2 Samuel and Speaking Truth to Power

This sermon was initially going to be about “speaking truth to power.” Perhaps we are the power that needs speaking to…


2 Samuel 12:1-7

12 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!


Sermon: “Speaking Truth to Power”

I still remember the first time I got in big trouble. I mean BIG trouble.

I was on the playground at the church preschool, and we had a tire swing that you could spin in circles.

It was incredibly fun.

And my class, the 4-year-olds, had play time with the 3-year-olds.

And there was a cute little 3 year old that decided he wanted to play on the tire swing.

So being the good little friend that I was, I decided to show him how fun it was.

A friend of mine and I spun him and I spun him and I spun him.

And he screamed…

We all screamed on the tire swing.

It was so fun!

But this time, the child was screaming in fear.

He wanted off the ride, and that was gradually becoming clear to us.

But at 4, we already knew a lot, you know.

And we just knew how fun this spinning ride was.

And so maybe if he just stayed on it a little while longer, he’s learn how fun it was.

But he just kept screaming, and a few turns later, crying.

But from my perspective, I was showing this kid the time of his life.

Welcome to the playground, I was thinking. This place is the best!

But in his mind, an older child was bullying him and not letting him get off this terrifying spinning donut.

A teacher ran over, stopped the swing and put me in time out.

And understandably so.

She explained that he was 3. And we were 4. And there were 2 of us. And if he said stop, we had to stop. That was the rule.

“What you did was mean,” she said.

How would you feel if you were scared, and someone kept spinning you like that?

And then I started crying.

And I think I cried for a long time.

I felt terrible.

I had really scared and hurt this little kid.

Me, the 4-year-old little girl who was now crying in time out.

I had power, and I used it irresponsibly.

Thankfully, there was a teacher who was willing to intervene.

In our story today, Nathan is the teacher. And he puts David in Time-Out.

David isn’t a 4-year-old. He’s the king of Israel.

But like that 4-year-old kid who didn’t get that she had power, David doesn’t recognize, until Nathan says something that David crossed a line.

And he crossed a big line.

The backstory to today’s text is that David, newly king, sees a woman bathing on the roof. He falls in love with her and yada yada yada, he gets her pregnant.

It’s not clear whether or not she consented to this arrangement, but frankly, when the king of your entire nation propositions you, you don’t have much power to say no.

So in addition to her being an inappropriate choice, given her social status in relation to the king, and her consequent inability to really consent, David’s choice to sleep with her was even more problematic, because she was already married to one of David’s military officers.

But hey – David had a bunch of wives. And he was king. Everything was his domain.

No big did.

Except it was a big deal. Because she’s pregnant by David, he’s in a bit of a bind, because her husband has been off at war, and he’ll know the child isn’t his.

So David sends him from his current military post to the front lines of the war, where David knows he’ll die. Which he does.

Problem solved, right?

Well, Nathan has a different perspective.

And Nathan tells David this story to help David understand the gravity of David’s actions.

And David does. What FOLLOWS our text today is a confession from David. And genuine repentance and sadness for what he’s done.

To me, as an outsider, it seems obvious that what David did was wrong.

You don’t take another man’s wife, sleep with her, and then send the man to die.

But in David’s mind, he was just following his heart.

David was a romantic. A musician and an artist.

And she was a fully consenting adult, right?

No, David.

She was your servant. One of your subjects.

And you were the most powerful man in Israel.

But see, David doesn’t see himself as powerful.

He sees himself as the little shepherd boy who was the youngest and smallest of 7 brothers.

The child that his father refused to send to war.

The child that was asked to bring his brothers food, but not enter the war.

He ended up being the armor bearer for the king before him.

But not because he was strong or particularly skilled in battle.

It was because his music, his songs and his harp, soothed the dying king’s anxious mind. He was a music therapist.

And a consummate underdog.

He grew to fame when he killed Goliath, a giant.

But David didn’t slay him with a sword.

David wasn’t even strong enough to carry the heavy armor the king provided him.

David went into battle in his ragged shepherd’s clothes.

With a slingshot, the weapon of children and thieves.

And so yes, he killed a giant, but not with weapons or strength typically attributed to great warriors.

When David became king, he didn’t shake that story.

Even though he ended up commanding all the armies of Israel, in his mind, he was still that little shepherd boy, the youngest child, the artist and musician, the poet and care-giver.

He was like that little girl on the playground, the 4-years-old, who didn’t realize her strength.

And so when Nathan tells David this story, David undoubtedly puts himself in the place of the poor shepherd.

Because David understood that role.

He understood what it was like to fall asleep next to the sheep, to love them and care for them.

He saw himself in that role.

And so when Nathan talks about the rich man, who, like David, took something precious from a poor man, a man’s wife, in David’s case, David’s world is turned upside down.

Suddenly, his eyes are opened, and David recognizes the horror of what he’s done.

He repents, he prays for forgiveness, and Nathan offers it.

As we read it, who do we relate to?

Are we the poor man from whom our precious possessions are taken by the rich?

Are the we the victims of cruel and mindless tyrants?

Or are we the ones with power, taking from the powerless?

I’m not sure it’s that simple.

None of us is the King of Israel.

And none of us, as far as I know, is a poor man with one sheep.

Power dynamics are a lot more fluid for most of us.

Power tends to come from resources – money, prestige, a title, a job position. But it also comes from resources we don’t think about – our education, our ability to communication, our connections. Being a part of this community of faith gives us power.

If we’re in a difficult situation spiritually or emotionally or financially, the church always finds ways to help us. Not everyone has that in their lives.

Power can also come from things like age and gender and skin color – things we can’t control, and yet people project power onto us based on those things.

Because I’m a woman, even though many people think about men as having more power often, as a woman, I have access to some places and opportunities that men don’t.

As a white woman in particular, I have the power to walk around pretty much any neighborhood in the Northeast Heights I want without suspicion. If I walk with my dog, people tend to trust me even more.

If you’re a large black man, that’s probably not going to be the case.

Even those of us who feel generally pretty powerless, those of us who are US Citizens all have the power to vote.

And we have the power to make use of city resources.

Some of us have friends in “high places,” which gives us unique access.

All of this is to say that like David, we are not always the underdog. Even those of us who are 4-years-old or who feel like we have the very limited resources of a 4-year-old, even we have power.

So the good news is that we all have resources, some that we don’t usually think about. We’re probably more powerful than we realize.

Which means we have more responsibility than we realize. Because with all the power we have, we have extraordinary capacity to help people. But we also have the power to hurt people.

So my challenge to us this week is to be mindful of what power we have. What resources are at our disposal. What power is projected onto us that we didn’t ask for? How can we use it responsibly.

My other challenge to us is to consider when HAVE we acted like King David? When HAVE we accidentally crossed a line or accidentally hurt people who had less power than we do?

The good news is that God forgives us and works through us and through others to transform us, just as God worked through Nathan to transform David.

So when we do spin people too fast on the tire swing or get caught up and wander across boundaries we shouldn’t, we always have the power to listen to those who are pointing out the truth of the situation. And we always have the power to transform ourselves….

 

I will not be ashamed of being a Christian! James 2, good works, and Casa Q

 

James 2:14-26

I’m disappointed Casa Q couldn’t be here… <Casa Q was going to present at COGS – their plans changed earlier this week>

I’m still going to speak about them today.

But first, let’s talk about James….

 

The book of James is all about how we can live into our faith.

 

And chapter 2, this text in particular,

talks about the connection between faith and action.

 

James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

 

People are REDEEMED by works and not just faith alone.

 

Another translation would say people are SAVED by works and not just faith alone.

 

And Catholics and Protestants have debated for generations whether faith or works are more important

in the big people of redemption and salvation.

 

But to me, it’s obvious that faith and works go hand in hand.

 

In fact, modern theologians, including the Pope, would agree.

 

The question that intrigues me MORE is what do we need to be redeemed FROM?

 

What have we done that leads us to need redemption?

 

I don’t want to call you out for public confession, so let me make this easier.

 

What has someone ELSE done that you think leads them to a place where they need redemption?

 

(examples from the congregation – sin, apathy, indifference, nothing)

 

Okay. Now none of you said original sin…

 

But we’re not going to go there today…

 

None of you said people need redeeming  form their political affiliation.

 

You were thinking it….

 

Don’t you think that some people need redeeming from their choices of who to vote for?

Or who they already voted for?

 

Of course we think that. But that’s not of God.

That’s from our egos.

 

None of you said other things either.

Like that we need to be redeemed from our gender.

 

Other people have said that.

How many times have you heard that someone “throws like a girl?”

Well, being a girl is obviously worse then, right?

Of course not.

 

The Bible says there is neither Greek nor Jew slave nor free male nor female. All are one in Christ Jesus.

 

But society says there’s a hierarchy.

 

The same could be said for sexuality.

 

Thank God no one said anything about people needing to be redeemed from their sexual orientation.

 

That’s not of God either.

 

That impulse comes from cultural indoctrination and fear and a misreading of scripture.

Not from God.

 

And yet we can’t ignore that people still preach that message.

 

And that it has an impact on our children.

 

That’s where organizations like Casa Q come in.

 

That’s where WE come in.

 

With both faith AND works.

 

Casa Q is an organization that we work with that provides safe living options and services for LGBTQ youth and allies who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

They also provide things like transportation to school and work, life skills classes, and counseling.

They also help educate these children’s parents, in many cases, reuniting newly-educated parents with their children.

 

They do the work of healing, growth, and reconciliation, all while providing a safe place for these teenagers to live and learn.

 

There are approximately 4000 teens and children experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque.

Services for families meet a lot of the needs for homeless children and teens, but not if those children and teens are kicked out by their parents.

A disproportionate number of homeless youth are LGBTQ, usually because their families have rejected them and kicked them out.

 

About 1/3 of homeless children and youth in Albuquerque are LGBTQ.

 

It’s estimated that there are between 700 and 1000 homeless youth in Albuquerque who do not have a safe place to go, because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

 

Right now, Casa Q can only host 8 of those kids at a time.

But it’s a start.

And every one of those kids has a plan,

put together with the directors of Casa Q,

on how they’re going to find work, find housing, and find stability.

 

Most kids at Casa Q are not there all the way to graduation. Some find housing with high school friends.

Others get emancipated and find safe housing with other young adults.

 

Others get reunited with their families after Casa Q does extensive work educating the families and helping them create a safer home environment for these kids.

 

Our role has been to bring food.

 

And we need more help with that effort.

People who are willing to shop once every month, and people willing to chip in for groceries.

Food flies out of that kitchen. These are teenagers, remember.

 

And the food matters.

 

But its’ not just our actions that have an impact.

It’s our faith.

 

Because when we show up representing a church, it does additional healing work for these kids.

 

Whenever I go by there, and Jenny can back me up on this, the kids there are always surprised that the people helping them most are churches.

 

It’s a surprise to them that Christians are helping them.

 

It is a surprise to see Christians helping people who are on the margins, young people who have been kicked out of their homes for who they are.

 

That shouldn’t be a surprise!

 

Jesus healed people that society labeled “unclean.” Jesus crossed gender norms and spoke to women.

 

Early Christians like Paul said there is neither male nor female slave nor free Greek nor Jew, all are one in Christ Jesus.

 

And James, in his letter to other Christians said that faith, without works is dead.

We need both.

We need the good deeds.

But we also need to be a louder voice for Christian faith.

We need to tell people who love us,

people who know us as thoughtful, critical thinkers.

People who know that we feed the hungry and care for the homeless and advocate for LGBTQ rights.

We need to tell people who know THAT about us that WE are Christians.

Or that we attend a church.

 

Some of us are NOT Christians. We have different self-identifications. Agnostic or atheist. But we’re here.

Doing the work of creating a just world, one life at a time.

 

It’s important that we let people know that THIS is what churches do.

 

There is no shame in being a Christian.

The shame we experiences comes from the actions of our brothers and sisters who call themselves Christian but who are actually possessed with the demons of bigotry.

But bigotry is not of Christ.

There is no shame in being a Christian…

Repeat after me: “There is no shame in being a Christian!”

 

If we are silent about our faith and our church, it is those demons our children will hear…

 

The message of God’s love saves lives. We cannot be silent.

 

So my challenge to us is two fold this week.

1 – to consider giving to Casa Q ($ or shopping)

 

2 – Be bold – tell someone in our lives, someone we’re not out to yet, that we are a Christian. Or that we attend a church!

And let them know what this place is up to. Let that narrative circulate.

The person you tell may not need to hear it, but they may have a relative or a friend that’s LGBTQ who’s never heard of a church where they could be welcome.

They may have a friend or a relative that wants to put their faith into action but has never heard of a church that actually puts its faith into action.

 

The message of God saves lives. May we be bold in our words and bold in our actions, that God might multiply both for the building of God’s reign on earth.

Amen.

Be Bold in Listening – Sermon on John 21

John 21:15-25

A note on the translation:

Our scripture today describes a conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter, a Disciple of Jesus. Simon Peter has a unique name, because his first name, Simon, means “Listener,” and his second name, Peter, means “Rock.” Pay attention to when Jesus addresses him as “Simon” (listener) and when the text refers to him as “Peter” (rock).

Our scripture today also includes 2 Greek words that are both translated as “love” in our text: agape and phileo. Agape love is unconditional love – it is a love you give no matter what you think about a person, whether you admire them or not, or whether you know them well or not. Agape love is described as the type of love Christians should have for one another, and the love God has for us. Phileo is slightly different – it is a more personal and intimate type of love. It comes from a place of admiration and genuine affection. You can love someone unconditionally and not like them. Similarly, you can agape love someone and not phileo love them. The use of these two different terms may or may not be significant to the meaning of the text, but the two translations are included in brackets so that you can decide for yourself.

Scripture: John 21:15-25

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me, [unconditionally] more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Master; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Feed my little lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me [unconditionally]?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me [like a brother]?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me [like a brother]?” And he said to him, “Master, you know everything; you know that I love you [like a brother].” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Master, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Master, what about him?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

 

Sermon: “Be Bold in Listening”

 

Peter’s world revolves around Peter.

 

Of course it does.

 

All of our worlds revolve around us.

 

We can’t help it.

 

We only see the world through our own eyes.

 

And Peter’s world view is specific to his time and place.

 

Peter is a stereotypical man’s man. He is a man of muscle – a fisherman who uses his hands, who has strong arms, who smells like the sea and hangs out with the guys.

 

He’s arrogant, stubborn at times, and he’s a man of action.

 

Hence his nickname, “Peter,” which means “rock.”

 

His first name, “Simon,” means listener.

 

But Peter is what he is usually called, because the nickname “rock” fit so well.

 

Peter likes order and control. When Jesus appears to Peter along side Moses and Elijah, Peter’s first instinct is to build a building there to hold onto that moment.

 

He’s also brave. He’s the only Disciple who tries to follow Jesus and walk on water. And he does it, at first, until he began to doubt, and then he sinks. Like a rock.

 

Despite his hesitation in the sea, it is clear that he is loyal to Christ.

 

When the soldiers and priests came to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and cuts off one of their ears.

 

He is solid, strong, and stubborn. He doesn’t budge. He doesn’t waver in his opinions.

 

Until he does.

 

Peter loses his center.

Jesus is arrested.

 

And while Peter is standing around a charcoal fire with officials waiting to question Jesus, Peter denies even KNOWING Jesus.

 

Three times he denies him.

 

Shortly after, Jesus is convicted, crucified, buried, and then on Easter morning, raised from the dead.

 

Our story today takes place in the time shortly after these events.

 

We’re not sure whether this is a literal appearance of an embodied Jesus or a vision, but either way, Peter is again sitting around a charcoal fire, the same type of setting as the last time someone asked him 3 questions about his relationship with Jesus.

 

Only now, it is Jesus asking the questions.

 

And Peter has a chance to redeem himself.

 

Jesus asks him, “Simon, Listener, Do you love me unconditionally?” Agape. Do you love me without conditions?

 

Because remember, that for Peter, in the past, there were conditions. Peter was the most loyal and steadfast Disciple, until… he wasn’t. There were conditions on Peter’s loyalty. There were conditions on Peter’s love. When Peter’s own life and reputation were at stake, Peter denied even KNOWING Jesus. And so here, Jesus is giving Peter a second chance.

 

But Peter, the rock, whose ears and world view are closed off, misses the opportunity.

 

And Peter responds, “Jesus – of course I love you. I love you like a brother.” In other words, I admire you. I respect you. I love you because of who you are and what you do and what you represent. I love you for a reason.

 

Jesus responds, “Then feed my little lambs.”

 

Which to Peter, must have been a bizarre response. Remember, Peter is a stereotypically macho guy. He’s a fisherman. He’s a fighter. And here Jesus is asking him to care for the baby sheep…?

 

Peter is a straight-forward, literal kind of guy. He says what he means. And so he takes Jesus’ words literally too. Jesus is asking Peter to feed baby sheep. How bizarre. In the worldview of Peter, babies are women’s work. And shepherds – they’re thieves and outcasts. Peter already has a good job as a fisherman. Why would he leave it for a dirty job with animals?

 

And so while Peter is sitting there confused, Jesus asks again, “Simon, Listener, Do you love me unconditionally?”

 

And Peter, the rock, the stubborn one, says again, “Of course I love you, Jesus. I love you like a brother. I love you because of who you are and what you do and what you represent.”

 

And so Jesus, who isn’t getting anywhere with the “feed my lambs statement,” softens his request a little bit. “Care for my sheep,” he says.

 

But Peter still doesn’t quite get it. And he’s hurt that Jesus isn’t hearing him. And he’s not used to this nurturing role Jesus is asking him to take on.

 

Jesus, wise man that he is, figures out that Peter isn’t ready for the care-giving role. And Peter isn’t READY to love Jesus without conditions. And so finally, Jesus meets Peter where he is. And Jesus asks, “Simon, LISTENER – do you love me like a BROTHER?”

 

And Peter says, “Yes, Jesus! That’s what I’ve been saying! I love you like a brother!”

 

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says.

Now, Peter understands, as a fisherman, how to feed people.

He gets that. And so Jesus is finally getting through.

 

Jesus then tells him, Peter – follow me. Follow my example. Your path is to follow me all the way to the cross.

 

At which point, Peter gets distracted by his ego again.

 

Wait a second, Peter says. I’m going to die? But what about that other guy? Is he going to live forever? How come I have to be the one to die. I thought I was the rock, your right-hand man? What happened to me being the one upon which the church is built, Jesus?

 

And Jesus basically says, Peter – it’s not up to you. Stop worrying about everyone else. I’ve told you your path. Now follow me.

 

I don’t know if Jesus was entirely successful in communicating his message to Peter. It’s difficult to talk to a rock.

 

And at times, that’s what talking to Peter felt like, I’m sure.

 

And at times, I imagine we can relate to the struggle Jesus had with him.

 

Doesn’t it feel like we’re talking to people like Peter sometimes? Rocks that just won’t listen and just won’t get it?

 

These past few weeks, I’ve had some conversations where people have just said the craziest things. And I’ve tried to gently and compassionately correct their obviously ridiculous views.

 

But we all know how well THAT works.

 

When you’re talking to a rock, one of the worst things you can do is try to push on them harder. Or to try to break them open.

 

Because the way people tend to work is that when you push against someone that’s pushing, they simply push harder.

 

They get even more defensive, they dig in their heels, and they shut down.

 

So how do we communicate with people like Peter? What does the Bible advise?

 

Well, the example Jesus gives is excellent.

 

He begins with a big request – feed my little lambs, Peter. You who have denied even knowing me – I want you to love me unconditionally, and to be nurturing to the most vulnerable.

 

But then, when he recognizes Peter isn’t getting it, he softens his request.

 

And ultimately, he meets Peter where Peter is.

 

He doesn’t give up on his opinions or his requests, but he starts from somewhere closer to where Peter already is.

 

In other words, he doesn’t ask someone who’s never run in their lives to run a marathon tomorrow.

 

He asks them to get off the couch and walk a block.

 

And he doesn’t ask someone who’s never been to church to be baptized this week. He asks them to come to a presentation or to visit.

 

This is the example of Jesus over and over again.

 

He challenges people, but he does so with baby steps. And with genuinely curious questions that invite the listener to move ahead on their own accord.

 

The challenge is, in order to meet people where they are, we have to KNOW where they are.

 

Is someone testing us? Are they lashing out because there is pain somewhere in their lives that has nothing to do with us? Are they making these statements to push buttons? To right a wrong?

 

Without asking where people are coming from, it’s nearly impossible for us to know how to meet people where they are.

 

Jesus knew everything. He had an advantage from the beginning. And he still had to work to get Peter to listen.

 

It’s going to take a lot more for us to get there.

 

So my challenge to us this week is to work on our Christian, compassionate communication.

 

Instead of jumping to conclusions about people’s choices, I challenge us to ask, “Could you walk me through how you came to that conclusion?”

 

Instead of attacking people’s views as bigoted, which they very may well be, let’s approach them with Christian compassion and ask, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”

 

We may still end up disagreeing with them. But perhaps we will get better at the practice of understanding them and loving them…

 

 

With curiosity and compassionate questions, perhaps we’ll soften the hearts of those rocks in our lives. And perhaps, we’ll even do the miraculous work of softening our own.

 

 

Feeding of the 5000 – Not Just “Bread and Circuses” (Sermon)

Scripture: John 6:1-15

 

This story is the only one told in all 4 gospels.

 

They tell it drastically different audiences…

 

And yet there is something about this table that appeals to all of them…

 

Perhaps what drew all of these writers to this story is that food is central to our survival.

 

But there are plenty of stories about food in the Gospels.

 

What sets this story apart is that this story is also about NOURISHMENT.

 

The miracle of this story is not only that everyone had bread and fish to enjoy,

but that all of these people from different walks of life when home satisfied and nourished.

 

Because THAT was what was missing at the time of Jesus.

There was actually a community feeding project happening that was giving people bread. Roman citizens anyway.

 

But there was open criticism of the policy.

 

Have you ever heard the term “bread and circuses?”

 

 

Basically, the Roman senators tried to pacify the people and win their votes by subsidizing the cost of food and entertainment.

 

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “The evil was not in the bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”

 

So at the very same time these 4 stories were being told about Jesus feeding thousands of people, the Roman government was doing the exact same thing.

 

Not to satisfy their hunger, but to keep them docile. And to win reelection.

 

Roman senators learned that if they gave people free bread and low-cost entertainment in their districts, it was easy to win votes.

 

They also knew that if the people had full bellies and were entertained, they would be much less likely to pay attention to the manipulations happening behind the scenes,

including the creation of policies that would gradually erode the rights of the very citizens that voted for the guys giving them free bread and entertainment.

 

While people were watching gladiators and grand boat battles in the colleseum,

Rome was raising taxes and creating economic policies that enslaved agricultural workers to the point that some families would never be able to escape debt.

 

While people were enjoying the cheap bread provided to voting citizens,

Rome was continuing to enslave conquered peoples and non-citizens were starving and dying of hunger and disease.

 

While people were enjoying the ridiculousness of the political theater that was happening in the public sphere,

behind the scenes, Rome was still plotting war and expansion

that would end up leading to citizens of the empire having to serve in wars they didn’t see coming and wars that in many cases cost them their lives,

because they were full and distracted.

 

People got complacent while their government slowly and deliberately created policies that benefitted the Roman political elites

and punished the everyday people who weren’t paying attention.

 

This simultaneous policy of bread and circuses and empire expansion was happening at the exact same time our Gospel story was written.

 

And the audience of John, Jewish Christians, would have known personally the cost of complacency.

 

Shortly before the Gospel of John was written,

Rome exercised a brutal conquest of Jerusalem.

 

They destroyed city and burned their 500-year-old temple to the ground.

 

The emperor gave orders that they should demolish the entire city except for some of the towers and the western wall, in order to “demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which Rome had subdued.”

In terms of the rest of the city, Josephus writes, “Therw as nothing left to make anyone who came after believe Jerusalem had ever been inhabited. Those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste.”

 

People throughout the empire fell for the illusion that the Roman empire was nourishing them, and as a result, their lives and their nations fell.

 

And those who resisted learned quickly that an empire who has the unwavering support of its people,

an empire that is not critically examined by its own people,

has no accountability to rules of decency or human welfare.

 

So in the aftermath of this painful conquest, John as well as Matthew and Mark and Luke write about a rabbi named Jesus who tells people he too will feed them.

 

But not to control them or pacify them. Not to distract them while he erects an army or passes laws requiring them to sacrifice themselves to the war machine fighting Germanic tribes far away.

 

No – Jesus’ bread is given to nourish them and liberate them.

 

The people listening to Jesus learned what it means to pay attention, to care for not only those feeding them cheap entertainment, but those who are begging outside those same venues.

 

John appeals to all of those people who may have been well-fed, but were fed up with the rulers of their time who were starving them of their humanity.

 

And when Jesus said “I will feed you, not just with bread, but with the Word of God and eternal life,” his preaching and serving food in community was an act of outright rebellion.

 

Because with HIS bread came an invitation to escape apathy. To organize in community. And to take back the power not that comes from military might but that which comes from faith and from action centered in faith.

 

Rome ultimately fell, but the actions of politicians have changed little in 2000 years.

 

We know what it looks like to have our politicians manipulate us and keep us complacent and distracting us with political theater.

 

And I’ve seen that political theater first hand.

 

Not just in the news, but in Washington DC myself.

I worked at a think tank there that focused on Latin American and Carribean issues, and I”ll talk more about that in our presentation this afternoon, but my work was reserarching policy and figuring out how as a country, we be better stewards of our resources and make a difference in the world. That’s how I saw it anyway.

 

But I learned quickly, that that’s now how others see it there.

When I worked in Washington DC, there were two sayings repeated to me over and over again. One was “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” meaning I’ll pay attention to what you’re telling me if you can help me with something that matters to me. And then the other saying was  “all politics is local,” which meant that if you wanted to get anything done, you didn’t appeal to a legislator’s ethics or moral code.

You didn’t say, “I know you’re a Christian, and I’m a Christian too, and Jesus taught us to feed the hungry.

And right now, there are hungry people in Haiti and people facing political violence in Haiti who are victims of a political system that we helped put in place.

And people are suffering. And we are morally obligated to step in and help here. We’re morally obligated to fix this”

 

But if I couldn’t tie what was going on in Haiti to an impact on their particular district, they weren’t going to give me the time of day.

 

If people in New Mexico didn’t care about Haiti, then the representatives from New Mexico weren’t going to care about Haiti either.

 

And it honestly broke my heart a little bit.

 

I was presenting them with a clear, well-researched point of view as to why, as human beings, we should shift our policies toward Haiti.

 

But the people in the room were telling me – what bread and circuses are you going to give our people? Because that’s how I get elected.

 

This is why we can’t just feed the hungry with bread.

 

Yes, that’s important. And that’s PART of what our church has committed to doing with our new initiative to combat child hunger in Albuquerque.

 

But we can’t just do direct service.

 

We have to engage, we have to speak up and change the systems and structures that contribute to child hunger in the first place.

 

If we don’t let our government officials know that this issue matters to us, they’re not going to pay attention to it.

 

Because there are lobbyists up at the State Hosue every day telling our legistors about things that matter and why they should vote a certain way.

 

If we don’t speak up, our voice is going to be lost entirely.

 

And our voice matters. Not just our voice as citizens, but our voice as Christians. We MUST speak with our moral voice as people of faith.

 

People our state is not just hungry for bread. Children in our community are not just hungry for food. They are hungry to be NOURISHED.

 

They are hungry to be taken seriously. They are hungry to be cared for and loved and told that they matter.

 

And following in the footsteps of Jesus, we can part of THAT effort.

 

I will not stand idly by while our government starts wars. Not just wars in foreign nations but wars on the working poor.

 

I will not stand by. And I will vote.

 

My challenge to you this week is to make sure your voice is heard also…

 

My challenge to us this week is simple –

#1 – make sure you are registered to vote. If you are not, go online and search “register to vote New Mexico,” and it will tell you how to do it.

#2 – learn who your representatives are and write at least 1 of them. If you’re computer savvy, you can write the same letter and copy and past. Write him or her. Don’t email. Letters have a bigger impact. Write him or her and tell your representatives that the issue of child hunger matters to you as a person of faith. Our children deserve more than just bread and circuses. They deserve real nourishment.

Mammals are not meant to spin forever… reflections on Sabbath in the midst of crisis

Exodus 20:1-11

The 2nd half of the sermon spoke about the Kavanaugh hearings, the earthquakes and tsunamis, and crises affecting our members. It included personal information not included in the online version. Just know that whatever you’re going through…in times like these, taking sabbath is even more essential than ever…

Sermon: “Be Bold in Taking Sabbath”

Have you ever watched a toddler spin in circles?

It’s one of the cutest things in the world.

They start spinning and squeal with joy.

And then they fall down.

And squeal with more joy.

And then they start it all over again.

Cats and dogs do this too.

My cat in particular loves to chase its tail.

Maybe love is a strong word.

My cat occasionally recognizes its tale as the mortal enemy that it is and decides that it must be destroyed. But first, it must be caught.

It’s just out of reach…

So she spins and spins and spins until she finally loses her balance and wobbles and then falls over.

IT TURNS OUT, MAMMALS ARE NOT MEANT TO SPIN FOREVER…

And yet that’s exactly what we do when we ignore the commandment from God, remember the Sabbath, set it apart, and keep it holy.

We spin and spin and spin, and the more we spin, the dizzier we get, and the more we lose track of our center.

And eventually, we just fall down.

Sabbath is an opportunity to stop before we get lost in the spinning.

It’s a chance to ground ourselves in our faith, and what matters to us.

It’s a chance to regain our balance.

And yet, for some reason, Christian people who were TAUGHT the 10 commandments, Christians who know this is in the Bible still choose to feel guilty about taking time off…

…About taking time to be still.

Today’s scripture reminds us that from the very beginning, God made rest a priority.

Our CULTURE may prioritize productivity, but God knows that we’re far from productive if we’re burnt out.

In fact, God put sabbath in the words of our scripture today, in the words of Exodus, along side “Do not worship idols.”

And along side “Do not murder.”

There is not hierarchy of statements in this text.

But if there were, honoring the Sabbath, taking the time to reconnect with God and to rest and center ourselves in who we are and what we believe – that would be 2nd on the list, ABOVE honor your parents, and ABOVE do not steal and ABOVE do not murder.

And perhaps its location IS intentional, just after do not worship idols.

Because if we’re well-rested, if we’re not spinning, we’re much more likely to see things clearly. And much LESS likely to say hurtful things, or dishonor our neighbors, or to steal or covet or murder.

Taking time to rest, and pray and be with God is not a luxury. It is a commandment.

And It’s a commandment we cannot ignore in weeks like these…

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.