SNAP: Ouch, Ouch, Ouch

I came across this blog from Rebecca Barnes, who is also taking the SNAPChallenge this week. She is including her family in the experience. I teared up reading this c

omment from her blog,

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.27.16 AM“Last night, I actually pretended I couldn’t read my sweet girl’s pantomime of wanting a drink from the snackbar, during her second game of the evening for which she was working hard as a cheerleader. I thought, I should have made her take a water bottle. I should have planned better, even though earlier she said no, she didn’t want to take her water bottle. I can’t afford to go buy her a drink. But, she’s standing there, thirsty, and I’m looking away. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.”

I’m not teary because of this child; we know that the SNAP Challenge her family is taking is a contrived learning and advocacy experience. I cry because too many mothers and fathers and too many children live like this every day in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?And, that, THAT is a sin for which we are collectively responsible. Luke 11:11-12 CEB

When we place mothers and fathers in the position of giving their children scorpions when they need fish, we sin. We live in the wealthiest country on the earth. When children are hungry, we have failed. All of us. We have all sinned.

Related Articles
Opening Our Hearts to the Hungry, Condon United Church of Christ website
SNAP Challenge, um, Maybe Not Today 11-19-13
SNAP: Getting Serious, Getting Anxious 11-20-13
SNAP: The Veggie-Noodle Balance 11-21-13
SNAP: The Glop That Plops 11-22-13

Here. There. Everywhere.

Here. There. Everywhere.

I confess there are Sundays when I leave church discouraged. I put a lot of time, thought, prayer, and effort into preparing a spiritual worship experience. Most weeks I’m excited about leading us in worship.  And, so, when only a handful of people show up I can sometimes feel deflated.

Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind. Isaiah 65:17 CEB

***

Imagine what it was like for our ancient kindred who’d been exiled from their land for more than a generation. Imagine Saul’s story:

I was still a kid when we the soldiers came. I remember when we were thrown out of Jerusalem. I remember the long trip on foot to Babylon. Most of my growing up years were in a foreign land but my folks did what they could to protect me from their alien religions. 

I am no spring chicken, as you can tell by my grey hairs and wrinkles, but the day we heard that Cyrus was letting us go home, well, I danced in the streets. 

It was a long journey back but we were full of anticipation about how happy we would all be. That was before reality set in. Our city — God’s city — was little more than a pile of rubble. Our temple on God’s mountain was only a few stones, having been ransacked by our enemies. 

***

Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Luke 21:5-6 CEB

In our two focus scriptures today, from Isaiah and from Luke, we are talking about two different temples.Both were built on the same spot. In Isaiah, the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem after more than a generation of exile. They were discouraged by the job before them.

Their temple had been leveled.

As the story goes, because they had abandoned God, they themselves were abandoned and sent into exile.  Now, they were finally home but home was not the same anymore. It was a wasteland. And so, the prophet Isaiah brings them a good word from God.

Be glad and rejoice forever
i
n what I’m creating,
   because I’m creating Jerusalem as joy
   and her people as a source of gladness. Isaiah 65:18 CEB

In Luke, the elaborate temple commissioned by Herod — is remarkable in its magnificence. Aspects, that is details of the temple are not yet even completed in Jesus’ time. Though Herod was an all around despicable man, he was also a builder and he spared little expense in building the temple.

Yet we know that less than four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection the temple would again be leveled, this time by Roman troops. Writes Vernon Robbins, “After its destruction, people knew about its magnificence all the way to Rome, as a result of the exhibition of the plundered furnishings and the large paintings of the events of the Roman siege and burning of Jerusalem that were paraded on wagons in a triumphal procession in Rome.”  (FOTW, loc. 11650)

Recall that most scholars suggest that Luke was writing between the years 85 and 90. And, so, those who first heard Luke’s gospel, lived after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. This was a traumatic experience for Jews and the early Christians.

In his retelling of the life of Jesus, the writer of Luke seeks to reassure the early church, that the temple is no longer necessary. According to Luke, Jesus had foretold its destruction. The destruction of the temple is a pivotal historical event and Jesus characterizes it as the start to a time of change that will end for the better. He reassures those admiring the temple that,

When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.” Luke 21:9 CEB

Jesus lists and describes horrible things that will happen but reassures,

Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives. Luke 21:18-19 CEB

It’s gonna be really terrible for awhile — really bad — but it will get better. Jesus, through Luke, is reassuring the early Christians that bad things will not last forever just as God through the prophet Isaiah reassures the post-exile Jews that,

I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad about my people.

No one will ever hear the sound
of weeping or crying in it again. 

No more will babies live only a few days,
or the old fail to live out their days.

The one who dies at a hundred will be
      like a young person,
      and the one falling short of a hundred
      will seem cursed. 

They won’t labor in vain,
      nor bear children to a world of horrors,
      because they will be people
      blessed by the LORD,
      they along with their descendants. Isaiah 65: 19-20, 23 CEB

***

The basic premise of our scriptures today, Isaiah and Luke’s gospel is: God is creating a new heaven and earth. In Isaiah, times are bad and will get better. In Luke, times will get worse but then get better.

***

And, so, I look out at this beautiful sanctuary built at a time when churches were bursting at the seams. I look Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 8.23.08 AMat the empty pews. We live in a world where church, where faith in a God seems to take a back seat to sports, or shopping, or sleeping in, or just about anything else. We live in a world in which the very thing, the very One who gives my life meaning seems to have been pushed to the margins.

And, so, some Sundays I feel discouraged. But much of the time I’m excited about the coming transformation of the church.

Though the churches are empty, there is a deep craving for the One who binds us together. There is a yearning for the extravagant love that accepts us and challenges us to be better people.

I sense a spiritual awakening in our world. God is active in the world encouraging and guiding humanity in new directions. We live in a time of significant change in the Christian faith. We’ve been living in this era all of my adult life,  it’s just become irrefutable in recent decades that the church as we know it is dying.

This has happened before. Phyllis Tickle says it happens about every 500 years. That is every half a millennium the church transforms itself under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. The last time was the Reformation.

God is a creating god. God is a god of resurrections that follow death. Hard times always end. New life comes after death.

We see this in creation. The dying of fall becomes the death of winter only to be followed by the emergence of new life in the spring and summer. But throughout it all the One remains with us.

Consider our Bible stories from today. In much of the Old Testament our forebears perceived that God existed in one place. Think ark of the covenant. Literally it was a box where God was believed to reside. This is why the temple was built and rebuilt over and over again even when destroyed by foreigners. Always it was rebuilt on the mount in Jerusalem.

In their eyes, the eyes if our ancient kindred, God needed a place to be. God’s box needed a whole temple in which to reside. And then when attitudes and perceptions and understanding of God changed, changed enough…temples ceased being rebuilt.

When Rome destroyed the temple, that was the final death knell to a way of thinking about God in which God is often place-bound. You see, God is everywhere and in everything.

***

Like the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, four decades after Jesus’ time on earth, the slow death of what we think of as church is all around us.

Look!
I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth:
past events won’t be remembered;
they won’t come to mind.  
Isaiah 65:17 CEB

And though I sometimes get discouraged by our numbers, I know that this is just part of the process of the transformation of our faith. A living God like ours is clever enough and creative enough to guide us to new perceptions of what it is to be church, to be the people of God.

I suggest that just as our ancient forebears changed their perceptions of the divine One from existing in one place to existing everywhere, we too are in the midst of a perception-change. We are moving from thinking of Christ’s church as an organization to recognizing that just as God is everywhere, the church is everywhere.

Just as we no longer think of God as bound by place, as our ancient forebears did, the Spirit is whispering in our ears, encouraging us to rethink and broaden our perceptions. The church as we knew it, is indeed dying but… BUT being made anew all around is a church that is everywhere. It is a church that isn’t restricted to place. It is a church that is flexible and lets go of buildings for the sake of the Good News of God’s expansive love.

Though we can’t quite make out the details yet, God is creating a new heaven and a new earth, a new kind of church that responds to the spiritual yearnings and the justice cravings all around us. God is creating a church that is no longer place-bound, that no longer needs a box in which to reside, and in that way reflects the very nature of God, who is everywhere.

And throughout this transformation, though it may feel rocky at times, though you and I may feel discouraged by empty pews, or grieve for what once was, this is an opportunity for us to trust and embrace God. In the words of Jesus, “This will provide [us] with an opportunity to testify” and be God’s extravagant love in the world.

This is indeed Good News! Amen.

***

This sermon was preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on November 18, 2013.

Walking the Border

Walking the Border

The sound of the car in the drive drifted through the front window, through the spotless living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen where she was preparing light snacks. That was her cue. Judy washed her hands and carried the tray to the coffee table as her partner Celia greeted the pastor at the front door.

After twelve years in a committed relationship Judy and Celia had finally found a church home where they could be open about their love.

Celia and Judy called out to Jesus as he walked the borders. God’s church walked with Jesus welcoming and affirming the loving couple. 

“A pumpkin patch!”  Hector exclaimed,  “I came around the corner and all I could see was orange. The yard was filled with orange pumpkins.”  He had been noticing how committed the folks at First Congregational were to raising money for others but he never expected them to use pumpkins. He hadn’t seen that many pumpkins in one place since he helped his dad harvest them as a kid.

“I guess it’s time that I check that church out,” he said to himself.  On the following Sunday, he walked into a sanctuary for worship for the first time in decades.

Hector was shocked to find Jesus walking the borders. God’s church walked with Jesus, focusing on others instead of themselves. 

The sudden opening of the door surprised her. It was Saturday after all and Joni had been leaning up against it in an effort to avoid the cold fall wind. But what really surprised her was how warm the air was inside. It enveloped her, healing her near-frostbit fingers. The woman who opened the door was also warm saying,

“Stay as long as you like,” and handed her a hot cup of coffee.  Joni quietly walked in and sat in the back of the sanctuary as the woman who opened the door returned to quietly practicing the piano.  Joni warmed her hands on a cup of coffee as she sat in the back of the sanctuary.

The homeless Joni didn’t expect Jesus to open the door on a Saturday. She didn’t expect to find Jesus and his church walking the border. 

Susan was done with men. After the sexual abuse she’d endured as a child and in her marriage, the last thing she needed to hear at her church was that malarkey about obeying her husband.  But that was what pastor George had preached…a lot! But what finally chased Susan away from the church was when she went to the pastor for help.

Pastor George told her that she must forgive her husband for the black eye he gave her. He told Susan that she must be doing something wrong…and she should try harder to be a pleasing wife.  Then he started quoting the Bible to her about women’s subservience to men.

She didn’t think she’d ever go back to ANY church after that day. But six years later, her best girlfriend had convinced her to check out the new woman pastor in town. She was relieved when the morning prayer began,

“Mothering God, We come to worship your abundant majesty today,” the pastor prayed. You see Pastor Lucy always included the feminine, the masculine, and the mystery of faith within her prayers and liturgy. And Susan noticed.

Susan didn’t expect to find a mothering Jesus walking the border. The church walked with Jesus along the border when it helped Susan reconnect with God by using nontraditional imagery for the divine. 

*****

When the ten lepers called out to Jesus, he responded. He welcomed and healed each one of them.

Jesus walked the borderlands where God’s people struggled. He healed the bodies and the souls of the disregarded and the rejected. 

But what of the ten? What of the nine and the one? In the words of Jesus,

“Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18-19 CEB)

When Jesus sent each of the former lepers off to the temple to have their purification, their healing, validated by the priests the nine went on their way.  One, however was caught between Jesus’ healing touch and the realities of the culture.

He was a Samaritan.

Within the leprous community, the distinction between Jew & gentile didn’t seem to matter but the tenth man would not have been welcomed by the priests. The tenth was not considered a full member of God’s good creation by Jesus’ own people. Despite being healed of skin disease, the Samaritan was still despised.

The Samaritan remained trapped in the borderlands. 

*****

But what of the ten? What of the nine and the one? In the words of Jesus,

“Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18-19 CEB)

Finding ten lepers, ten people with a skin disease, who were rejected by families and friends God-in-Jesus heard their cries for help.

 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. (Luke 17:14 CEB)

It isn’t that the nine former lepers were doing anything wrong when they headed off to the temple priests. Only the priests in society could certify that they were leprosy-free.  Jesus had told them to go to do just that. Jesus told them to go to the priests. But the tenth newly-healed man was between a rock and a hard place. He could not go to the temple because he wasn’t welcome and…

And yet, as Luke tells us, he was grateful and needed guidance to re-enter society.

The Samaritan was unable to do as Jesus instructed and so he did the one thing he could do. He turned to the savior in appreciation and gratitude. He praised not Jesus, but God. He praised God for what God had done through Jesus.

You see, because Jews and Samaritans did not interact he was only partially healed. Despite the physical healing he had received, the Samaritan was still an outsider, still an undesirable.  From the perspective of the original readers of Luke’s gospel even leprosy-free the Samaritan was an outcast. When the Samaritan returned, Jesus completed the healing.

He removed otherness from within God’s realm. Jesus affirmed by his actions that Samaritans are also loved and welcome.  Samaritans, too, are within God’s embrace.

Those who count such things, remind us that Jesus uses the phrase “your faith has saved you” — what the CEB translates as “Your faith has healed you”   — four times in Luke.  He uses it with a man, a woman, a Jew, and our Samaritan.

When we view this story in the context of the other three, we see that saving faith is open to a variety of people. In the ancient world, this was radical!  Sadly, in our world it is still sometimes a radical concept.

Jesus walks the border, welcoming all to God’s loving realm. We walk the border with Jesus when we open doors to others. 

To walk the borders, however, is not just about unlocked doors, pumpkins, or smiling faces. Walking the borders means we not only welcome all people inside our church doors but we affirm them.  We affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity, their ethnicity, their heritage, the unimaginable horrors they’ve endured, their economic struggles, and their perspective.

We walk the border when, like Jesus, we embrace the very uniqueness that has caused others to be rejected in the past. We walk the border when we see others like Jesus did, as God’s beloved children. AMEN.

***

The text for this sermon is Luke 17:11-19. 

This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on October 13, 2013.

Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

The text for this sermon is Luke 17:5-10. (Read it here.) Click below to listen to the sermon as delivered at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ or scroll down to read it. The videos were included within the sermon. 

***

Flying cars were supposed to make our commutes painless. Computers were supposed to eliminate the stacks of paper that inundate modern life.  Kitchens of the twenty-first century were supposed to give us hours of free time to engage in the highest pursuits of humanity:

Did you hear that? There’d be no dishes to do…ever!

As an 8-year-old boy watching Walter Cronkite’s “The 21st Century”, I was filled with hope and excitement! But our world has not turned out quite like I imagined.

I do have a handheld computer that keeps me connected. It can be a video phone or a television set. It can be a book or a word processor, what we used to call a typewriter. It can be a newspaper or a calculator. It can even be a Bible and a sermon manuscript.

And, yet, the world is not full of leisure or peace and it’s hard to feel hopeful when the very technology that can connect us, too often distances us from those closest at hand. And what of the news itself that the technology brings us?

  • Impasse in Washington.
  • Mall shootings in Kenya and Portland.
  • Unemployment hovering near ten percent.
  • Children in Africa sold into slavery so that we can enjoy chocolate.
  • A quarter of American children in this country living in poverty.
  • The needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many and the poor.
  • Climate change that brings us extreme weather.
  • Nuclear power plants in Japan leaking radiation into the ocean.
  • Wars that last more than a decade.
  • And violent assaults in movie theaters, churches, and our streets.

At 8-years-old, I would never have imagined that I might be the target of a gunman. Yet that is what happened to children in Newtown less than a year ago! No, Walter Cronkite painted a very different image of the twenty-first century than the century we live in.

Perhaps my mistake was believing that as the technology evolved, we too would evolve and grow in our compassion and morality. Perhaps I was naive about the world.

***

Six of us made it to the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting last week. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, a UCC minister and scholar, talked about the economic injustice which permeates our world.

In the United States, the middle class is disappearing. The poor are doing worse. Demands on food pantries across this generous nation are pushed to their limits. The extremely wealthy, the one percent who hold 40% of this country’s wealth and much of the political power, have more and more of our country’s wealth while the rest of us, who are either doing the work or have retired, have less.

This is not the twenty-first century I signed up for.

This is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

This is why the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s latest book is called Occupy the Bible and why I was a part of the Interfaith Guild of Chaplains for Occupy Portland during the time the tents were up in downtown. You see, like Susan Thistlethwaite, as a follower of Jesus, you and I are called to seek justice: racial justice, gender justice, orientation justice, and, yes, economic justice.

Our faith demands we care and act…but it sure is overwhelming. Really overwhelming!

***

Jesus and his disciples have been busy as we arrive at today’s passage. (See Luke 17:5-10.) They’ve been traveling and teaching and learning for a very long time. Jesus has insisted that his followers learn and do much.

They are to be faithful with money and be as shrewd as the dishonest manager. They are to welcome back into the fold those prodigals who live their lives recklessly spending their inheritance unwisely.

Jesus tells the disciples they must drop everything, leaving their metaphorical 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. They have to be constantly aware of the economic injustice that leads to a man — Lazarus — dying outside the gate of the wealthy man. They are called to notice him and to seek justice.

As they get closer and closer to their destination in Jerusalem, Jesus’ expectations accumulate. Overwhelmed by his rigorous teachings, the disciples appeal to Jesus, Lord,

“Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

Do you blame them? I imagine they felt inadequate. I imagine they feared they weren’t up to the task. I probably imagine that because I feel that way, too. When I look at the world in which we live and read my Bible, I, too, appeal to God:

Lord! Give me strength! Increase my faith!

It would be so much easier if I could just reinterpret what Jesus is teaching to be about small things, about how I should pray or about following simple and straightforward rules. Sometimes I wish I were called to preach warm, feel-good teddy bear sermons.

Unfortunately for me, when I read my Bible, when I pray, and when I listen to the still-speaking God, I realize that Jesus was more concerned about the poor and about economic injustice than just about anything else.  Though we like to ignore it, a huge portion of Luke’s gospel is about Jesus’ teachings about money. In essence, Jesus is saying that how we spend our money — individually, as a church, and as a culture — is reflective of who and what we value.

Our ancient forebears lived in a world that was contrary to God’s dream for humanity. God-through-Jesus spoke a counter-cultural word to our ancient kin, to the disciples. The same is true in our times. We bail out bankers and hesitate to fund food stamps.

Though none of us wrote the rules of the game, we’re enmeshed in a system that values the wealthiest while those who produce our food and provide the labor get scraps. We’re living in times in which blaming the poor for their lot in life is common. The result is we follow the leadership of the powerful, the one percent, and dismiss too many of God’s children as expendable.

Like the disciples, we hear God’s call but cover our ears, sometimes even closing our hearts, because it’s just too much bear. It’s just too much to deal with. Like Jesus’ disciples, the task before us seems too great! And so we cry out,

Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

***

And rather than tell us we need an all-beef footlong hot dog with a huge glob of ketchup and abundant pickle relish, Jesus tells us all we need is a tiny speck of mustard!

The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:6 CEB)

Too often this passage is read as Jesus criticizing the disciples for not believing enough. Eugene Peterson, for example,  author of the Message Bible interprets this passage that way.

Trouble is, using this passage to blame the overwhelmed for being overwhelmed and the poor for not having enough faith to become rich is inconsistent with Jesus’ friendship with the oppressed and poor of his time. Jesus repeatedly criticized the powerful not the powerless for unjust systems.

Rather than a harsh tone, I suspect Jesus responded with a tone of compassion and encouragement. It certainly would be more consistent within the context.

You have all the faith you need, Jesus tells them. A tiny mustard seed of faith is enough to move this tree. You can do it! Yes, you will make mistakes, says Jesus, and those around you will make mistakes but with repeated forgiveness, with continuous effort, and with love for one another, you can do it!

It only takes the itsy-est bit of mustard to flavor your footlong.

***

It is easy to feel overwhelmed. It is disappointing that we still have to do the dishes and that our cars don’t fly. It’s easy to do nothing because we don’t know what to do.

But the Good News is we each have enough faith to do our part. If we each do our small part, this church and community will be transformed for the twenty-first century. If each of us in each church in each town do our part to dismantle economic injustice, God’s unfolding realm of justice will grow.

All it takes is a tiny speck of mustard-ly love to change someone else’s life for the better. All it takes is a mustard seed of faith to change the world for the better. Mother Teresa reminds us that if we start with a small act of love, a mustard-seed size of faith, we can do bigger things:

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one.

So you begin.

I began – I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand . . .

The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.

Just begin – one, one, one.”

Mother Teresa seemed to understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. She acted out what Jesus is telling the disciples. We, too can do that. We’ve got the faith of a speck of mustard and Jesus has our backs. God’s around to help with the heavy lifting. We just need to do our part.

And, so, let go of the pain of the whole world. Start with one thing. Love first, withhold blaming the victim, make forgiveness a habit, and spend your money in ways that reflect your faith.

Focus your speck of mustard where God points.

Amen.

The Realm’s Rules or The Culture’s Commands?

The following sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on September 1, 2013. The text for the sermon is Luke 14:1, 7-14. The video above is referred to in the sermon.

***
I was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. But I had the stateside nightmares of a child terrified by images on the television. The images of Viet Cong soldiers in my own living room are still etched in my memory.

But that was a child’s nightmare. A dream. It wasn’t real. It has long since lost its emotional hold on me.

I delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the war. Each afternoon, a bundle of papers would show up on my front lawn, I would cut open the bundle, place them in my delivery cart, and take them to each home on my route.

One afternoon as I was cutting open the bundle, my next-door neighbor darted out of her house. Frantically, though not a subscriber, she begged to look at the paper.

“I’ve gotta know. I have to see the numbers.”

You see, for those of you who don’t know, they would print the draft numbers in the newspaper. These numbers would tell you whose teenage son would end up on a battlefield in the jungles of southeast Asia.

This mother was terrified — terrified — that her son, the baby she nursed at her breast, the not-yet-man to whom she read Dr. Seuss stories only a few years ago, the boy who never seemed to put his boxers away in his dresser drawer after she folded them…

She had to know if he was being called up. She was terrified that he was about to be ripped out of her arms before he had completely grown up.

That was a mother’s nightmare. It was not a dream. It was real. The emotional impact of that day has never — never — left me.

And, so, yesterday as the President spoke, I burst into tears because though we’ve sanitized war, it is still turning our back on God. It still involves killing someone’s child.  I weeped because once again, as a nation, we will likely be playing by The Culture’s Commands. Someone’s child will be killed by a bomb paid for with our taxes.

Once again we as a people, are turning away from The Realm’s Rules, away from God’s dreams for us. Evil, in Syria this time, has left our leaders believing that the only choice is more bloodshed and violence.

***

I’ve spent the week studying and reflecting on our gospel passage from Luke. It is often preached as being about humility. And it is about humility. That’s a legitimate interpretation. One problem with reading it as if it is only about being humble is that it can lead us to think that Jesus is somehow doing us a favor.

He’s trying to keep us from being embarrassed. The CEB translation even uses the word “embarrassed.” Listen to verse nine again,

The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Luke 14:9 CEB

And then in verse ten, as if Jesus is more akin to Miss Manners or Emily Post than the challenging prophet he is, Jesus says,

Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Luke 14:10 CEB

No, to focus on the importance of humility runs the risk that we miss the critical point, the broader point that Jesus is making. Yes, we are called to be humble, to be servants of humanity but to focus on humility and humbleness alone is to miss the bigger message. Humbling ourselves to God is about trusting and following The Realm’s Rules. 

This passage is about rules.

It is about distinguishing between The Culture’s Commands and the nature of God’s unfolding realm on earth. Jesus is striving to make it clear that The Realm’s Rules are not the same as The Culture’s Commands. In this parable, we see that the ancient culture’s rules involved the most important person being given the highest position. Though our culture is more flat than that, more egalitarian, more equal, we are not immune to status worship.

Our culture idolizes celebrities, sports figures, and — though we like to deny it — the very wealthy. Why else would social media be abuzz this week about Miley Cyrus’ dance when we continue to have high unemployment and children — especially brown and black children — are daily victims of violence and poverty in this country?

Just as Jesus is telling our sometimes slow-to-understand ancient kindred that God’s rules are different than cultural norms, God is still speaking through this parable to us. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to follow The Realm’s Rules instead of The Culture’s Commands. Hear the eleventh verse again. Jesus says,

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 14: 11 CEB

In other words, Jesus shouts, “New Rules!”

We are not called to be successful. We’re not called to accumulate wealth, to idolize celebrities, to look out only for ourselves. We’re not called to use our power to have our way — as individuals or as a nation. Quite the contrary, Jesus turns the rules upside down. Jesus tells us that we should do for those who can do nothing for us in return. Jesus tells us not to invite our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors to lunch or dinner.

Says Jesus,

Instead, when you give a banquet, you should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Luke 14:13 CEB

Invite those who were unable in ancient culture to reciprocate. We’re called to give more than we take. We’re called to love people in the face of hatred. We’re called to welcome people even if it means they will never serve on a committee or give a dime to this church.

We’re called to introduce every single person we meet to the extravagant love and welcome of God — even if they never call themselves UCCers or cross our threshold. We are called to

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind, and love [our] neighbor as [ourselves.]” Luke 10:27 CEB

***

To live by The Realm’s Rules is not easy when we live within a culture that commands very different behavior. Some Christians, like the Amish, have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture as much as possible in their effort to be true to The Realm’s Rules and to avoid the pitfalls of The Culture’s Commands.

That is not the path any of us have chosen. We have chosen to live within the tension.

Some days I think it is the most foolish decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes I wish my faith allowed me to embrace The Culture’s Commands or that I could withdraw completely like the Amish, but my path is within the tension.

Living within the mainstream culture — within rules for living that are very different than Jesus’ rules for living — means we need one another more than ever. We need to call each other out when we stray too far outside of the unfolding realm and into our callous, me-first, violent, power-hungry, and wealth-idolizing culture.

We also need to challenge our leaders when the answer for evil acts is to punish an already-traumatized people with even more violence. This time, we are told, dropping bombs will somehow make the world a better place.

We’ve heard that line before and it is not the way of the unfolding realm of God.

The extravagant love of God dreams of a day when mothers and fathers no longer have their children ripped from their arms by poverty or war or our indifference.

The Good News is that the unfolding realm of God is up to the task. Love, God’s love,  is,  in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” The Good News is that we are not alone in our aching desire for Jesus’ upside down realm. Faithful people from Jews to Bah’ai to Sikhs to Rastafarians and, yes, even our Muslim sisters and brothers each have a sacred tradition of love for neighbor. We all have a variation on The Golden Rule as you saw in the video this morning.

Our calling as Christians is to open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and to humbly interact with others.

When we do that, we will find the Divine using us to live peace and love into existence. When we do that, the unfolding realm of God will grow just a teeny bit bigger until the day when the One’s dream for humanity is realized. Amen.

 

 

Here Comes Trouble!

After several sermons in a row in which I challenged the congregation, I was ready for a lighter sermon last week. It was not to be. Through Luke 12: 49-56, the Holy Spirit seemed to push me to address white privilege with even more vigor than I had just after the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Click below to hear the words that crossed my lips.

If you prefer, download the file here or read the prepared (not delivered) text of the sermon below.

___

Where does Jesus get off? Where does he get off calling us hypocrites? It’s not like he’s Mister Perfectly Consistent!

First, we get all this lovey-dovey “love your neighbor as yourself” crap and then he starts into this “I’ve come to divide.” Then he has the gall to call us hypocrites!

If he wanted trouble, he’s got it. Consider:

The prince of peace that we were so excited about at Christmas is all grown up but something must’ve gone wrong because he says,

 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49 CEB)

Oh, yeah. That’s peaceful! That’s kind. That’s loving. Mister Consistent Peace-man wishes the earth was blazing in fire.

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled! (Hark, the Herald Angels Sing)

 Reconciled? Reconciliation? Then why does the all-grown up Jesus say:

 “Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53 CEB)

That. That doesn’t sound like reconciliation to me.

<SIGH>

I don’t mean to diss Mary. She was a cool enough Mom. She was young and I’m sure she did her best.

And from what we can tell Joseph — who by the way didn’t even have to be there — it wasn’t his kid — did the best he could. He took that poor fatherless child in, raised him as his own.

But sometimes, no matter what you do your kid makes some serious wrong turns. Your child doesn’t turn out like you expected.

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord. (O Come, All Ye Faithful)

I was right there with y’all last Christmas. I was right there adoring the baby as he slept in heavenly peace. But I’m done.

I’m done with this savior gone wrong.

I suppose I’d feel more empathy for adult Jesus if he was trying to be a peacemaker. He’s unapologetic about how he’s turned out.

He seems, well, almost like he’s proud of being a troublemaker. Did you hear what he said? This cocky, unapologetic Jesus says,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.” (Luke 12:51 CEB)

***

[PAUSE]

On its face, today’s gospel reading from Luke seems extremely inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus from our holy scriptures. But what Jesus is really saying is not that he wants division but that — as a result of his ministry — “Here comes trouble!”

Writes scholar Audrey West,

…It is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes engendered by Christ’s work. (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13026)

In other words people may resist. People may divide themselves.

In the modern church, we’ve forgotten that to follow Jesus means that things will get stirred up. But we like the status quo and the status quo doesn’t like to be bothered. The status quo defines peace as, well, as things staying the same.

In the modern church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we want things to be happy. We want peace without conflict. We want joy without pain.

We want growth without growing pains.

But as scholar Richard Carlson writes,

“Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed. Such social realities and values have a propensity to seek a harmony that favors those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless and expendable. Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)

***

Let me tell you a story. This is a human story. It takes place within the democratic education community in the United States but it is happening within other groups in other places as well including churches. This is a story among the folks at the US version of the international conference at which I recently spent a week.

About four-years ago I noticed that the old-guard, the folks who I affectionately called “old hippies” were feeling threatened by the younger teachers and leaders coming up within democratic education.

At the annual conference, which, incidentally, my son incidentally, a young African American man from Chicago, Matthew, was the keynote speaker. Some folks got very upset when Matthew suggested in his keynote talk that many democratic education schools were elitist in the sense that not just anyone could attend.

“Well, we don’t keep anyone out!” was the protest.

“Yes, you do,” Matthew replied. “Those of you who are private schools keep most brown and black people out because of money.

You need to do more if you want to be truly democratic.”

His point? Democratic education is not accessible to all. It is not democratic in its availability.  It is largely a white, upper middle-class phenomenon. When those who support democratic education abandon the public schools to create their own system, they are abandoning the poor, people of color, and other marginalized children.

A big brouhaha broke out in the ballroom with folks lining up for their turn to speak at the mic. I would summarize the message of many of the “old hippies” this way:  “I’m not a racist.”

Matthew could have described his role at the conference in the words of Jesus:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. (Luke 12:51 CEB)

Matthew challenged the systems of racism that allowed many white, middle class children to participate in democratic education while brown and black children were left behind in public schools.

He suggested that the well-intentioned “old hippies” were part of the problem when they abandoned the public schools.

[pause]

The trouble with racism is, it’s not just about personal racism. It is about a culture that privileges some people over other people.

I consider myself a fairly enlightened guy but I have benefited because of the color of my skin. You have as well. You didn’t ask for it. I didn’t ask for it. We didn’t ask for that privilege but it’s real.

This is the kind of thing — though not specifically racism — that Jesus is talking about in today’s reading when he calls the people hypocrites. I think Jesus might have been feeling a little frustrated at the willful ignorance of the people.

Jesus also said to the crowds,

“When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Luke 12:54-55 CEB

I can imagine people listening shaking their heads saying to themselves,

“Yeah, we can tell when a storm is coming in.” Then, as they’re shaking their heads feeling pretty good about themselves, Jesus shouts:

“Hypocrites!” (Luke 12:56a CEB)

Are you blind to what else is going on? If he was talking to us he might say, do you not see that a few powerful people control the economics of this country?

Do you not see that brown and black people do not share in the privileges that you have? Even those of you who are less well off have advantages not afforded most brown and black people?

For those of us who are white and those of us who are relatively well off — some in this room do struggle financially by the way — but as long as we’re white, we can ignore the problems of race and class in this country and world.

We can take the easy path and ignore what the racial profiling of people means. We can ignore what Hal, an African American man who works in a state level job in Vermont told me. Hal told me that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has the resonance of a Challenger explosion or the Newtown shooting within the African American community.

Within that community it is another example of the dehumanization of their young men. It is another example of our culture considering their children as expendable.

And in Condon and other white communities across the nation we had our opinions about it. We may have even talked about it for a week or so but then we began the “forgetting about it” process.

We looked the other way and suggested it was an aberration, a tragedy that doesn’t happen every day.

Unfortunately, it does.

Unfortunately, while we’re looking at the sky, interpreting dark clouds as meaning rain is on its way, we fail to interpret other signs around us.

According to Bible scholar David Schlafer, our ancient kindred, those Jesus was talking to, failed to take responsibility,

“for learning from the rich and readily available tradition of Law and Prophets that would enable them to identify commonwealth resource mismanagement  — what we’d call economic injustice — and its inevitable negative repercussions in God’s economy.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)

We fail to take the responsibility to learn from social science, from our history, from a little ol’ thing called the Bible, and from the experiences of our contemporary sisters and brothers.

We fail to learn about and work to eradicate the racial, economic, and class injustices in our country and world.

In terms of race, we say we want Martin Luther King’s dream but we don’t know what to do or…OR…we’re not willing to do the hard work it will take to finally reach it.

And, so, like those Jesus calls hypocrites, we know how to interpret weather conditions but somehow we’re oblivious to racial and economic injustice.

We are the twenty-first century version of the hypocrites Jesus is calling out in the twelfth chapter of Luke.

***

The Good News is God created each of us as growing and learning human beings. The Divine’s loving, creative power does not give up on us. We have a choice.

The extravagant and relentless love that overcame death at the cross, forgives us and keeps calling to us to be a part of the unfolding realm of God on earth.

The unfolding realm of God’s abundant, beloved community is an expanding circle of burning love for one another.

The Good News is that the fire Jesus came to cast upon the earth has begun to burn within our hearts.

It is a fire that cleanses without incinerating, and drives us to be God’s loving hands and feet of justice in a wounded world. It is a fire that will unite the oppressed, the marginalized, and even the oppressors together as one human family.

May we be the people God created us to be. May we actively listen to God and expand the circle of love and justice outward until all are truly welcome in this place.

May we give up hypocrisy, pull our heads out of the sand, for the good of others.

Amen.

God in the Trees

God in the Trees

When I create something — a blog post, a video, or even just a doodle while talking on the telephone — it is a reflection of me. It isn’t me. It doesn’t define me. The creation does, however, reflect something of my essence. My soul is a part of the words I write. My feelings are reflected in the photos I take. Who I am is revealed in the conversations I have with others.

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them. Genesis 1:27 CEB (Read in context.)

I interpret the image of God reflected within creation in much the same way. God is reflected in the natural desire human beings have to be connected to one another. God is also reflected in our need for solitude.  God is revealed in the exuberant joy my dog expresses upon my return home. (Think about the father’s reaction to his prodigal son’s return in the parable Jesus tells in the gospels. Read it here.) Even the common housefly that nags us can tell us something of the nature of the divine.

The Creator, the One I call God, can be seen in nature. This is why hiking is a spiritual experience for me and so many others. It is why a rainbow or sunset often causes us to gasp. It is also why the declining time children spend outdoors is so problematic. To be in the handiwork of the Creator is to be within the loving realm of God.

A recent tweet.
A recent tweet.

Monsters Within

Monsters Within
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She was a free-thinker talking about perceived “energy” and looking to eastern practices. She was avoided by others because she had challenges within. Some said she could choose to be different; others had more empathy. No one completely trusted the woman with the challenges within that made her a little more than different.

And, so, she had few friends. Without a supportive network she embraced the marginal ideas of various faiths, living and thinking at the edge of town.  In the fertile soil of rejection and avoidance, suspicion took hold of her. The challenges within took control.

***

He was attracted to the novel. He grew up in an era of change in a place that resisted the new. He was ridiculed in school because his hair was too long. Some said he must have drugs within; others had more empathy. Because their parents told them to avoid long-hairs, the boy with long hair and no drugs within was pushed to the edge of fifteen-year-old society.

Rejected by the faithful, the healthful, and the stable, he grew cynical, angry, and found that indeed a few drugs within could actually ease the pain. In the fertile soil of ostracism and judgmentalism, the drugs within took control.

***

Her mind was not as sharp as it used to be. Her family noticed her memory beginning to fade long before she could admit it to herself. Some said it was God’s mysterious ways; others were more empathetic. Because of her fading memories within she was pushed to the edge of her circle of friends.

Eventually, they stopped coming.

Rejected by all but her dutiful husband, she lived near the tombs and ruins at the edge of town. She lived locked up in a box to protect her as the memories within continued to fade. In the fertile soil of loneliness and unfamiliar surroundings, her memories within faded during her so-called golden years.

***

Needing certainty in her life, she steered clear of the questions. She found a church that provided absolute answers because having questions within tormented her too much. Some said she could be harsh as she excluded from Christianity those from churches that embraced the ambiguity of questioning; others were more empathetic.

Rejecting all but those whose answers were the same as hers, she lived on the edge of the community. She kept to those who thought like her and believed like her and lived like her. But the questions within never went away completely, they simply gnawed at her in the quiet hours before drifting off to sleep.

In the fertile soil of sameness and uniformity of opinion, the questions within took control and caused her to doubt her own worthiness.

***

He was running naked around the ruins. He was shunned by the townspeople because he had many monsters within. He had a legion of monsters. Some said the monsters were self-inflicted; others had more empathy. No one wanted the man with monsters within living within their community.

And, so, he was homeless. Without a safety net he barely survived, running naked among the tombs and ruins at the edge of town. In the fertile soil of rejection and oppression suspicion took hold of him. The monsters within took control.

Perhaps, Jesus perceived the monsters within the man as he gazed across the lake at sunset. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit lured the “carpenter’s son turned rabbi” to row across the lake. Perhaps, God’s extravagant love could no longer be contained within the promise YHWH, the god of the Hebrew people, the One we worship today, made so many centuries before.

Whatever the reason, in an act of expanding love, Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake. They crossed the lake that divided Jewish lands from Gentile lands. Rabbi Jesus and his ragged band of followers were accustomed to healing and teaching at the edges of polite society.

This time, Jesus and the disciples moved outside of Jewish society altogether to carry the Good News to the Gentiles.

Jesus’ feet had barely touched shore when the man who had monsters within accosted him. Recognizing God within Jesus, the monsters feared for their demise. The monsters within,

“shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’” (Luke 8:28b CEB)

The monsters were right to be afraid of Jesus. Jesus is the One who breathed in the Divine and breathed out God’s extravagant love. God’s relentless love does not abide monsters within anymore than God lets evil or hardship have the final say.

God’s relentless love overcomes even death! Love heals and teaches our monsters or sends them packing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean our monsters will make it easy on God or on us as we participate in the unfolding realm of God on earth.

Our love — God’s love — will be met with suspicion and hatred from those still battling monsters within themselves.

As happened to me this week, we may be told that our denomination — our church — is not Christian because we embrace divergent opinions on complex social issues and because we embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We may be told that when we go to the margins of society that we ourselves are not Christian.

And, though it hurt me and disturbed me when I was told to my face that I and my church family are not Christian, I refuse to create a monster within me to respond to someone else’s monster. Rather, I will turn the other cheek, I will seek to have empathy for the threatened. I will seek to love as Jesus taught me.

Because…

Because I know from reading the biblical witness that our ancient kindred and especially our Lord and Savior Jesus, experienced the same and worse when they loved those on the edges of society. I know from the biblical witness that monsters within others may recognize the love within us as a threat.

But the love within us must not return anger to those who exclude and disdain us. Instead, we must allow the relentless love of God to guide us.  We must listen to the still-speaking love and act as we are called. To do this, we must send our own monsters packing, allowing Jesus to heal us.

Healed of our own monsters (partially or fully), we must do as Jesus told the man he healed in today’s gospel lesson, we must

“tell the story of what God has done for [us].” [We must go] throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus ha[s] done for [us]. (Luke 8:39 CEB)

***

We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those who make us uncomfortable.  We must go to where they live and think at the edge of town. We must love them and include them in our circles. We might even learn from them.

God’s relentless love may not only send their challenges within packing, God might heal some of our own challenges.

***

We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those who turned to drugs or to anger when they were ostracized and judged harshly by mainstream society. We may find that the church — as happens too often — participated in the sin of judgmentalism and ostracism.

We may find that some of what they are angry about are things that Jesus would be angry about, too. Perhaps, we need to apologize for what we or our church-kin have done. Maybe we need to love at the margins of society as Jesus did.

God’s relentless love may not only send their drugs within packing, God might send our monsters within, away.

***

We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those whose memories within are fading. We must be God’s loving presence with their caretakers as well as with those whose memories fade. We must visit those within our church community rather than waiting for the pastor to visit.

For I know this, fading memories within do not take away the essence of a person. That person’s soul is intact.

In our presence with those whose memories within are fading, lucidity often increases when we pray with them. I have been with those who seem so far away that I wonder “What’s the point?”… I have seen them become fully aware and cognizant while receiving Holy Communion or praying the Lord’s Prayer with me.

In those moments, I am blessed by the Love of God flowing through them.

God’s relentless love may not only temporarily restore their memories within, but God sends my preconceptions, my doubts about the importance of presence…God sends my monsters within packing.

***

We are called to be Christ’s healing love in this community. Rather than going to church, we’re called to be church. We are church when we get on the boat with Jesus and the disciples and cross over to the other side. When we get there, we may be greeted by a homeless man begging at Biggs Junction.

We may be greeted angrily by a man who lost his family after years of drug use.

We may be greeted by a man struggling with the care of his wife who has Alzheimer’s Disease.

We may be greeted by a woman who is too frightened to embrace the still-speaking love of God.

We may be greeted by a man with a legion of monsters within. 

And we may even come face-to-face with our own monsters. The Good News is this: with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, love can send the monsters within away. That’s the story we should be telling. Everyday to everyone we meet, we should be telling people what God has done and continues to do for us.

Amen.