, in complete silence and absolute darkness with the smell of damp stone and freshly dug earth in the air. Isn’t that how new life starts? Whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark. [1]

It doesn’t really matter whether you can accept a literal, physical, bodily resurrection, because whether it literally happened or not, this story is real and true and amazing and wonderful. Out of the depths of despair, God brought new life and hope and promise and possibility. 

April fool! Death is not all there is!

When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early that morning, she was filled with grief. Her friend had been brutally crucified like a common criminal. The person who had made life seem like it was worth living had been killed. And they hadn’t even had time to give his body a proper burial because of the sabbath. So they had to wait from sundown on Friday until sunrise on Sunday. Many long hours of grief and despair and hopelessness. The future must have looked so bleak. But they wanted to honor their friend’s body. It was their custom. So Mary—and, according to the other gospels, a few other women as well—were taking spices to the tomb so that they could properly anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

I can imagine how they felt. 

And the men, as well. Can you imagine how they felt? They had all run away and betrayed Jesus—Peter flat out denied even knowing him, not just once, but three times! They had had such high hopes for change. And now everything would be just like it was before. If not worse.

But God had other ideas. April fool!

Out of the dark, out of deepest despair, out of the destruction of all hope, God brought forth new life. God brought forth a resurrection that first Easter morning! It was a gift! It was incredible! It was unimaginable! It was incomprehensible! It was God’s grace and it was God’s love. It was God’s April fool joke!

Many people experience resurrection in their lives even today. Maybe you have. If not, maybe you will. It’s not something that has to literally make sense and I don’t think it has to be explained or even explainable. We just know—because of Easter—that out of the darkness of despair comes hope. Out of the deepest grief after death comes new life. Out of the darkest cave came the realization that Jesus continues to live because love never dies.

April fool! Jesus lives among us still!

April fool! Death is not all there is!

April fool! With God, all things are possible!

April fool! Love lives on forever!

Jesus was present to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to some disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the eleven, including Thomas, in the locked room; to the disciples in Galilee; to Paul on the road to Damascus; to many, many more … and even to you and me—if we are aware….

God’s April Fool joke is that there is life after death. There is love after grief. There is hope after disappointment.

Every Sunday is a little Easter, but today is the day we celebrate the resurrection with joy and great fanfare. Enjoy it. Appreciate it. Laugh because it’s amazing. Stand in joy and awe to celebrate the good news of the resurrection that is Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  AMEN!

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 128.

Open My Ears

a sermon preached by the Rev. Sue Judson Hamly on March 7, 2018 at the Ecumenical Lenten service at Zion Lutheran Church, International Falls, MN

scripture readings: James 1:19-24  and  Mark 4:9

An old man was just fitted with hearing aids and he could hear better than he had in a decade. He came back into the clinic a week after being fit, and the audiologist asked him, “How are your hearing aids working?”

The old man replied, “Good, I’ve changed my will three times already!”

Another man was bragging about his new hearing aid and how good it was and how well he could hear with it. His friend asked, “What kind is it?” and he replied, “12:30.” [1]

Hearing—having ears that work the way they’re supposed to—is very important. I would give up my vision before I would willingly give up my hearing. Having deficiencies in both, I know whereof I speak. People are often not all that nice to people with hearing loss. It’s frustrating to them, even with people they love.
How many of you wear hearing aids?

I’ve worn one since the age of 7 and two since about age 31 or so. The first one I had was nasty! There was this metal box about 2” by 3” and 1/2” thick. It went under my clothes and there was this little square piece with 2 prongs that went on the outside of my clothes and pinned into the other part in order to keep in on me. There was a wire that went up to the ear mold in my ear. I hated it because kids would come up to me on the playground and poke it and ask, “What’s THAT?”

My grandfather had a hearing aid that hung over his ear and I desperately wanted one. My mom said I could have one when I went to junior high. But my grandfather died the day before I stared 6th grade and I got ahold of his hearing aid and I refused to wear anything else. Of course his wasn’t right for my hearing loss, so my parents had to get me a new one sooner than planned.

I refused to get a second hearing aid when I was a teenager. I was lucky it was the ‘60s and we wore our hair long and when we put it in a ponytail, we wore it low, so the hair covered our ears. Only my best friend ever saw it.

In my early 30s pride wasn’t such a big deal any more and I got a second one and suddenly I could hear the leaves crunching when I walked, and the birds singing and some insect sounds I’d never heard before. But none of the ones I had for the next 30+ years were any good in restaurants, at coffee hour and other places were lots of people are talking at once. Every 10 years or so I’d get new ones and technology improved by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years. Three months ago I got Bluetooth hearing aids and I was ecstatic! I can hear so much better everywhere but most notably at coffee hour and in restaurants! And I can talk on the phone without having to take a hearing aid out and then not remembering where I set it down. It’s amazing!

For several years in elementary school, I was taught lip-reading —with sound…because most people make sounds when they talk. That helped tremendously in many situations and I could impress my friends by telling them what people actually said when they were bleeped out on TV.

When I went to seminary, I commuted 70 miles each way with a Methodist woman and we became good friends on all those car trips. Lip-reading helped immensely with hearing over the car engine. But one day we had a late class and then drove home at night. I was having trouble and asking Sandra to repeat more than usual and suddenly she said, “Oh! I forgot you can’t hear in the dark!”

How important it is to hear! Our eyes tell us many things, but our ears may tell us even more. How we use them is important too.
I love The Message translation of the bible by Eugene Peterson because the language is contemporary and to the point. You really get the “message” when you read this translation. Sometimes it’s even humorous.

The book of James is what some people say you should read first, before any other book of the bible. It’s only 5 chapters long and it has a lot to say. The author has been described as “one of the church’s early pastors skillfully going about his work of confronting, diagnosing, and dealing with areas of misbelief and misbehavior that had turned up in congregations committed to his care. … Because when Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does.” [2]

James says you can’t separate Faith and Works, just as you can’t separate body and soul. He also says “you can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God…; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women [God] made in [God’s] image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!”
So, what about our ears? How do we act on what we hear?

How often do we hear—or mis-hear—things and pass them on without checking to see if they’re true or accurate? I discovered a few years ago that even the most trustworthy person can spread rumors if they don’t hear the whole story in the first place.

On Facebook, I frequently check snopes.com when someone posts a questionable item or news story. In real life, if we don’t know the facts, we should try to check them out before passing on what could turn out to be a rumor. Or else, attempt to tame the untamable tongue!

If we pray to have our ears opened, we might become better listeners. But isn’t being a good listener really paying attention to what someone else is saying instead of spending our time thinking about what we’re going to say when they stop talking and how we’re going to say it?

Good listeners really listen to the other person. They keep confidences and act appropriately on what they hear. If they hear about needs other people have, they do their best to help or to find solutions, or to engage others in assisting with what needs to be done. They don’t brag about what and how much they know, they just act on what they hear.

Jesus thought hearing and listening was really important too. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the bible tells us that at the end of many of his parables he said, “…Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” To me, that has always sounded like just a little add-on, not a big deal. But when I read The Message translation, it comes through loud and clear! “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” [3] Jesus cares whether people are hearing—and understanding—what he’s teaching. It’s important.

That’s one reason it’s important to read different translations of the bible. Otherwise we get so used to hearing it that we don’t really listen. Reading different translations is one way to have our ears opened.

So, according to James, we are called to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers. Hearing and listening call us to action. They call us to pay attention so that we’re not in the dark, or looking in a mirror and immediately forgetting what we look like. (James 1:23-24)

April 28th will be my 27th anniversary of ordination. In the UCC, we have a little fun after all the seriousness and formality of ordination. At the end of the service a couple of close friends give charges to the newly-ordained minister. My friend and commuting partner was one of the people who gave the charges at my ordination service. Last week I was cleaning out a cupboard in my office and I came across bulletins and other keepsakes from April 28, 1991. This was also in the box. I wondered what was in it, so I opened it and then it all came rushing back—as memories do when something triggers them. Sandra had presented me with these candles and a book of matches from a restaurant near the seminary. And she charged me to “keep these always with you, so that never again will you be able to say that you can’t hear in the dark.”

Let us pray… Open our ears, O God, and shine the light of your love upon us, so that it may never be said of us that we can’t hear in the dark. AMEN.

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[1] Clean Jokes About Hearing

[2] The Message Bible, introduction to James.

[3] Mark 4:9.

The Gift of Emptiness

sermon preached by the Rev. Sue Judson Hamly on February 25, 2018 at Faith United Church of Christ, International Falls, MN

scripture readings: Mark 15:22-38 and Luke 17:33

Yesterday morning Veronica and I were talking about the armed security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The one who resigned before being suspended for not rushing into the school building and confronting the shooter. Veronica commented that he will never get a job in law enforcement or security again, his life will be ruined and he’ll have to move away and change his name.

The Broward County sheriff criticized him. President Trump said he was either a “coward” or didn’t “react properly under pressure.” [1]  I can only imagine how the surviving students and the grieving families of those who died might feel about him.

He is still alive. But at what price?

“People who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them.” (Luke 17:33)

I would guess this man didn’t react properly under pressure, and I can understand that. No matter how well we are trained for something, none of us knows how we will actually react until we are faced with grim reality. I took CPR training in the mid-1970s. I even taught the course! But I never had to use it, so I have no idea if I could actually save someone’s life.

My guess is that even if the guard had confronted the shooter, his gun was likely no match for an AR-15 and he would have probably been another casualty. Based on his job, that’s probably what he should have done, but it’s not what happened, for whatever reason.

So I imagine that his life feels totally empty right now. To think that maybe you could have done something and didn’t and now a whole nation hates you for it? Veronica is probably right. He may have to move away and change his name.

Would Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” be what he is feeling too?

When we are in despair or grief; when we have lost a loved one, when a marriage has fallen apart, when a friendship ends, when we are let go from a job, when serious illness strikes, when we have spoken words we can never un-speak, when we feel un-loved, friendless and lonely beyond words… These are all times when we may experience that terrible feeling of emptiness, of being totally alone in the dark wood.

Emptiness can be frightening or it can be an expression of future possibilities. Of course I have had times of feeling emptiness and hopelessness in my life, but something else I think of when I think of emptiness is moving. When all the boxes are packed up and moved out of the apartment or house, there’s all the dust, crumbs and bits of stuff that have to be vacuumed up from the corners. And then you can step back for one last look, remembering what it was like to live there and—hopefully—walk out the door looking forward to the next place, and the future. At the new house or apartment, the emptiness is full of promise. You envision where you will put things and how it will look and feel when the boxes are unpacked. Hopefully you’ll be thinking of fun times ahead in this new location.

That is one of the gifts of emptiness—it allows for great possibilities.

Some people have to hit bottom or get pretty desperate before they will call out to God for help. But the gift of emptiness is that they have come to a point where they can’t think of anything else to do. And God is there. No matter how terrible everything else is, God is always there for us.

I find it comforting to know that even Jesus experienced the feeling that God had deserted him, because that is how people can feel when life is at its worst for them. Jesus knows how they feel.
Lent—and especially Holy Week—can be a sad and difficult time when we take the time to read the Passion story and think about what happened to Jesus. Crucifixion is probably the cruelest form of capital punishment. It was designed to create a slow and excruciatingly painful death. Jesus died more quickly than most. But in addition to the pain, he endured being flogged and mocked and humiliated. Even the criminals crucified next to him said cruel things.

The four gospels report that Jesus said several things before he died. The gospel of Mark, which is the earliest—the first one written—and the shortest, reports only that he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”—or left me, or forsaken me, whatever translation you prefer. Mark’s gospel also says that Jesus shouted before he died. That’s it.

Abandoned. Deserted. Feeling totally empty and alone. It’s no way to die.

But, as they sometimes say… “that was Friday but Sunday’s coming.”

The emptiness left room for God’s amazing future.

The disciples and all of Jesus’ friends and followers must have been devastated. The disciples didn’t hold up well when the chips were down. They ran away. They denied even knowing Jesus. They were afraid for their lives. What if they came for them too, just for being associated with Jesus?

The women were weeping. There hadn’t even been time for a proper burial before the sabbath.

They had all had such hope, but now their hope was dead. Their grief and emptiness must have been unbearable.

But into that great emptiness God gave an amazing gift. God filled their emptiness with hope and faith and amazement. New life was possible. A new beginning was available. God’s love is stronger than death! Empty space can always be filled. With God, emptiness is a gift because it will be filled.

No matter how dark the woods, no matter how empty we might feel, God is there and God’s love will fill the emptiness with light.

Our journey through the Dark Wood invites us to the gift of emptiness. Many of us sometime feel empty inside and we fear that there is nothing there of worth. But what if we were to let go of our obsession with worthiness and be released into the idea that if we want to be filled–to find God–getting empty is the best way. God will find us! In our journey this Lent toward the Cross, we know that even Jesus felt empty despair… and it was at this moment that God’s possibility of life beyond that pain was revealed. [2] AMEN.

 

[1] MobileABCNews

[2] paragraph adapted from Dr. Marcia McFee, Worship Design Studio.