Message from our Pastor

Rev. Leslie A. Klingensmith D.Min.


It has been my privilege to serve as St. Matthew’s pastor since March 2002. I am grateful to serve as the Pastor of a dynamic, vibrant faith community.


I believe that it is my responsibility to encourage our worshippers to participate in the life of the congregation to the greatest extent possible. Being together in worship is wonderful and is our primary unifying act as a faith community, but outreach projects and social occasions allow us to get to know each other in a more relaxed setting and at a deeper level. 


At St. Matthew, we believe that followers of Jesus have a responsibility to do what we can to ease the suffering of our neighbors nearby and far away. We take an active part in Interfaith Works programs here in Montgomery County (as well as many other local missions) and support missions throughout the world. 


My husband, Ed Taylor, is also a pastor in Washington D.C. We have two sons, Samuel and Greer, who are also part of the St. Matthew congregation.  


Leslie


You can scroll down for a selection of my recent sermons.


Bountiful Reaping

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

II Corinthians 9:6-15

Galatians 6:9-10

November 13, 2016

Leslie A. Klingensmith

I really don’t know what to say this morning. Beloved poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen died this past week, which largely got obscured by other news. In what is probably his most famous song, Cohen writes that “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.” For me and for slightly over half of this country, our hallelujah’s this morning are broken. For five days I’ve been trying to pull myself out of a deep pit of despair unlike anything I have ever experienced. These are hard things to discuss publicly. I’ve never felt such a sense of alienation and division within the people of our country. There’s an old saying that if you want to keep your friends you should avoid talking about religion or politics – and here we are talking about both of them, and how one should affect the other. In our presidential election last Tuesday, we had two flawed candidates. As we always do, because the candidates are always human beings. The candidate I supported, for reasons rooted in my faith and in the teachings of Jesus, did not win. I’ve dealt with that before. That is part of living in a democracy, none of us gets what we want all the time. I have to say, though, that this is the first election in my life when we had a candidate that makes me fear for the future of democracy and fear for the safety of my neighbors. That is altogether different from preferring the candidate who is more in line with one political philosophy or another, or the one who agrees more with me on the role that government should play in our lives. From my perspective, this was not a contest between Republican and Democrat. The candidate who frightens me prevailed. That is where we are. To be fair, I know there are lots of people, maybe some of you, who feel the same way about the candidate whom I supported. That is a private conversation for another time. Or not. I’m not sure we could change each other’s minds, although I would be willing to articulate my reasons for making the choice I did. But what I want us to think about together today is how we will be faithful in the situation we are in now. Whether we supported our new President or not, we all have some agency in how we live in this current reality. I have to believe that we can do better than we are now. No matter who is President, Christ is our ultimate authority. We will support and respect our secular leader until such time as we are forced to make a choice between what he advocates and where Jesus leads us. Then, we resist. Peacefully and without violence, but firmly. To be completely honest, I spent last Wednesday and Thursday alternating between sheer heartbreak and uncontrollable rage. Neither of these are typical states of mind for me – usually I am pretty easygoing. But this broke me, at least for awhile. My sweet husband has talked me off the ledge more times in the past few days than he has in the previous 16 years of marriage, and that includes during a bout of post-partum depression. I was not in a good place. For awhile I wanted to write off the half of the country that voted for the candidate who won. I had really mean thoughts and went to the worst place I could, spiritually. But after a couple of days of that I realized that I could not stay in that space. There are too many people who voted for him for me to think that they are all bad. Even though the candidate who won has said things that I believe are racist, and is on tape saying abhorrent things about women, and has highly questionable ethics in his business dealings, something led people to think he was the better choice. Racism and sexism and greed were factors for some of the voters, but I refuse to believe that 50% of the voting population of this country is motivated by those things. I’ve said lots and lots of times that as followers of Jesus we have to start from a position of giving people the benefit of the doubt, not assuming the worst about them until they give us reason to. I’ve at times done a decent job of doing that with my Muslim brothers and sisters, my gay neighbors, immigrant communities, whatever. Now I have to do the really hard thing. I have to do that for people who look just like me but with whom I profoundly disagree. I had firm convictions about what a vote for Trump represents. I still have them, and maybe they are right in some cases. But just as the slightly over half of the electorate who supported my candidate had lots of reasons for doing so, I have to recognize that that is true for people who supported the winner. I realize that governing is different from campaigning and trying to be hopeful that he will dial it back and not take the more extreme steps he spoke of during his campaign. But we will be watching. We will be prepared to say “NO. NOT HERE.” Why will we be watching? Because even here in diverse Montgomery County, Maryland, there are plenty of people who are scared. My young friend and neighbor, who has white parents but dark brown skin (he is biologically Congolese, but born in Baltimore), is six years old. He comes to Vacation Bible School at this church. He has been clinging to his parents like a little tick for five days now because he overheard at school that the “new president was going to make the brown people leave this country.” He has asked several times if he is going to be taken away from his family. He’s six! That should not even be in his mind or on his radar screen. But he heard it somewhere. That broke my heart, as did the kids at Wood Middle School who were asked on Wednesday when they were going to be deported, or the gay people who have been harassed on the New York City subways (and elsewhere), or the vandalizing of mosques that has ramped up in the past days. None of that is who we are. I need to be very clear today that if I hear that nonsense going on in our public life there will be no room for politeness. I am revved up. I am prepared to CALL IT OUT, and I expect nothing less from the people of this church. I am not playing. One thing that is clear to me is that people are in pain. I’m starting to understand that the sadness and anger and sense of futility I felt for a few days are what some people cope with all the time. That pain is what led at least some of the electorate to make the choice that they did. Sometimes change, ANY change, appears preferable to the way things have been going. And now that we have the results, I don’t think there are a whole lot of people who feel great about it. Polling and surveys show that significant numbers of the people who voted for the winner have serious reservations about his fitness for the job. So, however you approached this election, there is a lot of fear and sorrow out there, and we need to help each other through that. So where I’m landing right now is that the work of the church is more important than ever. In some ways, not much has changed for us. We have always been called to be thoughtful, engaged citizens of the body politic. We also have been called to embody an alternative way of living that pushes against the temptations of this world and calls us to be our best selves. Most importantly, we are commanded to love the God who came to us in Jesus Christ and to demonstrate that by loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are still going to do that, and we are going to do it with more determination and commitment than ever before. Except for Galatians, I chose these scriptures earlier last week, before Election Day. Today is also Stewardship Dedication Sunday, and I was thinking about that. Each of these passages – Deuteronomy, II Corinthians, and Galatians, has to do with the attitude with which we give – God is asking us to go all in when we commit ourselves to a relationship with God and to serving Jesus. We are commanded to use the resources we have been blessed with to care for people who are hurting, who are marginalized, who are rejected by society. There are already a lot of hurting people, and there could be more if things go really badly. One of the ways that we fulfill this part of a life of discipleship is to commit to giving to the church, so that the church 5 can be about the critical work of embodying the gospel in a hurting world. That includes giving of our money, our energy, our skills, and our time. Thoughtful, intentional giving is a key component of what makes us part of the people of God. We believe that we are living toward God’s vision for humankind and that our contributions of treasure and time are part of that LONG process of our collective redemption. I especially love the words of Deuteronomy where it says “If there is among you anyone in need…do not be hard hearted or tight fisted toward your needy neighbor…give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for the Lord your God will bless you in all your work. In other words, we will receive so much more than we give. This is not a mathematical formula - this is a spiritual promise that is ours to claim. The more open our hearts, the bigger leap of faith we take, the more we can expect to experience the presence of God in our lives. As I said – the witness of the church and the people of God is crucial right now. A lot of Christians jumped on board with some of the worst stuff that this man has promised us. There has to be a Christian voice saying “We are not all like that. If you are demeaned or denigrated by those in power, we will stand with you.” One possible silver lining of all this is that we have the potential to deepen our relationships with marginalized communities. We have to be committed to going outside our comfort zone, listening to each other, and lifting each other up. We are going to be more together. But we have to go for it. We have to be all in. Early in this stewardship season, Leigh Leslie and I were talking and planning and trying to figure out how to articulate St. Matthew’s hopes for the future, and we played with this idea of “Where have we been?” and “Where are we going?” Where we have been is that we have always been concerned for the welfare of our neighbors. Where we are going is that our concern 6 has taken on a new level of urgency. At some point, it may require us to swim against the tide of our secular leadership, or at least to advocate against the worst possible outcomes. There has always been risk involved in following Jesus, that is not new. Things just could kick up a notch. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” These words from Galatians remind us to take the long view and remember that building the realm of God is hard and indefinitely long work. There have always been setbacks and to many of us this feels like a colossal one. But the bounty that we will reap is still promised, and we will not give up on our commitment to sow seeds of justice and truth. We will not give up. Some of you in this congregation who are older than I am and have lived through some of the harder stuff our country has faced, have also ministered to me in the last few days, reminding me that we have come through division and doubt before, and the republic has survived. Our job, right now, is to continue to be faithful, to seek and speak truth, and not be bullied into silence or submission. We will keep the faith. In closing, as we prepare to make our pledges to St. Matthew for 2017, let me reiterate another commitment. I hope this promise has always been implicit in our behavior and in the welcome we extend to everyone, but I need to say it out loud today. I am afraid for our country, but I recognize that I am still speaking from a place of relative safety and security as a white, straight, Christian citizen. If any of you are part of the groups that have even more reason to be personally afraid – if you are black, brown, undocumented, disabled, gay, immigrant, whatever – St. Matthew is a safe place for you. You matter. We want you here with us. We will stand with you. We will stick together. The bountiful reaping is promised to us all, not just the people who fit in a certain box. We are, together, the people of God, and we have work to do. 7 As always, when I was in such a funk last week, I turned to music to sustain me and help pull me out of that place. One of my absolute favorite songwriters, Carrie Newcomer, has a new CD out that I was listening to to help me sort out my feelings and move through them to a place of motivation and hope instead of dread and woundedness and disgust. Hear these words from Carrie before we scatter from this sanctuary today:


I’m inspired and troubled

By the stories I have heard  

In the blue light of evening  

All boundaries get blurred  

And I believe in something better

And that love’s the final word

And that there’s still something whole

And sacred in this world

I can’t tell you it will all turn out fine

But I know there is help in hard times

All I know is there’s help in hard times.

Amen.

The Stamp, The Shoot, The Signal

Isiah 11:1-10

December 4, 2016

Advent II

Leslie A. Klingensmith

If You’re truly ‘saved’ - that is, living loved and living liberated - you know the way I can see this? It is precisely your ability to see God’s luminous presence everywhere. If you can’t see that, you’re not very saved, in my opinion. Your seeing and allowing does not match God’s. I don’t care how many services you attend, or how many ministries you serve with. I don’t care how many commandments you’ve obeyed. You’re not enlightened, transformed, saved-pick your religious safety word-you still don’t know the mystery. But there is good news...the more light and goodness you can see, the more Trinitarian you are. When you can see as Jesus sees, you see divine light in everyone, especially in those who are different, who are ‘other,’ who are sinners, wounded, lepers, and lame-in those where God shows up the best (The Divine Dance, p. 53).” These are words from Richard Rohr’s latest book titled The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and writer whose work I highly recommend. I am enamored with his scholarship and thought processes. A few weeks ago I shared some of Brian McLaren’s work with you...Rohr is a good theologian to read alongside McLaren - they both are orthodox and at the same time expansive and inclusive. The subject of this newest book is the mystery of the Trinity - Rohr is trying to articulate the “one in three in one” conundrum in such a way that we can not so much get our head around it (which may never happen) as understand it as a set of relationships. Rohr paints a picture of our threefold God as infinite circle of connected yet distinct beings, all of its members bound together by love given and love received. He likens this back and forth, giving and receiving, to a dance. Instead of being one of the participants in the dance, God is THE DANCE itself. Time another day to delve more deeply into Rohr’s book and think together about what it means to live a trinitarian life - maybe next spring on Trinity Sunday, or maybe some of us could read the book together at some point. I’m still turning a lot of his ideas over in my mind, trying to figure out ways to visualize them and express them. I only bring The Divine Dance up today because I was playing with these images when I read these familiar words from Isaiah’s prophecy. Father Rohr helped me see the prophecy in a fresh way, and vice versa. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse...on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples...the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” The stump, the shoot, the signal. For the first time, mostly thanks to Father Rohr, I saw these images from Isaiah as a trinitarian fomula. The stump is the source, the beginning. The shoot is new life, part of the stump, emanating from it but also its own being. The “signal” is equivalent of what we know as the Holy Spirit - the evidence we experience that God is present in our world and God cares what happens to us. Let me be clear that the trinity is not a specifically biblical formula - we’ve talked about that before. I cannot make a case at all that Isaiah had the trinity in mind when he chose these images, because it wasn’t even on the radar screen at the time. While each part of the trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit, is referred to in scripture (multiple times) it was not until about 300 years after Jesus lived that some of the Cappadocian mystics gave this triune nature the name “Trinity.” Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the possibility of this metaphor being embedded in Isaiah, even unconsciously. It seems that from the beginning of time God has been more complicated than one image or one relationship - we are always stretching for the metaphor that gets us closer to understanding who God is and how God chooses to be in relationship with us. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse...” This is yet another description of the Messianic king. Those of us who are reading Walter Brueggemann’s Names for the Messiah this Advent season have learned that these Isaiah prophecies were originally written to describe a king who would come and depose the evil and corrupt one that the Israelites had. Much like we get excited over political candidates who we believe will put our nation on the right track, the Israelites were dealing with a leader whom they did not respect and they were looking to the day when someone else would be in charge. Inevitably, the next king, Hezekiah, did not prove to be all they had hoped for. He did some good things, and was not as wilfully cruel as his predecessor, but a human being will always disappoint. We are flawed and sinful and broken creatures, and there is no way any of us can be all things to all people. It was only later, after Jesus lived, that priests and scholars began to turn back to the Old Testament prophets and find embedded in there some descriptions of the Messiah who had turned out to be different from anything or anyone they had ever imagined. This reference to the stump and the shoot can apply to Jesus because Jesse is the father of King David. You will remember that Jesus is descended from the House of David through the line of his earthly father, Joseph. So, even though the prophecy had originally applied to Hezekiah, followers of Christ began to see these promises in a new way. They were looking at things that had already happened and seeing them through the lens of who Jesus was and what he meant to them. And, they had a responsibility to make sure that Christ’s teachings continued and that the world still had an opportunity to sense his presence. Following the image of the stump and the shoot, we see image after image of this leader to come, followed by descriptions of how the world is going to be when the Messiah reigns. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The images continue, all of them conveying a world where predators and prey can live together peacefully, places and situations known to be unsafe for the vulnerable will become safe. Finally, we read that the “root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” My first question is “Signal for what?” The Israelites might have thought that the messianic king would signal a reclaiming of military power, or physical strength. Isaiah’s words almost certainly would have been a tip off that their Messiah would usher in a new age, one not defined by force and coercion. The signal is a message that even when things are at their bleakest, God is present and God’s vision will ultimately be fulfilled. We can move things forward or we can be responsible for temporarily moving them backward, but ultimately the world WILL be safe, no one will be anyone else’s prey, and God’s children will stop destroying each other. It feels like we will never get there, but the signal has not gone away. The light of Christ still shines, bringing hope to even the worst situations. I think that the images Isaiah describes so beautifully are meant to alert us to the signs and signals that are all around us, all the time. No, the world is not safe for everyone yet. Yes, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. But, if we are paying attention, there are moments of mutuality and glimpses of grace all around us. Maybe I have not seen a wolf and a lamb lying down together yet, but I have seen Christian and Muslim women laugh and break bread together, realizing (as some of the women said yesterday) that, in spite of differences in beliefs and culture “We are women of faith and we are more alike than we are different.” I would not let my kids play over the den of a poisonous snake, but I have witnessed them becoming friends with kids I would not even have known when I was their age, just because we live in a place where they are exposed to so many different kinds of people. The signs of God’s presence are here, we just have to be vigilant, understanding where and how to look for them. And even more importantly, we have to be willing to BE the signal. We have placed our faith in that shoot emanating from the stump of Jesse, but if the signal light is to shine bright, if the cycle is to be completed, it is up to us. We have to create the circumstances and the moments that send a clear message that this world that Isaiah has described - it WILL come to be. We spend time during Advent trying to prepare ourselves for Christ to be born - that is important. But it is also important that we prayerfully contemplate how, as God’s people and Christ’s disciples, we can stand as a signal to the nations. Thanks be to God. Amen.