Norm

On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.

In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”  I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.

“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”

Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship.  Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.

I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.

“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”

[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s.  In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.

As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.

“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”

Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.

 

 

Does God Play Favorites?

Does God Play Favorites?
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.

Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!” 

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot.

We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.

***

The Bible.

There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.

That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us. 

We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.

By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God.  We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.

***

I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.

Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.

***

Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,

Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB

As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.

Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.

OR.

OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”

Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.

OR.

OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.

We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.

Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.

Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.

Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.

Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”  Matthew 19:21 CEB

I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.

And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.

Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.

If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?

Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.

***

Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it.  God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.

Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,

The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)

Listen again to the first two verses:

Praise the Lord!

    You who serve the Lord—praise!
    Praise the Lord’s name!

Let the Lord’s name be blessed
    from now until forever from now!

Psalm 113:1-2 CEB

As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.

This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.

The LORD is high over all the nations;
God’s glory is higher than the skies!
Who could possibly
compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB

Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.

God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy
from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB

As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine

suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)

Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.

***

Does God Play Favorites? Yes.

It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.

It means Jesus was serious.

We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.

Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.

This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.

We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,

“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)

Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.

Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.

But God calls us to radicalism.

Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)

In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,

the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?

Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities?  As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.

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Where Potatoes Go to Die

Where Potatoes Go to Die
Photo by Tim Graves Creative Commons license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ Photo by Tim Graves (Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Photo by Tim Graves (Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0)

I have a graveyard in my house. It’s in my kitchen on top of the microwave. That’s where potatoes go to die.

Their bakeable skin gradually wrinkles and soon sprouts. If I’m alert I catch the first sprout, cut it out, and add the remaining potato to a dish. Once the rotting begins, however, I’m rarely alert.

That’s when the rot of the potato spreads to me. I focus on the wrinkly skin and mourn the lost food. I feel bad about myself for my wasteful western ways. I feel guilty.

But this is a moment of transition not death. The potato itself is not dying. The potato is reproducing. The tiny, bright green sprouts are not only hope for new potatoes, they are intrinsically beautiful. They are divine beauty in this moment.

Pausing before the divine, I confess I too often waste. I overuse at the expense of others. I want and take in the face of other’s needs. And then I let my guilt be darkness rather than a sign of beauty — of you — within me. May new sprouts grow in my heart that I make decisions that are mindful of those in my town, in my nation, and on the other side of the world.

licence-sqale (1)

The Sin of Exclusion

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. (James 2:1 CEB)

Don’t show favoritism. Favoritism is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Favoritism is a sin.

If you like folks who get right to the point, you gotta love the writer of Sin of ExclusionJames. Unlike Jesus who tended to favor parables that often had to be explained to his disciples, James doesn’t mess around.

Don’t show favoritism.

***

Writing between the years 60 and 80, James is writing to Christians and non-Christians alike. We don’t know who he was for sure. The tradition that tells us he was Jesus’ brother is doubted by most contemporary scholars.

James’ primary audience included two groups: the extremely poor and the working poor. The extremely poor were the folks who barely survived. They had to beg just to eat. If no one took mercy upon them, they would die.

The working poor were the folks with jobs but not very good jobs. They were typically taken advantage of by their wealthy employers. When they were not paid wages due — which happened too often — they did not eat. Too many days without pay and they would be in the same position as the extremely poor. They, too, would be facing starvation.

In this passage, James is not speaking to the extremely poor. Nor is he speaking to the wealthy oppressors. (Though he will have words for them as we move through James’ letter.) James is speaking to the working poor. He’s speaking to the near-slaves or what Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias described as day laborers.

Hear James as he speaks to this group about their favoritism:

But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2:6-7 CEB)

James is appalled that rather than siding with the oppressed, the extremely poor, some of the day laborers, the working poor, are siding with the wealthy. In contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, they show favoritism to the wealthy. Recall, the wealthy are oppressing not only the extremely poor but the working poor as well.

The working poor have turned away from their Jesus-taught obligation to God’s justice. They have instead turned toward the values of this world. Writes scholar Aaron Uitti,

“Their favoritism for the wealthy aligns them with the world and places them at odds with God (4:4)… [but] it is not possible for them to have it both ways—to claim the faith of Jesus and to discriminate against the poor.” (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1578-1584)

In the words of James,

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:8-9a CEB)

***

There’s a bumper sticker. (I used to have one on my car ten to fifteen years ago.) The sticker reads: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

James should make us squirm.

If the western church doesn’t squirm, we’re not paying attention to James’ indictments. In James’ age, the church was still made up primarily of the poor: the extremely poor and the working poor.

It makes sense when you read the gospels. Jesus and the writers of the gospels lift up the dignity of those at the edges of society and offer hope. One out of every ten verses in the first three gospels deals with poverty and social injustice. In Luke, it is one out of every seven verses. (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1657).

Theologian Elsa Tamez reminds us that,

“For James poverty is the result of a scandalous act of oppression.” (The Scandalous Message of James, p. 23)

If the Bible is the authority through which we primarily hear God, then it is clear that we ought to be more concerned about poverty and social injustices. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, that means more than believing the “right” things. It means heeding the lure of the Holy Spirit and being Christ and doing God’s work in this place.

And, frankly, I don’t think American Christians in the twenty-first century are doing such a hot job: We worry about saving our old buildings. We worry about our denominational structures. We worry about attracting young folks and the right folks.

We worry about those inside the church more than those outside.

 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin… (James 2:8-9a CEB)

We favor ourselves at the expense of the poor and those living on the margins.

Consider that how we spend our resources — our money, our time, and other wealth — reflect what we value. For example, in this very church, we spend thousands and thousands upon thousands for building maintenance and heating.

We spend thousands on a building that is empty most of the time and we sent less than $250 to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Yes, we do other things. We gave land for the memory care unit. We open our building to AA. We sent seven emergency buckets to Church World Service. We open our building at minimal cost for the Senior Meal and more.

This example is not the whole picture but no matter how we slice it, our expenditures imply we are more concerned about maintaining the institution known as Condon United Church of Christ than we are about anything else.

If you’re not squirming, you’re not paying attention.

While I know that not every one in this room lives in the lap of luxury and some of us do struggle financially, I also know that there are plenty of folks in this community who struggle under significant burdens of class and poverty who are not here.

Where are they? Where are those of poorer socioeconomic status?

We are not totally homogenous in this room but we are far from reflective of the demographics of Condon or Gilliam county.

Somehow, we are sending the message that we are not as open and welcoming to the poor and near-poor as we’d like to think we are. I have had more than one non-middle class person confide in me that when they’ve visited here, they’ve felt uncomfortable and excluded.

Now, I know that you all are loving and caring folks. Absolutely.

I feel it. You feel it. That is real.

I am not implying that we mean to exclude others…

Somehow, however, we are not always as welcoming to everyone as we mean to be. Somehow, we favor those like us more than those different from ourselves. Somehow, we have at times inadvertently excluded others.

If we are to respond to James’ indictment to avoid favoritism, something has to change.

For starters, We must confess that we have sinned. We have excluded others — whether intentionally or unintentionally. And we need to pray about it, talk to one another, and begin to reach out to those who make us uncomfortable.

There are plenty of organizations that reflect the values of the world but we are called to reflect God’s values. The church — Christ’s church — is called to be a reflection of God’s realm on earth. As church, we are called to reflect the diversity of God’s people in this place.

We live in a very different world than the first readers of James’ letter. Still, James’ God-inspired words have something to say to us. God uses James to speak to us across the millennia.

The question is how will we respond to those words?

Amen.

___

I shared this sermon with the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 18, 2014. The text for the sermon is James 2:1-13.

A Memory & Hope Upon the Death of Nelson Mandela

A Memory & Hope Upon the Death of Nelson Mandela

901_10151869544736985_1828902241_nIt wasn’t our daughter’s first protest or maybe it was. (Around the same time we’d protested at the Federal Courthouse in solidarity with native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is still in prison after 37 years.)

We gathered in the church parking lot of Memorial Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Louis after worship. We shared sandwiches and cookies out of plasticware before walking the two blocks to the Shell station on the corner where our march from Shell to Shell to Shell would begin. Our goal as people of faith was to shame Shell Oil out of South Africa and to build awareness for the boycott of the company until they did so. As my wife and I pushed our infant daughter in her stroller, we chanted “Free Mandela” and “End Apartheid! Boycott Shell!”

We were young and believed in the impossible. We believed that our action in north St. Louis could change the abhorrent conditions under which Africans lived thousands of miles away. Years have passed. Decades have come and gone. More times than I’d like to admit I have doubted that real change is coming.

As my baby girl nears thirty, I wonder whether hope is justified in a world in which food programs for children and adults are cut and banks get bail-outs. I am discouraged by a lack of empathy for the poor. I wonder if justice will ever come when our prisons are filled with black men and Leonard Peltier remains in prison.  I wonder if peace will ever come after more than a decade of military action in Afghanistan. I weep when the first reaction to conflict in the world is to use military force.

I wonder if love can overcome death, as the Christian narrative tells me, when it doesn’t seem like we can even love one another.

And then I look at the life of Nelson Mandela. An imperfect man in a far from perfect world, his life is testament to love overcoming death. The extravagant love of the One will overcome the impossible as it did in Mr. Mandela’s life.

Though love doesn’t overcome at the speed I’d like it to come. It does come. In the words of  Nelson Mandela,  “…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” 

Being Remembered

Being Remembered

Listen here or read below.

Molly was just a kid. She didn’t know why the bitter cold Chicago wind blew through the holes in Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.23.23 PMthe side of her dilapidated house. Molly didn’t know that not everyone had rats mating in the rafters above their beds at night. Maybe the other kids huddled around their wood stoves in one room because it was too cold to be in the rest of the house.

They didn’t say.

She only knew that the other kids laughed at how she dressed in hand-me-down pants, thrift store tops, and old lady shoes her aunt got her for free.

A twinge of guilt comes over Molly when she thinks about the time she dropped an open can of peaches on the floor. Her mother was soooo angry. Her mother said, “Molly! You careless child! What were you doing? You dropped the last can of fruit we have!”

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Sarah could feel the disapproving eyes on the back of her neck when she swiped her Oregon Trail card to pay for the groceries. Then it was the tap tap tap of the well-dressed professional woman’s fingers on the counter…

The tapping cut into her very soul as Sarah dug for and counted out pennies to buy a twenty-five cent candy for her three-year-old.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

At forty-five Delia still struggled to have a normal sex life with her husband. Bob was a good man but he didn’t understand why she sometimes cringed when he came up behind her too quietly and touched her shoulder.

Delia didn’t like surprises. She’d had too many of those from her mother’s boyfriends when she was growing up. Some of the boyfriends were nice and never touched her but Mom seemed to have a knack for finding the wrong man.

There was one boyfriend who moved in for two years. He seemed to take pleasure in coming to Delia’s room every night after Mom was asleep.

Delia didn’t feel safe during the daytime either. He would shove himself up against her while pretending to give Delia a fatherly hug. He would do it while Mom was making dinner and give Delia a look that dared her to say anything.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Frank had good days and bad days. Folks in town didn’t understand why he went through stretches of time — especially in the winter — when he never stopped in at the pub for a beer with the boys. His wife grew impatient with his seeming inability to do anything around the house.

She told him to get his lazy butt off the couch but putting up the storms just seemed like an impossible task.  Frank couldn’t explain why he had no energy. No pep. No desire. Frank just knew he was depressed. It took every ounce of energy he had to go to work at all.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

***

It seems kind of odd to have this passage in the lectionary on the Sunday before Advent. Why would we want to look at Jesus dying on the cross? It’s not like we even get the resurrection. We just get a depressing story of the One the disciples thought would restore Israel, hanging on the cross between two criminals.

Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year is traditionally marked as Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes it’s called Christ the King Sunday. As someone who has a low christology, meaning that in my personal faith, I relate to the human Jesus more than the divine Jesus, . . .

I’ve often found this special Sunday of the liturgical year to be less meaningful than others. The imagery of a king does not speak to me. I know it holds great meaning for others but for me, not-so-much.

Raised in a denomination that grew out of the American frontier, I find it hard to think of Christ as king. Christ as guide, that’s cool. Christ as teacher, that works. Christ as model, absolutely. Even Christ as companion works for me.

But I struggle with the concept and image of Christ sitting on a throne with a crown and scepter. Perhaps I’m too egalitarian, too ingrained in our American experience in which leaders are elected.

And, so, perhaps I’m more fortunate than the disciples when I try to understand this passage from Luke in light of Christ the King Sunday. Unlike the disciples, both the apostles and the other loyal followers of Jesus, I understand that Jesus is not a king in the ilk of David. He’s not a king who will restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.

Now…Like you, I know the rest of the story. This king — this messiah — who comes to us as an itinerant rabbi, who eats with tax collectors and the oppressed is not gonna kick Herod’s tooshie back to Rome. For the apostles and other disciples, the cross was a shock! The king to whom they and we claim allegiance, is dying on a cross unable, in the words of his tormentors, to even save himself.

What does this pericope, this section of Luke’s gospel tell us about the king we call savior? What do we learn about the kingdom of God, about what I call God’s realm?

First, we know Jesus is not going to kick Rome out of Israel. Jesus’ kingdom, God’s realm is not a military power. Of course had we been listening to Jesus as he wandered the countryside, we would know this already. As Nancy Lynne Westfield points out,

Jesus spends more time talking about the Kingdom of God than any other topic or issue…Jesus spent much of his ministry describing the kingdom of God as having different rules and different expectations from the rules and laws and penalties of humanity. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. #12487)

Second, Jesus doesn’t stop thinking about and caring for others — for us — even as he is dying.

 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Luke 23:34a CEB

 I confess that when I am suffering, even if only from a nasty cold, I am less empathetic and less concerned about others. It’s not that I’ll cease to care about you when I’m under the weather but I am less likely to think about you. It’s not something of which I’m proud but it is true.

In Jesus, however, is a ruler who despite torture, beatings, mockery, and certain death prays for his enemies as he is dying at their hands. The Realm of God is a place of undying love. It is a place in which we are all beloved of God.

Third, we learn in this passage that God in Jesus remembers every single one of us. We learn that even a criminal who in his own words is “rightly condemned…[and] receiving the appropriate sentence for what [he] did” (Luke 23:41 CEB) is beloved by God!

Notice the sequence of events between the criminal who asks,

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t require a catechism class. Jesus doesn’t require recitation of a creed. Jesus doesn’t require the criminal to say, you are the only way to God. He doesn’t require the “correct” theology or that the criminal join the UCC. Jesus doesn’t even require baptism.

What Jesus does is, he responds immediately saying,“I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43b CEB

We learn that God’s Realm is open to the most incorrigible, those who have committed heinous acts, to mothers who scold children who drop peaches, to child abusers, and impatient professionals in the grocery line.

God’s Realm is open to each and everyone of us. Grace is grace is grace is grace.

 Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

*** 

Molly’s mom was doing the best she could to hold the family together. Food was expensive and they had very little. She felt so guilty every time she thought back to the day she reamed Molly out for spilling those peaches.

It was just so hard to make ends meet. They were on food stamps after she’d been laid off, they were out of cash, they were out of everything…and it was still three days until her Oregon Trail card would be reloaded.

She wished she could tell Molly how sorry she was for that day, but she was just too embarrassed and too ashamed.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Phyllis was in such a hurry that day but she had to run into the market for just a few things. She got in a slow line and then — THEN — the woman in front of her whips out her Oregon Trail card. “Must be nice,” thought Phyllis. I have to make ends meet AND pay for her!

The woman in front of her looked so much more “put together” than Phyllis felt. Phyllis wished she could be casually doing the groceries with her children. She wished someone else would pay for her groceries.

Instead she was on the way to a high-pressure meeting.

Phyllis didn’t realize until the woman was on the way out the door that she’d been tap tap tapping her fingers on the counter.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Joe was in prison. He’d gotten sloppy. He’d molested the wrong child and he’d been caught.

Joe had found Jesus in prison. A lot of folks thought it was a ploy to get parole sooner. They didn’t think he was sincere.

Though Joe still had desires for kids, he understood that it wasn’t ok behavior. Joe was genuinely sorry for what he’d done through the years. Anyway, Joe found Jesus in prison. And he realized that regardless of what he desired, it was a sin to act on it. He realized that it was wrong to hurt others.

He also knew that though he didn’t deserve it, Jesus forgave him. The prison chaplain called that grace.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Finally, after three years of his friggin’ laziness, Frank’s wife kicked him to the curb. He just laid around the house. She couldn’t get him to even go out for a beer with his friends let alone take her out dancing or put up the storm windows.

Someone suggested he was depressed but she knew better. Frank was just a lazy good-for-nothing and she threw him out.

She wasn’t sorry either. She had to take care of herself. She had to start living her own life.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

***

We are all sinners. Sometimes we ask forgiveness. Sometimes we know we should ask forgiveness and we don’t. Sometimes we’ve hurt others and we don’t even realize it.

Always God loves us. Always God nudges us, trying to get us to listen and change. Always God pushes us to forgo judging and empathize with others. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.

Always God loves. Love doesn’t give up. It doesn’t say, “yes, but”. It encourages us to right behavior. It nudges us to mimic Christ.

But always Love forgives. Love is grace.

We’re often uncomfortable with this kind of grace, this kind of love. It seems so impractical and over-the-top. We want to set boundaries for love. Writes Nancy Lynne Westfield,

This kind of forgiveness is a challenging notion for many of us. Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. 12492)

But in the unfolding realm of God, we are called to live by different rules. In the unfolding realm of God, we are all beloved.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

[And] Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43 CEB

Amen.

***

This sermon was preached by Tim Graves at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on November 24, 2013. Tim took the SNAP Challenge during the week prior; he was on the final day of the experience on the day he preached this sermon. The text for the sermon is Luke 23:33-43.

SNAP: Two Dimes & A Penny

SNAPChallenge_Layer-1I’ve stood behind folks arguing about twenty-one cents on their grocery order before. Adamant, they don’t back down while others wait behind them. Clerks are often not very helpful looking with disdain at the person who bickers over two dimes and a penny. I admit sometimes I have been impatient when standing behind this scene.

Today I empathize with the panic of those who argue over small change.

With three dollars and fifty-four cents left in my food budget for 2-1/2 days, I went to the market in my small town yesterday. I was thrilled to find that there was an abundance of bananas left and, since this was the end of the week, they were only thirty-three cents a pound. I would have fruit!

Then to my joy was a new rack of Braeburn apples sale priced at 79 cents a pound. I would have apples and bananas to supplement my beige noodles and rice at home. Yes, I would have fruit! I couldn’t afford any more vegetables and all I had left at home was a quarter of a zucchini but, by golly, I was going to have fruit.

My order totaled $2.50 but since I am new to this living so very close to the edge, I didn’t realize a mistake was made. I was charged for one Braeburn apple at the 79 cent a pound and one Fuji apple at $1.49 a pound. That thirty-seven cents overcharge matters to me this week. It will buy a baking potato if I can find a small one in the pile.

When you’re poor and living near the edge every penny counts. When you’re days away from pay day or a refill on your food stamp card, of course, you argue over two dimes and a penny.

The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place. Jeremiah 22:3 CEB

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
SNAP: Ouch, Ouch, Ouch 11-23-13

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