Saturday, December 26, 2009

We left Grandma Topple in a rest stop

Didn't make the sermon...but a good story

We were taking a family trip to Canada, where my grandfather was born.  There are about 14 of us traveling in three different vehicles. We stopped at a rest area and everyone stretches their legs, reads interesting propoganda on display, and of course does their business.  “Be back at the car in 10 minutes.”  We were told.

Ten minutes later we load up and hit the road.  Some 3 or 4 hours down the road, one of the cars in the caravan pulls up next to another, “Do you have grandma?”  “No…”  Then to the next…”Do you have grandma?”  No…Oh oh…

We drive back to the rest area….and there she was, waiting patiently, and surprisingly confidently that someone at somepoint would notice she wasn’t part of the group and would come back for her. 

Life before cell phones

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55: “Alive and Kicking, inspired by the Holy Spirit”

by Chester Topple, December 20, 2009.  4th Sunday of Advent
 Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe

I’ve heard the story of Jesus’ birth since I was born.  In my family, we did advent candle lighting at home accompanied by bible verses of the story.  With the extended family, we had our own Christmas pageant!  But the infancy narrative as it’s called- Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus and John’s birth-has taken on new meaning since little Ruby Gene came into my life.   So if you’ll be so kind as to allow me (once again) to share some of how that experience has shaped my understanding of what’s going on, I’d appreciate it….(pause) 
You know she’s going to be one in January.  People advised me when she was born not to blink. … Ruby Gene took 6 steps earlier this week…I hear the fun is really just beginning.

When pregnant, Trasie says it was about the 17th week when she first felt a little flutter from within.  She really wasn’t sure…couldn’t believe it.  But eventually, those kicks became more powerful... the movement more dramatic.  The activity in the womb was most noticeable in the evening. When the day was settling down, the fetus was revving up. And our most memorable times that the fetus moved was when we sang to it in bed.  We didn’t know the gender until Ruby Was born. So we called the baby Lieden, named after one of the blood clotting conditions trasie has.  Some of you have heard the song we sang:
This little Lieden of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…This little lieden of mine..I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine let it shine let it shine.

And the fetus would just squirm and flip and punch and kick!  It was remarkable.
It’s remarkable to think of the whole process of growth, of life inside.

In a few short days we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  But before that we celebrate the period of gestation. Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth’s place reminds us that it’s not just at the birth of our children that we have a sense of experiencing a gift from God.   But also at conception and growth in the womb. What a miracle!  
The conception of Christ as told earlier in Luke is announced by angels—the presence of the holy.  Something great is happening.  At conception life comes from an invisible realm to a visible world of creation, the creation story of water and darkness…all over again.  And then like the seed sprouting and shooting forth from the ground, the growth in the womb…the swelling abdomen.

If we can hold on to that miracle of conception and growth as a gift from God, Philip Newell suggests that in a similar way when “goodness and truth, or when beauty of spirit and love are conceived within us or among us, in our minds and hearts,” in our relationships, we know that God is sowing something that is sacred and to be cherished in our lives.[1]

The story of the meeting between Elizabeth and Maria capture not only the celebration of the miracle of growth taking place inside them, but also of the goodness, truth, beauty of spirit and love deepened through their relationship.  Their meeting is miraculous.

It is not long after the annunciation that the virgin who would bear the Messiah leaves her home. But, who would believe her story?  
Most often, when young girls become pregnant out of wedlock, this is not something celebrated….even in a television program I saw this week, a teenage girl was kicked out of her house by her father, when he found out she was pregnant. 

We don’t know the circumstances of what led Mary to skip town for the hill country of Judea.  The story is romanticized—pure and innocent—as we tell it today; it is difficult for us modern day readers to read much between the lines:
She “went with haste” …”she remained with her for three months”…  and “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” when she greeted Mary.

Have the neighbors in town been gossiping?  Does she leave to escape the rumors and scorn? What was her father’s reaction?  Maria esta embarasada y no esta casada.  For him to believe her…would have taken great faith…and great love….

Young, poor, unwed…she skips town.  An 8 mile journey…alone? on foot?  We don’t know. Was she praying the whole way that Elizabeth would believe her story?   The visit could have been a disaster, had Elizabeth met Mary with scorn and shamed her…But just as the gift of God was taking shape inside her womb;
the gift of God was experienced when they met.  Elizabeth was in the home, perhaps contemplating her own gift from God that was causing her belly to swell, and Mary as she approaches the house, builds up her courage before knocking: “Anybody home?  Anybody Home!  It’s me, Mary.”
And the babe inside Elizabeth leaps! As if to signal rejoice! 
Prompting Elizabeth to graciously welcome this young pregnant woman into her home with goodness and love and celebrate:  “You are blessed Mary, and so is that child. Thank you so much for coming to see me..can you believe it, the child inside me heard it was you, without even knowing who you were, and leaped for joy inside me!  Something special is about to happen.  Our babies are going to grow up to be somebody. Our babies are the sign, God keeps God’s promises.
You believed, Dear Mary!”

The passage says she was filled by the Holy Spirit, when she said these words, which intrigues me.  Was it because she welcomed her without judgment but with grace and love that indicated the presence of the Holy Spirit? 

Wouldn’t that be the work of the Holy Spirit when she, or when anyone is able to reach out to another in love and without judgment, especially, someone whom other have only met with ridicule and scorn.

A story is told of a woman who for most of her younger life was a prostitute.  She had a child, and when she was no longer able to make much money selling herself, she sold her child into prostitution.   A church person met her one day, when she was older, her child already grown. She told her story, and when the person said, “Why didn’t you turn to the church?” She said, “The church?  Why would I go to the church?  Don’t you think I already felt bad enough?”

It is during this time of year that many are feasting, and others, the lowly, are left in the shadows, left out in the cold.  And in the mean time, most of us are running around like…well, with haste. 
All the activity is supposedly inspired by the birth of the Messiah.  But our reaction is a far cry from the singing and celebration that take place between Elizabeth and Maria.  How do we find the sacred in the midst of the secular?
How can we reclaim the reason for the season? It is so easy to lose the hope of the coming of the Messiah.  It is so easy just run around and get caught up in the motions of traditions and miss the joy that Christ’s birth brings.  It’s especially on those days, I find that I’m wearing my Grinch Pajamas!               

But if we look closely at this story of this wonderful sacred encounter between these two pregnant women, we discover that sacred moments can be found, in spite of everything else that seems to be going on.

When we receive as Elizabeth received Mary, someone whom society may consider lowly…with grace and hospitality…might we be inspired by the holy spirit? 

Who is coming to church, that we haven’t seen in a long time or that we’ve never met, that needs to be greeted with love and goodness? Can you feel the baby john leap inside you when you meet them with a smile and a handshake and a “how you doing?”  

Who at work is that bah humbug?  What is behind that? Could you take a moment, if you’re on break or if you run into each other at the water fountain, and say, hello and listen to what they say.  Let that baby John Leap inside.  Be filled with the holy spirit.

It’s interesting that the Bible says that Elizabeth and Mary are relatives.  We may think it’s easier for relatives to greet one another with goodness and love, but is that really the case?
Who’s coming to your house for Christmas? Who’s not going to be there and why? Or maybe you’re going to someone’s house, and looking forward to it.  Or maybe you’re dreading the trip. Or maybe you’re not going because…well, you didn’t want to take the chance of being in that uncomfortable place again.  Not now. 

There are plenty of chances during this period of running around, of going with haste, to experience hospitality: we may receive it or we may give it.

I pray that when we meet someone, we can slow down, if only for a few moments, and feel inside. What is the holy spirit leading you to do?
Let that little lieden..I mean little light shine…because of the promise of a child. Five more days til he arrives.  

[1] One Foot in Eden, p.18
I also had help with ideas for this sermon from: /

Friday, December 18, 2009

Luke The Evangelist, Guercino

Back to Year C in the Lectionary.  My second go round.  Will I focus on Luke again, and really hit home that radical hospitality...or shift to see what the OT lections or Epistles reveal?
What say you Guercino?

Sunday, December 13, 2009


                                   A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert A. Chesnut
                                         Westminster Presbyterian Church
                                                  Santa Fe, New Mexico
                                                     December 13, 2009
A question for the congregation: Do you think Christmas is more for children or for adults?

I think Christmas for children is wonderful. And I think it’s great for adults to relive that magical experience through children. We stodgy grownups sometimes forget or repress the child within us and Christmas can help us welcome that child back into our lives. The sugar plum ferries and the Christmas Eve anticipations can reawaken our sense of imagination and delight.

Christmas for adults, however, is another matter—maybe a kind of Christmas we’d really rather avoid. What do I mean? Well, the lessons assigned in the church’s lectionary for the Advent season to not give us very Christmasy stuff when you consider it.

Here’s John the Baptist—not much sugarcoating with that fellow. But John is front and center in the Advent readings for two Sundays. He’s a rough and ready guy who minces no words. I imagine he wouldn’t be very welcome at any of our Christmas parties or celebrations—probably not even in most churches. You surely well never find John in any Christmas display windows at Lord and Taylors or Macys. What a contrast between Santa Claus and John the Baptist.

Another question for you: What does John the Baptist have to do with this season anyway? Why do you think this quite difficult fellow has such a prominent role in our Advent readings?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When there is no money what kind of gift would you give?

I met with a man my age this evening.  He has had two days work in the last two weeks.  He lives in a trailer with his young wife and two twin girls 4 months old. He's behind on his rent.  Were it not for WIC and food stamps he's sure he'd be out robbing or he'd have already "put a bullet in his head."

His wife wants a Christmas tree.  "We don't have money," he told her and me.  I had just paid $40 for a tree Trasie carried home on her car right before I went to his place.

I could tell he wanted to be able to get her something.  I could tell that he wanted to have a tree.
"Maybe you could make her something...maybe write a poem?"
"I don't know how to write in English." (We were speaking in spanish and his wife doesn't know Spanish).
"Do you draw?" I was really taking a leap in the dark.
"Yeah, I can draw." And he began to tell me about his style of drawing, like the kinds of drawing designs seen on a number of tatoos.
I think he liked the idea of drawing...we even talked about him drawing a tree...with presents underniegth.  "If I had money, this would be the present you would be opening dear...these would be the presents for our kids."

Our church, through Trasie's work, is buying gift certificates and presents for several families with young kids who are in a similar situation. It's called Christmas angels.  Unfortunately, we don't really know the families we are buying for, but Trasie and her co-workers do.  And now I do. I don't know if this man's family will be the recipient of any of our gifts, but I'm sure the families we are getting gifts for are in similar dire straights. 

I don't like the pressure our consumerist materialistic society places on families and individuals this time of year.  As I was talking with this guy, we reflected on the life of his great-grandparents, whom he had mentioned earlier in our conversation.  I wondered what kinds of gifts they exchanged (he reminded me that gifts in Mexico are exchanged on the 6th of January, not Dec 25).  I also thought about the Spanish speaking church, Iglesia Betesda, which uses the church building for worship and other activities.  At first I thought a strict interpretation of the Bible informed them not to celebrate Christmas; but after talking with this man and hearing of his plight, I wondered if it was to ease any anxiety members of their congregation may be having around this time of year in a similar financial situation as this man's family.  Their practice is even powerfully counter-cultural and stands up to the powers that would tell us to buy buy buy during this time of year (and always). 

What would happen if we who can buy too said no?
What would we do if we had no money with which to buy gifts? How would our faith inform our would our socio-economic situation inform our understanding of the bible and Christmas? 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Altruistic Moments

What inspires anyone to do something for someone else? To get something eventually from them? Guilt? Love? Obligation?

Well, today, I had an unusual series of "acts of kindness".  First, I was walking briskly out of St. Vincent hospital, bracing myself for a blast from the cold, when I saw a guy at the door with a back pack and bedroll on his back; the hood pulled over his head blocked his face; he was moments away from facing the cold himself.  I had already walked outside a few steps before I turned around and walked up to him and said, "Hey man, you got a place to stay tonight?"
"Yeah..." a brief pause..."but could you give me a lift to the motel?"


As we made our way to my car, the new route became stop by St. E's (local homeless shelter) for him to pick up his mail (he'd stayed his 30 nights there); and drive him down to the Motel 6.  Since St. E's he'd stayed in the interfaith overflow shelter a few nights before, but thought he picked something up there. He coughed several time during the ride..hope I don't pick something up.

His story is the one told too often.  Lost his wife and home to alcohol.  Been on the streets for 7 years, between Santa Fe and Albuqueque.  He was "down" in Santa Fe for the holidays...more to distract him from the pain of being alone during this time of year.   He was used to life on the street, and claimed to make a decent living "flying signs" that read "Need Help, God Bless."
"What's the most anyone's ever given you?" I asked.
"50 bucks"
 Wow. The day before he'd made enough to stay for 3 nights at the Motel 6 (37.99 a night).

I dropped Ken off.
It was getting dark, and the roads were icing over.  I made my way toward Cerrillos.  A woman was attempting to push a small pick-up with rear wheel drive out onto the busy street.  A man was driving, flooring the gas, while the wheel wore bald and she pathetically attempted to push.
I got out, "Need a hand?"
"Mande", she said.
"Los puedo ayudar?"  
I got behind the vehicle but was worthless in the ice.  We both were just slipping as the wheels spun.
We stood on top of the vehicle to try and weigh it down--No luck.
Eventually, he backed up, nearly sliding into my car that was parked behind his.
I backed my car up, and went again to push, and he gained momentum, made it over the dip that he'd been stuck in. He pulled barely out into Cerrillos, stopped his car for the woman to get were coming quickly toward them, but somehow he managed to cross three lanes into a turn lane after she jumped in.   "Adios", I whispered as they pulled away.

I usually don't do this kind of stuff anymore.  Not sure why, maybe I've become oblivious now that I've got Ruby Gene at home.

But this evening was different.  I think it's because of James (Randy) Campbell.  He was the reason I was leaving the hospital in the first place. He's been battling colon cancer, going through radiation treatment, and after his treatment yesterday, he was rushed to ER because he had blockage in his intestines.
When I heard the he was in the hospital, I called him--he could barely speak.  I went to see him and he was weak and frail.  We prayed together, he was in a lot of pain and experiencing nausea.  He hadn't eaten in two days, and was still vomiting....

His gracious warm spirit was still contagious even in his condition.  I don't think he's dying, but we mentioned it.  I'd already had a member of my church, Alice Martinez, die of block bowels earlier this year, so I wasn't going to dismiss it.  I confronted the potential reality of losing someone I admire so much, who I was just coming into relationship with; he's been in Las Vegas, NM for about 2 years now.  And there he was, alone, a single man with no family around, and a church community that was snowed in, but maybe that was good since he was so weak it would have taken a lot of energy to have visitors.  I felt like his brother.

As I said, I think it was his kind spirit that inspired me not to just walk by the stranger, but to stop and see if I could lend a hand....
I think of Randy's frail hand in mine as we prayed--I prayed that the God we proclaim to have healed many week in and week out from the pulpit and in visitations would heal Randy--I ask God to heal Randy, even now.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nesting Instinct Luke 1:68-79

Nesting Instinct - Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79
Dec 20, 2009, WPC, Santa Fe

Intro to luke passage:
The story of Jesus’ birth is told in detail in the Gospel according to Luke, and it is one of the most beloved stories of all of Scripture. This morning I will read from the end of the first Chapter of Luke, verses 68-79, found on page ___ of your pew bibles if you’d like to follow along. It is a song sung by Zechariah.  A song of praise and a song of prophesy
Zecheriah was the father of John the Baptist.  He and his wife  Elizabeth had not yet had children, and they were beginning to think that they wouldn’t have any children.  But, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that they will in fact have a child, and not just any child, the messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah, as foretold in the scriptures. Zechariah questions, can this be true?  And for his doubt he is made mute.  Maybe a punishment, or maybe just a lesson to be learned about the power of silence, and not always talking. For months, as the baby grows in Elizabeth’s womb, Zechariah is speechless, until the day of the baby’s dedication.  And these words are what come out of Zechariah’s mouth. Let us listen to God’s Holy Word: Luke 1:68-79.

Some of you have been to our home before...several times for a few; and some of you have never been there.  We hope to change that soon by having an open house in the spring for all to come and see and hang out.  Whether you've been there before or not, there have been some major changes that have taken place. First of all, my wife Trasie, who is not here to defend herself so I can say whatever I want--kind of cause I know all of you will go and tell on me--she is a designer. That's how you have to say that, designer.  Try it.  She studied industrial design at georgia tech and for whatever reason she can't just see things, and accept them for what they are...she sees things and feels like she has to change them, rearrange them--make them better.  She sees buildings, cars, computers, gadgets, whatever...and feels like she has to mold them, shape them into something new! A New Creation.  You should have met me before she did.  I was WAY different (but, maybe not for the better :).

So we move into our house back in April of '07.  To me, it looks fine.  Perfect..why change it? But, Trasie had a different idea.  And she sat on it a bit, until, until...she got pregnant.

Have any of you ever heard of nesting instinct.  You know, it's pretty easy to understand. Mama birds, before they lay eggs, build nests. So do a lot of other creatures...including humans. This is scientifically proven: It's "the distinctive urge to clean, tidy, and organize that occurs during pregnancy."1  "By having your baby’s room ready, all her clothes organized, and her meals planned, you are ensuring that your baby will have the best chance for growth and survival after birth."2 That's what the experts say about how nesting instinct manifests itself in humans.

Some women have little or mild symptoms of this...and some go over the top.  Now, where might you place Trasie on that scale?
Not only did Ruby Gene's room get cleaned out (it was our office), it got repainted, new furniture (changing table, crib), all kinds of clothes and diapers, baby books, toys, need I go on.  But not only that...she put in a covered patio outside, a deck, she switched a door that was in the front our house with a window that was in the back, new landscaping...
We even got chickens...all in less than a year.  That's what you call nesting instinct PLUS designer!  Don't even asked how we paid or had time for this...I don't know; but I worked my tail off.  

All this to say, poor Zechariah.