Use this category on all posted Sermons.

Be the Church: Embrace Diversity, Take Action

Acts 11:1-17

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

 

For me it’s a one to one.

 

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

 

So what am I going to say?

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How can you communicate that vision with the world?

 

Well, what about scripture? I said.

 

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

 

And if you look it up, there is –

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

 

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

Lot fled Sodom.

 

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

 

The Israelites were exiles in Babylon.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

But what are they doing about it?

 

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

 

What is your congregation doing?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Excellent questions.

 

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

 

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

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

 

This week, that’s exactly what happened.

 

In addition to my conversation with my colleague,

 

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

 

And I said – right now, nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Some of it is published in your bulletin today.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Who from here is going to go?

 

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

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

 

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

 

Is it you?

 

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

 

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

 

And how responses to God happen.

 

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

 

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

 

Which means there’s an empty time slot.

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

 

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

 

How are we going to welcome immigrants and refugees?

 

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

 

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

 

 

I look forward to taking this journey with you together.

Be the Church: Protect the Environment

Job 12:7-10

<Sarah has a moving box>

What’s in the box?

It doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And this is just one box.

 

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

 

These boxes are just taking up space. Creating clutter.

 

And it’s not just the boxes.

 

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

 

I still have my high school letter jacket.

 

 

And I wouldn’t say I’m a pack rack.

 

I’m pretty typical for an American.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And this consumption leads to some pretty ugly side effects.

 

Debt, for one.

 

A massive environmental impact.

 

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

 

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

 

So what’s going on here?

 

Pope Francis has some ideas.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And most of us thoroughly enjoy that.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

And as difficult as that downsizing can be,

 

There is something liberating about it.

 

Something liberating about openness and simplicity.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He tells his friend,

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Is our stuff as valuable to us as that?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Amen.

 

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

 

 

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

“Be the Church: Share Earthly and Spiritual Resources”

Acts 16:11-15

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

 

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

 

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

 

On the one hand, we have Lydia.

 

Lydia was an extraordinary woman.

 

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

 

She had that degree of impact on the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And they cannot pray along side the men.

 

That’s 2000 years after the story of Lydia.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it was an option for her.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lydia and Paul played their cards well.

 

They COULD have made different choices.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Be the Church: Care for the Poor

“Be the Church: Care for the Poor”

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

I want to start out today with an exercise…

 

EXERCISE:

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

God loves all people equally.

 

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

 

Our text from James help us out here….

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

But as soon as we set up a competitive environment.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He and Nathan were great together.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Well, no wonder he was upset!

Throwing chairs is still not okay. Of course.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The scripture says that

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

 

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

 

Because our God is a God of justice.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.

Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless

“Be the Church: Fight for the Powerless”

Matthew 19:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus deconstructs traditional notions of power for his audience.

 

But what does he replace that power with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Be the Church: Reject Racism

Matthew 15:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe it had dark tinted windows.

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

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

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

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

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

Right there, in public, where one could see.

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

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

Not drugs. Not money. Not guns. Frisbees.

The local ultimate frisbee team suddenly breaks their silence.

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

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

But I’m pretty sure I’m safe.

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

The real danger wasn’t the frisbee team.

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

In this case, it ended comically.

But what if I had called the police?

Or escalated the situation?

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

 

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

 

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

He calls a woman a dog.

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

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

So why include this text in the Gospels?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unconscious biases are not something to be ashamed of.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

I don’t scorn female engineers.

 

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

 

So what?

 

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

 

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

But in that case, I was WAY off base.

 

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

 

But what IF I had called the police?

Or escalated the situation?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the dangerous part about intuition.

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

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

It pops up and we can camp out in it.

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

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

And I thought he was super wrong.

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

For a few minutes anyway.

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

But guess what?

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

And Royce does.

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

Gosh darn it if he was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He learns.

What an excellent example for us.

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

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

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

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

No. Let’s stop that.

Jesus doesn’t do any of that.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Paul and the Wheel of a Fulfilling Life

5/27/18

Scripture: Acts 14:8-20

Sermon Title: “Be the Church: Love God”

 

What a bizarre story!

 

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

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

You can eat as much bacon as you want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnabas’ name actually means “encouragement.”

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

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

Of course, Paul and Barnabas encounter different challenges.

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

So Paul and Barnabas have to communicate in different ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, they still struggle to communicate their message.

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

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

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

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

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

 

So why did Paul keep doing it?

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

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

 

I’m not sure.

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

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

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

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

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

And he simply couldn’t keep silent about it.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

And out of that inspiration comes the work itself.

That’s the continuation of the cycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon – Resurrection, Faith, and Flexibility

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

Today, we have 2 texts about faith and flexibility.

Faith is not meant to be static.

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

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

And thank God we’re capable of flexibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people and some churches do that better than others.

This church is particularly flexible.

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

Ministries and groups have come and gone.

And that’s a part of a healthy organization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Jesus appears to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t get the message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was already making an impact.

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

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

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

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

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

Courage is a part of Thomas’ character.

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

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

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

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

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

Which the other Disciples already have, to be fair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still is in many cultures around the world.

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

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

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

Even children do not “belong” to their parents.

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

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

Why NOT have children raised by the community?

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

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

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

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

Money, of course, was shared too.

It was a cultural expectation and obligation.

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

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

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

As is giving away money to any neighbor in need.

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

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

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

 

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

THAT is the miracle.

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

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

And so they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Pretty soon, the Disicples paths diverge again.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And I said, that’s difficult to answer.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.

 

 

God with us – An Easter Message

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

 

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

 

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

 

And who can blame them?

 

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

 

<personal story from Pastor Sarah not reproduced for online>

 

This type of thing happens fairly regularly.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He doesn’t just show up on Easter Sunday.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And when we’re demonstrating at the State House.

 

When we’re speaking out against bigotry.

 

When we’re caring for those in need.

 

They should recognize us when we are listening and loving.

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.

Palm Sunday Sermon – “Save us!”

Hosanna!
(Hosanna!)
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna!
(Hosanna)
Growing up in Sunday school, I always thought of Palm Sunday as a big parade.
It’s a celebration.
Yes, it was a bit different than parades we usually attend.
The guest of honor rides in on a donkey instead of driving down the boulevard in a convertible, or waving from a big float covered in roses, but it was a celebration nonetheless, right?
Well…
This year, I did a little more digging into the text, and I discovered that there’s more to it than just shouts of praise.
I’d always thought that Hosanna meant something like Hallelujah.
And I’m not alone. Even the dictionary says that Hosanna is a word “used to express adoration, praise, or joy.” It lists synonyms as “alleluia, hurrah, hooray!”
But it turns out, Hosanna, at least in its original language, meant something very different.
It actually means “save us.”
It comes from the Hebrew word hosha’na, which is found in Psalm 118 in the Old Testament. And in Hebrew, the word means “Save us.” Scholars all agree that’s what it means, but we’ve lost that in translation somewhere along the line. Because Jesus is in a parade. Why wouldn’t we cheer hooray! Hallelujah!
Well, they probably do. But they also cheer Hosanna, which means, “Save us.”
Palm Sunday is absolutely a celebration in the story of Mark, but the crowds don’t just celebrate Jesus because they love him and because it’s the Festival of Booths and there are thousands of people in Jerusalem from out of town and they want an excuse for a parade.
And they don’t just celebrate Jesus, because he’s mocking Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor, who’s parading in from the other side of town on his warhorse, wearing his shiny Roman armor, while Jesus is riding in on a scrubby little donkey.
Wouldn’t you cheer for the man who’s ridiculing the empire that’s been overtaxing you and oppressing your neighbors?
Of course you would.

But the people are not just cheering. They’re shouting Hosanna to Jesus, “Save us,” as a cry for help.

Save us. Be our savior.

As we approach Holy week and the final days of Jesus, it will become clear that saving us is, in fact, Jesus’ plan.

It’s just that the WAY in which Jesus will save us doesn’t match up with the expectations of the people at that Palm Sunday parade.

I’m not sure it matches up with our expectations either.

Here’s the thing about salvation. And I’m not only talking about eternal salvation, which we’ll talk more about in Bible study this week. There are a lot of ways to interpret the meaning of the cross.

Eternal salvation is just one type of salvation.

Today, I also want to talk about salvation in terms of the many ways we seek rescue or relief in both big and small ways throughout our life right here on earth.

Have you ever prayed to God to just get you through a day at work? Or a visit from someone that’s particularly difficult?

That’s a prayer for salvation.

Have you ever been in physical pain and prayed to God for it to end? That’s a prayer for salvation too.

Maybe you got stuck in the wind last week. I know I was praying to God to help me just get to my car without freezing to death or blowing away, because it was brutally biting cold.

That’s a prayer for salvation.

Maybe you’re bored during the sermon and are praying for salvation right now.

Who’s to say.

The people at that first Palm Sunday parade were looking to Jesus as the one to save them from whatever they were coping with at that moment.

Many of them probably wanted saving from the Roman occupation of their city. Others wanted saving from institutional religion in Jerusalem that many people thought had been watered down. It was a popular opinion that the high priests had sold out to Rome and were no longer teaching practices that were relevant to people’s everyday lives.
And of course, people wanted saving from their own illnesses and shorting comings. And saving from all the human problems we still face today.

And for all of that, they cry out to Jesus.

They want him to be that miraculous healer AND the man who brings back meaningful religion AND the one who forms an army to defeat the Roman empire AND the one who will give them all the answers to life, the universe and everything.

The people on the other side of town at the parade where the provincial governor Pontius Pilate is entering on his warhorse – I suspect they want the same thing from him. No doubt, they are also shouting Hosanna on that end of the city.

And at the temple, all of the people in town from regions around Jersulame have come for the Festival of Booths, which is one of 3 required pilgrimage festivals, where people come and worship God in Jersualem.

The high priests, in anticipation of the Festival in town have set up vendors in the temple courts to sell pigeons and livestock for people to sacrifice at the temple, at inflated prices, of course. And they promise that if people sacrifice to God on the alter in Jerusalem that their sins and problems will be washed away.

The difference between Jesus and Pontius Pilate and the high priests, is that when people ask for an easy solution to their problems, Pontius Pilate and the high priests act like they can deliver.

They give a show of wealth and power, and they reassure people that if they follow this Roman governor and buy sacrifices and offer them at the temple, that everything will be just fine.

Jesus offers a very different message.

He rides in on a donkey that’s never been ridden. A young colt, not a warhorse. And he shows up at the temple after everyone has already gone home.

And in the text that follows this one, he will go in the next day and turn over all of the tables of the vendors and scatter the coins and tell people that God’s house is not for sale and that you cannot simply “buy” salvation.

Jesus does heal people in the temple. He does perform miracles.

But more than anything else, Jesus tells stories, asks questions, and challenges people to do things that are extremely difficult.

When people shout, “Hosanna,” “Save us,” I wonder if they know what they’re getting into…

Because Jesus’ way of saving us, is often to challenge us to take a difficult journey that requires a lot of work and sacrifice.

Despite what some Christians may say, “salvation” is usually not as simple as saying, “I believe in Jesus… I’m saved… I’m done.”

Salvation, from our problems on earth, from our disconnection from God and one another, all of that usually requires a lot of work, and that’s not usually the salvation we want first.

Quick fixes are often the first place we go.

Just as a small example, the weight loss market—diet pills and weight-loss programs in the United States alone is $66 billion industry.

The truth is, changing habits, including diet and exercise and sleep and lifestyle, is a lifelong project that requires persistence and hard work.

There is no magic pill, and yet we spend billions of dollars shouting Hosanna, save us! to the pharmaceutical industry, hoping that THEY will be able to do the work for us.

The truth is, when it comes to pain and discomfort and the need for change in our lives, Jesus never offers us a magic pill.

There is nowhere in the Bible where Jesus says that life will be easier if we just follow him.

Jesus’ solutions to pain, personal problems, and systemic problems, are usually difficult. And they’re not usually the saving we want.

When a wealthy man asks Jesus how he can get into heaven, Jesus responds, sell everything you have and give it to the poor.

When Zacchaeus, the unethical tax collector has a meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus learns that in order to turn HIS life around, he’ll have to repay the people he’s stolen from.

When Jesus’ disciples fight over who should sit in a seat of honor at a meal with him, demonstrating their closeness to Jesus and their inevitable eternal salvation, Jesus kicks all of them out and welcomes children from the streets to join them, putting the children at the places of honor instead.

And when the high priests put a crippled man before Jesus on the sabbath, Jesus heals him, even though it against the law to work on the sabbath, essentially telling the priests that in order to heal their people, they may have to let go of some of their attachment to the law, the law of Moses that has guided their religious practice over 1000 years.

What would  Jesus say to the people in today’s story?

The Roman officials, like Pontius Pilate and his entourage want saving from the somewhat constant protests and revolts in Jerusalem. They want order and peace. And so THEY look to their military might as well as to the high priests, who they’ve put in place, and they look to them for salvation from the problem of Jewish uprisings in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, what they get instead is not a religious presence that keeps people under control but rather an energized populace who recognizes religion’s collusion with empire and rejects both of them in favor the Jesus movement, which proclaims justice and equality.
Rome could certainly be saved from the riots in Jerusalem, but Jesus would probably tell them that the way to do that is actually to grant Jerusalem independence.
That’s not the kind of saving they want.

And what about the high priests.? What do they want saving from? Certainly they want saving from that troublemaker Jesus. They’re walking a very fine balance between teaching faithful practice in Jersualem and keeping people subdued enough to keep Rome happy. They’re having to compromise some of the Torah’s teachings about feeding widows and giving money to the poor in to be allowed to practice their religion at all.

The high priests are comfortable financially, thanks to Rome’s patronage, but spiritually, many of them are wanting salvation from their compromised position.
And those who are HAPPY downplaying Jewish teachings about compassion are simply wanting salvation from Jesus, who is threatening their comfortable place at the top.

Unfortunately for the, the way to be saved spiritually is to operate with integrity, which carries with it extraordinary risks, especially given their mandate from Rome to keep the people.

And salvation from that troublemaker Jesus – well, they have two options there. They can either side with Rome and get rid of him, which, spoiler alert, they’re going to try.

The other option, which would save them from the conflict between the poor masses and the Roman elite, and would also save them from their precarious position in between those two groups, and would save them from their need to silence the troublemaker Jesus would be to embrace the teachings of Jesus and stand up against Rome with the people.
But that would likely mean exile or even death.
That’s not the kind of saving they want.

When we consider our own lives, what is it that we want saving from?

A relationship in turmoil? Financial stress? Illness or perhaps our discomfort and emotional pain associated with that illness?

There may be simple solutions.

But most likely, the solution Jesus would give us would require a bit more work and sacrifice.

A relationship in turmoil – the simple solution is to the cut it off. End the relationship. All done. Salvation achieved. Is that how Jesus would encourage us to solve that problem? Maybe. In some cases yes. But in others, Jesus might encourage us to think about our part in the conflict and might encourage us to struggle with our discomfort and find a way to be in relationship with someone that causes us stress, not because Jesus wants us to suffer, but because Jesus wants us to love not only our neighbors, but our enemies as well.

And illness or pain – there’s not much we can do about that, right? Or is there? What reconciliation, what peace, what justice or forward movement might we achieve as a result of our disabilities? What comfort might we give to others who are in the same situation? What spiritual growth might we accomplish as a result of our struggle?

And what about our political and social divisions? What about gun violence in our schools and all of the children who marched on Saturday and shouted to us, “Save us.” I’ve heard a lot of solutions that sound simple. Just arm our teachers. Or just tighten security. Or just have better reporting. Or just increase funding for mental health care. Or just raise the age at which people can buy guns.

I suspect it’s not that simple.

And I suspect, that the solutions Jesus would bring us to consider would not necessarily be the ones we’d initially go to. Not necessarily the ones we’d initially embrace.

On Palm Sunday, we join those people shouting to Jesus, “Hosanna,” “Save us.”

My challenge to us this week is to ask, “What is it that we’re asking God to be saved FROM?”
And the second part of that is “Is the salvation Jesus offers, are the SOLUTIONS Jesus offers the kind of saving we want?” The hard work, the self-reflection, the self-sacrifice, the reaching out and connecting with people we find difficult to work with? Are we ready for that? Can we commit to that? Are we ready for the kind of solutions that Jesus invites us to explore?
If so, Let us shout Hosanna from the highest mountain tops.
And then come back down and do the work, building reign of peace on earth together.

Freedom from Shame

Scriptures (click links to be redirected to the scripture):

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12

 

Introduction to Psalm 51:

In order to understand today’s text, we need to know the backstory.

 

King David, the man who as a boy slew the giant Goliath, has gotten himself into a bit of trouble.

 

King David, the artist and harp player, the one who soothed the previous king with his sweet melodies, David who read poetry to intimidate his foes.

 

THAT guy has now become a tyrant.

 

His most recent abuse of power includes spying on a woman named Bathsheba, who he lusts after and decides he must have as his wife.

 

The only problem – she’s already married.

 

But instead of moving on and saying, well, she’s beautiful, but I’ll have to look elsewhere for my next wife, David sends Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines of the war, where he knows her husband will die.

 

Then, with the husband out of the way, David takes Bathsheba for himself.

 

David, like many people in power, makes a massive mistake.

 

It turns out, people in power are likely to make mistakes.

 

As are people without power.

But David, God’s chosen king, was supposed to be above that type of behavior.

 

Obviously, he wasn’t.

 

So his best friend, Nathan, who recognizes David’s plots and manipulations comes to David and tries to get him back on track.

 

In the book of Second Samuel, the story is told this way:

“God was not at all pleased with what David had done with Bathsheba and her husband, so God sent Nathan to David.

Nathan told David a story: “There were two men in the same city—one rich, the other poor. The rich man had huge flocks of sheep, herds of cattle. The poor man had nothing but one little female lamb, which he had bought and raised. It grew up with him and his children as a member of the family. It ate off his plate and drank from his cup and slept on his bed. It was like a child to him.

“One day a traveler dropped in on the rich man, but the rich man was too stingy to take an animal from his own herds or flocks to make a meal for his visitor, so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared a meal to set before his guest.”

5-6 When Nathan finished the story, David exploded in anger. “As surely as God lives,” he said “the man who did this ought to be killed! He must repay for the lamb four times over for his crime and his stinginess!”

To which, Nathan replies… 7-12 “You are that man!”

Today’s Psalm is David’s response.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

You desire truth in the inward being;[a]
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Sermon and Ritual of Release

David recognizes what he’s done. And he’s horrified. And he begs God for forgiveness.

 

And if you read on, David DOES find redemption. He DOES change his ways.

 

But in THIS moment, the moment of Psalm 51, David finds himself stuck in a place that’s familiar to a lot of us. The place of shame.

 

It’s a place where many of us go when we realize we’ve done something that’s hurt other people.

 

“Indeed, I was born guilty, he says.     a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

 

He’s not just feeling guilty. HE’s feeling shame. Not only did he do something wrong, he himself is somehow broken.

 

The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is that feeling of regret and sadness at having made a mistake.

 

Shame is the belief that we ARE a mistake. That we ARE inherently evil.

 

Guilt is about recognizing our actions as problematic.

 

Shame is the belief that we ourselves are problematic.

 

And it is SHAME that ultimately becomes a stumbling block for many of us.

 

 

It is SHAME that often keeps us from taking the next step and moving on with our lives.

 

Brenee Brown, who writes a lot about guilt and shame, has this to say about the difference between the two.

 

She writes, “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

Shame, on the other hand, is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

She adds, “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Thankfully, for David, and for us, shame does not have to be the final word.

 

David does have to face the consequences of his actions. But Nathan tells him right away, “This is not the final word. God forgives you.”

 

David, God tells him. You are not inherently sinful. You ARE worthy of love and connection. You just made a massive mistake. And I wanted you to see it, so I sent Nathan to help you recognize what you’d done. But this is not the final word. I forgive you.

 

David’s realization of his mistakes ultimately becomes  part of his healing.

But at first, he gets stuck in his shame, which could be dangerous.

 

Writer Jessie Sholl, who writes about health and wellness, captures it perfectly: “Shame,” she writes, “which Jungian analysts have dubbed “the swampland of the soul,” makes us feel like we are worthless. To compensate, we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding. Very high levels of shame are associated with more serious problems like addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm. Shame, in other words, causes us to act in ways that keep us from a feeling of forward movement, freedom from fear, and a sense of agency.”

 

We witness David’s shame, and I suspect many of us can relate to it. That feeling that in order to do what we’ve done, we must be inherently bad.

 

But God responds to us by saying, “No. I knit you together in your mother’s womb. I formed your inmost parts. And when you were born, I proclaimed to the heavens, YOU are my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.”

 

God knows we make mistakes. Sometimes big mistakes. God also knows that we are created in God’s image, fully human, but also fully capable of connecting to God through the Holy Spirit. We are created for connection and love.

 

And so as difficult as it is to believe in God’s forgiveness and to live into that forgiveness, it is essential if we are to move forward and take the next steps toward healing and wholeness.

 

As we prepare for Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the scriptures tell us that there are difficult times ahead.

 

And in order to face what comes next, the trial and crucifixion and yes, the resurrection as well, in order to face what comes next… it is important that we clear our hearts of shame, that we accept God’s forgiveness, and just as importantly, that we begin the process of forgiving ourselves.

 

In order to fully experience Holy Week, we have to be vulnerable to the Spirit. We have to be fearless and open-hearted.

 

And so to prepare for Palm Sunday, which is next week, today, we will participate in a ritual of preparation by releasing our shame to God and clearing our hearts, that we might take the next steps toward healing, wholeness, reconciliation, and resurrection.

 

 

 

There will be 3 parts to this ritual.

1) Confession

2) Release of our Guilt and Shame

3) Clearing of our Hearts

So what’s going to happen is that I’m going to give a moment for silent prayer and confession, and I’m going to invite people to speak out loud or speak in silence to God and offer honest confessions of ways you have created distance between you and God, you and others, or you and your true self.

After that, I’m going to invite people to come forward to pick up a rock, as you feel comfortable.

And it’s absolutely okay if you do NOT want to participate in any aspect of this ritual, by the way. It is not easy to be that honest and vulnerable before God. But know that God will not judge, but will simply hear and hold what you have have been carrying.

So I’m going to invite people to come forward, as you feel comfortable, and take a rock from this basket.

And then I want you to take just a moment, and put into that rock, any guilt or shame that is stuck to your soul that you want to release.

Anything that tells you “you are not worthy, that you are beyond fixing, that you are unlovable. That your sins are too great to forgive.” Any shame or guilt that’s sticking to you, put it into this rock, and then place it in the water.

I’m then going to pray over those rocks and ask God to release our shame into the water.

After that, I’m going to ask God to clear it for us. To purify and transform this water and in doing that symbolic act, change something real in our hearts. Transform us and release us, and create in us clean hearts and renew our spirits that we might be able to move ahead and take the next steps toward reconciliation and healing.

Let us begin now this ritual in a spirit of openness to what God has in store.

CONFESSIONAL PRAYER

Let us pray,

God we come to you today with regrets and guilt and shame over what we have done and what we have left undone.

We lift to you now our spoken and silent confessions:

 

Hear these confessions, O God, and offer us your forgiveness. Amen.

ASSURANCE

Know that God’s love is boundless. Friends, there is nothing, not even sin or death, that can keep us from the love of God.

We are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

STONES

Although we know intellectually that God forgives us, it is sometimes difficult for us to shake the guilt and shame of our actions.

As you feel called, I invite you to come forward and take a rock representing your own guilt and shame.

Put into these rocks anything that you are still holding onto, anything that still keeps you from moving forward as God’s beloved child.

Water is a powerful symbol. It is essential to life on earth, it grows creation, and it welcomes us into community in baptism.

Please come forward now, as you feel comfortable, to place any lingering shame into these rocks.

RELEASE

Here in this bowl are rocks that represent the shame and guild we carry with us.

I now pray to you, O God, that you might release our shame and guilt into this water.

<pour red-colored heavy liquid into vase>

And as our intentions release from these rocks, may we see this visible sign as a symbol of our own shame and guilt releasing from our hearts and souls into your care. Amen.

This is what guilt and shame can feel like.

Heavy, cloudy, a force that keeps us from seeing any way forward.

But into this mix, God pour forgiveness and freedom.

CLARIFYING

Let us pray,

God, we ask that in this moment, you transform us through the power of your Holy Spirit.

<pour clarifying liquid into the vase>

Just as this water is becoming clear, cleanse and purify our hearts.

Free us of any shame or guilt,

transform our pain and open our eyes that we might see a path forward,

knowing that your forgiveness and love of us knows no end.

Remind us that with you, there is no darkness we cannot overcome.

Remind us that you created us with love and created us FOR love. Remind us that we are your beloved children with whom you are well pleased. Remind us that through you, we are freed to be open and vulnerable again as we prepare for the journey of Holy Week and the joy of the resurrection.

Amen.

 

God of our mothers and fathers, we ask that you imprint this memory on our hearts, that in times of struggle, times of shame, we remember this moment in which the cloudy water of shame was cleared, and we were given a fresh start. We ask that you hold us close as we prepare for the days ahead, knowing that you are with us every step of the way.

We lift to you now our silent prayers….

 

Prayer of Jesus…

 

Sermon on Numbers and John, including surprises about John 3:16 and the meaning of the Cross!

If there’s any reason to come to Bible study, it’s texts like these…

We won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty of everything in the next 10 minutes, but I do promise I’ll unpack some of the craziness of the snakes and Jesus on the cross to the best of my abilities.

If you want to talk more about this text or about issues relating to what you hear today, please don’t hesitate to call me, and we’ll get together and work through it together.

So before we get into revealing why on earth Jesus is compared to a bronzed poisonous snake, I want to share with you a quick story that demonstrates the principle that I believe both the book of Numbers and the Gospel of John are trying to demonstrate,
which is that sometimes, in order to heal, we need to take a closer look at what’s causing us pain.
A few weeks ago, my friend took action to investigate something that was causing her a lot of personal distress, her lack of sleep.

So she downloaded an application onto her phone that tracks how much sleep she gets.
It’s simple. She pushes a button when she goes to bed and when she wakes up.
The app also connects to a program that’s integrated with her watch to monitor how much she’s tossing and turning during the night.

Now she downloaded this, because she was feeling tired all the time and she thought she wasn’t sleeping well.
After a week of monitoring, it sent her a graph, and what she saw surprised her. It turns out that she’s actually sleeping quite soundly. The issue is, she’s just going to bed really really late.
Here, she thought she was being responsible. She was IN bed by 9 o’clock, but she was reading or looking at emails on her phone until much later.

Before she downloaded the app, she was blind to that reality.
But a simple graph helped her see where she was going wrong.

As a result of this new information, and her personal commitment to caring for herself, she’s slowly changing her habits. She’s increasingly getting more sleep and feeling less tired during the day.
There are lots of places in our lives where we too, seek improvement.
Maybe it’s our eating habits. Or our personal relationships. Our work/life balance. There are always places we can improve.

But often times, it’s difficult to know how to do that.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize there’s a problem until someone else invites us to take a closer look.

And a closer look at the source of pain is exactly what Moses and God intend to do with the snakes in the desert.
The poisonous snakes aren’t just a random plague from God.

Snakes in the Bible often represent evil, and specifically, poisonous speech and actions.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly calls his adversaries “a brood of vipers.” Snakes represent corruption and forces of evil that separate people from God.

There’s also the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, who twists the words of God and Eve to make it sound like God is keeping something valuable from them.

God may be protecting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but the serpent twists that reality in such a way that Adam and Eve are compelled to act against God.

There are a lot of different interpretations of that story too, some of which include some redemption for the snake, but the most common interpretation is that the snake represents evil.

So it’s no coincidence that the plague we read about in today’s text is a plague of poisonous snakes.

When the people begin to complain to God and Moses that they’re tired of walking in the desert, and they’re tired of eating magical mana from heaven, and they’re tired of Moses’ leadership, God sends snakes as a metaphor for the way their complaining and conspiring is poisoning the group.

Remember that God liberated these people from slavery in Egypt. Complaining and saying they’d be better off back in Egypt IS ungrateful. And it’s the kind of thing that would distance them from God and create conflict within their group.

Thankfully, God gives them a way forward.

God tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, and whoever looks at it will be healed.

God invites them to look directly at something that represents their poisonous words and attitudes.

And by looking directly at it, by looking at something that represents their separation from God, they are able to heal and reconcile with God and with one another.
Fast forward to the Christian scriptures, which are written hundreds of years later. The author of John tells his followers, who would have been familiar with the story from Numbers, that just as Moses held up the bronze snake in the desert, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

It may seem odd, but John IS saying that Jesus is equivalent to the bronze snake.

He’s a symbol to look at for healing.

Specifically, a symbol that reminds us of our corruption and poisonous words and actions.

Remember that Jesus spoke out publicly about love and healing and economic justice, and he was crucified as a result.

There couldn’t be a more clear demonstration of human separation from God than the cross, where we executed the man who represented God’s message of love and hope.

And I say we, because even though we weren’t there, we certainly participate in systems and structures and behaviors that continue to damage God’s work for justice in the world.

This invitation to look to the cross is not intended to make us feel ashamed or embarrassed as much as it is intended to open our eyes to the ways we are creating distance between ourselves and God and take that recognition as an opportunity for healing.
Sometimes, we have to take a hard look at ourselves and recognize our shortcomings in order to begin the process of transformation for good.

In my opening story, my friend wasn’t able to change her sleeping habits until she saw the hard facts about what was actually going on with her sleep pattern.

Likewise, in 12 step programs, one of the key steps to recovery is taking a moral inventory and admitting to God, ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our wrongs.

Healing begins with recognition that healing is needed.

And one of the places healing is needed most is in the Christian church.

The text from John today is one of the most misused and abused texts in scripture, and I can’t stand in the pulpit today without addressing that.

So let’s take a closer look at the bronze snake and see what healing we might find.

First, there is a text from 2 Kings 18 that is essential to understanding today’s texts. It reads, “King Hezekiah did was right in the sight of God. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.”

What this tells us is that many years after the events that take place in the desert with Moses, King Hezekiah, one of the greatest and most honorable and faithful kings of the Bible, smashes the bronze serpent, because people in Israel had started making offerings to it.

They had taken it out of context and perverted its original power.

Likewise, the words in the Gospel of John have their own specific context.

They too were a way to bring people healing and wholeness. And yet taken out of context years later, they have been worshiped and idolized on their own in the form of John 3:16 bumper stickers and dangerous theology that says that all you have to do to be “saved” is to believe that Jesus died for our sins.

We cannot forget that John was writing to a specific group of people, a small sect of Jews who were outcast from the temple and who were facing severe persecution, imprisonment, and even death as a result of their unorthodox beliefs.

Because they refused to give up their Jewish practices, Christian groups ostracized them as well.

When John says, “God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it,” he’s speaking directly to a group of people who feel condemned by religious authorities on a regular basis.
And when John says, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already,” he’s not saying that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell.

He’s simply saying that those people who are attacking John’s small group, those people who are going after them – the attackers are condemned by their actions.
That’s clear if we read down to verse 20, where it says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, “We, Jewish followers of Christ, have found a meaningful way to connect with God. Those who accuse us of falsehood and who attack us in the public square and abuse our bodies and imprison us – they don’t have a monopoly on truth.

In fact, their evil deeds will be brought into the light and God will see them for what they are. Evil done in the name of righteousness is still evil.”

So THAT is the context of John’s words, but just like the people who years later worshiped the bronze snake, many Christians, years later, idolize this text as something set in bronze, something permanent and immovable.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg puts it this way: “In 2 Kings we see how the symbol of the serpent has hardened. It no longer points beyond itself to God. Instead it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a formula…Just as in Hezekiah’s day, the idol of John 3:16 needs to be broken. Like the bronze serpent in Hezekiah’s day, John 3:16 alone is an insufficient guide for healing and salvation. Instead, we need an authentic encounter with the Mysterious, Loving, and Gracious Presence that we call God — and concrete steps transforming one’s life to follow the way of Jesus.” (read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/)

The translation of John 3:16 is misread and mistranslated anyway. We hear “God so loved the world” as “God loved the world a LOT,” but it actually means, “God loved the world in this way, in this manner.” God loved the world in this way: God sent God’s only son.

The way God loves the world is to become incarnate in it. To live among us and within us that we might live lives connected to the divine.

My challenge to us this week is to consider what snakes there might be in our lives, what poison we may need to address, but also to not make those reminders of separation from God the final word. To remember that making an idol out of the sins of the past and looking at them forever isn’t the way to healing.
God doesn’t end our story with condemnation. God ends with forgiveness, and healing, and connection.
Amen.

“The foolishness of God…” – A sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 To those who are spiritually dead, the message of the cross is foolishness—absurd and illogical, but to those of us being healed and liberated by God’s grace, the cross is the manifestation of God’s power. 19 For it is written in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the ‘wise,’

And I will baffle the insights of the ‘intelligent’.”

20 Where are the wise? Where are the authors and scholars? Where are the debaters and philosophers of this age? Has God not exposed the foolishness of this world’s wisdom? 21 The world, through all its earthly wisdom and pursuit of power, fails to recognize God; and yet God somehow uses our humility and “foolishness” to proclaim the Good News. 22 Some are persuaded by miracles, and others invest in worldly wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified. Our message is a stumbling block for many, and foolishness to others, but to those who are called, Christ represents the power and wisdom of God. 25 The foolishness of God is far wiser than the limits of human comprehension, and the weakness of God is far stronger than the limits of human effort.”

Sermon: “We Proclaim Christ crucified”

When I lived in<place omitted for online publication>, I attended a church whose history went back generations.

It was founded in <date>, and from the beginning, the congregation had a commitment to serving the community and living out the message of Christ in the world.

One of their early missions was to sponsor a clinic for mothers and children before the public health department even existed. And among other acts of justice, they spoke out against the interment of American citizens with Japanese heritage during WWII.

The church was on the front lines of the equal marriage movement, and they were one of the first churches to publicize that they were going to perform same-sex weddings no matter what the state had to say about it.

But perhaps even more controversial and risky than all of these previous actions, in 2009, they did something quite radical.

They elected a convicted felon as their moderator.

Now, to be fair, we all believed him to be an innocent man.

But at the time he was elected moderator, as far as the courts were concerned, he was a felon.

Someone who, for over 10 years, sat in jail, because his defense lawyer told him that as a young black man, it was better if he just pled guilty and got a lesser sentence than to go before a jury and take his chances of getting life in prison.

So according to his own plea, he was guilty.

So why on earth would a congregation with over 100 years of leadership in the community, decide HE was the man they wanted leading their congregation.

Well, one answer was that he was a phenomenal leader.

Another answer comes from today’s text.

We elected a convicted felon as our moderator, because we, as Christians, sometimes choose to reject the “wisdom” of the world in favor of the “foolishness” of the Gospel message, which proclaims God’s love and forgiveness for all people.

According to conventional wisdom, it seems grossly unwise to elect a felon to lead an historic church, who had a reputation as a community leader for over 100 years.

And yet the wisdom of God, manifest in the life and message of Jesus Christ, says that lifting up a felon as a leader is completely appropriate.

Isn’t a convicted felon just the type of person Jesus would have called into leadership?

When we read the text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that becomes clear.

The Apostle Paul is writing to a community in Corinth that is divided. They’re fighting over who can be Christian and who is not allowed in community. And they’re fighting over what communion means and over who should be able to speak in church and who should lead and who should remain silent.

And to all of that, Paul says, “Listen. What’s important here is not the law or the tiny details. What’s important is Christ and HIS message.”

And…ultimately, believing in Jesus, and following the MESSAGE of Jesus is not always logical.

Don’t forget – Jesus was a convicted criminal himself. At the very least, a jury of his peers, even a jury of his biggest fans, would have convicted him of disturbing the peace.

In addition to doing things that broke social and religious conventions, like talking to women, working on the sabbath, and eating with people who didn’t keep kosher, Jesus broke Roman law as well.

He spoke out against the Roman empire’s economic injustices, he created a scene in a temple courtyard by turning over the tables of the money changers, and he could arguably be blamed for fomenting a revolution against the Roman empire in Jerusalem.

Just wait for Palm Sunday when Jesus parades in on a donkey at the same time the Roman military leader parades into town on a war horse on the other side of town. Seems like a mockery of Roman authority to me…

Remember that the Roman empire was expansive, and it depended on strict laws and hierarchy to maintain order across such a great stretch of territory.

The Romans tolerated Judaism, in part, because it maintained a logical social structure and kept people in line.

But Jesus brought chaos to the equation, defying logic, defying the religious and civil authorities.

And he did it across the board.

To make matters worse, Jesus was not consistent in championing one side or another.

Yes, Jesus stood up for the poor and outcast, but he also reached out to the wealthy and powerful.

At one point in the Bible, he heals a man with mental health issues who spends his days outside the city in a cemetery, mumbling to himself and fighting with personal demons.

And yet, in another part of scripture we read about how Jesus also heals the daughter of a Roman official.

In another story, he invites himself over to dinner at the home of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who is short in stature, but powerful as an enforcer for the Roman government.

Jesus doesn’t fit the “wisdom” of the world.

He didn’t fit the structures or even the common sense of the world.

If he were here now, he may find himself in the International zone caring for people who are homeless. He may find himself visiting prisoners. But I can guarantee that he would also be meeting at the homes of bankers and wall street moguls and inviting himself to talk with Donald Trump in the Whitehouse.

And even more shocking, perhaps, is the reality that if Jesus came today, he would also be visiting with and having meals with people we reject as broken and even evil.

Jesus might be found gathering with white supremacists to listen to their stories or sharing a meal with a mass shooter.

In a crowd of people, Jesus might single out a registered sex offender as the one he’d like to visit with in his home.

That’s the type of extreme love Jesus practiced. Love so deep and wide that it had room for people who we find are nearly impossible to forgive, let alone love.

That’s who Jesus was.

Now, is that the kind of leader we really want to get behind?

 

Paul says yes.

 

But Paul also reminds us in this text of the implications of following Christ.

 

Paul reminds us of the cost that comes with living a life that defies the laws of the land and the conventions of society.

 

Paul reminds us of the risk of putting ourselves out there to love people who many see as unlovable.

 

Let’s not forget, Paul says, that Jesus was tortured and killed, not only because of the crimes he committed, but also because people on all sides feared what it would mean to have a leader who refused to take sides.

The only sides Jesus took was the side of love and the side of forgiveness, the side of justice, and the side of healing and wholeness.

 

And as much as we’d like to think of ourselves as an open and welcoming community, there’s not one of us here that on some level, must struggle with that message.

 

There’s not one of us here that doesn’t have some adversary in our lives who we believe to be wrong.

 

Maybe it is a criminal that’s hurt us or our family. Maybe it’s actually a family member. Or an ex. Maybe it’s a political party or people who have a particular political ideology. Maybe it’s people who are openly racist.

 

Maybe it’s simple people we don’t know or understand or people we fear.

 

Following a leader who loves THEM is not logical. It’s not practical. And frankly, it’s dangerous.

 

Recently, I witnessed someone follow Jesus’ example, and also listened as they struggled with their choice to do so.

 

A recently homeless man had approached a member of our church community.

 

He told her he had just left his family, and he had no where to go. He had tried a local shelter, but he had been attacked there, and he was afraid to go back.

 

Despite conventional wisdom, despite the risk to her own safety, she reached out to him, offering to help him in the form of a listening ear and a phone to call family members and social services. She even welcomed him into a public place and offered him food, not knowing if he might hurt her.

 

She didn’t know the man. She didn’t know if he was dangerous.

 

She also didn’t listen to conventional wisdom.

 

She listened to the wisdom of her heart, and the language of Christ, the language of love and forgiveness and compassion.

 

Thankfully, she was okay, but I know many people who have ended up being hurt or scammed in situations like that.

 

And injury, physical as well as emotional, are risks when it comes to caring for people, especially people on the margins of society or people who are at odds with us ideologically for one reason or another.

 

There is legitimate risk in following the type of leader we’ve lifted up as our savior.

 

Jesus Christ is not a safe choice.

 

He’s not someone who will create order and comfort in our lives.

 

Certainly, we can receive nurture and love from Christian community, but that nurture and care is not an end in itself. It’s part of being restored and filled up spiritually so that we can go out and do that difficult and dangerous work Jesus modeled.

 

For those of us who are spiritually and emotionally and physically able at this time, my challenge to us this week is to find a place where we can be a little more “foolish.” A bit more reckless with our love for those who the world calls dangerous or wrong or “other.”

 

And for those of us who feel broken or even just cautious and not ready to risk to such a degree, which is totally fine too, by the way, my challenge for us is allow people in our lives to foolishly embrace US and restore OUR hope, and OUR strength, that we might all participate in the healing of God’s world together.

Amen.

Sermon on Romans 9:2-7 – Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday
Romans 9:2-7

In today’s story, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the top of a mountain, and there, they encounter something extraordinary.

We have no video footage of the event, and the Gospel of Mark was likely written 30 years after his death, so it’s likely that the author was not an eye witness to the event. So we’re not sure EXACTLY what happened that day.

But we do know that SOMETHING happened. And that Peter, James, and John were changed as a result.

So why Peter, James and John?

Maybe they were the Disciples who were closest to Jesus. Maybe they were his top leaders.

Or maybe…they were actually the biggest troublemakers, and so Jesus wanted to keep them close to keep an eye on them.

My own sense is that Peter, James and John, and Peter in particular, were the disciples that needed this experience most.

Peter was a law and order guy. His name was actually Simon-Peter, Simon meaning listener and Peter menaing rock.

But most of the time, Jesus calls him Peter, because Peter, the rock, is solid, trustworthy, but also stubborn.
Peter is an institutional guy. He believed in the value of organized institutional religion. There are reasons he became, according to legend, the first bishop of the church. He liked structure. He liked buildings. He liked monuments and control and logic.

Most of the followers of Jesus, crowds of people surrounding him wherever he went, believed he was capable of healing them and performing miracles.

But Peter had a very different view of Jesus.

Yes, Jesus was the Christ, the son of God. But for Peter, Jesus was also the one who was supposed to transform organized religion. And set the Jewish people free from the influence of Rome. In Peter’s world view, the messiah, Jesus, was supposed to be a traditional political and religious leader who would enact reforms from within the confines of religious law and structure.

Of course, we know now that Jesus did not fit that mold.

And it troubled Peter that Jesus wasn’t living up to Peter’s expectations.

Even more troubling was that before the events in today’s scripture, Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples that soon, Jesus will suffer and die.

And so when Jesus says this, of course, it throws Peter into a tailspin. So Peter takes Jesus aside and tells Jesus that Jesus dying is not a part of the plan.

That’s not how things are SUPPOSED to happen. The savior of the world needs to live longer in order to transform organized religion. Jesus’ work is not done. He can’t go yet.

And to Peter’s complains, Jesus responds by turning to Peter and to all the disciples and says this: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus calls Peter the devil. That’s a pretty strong critique.

Jesus calls Peter out, very publicly, and says, listen, suffering is a part of what is going to happen, whether you like it or not, and there is more to this world than what you can see and explain through reason and logic. And more to spirituality than organized religion.

So get out of your head and outside the walls of the synagogue for a second and pay attention to what’s really going on here.

Just 6 days later, Jesus takes Peter to the mountaintop.

Peter needed that experience to break him free.
On the mountaintop, Peter witnesses something he absolutely cannot explain, the appearance of Elijah, the prophet, and Moses, the writer of the law, people who died over a thousand years ago.

And Peter is terrified. Understandably. And so he turns to what he knows – structure and substance.

He witnesses something supernatural, and his instinct is to put his visions in a box. To build a tent or a monument of stone—houses for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus to contain them up here in on the mountaintop.

But of course, visions cannot be contained within stone walls. And the visions of Elijah and Moses disappear. And at that moment, as if the message wasn’t clear enough, a cloud overshadows the mountain, and the voice of God says to Peter and the others, “This is my child, my beloved. Listen to him.”

To Simon-Peter, whose name means both listener and rock, God says, Simon-Peter, be more of a listener, and stop being such a rock.

Peter needs that encounter. He needs something to break him loose from the confines of his world view.

And like Peter, as Christians, as members of this community and as human beings, it sometimes takes this type of experience to shake US loose from our OWN needs to put God and humanity into static, explainable, rational structures.

Sometimes, it takes a mountaintop experience. Or a deep VALLEY experience, to engage our curiosity instead of our instinct to know it all, to be right, and to explain.

Certainly in nature, many of us experience awe and connection with the Holy Spirit. In the quiet of the morning sunrise, perhaps surrounded by wildlife and the flora of the desert or the forest, many of us find clarity.

Others of us find that clarity and connection in music. We connect with its heartbeat, with its soul, and we release our bodies and minds to the experience as we become one with the moment.

Both are true for me.

Donna preached once about thin places.

Those places where God is so clearly present.

And I think many of us have experienced those at one time or another.

And sometimes, they’re not where you would expect.

Have any of you ever been to a dance club and had a religious experience?

I used to go to a dance club on weekends when I was in college, and that club, for me, was absolutely a thin place.

There was something about being surrounded by people who were free to be themselves, coupled with music that had good bass and that talked about love and liberation—something about that brought me closer to God.

I remember wanting to raise my hands. I think I probably did sometimes, the way some Christians do in worship.

Because in that place, I felt God was alive.

Peter needed more moments like that….

We all do. Because in those moments of connection,

The nonsense of the media and politics and family and work and personal drama—they all fall away, and we find ourselves connected to the mysteries of the universe, connected to that with that which is beyond ourselves, that which is awe and love in its purist form.

But it’s not just ecstatic experiences that connect us with God.

In Lent, we also talk a fair amount about suffering and loss and mortality.

The valleys of our life are also opportunities for the veil between humanity and God to be lifted and God’s love and presence revealed.

The morning I learned of BD’s death, I was devastated.

I came to the church early, and through my tears, I watched the sun crawl across the valley.

While I sat there in my car, facing the land below, three hawks appeared – two on the telephone wire, and one on a telephone pole about 100 feet away.

Cooper’s hawks.

And they started talking.

Two of them looked right at me, and I could swear, they were talking to me.

And those of you who at this moment feel open to the supernatural and to mystery will probably not be surprised when I tell you that one of those hawks looked like my dear friend Marcia Dimbo, who passed away last year, and the other one looked like my good friend Orp Christopher.
The other hawk watched all of this from a distance and seemed amused at the whole situation.

I actually called LouAnn to ask if hawks were significant to BD, because I had a feeling he was showing up that morning to say goodbye.

I haven’t seen any of them since.

But in that moment, in my grief, and in my reflection on the life of BD Shafer, I found myself open to the possibility that God was close by. And that those people who had died, were also close by.

The hawks closest to me would not stop talking, by the way.

And I felt like one was heckling me.

And so I rolled down the window and said to one of them, “Shut up, Orp. It’s okay for me to be sad.”

The hawk didn’t stop making noise, but it did change its pitch slightly. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was laughing.

And so I laughed too.

And then the hawks all flew away.

My friend who’s a bird expert told me that my story makes no sense. That hawks don’t hang out together usually, nor do they look people in the eye and talk to them.

And yet that experience is something that’s still in my mind and on my heart. And something that felt absolutely real and awe-inspiring in the moment.

Whether it was a random encounter with the natural world or Orp and Marcia and BD coming to cheer me up, I can’t say.

But I can say that I’m still thinking about it.

And as a result of being in one of those valleys of life, I found myself a little bit more open. More able to connect not just with memories but with mystery and with the real presence of God and God’s manifestation in nature and in the lives of people I loved who I do believe are still very present with us now.

One of the most beautiful gifts of death is actually how close it can bring us to the living presence of God and those we love.

The rational explanation is usually easier to talk about, and it’s more palatable to people who are not open to supernatural experiences.

And there are scientists and researchers who even today will try to explain what happened to Jesus on that mountaintop. And Christian scholars still interpret the text from today with a surface-level reading. Very simply: Jesus’ clothing and body were changed, and he momentarily glowed with a supernatural light.

But what if, what really happened, was not that Jesus changed at all. What if what happened was that the veil between life and death and the veil between God and humanity was lifted, just for moment, and that Jesus’ true nature was revealed?

What if, the real miracle was not the radiant glowing light of Jesus on the mountaintop? What if the miracle was simply that Peter and the disciples were finally enlightened to a point where they could see what was there all along.

What is remarkable to me is not that the world has a spiritual heartbeat or that people who have passed on find ways to connect with us.

It’s not remarkable to me that God breaks through into our lives when we need God most.

What is remarkable is that we have become so adept at ignoring the divinity all around us. And within us. And within those with whom we interact.

If you think about it, can you remember a time when God showed up for you this week?

Can you think about a time this morning, where the mysteries of the universe and the presence of God was made known to you in some small way?

Maybe something as simple as the smile of a child? Or an uplifting or inspiring piece of music? The savory taste of chili on a cold afternoon? Or the beauty of the flurry of snow falling on the mountain? Maybe a phone call that offered healing? A dream that revealed something new to you? A sign from a loved one who’s passed? An unexpectedly kind word? Or he manifestation of God’s love here in this community?

My challenge to us this week is simply to pay attention. To be more listener than rock.

And to notice when that imagined division between the human world and the divine world is lifted.

May we all glimpse God’s glory, on the mountain top, in the valleys, and in the everyday wonders in between.

Amen.

Sermon on Genesis and 1 Peter – “New Beginnings”

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22

Sermon: New Beginnings

There are several seasons of the Christian year, and they can easily be explained by a simple metaphor, which is the butterfly.

 

Before a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it lives a life of eating.

 

That is the Christmas season for most of us.

 

We feast, we enjoy, and fatten ourselves up on Christmas cookies and feelings of generosity and good will.

When 2018 arrived, we began to think about the year ahead.

 

And like caterpillars who molt several times before they go into a cocoon, many of us are shedding bad habits of the past, maybe even shedding few pounds gained over the holidays.

 

And now, we arrive at the season of Lent, the chrysalis stage for the caterpillar.

 

When caterpillars are ready for this stage, hang upside down from a twig or a leaf and they spin a silky cocoon or molt into a shiny chrysalis.

 

And then for 10-14 days, they grow and transform. The chrysalis stage is not a time of rest. The caterpillar grows wings and antenna, its mouth changes, and ultimately, it prepares itself to break free.

 

When it’s ready to emerge, it struggles, pushing fluid out of its abdomen and into its wings, which ultimately, allows it to break out of the chrysalis and fly.

If you break a butterfly out of the chrysalis and try to “help” it be free, it will perish.

 

The struggle is the only way the butterfly develops the strength and body structure to survive its new form.

 

So like the transformation of the butterfly, Lent, for us, is a time of struggle and transformation in which we prepare ourselves to emerge at Easter in the light of the resurrection.

 

In order to prepare ourselves for that day when we all break free and emerge into the reality of the resurrection, we must struggle, with ourselves, with the reality of change, and with all that comes with saying goodbye to the past.

 

 

Part of that struggle for me, this Lent, is the simple fact that we’re using the Revised Common Lectionary.

That means that the texts we read this season will not be selected by me or by the worship team, but by a committee across several different Christian groups, several mainline churches, who agree to preach on the same texts.

 

That means that if you have a relative that’s Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or Episocapian or Roman Catholic in the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance that if they go to church this morning, they’ll hear these same scriptures we did.

 

Which is beautiful, in a way.

 

And yet, the lectionary challenges us with its seemingly poor choices of texts, including texts that push back against some of our core beliefs.

 

Working with it can challenges all of us to struggle with texts that we wouldn’t ordinarily choose to read or go to for inspiration.

 

The text from 1 Peter this morning is particularly difficult.

 

And so we fight. And we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and like the caterpillar, we may be transformed in the process.

 

Unfortunately, we don’t have time this morning to unpack these texts as much as I would like. The text from 1 Peter in particular has lots of room for mistranslation

and misuse.

 

 

So in the interest of time, I’m going to ask you to trust me, and if you want to dive deeper into these texts, I invite you to come to Bible study at 11AM on Tuesdays or to make an appointment with me to talk more about the questions these texts raise about the nature of God, the sacraments, suffering, and the cross itself.

 

You may very well come to different conclusions, but because we have so many folks who have heard these texts preached in ways that are hurtful, let me offer you some quick reassurance.

 

These texts do NOT say that if you’re not baptized, you’re going to hell.

 

In fact, the text doesn’t mention hell at all.

 

They do NOT say that…baptism is an exclusive club.

 

They do NOT say that…there will never be another natural disaster.

They do NOT say that…God planned for Jesus to suffer and die or that Jesus died for our sins and therefore, sinning is just fine.

 

Those are what the texts do NOT say.

 

What they DO say is that change is an integral part of the human experience, change requires struggle, and God is our partner in transformation.

 

Change is, unfortunately, not a promise that things will get better.

 

And change is not something we all readily embrace!

 

Frankly, many of us would be happy to stay in that caterpillar lifestyle.

 

It seems quite nice, crawling around, being cute and eating plants all day.

If caterpillars were as sentient as human beings, and they were somehow able to choose how their bodies changed with time, I imagine that many of them would choose not to enter that scary and vulnerable chrysalis stage that requires so much struggle.

 

We’ve all been through tough changes in our lives, and we know that change is NOT always welcome.

 

And even when it IS welcome. Even when change is something that everyone says is good for us or that we know rationally is the right thing to do, even then, change can be a struggle.

 

Some of you may be struggling at this very moment with the new seat arrangement.

 

For Lent, the worship team and I decided that it was good to turn toward each other.

And this small change is a simple metaphor for the re-orientation we undertake at Lent.

 

If you’re experiencing some discomfort around the change, that’s okay.

 

I’m having to adjust my preaching a bit to see all of you. We’re in this together.

 

The seats alone are a good reminder that change, even the smallest of changes, can be disorienting.

 

I recently had another disorienting experience related to change – I got a new glasses prescription.

 

When I got my new lenses, I was so excited, because at the doctor’s office, when the optometrist put these lenses in front of my eyes, everything was so much more crisp and clean.

 

And yet when I first put on these new lenses in the mail, my eyes struggled to adjust.

 

I even looked up my order to make sure I’d gotten the right prescription.

 

Because everything seemed a little fuzzy and distorted.

 

I read up on it, which took a little bit longer than planned given how distorted my vision felt at times, and

 

Apparently, it can take between 2 days and 2 weeks for your eyes to adjust to a new prescription.

 

Which seems ridiculous to me.

 

These glasses are better than my old ones.

 

They’re the right ones for my eyes.

And now that I’ve adjusted to them, everything is brighter and cleaner and crisper than it was before.

 

But at the beginning, my mind and body rejected them as distorted and wrong.

 

And that was just a small change in an eyeglasses prescription.

 

So can we offer ourselves some grace, maybe, when it comes to the struggle we face when adapting to changes in our lives.

 

Think about poor Noah, whose friends and home were washed away in a flood.

 

Other than the animals and those 7 other people that were on the boat with him, there was nothing left in the world that he could recognize as familiar.

 

Like the little caterpillar that hangs from the branch of a tree, Noah’s world was literally turned upside down.

 

Our lives can feel like that as well sometimes.

 

When we move, when we begin or end a relationship, when we experience crises of health, when lose someone we love, or when we transition from one phase of life to another, it can certainly feel like a Noah experience sometimes.

 

Like we’re on a boat in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting with no sign of land or stability in sight.

 

And yet we know from this story in Genesis that God has promised us that God will never wipe away everything in our world again.

 

The rainbow is a symbol of that promise.

 

It may take a while for us to find our footing again. And recognize that rainbow in the sky. So again, I invite us to have some grace for ourselves. It took me several days to adjust to new eyeglasses. If you’re dealing with a change that’s more significant that THAT, give yourself some grace.

 

We WILL find our way to solid ground.

 

But it may take a while.

 

Even coming to church, for those of us who are newer to this community, can take some time to adjust to.

 

The author of 1 Peter says that the flood was actually foreshadowing for the sacrament of baptism, which for us, is a sign of welcome into this community.

 

For us, at Church of the Good Shepherd, baptism, for most people, is not about washing away our sin or vaccinating us against hell.

It’s a symbol of God’s grace as well as a promise from the community that they will love us and nurture us as a member of God’s family. In case of children, it’s very much about the church community’s promises to love that child, raise them to value God’s love, and a promise to support the parents as they teach their child about God and about faith.

 

Joining the church as an adult can be a similar experience. We sing this song, which we’ll sing later in the service in honor of <names removed for privacy>, who are undertaking a transition of their as they move to be closer to family.

 

The song begins with one voice – I am one voice and I am singing. Then 2. We are two voices, we are singing, and then everyone stands and joins together, we are God’s people, we are singing…we are not alone.

 

What the stories of the flood and baptism have in common is not just the symbolism of water, and not just the idea of a fresh start and an opportunity for new life.

What they have in common is the promise from God and from the community that we will be supported as we struggle, transform and begin our lives anew.

 

The metaphor of the caterpillar falls apart at this point.

 

Because the caterpillar struggles alone.

 

WE struggle in community. We’re in the chrysalis process together.

 

All of us are in the process of change, whether it’s as small as adjusting to a new eyeglasses prescription or as dramatic as moving across the country, we are all in the process of changing and growing and transforming our lives.

 

And more often than not, that process requires some struggle.

The promise of God in both of our texts today is that unlike the caterpillar, we have God and each other to nurture us along that journey.

 

We are God’s people, and we are not alone.

 

Amen.