An Open Letter to My Community

We’ve gone from the horror of the images out of Paris to a week of anti-refugee talk from media and politicians that is not only distasteful but contrary to the teachings of the biblical witness.

Sadly, we’ve been down this road before. Our immigrant-founded nation is filled with historical periods of fear and disdain of the newcomer. From fear of the Irish to the rejection of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s we too often reject our neighbors in need.

Giving in to fear has also created a context in which we blame Syrian refugees, victims of the same terrorist group as those in Paris. At a time when Syrian refugees need us the most, instead of loving our neighbor, we choose to fear them.

Our human inclination to be fearful is not new. There is a reason “do not be afraid” is such a common phrase in both testaments of the Bible. Like our ancient forebears, we need to be reminded to live into the people God dreams we can be.

When asked, “what is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus replied, “…you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31 CEB)

Jesus named these two because loving God and neighbor are foundational. We show our love for God in our love for others. When we share items with our local Food Pantry, we show love for God. Similarly when we show compassion for Syrian refugees we show love for God.

Our stories of faith are brimming with commands to be hospitable to our neighbors. Immigrants, strangers, and aliens are frequently named as those who are worthy of our loving embrace. Whether we approach the Bible literally, as some do, or critically, as I do, hospitality for strangers is an expectation of the divine.

The most disturbing aspect of the hateful rhetoric spewed toward Muslims, Syrian refugees, and others is that too many of the speakers claim Christianity as their faith. It can be argued, given our history, that hospitality for the stranger is not an American value. However, claiming the Christian faith and not welcoming the stranger takes mental and spiritual gymnastics that are inconsistent with the biblical narrative.

The best of Condon is about compassion and love for our neighbors in need. As we move into Thanksgiving week and the Advent season that precedes Christmas, the writer of Deuteronomy reminds the faithful, God “…loves immigrants… That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19 CEB)

Let us love our neighbors as ourselves by opening hearts to Syrian refugees. In so doing we will share our love of God.

Aliens Among Us?

There are two ways to read a mystery novel. You can start on page one and read from start to finish. The reader who reads this way allows the story to unfold in its own time. Some would say in the way the author intended.

Another way to read a mystery novel is to skip to the last page first to find out whodunit before returning to the beginning. This reader — knowing the ending — watches the story unfold but enjoys spotting the literary clues the author has left.

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Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 7.35.26 AMChristians start reading the Bible with Jesus. We read Genesis through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the prophets through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the Psalms ever mindful of Jesus. Even Christians who read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation already know what happens to Jesus. Since we know what happens, we understand the rest of the Bible in a particular way.

Our elder testament — the Old Testament — accounts for approximately 75% of our sacred text. Yet, we spend most of our time reading and preaching the younger testament.

This is a mistake. To understand Jesus and his teachings, we must understand his faith. To understand his faith, we must read and study his Bible.

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In our scripture reading from Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:28-31), several Jews, of whom Jesus is one, are discussing the Torah. (The Torah is the first five books of our Bible.) 

Like UCCers, many Jews of Jesus’ time did not read the text in a rigid way. They believed, like we do, that the Bible is a living document through which God still speaks. Like us, they believed that the Bible is best understood within community. No one of us has the answer. It is in community that varied perspectives and voices are part of the conversation and more fully enable us to discern God’s will.

And, so, overhearing the discussion a legal expert asks Jesus,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus responds by quoting from Torah. He paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5,

Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.(Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CEB)

Jesus doesn’t stop with one commandment, however. He tells the legal expert that there are two commandments that serve as the foundation of our faith. And, so, he paraphrases from Leviticus 19 as well,

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 CEB)

Jesus tells the legal expert, “No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31 CEB) 

If the teachings of Jesus are foundational for Christians, as we claim, I argue that when he tells us what the Greatest Commandment is, we should try to follow it. Says Jesus,

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 12:30-31a CEB

This. These words of Jesus quoting Torah can serve as the yardstick by which we measure our actions and relationships in the world.

These words are the sunglasses through which, as followers of Jesus, we view a brighter, a more hopeful possibility for the world. They allow us to see the world in a different way and determine the actions we will take in our personal lives and in our advocacy for others.

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Many of you have been rightfully upset by the unaccompanied children who have been entering our country at the southernmost border. I’ve had multiple conversations about “What can we do?”

Here is a short video shared by Kate Epperly that I think frames the issue well. Kate is our UCC Minister on the Disciples/UCC Family & Children’s Ministry Team.

So, what do we do? What would Jesus do when faced with a complex political and ethical issue? He might pray; he might look at scripture. I suspect that he’d do both as he considered his actions. 

When he looked at scripture, he’d probably find any number of passages about God’s expectations regarding our response to this Hebrew word variously translated into English as alien, as immigrant, as sojourner, or sometimes traveler.

Contextually in the seventh or eighth century before Christ, when Deuteronomy was written, there are no Hiltons or Motel 6s. There were no McDonald’s or Denny’s. If you were traveling, you depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This serves a dual purpose. For the traveler, it meant a place to stay and food to eat. For the host it was a way to honor God.

To breech this obligation to care for others was to breech your very obligation to God. Writes UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann,

Deuteronomy has in purview a profoundly neighborly ethic that understands the formation and maintenance of a communal infrastructure as a primal mode of obedience to the God of covenant. (Abingdon OT Commentaries: Deuteronomy, loc. 122)

And, so, when Jesus looked at his scripture, he might’ve looked at Deuteronomy 10 in which the writer, speaking as if Moses, says,

Stop being so stubborn, 17 because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:16b-19 CEB)

Jesus’ Bible and our Bible is chockfull of widening the circle of love. Jesus himself widens the circle to include not only the Jewish people but Gentiles as well. Jesus himself spends much of his ministry at the margins of society, among those who are not fully included in society.

We are called to include all peoples within God’s circle because our God is an “awesome God who doesn’t play favorites! (Deut. 10: 18 CEB)

And, so, as followers of Jesus I ask you now, what does God ask of us?

When we view this crisis through the lens of the Greatest Commandment, what position do we take? How do we manifest loving God with all our heart, all our being, all our mind, and all our strength? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?

What actions do we individually and collectively take? What would Jesus encourage us to say and do? How will we respond to the aliens among us?

Amen.

___

Following this short sermon, preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on July 20, 2014, the congregation had a lengthy discussion regarding ways to respond to the current crisis of unaccompanied children at the United States’ southern border.

Holistic Faith

Holistic Faith
This image was created by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales.

Click here to listen to Holistic Faith.

I found this print in the gift shop of an historic church in Albuquerque several years ago. I wasn’t going to buy it. I didn’t need it, I told myself. We couldn’t afford to buy a lot of trinkets on this vacation. I kept circling back to it in the shop. As testament to my strength, I left the shop.

Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This image has a spiritual power that beguiles and enchants me. We later came back to the shop for the express purpose of purchasing this print.

It is not lost on me that this image of Jesus shocks our Puritan roots, our Anglo prudishness, and our deeply ingrained thinking that the body and anything remotely sexual is inherently immoral.

The power of this image by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales is not the result of American oversexualization and titillation. It does not draw me in because breasts are sexual.

The power of this image is in the humanity of Jesus. What draws me in is THAT baby!

Jesus had a body like each of us have a body. He had a mother who nursed him at her breast. He undoubtedly cried, whimpered, got the occasional sniffle, and needed his diaper changed. He probably had to be burped from time to time. He may even have spit up once or twice on Joseph’s shoulder.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was human.

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In the ancient world, there was a deep, cavernous divide between the spirit and the physical worlds. In greek thought — which heavily influenced western thinking — a god could not be human. A god by definition is spirit and cannot be incarnate, cannot be physical.

And, yet, we have Jesus.

There are those who clung so desperately to this idea of spirit-good, body-bad that they came up with wild theories about how the divine Jesus could appear — appear being the operative word — appear to be human. Some even came up with an invasion of the body snatchers theory in which God simply inhabited someone else’s human body.

And we still have this greek idea within our culture and too often within our faith. There’s a reason that many traditional theologians and scholars got totally freaked out recently over a scrap of parchment that seemed to imply that Jesus had a wife. To be married would have been to be physical with another human being. And we just can’t abide that the divine Jesus is also the human Jesus.

We are afraid of an angry Jesus, a sobbing Jesus, a laughing Jesus, a Jesus who is tempted to swear when he stubs his toe, and, yes, we’re afraid of a Jesus with sexual urges.

I suggest we’re afraid of all these things because we fear them in ourselves, because we cannot control them in ourselves. We are uncomfortable with a fully human savior because while we’re human, we have neglected the love, the divine image of God within us. We too often fail to,

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength.” (Mark 12: 30 NRSV)

We equate our physicality as separate from our spirituality because we can’t reconcile the two. We’re trapped by the greek thinking that spirit is good and body is bad. So, if we can’t be human and spiritual, we find it difficult to grasp that Jesus could.

And yet he did.

We underestimate the One who was born to a human mother, who nursed at her breast, skinned his knees, had conflict with other boys, and still grew up to be the Lord and savior of the world.

***

As an adult, Jesus was asked by a scribe, what is the greatest commandment? In typical Jewish fashion the faithful asked one another questions to help them to process and figure out the meanings of the scriptures. It’s not unlike what we do in our adult Sunday School class when we go back and forth about different aspects of the Bible passages we’re discussing.

In this case, the scribe was raising the question about what the unifying theme or principle of the scriptures are. Scholar Bonnie Thurston suggests that the question is more accurately put: “What is the one, fundamental thing, the building block or cornerstone, on which all the rest of the law rests?” (Thurston, Preaching Mark, p. 138)

And so when Jesus answers, he is telling us the core of our faith. The core of what it means to be a good Jew or a good Christian. He’s telling us not only that we must love God but about God’s nature — one — and about how to love God.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:29-30 NRSV)

We’re called to love God with our whole selves but…

But how can we love God with our whole selves when we reject an integral part of who we are? How can we love God if we reject our physicality as somehow inherently bad? Consider, Genesis 1:27 in which the biblical witness tells us that,

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)

The creator God made us as physical and spiritual beings. Created in the Image of God, my body is integral to who I am no less than my spirituality. We experience life through and from our bodies. Human physicality and spirituality are intertwined just as Jesus’ humanity and divinity were intertwined.

And so when we turn to love God, to follow the commandment that permeates all of the Bible and the whole of our faith, Jesus — quoting and interpreting Deuteronomy 6:1-9 for us — tells us that we must do so with our whole selves.

With Our hearts.

With Our souls.

With Our minds.

With Our strength.

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Ah, but Jesus goes beyond the scribe’s question in our passage today. Jesus gives him a bonus answer,

The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12: 31 NRSV)

Commandment. Not commandments but commandment. I love how Jesus refers to two commandments here and calls them one. The implication is that you cannot follow one and not the other. It is impossible to love god with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength in isolation. We are created as communal creatures. We depend upon the pack. We need one another for survival. And so to love God is to love one another. To love one another is to love God.

To love God is to hurt when our community hurts. When the hopes of our kids are dashed by a loss at volleyball, we hurt because we love them. Likewise we ache when members of our community must give up independent living or face cancer. We desire the best for them. We love one another.

What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. Created in the image of God, we — like God — are one. We are physical and spiritual.

We are Andre and Jerry. We are Karsen and Jean. We are Chuck, who is down under, and Yvonne who is in Florida awaiting back surgery. We are Stacy, Lily, and Jason.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one (Mark 12:29 NRSV)

But when we love God with all our hearts, all our soul, all our minds, and all our strength we are more than just Ione or Morrow county.

We are one humanity. We feel the pain of our kindred in New Jersey, on Staten Island, in West Virginia, and in lower Manhattan. We ache for the woman whose two children were snatched from her arms by raging, angry waters!

We love our neighbors as ourselves.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31 NRSV)

 ***

Is this image shocking to our sensibilities, especially in church? Perhaps.

Consistent with the gospels? Absolutely.

Of course, Mary nursed Jesus because Jesus was not just fully divine, he was fully human and because she loved God with all her heart, and with all her mind, and with all her strength, she gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and loved him. She loved with her body to provide a necessity of life to the Galilean who became the One…

…the One who would be taunted, tortured, and killed but also overcome death to rise on the third day.

That, my friends, is Good News! Amen.

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I preached this sermon at the Ione Community Church on Sunday, November 4, 2012.