6/23/19 - A Part of It All - Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

A Part of It All

Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

June 23, 2019

Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church

As of this past Friday, it is officially summer.  Here's a summer memory that floats into my mind this time of year:  It's late afternoon on a hot day and I'm floating on my back in a lake in northern Minnesota where my parents have a cabin.  It's quiet--no boats, no people around me. I'm looking up at the sky which is bright blue with just a few wispy clouds, and I'm thinking about nothing at all.  I'm just in the lake, under the sky, part of it all.  

Do you know that feeling?  That's not a memory of being awed by nature, the way I felt when I first saw the Grand Canyon or Niagara Fall.  It isn't a memory of being surprised by nature, the way I feel when I turn the corner of a road and see a rainbow ahead, or look up and see a bald eagle.  The memory of floating on the lake stays with me for a different reason. I wasn't looking at nature and admiring it. I was in the picture--right there with the sky below and the water beneath.  I felt connected. Or maybe a better way to put it is to say I remembered that I am connected.

Have you ever had an experience like that?  Is there something you've done, something that you regularly do, that enables you to feel deeply connected to the natural world?  I'd love to hear your experience….

Thanks for sharing those stories.  They each illustrate to me an important insight, something we know in our bones, in our guts.  We are part of creation. We may spend most of our days in our heads, more connected to our phones than we are to the world around us, but at the end of the day we are made of the same stuff as the trees and the birds and the moon and the stars.  All day long we are doers and leaders and shapers and performers but at the end of the day, we are creatures. We are God's creation.

Now I do realize that for some people, those are fighting words.  "Creationists", after all, are people who stand in opposition to modern science.  They argue that Genesis 1 should be understood as a literal description of how the world we know came into being, regardless of what archaeology, astronomy or any other scientific study might reveal.  I'm the daughter of a scientist and I'm married to a scientist and so I learned early on that religious people should stay in their lane. We can talk about how to find meaning and purpose, but stay away from making comments about creation.  Better still, don't even use the word, "creation"! We can read Genesis 1 as a fascinating myth but we want to be clear that it doesn't say anything true about US.

But my mind has been changing.  It has become starkly evident that the way we have been living on this planet since the age of industrialization is no longer sustainable.  The oceans, the atmosphere, the fresh water we drink, the ground in which we grow our food are all heavily impacted by human use and abuse. And we're having a hard time facing this challenge head-on.  It seems to me that building a sustainable future for ourselves and our descendents on earth will require us to use every tool we have--scientific and technical tools but also spiritual tools. There is no sitting this one out.  Religious people have to put ourselves back into the conversation.

Which brings us back to Genesis 1.  What if we stopped thinking about the ways in which the story is not true and instead considered the ways in which this story is true, even in light of what we now know through science about the origins of the universe?  What is most true about this story to me is the role that humans play in the story. Human beings do not create the world, Genesis reminds us.  We are part of creation. We are in the same picture, in the same category as the moon and the stars and the plants and the birds.

Maybe this sounds obvious, like seeing ourselves as natural is the most natural thing in the world.  But consider how hard we have worked to see ourselves in a different way. So much of human effort is framed as overcoming nature.  We talk about history this way--we conquered land, we triumphed over the world of germs and disease and wild animals. We harnessed nature with irrigation systems and sails and windmills and domesticated animals and got it to do our will.  

We frame religious history the same way.  When we were cavemen, we worshiped the thunder god and the earth goddess but now we are more enlightened and so we understand that God is an abstract concept above all of the things we can touch and feel.  And when we talk about Jesus, we tell stories about him descending to earth for a short time and then floating away again on a cloud. He is, at the end of the day, a deserter of creation and a forsaker of the human journey.  Our goal as Christians is to join him eventually--somewhere else, away from the toils and snares of the created world.

This trajectory of human history is profoundly and succinctly summarized in one of the great theological works of our time--the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E.  Do any of you remember that movie? It is set at some point in a post-apocalyptic future when the earth has become so contaminated and so full of trash that is no longer habitable by people.  So the people have all evacuated to a gigantic spaceship where they sit in motorized lounge chairs and drink slurpees all day while back on earth a solitary robot is tasked with cleaning things up.  The movie makes it clear that human life, abstracted from the created world, is silly and meaningless. The story ends on a hopeful note, though, because the robot spots a plant starting to grow in the earth's soil and the spaceship lands and the people return and begin to plant and grow things again.

When my kids and I watched that movie ten years ago, I was so struck by the ending I wanted to stand up in the theater and announce, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm am a Christian pastor and if any of you would like to discuss the spiritual implications of this movie, I'll be in the lobby and would be happy to meet."  I was just floored that a children's movie had not only succinctly diagnosed the problem with the story we've been telling about humanity but also pointed to a way forward. We need to stop floating above the world in our spaceships. We need to land, to step out of our technological bubbles and remember that this world is our home.  The future will be built out of what we plant now.  

Friends, this isn't just the story of WALL-E.  This is the Good News of the Gospel. At the heart of the Christian story is this amazing promise:  God has not given up on the world. God loves the world so much that God showed up--shows up--right here among us.  Jesus Christ didn't take his disciples away from earth. He brought them closer to it. He taught them to come close to the people who were struggling with disease and to touch them.  He taught them to find lessons about who God is and what God wants in the plants and the animals around them. He taught them to consider the lilies of the field and to see themselves in some way as created by the same God.  And when he was crucified, when he experienced the worst of what this world has to offer, he didn't quit in disgust. He didn't leave us to our own devices. He came back and stood on the beach and cooked breakfast for his disciples and challenged them to keep loving and caring for all of God's good creation.  We are part of that story--that is who we are and whose we are. Good creatures of a great God.

Can I get an AMEN?


5/26/19 - Building the Movement:  Hooks - Acts 16:9-15

Building the Movement:  Hooks

Acts 16:9-15

May 26, 2019  

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

Just to catch up those of you who weren’t here for worship last week, we were talking about the Christian imperative to throw dinner parties.  Did anyone follow the teachings of Jesus and the model of the early church and throw a dinner party this week?  We actually did have the neighbors over for dinner this week (which was lovely) but I’m still mulling over a dinner we hosted a couple of weeks ago.  A couple we met recently came over with their two grade-school aged kids.  I dragged out an old box of puppets and that gave the adults time for some conversation.  We’re all fairly new to Albany so we talked about where we came from and how we ended up here and soon we were deep into conversations about science and research and public policy.  Eventually, the woman turned to me and said, “So how did you decide to become a minister?”

I get this question so often that I really should have a set answer by now—but I don’t.  Part of my problem is that I don’t have a specific, entertaining story to tell about my call to ministry—no visions on the road to Damascus.  I am also aware that without exploring my questioners’ past experience of church and church leaders, I can’t frame my response in a way that would make sense to them.  And then there’s the issue of vulnerability.  I can feel protective of my faith when I interact with people who are definitely not religious—I don’t really want to pin myself to the wall as “Exhibit A.”

So that night I said what I often say to people I don’t know well:  “That’s a story for another time.”  But afterwards, I kicked myself a little.  Why not talk to these nice people about the things that are most central to my life?  They asked—why didn’t I at least try to answer?

Do people ever ask you why you go to church, or why you’re a Christian?  Do those questions trip you up like they trip me?

When Kathy and Judy and I got together to plan worship for May, Kathy asked a question about the scripture we just read that I’ve been chewing on ever since.  “What did Paul say?” Kathy asked.  “What did Paul say that hooked Lydia?”  The story in Acts tells us that Paul went to Macedonia in response to a dream he had.  In Philippi, he met a group of women who were observing the Jewish Sabbath down by the river.  He strikes up a conversation with one of the women, Lydia, and by the end of the conversation Lydia wants to join the movement that Paul is organizing.  But although the text includes all sorts of intriguing details—the location of this conversation by the river, Lydia’s unusual occupation as a dealer of purple cloth, the town where Lydia is from which is not the town where Paul meets her—it doesn’t say a thing about what Paul said.  It just says they had a conversation and Lydia signed up.  She and her household were baptized, presumably right there in the river.

For those of us who have been to employment workshops where we have been told about the importance of having a good “elevator speech”, this is a frustrating omission.  There’s all sorts of research that suggests that people only pay attention to the first 20-30 seconds of what you say to them (which means of course that I have lost most of you at this point!)  So when you are trying to make a lasting impression, you’re supposed to be able to communicate your most important points in 30 seconds or less.  By the time he talks to Lydia, Paul would have had plenty of time to perfect his speech AND it would have been short.  Why couldn’t it have been included in scripture—at least as a footnote!

Have any of you felt the need for an elevator speech about faith?  Years ago, when I was a young minister in Massachusetts, the denomination I was a part of hired a church consultant named Tom Bandy who was going to come to Massachusetts and help the UCC churches get out of what he called “the spiral of decline”.  I found his trainings to be refreshing—he said things out loud that no one else was saying about how churches needed to change or die.  But at the core of his training was his assertion that every member of a church needed to have an answer to this one question:  What is it about my faith in Jesus Christ that the world cannot live without?

This question caused me all sorts of grief.  I was raised in a very mainstream Presbyterian church in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  We definitely did not spend out time talking to people we didn’t know about how they needed Jesus.  In fact, we never talked about how we needed Jesus.  We didn’t really even talk about Jesus that much—we talked about what he called his disciples to do and we talked about how we needed to get to work doing those things.

So I had to chew on Tom Bandy’s question for a long time.  I had to have some arguments about how the question didn’t really seem like the right one to me.  Couldn’t we answer a more inclusive question?  Why do we need to tell people that they can’t live without Jesus?  And for that matter, why does it have to be about me and my faith?  It seemed extremely egotistical to suggest that the fate of the world depended on something so small and personal as my faith.

But then, I was out one night having a beer with a seminarian I knew and we decided to stop arguing with the question and to try to answer it—just for the heck of it.  I don’t remember what my friend said, but I do remember that I found myself saying, for the first time ever as far as I can recall, that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was essential to my life.  My friend seemed surprised, so I had to keep going.  I said that story expresses something for me about how the power of God is bigger than the power of death.  And that I had seen first hand how easy it is to tear things down, to criticize and mock them.  And yet this story, this strange and supernatural story of resurrection, seems to speak a different language than everything else I hear.  It doesn’t play by the same rules.  It insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is possible to be surprised.  And it makes me feel like hope isn’t something that we have to create for ourselves—hope spring out of life like the tulips—or maybe more like dandilions, impossible to contain or control.

I didn’t even really know that I felt this way until I said it, and then I became self-conscious and aware of how weird I probably sounded.  And my friend and I laughed and changed the subject and went home.  No one wanted to be baptized that night.  No one’s life was changed.  Except maybe mine.  Because I had admitted in public, in a place that wasn’t a church, that the story of Jesus Christ was something I couldn’t live without.  It matters to me personally.

Let me be clear—I didn’t develop my late night ramblings about resurrection into a succinct, 20-second elevator speech.  I didn’t polish it up so I could use it on my church’s marketing material.  Maybe I didn’t even say it again (until now).  I realized that the important thing was not really what I said.  Rather, because I had to say something personal about my faith, I had to let my faith be personal.  I couldn’t just talk about religion in general.  I couldn’t just discuss the activities of my church.  I had to let it come close enough to touch me—and then I had to let someone else come close enough to see that too.

Maybe, in the end, that’s why the content of Paul’s speech isn’t included in this passage from Acts.  What he said didn’t really matter.  He made a personal connection with Lydia, I’m certain, because he told a story that he was personally connected to.  He didn’t pitch anything to her, he didn’t sell anything to her, he just opened his heart to her.

So is it any surprise that in response, she opened her home?  Maybe, in the end, that’s why there’s this theme in the Gospels and in the story of the early church about going over to people’s houses and inviting them to come into your house.  Maybe that is just a way of talking about letting people into your heart.  Letting people come close.  And if that’s what all of this is about, then we start, I think, by letting these stories come close.  Letting Jesus come close.  Letting him in, clearing off the table so he has a place to sit, and inviting him to stay for a while.

5/19/19 - Building the Movement:  Draw the Circle Wide - Acts 11:1-18

Building the Movement:  Draw the Circle Wide

Acts 11:1-18

May 19, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

So as many of you know, I’m new here.  This is just my second Sunday serving as your temporary pastor while Kathy Donley is on sabbatical.  Since I’m still figuring a few things out around here, let me ask:  who in this room belongs to Emmanuel Baptist Church?  Would you raise your hand?  Okay, so how did you know how to answer that question?  Remember, I didn’t ask who is a member of this congregation.  I didn’t ask who serves on the Executive Committee.  I asked who belongs here.  How do you know?  Does it matter to you?

Now, as I understand it, there is an official answer to this question.  Emmanuel Baptist Church is a membership organization.  Some of you have officially joined this church and others of you have not.  As I understand it, the process for joining has changed over the years.  Back in the day, members were required to affirm a congregational covenant.  Judy and Kathy explained to me  when we were planning this service that over time, the congregation began to feel that the covenant was divisive.  Membership in general is not emphasized here as it once was.  You no longer have to join the church to serve on a committee, including the Executive Committee that sets the church’s direction.  This move away from membership has been part of the church’s efforts to be more welcoming, to include new people in decision-making, and to be less “clubby.”

All of this begs the question:  Does membership even matter?  Behind the question of membership is another, deeper one.  Does belonging matter?   Is it part of what you have come here looking for?  Is it part of what you have to offer others?

I think the story we read this morning offers some important insights for this discussion.  The story in its entirety extends over two chapters, and because it includes a vision of a bed sheet filled with animals of all kinds ascending and descending from the sky it can be a little hard to connect with.  On first read, the story seems to be a dietary lesson.  While Jewish law forbade eating certain kinds of animals (such as pigs or lobsters), Peter understands after this vision that he doesn’t have to be bound by those rules anymore. 

But if you read a bit more carefully, you’ll notice that this story isn’t really about WHAT to eat—it doesn’t conclude with an image of Peter enjoying a juicy pulled pork sandwich.  The story is actually about WHO to eat with—and we know this because after Peter has the vision, he goes to the home of some non-Jewish people who have sent for him.  He enters the home and stays with these people and even shares a table with them.  The vision of the bedsheet full of animals is not just a vision of what can be on Peter’s plate—it is a vision of who will be in his community.  (It is a fun imagine of a church, isn’t it?  A bedsheet filled with beasts, reptiles and birds.  Funny that no one has tried to incorporate that imagine into their logo!)

When we make this story all about food, it seems like Peter has to get over something kind of silly, like a child who doesn’t like mayonnaise.  But when we make this story about community, it becomes much more challenging.  And we’re not even talking about community in some kind of loose, civic sense of the term. This is a lesson about the intimate community that happens around your table, in your home.  This isn’t about smiling, waving and being civil—it is about rubbing elbows, passing the salt, hearing someone else chew, telling someone they have spinach stuck between their teeth.

 This is a story about letting people into your house and making room for them at your table.  Which is to say, this is a story about belonging. 

When we talk about the early Christian church as a movement, we imagine an outreach campaign.  We imagine travel to new places, reaching new people, extending the Gospel from the small group of Jews with whom it started until it reached out to the whole world.  But this story pushes back and suggests that belonging, intimacy, table fellowship is at the very heart of what followers of Jesus are called to offer to each other and to the world.  The Christian movement wasn’t just about going out—it was about welcoming in.  It wasn’t just about reaching wide—it was about intimate embrace.

 Is that what it’s still about?  I know this--the world is hungrier than ever for this kind of community.  We can have hundreds of friends on social media but feel lonelier than ever.  This past week I hosted a dinner at Union College where I’m a chaplain that brought together gay and lesbian students with local clergy who serve welcoming churches.  I had no idea if any students would even come, but the room was packed, and each clergy person had a little cluster of students wanting to talk.  There was a young man in my group who explained the reason why he came this way:  “I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background, but I’ve found a great sense of community with the Pride Student group here on campus.  Now that I’m about to graduate, I’ve been thinking about where else I can find real community like this—and I’ve been thinking I should give church a try.” 

His words reminded me of another conversation I had a few weeks ago with a member of a church in Troy where I was doing some consulting.  I asked this person about what lay behind all the time and energy she poured into her previous congregation that had eventually closed.  After some time, she told me about growing up in a family broken apart by her father’s alcoholism.  “I guess I’ve always been yearning to be a part of a real community,” she told me.  “And are you?” I asked, ready to hear great things about the church she had joined a year ago.  “I’ve seen glimpses,” she told me,  “but I’m still yearning.”  When she said this, tears sprang to my eyes because I recognized her yearning as my own.

Friends, the scriptures we read when we gather in this room on Sunday morning are filled with amazing stories of mind-blowing miracles.  God raised Jesus from the dead!  The disciples performed miracles of their own, raising Tabitha from death, speaking in languages they didn’t know, breaking the chains of prisoners. But what did it lead them to do?  They talked with people, went to their houses and sat at their table and ate dinner. 

Is that an anticlimax?  Or is that the greatest miracle of all?  Perhaps the most mind-blowing part of the whole Christian story is the idea that we belong to each other, that we are here for each other.  In Christ, “all things hold together” it says in Colossians.  There is so much in this world that divides us, such strong forces that pull us apart.  How amazing, how powerful it is to have this “ministry of reconciliation” as it says in Second Corinthians.  We proclaim that in truth, we’re not strangers.  We’re not enemies.  We belong to each other.

Of course, it isn’t enough to just say that—we have to live that promise out in our actions, in our lives.  How do we know that we belong?  How do we communicate to others that they belong? 

When the church acts like an institution, it will create a procedure to resolve that question.  Institutions have membership protocols.  They have cards and pins and pledges and ceremonies.  But movements don’t really have time for that.  Movements catch you up and pull you along before you ever had a chance to even decide if you wanted to officially sign on.  So in a movement, we have to certify each other.  We have to make an effort to connect with each other—to look each other in the eye, to touch each other, to go to each other’s houses and to each each other’s food.  Every time we do those things, we tell each other—we belong to each other.

When we were musing about what a “ritual of belonging” might look like at Emmanuel, Kathy and Judy told me that you used to have a tradition of standing together in a circle after communion singing, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”.  At some point, you all stopped doing that because you realized that not everyone knows the words to that song by heart—and not everyone finds it physically comfortable to stand up and sing.  This ritual of belonging had begun to feel like a ritual of exclusion.  But I wonder if we could adapt that practice a bit to make it more inclusive this morning.  Let’s see if we can create a circle that includes a row of chairs that allow some of us to remain seated.  And let’s sing a song the song, “Send Me Jesus” which is call and response—you don’t have to memorize any words!  Let’s make this circle as a way of showing ourselves that this morning, all of us belong here, and that together, we are more than a collection of individuals.  We are an expression of the resurrection promise, the promise that God can make us into more than we ever asked for or imagined.

5/12/19 - Building the Movement: Finding Leaders - Acts 9:36-43

Building the Movement: Finding Leaders

Acts 9:36-43

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

May 12, 2019 

 

So as you know, I’m new here.  This is my first official Sunday as your substitute pastor while your actual pastor, Kathy Donley, is on sabbatical.  I’m only going to be here for four months so I really need to get the lay of the land fast.  So, quick question as we start off this morning.  Who here is a leader in this congregation?  Raise your hands, please!  Is that right?  Look around, everyone.  Would you agree?  Are these the authorized leaders—people who have elected leadership positions?  What about the unauthorized leaders?  This question is actually a tricky one, isn’t it?

Here’s another tricky question:  in the story we read this morning from Acts, who is the leader?  Peter is an obvious answer.  Peter is the person who gets called in at a time of crisis.  Peter is the one who has the authority to pray and Peter is the one who has the power to raise Tabitha from the dead.  In fact, this story could even be read as offering proof of Peter’s qualifications to lead the church.  Peter shows that he is Jesus’ successor by exercising the power to resurrect the dead, something that up to this point only Jesus has been able to do.

But what about Tabitha?  She is clearly identified as a disciple—in fact, it is the only time the feminine form of that word is used in the New Testament.  She is clearly someone who the other disciples recognize as important because when she dies the other disciples send word for Peter to “come without delay”.  And what about the group of widows who are gathered around Tabitha’s body when Peter arrives.  Who are these women?  Her friends?  The recipients of her charity?  Or could we even call them her followers?  These women show Peter the “tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made.  Why would they bother to do that?  There is something about the work of Tabitha’s hands that is worthy of admiration.  Perhaps she is exceptionally skilled.  Perhaps she has long been known for her craft because it is sold widely and valued by many. 

There is much in this story that isn’t explained, but that is often how women’s stories are preserved in the historical record.  To hear them, we have to pick up on a few clues and fill in the rest of the story with our imagination.  When it comes to Tabitha, based on a few clues and a lot of imagination, I would suggest that she is another leader of the early Christian movement—a woman who had some measure of power and influence, a woman who had a following.

So if Peter is a leader, and Tabitha is a leader, how did the two relate to each other?  Here’s where our imagination can really run wild, can’t it?  It would be easy to imagine that there would be a rivalry between them.  It would be easy to imagine that when Peter goes to her bedside, he puts on a sorrowful face but inside he is rejoicing, thinking, “Now all these people are going to be on Team Peter!”  But that isn’t what Peter does.  Peter kneels and prays and then turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, get up!”  Tabitha returns to life and in a poignant detail, the text tells us that Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up”. 

This is an important story, friends, an origin story.  This is a story that tells us what the early Christian movement was like.  Peter went to the deathbed of another person who was a recognized leader in the community.  And instead of celebrating the elimination of a possible rival, he made it clear to God and to Tabitha that she was still very much needed.  Peter gave her his hand and helped her up.  “We still need you,” he told her in actions and perhaps in words.  “Let’s do this together.”

It didn’t have to be that way.  Think of all the stories in the Bible that describe a single leader who anoints a single successor.  Think of the kings—Saul to David to Solomon.  Think of the prophets—when Elijah comes to the end of his life on earth, he anoints Elisha as his successor.  These are the stories of the culture that produced these early Christians.  Jesus famously says of Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” a passage that is still used to explain while the Roman Catholic Church is ruled by a single male leader.  But Peter was a leader who extended a hand to another leader.  Just as Tabitha was slipping out the back door of this life, Peter caught her and through the power of God pulled her back.  “Let’s do this together.”

Peter’s actions might have been surprising, but they certainly weren’t unique.  Jesus, after all, called twelve disciples, not one.  And as he traveled around, teaching and healing, he called out other leaders.  “Zaccheus!  I’m going to your house today!” he says to a tax collector who by the end of the meal he shares with Jesus becomes a leader in financial reparations.  Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs in the Geresene region, and then commissions that man to tell the people in his region “the great things the Lord has done for you”.  And as Paul spreads the teachings of Jesus, he doesn’t write to a single leader of a particular church—he writes to the entire community, and sends greetings to multiple leaders in each place.

What are we to make of all of this?  To me, it’s clear that the Christian church in its formative years was a movement, not an institution.  Movements build leadership because they want to build power—they want to tap into lots of people’s networks, draw on lots of people’s ideas and experience.  Institutions consolidate leadership because they want to consolidate power.  They want clear chains of command and unifying statements of purpose.  Which brings us to an interesting question:  Is the Christian church today a movement or an institution?  Is Emmanuel Baptist Church a movement or an institution? 

Maybe there’s a question behind those questions.  Would you rather be a part of a movement or an institution?  And that’s not a trick question—everyone in here supports and benefits from institutions like the State of New York or the University of Albany or the Albany Public School District or the Albany Public Library.  The clear succession of leaders within an institution is part of what gives our world stability and order.  It can be very nice to know that someone is in charge—and it isn’t you!  It can be very nice to know that there’s someone to blame when things fall apart—and it isn’t you!

But that’s not how it works in a movement.  Movements need lots of leaders, people who lead in all sorts of different ways.  Movements generate leaders because they make room for people to contribute their ideas and their energy.  You don’t have to get elected to be a movement leader.  You don’t have to be certified to be a movement leader.  You just have to show up and pitch in. 

Friends, without a doubt, the church that we read about in the Book of Acts is a movement, not an institution.  And while that movement went on to form thousands of institutions, it feels to me like the stories that ground the church, the energy that propels it, and the Spirit that leads it are all about the movement.  And when we get caught up in fretting about the institution of the church—its policies and procedures, its buildings and its budgets—that movement energy is still there like an underground river, flowing and fresh and free.

Friends, I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the church I don’t just want to cry at the bedside as something that I love dies.  The story of Jesus has grabbed hold of my heart because it is the story of resurrection—the story of new life that defies the forces of death.  I am a Christian because I want to be a part of a movement propelled by resurrection energy.  But if I join in with that movement, I know I’m going to be called to be more than a loyal citizen.  Joining a movement means being a leader in my own way, contributing my gifts and adding my energy.  And it means recognizing the leaders all around me—reaching out my hand and helping them up and saying, “Let’s do this together.”

Are you with me?  Are you on board?  Let’s start this now—turn to someone next to you, someone behind or in front of you, extend your hand to them just as Peter did to Tabitha.  Say to them, “Let’s do this together!”

 

 

4/28/19 - Never Forgotten At All - Isaiah 65:17-25

Never Forgotten At All

Isaiah 65:17-25

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

April 28, 2019

There are all kinds of stories from World War II – stories of rampant evil, stories of self- sacrifice, of courage and stories of resilience. One of the good stories is about the liberation of a POW camp in the Philippines. The prisoners were survivors of the Bataan Death March, who had been held in the most brutal conditions for three long years. Many had died during the long forced march.  Others had died of malnutrition and disease in the camp. Some had been executed.  The survivors had about given up hope.

Then one day in January 1945, 121 U.S. Rangers emerged from the jungle.  After a brief skirmish, the camp guards fled and the gates were thrown open. Recounting this story in his book Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides writes:

Slowly, the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners. They were reacting with a kind of catatonic ecstasy, numb and inarticulate. One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead. All he could he say was "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!" Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face. "I thought we’d been forgotten," the prisoner said. "No, you’re not forgotten," Robbins said. "We’ve come for you."

With the help of many heroic Philippinos, the liberated prisoners, sick, weak, frail, made their way all the way back to the Allied lines. Finally they saw an American flag set in the turret of a tank. It wasn’t much of a flag, but for the men it was galvanizing. [POW]Ralph Hibbs remembers that his heart stopped. It was the first Stars and Stripes he’d seen since the surrender three years earlier. "We wept openly, and we wept without shame" [1]

They were free. They were home. They weren’t forgotten at all.

We don’t have the same kind of details about the day when the Israelites were liberated.  They had been in exile in Babylon for 50 years. They thought God had surely forgotten them.  They were so far away from their homeland, the place where they believed God dwelt.  Psalm 137, whose “every line is alive with pain” [2],  remembers that time “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  . . .  “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” 

The long book of Isaiah moves from the failure and destruction of Jerusalem to its redemption and restoration.  Our reading from chapter 65 is the good part, the restoration, the declaration of a second chance, a newness created by God.  It is addressed to those POWS in Babylon who were liberated and allowed to go home.  They were not forgotten at all. 

Going home was what they had yearned for. Only they came home to discovered a city in shambles, a war-ravaged homeland.  Whatever hope they had clung to in exile must surely have been tested by the reality that greeted them in Jerusalem. 

And into that dismal reality, God envisions a future with a new economy where people live securely in the homes they build and enjoy the fruits of the vineyards they tend;   a future of incredible peace where no one and nothing is ever hurt or destroyed.

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard”  God says.  “They shall not bear children for calamity.” 

I wonder how that sounds  to the mothers in Yemen where 85,000 children have died from starvation and preventable disease during the war there in the last 4 years and another 1.8 million under the age of five suffer acute malnutrition.[3]

“They shall not bear children for calamity.”  It seems like a low bar for most of us with privilege, but surely it is the most fervent hope of every parent in Syria and Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador and Flint.

This passage is the lection from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned to Easter Sunday.  Don’t tell the lectionary police that we’re reading it today instead.  I think it is assigned for Easter because the new Jerusalem seems as fantastic, as unbelievable, to the returning exiles as the presence of the Risen Christ does to Jesus’ disciples. The two readings have in common the idea that God is creating anew, beginning again to accomplish the redemption of the world.

Easter was pretty great wasn’t it? Our worship was wonderful, with some new faces among us and beautiful music and more than one spontaneous alleluia, and the preaching wasn’t awful. But life probably returned to normal by Monday. We saw the death toll from the bombings in Sri Lanka and the mass graves there, and the wars being fought around the world went on and the violence  and injustice. .  The idea that no one or nothing was at risk of being hurt or destroyed ever again probably did not even cross our minds. 

Here we are  -- one week after Easter 2019, 2000 years after the first Easter --  and really not much seems to have changed.  I mean the idea that Resurrection makes a new reality for all of creation is great theology, but it seems kind of long on theory and short on practice. As a Christian pastor, that’s surely not what I’m supposed to say. Some might think its another indication that I really need to go on sabbatical. But as a person who also happens to be a Christian pastor, I don’t want to mouth meaningless platitudes that sound like pie-in-the-sky by-and-by. 

On Friday night, we showed the movie Icebox, about a child from Honduras held by ICE after he crossed the border outside a legal port of entry.   About 60 people showed up to watch it.  About 20 people stuck around for some conversation afterwards. What I heard in that group and in some one-on-one conversations was a sense of outrage that children are being treated this way, a fear that history is the verge of repeating itself with references to the holocaust, and enormous frustration that the systems which people like us expect to work at our behest are not working at all.  Or more accurately, they are working to undermine everything we thought they were set up to support and protect.

If this 2500-year-old text of Isaiah 65 projects an end to violence and war and exploitation of the poor, it would sure be nice if we could get a glimpse of that happening somewhere by now.  All we can see are traumatized children whose future is being destroyed in front of us and we seem powerless to make it stop.  The beautiful passage, which I have always loved, seems to hold out unrealistic hope.  Now I’m not ready to give up on hope, but I don’t want to be a dupe either. 

And then I remember some things. I remember that the people who responded to Jesus’ earthly ministry were the ones whom everyone else had mostly forgotten or ignored, the ones fresh out of future. I remember that “one of the major themes of the Bible is that when people are in real trouble, when people have pretty much exhausted their own resources and concluded that there is no more hope, that they are forgotten, that’s when God shows up.” [4]

I remember that I occupy a place of privilege and that countless faithful people have continued to bear hope with joy in the midst of real suffering, the likes of which I will probably never know.   Perhaps I can try to learn faith and hope from them. 

Cardinal Landazuri was a priest in Latin America during the 1960’s and 70’s.  He was one of many who took a costly stand against the human rights abuses by military juntas.  He said “To carry the cross is not simply to endure the inevitable hardships of life; it is also to accept the sufferings imposed by the struggle against injustice and oppression.” [5]

To carry the cross is to join the struggle.  Jesus carried the cross. He joined our struggle, accepted our sufferings as his own. The proclamation of Isaiah 65 is the long-term vision of a God who enters human history to dispel the forces of death, wherever they are at work, to bring forth healing and reconciliation. Those of us who choose to follow Jesus become part of that long-term plan, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

There was a war in Nicaragua in 1978-79 in which the Sandinistas overthrew the Samozas.  The history is complicated, but the result was the loss of tens of thousands of lives and widespread homelessness and displaced persons. And yet, in 1979, a conference of Christians there recorded a list of signs of resurrection. They wrote:

Some signs of the [presence of God] in the midst of our struggling people have been and continue to be:

The hunger of the poor and oppressed for justice,

Courage,

The presence of women,

The example of unity,

Hospitality and companionship,

The sense of responsibility with which the people has taken up its task of reconstruction, and . . .

the joy, pregnant with hope, that makes the whole people dream of a better tomorrow for everyone and not just for a few.[6]

Two signs of the presence of God, according to those folks in Nicaragua, are the hunger for justice and courage.  I wonder where you might be seeing those signs around you.

Here’s one I’ve seen: Joshua Rubin is a 67-year-old software developer from Brooklyn.  Last year, he drove his RV 2200 miles from New York to Tornillo, TX to protest a tent city set up to house about 4,000 teens separated from their parents at the border.  He was there for 3 months, missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with his own family.  He kept a daily vigil, usually by himself, holding a sign that read “Free Them” or one in Spanish directed to the teens that said, “We are on your side.”  He documented comings and goings of contractors and workers, and the arrivals and departures of children, often at night, on his Facebook page.  Early on he was able to speak directly with the teens, but then black plastic was added to the fence to block that communication. From mid-October 2018, he simply showed up every day to bear witness and report what he saw to his growing number of Facebook followers.  In January of this year, the camp was closed.  It had always been controversial.  It did not close because of his efforts alone, but he called attention to it and kept doing so. One man, with a hunger for justice and the courage to act alone.   Do we dare to call that a sign of God’s presence?

There is a similar child prison in Homestead Florida built a few miles from the Everglades, on an old Job Corps site, on the edge of an Air Force base, where the children are kept in tents and old buildings that were damaged in previous hurricanes.  I call this a prison because the children are not free to leave. Even though they have not been charged with a crime and have not faced a trial for a crime. They are kept in line with threats of delay in their placement with sponsoring families and threats of deportation.  And when they turn eighteen, on their birthdays, they will be handcuffed and transported to an adult jail.   This is a for-profit prison, operated at taxpayer expense, but members of Congress have been denied entry to it, forbidden to see what goes on inside.   This is one of the most blatant manifestations of systemic evil I can imagine.

But here, even here, perhaps especially here, God is at work.  Inspired by Joshua Rubin’s example, people are showing up from all over the country  to keep vigil in Homestead.[7] They are bearing witness with courage and a hunger for justice.  And here’s the thing – every day, when the children are allowed out of doors, every day they turn and look to find those people who are standing outside the fence, on stepladders so they can be seen.  Every day they look to make sure those people are still there, so the children will know they haven’t been forgotten, not forgotten at all.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission (New York:  Random House, Anchor Books, 2001), p. 278, 317.

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (London: Inter-Varisty Press, 1973), p. 459.

[3] http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/blog/2019/04/11/the-war-in-yemen.3557571

[4] The Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Born to Set Thy People Free”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2009/120609.html

[5] Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1984, 2003), p. 115

[6] Gutierrez, p.120.

[7] https://www.facebook.com/groups/339957239906299/about/

4/21/19 - Coming Out Singing - Luke 24:1-12

Coming Out Singing

Luke 24:1-12

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Kathy Donley

April 21, 2019

For much of the year 2010, I was in ongoing conversation with the pastoral search committee, finally arriving here as your pastor in August. Earlier that year, several Emmanuelites went on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic. You arrived shortly after a devastating earthquake shook that island. Upon arrival, some of you continued as planned with your work in the Dominican and some of you went to offer help in Haiti.  That was before my time here, but I expect that when you returned, you shared stories of your experiences, what you had seen and heard and the impact it had had on you.

The stories that were told by the media were heart-breaking.  An estimated 3 million people were affected by the quake, nearly one-third of Haiti’s population. More than 160,000 died.  Morgues were overwhelmed by dead bodies.  In the poorest country in the hemisphere, resources were simply inadequate to meet the need.

In the midst of this, a man named Roger went looking for his wife, Ginette. She worked in a bank, which had completely collapsed.  The building had fallen in on top of itself. For 6 days, Roger kept vigil on that site.  For 6 days, he called her name.  For 6 days, under 30 feet of broken concrete, in total darkness, Ginette heard him and responded “I’m alive. Help me.  I’m alive.  I’m alive.”   Even though Roger never heard her, he convinced an excavator to clear piles of rubble. Finally, he found her, still alive. Then it took hours for professional rescuers to stabilize the rubble and extract her. They carefully lifted her out.  And as her body cleared the opening, she started singing!  Parched and frail, her voice still carried loudly enough to be heard through the TV camera.

Buried alive for 6 days.

Pinned down for 6 days. 

Total darkness for 6 days.

But Ginette came out singing.  And the words of her song were “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.” [1]

I can’t get over this story.  I heard it this month for the first time, and trust me, I was skeptical. But I googled it.  And I found film footage of the event and interviews with Roger and Ginette afterwards. So I believe it, but I am still astounded.

Holding on to that astonishment, maybe I can begin to tap into the wonder that the women must have felt when they reached the tomb that first Easter morning.  The four gospel accounts of the Resurrection differ in many ways, but they all agree that the stone was rolled away.  Mark reports that on the way to the tomb, the women had wondered who would move it for them. Estimates suggest that such a stone might have weighed 500-600 pounds or more, so I expect they did wonder how to get it moved.

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” John Updike describes this tomb stone as “not papier-mâché, but the vast rock of materiality.”[2]  This is a rock of substance, a solid rock with heft and weight.  The vast rock of materiality at the entrance to the tomb marks the line between the dead and the living.

The Rev. Calum MacLeod, minister at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland, suggests that in addition to being literally heavy, the stone carries symbolic weight. He says it symbolizes empire, “the Roman empire which placed the stone there after the empire killed Jesus.  And it is also a symbol of religious oppression for it was the religious authorities, the mainline church of the day, who didn’t like Jesus because he broke the rules: he healed on the Sabbath; he ate with people whom society looked down on.”  And finally, McLeod says, “For the women and the disciples, the stone symbolizes the destruction of the hope and potential that was present in the ministry of Jesus, the one whom they loved. The stone marks the end to healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted and feeding the hungry and caring for the poor and welcoming the outcast.”[3]

Like the thirty feet of rubble that trapped Ginette in Haiti, the vast rock of materiality at the entrance to the tomb marks the line between the dead and the living. It bears down, snuffing out the light of hope, suffocating passion and spirit with the frustration of oppression and injustice and the inescapable weight of the finality of death.  The rock at the entrance to tomb marks the line between the dead and the living . . . until the women discover that it is rolled away.

After 6 days, Roger found Ginette under the rubble, still trapped, but alive. Wonder, joy, relief.  He yelled, he whooped, and ran to get more help. He brought water to her.   His sense of urgency was palpable and people rushed to respond.  

After 3 days, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. And the women went back to deliver the message from the angels that Jesus has risen from the dead.  I think they ran back. I think they were probably beside themselves with wonder and joy and relief and simultaneous belief and disbelief.  The weight of the stone was lifted.  Hope and spirit and life returned. . .

Until they told the men. The men thought this story was nonsense, drivel, trash.  The men laughed at the ridiculousness of it. The Bible translators try to soften it. They say “these words seemed to them an idle tale, or empty talk, or a silly story. But the Greek word that Luke uses is direct and offensive. B.S.  That’s what he says.[4] The women deliver their amazing, urgent, joyful, wondrous news and the men say, “What a load of crap.”

If anyone should have believed them, it should have been these disciples, these who were bonded to Jesus and to each other.  If they won’t believe, who will? I wonder if the women heard the men’s ridicule and felt the weight of that stone all over again. I wonder if, in that moment, the heaviness of despair and injustice and rejection by friends just rolled right over them, threatening to crush their spirits, and suffocate their hope.

Sometimes, I think it is that moment where I spend too much of my life. That moment when the weight of poverty and addiction and sin and suffering bear down to crush life, that moment when the rubble seems to be 30 feet deep and no one has the resources to move it, to clear away the hatefulness, the nationalism, the racism and sexism and all the other brokenness of human power-mongering that keeps us trapped in the tomb. That moment when it seems like empire won and keeps on winning.  That moment when oppression  and injustice threaten to overwhelm hope and love forever.

I live too much of my life in that moment, for someone who knows the truth that that is not the whole story. The disciples’ knee-jerk verdict of B.S. is not their ultimate response. Just because someone might respond with “Fake news” when the truth is told, it does not change the truth’s veracity or its power for those who will believe.

This is what confronts us on Easter – the choice between an idle tale or deepest truth.

The vast rock between life and death has been rolled away.  That is the truth. There are forces that would diminish life and yes, they are real and strong for now, but they have been ultimately defeated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.   Idle tale or deepest truth? We must decide.   

The stone has been rolled away.  We have a choice. We can stay on the tomb side where despair and fear and death reign.  Or we can dwell on this side of resurrection, in wonder, amazement, trust and joy.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, pastor at Riverside Church in New York City in the 1980’s, said, “Even if the resurrection cannot be proved, it can be known, experienced, and it can be trusted. Faith anyhow is not believing without proof; it’s trusting without reservation. The resurrection faith is a willingness—on the basis of all that we have heard, all that we have observed, all that we have thought deeply about and experienced at a level far deeper than the mind ever comprehends—faith is a willingness to risk our life on the conviction that while we human beings kill God’s love we can never keep it dead and buried. Jesus Christ is risen, today, tomorrow, every day.”[5]

Resurrection faith is a willingness to risk our lives on the conviction that we cannot keep God’s love dead and buried.

I don’t know what kept Ginette alive and sane and strong for 6 days in her earthquake tomb. But I think surely it must have been resurrection faith which enabled her to come out singing.  And she was singing “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.”   

I don’t know Ginette’s song, but it brings to mind a folk song by Bob Franke which some of you might know – The Great Storm is Over.  If you don’t know the chorus, I’ll teach it to you.  It’s just two sentences repeated.

Alleluia, the great storm is over.    

Lift up your wings and fly!

I’ll sing the verses.  You join in on the chorus. And if my voice is ragged this morning, you can imagine that I’ve just come out from under 30 feet of rubble.

1. The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night,/ The little small child cried aloud in her fright,/ Hush little baby, a story I'll tell,/ Of a love that has vanquished  the powers of hell.

Chorus:
Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!
Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!

2. Sweetness in the air and justice on the wind / There’s laughter in the house where the mourners have been/ The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes / The standards of death taken down by surprise.

3. Release for the captives, an end to the wars /  Streams in the desert, new hope for the poor,/ The little lost children will dance as they sing,/  And play with the bears and the lions in spring.

4. Hush little baby, let go of your fear,/ The lord loves his own and your mother is here,/  The child fell asleep as the lantern did burn,/ The mother sang on 'til her bridegroom's return.[6]

After 6 days buried alive, pinned down, in total darkness, she came out singing. Singing “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.”

On the third day, they went to the tomb at early dawn. The stone was rolled away and the angels said “He is not in the tomb.  He is risen.”

Sisters and brothers, the great storm is over.

Christ is risen.   Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew3w4kaldgs

[2] https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/seven-stanzas-at-easter/

[3] The Rev. Calum MacLeod in his sermon “Roll the Stone Away”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2013/033113.html

[4] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching As Testimony (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) p. 119.

[5] William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Preachers, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010), p. 162

[6] Copyright (C) 1982 Telephone Pole Music Pub. Co. (BMI)
Recorded by Bob Franke on One Evening in Chicago, Flying Fish Records DC

 

4/14/19 - When Terror Stalks - written by Rev. Nathan Nettleton, Victoria, Australia

On Palm Sunday, members of Emmanuel heard the sermon "When Terror Stalks" which was written by the Rev.Nathan Nettleton.  Rev. Nettleton is the pastor at the South Yarra Community Baptist Church in Victoria, Australia. With Nathan's permission,  Pastor Kathy shared the sermon he delivered on the weekend that a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  You may read the sermon in its entirety or listen to it delivered with an Aussie accent at this link:  http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/when-terror-stalks/

4/7/19 - Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices - Romans 12:1-12

Finding Your Mystic:  Listening Behind the Voices

Romans 12: 1-12

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

April 7, 2019

 

Poet John Ciardi says that we are what we do with our attention.  We have been reminding ourselves of that for weeks. We are what we do with our attention. What we look at, what we talk about, what we read, what we consume,  what we pay attention to, gets inside of us and becomes a part of us.

There are powerful forces that run through our lives vying for our engagement, our dollars, our participation.  These forces have power to influence our thoughts and behaviors.  They take up residence inside us, and emerge in slogans like “God helps those who help themselves” or “winning is the only thing” or  “you can’t help those people, they’re just like that” or  “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

We are what we do with our attention.  If we give our attention to those who trade in fear, we will likely become fearful.  If we look for what is beautiful, what is hopeful, then beauty and hope will form us.

I was talking with another pastor recently. He told me about a time when he was attending a regional meeting of his denomination. Someone introduced a resolution asking that churches declare themselves weapons-free zones. It was easily defeated. Pretty quickly, my friend realized that he was surrounded by colleagues who were adamantly advocating for their congregations to be able to carry guns to church. He was astounded that so many Christian pastors were in favor of this.  He was also astounded that no one seemed able to recognize any kind of higher value, like their shared faith or the teachings of Jesus,  to which these church people might appeal to resolve this disagreement.  In his estimation, they were thoroughly captive to the violence and fear of the individual rights culture around them, and they couldn’t even recognize it.

So, Paul pleads with the Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  

“Do not be conformed” This is harder than we might think.  We talk about peer pressure as if it is something faced by teenagers, something that adults have learned to resist.  We say that because we are oblivious to the ways conformity shapes us all the time.

One of the things I’m looking forward to on sabbatical is reading. I used to read all the time, all kinds of things. But all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t reading any more.   And then I realized that I had replaced the practice of reading books or journals with the practice of using social media.   I’m not slamming social media.  I actually learn a lot from it and I connect with people I would not otherwise connect with.  Some of the movie clips and stories that you have most appreciated in worship came to me through social media.  But I started using it because I was doing what the culture around me was doing.  I try now to use it with more intention.  

Being intentional, paying attention to the big and small ways that we invest our time and energy  - that is part of what Paul meant when he said “present your bodies a living sacrifice.”

So what are some of those practices that help transform us?

Listening ranks high on the list. Listening in order to understand first and evaluate second. Listening to God, listening to our own bodies, listening to the groaning of creation, listening to those with whom we disagree.

We each do that listening in different ways.  Some of us simply talk with God, because taking the time to find the words for prayer is a way of paying attention.  Some of us journal because written words make order out of chaos.    Some of you have told me that you are making a point to be in worship every Sunday during Lent  -- that’s a formative practice.  More of us show up for worship on the first Sunday of every month than the other Sundays. That suggests to me that you put importance on receiving communion.  Taking a daily walk or a run is another way to set down your work for a while and listen.  Some of you make a point to do that walk with your spouse, so that you can listen to each other.  These are all spiritual practices.

Spiritual practices are not just things we do routinely.  Transformation can happen when the routine is disrupted.  Our minds can be renewed by exposure to things we don’t  know yet, by saying yes when invited to something we’ve never done before, by intentionally going out of our comfort zones and trusting that God goes there with us.

It is the practice of paying careful attention that can help us discern when not to conform to the world around us. As one scholar says, “ Christians are called to be counter-cultural - not in all respects, as though every single aspect of human society and culture were automatically and completely bad, but at least in being prepared to think through each aspect of life. We must be ready to challenge those parts where the present age shouts, or perhaps whispers seductively, that it would be easier and better to do things that way, while the age to come, already begun in Jesus, insists that belonging to the new creation means that we must live this way instead.”[1] 

Dr. King called Christians to be transformed non-conformists.  In a frequently repeated sermon, he said, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty. . . Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.  The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing.  And this very transformation saves him [or her] from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress. . . . This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.”[2]

 

The poet Mary  Oliver, says 

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

 

 Sisters and brothers, may we be the kind of people who pay careful attention.

 

 [1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two Chapters 9-16, (London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004) p. 69.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Fortress Press,

https://transformingcenter.org/2016/01/transformed-nonconformist/

3/31/19 - Finding Your Power: Listening for Healing - Mark 5:24-34

Finding Your Power:  Listening for Healing

Mark 5:24-34

March 31, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev Kathy Donley

Albany, New York

 

We don’t know her name, this woman who dares to approach Jesus.  She is a woman in a male-dominated culture. She is a woman, marginalized because of her sex and also because of her disease, her disability.  She is last and least in the social hierarchy and she knows it.  Somehow she has heard of Jesus.  Somehow she has made it to where Jesus is and she says to herself that if she can just touch the fringe of his robe, she will be well.  For 12 years, she has been ill and increasingly alone and somehow on this day, she gets herself to the crowd and she starts to make her way to Jesus. “If I can just touch the fringe . . . If I can just put one finger on it for just a minute.” 

She may have been afraid, but she found the gumption to get out of bed and get to Jesus.  After 12 years of heartbreaking disappointment, she found the courage to let herself hope that it might just be different this time.  And to believe, that she was worthy of being healed.

On Thursday night, I went to church.  I don’t mean I came to this building.  I mean I had a spiritual experience. If anyone was shadowing me on Thursday, they might have said I went to a concert.  That was what it looked like.  But it was a folk music concert.  Folk is the music of my soul, so on Thursday night, I went to church.

It was Carrie Newcomer.  If you’ve been here on a World Communion Sunday in the last few years, you’ve heard her song “Room at the Table”.  One recent November Sunday, we listened to “Sanctuary”.  And I have shared other songs of hers on occasion. 

On Thursday, Carrie’s first song was “Lean in Toward the Light”.  It made me think of Luke.  Fifty years ago, Luke was barred from ordination because he is gay.   That was a serious wounding in his life, but he refused to accept the message that it offered.  He refused to believe he was not worthy, that his life and gifts did not matter.  Instead, he started a ministry for people like himself whom the church had marginalized because of sexual orientation.  For decades, he offered a place of hospitality, of truth-telling, of healing.  Luke lives in California. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve exchanged lots of stories and questions and answers on-line.  He encouraged me when I was a fledgling pastor.   I thought of Luke, because I introduced him to Carrie’s music some years ago. Recently,   he wrote to tell me about this new song “Lean in Toward the Light” and how much it meant to him.  And then, probably because it was a Thursday and today’s sermon was not yet written, I heard the rest of the concert as if every song was about healing, which it kind of was.

When Mark’s story starts, the woman has been slowly losing her life.  In the Hebrew way of thinking, life was in the blood.  This woman has been bleeding for 12 years.  Her life has been slowly draining out of her.  She has been dying by degrees.

As human beings we are generally fearful of death.  We fear it for ourselves and for those we love.    The woman is afraid that her living death is going to be all there is.  Sometimes we die by degrees in another way. We die a little when we keep silent when we should speak up.  We die a little when we tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal, that it didn’t matter that much anyway, when it really did. We lose the abundance of life   

Frogs are going extinct and polar bears are dying and that matters. Children in America think that lock-down drills are just part of going to school and that’s not OK. Three survivors of mass shootings have died by suicide this month. That matters. Border patrol is now containing hundreds of migrants under a bridge, behind razor wire, in El Paso.  Have you seen that?  It is not OK. 

The woman touches Jesus and he knows it.  He looks around for her and in front of everyone, she has to speak up, has to confess.  She is afraid, even trembling, but Jesus stops everything for her.  The whole truth.  Maybe that means her plan to touch him and be cured.  Maybe it means her story, about 12 years of suffering and loneliness.  Whatever her whole truth is, it is important to her healing, because Jesus pays attention to her, treats her as someone worth his time.   Telling our own truth can be part of our healing as well.  Being able to name what has gone wrong, what has wounded us and the ways that we have failed to fix it, that’s important. 

When the healing comes,  Jesus says that her faith is the source . He doesn’t take credit for healing her himself.   He doesn’t give God the credit.  He says that her faith has made her well. 

The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the best interpretation of what the Bible means by faith is our word, "courage." Faith is not about the brain, it's not about knowledge, it's about the heart, it's about where passion lies in your life. "Where your treasure is, there is your heart." Where your heart is, there is your courage.

Carrie Newcomer’s songs have memorable, beautiful lyrics.  It was not surprising to learn that she also writes poetry.  This is one of her poems about everyday courage.  It’s called “Singing in the Kitchen”

         

My mother sang with full abandon

With the kitchen radio

When she was washing dishes.

She liked the old songs,

And she’d swing her hips,

Sashaying as much as a woman can

When elbow-deep in soapy water.

I would sit on the hardwood steps

Filled with pride and wonderment,

Whispering into my dog’s ear,
With sage five-year-old assurance,
“My mother has the voice of an angel.”

As I recall, my dog agreed.

 

Years later,

Standing side by side on Sunday morning,

I was horrified,

In the way only a teenager can be horrified

When her mother is singing

Loudly and confidently,

Completely and consistently

Off key

In church,

In public,

In front of her friends.

 

But now I understand

That my mother was a cautious soul,

Private and intentional,

And so I am grateful

That she taught me how to hold my little sister’s hand

And look both ways before I cross the street.

But I am also thankful

That either she did not know,

Or she did not care,

That her voice was not smooth or perfectly pitched.

She sang anyway,

Because some things just have to be

Exactly what they are,

And a song must be sung

One way or another.[1]

 

Following Jesus takes heart, takes courage.  Telling our truth, laying bare our deepest needs before God takes courage.  Giving ourselves a real opportunity for something different takes courage.   May we have the heart, the courage to be open to the healing and wholeness God has for us.  “Take heart,  be courageous,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world.”  Amen.

 

 

[1] Carrie Newcomer, “Singing in the Kitchen”  in A Permeable Life, Available Light Publishing, 2013, http://www.carrienewcomer.com

3/17/19 - Finding Your Breath: Listening to Our Bodies - Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

Finding Your Breath:  Listening to Our Bodies

Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

March 17, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

One time a mother was waiting for her 8-year-old daughter to come home.  The child was late, and the mother was getting worried.  Finally, the daughter came home and her mother asked where she had been.  The girl said that she had been at her friend’s house and the friend’s doll had broken.  Her mother said, “oh, did you stay to help her fix the doll?”  The girl said, “No, the doll could not be fixed.  I had to stay and help her cry.”

The little girl was wise.  Some things cannot be fixed.  We could tell ourselves “that’s just the way things are” or we could allow that brokenness to call forth from us sadness and grief and lament and tears.

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. Creation is broken. Paul describes creation as groaning, while it waits for transformation. God’s people share in the eager longing for transformation and we share in creation’s groaning.

We groan when we remember the violence at Mother Emmanuel Church and Tree of Life synagogue and now, we are still groaning at the news of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Words have poured out about the 50 people who died, their aspirations, their loved ones, their final actions. Words have poured out from politicians and religious leaders and ordinary people.  So many words, but also a sense that there is little meaningful which can be said. Even when we attempt to pray, there are no words, just anguish.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that when the circumstances of our lives have overwhelmed us, when the spiritual brokenness of creation seems to overtake our physical bodies, then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit.[1]

We are a wordy people. We read words, write words, hear words, speak words all day long.  We almost always think in words. But there are prayers which lie too deep for words.

A woman named Joanna attended an all-day conference on the biosphere in the 1970’s at the invitation of her young adult children.  She said, “although I learned no new facts, the cumulative effect was devastating. People were talking about the arms race and oil spills and the demolition of the rain forests . . . and it broke through to me somewhere in the middle of the afternoon that this could really be curtains for us all.  I saw this fact so clearly that I didn’t know how I could stand it.”

“For the next year, I lived with despair . . . My grief would break through in unexpected onslaughts.  Working at home at my desk, I would suddenly find myself on the floor, curled up in a fetal position and shaking. . .. the sight of an egret landing by the edge of the marsh or the sound of Bach from a nearby piano would unexpectedly pierce my heart, as I wondered how long it would be before that piece of beauty faded forever.” [2]

It is not always our brains that lead us into prayer.  Often the call to prayer comes from a broken-heart or a full one.  Sometimes it comes as the sucker-punch of shock, outrage, despair or even anger that we feel in our bodies before we can name it.  Part of attending to the inner voice, then, means attending to what our bodies are saying. 

As Frederick Buechner said about tears, “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. . .  a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.   They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where. . . you should go to next.”[3]

The prayers that lie too deep for words, the ones that we pray with our bodies are not always sad or angry.  Some of you might remember the movie Chariots of Fire about Eric Lidell, a Scottish runner who won Olympic gold in 1924.  In the movie, he said, “God made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

That was his body prayer. Our spontaneous body prayer might be joy on an Adirondack peak or the rim of the Grand Canyon.  If we are ever privileged to be present at a birth or a death, it might be indescribable awe.  If we pay careful attention, it might happen when we come home at the end of the day and really look at the beloved family member who greets us.    We might have known one kind of wordless prayer at the news from Christchurch and an entirely different kind of response when we saw the images of thousands of young people pouring into the streets of cities all over the world on Friday to demand justice for the planet. If you saw those pictures and your heart lifted or you found yourself cheering them on, that might have been the Holy Spirit in your body telling you how to pray. 

If the idea of wordless prayer is new to you, let me suggest a possible practice you could try. Breath prayer dates back to at least the sixth century.  It begins with words thought in rhythm with inhaling and exhaling.  At first the prayer was “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” during the inhalation and “have mercy on me a sinner” on the exhale.  It was shortened a couple more time and the shortest form is “Jesus, mercy.”  One word as you breathe in and one as you breathe out. That’s a great simple prayer which you can carry around with you.  And I wonder, if after a while, you wouldn’t even need to think of the words. I wonder if simply attending to your breath would bring you to a place of prayer.   I wonder if we might remember that breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek. I wonder if we might begin to think of breathing as drawing in the Holy Spirit, or taking a deep breath as taking a big gulp of the Spirit. 

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] N. Thomas Wright, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 598.

[2] Sherry Anderson and Patricia Hopkins,  The Feminine Face of God, (New York:  Bantam Books, 1991), p. 54.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, New York:  Harper and Row, 1988.

 

3/10/19 - Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces - 1 Kings 19:9-13

Finding Your Cave:  Listening Spaces

I Kings 19:9-13

March 10, 2019, Rev. Kathy Donley

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY

 

Elijah may be one of the wonder-working prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but his humanity is on full display here. He is a fugitive.  He is on the run, fleeing from Queen Jezebel who has promised to kill him. He hasn’t had much to eat in the last month and now he is hiding in a cave. He is exhausted and weak and afraid.

This cave that he has reached offers physical safety and protection. He can hide there. But it is surely no accident that he fled to this particular cave on Mt. Horeb. Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt.Sinai  --  this is holy ground. It is the place where Moses talked with God and received the ten commandments.  Elijah has come to a place known for encounters with God.

If he goes to this particular place hoping that God will show up, he is rewarded.  Two times, God asks what Elijah is doing there and two times, Elijah gives the same answer.

His answer is “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Maybe Elijah is having a pity party.  Maybe he is a bit preoccupied with his own role, thinking that he is the only faithful person left in the world and they’re going to kill him anyway. 

Maybe he is simply answering God’s question as directly and honestly as he can.

God responds by revealing God’s own self in a somewhat surprising way. There is an earthquake, wind and fire – all natural elements that some might associate with God -- but God is not in them. And after that, God is present. . . present in something hard to translate. The phrase is mysterious.  The familiar translation known to many of us from the King James version is” still, small voice.”   Other possibilities include “a soft murmuring sound” “the voice of a light whisper” and the one we heard this morning “the sound of sheer silence”. This time, God is not in the big, loud events but in the sound of sheer silence.  Whatever the Hebrew actually means, the main point may be to contrast God’s presence with the loudness of the earthquake, wind and fire.

Elijah is certain that God is present in the silence.  We know this because he covers his face.  It is an attitude of awe and respect.  No one, he believes, can look at God and live. 

Elijah finds God in the silence. If God is still to be found in silence, that is a hard truth for some of us.  We live in a noisy world.  Our lives are loud.  Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Our culture teaches us to value fullness – we fill up time with activity.  We fill up our space with stuff.  We fill up silence with sound -- music, radio, TV, podcasts, phone calls.  It seems that every gadget comes equipped with beeps or buzzes or bells these days.  How many electronic sounds do we hear in a day – ringing cellphones, text alerts, doorbells, car horns, that signal the microwave makes when it’s done?  If God is in the silence, how would we ever know?

Silence is often perceived, in our culture, as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Noise and sounds, on the other hand, are associated with productivity and busyness.  We are taught to find identity and value in what we produce, so we seek the noise of productivity.   Instead of washing the dishes in silence, we multi-task—washing the dishes and listening to the news.  We could perhaps enjoy a certain kind of silence within a car driving to work, but instead we are productive, we drive and return phone calls, using a hands-free device as required by law, of course. 

Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Sometimes we think that if we cannot hear God, God is absent.  But perhaps we need to challenge that assumption. There are empty silences, awkward silences, painful silences.  But there are also pregnant silences, right?  There is the silence of an engaged audience where everyone is so caught up in the action on the stage, that as the saying goes, “you could hear a pin drop.” Sometimes, we have known that quality of silence here, as the Spirit moved among us in the midst of worship. 

In the midst of the silence, God again asks Elijah what he is doing there.  And again, Elijah says, “I have been working hard for you and now I’m the only one left and they want to kill me.” This seems to be Elijah’s prayer – we repeat our prayers sometimes, especially when we need God to understand how afraid we are. And this time, God responds in practical ways. God tells Elijah he is not alone.  There are 7,000 others who have kept the faith.    And God gives Elijah a plan of action.  He is to go back to where he was with directions to anoint three people God has chosen. Elijah does go back, back to the conflict, back to the trouble, back to the risk.  This prayerful encounter with God moves him out of his despondency. His sense of purpose is restored and he takes up his mission again.

That almost makes it sound easy.  For most people, a life of prayer, of intentional listening for God is very difficult.  And we should remember that, even for Elijah, this did not happen in a moment.  Forty days and forty nights elapsed while he was running for his life.  Forty days and forty nights before he heard from God.

Forty days and forty nights is pretty close to the timeframe between now and Easter.  It might be enough time for us to learn to cultivate silence, to carve out a place in our noisy world where we can listen for God.  That is our invitation, our discipline this season.   We trust that there is great faithfulness in listening deeply in wonder and silence.  We are what we do with our attention. Silence is pregnant with the presence of God. May we choose to pay attention. Amen.

3/3/19 - Finding Heart - 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2

Finding Heart

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2

March 3, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

Many of you know my story.  Born on a Monday,  I was in church on the following Sunday and all the Sundays after that. Before I was 2, my family moved to the country of Ghana where Sunday morning church services were conducted in grown-up English and a local language – neither of which were really aimed at me.  It was always long hot, with no air conditioning, but then, the boiler never broke down either. Sunday evenings often involved going with my father to a local preaching station where people gathered under an outdoor shelter lit by kerosene lamps. Again, worship was in English translated to another local language.   We returned to the States when I was 9 and from that time until I went to college, my weekly schedule included Sunday School and worship on Sunday mornings, an hour called Training Union  and a second hour of worship on Sunday evening and Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night. Every single week. The church nurtured and taught me.   I soaked up scripture and theology and hymns and a lot of love.  When I went to college, I chose to seek out that same kind of spiritual nurture to sustain me in young adulthood. I even followed God to seminary.  And then my faith world began to splinter.

The denomination which had nurtured and formed and sustained me was imploding.  It turns out that not everyone understood our Southern Baptist tradition the same way, even though they had spent Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday nights in church just like me. It was a fight for doctrinal control and power to define the tradition.  At one extreme were the fundamentalists. At the other end were the moderates and between them were a lot of folks who didn’t start out with a position in the fight, but they would ultimately have to pick a side and determine whether to stay or leave. Those decisions were extremely difficult, because everyone involved identified as an authentic, invested member of the Southern Baptist tribe.   This was our spiritual home and we had been faithful to it. Why should we be the ones to leave?  Or the ones to be kicked out, in some cases.

There is a similar splintering going on in Paul’s world.  He is Jewish. He writes this letter to the Corinthians at the time of the Roman occupation of Israel.  That occupation is putting a great strain on Judaism.  The turning point of that strain will come in about 20 more years, when all-out war leads to the destruction of the Temple and even more scattering of Jewish people. He is writing as a Jewish person who has followed the way of a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus.  Paul is born into the faith, and well-educated and credentialed as a leader within it. He is as authentic and invested as anyone could be, but obviously there are strong points of disagreement with others who are just as zealous as he is, but who do not follow the Rabbi Jesus.  

The church in Corinth is made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  What we have in the Bible is part of the correspondence between Paul and that church, but we only have one side of the conversation. Paul refers to events that he and the church know about, but we don’t.  It appears that he has opponents within the church, people attempting to lead in ways at odds with Paul’s own leadership.   We do not know whether these opponents were Jews or Gentiles; we do not know whether it was the old tradition or a newer one that was being reinterpreted. One scholar says, “further reading [in 2 Corinthians] indicates that people were choosing sides, emotions were charged, accusation and suspicions had been flying about.  We should little wonder, then, that in his letter Paul is alternately vulnerable and hostile, profound and sarcastic, bold and begging.”[1]

I have a number of friends across the country who happen to be United Methodist. This week I heard their anguish in response to a special meeting in St. Louis in which that denomination determined to continue to limit the welcome extended to LGBTQ persons.  I am also on a number of mailing lists which allowed me to learn more than I needed to know about the splintering of that faith tradition.  What I heard could be described as “alternately vulnerable and hostile, profound and sarcastic, bold and begging.”

I still get irritated when people who have never been Southern Baptist make sweeping generalizations about them. So, I want to be very careful about how I, as an outsider, speak about United Methodists.   One well-intentioned but not-very-helpful reaction I’ve seen is people who’ve said, “Oh, if you don’t feel welcome at your church any more, just come on over to mine.”   What we already know is that churches and faith communities are like kinship groups. They are not interchangeable. Facing schism, our UMC siblings are suffering loss of relationship. This is a denomination describes itself as connectional, where we call ourselves congregational. To imply that all will be well if they just pick up and change denominations is hurtful.  It does not take seriously the loss of particular people and relationships.   If you have UMC friends in pain right now, a better response might be the kind of care you would give to someone grieving the death of a loved one, an irreplaceable loss, because that is what this is. 

Scott was a Southern Baptist seminary classmate. He and Jim and I were among the many who shook the dust off our sandals and found new spiritual homes.  Twenty-five years ago, Scott made his way to the United Methodists.  This week he said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”   He and I talked this week about what we went through then and what we learned from it.

One of the things that I learned was how easy it can be to put your faith in something without realizing you’re doing it.  You only become aware how much you have invested when it falls apart.   I did not believe that Southern Baptists were the sole possessors of the one true faith. I knew that people in other denominations followed Jesus as intentionally and also as imperfectly as I did.  But it was only when my spiritual home turned toxic, that I saw how much faith I had rested in it.   This week I have heard UMC friends say things like “this isn’t over.  We aren’t giving up.”  That is true.  It isn’t over.  But sometimes the fervor is so pitched that it seems like leaving the denomination is equal to abandoning the Kingdom of God.  

Some have said that the denomination cannot divide because God intends the Church to be united, which completely overlooks the fact that Christians splintered long ago into Catholic and Orthodox and a Heinz 57 of Protestants. When the fight for the survival of the denomination seems more important than the struggle to share the gospel, I start to wonder whether faith has been misplaced.

Unless you think that I am just picking on Methodists, let us remember that our own denomination has come perilously close to dividing along the same fault lines.  What seems to have stopped us is simply that we have quit talking about it. We abandoned conversations about broad inclusion at the national level because they became too acrimonious and hostile. That might actually be the wisest course of action at this time. Providing an opportunity for education and attitudes about sexual orientation to change in the wider culture may help us come to better consensus in the long term.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  Our denomination is no more united or Christ-like than any other.

Some folks among us are not such church nerds. They would never dream of relying on a church or denominational structure.  Some, who trusted  in a social compact with liberty and justice for all, have been truly dismayed by the detention of asylum-seekers and the rise of racist fear-mongering and violence in recent years.  Some have trusted too much, without realizing it, in democracy, particularly in the democratic system of this nation. And, as supposedly reliable checks and balances have failed to work, as government by the people moves increasingly toward government by a powerful few, they discover that their faith has been misplaced.

Many of us have lost or are losing faith in institutions we had come to depend on.  We look in many directions and see a disheartening reality.  Although the specifics were different in Asia Minor in the first century, Paul also faced a disheartening reality.  The message he shared then can still speak to us.

From Verse 18  “And all of us  . . . seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another;”

We are being transformed, Paul says. The Greek word there is metamorphosis.  The best image I know of metamorphosis is that of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar/butterfly spends a significant percentage of its life time inside the chrysalis.  Transformation takes a long time. 

My friend Scott reminded me about what it felt like when our spiritual home imploded. He said, “You’ll recall those death pangs/birth pangs of the late 80’s and early 90’s and know the challenge of being in the middle of it and not knowing what is next.”  Yes, I remember.  Death pangs/birth pangs. . . something dying, something being born. We might call that metamorphosis.  Or resurrection. But both involve death and loss and uncertainty.  Paul was in the midst of those death pangs/birth pangs.  The faith for which he was so zealous was being transformed.  And so it is for us.  The Spirit is once again transforming the Church, transforming us. The veil of ignorance and bondage and self-sabotage and wounding of those we are called to love is being lifted, but this is a long process.  As we witness the dissolution of denominations and institutions and connections which we hold dear, we may lose our faith in them, but we might also choose to re-locate our faith in God and trust that this is a transformational time.

And then Paul says in chapter four, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

We have this ministry, this calling, the possibility to be part of the transformation God is accomplishing.  As we are being transformed, we get occasional glimpses of Christ’s glory, we see it reflected in each other and we do not lose heart.

I see the glory of Christ reflected here in our relationships with each other. Today our newly formed Executive Team will meet to dream together. For over 40 years, we have depended on a certain structure to govern this church, but now we are shedding that skin.  Some of us are impatient to move on.  And some of us are a bit anxious in the absence of a clearly defined set of rules and expectations, but we are trying to lean into this transformation together.  By God’s mercy, we are engaged in this ministry and we do not lose heart.

Last month,  I glimpsed this glory in our children.  I shared the stories of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, and learned that they already know them. They were completely confident that God loves everyone, no matter what. They grasp, as much as a child can grasp which is sometimes more than adults do, that courageous love is costly.  We have this ministry and we do not lose heart.

The glory of Christ was there when United Methodist pastors and others opened their homes and their sanctuaries to LGBTQ persons who were angry and anguished this week.  Already-welcoming churches became bolder in their welcome and others got off the fence to stop the harm being done by debates over people’s humanity and worth. They refused to let the church’s oppression of queer Christians be normal. We have this ministry and we do not lose heart.

As the poet Mary Oliver observes, “How shall there be redemption and resurrection unless there has been a great sorrow? And isn’t struggle and rising the real work of our lives?”[2]

For, as Paul says, we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and him crucified.

“How shall there be redemption and resurrection unless there has been a great sorrow? And isn’t struggle and rising the real work of our lives?” 

By God’s mercy, we have this ministry and we do not lose heart.  Amen.

 

[1] Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians:  Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Macon:  Smyth and Helwys, 2009), p. 1.

[2] Mary Oliver,Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin,1999), p. 106

2/24/19 - Losers - Luke 6:17-38

Losers

Luke 6:17-38

Emmanuel Baptist Church , Rev. Kathy Donley

February 24, 2019

 

“Blessed are you who are poor”. It’s the first blessing Jesus pronounces in his sermon on the plain.  It was a radical idea then and it is a radical idea now, but we have learned ways to immunize ourselves against the power of Scripture and so it may no longer hit us with the same force. 

“Blessed are you who are poor”.  We might expect to hear “blessed are you who are poor in spirit” which is how Matthew records this sermon.  We sang that beautiful hymn Blest Are They which is based on Matthew’s version, so you might not have noticed that Luke has only four short beatitudes – Blessed are 1) the poor, 2) the hungry, 3) those who weep and 4) those who are reviled, which we might call  the persecuted or the unpopular.  

The name Beatitude comes from the Latin word for blessed.  It can also be translated as happy or fortunate.  If we read Luke again as “Fortunate are you who are poor and hungry” or “Happy are you who weep and suffer unpopularity”, then we might begin to sense how much Jesus is flipping conventional wisdom.

It is hard to imagine how that could be true.  Gustavo Gutierrez is a 90-year-old Peruvian priest and theologian.  His life’s work has been ministry with the poor and articulating a theology of liberation.  He notes that when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” he did not say “blessed is poverty.”  Gutierrez understands poverty as the greatest form of violence. He says “God is a God of life.  Poverty is death.  Therefore, we are committed to the poor.”[1]

It is hard to take these statements about blessing and happiness for the poor and hungry and weeping at face value.  Often we fall back on Matthew and spiritualize them.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Matthew records. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”    Sometimes we romanticize poverty or distort the life experiences of poor people in order to imagine them as happy or fortunate. 

I wonder if  things would make more sense if we started with the woes instead.  They are also short and direct.  “Woe to you who are rich.  Woe to you who are full, to you who laugh, to you who are popular.”  It’s like Luke is describing the cool kids – you know, the ones who have it all  -- brains, good looks, athletic ability, friends, popularity.   I notice that the warning in some of these is in the future tense “you who are full – you will be hungry”  “you who are laughing now – you will weep and mourn.”    It’s like Jesus is saying that the cool kids won’t be cool forever.  Their turn among the losers will come. But then, it’s also as if he is saying that there’s something wrong with being a cool kid. And that really does mess with our heads. 

What is Jesus really saying here?  If the poor are blessed, how poor do you have to be to qualify?  And what if  you are rich? What should you do about those warnings?

We need to think about context.  Luke is writing for and to the Christian community in Jerusalem, which happens to be the poorest of the early Christian communities.  He is also writing at a time when  Christians live on the road, with people sent forth to preach the gospel relying on the hospitality of others as they travel.  One scholar writes “These images of community life reveal the practicality of the Good News to the poor.  The lifestyle of sharing and holding all things in common, the practice of the virtue of poverty, and the practical economics of caring for a wide spectrum of people who model belief so that others can see them form the foundation of the gospel. . . in early descriptions of the Church, the Christian communities were described in startling terms:  see how those Christians love one another – there are no poor among them!”[2]

Another context -- at the beginning of his gospel, Luke indicates that he is writing for someone he calls “most excellent Theophilus.” “Most Excellent”  is a title usually reserved for people high up in Roman society. Theophilus is probably a Gentile convert being instructed in the way of Jesus.  He is probably rich, full and happy now, but verse 22 says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” 

If Theophilus joins Jesus’ community, that social exclusion and unpopularity will likely happen to him.  When the cool kids hang out with losers,  they lose their status and become losers themselves. Luke knows the terrible costs involved for rich people who join Jesus’ group, but he is uncompromising that this is part of the cost of discipleship.[3]

Jesus is forming a community which overturns the categories we cling to.  It’s a world of solidarity and companionship, where the distinctions between losers and cool kids are erased, where no one is threatened or afraid or left on the sidelines.  This community is still so counter-cultural that we only see occasional glimpses of it in real-life.  What we have been taught about losers and winners is so strong inside us that some of us cannot hold Jesus’ concept in our heads for very long at a time. 

There’s a story that comes from a time of great Jewish persecution in Serbia. The community is trying to survive in desperate poverty.  A father and son come to their rabbi for advice. They live in a one-room shack with a stove for heat, but it provides more smoke than actual heat, and the cracks in the walls and floor let the cold blow right in.  The father tells his story “I am too old and frail to work. My son goes out to chop wood, dig ditches and latrines or whatever else the Russians want done.  And I need a coat to stay warm because I cannot move around much.  We only have one coat between us.  I think that it is only fair that I get to wear the coat during the short days when it is so bitter cold.  Then my son can have it at night since he needs to sleep.  Rabbi, what do you think is the right thing to do?”

The young man said, “Rabbi, it is as my father says.  We live in a small space without adequate heat day or night.  But I go out early in the dark and work outside until it is dark again. If I don’t work the long hours, my father will not only be cold, he will starve to death. I need the coat, otherwise I will sweat from all my labor and then I can easily catch cold and get sick. It is only fair that I wear the coat outside during the day and then my father can have it at night. Rabbi, what do you think is the right thing to do?”

After a long silence, the rabbi says “I need to think and pray over this problem.  Please come back in three days and I will have an answer for you.”  So the men leave.

The three days seem to last forever.  The father and the son are fixated on the coat.  But then the father begins to look at his son and thinks, “I could not live without him.  He cannot get sick or I, too, will die. He needs the coat more than I do – I can stay near the stove and rub my hands to remember to get up and walk around the shack. When we go back to the rabbi, I will tell him it is decided:  my son gets the coat.”

At the same time, the son is watching his father and seeing how frail and weak he is.  And then he thinks, “My father is old and he has cared for me all my life.  Where would I be if not for him?  My duty is to gratefully give him the coat.  When we go back to the rabbi, I will tell him it is decided: my father gets the coat.”

So, they return to the rabbi. The father makes his speech about why the son should get the coat. Then the son explains why the father should get it.    The rabbi is amazed that in three days’ time, both men have come to decisions completely opposite from where they started.  The rabbi stands up and tells them he will be back in a minute. When he returns, a heavy coat with a fur hood is over his arm. He holds it out to them and says “Now you will both have a coat.  The decision is made.”

The father and son just stay there without moving.  Finally the son says, “Rabbi, you had a coat all this time.  Why didn’t you just give it to us three days ago?”

The rabbi replies, “You were arguing over how much you needed a coat.  This is my coat – and I started asking myself how much I needed my coat and if I could do without it.  But now that each of you is willing to let the other one have it, I too can say, “you can have my coat.  Now go home and be warm and I will be warm knowing that you care so much for each other.”[4]

The father and the son each had legitimate need for the coat.  Their reality was pressing hard on them.  And yet, somehow they were able to see past that, to come to a place where each was willing to sacrifice for the good of the other.  That pivot, that transformation, is fundamental to full participation in the kingdom of God. It in an internal shift which results in external actions.  It is inherently bound up with Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

I want to describe two levels of transformation.  They are transformations I seek in my own live, but which I cannot sustain for very long and that makes it difficult to describe.  One is what the father and son experienced – arriving at sacrificial love.  This can be hard to do with family members and those we know.  We are also called to do it for those we do not know or see. 

The second transformation may be even more difficult.  It enables us to leave behind the categories of winners and losers.  Or perhaps, more accurately, to recognize that we are all losers.  That no matter how successful we are in some categories, we are still insecure and fearful, we still find it hard to love ourselves, we are still broken in significant ways.  The more that we can accept that, the more easily we will receive what Jesus offers – the blessing of mercy, forgiveness, grace and life.

Nathan, a Baptist pastor from Australia, describes this so well. He says, “I have had far more trust than I realized in my own strength, in my own ability to achieve things and make a difference. I have tended to understand myself and my ministry as contributing to the salvation of the world, to the turning around of the world’s suicidal slide into self-destruction. But in the last couple of years, I’ve realized that that slide into self- destruction is continuing unchecked. Politics is getting madder and madder. Climate change is reaching the point of no return. Churches are becoming more mired in fear and divisiveness. Nothing I can do is going to turn that around.”

Nathan goes on, “But I’m not finding it easy to let go of my belief in myself as someone who could make a difference, who could achieve something, who could help turn things around. I’m not finding it easy to hear Jesus saying blessed are the unsuccessful; blessed are the despairing; blessed are those whose efforts were dismissed and derided and ultimately futile. That’s not the blessing I was seeking.”

“Blessed are those who can give up trusting in their own strength, their own effectiveness, their own importance. Blessed are they who can surrender all that and leave it to God.”[5] They will be like trees planted by streams of living water.

Jesus came down and stood on a level place and said “Blessed are you who are poor now, blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of God.”    May it be so for you and for me.  Amen. 

 

[1] Megan McKenna Like a Hammer Shattering Rock (New York: DoubleDay Religion/Random House, 2013), pp. 120.

[2] McKenna, Like a Hammer, p. 124.

[3] Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,  2nd Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p.41

[4] As told by Megan McKenna in Like a Hammer Shattering Rock (New York: Double Day Religion/Random House, 2013), pp. 120-123.

[5] Nathan Nettleton, in his sermon Blessings We Didn’t Want http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/blessings-we-didnt-want/

 

2/17/19 - When the Wine Runs Out - John 2:1-11

When the Wine Runs Out

John 2:1-11

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

February 17, 2019

 

 Last Thursday evening, Jim and I had the privilege of hearing an address by Juan Felipe Herrera.  He was the 21st U. S. Poet Laureate and the first Latino person in that role. Later on in the conference, we would hear scholars reading out their well-argued position papers with statistics and historical events and academic citations.   But this night, a poet was speaking. He began with his family story, about his father who hopped a train from Mexico to Denver with very little money and only the clothes on his back.  He arrived in a snow storm, and was, as you might imagine, very unprepared for such weather.  Throughout the evening, that story was repeated in several variations.  Juan must think simultaneously in English and Spanish.  He moved easily between them.  At one point, he had us repeat an entire poem after him, some lines in English, some in Spanish. Having never heard a poet laureate before, I don’t know what I was expecting.  It was probably the closest I will ever come to inhabiting the mind of a poet.

There was time for audience Q&A.  One seminary student stood and made a lengthy point about how on the one hand we can appreciate people’s immigration stories and their culture, and on the other hand, sometimes those stories and culture are appropriated, taken on, exploited by the dominant culture. He seemed justifiably riled up about such exploitation.  I think he wanted Juan Felipe Herrera to offer some kind of morally indignant pronouncement, to side with him, but what the poet laureate ended up saying was “it is not as complex as we think to be kind.”

That was the kind of evening it was.  I heard things that I already know, basic things, but said in new ways or with new importance.  “It is not as complex as we think to be kind” says to me that while I am focused on sweeping policy changes or reforms at the state and national level that might bend toward justice, I might be missing opportunities to be kind. Yes, good reminder.

I tell that story in part as a sound-bite from the conference and in part because our reading today is from John’s gospel. John’s gospel should often be approached with the mind of a poet. There are symbols and layers, and the path through them is not a straight line, and where we end up might be something basic that we already know, but have forgotten how important it is.

John’s story centers on a problem. The wine has run out.  Weddings in first century Palestine were week-long events. They involved the whole village and out-of-town relatives and guests.  If the wine runs out and the party fizzles, well that’s not a happy beginning to a marriage.  Weddings were not just the joining of two people, but of two families. Remember that this is an honor-shame culture. Whatever embarrasses you embarrasses your family, including the family that you’re marrying into.  Shame affects your status, your future opportunities. Running out of a wine was a big deal. 

It was the custom that friends and relatives sent gifts to the bride and groom ahead of time. The gifts were not pieces of silverware or china from their registry patterns. The gifts were usually provisions for the wedding feast.  So, a lack of wine could imply a lack of friends.[1]  When Jesus turns water into wine, he protects their honor and preserves the celebration. 

The story ends with these words, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”   John uses the word “sign” where others might use the word “miracle.” Signs point to something else and so we are led to wonder, what does this sign point to? 

If it points to God, what kind of God is revealed in this particular sign? Well, certainly a God of abundance. Jesus produces 120-180 gallons of wine.  For those of us not used to measuring wine by the gallon, that’s 600-900 bottles. Of wine. For one wedding.  Abundance. 

This sign points to a God of abundance and of extravagance.  Jesus does not produce 120 gallons of boxed wine, or 600 bottles of some cheap vintage.  What he brings to the party is fine wine, the quality stuff, to be savored and appreciated and enjoyed with gusto. 

It says that this first sign revealed Jesus’ glory.  In John’s gospel, God’s glory is continually manifested in Jesus’ life and ministry.  His ultimate glorification will happen in his death and resurrection, so throughout this gospel, there is a tension between Jesus’ glory and his death. [2]  All of which is to say that Jesus’ glory is not like the razzle dazzle of a magic show.

In fact, the way that Jesus works is as important as what he does.  Look what is required: There are 6 stone water jars. An ordinary household would have had one.  The fact that there are six implies that some neighbors have shared theirs for the occasion.  At first, Jesus seems reluctant to get involved.  For reasons unknown, when his mother tells him that the wine has run out, his response is “What business is that of ours?”  But his mother puts him on the spot when she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” I guess she knows her son, because then he does start giving instructions.  It is the servants who schlep the gallons and gallons of water to fill those water jars up to the brim.  And presumably it is those same servants who schlep all the wine from the jars out to the wedding guests.

What happens when the wine runs out?  Jesus restores the joy through community.  It’s not a one-man performance.  The joy comes through Mary’s nudging and the neighbor’s sharing and the servants’ labor and the steward’s evaluation.  We might notice that the steward appreciates the quality of the wine, but he has no idea where it came from.  The brimming jars benefit everyone, but it is the servants, the ones who do the most work who are privileged to know the whole truth of this story and their part in it. 

“By providing wine for a wedding, Jesus tacitly endorses things that make human life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexuality, community, hospitality, meals, family and celebration.”[3]

More than fifty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.” 

Rabbi Heschel went on, “Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions.   Celebration is an act of expressing respect or reverence for that which one needs or honors. Its essence is to call attention to the sublime or solemn aspects of living, to rise above the confines of consumption.  To celebrate is to share in a greater joy, to participate in an eternal drama.” [4]

When the wine runs out, Jesus restores joy through community.  When the wine runs out, Jesus offers something so good, so deeply and powerfully good that the only appropriate response is celebration. 

The Rev. MD is a friend and colleague.  I met him through the Strategic Pastoral Excellence program. You might remember that for the last 3 Januarys, Jim and I have gone to a conference in Florida on financial wellness.  KM went last year and RP attended this year as Emmanuel’s representatives. Through that program, I got to know MD.  He is 10 years younger than I am.  He serves an African-American church with more than 10,000 members.  He has a degree in Engineering and has won awards for his musical abilities.  To say that he is gifted is putting it mildly.   He and I have come to a place of mutual respect for each other, even though our lives and ministry contexts are so different. 

From him and others in the group, I have learned things about black church culture that I would never have known.  I think I have also managed to contribute some nugget of inspiration to him in most of our encounters.  This last time, I simply described the process that most mainline historically white churches do, in which there is an annual stewardship campaign with an annual pledge to support the budget.  His church is no stranger to property and financial management.  They run a non-profit aimed at community development for which they purchased much of the area around the church property.  There are 9,000 giving units in the church, which means that many people are giving on a regular basis, without pledging. But somehow he latched on to this basic idea that I shared, expressing his thanks for it several times. 

The official program of these events focuses on church and personal finances, but often the most important conversations happen at other times.  At dinner one night, he was talking about the more obvious racism in our country right now.  He was lamenting racist and xenophobic policies and acts of violence. He said that he has heard directly from a number of younger African-Americans who have either left the church or have been strengthened in their conviction to stay away because of white Christian tolerance and even support for these policies. He thinks that at some future time, historians will identify this era with a sharp downward turn in the American church.  In that conversation, Jim and I talked about our trip to the San Diego/Tijuana border.  We shared our own outrage at the apathy and rejection and hatred being shown to migrants in desperate need.  We denounced the rampant racism we saw there and elsewhere.

I thought that this was a just dinner conversation between some ordinary Christians, commiserating about the state of the world. But then MD said, “Now, because of this conversation, I can go back to my congregation and tell them.  I can tell them that there are people out there who look like you (meaning Jim and me), who don’t look like us (meaning his congregation) but who are just as outraged and upset and concerned about this as we are.  Now I know.”

And I have to say that a little thrill of joy went through me.  At the border, I felt powerless.  There was so little I could do to change anything.  But in this conversation,  MD affirmed that my words and actions might matter.  They might actually make a difference and offer some hope to folks in despair.  They could preserve celebration for those running out of wine. I know it is a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me, it was the basic gospel idea of loving your neighbor understood again in a personal, one-to-one, real-life way.  As Juan Felipe Herrera said, “It is not as complex as we think to be kind.”

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee --   He brought the gifts of joy and celebration to a wedding.  Revealing a God of abundance and extravagance, he sowed delight and good surprise and laughter within community  -- he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”  May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

 

[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998),  p. 66.

[2] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995),  p. 539.

[3] Matthew L. Skinner in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1 Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Editors, ,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), p. 190.

[4] Abraham J. Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1965),   p. 117

2/3/19 - The Home Crowd - Isaiah 58:6-10, Luke 4:14-30

The Home Crowd

Isaiah 58:6-10; Luke 4:14-30

February 3, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church/FOCUS Churches Worship, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

In sports, when a team plays on their own field, in their home town, they have an advantage over the visiting team, because their fans will be there in larger numbers or because they’re playing in a familiar setting and they know any idiosyncrasies of the space.   It’s one reason the Super Bowl is being played in Atlanta tonight.  Neither the Patriots nor the Rams will have the advantage of being at home.

I don’t know if anyone has studied the concept of the home advantage for preachers. I’m not even sure how you would measure a winning sermon.  Is it a win or a loss if the congregation tries to throw you off a cliff?  Who scores if they don’t succeed?

Jesus was preaching to his home crowd that day in Nazareth.  It started out well enough.  He took the scroll without dropping it and found the passage he wanted and read it out loudly and clearly.    Everyone was paying attention – all eyes were fixed on him, it says, and they spoke well of him.  He seemed to have the home crowd advantage.

Part of the home crowd advantage was that they knew the text. Those verses from Isaiah about good news for the poor and release for the captives would have been familiar.  This is a vision that has sustained them across generations, as their ancestors returned from exile, as they now suffer under the oppression of Rome.  When Jesus ends with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” they would have immediately have thought of the Jubilee, that cycle of renewal and restoration which was supposed to happen every fiftieth year. In the year of Jubilee, debts were forgiven and slaves were freed and the land was allowed to rest. It was a time of starting over for everyone.  And Jesus announces that it starts today.  Imagine, the working people of Nazareth who start to wonder if their mortgages will be considered paid in full, who start to believe their relatives in debtor’s prison may be released. This is good news and they want to believe it.   This is Jesus, Joseph’s son – surely he wouldn’t lie to them, would he?   They want to believe that God is making everything right again.

Maybe a few of them notice that Jesus left out part of Isaiah.  Maybe they remember that the sentence in Isaiah says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”  and it crosses their mind to wonder if Jesus left that part out on purpose.  Nazareth is in Galilee, an area know as “Galilee of the Gentiles” because so many foreigners have been moved in by occupying powers. [1] Many of the native citizens resent that.  They are tired of living under a harsh and hostile regime.  So, maybe some of them wonder why Jesus left out the part about vengeance, because they have been waiting for a long time for the Romans and other enemies to get what they deserve.  They have been counting on, anticipating, praying for, God’s vengeance.  Maybe some of them notice, but at this point, the home crowd seems to be on Jesus’ side. 

It was going so well until he brought up Namaan, the leper who was a Syrian general, and that unnamed foreign widow. He had them in the palm of his hand until he said, “Don't presume that because I am your hometown boy and I've got a reputation as a wonder-worker, that I will work wonders for you. Don't presume that God only loves and cares for you.  Don't presume that you deserve more healing, more food in time of famine, more of God's protection than anyone else because of your religion or national identity. You know, if you choose to remember the stories from history, that God cared for foreigners and enemy combatants, people not like you or your ancestors, people who didn't even worship the God of Israel.” 

And that’s when the fighting started.

What do we make of this incident 2000 years after the fact?  What we make of it depends in part on where we locate ourselves.  Are we part of the home crowd, those faithful ones who were in church every Sunday, even special services, (ahem FOCUS combined worship)? Or do we find ourselves in the outsiders, the foreign woman and enemy general who were encompassed by God’s mercy?  In the tragic history of Christian-Jewish relations, this text has been used anti-Semitically and Christians have claimed superiority over those in the synagogue who would have thrown Jesus over the cliff.  So where do we locate ourselves?

I suggest that most of us here can identify with the home crowd. Each of the covenant churches is at least 150 years old and one is over 300 years old.  FOCUS itself has been in ministry in Albany for over 50 years. We have the home advantage.

If you are here and you haven’t experienced the story and ministry of FOCUS directly, you are welcome here.

If you are here because you are new to one of our covenant congregations, we are glad you’re here.  If you just wandered into Emmanuel today and had no idea this was a special Sunday, thank you for showing up.  You who are newcomers are a gift from God to the rest of us.  Please give us an opportunity to get to know you as you get to know us.

Many, probably most of us,  in this room identify as Christians.  Christians claim Jesus.  He belongs particularly to us.  We are his home crowd.  But that does not mean we are all the same.  Some of you were here when FOCUS was founded.  Some of you remember Bob Lamar or Ralph Elliot as your pastors.  But some of us have come along much later.  In fact, two whole congregations have joined FOCUS in the last ten years.  So we who are the home crowd are not cookie cutters of each other.

And that was probably true for the home crowd in Nazareth too.  It says “They got up, drove him out of the town, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”  Any time there is a they in a church story, there is also an implied us.  Right?  Someone says, “They want the new carpet to be green” in a tone of voice which clearly says that we don’t want that.   Congregations rarely think and act unanimously.  So when this story talks about they, I wonder . . .I would like to think that there’s a silent minority whose story is not told here. 

Part of the home crowd definitely does not want to hear what Jesus says.  They do not like being told that God was friends with their enemies.  When Jesus makes them face the truth embedded in their own traditions, they respond with anger and violence.[2]  But maybe there could have been a minority report.  Maybe the minority liked what Jesus said.  Maybe some of them had once been outsiders and having been welcomed, they were ready to extend the same welcome to others. 

I would like to think that some of us here in this home crowd would be right there with them.  That’s not just wishful thinking.  Last summer, we set up three open conversations with you, members of FOCUS churches.  We asked for your input on concerns in Albany that we could address better together than separately.  You responded with long lists at each gathering.  We took those lists very seriously.  We combined them and weighed all your answers and eventually we identified 4 issues that rose to the top.  Those four issues, which you named as being of most pressing concern, were food security, housing, racism and immigration.  Food security, housing, racism and immigration.

Those issues, identified by this home crowd, line up pretty well with Jesus’ agenda from scripture. Those of us in leadership at FOCUS are wrestling with ideas and strategies for how to engage these four priorities in hopeful and constructive ways. 

We might take a cue from the church in the Netherlands that just ended a worship service that lasted for 96 days. Dutch law forbids the police from entering a place of worship while a service is happening.  So Bethel Church held worship continuously in order to shelter an Armenian family living in their building for 3 months.  The family has not yet been granted the asylum which they first sought in 2010, but as a result of this church’s initiative, the government has agreed to reassess the status of 700 families who had been previously listed for deportation.  This round-the-clock effort involved almost 1000 pastors of various denominations who came from across Europe, sometimes bringing members of their congregations with them. The oldest daughter in the family is 21. In November, she wrote  “I often think the only place where I am safe is the church.  It really feels like a refuge.”

One of the organizers,  said, “I hope it’s a new way of being a church — a new way of having an impact on society, a new way of standing up for vulnerable people,”[3]

The Bethel home crowd offered safety to the oppressed and then literally welcomed strangers into their building to keep the worship service going. 

Or we might look to some Methodists in Memphis, the heart of the Bible belt, as they responded to those who might have seemed foreign in culture or language, but especially foreign in faith.

Watch video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYembGqZF94

Perhaps you know other stories like this, stories that would encourage and edify and empower us.  We should be sharing those stories with each other.  Because this is who we are – followers of Jesus whose self-declared mission was to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed and to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor. 

FOCUS churches, this is our calling.  Home crowd, this is our mission.  Standing within our broken and bleeding community, perhaps feeling battered and bruised ourselves, we have a loyalty to God who is the creator, redeemer and sustainer of the whole world. As children of God, we are  called to be imitators of God, to live in love as Christ loved us, to welcome the stranger, and the foreigner and even our enemies. May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

 

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, ( Downers Grove, IL;  Intervarsity Press, 2008), pp 152, 154

[2] Fred Craddock in  Preaching through the Christian Year C, (Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International, 1994), p.92

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/world/europe/netherlands-church-vigil-refugees.html?fbclid=IwAR3c4_9zt4eTLGQ_Ael1zos_RpIWmByguhBtI55YvYzpoluq59zN60Cb0uk

1/27/19 - Today - Luke 4:14-21

Today  

Luke 4: 14-21

January 27, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

A Baptist scholar named Robert Parham wrote this about our text for today.  “Luke 4:18-19 is one of the most ignored, watered down, spiritualized or glossed-over texts in many Baptist pulpits, evading or emptying Jesus’ first statement of his moral agenda.”[1]

That cautionary note jumped off the page at me. I certainly don’t want this pulpit to be one which waters down or ignores or evades anything Jesus said.  These two verses are at the heart of today’s sermon, but next Sunday, we get the second half of this story.  So if you think that we don’t do justice to these words today, please come back next Sunday when we host the FOCUS winter worship, and I will take another crack at it.

This is Jesus’ first recorded sermon.  Many people understand this to be Jesus’ personal mission statement.  In a few minutes, I want to invite you into some conversation about our mission statement.  This is one of those Sundays when you and I will do the out-loud work of the sermon together.  But first, let us see what we can notice about this text.

In the synagogue, he stands up to read and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah.  It is a short reading. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

These would have been familiar verses to his listeners.  I wonder if they would have heard the very slight changes between the version that Luke records and verses in Isaiah that Jesus was reading.    Scholars who compare Isaiah 61 and Luke side-by-side,  notice a few nuances in language, but what seems most significant to me is where he ends his reading. He seems to be reading two verses of Isaiah, but he actually only reads one and a half verses.  He stops before the words “the day of  vengeance of our God” which takes away the tone of judgment from the reading.

Jesus’ agenda is one of healing and restoration and compassion.  Robert Parham says, “Jesus was announcing that he came to liberate from real oppressive structures the marginalized – the impoverished, the war captives, the poor in health, the political prisoners. Jesus came to turn the economic structures upside down, instituting the year of Jubilee when crushing debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.”[2]

This is a dramatic announcement in his hometown.  He is claiming his life’s work, and it is not going to be carpentry!

It is a radical change and requires courage from Jesus, but I want us to notice something else.  It does not come out of nowhere.  It comes from within his faith tradition. Luke has been careful to tell us about his Jewish upbringing, about how his parents took him to the Temple to be circumcised and then again when he was 12 years old.  He makes this statement within his hometown synagogue and it starts as a quote from the prophets of old.  Jesus doesn’t come back home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions. His mission is consistent with the covenant and relationship that God established with Israel generations earlier. 

The text was familiar, but even so, they waited expectantly to hear what he would say – every eye was fixed on him, it says.   How would he approach the text?  Would he compare the hard times his listeners were experiencing under the Roman empire to the hard times of their great-grandparents under the Babylonian empire?  Or maybe instead of looking backward, he would look forward to better times. He might say, “I dream about that day when good news will come for the poor and the captives will be freed and the blind will see. I have a dream that one day, one year, the Lord’s favor will come.”

Jesus the preacher, doesn’t choose either of those.  Instead, he says Today. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.”  “Today this comes true.”  If he was bold before, this is even more so.

Diana Butler Bass says, “Today is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality – because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now.  The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them to fix everything.  But today places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world.”[3]

We might remember Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail which was addressed primarily to white clergy who supported the cause of racial justice, but not with his sense of urgency. They wanted him to give it more time.  To them he wrote, “ For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never.” . . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And then later in the letter, he wrote “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour” [4]

Diana Butler Bass claims that “Today is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.”[5] and I think she might be right.

If we are honest, we look around and know that Jesus’ good news for the poor and release to the oppressed has not been fully realized. We see that Dr. King’s dream is not accomplished.  We may even  feel that the year of the Lord’s favor has completely passed us by . . .

But friends, hear the good news:

We are here, committed to Christ’s mission in this time and place.  We are here,  boldly stepping out into this year of experimentation.  We are here, ready to act in ways that might be simultaneously new directions and also thoroughly consistent with who we have been as God’s people. We are here, a still vital congregation, praying for the Spirit of the Lord to fall afresh on us,  . . . beginning today.

.We have looked at Jesus’ mission statement, his agenda.  Now for a few minutes,  let us consider our own mission statement. Would you read this out loud with me please?

Emmanuel is a diverse and growing tapestry of faith, woven together in our common commitment to follow Christ. We are God’s many-hued children, gathering to celebrate, to struggle, to serve, and to tell the good news of God’s love in the Capital District and around the world.

Some say this is an identity statement because it describes who we are.  That’s true enough, but it also describes who are becoming and hints at what we are doing to get there.  So, for the time being, I am content to consider this a mission statement.  And I would like for us to do so together for just a few minutes. 

The first sentence says “Emmanuel is a diverse and growing tapestry of faith, woven together in our common commitment to follow Christ.”   I wonder about the different ways we each might understand those words.  I wonder how we perceive the beauty of this tapestry.  I wonder how this sentence is true now and how it is not yet as true as we would like.  Please turn to your neighbor and share your first thoughts on one of those questions.  We are only going to take 3 minutes,  so don’t try to answer all of the questions, just share what is most important to you.  And listen to what your neighbor shares.

.The second sentence has these strong verbs:  gathering to celebrate, to struggle,  to serve and to tell the good news.  Which of these verbs is most important or meaningful to you?  Is there another verb that you would add to our mission? 

Again, please turn to your neighbors and share your thoughts on just one of these questions.  And switch the order of speaking in your groups this time. Let the person who spoke last go first.

 Thank you friends. “The implication of this passage is that whatever we find to be the heart of  the gospel will be the central shaping force in our life of faith.”[6]  It will be our mission, our purpose, our agenda.  As we move forward today, let us trust that God’s spirit is upon us to bring good news.  Amen.


[1] Robert Parham, The Agenda:  8 Lessons from Luke 4: Students Guide, (Nashville;  Baptist Center for Ethcis, 2007, accessible through www.ethicsdaily.com), p 3-4

[2] Robert Parham, The Agenda:  8 Lessons from Luke 4: Students Guide, (Nashville;  Baptist Center for Ethcis, 2007, accessible through www.ethicsdaily.com), p 3-4

[3] Diana Butler Bass in her sermon The Power of Today . http://day1.org/7044-the_power_of_today

[4] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham Jail,  August 1963, accessed here https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

[5] The Power of Today http://day1.org/7044-the_power_of_today

[6] Carol Lakey Hess, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 286.

 

1/13/19 - Water, Fire and the Holy Spirit - Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22

Water, Fire and the Holy Spirit

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22

January 13, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. John Paarlberg                                                                                               

 When I was in seminary I had a student field assignment in a Hungarian Reformed Church --in the Reformed tradition we practice infant baptism as well as adult, believer baptism. The pastor there told a story of a baptism he celebrated.  As he poured the water over the child’s head the baby began to cry. “There, there,” said the infant’s father. “Nothing happened. Nothing happened.”

Let me be quick to say that that is not a Reformed doctrine of baptism. We believe that something does indeed happen in baptism, as I am sure you do, too.  But exactly what happens and how it happens, when it happens—that is much more difficult to say.  We say that baptism is “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” or even “a  means of grace,” which is to say that the Spirit of God acts in baptism, that God’s love is communicated—really, substantially, truly.  Just how that comes about remains something of a mystery. God certainly doesn’t act at our behest.  The church doesn’t control God’s Spirit. We don’t dispense God’s love. The Spirit blows where it wills; God acts in freedom.  Yet we trust in God’s promises. In and through the sacrament of baptism God acts. Something happens.

It’s also pretty clear in the New Testament that something happens in baptism,  something powerful, dramatic, maybe even disruptive.  Mark says the heavens were torn open at Jesus baptism. Both Matthew and Luke include these words from John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; ….  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Water, fire and Spirit are powerful forces, powerful biblical images. And not necessarily gentle, cozy images either. The picture here is not that of curling up beside a warm fire or soaking away the day’s tensions in a soothing bath. This is a fire that destroys and water that drowns.

Recall some of the biblical stories associated with water. The Spirit hovers over the waters at the dawn of creation. There is the story of Noah and the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, where ‘Pharaoh’s army got drownded’ as the spiritual says. There is the story of Joshua and the people of Israel crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.  Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana; Jesus and the woman at the well where he offers her living water; the healing at the pool of Bethsaida where the Spirit troubles the waters.  Biblical stories about water are stories about power and risk and drama. Water is often an indication that something significant is about to happen; things are going to change.

Water refreshes, cleanses, delights. It means life and new life.  But we also know the power of water in hurricanes, floods and tsunamis. Water erodes, engulfs, destroys and drowns. Water is both life-giving and life-threatening. And the water of baptism is both blessing and threat.  It signifies new life, but for new life to be born something has to die.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4). In baptism something in us is not only washed away, but drowned.  “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul (Ro. 6:11).

In many baptismal liturgies that is reflected in the renunciations and affirmations.  The one being baptized is asked:  Do you renounce the power of sin in your life and in the world?  “I renounce them.”  Who is your Lord and Savior? “Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior.” Baptism is a baptism of repentance, a turning around, the drowning and death of the old self and the birth of the new.

John baptized with water, a baptism of repentance. “But the one who is coming,” said John, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.…. his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3: 16-17).

The image is of one holding a winnowing fork, or perhaps, as I’ve seen it done, a large, shallow, open basket filled with grain, tossing the grain into the air again and again, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff, the light, worthless stuff, and catching the valuable, heavier grains of wheat in the basket. And then sweeping up the chaff and throwing it into the fire.

Winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff, is another image associated with baptism according to John.  Not separating the good people from the bad people, but separating the good from the bad in each of us.

You are about to be shaken up and sifted, says John, tossed into the air to allow the wind of the Spirit to blow away the parts that get in the way of what God wants us to be. Then the wheat, the good stuff will be gathered up, but the chaff, the non-essential, the worthless will be thrown into the fire.

“The one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? In Jesus’ baptism the Spirit is associated with the affirmation of God’s love:  The Spirit descended in the form of a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Yet it was that same gentle, loving, dove-like Spirit that then led Jesus into the wilderness to wrestle with the forces of evil; that same Spirit sent him on his mission to proclaim that God’s kingdom had come near. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me he said “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed to free” (Luke 4:18).  The Spirit led Jesus to live a life that was about so much more than his life.   And in our baptisms we are called to live a life that is so much more than our own life.   We are called beyond ourselves.  Yes, the Spirit is gentle and loving but the Spirit can also be disturbing, disruptive, empowering.

I’ve been led beyond myself to do such things as  tutor immigrant and refugee children at Arbor Hill elementary school, visit with Palestinians in the West Bank, volunteer in a food pantry, seek reconciliation with someone I’ve wronged, travel to Nicaragua to help rebuild homes— not necessarily great things, but, I hope, small things done with great love, as Mother Theresa said.  Why would I do such things?   There are many motives, but the short answer is: Because I have been baptized.  The Spirit led me.  

To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is to be empowered to be God’s co-workers in a wounded and weary world.  The Spirit leads you to places you would not otherwise go, calls you to undertake tasks you would otherwise not dare, to engage in struggles and conflicts you would otherwise comfortably avoid.

But underlying all of it is the voice from God:  “You are my beloved.” That is both the climax of the story and the source of everything that follows from it.  The alpha and the omega is the affirmation of God’s strong and steadfast love.

We heard it in the words that Isaiah spoke to a dispirited and despairing people: “Now thus says the Lord: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. . . . You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1–2, 4). We hear it again when God speaks another very personal and particular and specific word at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God lovingly enters into the life and history of a nation or a community or an individual and makes a particular choice; “I have called you by name, you are mine.”  “You are my Son.”

Henri Nouwen writes that “when I know that I am chosen, I know that I have been seen as a special person.  Someone has noticed my uniqueness and has expressed a desire to know me, to come closer to me, to love me… When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one and it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded.” (Life of the Beloved, pp. 44-45.) 

What God said to Jesus, God says to each of us at our baptism: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” In baptism we are not celebrating the concept of love, or the general idea that God loves everyone, but that you in particular— you, your own unique, unrepeatable, individual self are named and loved by God. I think that is at the heart and foundation of everything we believe about baptism.

I spoke earlier of the renunciations and affirmations in baptism, of saying no to evil and saying yes to love. But maybe it should be the other way around: affirmation first; then renunciation.  God’s love comes first.  And when we know the power of that love, when we rest in that love, then our lives are turned around and we say no to the powers of evil.

It is God’s love that washes away the old life and kills in us what needs to die.

It is love that sifts the good from the bad and burns away the chaff.

It is love that gets us outside of our selves.

It is love that leads us to travel a new road.

It is God’s love that brings us to new life.

Luke is the only Gospel that explicitly connects Jesus’ baptism and the descent of Spirit with prayer. “When Jesus … had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended … And a voice announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

James David Duncan is a writer, nature lover, fly-fisherman, mystic, and a non-church going lover of Jesus and lover of the Gospel. He bemoans the way prayer has been trivialized and distorted and even exploited by politicians and celebrities and others.  Think of Presidential prayer breakfasts, or ‘sending our thoughts and prayers’ to those who have suffered tragedy.

Duncan makes reference to Jesus’ command in the Sermon on Mount in Matthew 6:6, not to pray on public street corners in order to be seen by others, but to pray in secret in your closet.  He writes:  “The only unfailing guide I’ve ever found through the innumerable blind alleys of my life as a writer, man, husband, father, citizen, steward or believer, is the love burning in my heart.  For me, prayer is about one thing: making contact with that love. Though it burns in there like a candle flame, hot, bright, beautiful, love’s flame is fragile: so fragile, I feel, that the wrong kind of prayer can snuff it out; so fragile, I sense, that it absolutely needs the stillness of ‘the closet’ Jesus recommends in order to burn brightly. So… to every …proponent of mass piety and public prayer, I say Matthew 6:6 forever. If prayer now means we talk to the Flame of Love on TVs and street corners, telling It what we desire rather than seeking Its guidance, then [I want nothing more to do with prayer.] ….  If the wordless yearning or brokenhearted sigh of the Muslim and Jew and Buddhist nun and wordless child…at prayer is not equally pleasing to the One True Listener, [then I want nothing more to do with prayer.]… If prayer is now a means of wooing votes, if prayer has ceased to marvel at an unspeakably sublime Mystery and is now a public gloat [then I want nothing more to do with prayer.]

“Keeping one’s love burning, and living in accord with that burning: this, to me, is prayer.  And love, as the gospels describe it, is not the glorification of self, but the renunciation of it for the sake of the beloved, whether that beloved be God, the words of Jesus, a woman, a child, [or a ravaged piece of God’s beautiful creation].

“When prayer comes to mean asking for ends that please me, first and foremost, God help me stop praying: help me love something or someone instead”  [God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right  (Great Barrington, MA: Triad Books, 2006), pp. 112-113.]

I am less clear about the details of baptism--exactly what happens, how it happens, when it happens, but I’m more certain that at the heart of baptism is love:  God’s free, unlearned, gracious love. You are named, known, called and loved.  You are God’s beloved, called to live in accord with that love.

I’m grateful for the doctrine of baptism, particularly for the Reformed doctrine of baptism, my own tradition. I hope you are grateful for tradition’s understanding of baptism. But I experience my tradition’s doctrine, not as a complete and perfect explanation of what baptism means, nor as a fence or boundary beyond which I may not wander, but rather as a sure foundation, a solid place to stand: a strong and constant reminder that I am rooted and grounded in love.  A love that sifts, purifies, cleanses and frees me from myself, sending me out unafraid, into a world that God loves.

1/6/19 - Another Way - Matthew 2:1-12

Another Way                            

Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

Life Among the Lutherans is a collection of some of the monologues about Lake Wobegon, by Garrison Keillor, the former host of the radio show Prairie Home Companion.  In one of them he speculates that the wise men were conceivably Lutheran. He reports that Pastor Inqvist said, “We think they may have been Lutherans because they brought gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh is a sort of casserole made from macaroni and hamburger, or as they say in the Mideast and Midwest, hammyrrh, thus the name. You bring it in a covered dish, thus the speculation that at least one of the wise men might have been one of our guys. Maybe he was going to stop at the department store and get something expensive like gold or frankincense, but his wife, a wise woman, said, “Here, take this myrrh. They’ll be hungry. And make sure you bring back the dish.”[1]

Obviously Pastor Inqvist is trying to be funny.  We often try to put ourselves into Bible stories.  Sometimes we understand the stories better that way. But in this case, I think Matthew is making the point that his readers are not like the Wise Men.  The Wise Men are neither Jewish nor Lutheran.  They are foreign.

Matthew is considered the most Jewish of the gospels.  He wrote for a Jewish audience and included more Old Testament quotes than any other gospel writer.  And yet, he is the only gospel writer to mention the presence of these Gentile foreigners.  He spends as much time talking about the magi and Herod as he does about Mary, Joseph and Jesus in these first two chapters.

These Wise Men came from the East.  East of Jerusalem was Persia (now Iran), Babylon (now Iraq), and Arabia (now Saudi Arabia).   Those places did not have a great relationship with the people of Israel.  Their history was characterized by conquest, oppression and exile.  It is not surprising that a visit from these historic enemy countries provokes uneasiness in Herod and all of Jerusalem.   Imagine if the sentence said “Nuclear physicists from Iraq, Syria and Russia came to Washington looking for a baby”.  Many Americans would suspect an underlying, not-so-good motive.[2]  Fear of strangers, especially foreign strangers, is not a new phenomenon.  Matthew acknowledges the fear, but he doesn’t dwell on it.   These foreigners are neither spies nor terrorists. They turn out to be the heroes of the story.

The reading ends “And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” 

Another way – this is what strangers, outsiders, newcomers, foreigners often offer. Another way. We sometimes hear the words “another way” and make them negative.  “Another way” sometimes becomes a challenge to “our way”. We often want the comfortable way, the familiar way, the cheapest way, the safest way.  Often we jump to the conclusion that another way is going to be difficult, risky and expensive. We don’t want another way.  We want our way.    Sometimes we just need to stop long enough to listen, to observe, to recognize that another way is just that—another way.  It might be that we could gain something by attending to it.

The wise men come to Jerusalem asking for the child who has been born “King of the Jews.” They go to the palace, where they might reasonably expect a royal baby. 

But what they find is the current King, Herod the Great, whose rule is characterized by fear and rage and even paranoia.  He maintained a private security force and built fortresses in six places so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He executed his favorite wife and three of his sons because he thought they wanted his crown.  Then he figured that when the time came that he himself died, the Israelite people would be so glad to get rid of him that they would throw a big party.  The King was infuriated by that idea. So, he left an order that on the day of his death, political prisoners throughout the land should be killed so that there would be appropriate mourning. [3] One commentator describes Herod the Great as “history’s most hysterical megalomaniac.”[4]

Herod was over the top, but this is mostly the way of king and rulers.  Those with power hold onto it, generally without regard for the needs and wants of those over whom they rule.  The way of Herod is deception and fear, the power of money, weapons, and domination.  But there is another way.  This other way is on display in Bethlehem where a peasant family welcomes learned scholars.  Another way where a vulnerable mother, father and child receive strangers in peace, without weapons, and gifts are exchanged.  A way of hospitality and trust.

There is the way of King Herod, a reign of terror.  And there is another way, which is the reign of the God who is repeatedly described in Hebrew scripture as the parent of orphans and protector of widows, the defender of the desolate.  

The wise men seek the “King of the Jews” and they don’t mean Herod. That title is never used for Jesus again until the time of his death.  Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill him as an infant, and Roman-appointed Pilate orders his execution as an adult. . . .The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.[5] 

The wise men know something.   When Jesus is on the cross, he will be mocked as a counterfeit King of the Jews by religious insiders.  The first people to recognize Jesus for who he is, are these foreign strangers. The outsiders have something to teach the presumed insiders.[6]

As the Rev. Kathryn Matthews writes, “It's deeply moving to hear of these foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling – just an inkling – of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding; despite the reputation of "the East" as the place of wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find.”[7]

There is a spiritual hunger, a yearning for purpose and meaning in our time.  People may not be looking for it in churches or institutional religion as much these days, but they are still hungry for it.  And I wonder, about those who do the hard work of showing up in a unfamiliar church.  I wonder if they have an inkling that something very important could unfold here.  And I wonder how often they find it.  I wonder how often we find it. 

Scott Peck was an American psychiatrist and best-selling author. His vocation was clearly influenced by his Christian faith. In one of his books, he wrote “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”[8]  There seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction and discomfort, swirling around us on many levels.  Some respond by retrenching, digging the ruts even deeper.   I wonder if we, as Americans, as Christians, mostly as members of Emmanuel, are ready seek another way.

I note that Herod’s people, the palace insiders, are able to figure out the answer to the magi’s question. They eventually say that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. This is the right answer, but it seems to make no difference to them.  They are satisfied with the way of  Herod.  They do not want another way.  But I find this hopeful. 

It suggests that if we can listen to the right questions, we might discover that we already have the resources we need, in scripture, in prayer, in this community, to find truer answers and another way.  The right questions might come from unexpected places or people.   God tends to work, not at the center of power, but on the margins, not in Jerusalem, paralyzed with fear, but in a small village that might have thought its best days were long past.   I want to remember that.

“And being warned of God in a dream, they departed into their own country another way.”  This other way comes from God.  It is not necessarily safer or cheaper or more comfortable. It is not necessarily riskier or more expensive or more difficult.  The only important criterion about the other way in this story is God’s direction and the magi’s obedience.

What the wise men found was a poor child in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms.  To the intellectually perceptive, this is not the scholar’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, they had the faith to experience unbridled, exceeding great joy.[9]  May we seek and find that way together in this new year.

Amen.


[1] Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Books, 2010),  p.56

[2] https://thelisteninghermit.com/2010/12/30/can-we-trust-these-foreigners-epiphany/

[3] R. Alan Culpepper, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010) p. 167

[4] James Howell, in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p. 214.

[5] Marcus Borg and J. Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s  Birth  (New York:  Harper/Collins, 2009), p. 137-138

[6] Matthew L. Skinner in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1 Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Editors, ,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), p. 158.

[7] http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds_consumed_by_the_fire_of_a_star

[8] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled and Beyond:  Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety, (New York:  Touchstone, 1997),  pp. 32-33

[9], Shelley D. B. Copeland in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, Advent Through Transfiguration,  David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.   (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  p. 169.