Exodus 3:1-14 – Say “Yes!”

When I arrived at my assignment for the Jesuit Volunteers International, which is kind of like a Christian Peace Corps, I had no clue what was going to happen. I only knew I was WAY in over my head.

 

My assignment was at a high school that was also a trade school, and in our first staff meeting, out on this tiny little island in Micronesia called Ponapei,

 

the principal of the school and the director, who was a Catholic priest, sat us all down to hand out our assignments.

 

And I, was given high school math.

 

Really, I said.

 

Math.

 

High school math?

 

Outside of the math I did for my computer science classes, and a summer statistics course, math was pretty much absent from my college career.

 

“I don’t know if you know this,” I said, “but I studied political science and Latin American studies. My senior year, I spent a lot of time taking graduate-level religion courses. And literature courses in Spanish.”

 

“And in my volunteer hours, I taught English as a Second Language. Are you sure you don’t want me teaching history or English?”

 

They laughed.

 

They laughed!

 

“We didn’t hire you because you’re a good teacher,” the priest said.

 

“I mean, sure, we can add a freshman English class to your schedule. We’ll give Earl the upper level math classes. But you can teach geometry.”

 

“And between us, It honestly doesn’t matter what you teach,” he said.

 

“You can learn math. You can learn how to teach.”

 

“We can’t teach you the rest…”

 

What I learned later is that the Jesuit Volunteers, and other organizations like it, tend to bring on volunteers for less obvious qualities.

 

People may end up teaching English, or raising bees, or digging irrigation ditches, or building health clinics.

 

But learning how to do those is something you can do with the help of local folks, and books, and the internet.

 

What you CAN’T learn on the internet is persistence, and faith, and the ability to work in cross-cultural settings.

 

These organizations learned that when you’re on an isolated island in the Pacific or a village in the mountains of Peru where you don’t speak the language and don’t get the culture,

 

the LEAST of your concerns is how well you teach high school geometry.

 

 

Adaptability, persistence, and a sense of humor are what matter most.

 

 

So that brings us to Moses…

 

 

God and Moses had a conversation not unlike the one I had with my supervisors in Micronesia.

 

 

Except for Moses, the task was of course, much larger.

 

 

God appears in a burning bush and tells Moses, I’ve chosen you to lead your people to freedom.

 

 

And Moses says, “Are you sure? Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring my people out of Egypt”

 

 

My education is in Egyptian studies.

 

 

And in shepherding. I’m a great shepherd. I have large flocks in Midian.

 

 

And I’m a dad and a husband and a brother.

 

 

Are you sure you don’t want me working with sheep?

 

 

God says, “Don’t worry. I will be with you.”

 

 

God doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll give you the tools you’ll need. God just says, “I’ll be with you.”

 

 

And then over the course of chapters 3 and 4, Moses gives 5 excuses for why he shouldn’t be the one to lead his people to freedom.

 

 

1) I’m not good enough

2) I don’t know what to say to people

3) People won’t believe me anyway

4) I’m not good at public speaking and

5) I’m just not qualified.

 

 

God, of course, shuts them all down and choose Moses anyway.

 

 

 

 

And there is a sermon you’ve probably heard many times, in many ways, where preachers talk about how God chooses the most unlikely heroes, people who are humble and lacking in some way, and God uses them anyway.

 

 

I read one just this week.

 

 

To give you an idea. It says, “God so often chooses the most unlikely candidates to fulfill God’s work and mission,” it reads. “God sees past the man or woman standing before God and sees eternity. God sees our potential for good and how our broken vessels can fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for our own and/or someone else’s life.”

 

People love to preach about how God chooses people who are complex and broken.

 

And about how people like Moses were the last person anyone should have chosen to lead a movement for liberation.

 

 

Moses would have agreed.

 

 

But was Moses really that unqualified?

 

 

Let’s think about it for a moment.

 

 

What resources DID he have?

 

1) Moses had access to the inner circle of Pharaoh.

 

2) Knowledge of Egyptian culture (he grew up there)

 

3) Can pass as an Egyptian – He can pass as Egyptian – wife thinks he’s Egyptian.

 

4) An adoptive mother who loves him and picked him up out of the reeds

 

5) Hebrew heritage.

 

6) Bicultural – he’s somewhere in-between. He speaks Egyptian language but also knew his biological family and knew about Hebrew culture as well.

 

7) Courage –

He had a sense of justice and was willing to fight for it.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.

But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.”

 

8) Street cred, if you will – he’d shown his passion and loyalty for the oppressed Hebrew slaves. When he saw an Egyptian abusing two Hebrew slaves, he killed the Egyptian. Of course, we don’t want to condone that kind of behavior, but to some of his people, it was valuable that he took their side – his loyalty was a resource he could draw upon.

 

9) He also had 2 intelligent, loyal older siblings, Miriam and Aaron, both of whom chose to help him.

 

10) He was also an older man by the time God calls him. The bible says he was 80 years old. Even if he wasn’t quite that old, it’s tough to tell when people live to 120, but certainly, he wasn’t a teenager or young man in his 20’s. He’d lived a little, and his life experiences were absolutely a resource to him.

 

I would argue that Moses was EXACTLY the man for the job. Not an unlikely hero. Certainly, he was imperfect, but he was also someone with all of the tools he needed to do the job.

 

And God saw that in him.

 

 

Moses focuses on all the reasons he’s bad for the job. God focuses on why he’s the right person to do it.

 

 

It’s easy for us to fall into that trap ourselves – to talk about our unworthiness, especially when someone asks us to step into service or leadership.

 

 

When the nominating committee calls people to ask them to serve on a team or on the Council, that’s almost always the first response.

 

“Oh – I’m not the one you want.”

 

“I wouldn’t know what I’m doing.”

 

“I don’t know how to do any of that.”

 

“I’m not a leader.”

 

“I’m a terrible speaker.”

 

“You really don’t want my opinion on Council.”

 

Etc. etc.

 

 

It’s easy to think about excuses for why we’re NOT the right person for the job.

 

 

It takes a little more time to think about what we have to offer.

 

 

To think about what resources we DO have.

 

When I say “resources,” I don’t just mean money, time, things, and specific skills we learned in school.

 

Those are easy to think about.

 

When I was in that meeting in Micronesia, I thought about my training in political science and ESL. And I thought, shouldn’t I be teaching history or English?

 

But what I didn’t consider is that because math wasn’t my primary area of study, and because I wasn’t an expert in that field, I may be an even BETTER teacher of math, because I’ll relate better to my students who struggle with that material.

 

In addition, I had persistence and a desire to build community. Those were assets in my isolated environment.

 

So what else do we have to offer?

 

Think back on your host of life experiences. Not just classes you’ve taken, but places you’ve been, places you’ve volunteered, experiences you’ve had, hobbies you’ve taken on, people you’ve met.

 

After church today, we’re going to have a “meeting of the minds” to gather the resources we have to fight child hunger.

 

And the ones that will come to mind first are people we know in the state house, or public schools or organizations we’re connected to, and money we have to offer. And those are important to note.

 

But let’s think beyond that too.

 

Did we grow up wealthy like Moses?

 

Maybe we can speak to people who are wealthy, because we understand the unique burdens of wealth.

 

What about those of us who grew up poor? Do you know what it feels like to be hungry or desperate for work?

 

Maybe we who have been there have unique insights to offer in terms of what needs WE had in those circumstances that other people might not think about.

 

Do you have a title like Doctor or Reverend or Representative or Neighborhood Association Member that might open doors and get you meetings not available to other people in our community?

 

What skill might you have picked up in other disciplines? Do you have time management skills?

 

Organizational skills?

 

 Experience organizing groups?

 

What about artistic skills?

 

 Do you know how to make fliers? Maybe you enjoy painting. That’s an asset too.

 

Are you a dog-walker? One of the easiest way to network and get to know our neighbors is by walking a dog.

 

Are you on social media? Do you know how to make a web site?

 

Are you a good listener?

 

Someone who could listen to the needs of our hungry neighbors?

 

We may not see it now, but we, like Moses, are not unexpected heroes. We are exactly who God needs to do this work.

 

Amen.

Council Renews Passion and Commitment to Fight Childhood Hunger

Almost 1/3 of children in New Mexico will go to bed hungry tonight. One out of three!!!

We at Church of the Good Shepherd take seriously the command from Christ to “Feed the hungry,” and so, after conversation at the Council retreat, we voted to make the issue of childhood hunger our church’s issue.

We committed to becoming experts in this area, learning as much as we can and doing whatever we can to not only feed the hungry, but eliminate the sources of hunger. We are already known as a church that offers extraordinary hospitality. We are already known for our work to feed the hungry through our service with Project Share, East Central Ministries, Family Promise, Casa Q, and the East Mountain Food Pantry.

We committed to expanding our work and our impact beyond just direct service to include education and advocacy–connecting with our neighbors and organizing our community for change.

We will have a “Meeting of the Minds” on September 16, following worship (we’ll meet after BOTH services, so join us in the sanctuary following the 9AM or 11AM service), to discuss the resources we already have and how we might be able to bring them together. We will also be talking to the Sandia Homeowners and other community groups in our area about how we might partner with them to do even more work.

You may have more connections and resources than you know. Do you know someone already working to end food insecurity? Are you a part of a fraternity, sorority, or service organization that volunteers with children? Do you know someone at the state house who can teach us how to better talk to our representatives? Do you know about other faith communities doing this work? Do you know how to write grants or have a friend who does? Do you have a degree or background related to childhood welfare? Do you know anything about gardening? Have you been (or are you currently) a family facing food insecurity that would be willing to advise the church on what you need most? Are you unsure how you can help but want to brainstorm with us anyway?

Join us on September 16 and share with us! We need your ideas and presence. Together, we can make a difference!

Kick Off Sunday + Founding Pastor, the Rev. Paul Mohr at COGS!


This Sunday is our Fall Kick-Off Sunday! Sunday School returns for all adults, children and youth at 10AM. Worship will be at 9AM and 11AM.

We have a special guest and preacher at our 11AM service, the Rev. Paul Mohr, the founding Pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd! The Rev. Mohr may be 92, but he is still an active man who follows our journey. In his free time, he volunteers at the medical center escorting patients (wheeling around the “old” people) and goes on adventures with family and friends. Click here to see him ziplining! Shirlee, Floyd, and Shirley have all said amazing words about his deep spirituality and compassionate heart. It will be a true gift to share the morning with him.

He has agreed to take the 11AM sermon slot, where he will talk to us about the foundations of the church and leave time to answer questions about how our community got started. What a special way to kick off the new year!

Be the Church – Protect the Environment, Part II

Psalm 104 – “Be the Church: Protect the Environment”

This Psalm is so beautiful. What a gorgeous vision of the world!

The earth is full of God’s creatures.

And everything in its place.

The high mountains for the wild goats,

The rocks a refuge for the badgers.

The night time set aside for the lions.

 The springs are in the valleys, the birds among the branches.

And we, human beings, are in the midst of all of it.

We inhabit every piece.

And yet God also calls us to tend this majestic Creation.

And perhaps, that deserves some thought.

Where is OUR place?

Many people would respond, Americans in particular, perhaps, “Well, my place is anywhere I darn please. It’s a free country. And those mountains – those forests, as a tax payer, they belong to me.”

And if I want to drink beer and toss my cans off the mountainside, that is my right.

And if I want to ride my ATV up and down a burn scar, that’s my right too.

And those little groundhogs and chipmunks and marmots are so cute, I know the sign said not to feed them, but they’re like little squirrels right? I can totally feed them nuts if I want. It’s a free country, and I can do whatever I want.

But in doing so, we end up poisoning the animals with food that is too fatty and salty for their wild diets.

We were just trying to have fun. And those poor little chipmunks. They looked like they were starving! We were just trying to help… but ultimately, we went somewhere we didn’t belong and we ended up causing damage.

There is something so sad and upsetting about walking along a mountain trail and discovering trash or other signs of human life that shouldn’t be there.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of hiking near Taos.

And the views were absolutely extraordinary.

For me, the thing that brought me particular joy were the mountain streams.

As a desert dweller, there is nothing more beautiful than the sight and smell and sound and feel of fresh water flowing down from the mountains.

And yet, occasionally, along my hike, I’d discover something like a cigarette butt or a plastic bottle. And it interrupted. It was clear to me, those don’t belong there.

This is a sacred place. I am walking on holy ground.

And this place belongs to the creatures, to the mountain goats and the deer and the mice and the woodpeckers and the hawks and the mountain lions. I am guest here.

It’s not for me to impose my will and my impact on this place.

It’s outside my hula hoop. (Children’s time featured children catching legos by dropping hoops over them – whatever was in their hoop was theirs).

I’m being welcomed here. But this is not mine.

Having just been in the mountains myself, I have a renewed appreciation for people who practice Leave No Trace ethics.

Leave No Trace is a national organization that helps people learn how to be in nature without destroying it. It includes advice like Planning ahead, camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.

The basic idea is to take only memories and leave only footprints.

We can’t eliminate our human impact completely, unless we stay out of the wilderness altogether, but we can minimize it.

Today, I want to move past just thinking about the wilderness, though.

I want to move past our outer environment.

I want to challenge us to consider our human inner environment as well.

There are places in us, in our spirit, that are calm as a mountain stream. That are as vast as the sea where the ships and the Leviathan play.

And yet there are also plastic bottles and trash that doesn’t belong there.

Things that clutter up our soul.

Problems we can’t solve.

Problems that aren’t ours.

Thoughts that go no where but in circles.

Leave no trace ethics teach us to dispose of our trash properly.

Are we letting go of issues that are heavy on our hearts that we can’t do anything about anymore? Are we giving them to God? Or are we letting them clutter up the wilderness of our souls?

What is our place? What is in our box? And what is in God’s?

Leave no trace ethics also teach us to respect other visitors.

Some of us love to jump into other people’s business, their environments, and try to make an impact there, where we may or may not be welcome.

We try to feed the wildlife, they look hungry, after all. We try to “help” our friends. Or do their work for them, in some cases. Because we see the solution to their problems, after all. We’ll just feed them this little peanut of wisdom.

They need it. Clearly. So instead of sitting there and enjoying the wildlife. Instead of just listening. We insert ourselves somewhere we don’t belong.

And in some cases, we end up giving someone something that’s actually harmful.

Leave no trace also emphasizes staying on the trail. If someone tells us to back off or leave them alone, if they post a “stay on the trail” sign, telling us not to ask about certain topics or push their buttons, do we obey? Or do we say, “It’s a free country, and we can go wherever we want.”

We’re all interdependent, and so it’s difficult sometimes to know where we end, and where the world and others begin.

It’s difficult to know what belongs to us, and what is not ours.

What belongs to God to solve, and what belongs to us. What’s within our hula hoop.

My challenge to us this week is two fold. First – to take every moment we can to enjoy God’s creation. To do our best to leave no trace, but to take in the majesty of the holy ground that God has created for all of us. My second challenge is for us to consider what is actually ours. What problems are cluttering our inner environment that we can give to God? And what problems and issues are outside our limited scope of influence and impact? What places in our lives might we step back, listen a little more, and simply enjoy being present, remembering we are visitors in a wild place.

Enjoying Life – Relationships and Reconcilliation

“Be the Church: Enjoy Life”

Luke 15 – the Prodigal Child

Today’s story is one of my favorites.

I love that there is a vision of a parent, who, despite his child’s wandering in the wilderness, welcomes him home with open arms.

Who among us has NOT made a mistake and been overwhelmed when we were offered grace…?

I also love it, because it reminds us that one of the keys to enjoying life is forgiving and celebrating those we love.

There is study on happiness that comes out of Harvard, where they started with 700 young men in college and in the neighborhoods surrounding the university. They started with Harvard sophomores and as well as children from the toughest neighborhoods of Boston.

It started before WWII, so most of the original participants are now in their 90’s.

The study has continued now with the original participants’ families and their thousands of children and grandchildren.

And along with a variety of health statistics, they also studied attitudes and general levels of happiness over those decades.

It’s the longest continual research study in history.

And what’s found is the single most important factor in both physical and emotional health, seems to be the quality of our relationships.

It found that close relationships, more than any other factor, predict long and happy lives. Close friends and family help people be more resilient in the face of difficult times and delay mental and physical decline.

In our story today, when the father reunites with his long-lost son, he literally brings new life to his son. And to himself.

And yet there’s also the older brother, the one that’s perhaps easier for many of us to relate to. The young man who’s worked hard all his life and feels overlooked.

He storms out when his brother comes home.

And his father PLEADS with him to come in.

But he’s not having it. He speaks angrily to his father.

And he sulks.

And then the story ends there.

You turn the page to the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, but there’s no resolution.

There’s no ending for him.

We don’t know if he goes back into the house. We don’t know if he storms off and squanders his own inheritance in protest. Maybe he goes in and flips over the tables and causes a scene. Or maybe he takes a deep breath and says a prayer and returns to the party and embraces his brother and welcomes him home.

We don’t know.

The story is unfinished.

And thankfully, unlike many parables in the Gospels where a later editor goes back in and explains the ending and what it all means, here, it just ends unresolved.

Jesus leaves us hanging.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable to the Pharisees and Saducees, the religious officials, who are furious with him for eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is not inviting the PHARISEES or the SADUCCEES to dinner. He’s not talking about how THEY have a place in the kingdom of God. And they don’t understand. They are doing everything RIGHT. And yet Jesus is breaking the rules to break bread with people who are doing everything WRONG.

And so Jesus tells them this story about the child who was lost and is now found.

And about how much the father welcomed him.

And in the process, Jesus puts them, just as Jesus puts us, in the role of that older brother and asks without having to say anything, okay – well, what are you going to do now?

Are you going to continue standing outside and sulking? Are you going to throw a fit about how you’ve been overlooked and underappreciated?

Are you going to go sin yourself? In order to get attention?

Or are you going to find some humility and come back inside and restore relationship with someone we thought was lost forever.

How are you going to be in relationship?

Jesus leaves it open, for consideration.

He doesn’t give us the answers. And he doesn’t resolve the story’s tension for us.

Which forces us to really consider, how are we going to end this story?

Jesus leaves us with open-ended questions, unresolved issues, which are very difficult for us to put down.

Unfinished and unresolved problems are like earworms, those songs that you just can’t get out of your head.

You know what I’m talking about.

Those catchy songs that get stuck in your mind and just won’t get out.

They pop up before bed, while you’re in your car. Maybe right now.

Sometimes they’re a song you love, but other times they’re an annoying jingle or song that you’d much rather let go of.

There IS a fairly reliable way to get those songs out of your head, by the way.

And it’s not just to get an even more irritating tune stuck in there.

The solution – All you have to do is finish the song.

Our brains love putting energy into thinking about things that are unfinished.

This is why your todo list comes up before bed. And probably during the sermon.

Because things that are unfinished preoccupy our mind.

Our mind is always working to solve problems.

So whether it’s a todo list or a song that’s unfinished or a relationship that’s under tension. It’s almost impossible to let go of it.

But if you finish the song, your brain is more likely to let it go.

 

Jesus tells us this parable in such a way that it’s intended to get stuck in our heads.

 

He intends the listener to have a need to finish the story.

 

So what’s the ending that we’re going to add?

 

Does the older brother eventually take a deep breath and go back inside? Does he remember that his father’s already given him 2/3 of the inheritance, while he gave his younger brother 1/3. Does he remember those great times he and his little brother had playing in the fields or sharing laughs together in the family home?

I don’t know.

I do know that even if we close this story, there are many in our own lives that are unresolved.

Some of those, we can’t control.

But others, we can.

Leaving stress and a lack of resolution in our relationships is draining.

And it keeps us from experiencing the true joy that God has created us for.

So whatever’s circling around our heads this morning…

My challenge to us this week is to consider, how are we going to resolve our own cliffhangers, our own unresolved, unfinished stories?

If we’re connecting today with the older brother – How will we relate to those who have received undeserved grace or attention around us? Will we hold onto our bitterness? Will we find the courage and the humility to go back into that house and celebrate that someone we lost is alive, imperfect as they may be? Will we let resentment be the song in our head that just won’t go away or is there another song we’d rather sing?

If we’re connecting today with the parents in the story – How are we welcoming those who have hurt us? How are we offering them grace? How will we resolve our feelings of grief and loss? And how are we caring for those who have been loyal and loving to us for so many years? How will we celebrate THEM while also celebrate those who were lost and now are found.

Some of us also connect with the prodigal child this morning. How is our story going to end? What actions will we take to restore relationship and change our habits? How are we going to build up trust again? And knowing we are forgiven, how might we better forgive others?

May we ponder these questions, turn the page, and being writing the next chapter today…

Be angry! (and forgive often): A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-32

Click here to read today’s text from Ephesians 4:25-32

“Be the Church: Forgive Often”

Be angry!

Be angry, Paul says.

Finally, a text that gives us permission to be human beings.

Sure, it also tells us to speak kindly, put away bitterness and wrath, and forgive one another. Which are all difficult.

But there’s a glimmer in here of Paul affirming our humanity.

Be angry.

Many of us grew up in households where anger was a reality.

But many of us grew up in households or workplaces where anger was not tolerated.

We were shamed, either by our families or by our culture into thinking that anger is somehow a sign we are weak or that we don’t have any self-control.

And yet here in scripture is a clear statement: be angry.

Anger in and of itself, is an energy that can be used for change.

In a book of readings from the Iona Community (This is the Day: Readings and meditations from the Iona Community, Neil Paynter, ed. Wild Good Publications, 2002), Joy Mead writes,

“People who are angry at injustice are compassionate people: they are filled with passion and they do not make docile citizens: angry people (slaves and fee) forced the end of slavery; angry people (men and women) won the vote for women; angry people (black and white) brought an end to apartheid in South Africa. Angry people can change the rules…

And yet, anger can also break down and destroy.

And I’m not just talking about the aggressive yelling red-faced kind of anger.

Anger can be harmful if we DON’T let it out as well.

Some of us internalize anger, avoiding dealing with the people or situations that caused the anger.

We can express it by getting even, holding a grudge, or being mean.

Some of us spread nasty rumors, or destroy property, or destroy relationship by giving people the silent treatment or cutting them off.

Anger can lead to ongoing bitterness and rage that eats us from the inside.

This is why Paul doesn’t end with “Be angry.” He says, “Be angry, but do not sin.

So how we channel that anger we have, that righteous anger that can change the rules, that can change the world without falling into the behaviors that Paul warns against?

One person this week gave an inspiring suggestion in Bible study this week. She said that when she has the choice to be right or to be kind, she chooses to be kind.

When she has a choice between being right and being kind, she chooses to be kind.

What an inspiring way to live.

She told us that the choice comes up all the time. And she consciously practices choosing kindness.

And little by little, it’s changed her life.

That sounds like divine wisdom to me, especially when it comes to the relatively small battles we face every day. The arguments, the political debates, the fights between friends about who said what. Even the bigger arguments between us – those personal disputes over money or issues that may go back years. What would happen if we chose kindness and forgiveness over being right?

I imagine it would change our lives too.

But what about those big battles, the battles Joy Mead talked about? Systemic issues like racism or homelessness or hunger?

Should we just choose kindness and not worry about being right in those cases?

I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Jesus offers us some insight. We don’t have any texts from the Bible about Jesus arguing about the things we like to get caught up in in our daily lives. But he did get angry about systemic problems.

Jesus turned over the tables in the temple, angry that people were turning God’s temple into a marketplace where they were swindling the poor.

Jesus also got angry at the hypocrisy of the Disciples and the religious leaders of his time.

He called the Pharisees and Saducees hypocrites and a brood of vipers.

I’m generally not a fan of name-calling, and if all Jesus did was name-call, I don’t know that I could reconcile today’s text with Jesus’ actions.

But Jesus didn’t just speak out in anger against the religious leadership of his time.

He did something about it.

He used his anger and translated it into passionate action.

He preached about equality.

He healed on the Sabbath.

He fed and spent time with the poor and “unclean.”

He broke bread with women and tax collectors and gentiles.

And in doing so, channeled his anger into healing and positive change.

Jesus’ anger was not just about being “right.” It was about changing the world for the better.

So this leads me to ask, what are the battles you’re fighting?

Are you fighting to end child hunger in Albuquerque? Or are you fighting for the remote?

Are you choosing to be right about a political argument with a friend? Or are you choosing instead to be kind with him or her, reserving your energy to fight a bigger battle?

What would happen if you saved the energy it takes to yell at a woman who cut you off in traffic and channel it into fighting to protect our national parks?

What would happen if you took a break from arguing with people on social media or yelling at the latest ignorant editorial in the Albuquerque Journal and instead spent that time volunteering to tutor a child who needs your help in order to have a fighting chance.

Some of us have grievances over money or family issues or betrayals that go back 20 years or more. Why on earth are we holding onto those, when there are such bigger battles to fight.

 

And know that I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

 

I have 2 teenagers at home. My world is a battlefield. Pushing back is something my kids do automatically at this point. And even though I know that… I still get sucked in sometimes.

 

So today, I’m reminding myself that if I engage with every fight, if I get sucked in to every conflict, I’ll never have time or energy for anything else.

 

I have to pick my battles. I have to choose my priorities. In their case, my priority is making sure they have food and basic safety. If those are at risk, I’m going to fight with everything I have. But when it comes to the socks on the floor and the curfew – I honestly have more important battles to fight.

 

My challenge to all of us this week is two fold – first, to find opportunities to choose kindness over being right. And my second challenge is to tell someone what battle we’re fighting. Is it women’s health? Our own health maybe? Family reunification at the border? Hunger? Literacy? What is the battle we care most about. Maybe there’s more than one. But pick 1 or 2, and tell someone what battle you’re going to fight on behalf of others, on behalf of God and God’s reign on earth.

 

And then when someone cuts you off or says something ignorant or brings up something more trivial than that issue, remind yourself, I have bigger battles to fight. Let me choose in this moment to be kind instead of being right.

 

Amen.

 

Be the Church: Embrace Diversity, Take Action

Acts 11:1-17

I was talking to a colleague this week, and I said, I feel called to talk about immigration when I read this text about Peter, but it seems too obvious.

 

For me it’s a one to one.

 

Peter rejected outsiders. We Americans have rejected outsiders. Peter hears from God that he should love and welcome everyone and that everyone is capable of conversion to God’s love. We, as Americans are similarly capable of seeing the humanity of all people, including immigrants. The word “alien” comes from the Latin root “alius,” which means “other.” And we welcome others. We embrace the outsider.

 

So what am I going to say?

 

And besides, most, if not all, of my congregation already sees immigrants, as full human beings with inalienable rights. Heck, some of us ARE immigrants, first or second generation.

 

And even those of us who believe that immigration should happen through legal channels only – we all agree that treating people who are seeking asylum with basic human decency is the right thing to do.

 

Okay, he said. But the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

There are children who are still separated from their parents at the border.

 

And I said – yeah, but, my congregation knows better.

 

Okay, he said. But the rest of the world doesn’t.

 

What is it going to take for the REST of the world to see that Peter-like vision that you’ve already seen and understood?

 

How can you communicate that vision with the world?

 

Well, what about scripture? I said.

 

There is plenty of scripture that talks about welcoming and loving the other, the stranger.

 

And if you look it up, there is –

Remember that Jesus himself was a refugee, along with his family. After Jesus was born, the holy family fled to Egypt to flee persecution from Herod.

 

Abraham fled his home country when there was a famine, and he and Sarah resided as aliens in Egypt.

Lot fled Sodom.

 

The Israelites fled Egypt so quickly they had no time to make provisions, so they baked unleavened bread, because there was no time for the yeast to rise.

 

The Israelites were exiles in Babylon.

 

And then there are over 60 texts in the Bible talking about caring for sojourners, immigrants, and strangers.

 

In Numbers and Joshua, God tells Moses to create cities of refuge so that when people have to flee their homes, there are places they can stay.

 

Some of the most direct and strongly-worded commandments of the Bible are about caring for immigrants.

 

Exodus 12:49 and Leviticus 24:22 – “There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.”

 

Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

 

Leviticus 19 and 23 – “You shall not strip your vineyards bare…leave them for the poor and for the alien among you.

 

Leviticus again – “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “You shall not deprive an immigrant alien…of justice.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice.”

Isaiah 16:4 – Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab.

Jeremiah 7:5-7 – “I will only dwell with you in this place if you do not oppress the alien…”

 

And of course Jesus, “When you cared for one of the least of these, you cared for me. For when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. I was a stranger and you invited me in. 36 ’”

 

But there are millions of Christians who read the Bible and who are still anti-immigrant and anti-refugee. And even some who used the Bible to defend the policy of separating children from parents at the border.

 

And there are still people who applied for asylum legally at immigration checkpoints who are being held in detention centers.

And there are still people in our city who see people with darker skin as less than, the same way Peter saw anyone who ate pork as less than.

 

 

You’re right, my friend said, just the other day, I heard someone say that they’re afraid that their property values will go down, because immigrants are moving into their neighborhoods.

 

Well, first of all, how do they know they’re immigrants, I asked, and second, don’t people know that more people moving in, immigrants or otherwise, actually drives UP prices? Because more people and the same number of houses means a larger demand for housing? And of course, it’s not that simple, but that’s still awful to think that people would move out a neighborhood because people are moving in who look different than they do.

 

Yeah, he said. There’s an inherent belief that when people with darker skin move into a neighborhood, the value of the existing houses goes down, because people want to live in a white neighborhood.

 

Geez, I said. Well, that may be true, but my congregation doesn’t think that way.

 

So what I am going to tell them that’s new?

 

Well, he said – so they’ve already had that vision, that Peter vision.

But what are they doing about it?

 

When 6 foreigners showed up at Peter’s door, Peter listened to his vision from God, got up, and went with them.

 

What is your congregation doing?

 

How are they walking with people who are strangers to this place?

 

How are they walking with people who are afraid, who are fleeing persecution?

 

How are they walking with orphans who come here fleeing gang violence? How are they walking with border patrol agents who are trying to be humane while also doing their jobs? How are they walking with judges who are overwhelmed?

 

Excellent questions.

 

So, sometimes the Spirit breaks through, and things come together in such a way that you can’t ignore them.

 

Sometimes, it’s a dream or a vision on the roof like the one Peter had.

Other times, it’s emails and phone calls and a sense that the time is just right.

 

This week, that’s exactly what happened.

 

In addition to my conversation with my colleague,

 

On Tuesday, a parishioner called me and told me that issues of immigration and asylum were on her heart, and she wanted to know as a congregation, What are we doing?

 

And I said – right now, nothing.

 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something.

 

And she told me that she has a friend who organizes congregations to take action to help immigrants at the border and in our city.

 

And so we began a conversation about bringing her friend her to speak at COGS and give us some ideas about what we might be able to do to help.

 

And then the very next day, I got an email from the Conference.

Some of it is published in your bulletin today.

Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, AZ is hosting a week of Faithful Witness at the Border.

And here’s what THEY’RE doing. And what we have the opportunity to be a part of.

http://www.swcucc.org/faith-in-action-blog/2018/7/9/faithful-witness-at-the-border

 

When it comes to questions about immigration and even race and racism, how much more powerful would our witness be to our friends, to our neighbors, to our political officials, if we could say – I’ve been to the border, I’ve seen what detention centers look like. I’ve met judges who are working to expedite cases, and I’ve seen the conditions in Mexico where people seeking asylum are held.

 

And here is what I saw. Here is what I witnessed.

 

We have the opportunity to listen to this vision that’s already in our hearts, and take the SW Conference up on its offer, and like Peter, get up and go.

 

Who from here is going to go?

 

You don’t have to raise your hands now, but if you’re thinking about it, if your hand kind of thought about raising, I want to know.

I don’t know if I can go. I’m trying awfully hard to make the logistics work. My husband Royce and I talked about it last night, and we’ll talk about it again today.

 

But whether or not I go, I want someone from here to go.

 

Is it you?

 

And for those us unable to go, I want us to support the people who do, financially, through prayer, and through listening when they return.

 

I know that this is short notice. And yet sometimes, that’s how visions happen.

 

And how responses to God happen.

 

And this trip is not the only way we can help. I want to talk to you about what YOU want to do. How YOU want to learn and respond.

 

Another thing that happened this week is that Christa was able to go out of town to visit family, and so we postponed the Christian Ed meeting that was supposed to be after church.

 

Which means there’s an empty time slot.

An opportunity to talk about something else that’s on our hearts.

 

So after the 10AM service, if you’re willing to stick around, I’m going to be in the parlor, and I know some other folks who are going to join me, and I’d like to start a conversation about how we, as a congregation, are going to respond.

 

How are we going to welcome immigrants and refugees?

 

How are you already doing that? I want to know.

 

How are we going to respond as a church to the vision set out in scripture and the vision that’s come into focus with the help of the SW Conference?

 

 

I look forward to taking this journey with you together.

Be the Church: Protect the Environment

Job 12:7-10

<Sarah has a moving box>

What’s in the box?

It doesn’t matter.

But it must be important. Because I’ve moved it across 4 states! 

And you’d think that after 10 years, I’d realize that maybe, whatever’s in here might be okay to find its way from my house to the Assistance League or Humane Society thrift store where it could raise money for people or pets that need it.

But… whatever it is… maybe I’ll need it one day.

 

Maybe it’s an old journal. And who knows when I might want to break out those angsty teenage memories.

 

Or a knickknack given to me by my inlaws or something sentimental from my wedding.

 

Sure, I haven’t looked at it in 10 years, but one day, I might want to.

 

And this is just one box.

 

There are at least 3 boxes like it in my garage. And 2 more in husband’s office closet. Boxes that have photos and nick nacks and children’s drawings that we’ve been meaning to frame. Boxes with old receipts and user’s manuals for appliances we no longer own.

 

These boxes are just taking up space. Creating clutter.

 

And it’s not just the boxes.

 

How many of us don’t have at least one piece of clothing in our closets that we haven’t worn in the past year?

 

I still have my high school letter jacket.

 

 

And I wouldn’t say I’m a pack rack.

 

I’m pretty typical for an American.

 

Some of you are exceptions to this, and God bless you.

 

Because on the whole, as Americans, we’re not great at simple living.

 

 

On average, Americans have about 3 x as much space as we did 50 years ago.

 

And with all of that extra space, you’d think that would be plenty of space for all of our stuff.

 

 

And yet, the self-storage industry makes 38 BILLIION dollars a year. 38 BILLION dollars.

 

For 2.2 BILLION extras square feet, where we Americans put boxes of stuff and furniture and other things we may or may not need.

 

We have triple the space, but we’ve become such good shoppers that we need even more space.

 

And this consumption leads to some pretty ugly side effects.

 

Debt, for one.

 

A massive environmental impact.

 

And yet on average, Americans are no more happy than we were 50 years ago when we had less. In fact, the average person in our country is LESS happy than they were 50 years ago.

 

We keep surrounding ourselves with toys and clothes and gadgets and material goods, but we’re less happy and less satisfied than we were when we had less.

 

So what’s going on here?

 

Pope Francis has some ideas.

 

Before I get into the specifics of what he has to say, I want to pause and say that it’s a really big deal that the Pope wrote an 109 page encyclical about the environment.

 

Papal encyclicals tend to be on more traditional issues of faith – prayer, marriage, religious unity, justice and peace.

 

For Pope Francis to add this lengthy work to that list puts environmental protection on the map, and it reframes our traditional conversation about the environment and speaks about it through the lens of faith.

 

I strongly encourage you to read it. It’s online. Just search for Pope Francis and the environment, and you’ll find it.

 

He includes a lot of scientific research, he lays out the issues, but the piece I want to focus on today is where he reminds us that “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”.

 

This sentiment is echoed clearly in our text from Job today, where he speaks about the wisdom of the natural world.

 

In nature, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea understand living with only what they need.

 

Life has existed on our planet for 3.5 billion years. And although there have been some natural disasters and change to our climate, we are the first species to cause so much damage, and to cause the extinction of so many other species.

 

As Pope Francis notes, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

 

Unfortunately, to stem these trends seems like a nearly impossible task.

 

While people inhabit the earth, damage will continue to be done, if we continue to live as we do.

 

The Pope calls us to a spiritual and environmental conversion, away from our worship of “stuff” back toward a worship of God.

 

It’s not impossible for us to imagine what that might feel like. What it might feel like to live a simpler life.

 

How many of us have stepped into a hotel room and thought, ah…. How nice. It’s open, it’s uncluttered.

 

During our vacations, we live with just what we have in our suitcases.

 

And most of us thoroughly enjoy that.

 

Maybe we’ve had another experience of simple living – camping perhaps, traveling only with what

fit in our car or what we could carry on our backs?

 

Some of us have even had experiences like the Peace Corps where we lived with almost nothing, and yet found profound happiness despite our lack of material possessions.

 

Others of us have recently downsized, selling our homes or moving into a smaller space.

 

And as difficult as that downsizing can be,

 

There is something liberating about it.

 

Something liberating about openness and simplicity.

 

Something liberating about holding on to only what we need to sustain us. And only those “things” which bring us true joy.

 

Pope Frances puts it well when he says, “A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.”

 

It’s difficult to create room for God, for people, and for the wonder we experience in the natural world when we’re bogged down by our electronics and knickknacks and closet of shoes.

 

All of that “stuff” can be comforting, but ultimately, it’s suffocating. And it keeps us from God and from one another.

 

In our text today, leading up to the piece we have in our bulletins, Job tries to get across that the comfort of “things” and the convenience that comes with wealth is easy to confuse for the true comfort we can find in God.

 

He tells his friend,

“It’s easy for the well-to-do members of society

like you to point their fingers in blame at people like me.
It’s easy for the wealthy to pour scorn on we who struggle.

And yet criminals reside safely in high-security houses,
insolent blasphemers live in luxury;
they have bought and paid for a god who will protect them.

They’ve bought and paid for a god who will protect them.

 

Are we buying and paying for things that we believe will protect us?

 

And what are we protecting ourselves from by holding onto old clothes and knickknacks and boxes full of things we may “need” one of these days…

 

What are we afraid of losing if we let those go?

 

On the other hand, what are we keeping from others by holding on to them?

 

We could give some of those things to a thrift store like East Central Ministries or the Assistance League or the Humane Society. Our donations could feed a homeless child, teach literacy to an adult, help someone find a job, or help an abandoned animal find a forever home.

 

Is our stuff as valuable to us as that?

 

What would happen if we reoriented our worship away from our things and back toward God?

 

I want to close with the words of Pope Francis once again.

 

He writes, “[A life with less consumption], when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have.

 

They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer….

Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment. An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us.”

 

Amen.

 

You can read the full text of the Pope’s Encyclical here: https://laudatosi.com/watch

 

 

Be the Church: Lydia, Women in the Church, and Sharing Resources

“Be the Church: Share Earthly and Spiritual Resources”

Acts 16:11-15

Today we’re going to talk about sharing resources, and the card game we played with the children is a perfect metaphor for that.

 

We all have cards to play, resources at our disposal, be they wealth or time or talents. We also have resources like our education, some of us have titles like Dr. or Rev. Others of us have political influence or personal capital. So the question today is when do we play those cards? When do we trade them? And we is it time to put down our deck and shuffle? When is it time to pause and collect some new cards?

 

The story of Lydia and Paul is a beautiful example of how resources were used, cards were played, to better everyone’s situation.

 

On the one hand, we have Lydia.

 

Lydia was an extraordinary woman.

 

Think Oprah or Dorothy Day, Dolores Huerta or Michele Obama.

 

She had that degree of impact on the world.

 

She was the first European convert to Christianity and was likely the founder of the church in Philippi.

 

An entire book of the Bible, Philippians, is written to her and her church.

 

She was a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, and a single, unmarried woman without children in a culture that valued marriage and childbearing as a path to salvation.

 

So she didn’t have the child card or the married woman card, but she had a heck of a lot of money.

 

She hailed from Thyatira, a Greek City in modern-day Turkey that was known for its beautiful reddish-purple dye.

 

There was something about their water and the madder roots they used to dye the cloth that made the purple come out just right.

 

And purple, in the Roman empire, was a color that was worn exclusively by the upper classes, royalty, and people with high status.

 

Lydia was unique as a woman in her area, because she was also a part of a guild, the dyer’s guild. Another card.

 

As far as we know, women in Roman society were excluded from business guilds, unless their father had been a master in the guild, or the woman was a widow or unmarried, somehow a master in her own right, and the guild agreed to make an exception.

 

Because Lydia was so proficient at her work and so successful as a businesswoman, she was also able to buy a large home at a time when most families lived in small apartments in cities.

 

She only owned a large home, but she was also wealthy enough to employ a whole household of servants.

 

So she had a wealth, a house, servants, and business connections. She also had a card most people wouldn’t expect to be a major benefit. She knew what it was like to be an outsider.

 

Lydia defied cultural norms, and as a result, found herself isolated and alone and even scorned by many.

 

In her religious life, she was certainly excluded from the privileges she enjoyed in the business realm.

 

She was studying to be Jewish, and in the Jewish traditions of the time, women were not allowed to pray with men, nor were they allowed to lead or preach in the synagogue.

 

Even in 2018, women are still not welcome in some orthodox Jewish settings.

 

In reformed and conservative sects of Judaism they are, but in orthodox Judaism, women and men are still segregated.

 

And at the Western Wall in Israel, which is a surviving part of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great in 19BC. It’s considered the holiest place where Jewish people are permitted to pray.

 

And yet women are forbidden to pray there. They cannot sing or read scripture there.

 

And they cannot pray along side the men.

 

That’s 2000 years after the story of Lydia.

 

So imagine Lydia, in the year 30, this elite businesswoman, whose peers are the best businessmen in the Roman Empire, and she is being told that in her religious life, there are places she is not welcome to go.

 

So she has this outsider card that she’s holding onto alongside her wealth and success.

 

Then comes Paul, this charismatic and persistent preacher, who brings his friends Timothy and Silas with him to Philippi.

 

Paul too carries an outsider card. He’s used to going to places he’s not welcome, by this point.

 

He too was unwelcome in the Jewish synagogue, not on account of his gender, but on account of his theology and his belief in Jesus.

 

Paul has privilege as well, however. He’s a Roman citizen, which, later in this story, will help him embarrass the authorities who arrest him and put him in jail without a trial.

 

He’s also fluent in Greek and Hebrew, and he’s had a conversion experience.

 

That’s a significant card too – he believes with all of his heart in the message of God’s love, and not just love for some people, but love for everyone.

 

He’s already said at this point, in his letter to the Galatians, that there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, all are One in Christ Jesus.

 

He also has friends with him, who encourage him, and probably also keep him on track. One is Greek, Timothy, and the other is a Jewish leader from Jerusalem, Silas.

 

But he does NOT have money. Or a place to stay. Paul is an itinerate preacher who depends on others’ hospitality. He makes some money making tents for people, but generally speaking, he’s not often able to make ends meet without depending on the generosity of others.

 

He’s a Roman citizen, which gives him certain rights, but he also has this reputation card, a reputation that precedes him in some places, a reputation for causing trouble.

 

He can’t depend on his good looks – that’s a card he lacks. In the Acts of Thecla, he’s described this way: “He was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy.”

 

He was also argumentative and generally difficult personality-wise, and so he didn’t have a charm card that could get him out of tricky situations.

 

So that’s Paul’s hand. It’s a mixed one.

 

And that’s what he shows up with in Philippi. The story goes that on the Sabbath, Paul and his companions leave the city gates to go to a place of prayer. Now, usually, prayer happens in the synagogue in town, but Paul and his friends go outside the city gates, to the river, where there’s a gathering of women.

 

Remember women and men don’t pray together. That’s illegal in Jewish society.

 

And so immediately, Paul is crossing boundaries to share the message of God with these women.

 

And he pulls out his outsider card and tells the women – let me pray with you. I’m an outsider too. See? I’ve been put in jail for praying in the wrong places myself.

 

But there was this teacher, Jesus, who taught me that we are all one, all created together by One God, loved by God, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.

 

Christianity is a movement of outsiders. God loves you. I love you.

 

He tells her that the temple is not the only place to worship God. That God is at the river, that God is in her home. That God is in HER.

 

As the women look at those cards Paul hands out, those Jesus movement cards, many of them decide to hold onto them.

 

And that day, many women convert, including Lydia, whose passion for the faith puts new cards in her hand, spirituality cards, which she shares with the members of her household, who also convert.

 

No to be fair, she was the boss in her house, and converting may or may not have been an option for those servants in her household.

 

But it was an option for her.

 

And I imagine that her treatment of the women who served her changed as a result of her own conversion.

 

In response to this new faith, Lydia insists that Paul and his companions join her at her home.

 

They resist a little, but then she plays her own cards – her large house with plenty of space for guests, and a large staff with plenty of food to treat these new brothers she’s welcomed into her life. She may also have played her outsider card. She may have told them, “Hey – I also know what it’s like to not be welcome everywhere you go. Let me provide sanctuary for you.”

 

Eventually, they are persuaded, and from that day forward, her home becomes a sanctuary for Christians in Philippi.

 

Lydia will also become one of Paul’s patrons, sending him money to help him with his ministry.

 

Paul will return to her home after being imprisoned in Philippi, and he will write to her and her church from Ephesus in the years to come.

 

And because as far as we can tell, the way the house churches worked was that whoever owned the home did the teaching and preaching and gathering, Lydia would become the first church leader, the first pastor even, in modern-day Europe, encouraging believers, welcoming outsiders, and changing her community from the inside out.

 

Lydia and Paul played their cards well.

 

They COULD have made different choices.

 

Paul, with his Roman citizenship, could have stayed in the city and prayed there.

 

Lydia could have used her wealth and influence to keep Paul in jail when he healed a woman and disrupted business in her city.

 

Paul and Lydia could have chosen not to take the risks associated with spending time and worshiping with people of a different gender.

 

Lydia could have used her home as her own private sanctuary instead of offering it to these strangers.

 

She could have waited, and decided this wasn’t the time to begin a new venture, a new church.

 

So my question again for us is what cards do we have to play in our own lives, what resources do WE have to share? And when is the right time to play them?

 

Do we have money? Time? Abilities? Is now the right time to share our wealth or do we want to hold onto those cards for later? Do we have an “outsider” card like Paul and Lydia that we can use to bring other outsiders into this community that loves everyone exactly where they are? Or do we maybe have an “insider” card somewhere in our hand? Like Pauls’ Roman citizenship? Do we have influence in the business world, for example, or in the political sphere that we could use to make a difference?

 

A white man with significant power and influence told me the other day that he feels guilty exercising his privilege. He doesn’t want to be treated differently or listened to more than other people.

 

But after talking to him a little bit, it because clear to him that perhaps there are times when using that power can benefit others, and that’s it’s OK to use our authority or our influence or our money, even if we’re treated in a way that’s different or that seems unfair or unjust, it’s OK to use our authority or influence sometimes to support those who are on the margins.

 

Marginalized groups, minority groups, immigrants, women, people of color, people with mental or physical disabilities, even entities that are not people – the environment, for example – all of those groups need allies, people with power and influence who other powerful people will listen to.

When Paul was released from jail in Philippi, he was told he had to get out of town.

 

But because he had an ally, Lydia, he was able to find sanctuary, to find a place to stay, so that he was able to continue his work despite the opposition.

 

Let us be challenged this week week is to examine what resources we have and how we might share them better with others….

 

Be the Church: Care for the Poor

“Be the Church: Care for the Poor”

James 2:1-6, Sirach 4:1-10

I want to start out today with an exercise…

 

EXERCISE:

Use the race track and watch your progress. You may end well ahead of the starting line or behind it…

1 If you are right-handed, take one step forward.

 

2 If English is your first language, take one step forward.

 

3 If one or both of your parents have a college degree, take one step forward.

 

4 If your family growing up ever had more than one car at one time, take 2 steps forward. If your family growing up had just one car, take one step forward. If your family had no car and had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.

 

5 If your household now or ever employed help like a gardener, nanny, a cleaning person., take one step forward.

 

6 If you ever inherited money or property or believe you will in your lifetime, take a step fwd.

 

7 If you often feel that your parents were too busy to spend time with you, take one step back.

 

8 If your family or family of ancestry was forcibly moved or entered this country not of their own free will, take one step back.

 

9 If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward.

 

10 If your family owns a computer, take one step forward.

 

11 If your family ever had to move because they could not afford to pay the rent or mortgage, please take one step back.

 

12 If you were often embarrassed or ashamed of your clothes or house while you were growing up, please take one step back.

 

13 If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food, take one step back.

 

14 If your parents took you to plays, concerts, or art museums when you were growing up, take a step forward.

 

15 If you have a physically visible disability, take one step back.

 

16 If you have an invisible illness or disability, take one step back.

 

17 If you were ever discouraged from an activity or job because of race, class, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, take one step back.

 

18 If you were ever accepted for something you applied to because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.

 

19 If your family had health insurance and access to good medical care when you were growing up, take one step forward. If not, take one step back.

 

20 If there was ever substance abuse in your household, take one step back.

 

21 If you come from a single-parent household, take one step back.

 

22 If you live in an area with significant crime and drug activity, take one step back.

 

23 If someone in your household suffered or suffers from mental illness, take one step back.

 

24 If you have been a victim of sexual harassment, take one step back.

 

25 If you grew up assuming you would go to college, take one step forward.

 

26 If you have more than fifty books in your household, take one step forward.

 

27 If your parents have told you that you can be anything you want to be, take one step forward.

 

 

Now these examples were mostly relating to material poverty and advantages, but we could have easily done one relating to spiritual poverty or emotional poverty.

 

There are many ways we find ourselves in different places on this track.

 

And wherever you ended up on the track, don’t think for a second that there is anything wrong or shameful about where you ended up. We’re all in different places in different areas of our lives. I may be ahead on the financial track but behind on the emotional or spiritual track. Likewise, I may be ahead on the spiritual track but behind on the financial track. And some of us may be ahead of everything or behind on everything.

 

The reality is that to God, it doesn’t matter where you are. God loves you just as much as everyone else who ended up in different places.

 

God loves all people equally.

 

Our scripture today from Sirach says that God DOES take sides though. God will defend the poor against us, even when the poor curse us. So how does that mesh with what we know of God as a God who loves and defends ALL people?

 

Our text from James help us out here….

 

 

It is we who choose to take sides – to honor the poor and give the best seat to the rich.

As long as we don’t set ourselves up in competition with people who are elsewhere on this track, God has no need to take sides.

As long as we treat that person on the street corner as a full human being, someone we could be friends with, someone we could relate to and appreciate, someone we’d invite to our table… As long as we are able to visit a low-income school and believe that those children are just as smart and capable as any other child. As long as we don’t set ourselves up as somehow better, classier, smarter, harder working, more put-together, whatever it is. As long as we don’t create this artificial competition, God will put us on equal footing.

 

And… as long as we recognize that because we are all equal in dignity and value that some folks need some extra help to catch up with those of us starting farther ahead, we’re fine.

 

But as soon as we set up a competitive environment.

 

As soon as we say – well, if they just worked harder, they’d do better.

 

If they just saved their money, they wouldn’t have so many problems.

 

Or if they just cut back on their spending, they could do just as well as I do.

 

Or, in the case of other realms outside material poverty, let’s try on spiritual poverty, for example – how many of us have said – if they could just open their minds and get that the Bible isn’t literal, they’d be so much better off.

 

How many of us have said on the other hand things like – I just don’t understand how people can deal with grief without God. She’d be so much better off if she had more faith.

 

And what about physical disabilities or diseases like alcoholism or mental health issues like depression.

 

Is there one of us who hasn’t judged someone who is sick with substance abuse at some point in our lives and said something to the effect  of “I don’t understand why they can’t just stop. They’re hurting everyone.” Or in the case of mental health – “Why don’t they just get over it? It’s all in their head?”

 

That kind of judgement puts us in a race against others, in a competition. And in a competition, God will absolutely take the side of the person farther behind.

 

When I worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters, there were many times when the idea of God taking the side of the poor emerged, but one example stands out to me.

 

One of my projects with Big Brothers Big Sisters was to create and afterschool program where high school students in low-income areas tutored elementary students in their same neighborhoods.

 

This gave teenagers an opportunity to learn teaching and leadership skills, and it also connected children in the community. We would meet after school for 2 hours every Tuesday and Thursday, play educational games, laugh and play together.

 

One of our most memorable students was this little 2nd grader, I’ll call him Nathan, who was just the sweetest little boy. He was smaller than the other kids, friendly, patient, and full of joy.

 

His big brother in the program started out as a struggling high school student who was barely passing his classes. He was in danger of not graduating due to his many absences.

 

As a result of the program, he started showing up to school, and he discovered that he had a gift for teaching.

 

He and Nathan were great together.

 

Well, one day, Nathan came in, and instead of his characteristic smile, he had a blank look on his face, like the light had just gone out.

 

His big brother tried to cheer him up and connect with him, but Nathan was just rejecting everyone and everything.

 

Finally, Nathan hit some kind of breaking point, and this small, sweet kid picked up a chair, screamed, and threw it at his big brother.

 

Now, of course, violence was never okay in these settings, and so we put him in time out immediately.

 

This was so out of the ordinary that we called his teachers and parents and asked what was going on.

 

It turns out, that morning, the police had come to his house and arrested his father right in front of him.

 

Well, no wonder he was upset!

Throwing chairs is still not okay. Of course.

 

But now we understood where his rage was coming from and were able to love him through it.

 

We could have kicked him out of the program. Would could have written a note in his casefile saying “Nathan is a violent kid” or “Nathan is bound for prison” or “Nathan is a danger to his classmates and should be in a program for kids with behavioral issues.” We could have kicked out the big brother too. He was obviously doing something to irritate Nathan, right?

 

Well, instead, we learned why Nathan was suddenly so far behind on the emotional track, and we did whatever we could to help him get back on track.

 

The scripture says that

If in bitterness of soul, someone poor should curse you, their Creator will defend them against you.

 

This isn’t excusing bad behavior, but it does suggest that if anyone poor in any area should curse us, attack us, and we fight back and take them to court for their wrongdoing. Specifically, if we get on our high horses and judge people as less-than, as somehow deficient personally instead of judging them as whole and perfect but struggling and going through a difficult time, if we judge people as fundamentally flawed instead of stuck or off track, if we push our privilege and ignore the circumstances leading to someone poor cursing us in the first place, God will take THEIR side and fight for them.

 

Because our God is a God of justice.

 

And God understands, God knows what it’s like to be shoved down and humiliated and ignored and misunderstood.

 

God knows that when human beings set up an us-verses-them mentality, the game is never fair.

 

God knows that some people start several paces back. Several laps back, in some cases.

 

And God will not suffer the arrogance of those well-meaning folks who started laps ahead of everyone else and are now judging the back of the line for being slow.

 

Like I said before, the text doesn’t say that it’s okay to hurt people when we’re at the back of the line. Behaving badly is still not okay. Acting out, cursing people, and speaking out in bitterness and hatred is still harmful. And our actions still have consequences.

 

This text merely says that when we do behave poorly, God understands. And God won’t attack us or push us down further. Instead, God responds to our pain, God listens, and God advocates for us, restores us, encourages us, and puts people in our lives who can slow down their crazy race around the track long enough to help us when we crash.

 

Amen.

Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless

“Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless”

Matthew 19:1-14

Women today are finding new ways to speak up and assert themselves. Women, in our country, also have the right to work, the right to vote, and in most cases, the right to divorce or the right to say no to having children. In some churches, we even have the right to preach…

In the time of Jesus, however, women were much more subordinate. From the point of view of the Hebrew law, marriage was a business proposal, and women were considered property, not human beings with rights.

Many people misinterpret this text as a text saying never divorce; however, Jesus is saying something very different. He’s actually saying that you can’t toss out your wife the way you would an old blanket.

Divorcing a woman at the time of Jesus would leave her completely vulnerable, unable in most areas to find safe work. Likely, women would have to return home to parents (who may or may not be alive or willing to take them), or become beggars, or worse.

Jesus doesn’t go as far as I would like him to go in terms of speaking up for women’s rights… However, for his time, Jesus was a radical ally for this whole group of people who most men at the time didn’t consider to be more than “valued possessions.”

The next group in this text, eunuchs, would have been considered, at least on the surface, powerless as well, especially in the context of marriage and childbearing.

Some have argued that this is a text about why priests have to be celibate, which didn’t actually begin to be a practice until over 300 years after Jesus. And there’s nothing in here about priests being men, but that’s another sermon for another day. We know now that the celibacy piece is not accurate – many eunuchs were not actually celibate…

It’s likely more about choosing to let go of your need to create a living legacy through biological children.

Jesus says that in the kingdom, or kin-dom, of God, you can make a positive impact whether or not you have biological children. Eunuchs certainly proved that to be true over time, influencing the policies of monarchs across the world, even orchestrating the overthrow of governments.

But for the audience surrounding Jesus in this text, those listening to the Pharisees, all of them would know that the first commandment in the Old Testament was “be fruitful and multiply.” And the eunuchs cannot obey that law, leaving them a part of the unclean and underclass, a group without God-sanctioned power.

Jesus flips that idea on its head, making it very clear in this text that bearing children is no longer the prime directive for humanity. In fact, Jesus may be suggesting that letting go of some of the power that comes with maleness and the ability to procreate may be one path to deeper spirituality.

Jesus also speaks up for children in this text. Have you even heard the saying, “children should be seen but not heard”? In the time and culture of Jesus, children were absolutely a blessing, but they were also ritually unclean much of the time and considered a nuisance to many. They were certainly not powerful or awarded the privileges of adult men. Jesus flips things on their head by naming children as full and beloved human beings!

Jesus deconstructs traditional notions of power for his audience.

 

But what does he replace that power with?

It’s tough for me to get past my OWN traditional ideas about power. For me, I often think about power as the ability to get done what I want to get done. And my power comes from resources I have like money, strength, and influence.

My strength gives me the power to move a toy car across the table.

New Mexico grants me the power as a minister to officiate weddings and sign marriage licenses.

My insurance grants me the power to see a doctor once a year for a physical without having to pay.

My friends grant me the power to have someone come care for me when I’m sick.

My smart phone gives me the power to find information on the fly.

My education gives me the power to read scholarly articles and analyze them for truth and meaning.

When I don’t have the ability to get done what I want to get done, that leads to the converse – me feeling powerLESS.

I can’t heal someone from an illness, for example.

I can’t control what the president says. Or what my friends say about the president on social media.

I can’t stop the fires in NM and Colorado.

I can’t control how our children respond in public places

I can’t control what others think about me or how others react to my words and actions.

And so even though we all have resources that give us power, Technology, strength, money, titles and education, talent, and one of the biggest resources of all, time, we also know what it means to be without power.

Jesus’ words speak to all of us who are feeling powerless in two ways. First, he encourages everyone to fight for those who are without power.

And second, he reminds us that there are types of power that we often forget about.

He looks at the power bestowed on men by the culture of the time, and instead of talking about the power to end marital contracts and marry a new young woman whenever you please, Jesus talks about the power of patience and compassion for women.

He looks at the power bestowed on men by the culture of the time, which tells them that there is power, manliness, perhaps, in having the ability to reproduce. Jesus flips that on its head by saying that not only are some people born without the ability to have children, but some will choose that path, in order to serve others. Some will let go of the idea of building a biological legacy in order to focus on building a spiritual legacy. And THAT is powerful.

Jesus then looks at the power bestowed upon great teachers of the faith, the Pharisees, the priests, and he says that in addition to the power given to them, the kingdom of heaven also belongs to children. That perhaps the power of knowledge and the power of spiritual authority given by institutions like the synagogue are not nearly as great as the power that comes from the curiosity and faith of children.

So does that mean that money and knowledge and titles are worthless?

Of course not.

Jesus understands the power of money. Absolutely. But he also lifts up the power of loyalty.

Jesus understands the power of knowledge and talents. Of course. But he also understands the power of trust.

Jesus understands the power of titles and authority. But he also understands the power of curiosity. And love.

Even in the moments we feel powerless, there is still power we have. It just may not be the most obvious source of power.

For example, when I feel helpless to heal a friend or loved one who is suffering from an illness, I still have the power to remain by their side and comfort them as they pass.

Like I said before, I can’t control what the president says. Or what my friends say about the president on social media. I don’t have the power to do that. But that doesn’t mean I’m powerLESS. Because but with the powers of patience and compassion, I can control what I say and how I respond.

I can’t control what others think about me or how others react to my words and actions, with the power of curiosity I can ask questions and get to know their perspectives better. And with the power of faith, I can trust that even when others reject me, I am still welcome at God’s table and in Gods’ home.

Our culture is certainly different from that in which Jesus preached. And yet, we still look to money, knowledge, and strength as sources of power. And when we’re without them, we often feel powerless.

But that’s an illusion. With God, with each other, our power is boundless.

I want to close with the words of the Apostle Paul, who writes this about power in his letter to the Corinthians.

As the Apostle Paul writes, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. Just three things will remain: faith, hope and love. and the greatest of these is love.”

Think for a moment, what is the power that you DO have?

What is the power of God that is here right now?

Amen.

 

Be the Church: Reject Racism. Matthew 15:21-28

Be the Church: Reject Racism

Matthew 15:21-28

I want to start out today with a true story. And I don’t tell you this story to scare you, but to give you an insight into the real dangers that we face as members of this community.

About 4 years ago, I’m sitting in my car at the edge of a city park down on Lomas and Carlisle.

My daughter has a sports practice at the park, and it’s just finishing up under the lights.

Even though there are some well-lit areas of the park, there are plenty of shadowy places as well.

While I’m waiting, I spot a group of 4 or 5 young men, probably in their early 20s, dressed in pretty shabby cloths, sitting in one of those dark corners nearby with a giant black duffle bag.

Not talking. Just sitting with their hands on that giant duffle bag, looking around as if waiting for someone.

Every now and then one of them takes his phone out of his pocket and checks the time, before returning his phone to his pocket and looking around again. He’s obviously the leader. The others occasionally glance at him as if waiting for him to take action.

Not long after, another young man approaches them with a backpack, and based on the part of town and the hour of the night, and the age of these young men, and their suspicious behavior, I’m thinking, I am totally going to see a drug deal go down.

While I’m watching, one of the men signals a car in front of me, which, up until that point, I hadn’t realized was occupied.

I believe it had dark tinted windows.

The man in the car sticks his hand out the window and gestures with a floppy wave, which to me, signals, “go ahead. It’s time.”

The men in the dark corner, satisfied that the time is right, nod toward the car in front of me, grab their respective bags, and show each other what’s inside.

From my angle, I can’t see what they’re showing.

They all smile as if they’re hungry and have just glimpsed something delicious inside.

They look around, as if scoping out the park for anyone watching. And then, they take out their stash.

Right there, in public, where one could see.

And as my eyes begin to focus and their product comes into view, I see that they’re taking out a bucket.

And empty bucket. And…. A whole pile of frisbees.

Not drugs. Not money. Not guns. Frisbees.

The local ultimate frisbee team suddenly breaks their silence.

They have just seen their new gear…and they are psyched. Man.

Before I know it, a frisbee is flying in the direction of my car.

But I’m pretty sure I’m safe.

A little embarrassed. Humbled for sure. And laughing. Relieved.

The real danger wasn’t the frisbee team.

It was actually my decision to follow my gut instincts that could have been dangerous.

In this case, it ended comically.

But what if I had called the police?

Or escalated the situation?

My unconscious biases could have ended up unintentionally hurting these young men.

 

The truth is, we all have unconscious biases, even Jesus himself.

 

Today’s text initially casts Jesus in an ugly light.

He calls a woman a dog.

That was not just an insult, at the time, it was a racial slur.

And it comes from the mouth of the one we seek to follow.

So why include this text in the Gospels?

Are we reading it wrong? Was dog code for something else?

No. Jesus, just like us, was a product of his place and time, and he said things that were hurtful.

Not intentionally TO hurt people, but because he spoke from where he was, and where he was was a little off center, a little unbalanced, at least when we encounter him in this particular text, his world is a little unbalanced in favor of Jewish people and against Canaanites.

Thankfully, Jesus demonstrates what it looks like to listen, to change, and to grow.

And so here we have a model for what it looks like to be confronted by our unconscious biases and how to learn from them, that we might have a fuller, and more accurate view of the world.

 

Unconscious biases are not something to be ashamed of.

They’re something to work on. They’re an opportunity for growth.

 

I know thanks to the Harvard study at implicit.harvard.edu, I’m discovering a whole host of ways I too have a worldview that’s a bit offline.

For example, according to one of the tests I took on the site, I have a moderately strong association between women the social sciences like sociology and psychology and religion and a moderately strong association between men and hard sciences like math and chemistry and physics.

 

I’m not showing those biases or assumptions in outward, hateful ways, I hope. I’m not on social media talking about how women should stick to language arts and men to math.

 

I don’t scorn female engineers.

 

But there’s some part of me, perhaps a part of my upbringing with a mom who was a teacher and a dad who was a computer scientist, or perhaps due to the cultural norms I grew up with or perhaps due to my own choice of profession, I HAVE unconscious biases that affect my outlook on the world.

 

So what?

 

Well, as our text today demonstrates, if we follow our instincts, our biased instincts, we can miss out on opportunities to help others, and in some situations, we may even unintentionally HURT others.

 

In the case of the frisbee guys at the park, I followed my gut, my instincts, which in many cases, I find to be dead on.

But in that case, I was WAY off base.

 

And yes, in the case of the guys at the park, nothing happened, other than a little embarssment on my end.

 

But what IF I had called the police?

Or escalated the situation?

How might a police confrontation affect those young men from UNM?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but as someone who’s been pulled over for “suspicious activity” when I was driving under the speed limit with my African American and Latino and Asian friends to Krispy Kream one night in college, I can definitely tell you that being sat down on the curb, then frisked, and having my car searched was not a pleasant experience.

 

And I suspect, that if it happened more than just that one time, I might begin to take it personally.

The danger of unconscious biases is that they trick us into believing that we know the truth about someone, when in reality, we’re WAY off base.

Science has shown that following our gut, following our assumptions and our instincts, can be extremely effective, when and IF we have years and years of experience in a particular area with an extremely large sample of people.

For example, when it comes to choosing youth leaders and Sunday school teachers, I have almost 20 years of experience.

Chances are, my instincts are going to be pretty good in that area.

At this point, I can meet someone for the first time and after a brief conversation, I can usually get a good sense as to whether or not they have the right character to mentor a young person.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but over time, I’ve made all of those conscious evaluations unconscious. Those questions like is this person someone of integrity – are they actually telling me the truth about who they are or are they trying to put on a show, do they have any charisma that youth will be drawn to, do they listen well, are they approachable, are they willing to learn, do they have good boundaries…And more often than not, I’m absolutely right.

All of those things that, in the beginning, I had to evaluate consciously, I’m now in a place, where I evaluate unconsciously, almost instantaneously. Now, of course, I always go back and back up my choices with evidence, but I’m in a place where I really feel like I can trust my gut when it comes to choosing mentors for our young people.

On the other hand, there are areas in my life where I’m a total newbie and should not, under any circumstances, trust my gut.

Even when my gut makes me believe I am absolutely right.

That’s the dangerous part about intuition.

Because whether we have a lot of experience with something or not, intuition can trick us into believing that we know what we’re talking about.

For example, we just bought a trailer to pull behind our car.

It pops up and we can camp out in it.

Well, this week, while traveling, the air conditioning broke. Not a pleasant thing when your’e camping in Arizona in June.

My husband Royce told me that it was probably the compressor that had just overheated, and that as the day cooled off, the air conditioning would start working again.

And I thought he was super wrong.

Because I’d turned it off and turned it back on, and turned the breakers on and off, and the AC had worked fine again.

For a few minutes anyway.

In my mind, it was obviously an electrical issue, maybe some faulty wiring.

But guess what?

I know nothing about electrical issues. Or wiring. Or air compressors.

And Royce does.

And as things turned out, as the day cooled off, the air conditioner started working again.

Gosh darn it if he was right.

In the case of the air conditioner, and in the case of the frisbee team, I was sure I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

And that’s the scary part about unconscious biases, is like I said earlier, they trick us into believing that our biased view is correct. And we buy into it 100%, even though, when we don’t have much experience or exposure to something, chances are, we’re waaaay off, just as Jesus was off in his estimation of the Canaanite woman.

There was no Harvard website with tests revealing unconscious biases at the time of Jesus, but thankfully, the Canaanite woman chose to speak up.

I had a test tell me I have biases about certain things. Jesus had her.

And because Jesus LISTENED to her, and acted on her correction, he became an even better witness of God’s love on earth.

Do you know what Jesus does immediately after his interaction with that woman who says that even the dogs should receive the crumbs of the children of Israel?

Jesus goes and feeds 4000 people, people with different backgrounds and cultures.

He learns.

What an excellent example for us.

We too have brave people in our lives who, like the Canaanite woman, will, from time to time, tell us when we say things that are ignorant or that hurt.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all been in the place of the Canaanite woman, faced with a person who just doesn’t get it, and who we may or may not tell, “Hey – that was kind of hurtful.” And we know how hard it can be to address it.

So when people do speak up, even gently, it’s important that we listen!

Not take it personally, not get defensive. Not rattle on about how stupid this whole politically correct movement is. And not talk about how we too experienced discrimination so we must know what other people are going through.

No. Let’s stop that.

Jesus doesn’t do any of that.

He listens, and then he responds by changing his behavior.

He also begins surrounding himself with thousands of people who are different from him, an opportunity to learn from a larger sample size. He grew up in a Jewish household surrounded by Jewish people. Of course he had assumptions based on his limited interactions with people outside his community.

And so when confronted by the Canaanite woman, his answer is to surround himself and expose himself to as many different people as possible, so that he might realign his awareness.

This all takes time and a lot of work on our part, but if we are to be a witness to God’s love on earth, it’s work we can’t live without.

 

 

 

Paul and the Wheel of a Fulfilling Life

5/27/18

Scripture: Acts 14:8-20

Sermon Title: “Be the Church: Love God”

 

What a bizarre story!

 

Acts 14 opens with Paul and Barnabas, who are running from the Jewish authorities in a big town called Iconium, located in modern day Turkey. After hearing Paul and Barnabas’s message, the authorities in Iconium are furious with these guys.

Because Paul and Barnabas are telling people that the Jewish law, and the Jewish synagogue even, are not really relevant any more. To be a Christian, and follow this new Messiah, you don’t have to follow the Jewish law. You don’t have to be circumcised, you don’t have to sacrifice pigeons and cows to the temple, and you don’t have to keep kosher laws like keeping dairy and meat separate or abstaining from eating pigs.

You can eat as much bacon as you want.

And people are applauding these men, because who doesn’t love bacon?

People who have never even thought about Judaism are converting and joining this new Jesus movement.

And it’s more than just the bacon. The message of the Gospel is compelling, especially for people in the middle and lower classes, especially for people who are not educated or literate, especially people who have been excluded from some of the privileges afforded to those in the social and political elite in Iconium.

Even Jewish people, who are tired of the strict rules and the hierarchical structure of the Jewish synagogue are coming in droves to listen to Paul and Barnabas speak, and they’re creating quite a stir in Iconium.

And so a divide is forming in the community, there are lively discussions, rumblings of change, and the Jewish authorities are threatened to the point that they begin plotting to stone Paul and Barnabas.

When Paul and Barnabas learn about this plot, they flee to a tribal village in the nearby mountains called Lystra, and that’s where our story opens.

They’re seeking refuge there, and I’m sure that along the way, Paul and Barnabas find encouragement in one another.

Barnabas’ name actually means “encouragement.”

So after this journey together, out of the danger, encouraged by one another, they find renewal and make it to this beautiful mountain village of Lystra.

In Lystra, there are few, if any, Jewish people, and no synagogue. Paul and Barnabas probably assume they’re safe there.

Of course, Paul and Barnabas encounter different challenges.

They’re in a tiny village where no one speaks their language. Most towns in that area spoke Greek at that time, because Greek was the language of trade, but Lystra was so isolated up in the mountains that most people there only spoke Liconian, an ancient tribal language.

So Paul and Barnabas have to communicate in different ways.

To show God’s power, and to demonstrate their love for the people of the town, one of their first actions in Lystra is heal a man in pain who desires to walk.

God works through Paul and Baranabas, and the man gets up, and is healed, and Paul and Barnabas feel really great that they’ve shown the people of this tiny village what God’s power can do.

But what actually happens is that the people miss the message entirely.

They don’t see Paul and Barnabas’ actions pointing to God, they just assume that Paul and Baranabas ARE gods, specifically Zeus and Hermes, gods who are worshipped in Lystra.

And so Paul and Barnabas, who have preached over and over again in Iconium against sacrificing food at the temple, now find themselves in a village where people are sacrificing food to THEM.

They rip their clothes in mourning, hopefully demonstrating their displeasure at this action.

And yet, they still struggle to communicate their message.

Before they have much time to clarify, the authrorities from Iconium catch up with them, rile up the crowd against Paul and Barnabus, and Paul and Barnabas find themselves having to flee yet again.

This story seems absolutely crazy to me, and yet, if you read the book of Acts, this story is one of many in which Paul finds himself desperately trying to communicate the Gospel message, the Good News, while running from people who would seek to silence him forever.

Paul spends approximately 6 years, about 20% of his adult ministry, in prisons across the Roman Empire.

That’s more time than Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Cesar Chavez combined, although all of them also served jail time, for preaching a message of love and equality.

6 years Paul spent in prisons across the empire, jailed for preaching the Good News and causing a stir.

 

So why did Paul keep doing it?

Why didn’t Paul just go underground for a while?

He was an educated man, why not just write some books and circulate them under a pseudonym and hide out somewhere safe?

 

I’m not sure.

But I suspect, it’s because Paul was passionate about the message of Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ love for all people.

Paul was living in a time when the cultural norm was to separate and categorize people in have’s and have-nots. Citizens and not citizens. Free men and slaves. Men and women. Priests and lay people.

In the Roman society and in the Jewish temple as well, there were privileges afforded to some, and not others.

And Paul preached, “There is neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, male nor female, all are one in Christ Jesus.”

He had a revelation. A vision given to him by God, that it didn’t matter if you kept kosher or not, it didn’t matter what gender you were assigned at birth, the promises of heaven belonged to everyone.

And he simply couldn’t keep silent about it.

He was truly inspired, and that inspiration drove him to do the work that he did.

 

And when Paul got stuck, when he landed in jail or found himself discouraged, he surrounded himself with friends and remembered that message that Jesus preaches in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew when he says that the most important commandments, are

“ Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

 

Paul finds inspiration in those words, and then, inspired and encouraged, he takes those words and puts them into action.

 

Isn’t that part of why  we do what we do also?

Why we put in so much effort into caring for the homeless, for making clothing for children for their first day of school? Why do we volunteer to teach Sunday school or grow flowers in the garden? Why do we come to worship together and put in so much effort into finding spiritual renewal here?

Love of neighbor and love of God. That’s the beginning of all of it.

The inspiration and the encouragement of community and the Holy Spirit.

And out of that inspiration comes the work itself.

That’s the continuation of the cycle.

<up high> We begin with the WHY, with the inspiration, – loving God and loving neighbor, but if we just stop there, if we stop at the intellectual and spiritual big picture, we don’t actually get any of the work done.

That love of God and love of neighbor, and the renewal that we find in community, all of that has to drive us to take action, <hand moving down in a circle> to make a difference, to build community, to change a life.

But we can’t be people of action only either.

Because at some point, the work does get to be too much. <hand down low> And we find ourselves down here. Burnt out or disillusioned or apathetic, and that’s when we turn back to the why and to the inspiration and to the encouragement of community. <hand moves back up in a circular motion>

That balance of inspiration and action is the wheel that propels a meaningful life.

Paul and the members of the early church lives that out. When Paul and Barnabas are not in jail or preaching, they are with friends and church members, eating and encouraging them, and being encouraged BY them, so that they can restore their energy and resolve and get back to the work of preaching the Gospel

Challenge this week: figure out where you are on the wheel – in the place of action, maybe a bit tired – ready for more inspiration and rejuvenation; the place where you feel inspired and are ready to take action; or somewhere in between. And remember that wherever you are on life’s journey, God loves you!

Sermon – Resurrection, Faith, and Flexibility

Texts (click the text to read it): John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35

Today, we have 2 texts about faith and flexibility.

Faith is not meant to be static.

Some of what we were taught as children, we still believe.

But some of it, we’ve reimagined or reinterpreted or reevaluated, based on life experience, new knowledge, and new revelation.

And thank God we’re capable of flexibility.

Because faith that insists that there is ONE way and ONE correct answer to every question is brittle and breakable.

Growing up, for example, I was taught that God was my Father.

What happens when someone points out to me that there are over 300 names for God in the Bible, many of them female?

Does that destroy my faith? Or does that broaden it?

I was also taught about Adam and Eve, the story of creation. I did think that probably the earth was not  created in 7 days, but maybe 7 eras. That made sense to me.

But what would have happened to my beliefs if I’d insisted on that interpretation and I was then confronted by the scripture itself, in which there are 2 contradictory versions of the Creation story in Genesis.

If my faith were brittle and static, it could have broken.

But my faith was dynamic and was able to bend and move with this new revelation, reimagining what message God may have for me in these two different tales of how God created humanity.

Faith that is flexible and dynamic allows room for the Holy Spirit to guide us through life as we adapt and change and keep our faith relevant.

Some people and some churches do that better than others.

This church is particularly flexible.

Our church has seen a variety of permutations when it comes to buildings we’ve worshiped in, leadership styles, worship times, and much more.

Ministries and groups have come and gone.

And that’s a part of a healthy organization.

That we adapt to what’s happening NOW. To what our needs are NOW.

All that being said, change can still be difficult sometimes.

It’s not always comfortable, and… it doesn’t always work.

The Disciples, when we encounter them in today’s scripture, are struggling with major changes in their lives.

The man they called Messiah, the man some of them thought would liberate them from Rome, is not dead.

Mary has told them that Jesus is alive, but they’re not sure what to believe.

And then Jesus appears to them.

Walks right through the locked front door and says to the whole group of them, “Peace be with you!”

I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me, it would certainly shake up my views about a lot of things.

Thomas, of course, is not there when it happens, and he finds it unlikely. As would every rational human being who doesn’t believe people can walk through closed doors.

So where was Thomas while all of this was happening anyway?

The other Disciples responded to the dramatic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection by hiding in the upper room.

It is not until Jesus appears to them in person and says, “Just as my Heavenly parent sent me, so I send you,” that the Disciples even leave the house.

As is often true for the Disciples, even though they were close to Jesus, they didn’t get what they were supposed to do.

They didn’t get the message.

So Jesus appears and tells them so that there is no confusion. Receive the Holy Spirit, he says. I authorize you and deputize you to go out and be my representatives on earth.

Get out of the house and build my reign on earth.

It’s only THEN that John and Peter go to the temple and begin preaching.

So what about Thomas? Where was he? How did HE respond to the dramatic change brought on by Jesus’ death.

Well, it turns out, Thomas already understood what Jesus meant.

Thomas was already out preaching and teaching and healing people in the name of Jesus.

He was already making an impact.

His ministry is documented in the Bible, but it’s also written about in texts outside the Bible, including writings from as far away as India, where Thomas went on Missionary journeys, converting members of the untouchable caste all the way up to members of Indian royalty.

Thomas wasn’t in the upper room when Jesus appeared, because he was out in the community, continuing Jesus’ mission to build God’s reign on earth.

In the mind of Thomas, Jesus the man, was gone.

It was now up to HIM and to the other Disciples to continue Jesus’ work.

Thomas was already acting with boldness and courage while the other Disciples were hiding in the upper room.

Courage is a part of Thomas’ character.

Before Jesus enters Jerusalem when Jesus tells the Disciples before his death that he had to enter Jerusalem, and the Disciples warned him, don’t go – they’re after you there you’ll die. Thomas was the one who said, “I’m ready for that. Let’s go with him. I’m not afraid to die if it means spreading the good news of Jesus.”

“Doubting” Thomas was one of the most courageous Disciples.

And in his mind, Jesus, the human being, is gone.

So when the other Disciples tell him that Jesus is back, Thomas responds dramatically.

“Yeah right,” he says. “I won’t believe that unless I feel the wounds in his side.”

Which the other Disciples already have, to be fair.

It’s not like Thomas is asking for anything more than what the other Disciples have already received.

And when “doubting” Thomas DOES encounter Christ, he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas, the active missionary, doing God’s work on earth, is the first one, and the only one in all 4 Gospels to make the clear pronouncement that Jesus IS God.

Not just the Son of God. Not just God’s messenger on earth. Not just their Master or teacher or Lord, which is an a honorific title like Senor or Sir.

No. Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.”

We’ve called Thomas “doubting” Thomas all these years, and yet he is the ONLY one in all of scripture to recognize Jesus as fully One with God our heavenly parent.

Thomas’ faith was flexible. Yes, he believed Jesus was God, but when Jesus died, Thomas made the intellectual and spiritual jump that many of us have sicne made that even though Jesus the man is dead, the message and life of Jesus continues with us.

The other Disciples simply needed to more time to understand that.

Our text in Acts describes their progression toward the place Thomas was already.

The text seems to be about the miracle of the Disciples being generous and sharing everything.

But our emphasis on that is probably a result of our Western bias. For those of us who grew up in Western capitalist countries, that type of sharing seems radical, but for many communities in the time of Jesus, it was actually quite common.

It still is in many cultures around the world.

Many of you know that I lived in Micronesia for a while, for example.

On that small island of Pohnpei, if you have food left over, you always bring it to your neighbors.

If there is a visitor to the island who has nowhere to stay, you invite them into your home.

Even children do not “belong” to their parents.

Teenagers often live with other families while they are in their teen years.

Which, as a parent of teenagers myself, makes complete sense.

Why NOT have children raised by the community?

It goes a bit further than I was comfortable with, though.

When I was preparing to leave for the US, my host family encouraged me to take home my host mother’s newborn baby.

Give it opportunities in the USA, she told me. It will be happy there.

She couldn’t understand why that didn’t make sense to me.

Money, of course, was shared too.

It was a cultural expectation and obligation.

If you made money, it was essential that you share that not only with your immediate family, but with everyone in the community who needed it.

There are NO homeless people on the island of Pohnpei. There are some people with severe mental health issues, with addiction issues. But there is always someone in the community who is willing to support them, to feed them, to make sure they’re okay.

Of course, to us, the idea of giving away our children or letting them roam around and stay with different neighbors is totally foreign.

As is giving away money to any neighbor in need.

Some people feel like giving away even 2-3% of our total income is generous.

But in the time of Jesus, sharing more than that would have been the norm.

So while that’s admirable, the sharing is not actually the miracle in this story.

 

The miracle is that the author of Acts describes them “as one heart and soul.”

THAT is the miracle.

The passages in Acts leading up to today’s text describe Peter and John healing people and preaching in the temple.

This obviously happens after Jesus appears to them and says – get out of the house and preach the good news.

And so they do.

But remember, this Peter who is now preaching in the temple is the same Peter who denied even knowing Jesus before the crucifixion. He’s now healing people and preaching openly about Jesus’ message of love publicly, before the same high priests that conspired with the Roman authorities to arrest and crucify Jesus.

Predictably, Peter and John get in some trouble as a result.

The authorizes arrest them and tell them, “Listen, we know you healed someone outside the temple, and there’s been some fuss about it. And people are thrilled that you’re making an impact on the community, but if you can keep a low profile and just be a little quieter about this whole Jesus thing, we’ll leave you alone.”

To which Peter and John responds, “We cannot keep silent about what we have seen and heard.”

Peter and John are now community heroes, because they’ve healed someone, and the chief priests decide it will cause less fuss if they just release them.

At which point, Peter and John gather with the other Disciples and pray for courage and boldness.

And THEN we get the text about them sharing their possessions and being of one heart and mind.

 

The one heart and mind piece is the miracle. THAT is where God is at work in this text.

 

The Disciples demonstrate that with God’s help, they can bend themselves to God’s message and purpose.

 

Just days before, Peter and the other Disciples were hiding behind closed doors, terrified, and yet now that they’ve seen Jesus and heard his message, they’ve done a 180 and are now out boldly preaching, despite the very real threats to their safety.

 

The miraculous moment in Acts, when the Disciples are all of one heart and mind – the scripture is simply describing how finally, the other Disciples are coming into the same kind of courage and boldness that Thomas has already been living out.

 

And they all agree, for a moment, anyway, on one thing, which is that God is alive and God’s love is something they cannot be silent about ever again.

Pretty soon, the Disicples paths diverge again.

 

One follower of Jesus, Stephen, decides that the temple with its high priests and hierarchy and old rules is too stuffy and stuck in its ways, and that in order to really live into the resurrection, followers of Jesus must reject the old Jewish laws and move forward in a new direction.

Other followers of Jesus will insist that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism and without the temple and the laws of Moses.

Debates will be had about how Jewish you have to be in order to be Christian.

And followers of Jesus will part ways over questions of theology and practice.

 

And all of those questions happen as a result of new experiences, new information, and new realities, which the Disciples each face.

 

We too come to different conclusions about God and Jesus and the resurrection based on our understanding of scripture as well as our traditions, upbringing, and life experiences.

 

Someone asked me recently if my church believes in a Trinitarian God.

 

And I said, that’s difficult to answer.

 

Don’t you have any doctrine? He said. How do you operate without any rules.

 

And I said, well, there are some things we agree on. My church believes in welcoming people. We believe in building a just world, one life at a time. We believe in following Jesus’ message of love and opening ourselves to the possibility that God is moving in the world. And we all believe in living into the questions, struggling with who we are and what we’re called to do. And in those ways, we are of one heart and mind.

 

But no, we don’t have doctrine per say. We know that brittle faith leads to broken faith. We are flexible and therefore able to bend and move as the Holy Spirit and science and experience reveal new truth to us.

 

That doesn’t mean we’re without form or substance or conviction. Quite the opposite. We are opinionated, strong-willed, bold and courage people who speak out for what we believe in.

We care for one another, we build community, and we put love first.

 

But beyond that, we listen. We leave the door open for Jesus to walk in, many of us recognizing that like the Disciples experienced in the upper room, God doesn’t need an invitation. Sometimes God walks into the room, even when our doors are closed.

 

My challenge to us this week is to listen. Is God telling us to get out of the house? Is God telling us to stand up and speak out? Where in our lives are we being brittle and inflexible? Are there places in our lives where we might bend and stretch to fit into new realities?

 

Amen.

 

 

God with us – An Easter Message

After the resurrection, the Disciples don’t recognize Jesus at first.

 

In the early morning fog, Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener.

 

In our text from Luke, we hear that two other Disciples believe him to be an ordinary traveler on the road.

 

And who can blame them?

 

We’ve all had those moments where we encounter someone familiar, but out of context, we can’t quite place how we know them.

 

<personal story from Pastor Sarah not reproduced for online>

 

This type of thing happens fairly regularly.

 

We attach people to a certain context, and recognizing them outside of that can be difficult.

 

In our scripture today, the Disciples struggle with this very human experience – They connect with a stranger, someone who SEEMS familiar, but who they can’t quite place.

 

Remember, they’re used to seeing Jesus in the temple, or on a mountaintop, surrounded by followers. They’re used to seeing him in prayer or hearing him preach or teach to crowds of people.

 

They’re not used to seeing him alone, in a cemetery or along the road.

 

Plus, they saw him crucified. How could this stranger be Jesus? They watched him die on the cross.

 

It’s not until Jesus calls Mary’s name that it clicks for her that it’s him.

 

And it’s not until he breaks bread with the other Disciples that they recognize him as the one who broke bread with them just three days before.

 

This raises the question for me – how often has Jesus appeared in OUR lives and we’ve mistaken him for an ordinary traveler?

 

How often has Christ showed up to us in a context we don’t expect and we fail to recognize God with us?

 

It turns out, Jesus doesn’t just show up at church.

 

He doesn’t just show up on Easter Sunday.

 

He shows up anywhere there is love being expressed, anywhere people are fighting for justice or standing in solidarity with people who are oppressed.

 

He shows up anywhere people are feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and working for peace.

 

He shows up anywhere WE are in need of a companion to celebrate with and anywhere we are in need of consolation.

 

My challenge to us this week is to begin paying attention, to begin considering where Christ might be showing up for us.

 

And beyond that, as members of the living Body of Christ, my prayer is that we might act in such a way that we might be recognized outside of our expected context as well.

 

People shouldn’t just be able to recognize us as people of faith when we’re sitting in a church.

 

They should recognize us as people of faith when we’re feeding the hungry.

 

And when we’re demonstrating at the State House.

 

When we’re speaking out against bigotry.

 

When we’re caring for those in need.

 

They should recognize us when we are listening and loving.

 

And when we break bread with people we love, AND when we break bread with people who are different from us.

 

May God continue to challenge us as we live into the resurrection.

 

Amen.