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.

 

12/23/2018 - Testify to Love: Love That Changes the World

Testify to Love:  Love That Changes the World

Luke 1:39-56

December 23, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

This story is familiar to most of us.  So familiar that we might not recognize how outlandish it is.  It’s wild that it was even written down, that we are told about the conversation between two pregnant women 2000 years ago.  It’s absurd that one of them is a teenager, unsure how she got pregnant and one is a post-menopausal woman who never had the children she longed for.  When they meet, Elizabeth’s baby kicks up a storm which she takes as a sign that he recognizes Mary and is leaping for joy at her presence.  But, as one of you said this week, “babies in the womb kick all the time.”  It’s an absurd story.

It’s absurd and subversive.  The song that flows from Mary audaciously proclaims that God has reversed the fortunes of those who suffer.  God is emphatically on the side of the poor,the hungry, the weak, the despairing.  The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer recognized the subversive nature of her song.  In 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany,  during an Advent sermon Bonheoffer said, “This song of Mary's is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God's power and of the powerlessness of [humans].”[1] 

Absurd and subversive  -- I wonder if those might be the building blocks for many instances of transformation. Part of the absurdity of this story is in whom is entrusted with the important stuff.  That is in itself part of the overall transformation at work. Women and babies were not at the top of any pecking order, not the ones expected to do anything significant.  Yet Mary and Elizabeth understand that God is doing something extraordinary in their own lives, and in addition, they become part of God’s most radical intervention into history.  This message bypasses all the political wheelers and dealers named in Luke 2.  It might have been received by Zechariah, the authorized expert representing organized religion, but he was slow to believe it and therefore was silenced.  “Luke tells us that the first time the gospel is proclaimed by human lips, it is not in the Roman Senate or the Holy of Holies; it is not by Caesar, or Peter or Paul.  It is in a place the world would count for nothing:  a conversation between two women, Mary and Elizabeth, facing their pregnancies.”[2]

Mary’s song is absurd and subversive . . . and if we’re honest, it’s hard to accept.  Her verb tenses are all wrong.  She says “God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, filled the hungry with good things.”  She puts it in the past tense, as if all this is already done, but even as she sings, the powerful Herod the Great still rules in terror.  Years into the future, when her son Jesus grows up, hungry  people will still be looking for good things.  I do not understand this, but I accept that her faith enables her to see a transformation set in motion as if it is already accomplished. 

Part of the transformation is found in the power of these words to create the reality they describe.  When those in power hear these words, they become fearful

During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary.  Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible.  Thus their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words. Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.[3]

I wonder if Mary can see a transformation that I don’t because she takes the long view.  She says “God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”  Maybe she is not as impatient as I am. She doesn’t expect everything to be fixed by next week.

Every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays an eighteenth century Neapolitan nativity scene. It is embedded at the base of a Christmas tree with the

angels swirling up to the top of the tree.   All the expected characters are there – the Holy Family, shepherds, the magi – more than 200 figures now.  But if you look carefully you might notice something surprising.  What is unexpected is that this nativity is not set in Bethlehem, but among the ruins of mighty Roman columns.  The fragile manger is surrounded by broken and decaying Roman columns.[4]  Mary was right.  Those powerful rulers were indeed brought down from their thrones.

Some transformations seem to happen quickly, like the Christmas Eve truce.  One act of courage or compassion or generosity leads to another and another and people get caught up in a movement and things change.  But other times, transformation is a slow-growth process, a multi-generational process which might begin in obscurity or absurdity, like a conversation between two ordinary women in a small village.  

Some of you have met Becky Mann.  She’s an American Baptist missionary.   She was born in Vietnam.  She came to the United States in 1975, in the first wave of refugees from the war.  She and six of her siblings arrived at the Camp Pendleton Refugee Camp, having left behind in Vietnam their parents and a sister who had just given birth.  For three months, they stayed within the confines of the camp.  They had no idea they were across the street from the ocean.  Then, somehow, people from the First Baptist Church of Pomona California showed up and invited Becky and her family into relationship with them.  They became their sponsors and friends, supporting them all kinds of ways. 

Fourteen years later, Becky and her husband Mike went to Northern Thailand where they have been ever since.  They work with the hill tribes, people whose ancestry includes ethnic minority groups from surrounding countries like Myanmar, China, Tibet and Laos.  These are people without Thai citizenship who often face systemic discrimination.    Becky has been involved in establishing schools and has seen many children, including many girls, finish high school and go on to college.  Mike and Becky have helped to bring running water and sanitation to these rural areas.  As villages obtain a reliable source of irrigation, they have been able to grow crops for export and instead of poppies for opium, these villagers grow coffee.  They formed the first fair trade coffee co-op in Thailand.  Starbucks is one of their biggest buyers. [5]  

Remember that I started this story with a young girl who left a war-torn country to live in a refugee camp on a military base, but whose life was transformed when Christians reached out to her.  And now, she is part of the transformation in the hills of Thailand where God is lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.

The Rev. Paul Simpson Duke, co-pastor at the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor says, “The Spirit chooses whom it will to be voices and agents of the divine purpose and the chosen will often be those who have little social stauts or economic power. … anyone can be at the forefront of the Spirit’s work, and it is the job of the rest of us to discern, to listen, and gratefully to follow their lead.”[6]

Looking around today, I wonder where transforming love is having its way, I wonder whom the Spirit is choosing to be at the forefront.  There are undoubtedly Marys and Elizabeths by other names, ordinary people acting absurdly and subversively, voices and agents of divine purpose.

One Elizabeth I see is named Gus Speth.  For over 40 years, he has been active in caring for and sustaining the environment.  He was one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970.  He advised two presidents on issues of energy and the environment.  In 1999, he became the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. 

Addressing a group of evangelical leaders and environmentalists in 2006, he said “Thirty years ago, I thought the top three environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.  I was convinced that with enough good science, we would be able to solve these problems.  But I was wrong.  The real problems are bigger than that.They are things like selfishness, greed and apathy.For those kinds of problems, good science isn’t enough.  For that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”[7]

What we need, he says, is transformation.

If Gus Speth is Elizabeth, then who is Mary in this scenario?   

Perhaps you have heard of Greta Thunberg. She is a 15-year-old activist from Sweden who skipped school to sit outside the parliament building in protest against climate change.  A few weeks ago, she addressed the United Nations Climate Change conference in Poland.

Here is what she said, “Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”[8]

Greta did not sing.  She just spoke very matter-of-factly, in perfect English by the way, but I thought I heard strains of the Magnificat.

Sisters and brothers, as another Advent draws to a close, how do we find ourselves?  Perhaps we are the Elizabeths, blessing and encouraging those agents of divine purpose.  Perhaps we are like Mary, called to the forefront of the Spirit’s work. 

As we prepare once again for Jesus birth, let’s take a cue from Mary and Elizabeth.  Let’s be aware of the extraordinary happening within our own lives. Let us watch for the absurd and be on the look-out for the subversive where God’s righteous, unfettered, liberating, transforming love is turning  this world around.

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2005), p. 97

[2] Tom Long in his sermon  “Where’s the Treasure?”  in Something is About to Happen . . . Sermons for Advent and Christmas (Lima, OH:  CSS Publishing, 1987), p. 37

[3] http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/

[4] Tom Long, p. 35.

 

[5] http://www.itdpinternational.org/home/

[6] Paul Simpson Duke 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. 61.

[7] Practicing Sustainability, Guru Madhavan, Barbara Oakley, David Green, David Koon, Penny Low, Editors, (New York:  Springer Science+Business Media, 2013), p. 35.

 [8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzeekxtyFOY

12/16/2018 - Testify to Love: Back to the Basics - Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

Testify to Love:  Back to the Basics

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18

December 16, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

 

Two farmers, Bert and Harry, are deep in conversation about socialism.  Bert thinks its great.  Harry is not sure he understands. 

“Do you mean that if you have two tractors, and I have none, that you are to give me one of yours?”

Bert says, “Yep, that’s what it means.”

Then Harry says,  “If you have two cars and I have none, you would give me the extra one?”

Bert replies: “That’s right.”

Harry is on a roll now, so he says “And if you have two hogs, and I don’t have any, I could have one of yours?”

“Dad-gummit, Harry,” says Bert.

“You know I have two hogs.”[1]

Bert is apparently all about socialism, until it impinges on his personal reality.

Like Harry, John the Baptist is keeping it real at the Jordan River.  People from all walks of life are coming out to hear him.  They’re coming out, it seems, to be yelled out and insulted by him.  “You offspring of snakes” is not exactly a warm and fuzzy greeting.  At the end of his sermon, they ask “what should we do?”  “That's not necessarily a question people ask when things are going well.  It's the question we ask when we've come to the ends of ourselves.  When the received wisdom has failed, when our cherished defenses are down, when our lives are splitting at the seams.  It's what we ask when we're weary, bored, disillusioned, or desperate. What should we do?” [2]

To the ordinary people, John says, “if you have two tunics, and someone has none, share one of yours.”  Tunics were their undergarments.  Most people had two of them, one for every day and one for the Sabbath.  Notice that John is not asking people to share out of their abundance. He may even be taking a poke at those who would value having special clothes to wear on Sunday over having compassion on their neighbors.  The real needs of the neighbor outweigh the outward appearances of religion.  Obedience to God happens in all kinds of ways, at all levels, even at the level of underwear. 

To the tax collectors, John says, “Just collect what is required.”  To the soldiers, he says “Quit terrorizing people. Do not shake them down, do not make false accusations, and be content with your wages. Just do your job.”  To the religious leaders, he says, “Don’t be smug and complacent. Your religious credentials don’t make you better than anyone else.” 

John is a compelling, strange figure out there in the wilderness, a sight to see, but his message is simple, down-to-earth and doable -- ‘Share what you have.  Be kind to one another.  Don’t fight.  Be fair.  Do your job.”  

John exhorts others to “act out of what they already know and affirm, out of the deepest values of their tradition.”[3]   It does not sound like a call to revolution, but what if everyone did it?  Wouldn’t that radically change life on earth? Rev. Kathryn Matthews writes, “I don't mean to reduce John's message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me, are that basic justice and goodness that would knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we've built. A justice and goodness that would take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another's children.[4]

If this is a message about good behavior that is older than John the Baptist, and it’s the kind of message passed on to future generations, then why isn’t it already universal?  Why is this revolution so hard to bring about?

Almost 20 years ago, Walter Brueggemann wrote an enduring essay  entitled “A Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity”.    In it he said, “We who are now the richest nation are today's main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God's abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity -- a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.[5]

We can see both sides of this in the way Christmas is often  celebrated, can’t we?  At this time of year, there are lots of opportunities to help others – toy drives, coat drives, food drives, bell-ringers catching coins in kettles every where you go, and many appeals to give to certain causes in “the spirit of the season.”  But for many, Christmas is a time of wish lists and acquisition,  a time of high expectations for more --  more presents, more fun, more and better stuff.  Often underlying those high expectations is a fear that there won’t be enough, that someone else will always get more than we do.  

I think that Brueggemann is right, that many of us spend our lives trying to sort out an internal conflict between trusting God’s abundance and living out our fear of scarcity.  John’s basic instructions are a way to practice trust in God’s abundance.  He proclaims a paradigm shift that releases us from the bonds of fear, from the bonds of scarcity, from the dogma that we must protect that which is ours. [6]   That is the release of liberating love.

When we are liberated from that fear of scarcity, love gets us out of our own way.  It reduces our dependence on stuff, our worries about having enough for today and for tomorrow.  It frees us to live today, to share generously, to act with fairness.  And, it does not stop with us.  When we share with someone else, they may receive our sharing as their own liberation.

 Let’s say I have two coats and I give one away.  That reduces my sense of dependence on my stuff.  It frees me up to be even more generous next time.  But let’s say that my coat is received by someone who did not have one.  What message might they receive?  Maybe they get the spoken or unspoken message that they are worth being loved?  That they deserve to be warm in the winter, protected from the wind, just as much as anyone else.  The more that a person feels loved and valued, the more they may also be released from internal fear and despair. This is the power of liberating love; it can go on and on, releasing the giver and the recipient, so that the recipient becomes the next giver and so on. 

At age seven,  Maya Angelou stopped speaking after being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, a event she recorded in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Shortly after the incident, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother. Despite being called an idiot by others because she wouldn't talk, young Maya was always told otherwise by her grandmother. Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals what her beloved "Mama" told her, how she used those words to travel the world as a teacher and why she says love like that truly liberates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7dxnQQEpXs

Love liberates.  God’s love liberates us from ourselves, releasing us from our sins and fears, our anxiety about enough, our hurtfulness of those we perceive as competitors or as different enough to be threatening.  Love liberates. When we are loved, we are able to love others.  When others are loved, they are enabled to be loving.   

It makes me think of the  challenge given to white Australians by Aboriginal people working for social justice.  They said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[7]  Love -- concrete, real, tangible love can liberate a whole society if we can just allow ourselves to practice it.

In May, there was a royal wedding across the pond in England.  Perhaps you watched coverage of it.  Perhaps it did not interest you.  One of the surprising things to me was the attention paid to the wedding sermon.  It seemed that lots of people from many different faith perspectives found Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon powerful.  Some former Christians said that a sermon like that was almost enough to get them to try church again. 

As far as I can tell, it was just a sermon about the basics of love.   You know, the typical sermon one preaches when 30 million people are tuned in.  Near the end, Bishop Curry said this,

“Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.

If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way.

Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.

When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.

When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

When love is the way, poverty will become history.

When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children.” [8]

 

Sister and brothers, then what then shall we do?  When you get, give.  When you learn, teach.  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food, share it with the hungy.  Be kind.  Don’t fight.  Do your job.  These are the lessons of liberating love. May love be our way and the way for all.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] A story told by the Rev. Eugene Bay in his sermon “What Shall We Do?”  Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Pennsylvania, December 14, 2002)

[2] Debie Thomas at  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2030-what-then-should-we-do

[3] Wes Avram in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014),   p. 68.

[4] Kathryn Matthews at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_16_2018

[5] https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/

[6] http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2009/121309_8am.html

[7] https://lillanetwork.wordpress.com/about/

[8] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love

12/9/2018 - Testify to Love: Under Construction - Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11

Testify to Love:  Under Construction

Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11

December 9, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

 

A voice crying in the wilderness. . . You might associate that expression with John the Baptist.  He shows up regularly in this season of Advent.  In modern usage, “a voice crying in the wilderness” means a voice that no one is paying attention to or an unpopular voice.  But that is not Luke’s reference.  Luke is quoting Isaiah.  Isaiah was describing a marvelous highway, a smooth road that would lead the people of Israel home from exile.  The wilderness image reminds people of coming home from captivity.  The wilderness is also the place where the people of Israel were first formed by God, as they wandered there with Moses after the Exodus.  John the Baptist’s message is not one that is going unheeded.  In fact, Luke tells us that crowds of people  are going out to hear him.  John proclaims hope; he announces the opening of the way to freedom and salvation. 

Luke situates John in a specific moment in Israel’s history.  It is possible to date all the Roman officials he names, except Lysanias, whose name was shared by several rulers. On this basis, we can tell that Luke is placing the preaching of John the Baptist in the years 28-29 CE.[1]    God is doing something big and new, something that is part of God’s overarching purpose, something that transcends human concepts of space and time, but is also somehow connected to a specific place and point in human history.  Luke names the Roman rulers who are impinging on Israel.  He also names the religious leadership of Annas and Caiaphas which is inevitably compromised by the occupation.[2]

The people are pouring out into the wilderness, because they want a word of hope.  They go out into the wild, unfamiliar place in order to hear how to go home spiritually.  They are experiencing a kind of exile-in-place.  They live in their home country, but it is occupied by a foreign power.  Their religious authorities, co-opted by the political ones, are not offering any meaningful answers.  So they go out into the wilderness,  far from the likes ofTiberius and Herod and Pilate, far from Caiaphus and Annas, to learn from John.  John is wild and bold.  He is not playing by the rules, not working within the system, but outside it.  It is not a stretch to call him “unfettered.”

Isaiah spoke of a return from exile in a foreign land. John the Baptist calls people to return from the exile of a religion that has lost the love of God and human beings at its center. Please hear me carefully.  I generally refrain from criticzing first century Judaism.  There is much we cannot know about it, separated as we are by time and space.  And as a church leader myself, I know how easy it is to be critical of other people and how hard it is to refor ourselves. In this case, I am trying to describe John’s own critique from within first century Judaism.  And I also think it is instructive for us in our own context. Much has been said about younger generations absenting themselves from church.  It’s a concern for many of us, and I have to wonder if some of them are going out to a wilderness looking for answers that churches are failing to provide.

Brian McLaren is a theologian and activist familiar to many of us.  In a recent interview, he talked about the ways the church needs to be transformed.  He said that the younger generations’ rejection of church is a message we should be paying attention to.  He said, “What has happened to a lot of us is we have ended up with a checklist mentality. There are all these things we have to do because that’s what we think we have to do. On Sunday morning we have a liturgical checklist. In the course of a year we have certain events. Every once in a while, we have to go back and say, why are we doing these things? Are they furthering a grand sense of mission? When we realize that, I feel it’s necessary to go back and say what are we here for and align everything we do around that fresh sense of mission. For example, if our job is to produce people who love God and love their neighbors as themselves and the earth, then immediately we would say we are not doing a very good job of that. . . . I had to admit as a pastor I met a lot of people who had a lot of pew time and knew a lot of Bible lore. But the more they knew they just became more arrogant and critical and they weren’t becoming more loving, and that raises real questions about the value of what we are doing.”[3]

I agree with Brian.  These are the very questions we need to be asking,especially as we adopt a budget for our next year of ministry, especially as we live into the change of a new governance structure.  These are conversations we are having and will continue to have in the next weeks and months.

But in this moment, we are also here to testify to love.  So let us turn our attention to the letter to the Philippians.  Paul is writing to a group of people who have embraced an adventure in faith.  They are the pioneers, the ones who have heard the gospel and are living it out.  Again, we hear that God is doing something big and new. 

Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus.”

This work began at creation and will be complete in the day of Christ Jesus.  There is an overarching purpose, something that transcends human concepts of space and time, but again we see specific people in a specific location are part of the divine drama.

“Notice that Paul takes no credit, neither does he give credit to his friends for the progress that has already been made. They are engaged in a massive construction project, but it is not a project they originated. Rather it is God’s idea—the renewal and reconciliation of the world. God started this project. God will finish it. There will be no darkness unvanquished, no buildings unbuilt, no conflict unresolved, no death unanswered by life when God gets through.” [4]

In verse 9, Paul says, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight . . .”  Writing to a fledging church, a congregation just beginning to shape their lives together, his prayer is that their love may overflow more and more.  I think of Jesus’ words in his sermon on the plain.  He said, “Give and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. . .”  That is how I imagine unfettered love – as much you can press into a container, then shake it down and add more, and it will keep spilling out the top.

This is widely considered Paul’s most joyful letter to his favorite church.  It is also a letter written from prison.  Paul was bodily chained to his guard.  There were no concerns for his civil rights.  He couldn’t even expect to be fed unless he or one of his friends supplied money for his food.  It is under those conditions that he writes this most joyful letter about overflowing love. In spite of his captivity, Paul’s love is unfettered.

Paul invites the Phillippians to see their lives as under construction, with the major building material being love.  He describes this love as containing knowledge and insight.  In the adult Sunday School class last week, one of you described love as that which helped you notice things.  Apathy and concern for our own needs can keep us from attending to the needs of others, but as we grow in love, we become aware of things we never saw before.  And as our awareness grows, love overflows and leads us to respond.  Our love is constructed within certain parameters – we love certain people in certain situations within the confines of what is considered acceptable.  But as we allow God’s love and God’s purposes to work in us, that love abounds and overflows and over-runs those parameters.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon is now the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ.  In 1985, she was a registered nurse in Birmingham, Alabama.

Arriving for the evening shift, she was told that there was an “AIDS patient” on the unit.  The staff said that he was mean and belligerent. He was spitting at nurses and trying to infect them.  They said he was so mean that not even his family had visited him. 

This was in the early days of HIV/AIDS when not much was understood about the disease.  The staff was afraid of it and of this patient whose name was James Bell.

Like her staff, Traci was afraid, but she was the charge nurse.  So, at the start of shift, she went to James’ room to introduce herself.  There was full isolation wear outside his room, but even though she was afraid, she said “the spirit told me not to gown on my initial rounds.” 

She opened the door to his room and could not believe her eyes.  There were disposable trays of food stacked up on various surfaces. The trash cans were overflowing. It was obvious his room had not been tended to in at least a couple of days. She called for cleaning but no one would come.

She walked to his bedside. He stared at her.  She wondered if he would spit at her. She put her hand on his arm and told him her name.  She said that she would provide his care that night.  She said, “His eyes never left mine.  And then I saw them.  The tears began to fall.   I asked if  I was hurting him.  Was he  in pain?  He told me no. “

“It turns out that I was the first person to touch him skin to skin (no gloves) since he had been admitted a few days before. The mere human touch caused him to weep. I spent a great deal of time with James that night.”

“I cleaned his room. Bathed his body. Emptied his catheter. Changed his sheets. And while I cared for him...he told me that his family disowned him when they found out he had AIDS. His closest friends were dead or dying. And he felt all alone.  I charted in James’ room that night instead of at the desk. He seemed to have a lot to say...and no one else was listening. So I wanted to stay close.”

“I’m glad I did.  By the time I returned the next night.  James was dead. I am still haunted by the way James was treated in our care. And though I couldn’t do much...I will forever be grateful for that human touch and the time we shared that night. Education is necessary. Treatment is necessary. But there is a wounding that happens in isolation that only love can heal.”[5]

Unfettered love. Love that knowingly disregards the rules, the concern for personal safety, in order to offer care.  Love stronger than fear.  Love that overcome fears.  Love that notices the pain of another. Love that overflows with insight and knowledge and healing.

I hold onto these memorable words from Dr. King. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”[6]

Paul says that this overflowing, unfettered love produces a harvest of righteousness.  Last week, we said that righteousness is the right ordering of the world in ways that allow life to flourish.  Righteous love keeps us alive in this world. Unfettered love casts out fear.  Overflowing love drives out hate.

Sisters and brothers, love is our greatest strength, our super power.  And this my prayer, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, until God who began a good work in us brings it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.  Amen. 


[1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 48

[2] Wes Avram in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014),   p. 65.

[3] https://baptistnews.com/article/increasing-rejection-of-church-a-good-thing-brian-mclaren-says/#.XAx9wHRKiUl

[4]  The Rev. Joanna Adams in her sermon “Under Construction”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2003/120703.html

[5] As told by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, https://www.facebook.com/traci.blackmon?lst=100001539525578%3A1274314586%3A1544311499

[6] Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love (New York:  Harper and Row, 1963), p. 47.

12/2/2018 - Testify to Love: Out on a Limb - Jeremiah 33:14-16

 
Testify to Love:  Out on a Limb

Jeremiah 33:14-16

December 2, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

The Rev. Heidi Neumark is a pastor in New York City. She spent 20 years at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx before moving to her current pastorate at Trinity Lutheran in Manhattan in 2003. In her first book, Breathing Space, she talks about attending a child’s birthday party in the Bronx.  It was held in the home of the child’s great-grandmother.  Her grandmother had died of AIDS after a long struggle with drug addiction.  Heidi noted that one uncle was not at the party because he was in prison. Another uncle, age 16, came in at the end, wearing the colors of his gang. Pastor Heidi remembered that gang member from an earlier time, when he was a shy and sad 6-year-old.  He still seemed small and frail to her, but now also armed and dangerous and endangered.

The party was held on a Saturday, the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent, which led Heidi to reflect, an occupational hazard.

She wrote, “The gap between the rich and the poor—Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—remains as wide as ever. We turn people away from the food pantry because we’ve run out of canned stew, canned beans, canned tuna, cereal and powered milk. Yet this is the busy season at Dean and Deluca down in Soho where my husband works on his feet 12 hours a day trying to meet the insatiable demand for imported foie gras, truffles and caviar. Sometimes he wraps up single sales totaling over $1,000.  He couldn’t join us at the party because he had to work overtime.  The distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be tears at my heart.”

She goes on, “At least it’s Advent.  Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.

Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”[1]

Jeremiah spoke to a people in exile, a people living where the world as it was, was incredibly far from the world as it should have been.  They were a people longing for home, longing for things to be set right, longing for justice.  Jeremiah says “the days are surely coming” “Surely” means it is a sure thing, you can count on it.  The time is not now, but it is coming.

Now, as Jeremiah speaks, the people are in despair. They are captives of a foreign power, living far from home.  Jerusalem is destroyed and the temple is in ruins.  But Jeremiah delivers a promise, that in the future people will dance with joy in the streets of a restored Jerusalem, and there will be laughter and healing and weddings and prosperity and security and peace.  “After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God’s people would wake up in safety in a place renamed Justice.” [2]

God promises a return of righteousness.  Righteousness is the right ordering of the world in ways necessary for life to flourish.  God promises a future in which the Righteous Branch of David’s family tree will rule in accord with the God’s will and that will bring peace and joy and justice.

You see, most of what Jeremiah had to say was against previous leaders who had failed to render justice.  False prophets told the kings what they wanted to hear, that nothing bad would happen, that they would get away with their corruption and evil, but not Jeremiah.  Jeremiah had repeatedly warned that there would be consequences for their dishonesty and abuse of power, for their shedding of innocent blood and practicing oppression and violence.

The people understand that they are also suffering because of their ruler’s corruption.  The exile is seen as God’s punishment for that.  But in these verses, God is promising a restoration, a re-establishment of systems of governance which will lead them in righteousness.[3]

You and I are mostly the kind of people who want to emphasize grace and forgiveness, rather than judgment and punishment.  But rightness and wrongness, goodness and evil actually do matter. And perhaps this Advent, we might be particularly ready to hear about Righteousness.

This year, we look around and ask ourselves, “how did it come to this – that being openly racist is fashionable, that anti-Semitic speech and acts of violence are on the rise?  When did it become normal for our government to use tear gas on children?”  We see gerrymandered districts and blatant voting suppression and power holding on to corrupt power and daily injustices against the poor and marginalized and we are ready for some Righteousness. 

We are longing for an order that allows life to flourish in our cities and towns and rural areas.  “We long for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets.  We long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags because there are no dead soldiers to fill them.”[4]  Like the people in Jeremiah’s time, we are longing for integrity and justice and peace to prevail.

Jeremiah’s people were looking forward to the arrival of the Righteous Branch at some time in the future, but from our vantage point in history, we understand that person to be Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is the one who showed us the fullness of righteous love. Jesus demonstrated God’s way of justice, which does not mean that people get what they deserve.  Rather it means that people get what they need in order to live, no matter how weak or marginal they are.[5]

In Advent 2018, we stand on the Branch of Righteousness who is Jesus.  The righteous love he proclaimed is wider and deeper and stronger than any solution we can devise by ourselves. Others may seek security in political, military, social or economic power, but we are out on a limb with Jesus. 

We are out on a limb with Jesus.  That’s how it seems to me sometimes.  It has been 2500 years since Jeremiah talked about a Righteous Branch and it often feels like there hasn’t been enough movement in that direction.  Continuing to trust that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world feels a bit ridiculous, like a goat out on a limb.

It may seem foolish, but it is the way of faith and hope, the way that leads us out of despair.  And it reminds me of Walter Brueggemann’s suggestion that exile is where some of us find ourselves these days and that it is not necessarily a bad place to be, because God comes to people there.[6]

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke of hope as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.[7]   Hope is the divine power that makes us alive in this world.  If Jesus is our model of justice and righteousness, then we will see Christ’s reign whenever what is just and right prevails.  

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last month was devastating and tragic, and I do not seek to diminish that.   But did you see the response -- people of every faith and no faith showed up at Jewish houses of worship all over the country and poured money into funds for survivors to express their compassion and solidarity.  That is righteous love.  That is hope, demonstrating life in this world.

Asylum seekers are being held in our own Albany County Jail.  They came to our border seeking a safe place to live, but they are being detained as if they are criminals.  More than 300 attorneys and translators have volunteered to help them get swift access to legal aid, telephone calls and medical treatment.  One local group, The Legal Project, became aware that these people arrived with only the clothes on their backs.  They have been collecting underwear and socks, which have to conform to the strict rules of prison garb. They can only be white, with no wire or plastic parts in the women’s bras.  Their goal is 6 sets of underwear and socks per person.  There were 300 detainees at the prison this summer and new groups continue to arrive.  That’s more than1800 sets of undergarments donated to restore a sense of dignity.  That’s righteous love in action.

There’s a church in the Netherlands that has been holding a worship service for the past 800 hours.  Bethel Church in the Hague is trying to protect a family from being deported.  Dutch law forbids the police from entering a place of worship while a service is happening.  The family fled Armenia in 2010 and have not been granted asylum.  They now reside in an apartment within the church.  The church has been holding continuous worship since October 26.  People from across the country come in to keep the service going around the clock.

 “There are already more than 450 different priests, pastors, deacons, elders from around the country, every denomination, wanting to be put on the rotation to participate in this service,” Axel Wicke, Bethel’s pastor, said in an interview on Thursday.

“Even from abroad we’ve gotten help — there have been sermons held in English, French and German,” he said. “It’s quite moving to us. I often see a pastor handing over the service to another pastor of another denomination who they would ordinarily not have anything to do with, liturgically.”[8]

Righteous love restoring hope, keeping us alive in this world.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Dr. King said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

We live in Advent time, between what is dying and what is being born, between the despair of fear-mongering and power-grabbing and the divine power of hope.  We recognize the sufferings and injustice of our world, but we lean into God’s promised alternative future.  The days are surely coming when unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the last word.  Even so Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus!  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  Amen.


[1] Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2004). p. 211

[2] Leonard Beechy, “An Evening Time and a Morning Time”  The Christian Century, November 17, 2009 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-11/evening-time-and-morning-time

[3] Patrick Miller, New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) p. 826.

[4] Gary W. Charles in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  pp.6-7.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “Sheep-Preoccupied Shepherds” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 61.

[6] Walter Brueggemann,  Hopeful Imagination:  Prophetic Voices  in Exile (Philadelpia:  Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 93-95

[7]  Jurgen Moltmann Theology of Hope, (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1993) p. 24.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/world/europe/bethel-church-netherlands-deportation.html

11/18/2018 - Eager Faith - Mark 10:46-52

Migrants sleep on the pews at San Francisco Church in Huixtla, Chiapas; Photo by Sean T.Hawkey

 

Eager Faith

Mark 10:46-52

November 18, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

We’re going over the river and through the woods next week.  It’s an 800-mile road trip to the grandparent’s house in Kentucky, so it will involve several rivers and some woods and interstate highways.  I’ve been thinking about packing and travelling, about what is important to take and what might be nice to have along and what is entirely unnecessary.

And I’m aware, again, that so many details are missing from Bibles stories.  If we wrote a story about travel today, say a story about flying somewhere, we would probably not mention the security lines at the airports and having to take off your shoes and belt and go through an scanner and not to have any liquids in your carry-on bag.  We wouldn’t mention those things because they are just assumed parts of every airplane journey.  In Jesus’ day, there were similar assumptions about what a regular journey was like and so, the gospel writers did not bother supplying many details.

I wish they had.  Jesus travelled a lot.  From his childhood home in Nazareth, he went to the River Jordan as a young adult to be baptized by John.  Then he established a base in Capernaum and wandered around and across the Sea of Galilee for a few years.  When he set his face to go to Jerusalem, he travelled through Judea to Jericho and Bethany before arriving in the capital city.  There are 85 miles between Capernaum and Jerusalem, although it is not at all clear that Jesus took the shortest route. 

Keep in mind that a person might walk 3-4 miles per hour, so a journey of 24-32 miles could occupy a very full day of walking, if they didn’t stop very often.  A healthy adult might keep up that pace, but does that describe the folks travelling with Jesus? I wonder.

I’m thinking about the details. Some of the disciples have been walking with him for years.  They probably know the routine --  what time he’s likely to call a lunch break, how much they will walk in the early morning or late at night to stay out of the heat of the sun.  But others have been joining them on the road and the band is getting larger.  Surely it is hard to keep up the pace when so many are travelling together. 

By the time they leave Jericho, Mark says that there is a large crowd travelling together.   It’s only 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem and lots of people are probably headed to Jerusalem for Passover.  We know from Luke’s gospel that families travelled together for Passover, so I’m going to guess that there are children in this group. Possibly there have been children in the crowds following Jesus from the beginning, either walking themselves or the very youngest ones being carried. I suspect that means that this group has never moved particularly quickly.

And I wonder about other details.  Where do they sleep at night?  Do they carry bedrolls and toothbrushes?   Where do they get water for drinking, or for bathing?   Do the villages and towns welcome them and offer hospitality?  Or do they lock their doors and the city gates and tell them to keep moving? 

I’m thinking about all these things because I’ve been watching the migrants moving up through Mexico.  I’ve seen spouses sleeping in the depressions formed on the side of the road and groups of men on wooden pallets and families filling the pews and open spaces in a church sanctuary opened to them for that purposes.  One 62-year-old woman was travelling alone.  She was being extorted by someone in Honduras who threatened to kill her, so she left home because she said that she is a good, honest person who doesn’t want to die yet. I have seen five-year-olds trudging steadily along beside their parents and babies being pushed in strollers and one little girl melting down into tears because, after walking hundreds of miles for weeks,  she just could not do it anymore. 

The size of the group with Jesus is small compared with the size of the migrant exodus, but both represent crowds containing a host of individual needs and the unpredictability of strangers brought together in a group.  And so, if we look at this story of Bartimaeus through the lens of the migrant caravan, what might we learn?

As this large crowd with Jesus leaves Jericho, a blind beggar calls out from the side of the road.  He is just one person and they are many, so he yells repeatedly to get their attention.  At first the crowd tells him to be quiet, but then Jesus hears him and says “Tell him to come here.”  So the crowd changes their tune and says, “Jesus is calling you.  Go for it.”

Life has not been kind to Bartimaeus.  His days consist of moving from his home to his begging spot and back again.  On good days,  he gets enough money to eat.  On others, he goes hungry.  The prevailing wisdom is that he deserves his disability, that he is a bad person being punished by God.  It is not likely that people treat him well.  It would have made more sense if he had been crusty and cynical, but something inside of him is still able to trust goodness and to ask for goodness from God, despite the difficulty of his life.

I’ve watched people in the caravan being interviewed. They smile and are friendly to the strangers asking questions. They speak of nights when it was hard to sleep even though they were exhausted. They say they don’t want to tell family members back home how very hard the trip has been. One woman travelling with four children said that they had been treated well everywhere in Mexico, but when they arrived in Tijuana, people threw rocks at them.  They tell their stories honestly, but mostly without bitterness. And many of them speak of God, of their faith in the goodness of God, in the goodness of God’s people. 

When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus jumps up. He only owned one cloak.  At night, it was his blanket; he wrapped it around himself to keep warm.  By day, it served to catch the coins people tossed to him. To get to Jesus, he throws his cloak aside.  Any money he received that day scatters in the dust.  He abandons his cloak, his most treasured possession, his livelihood, before Jesus has done anything for him.

Similarly, the migrants  have abandoned their homes.  They have left behind any treasured possessions, their friends, everything familiar in their lives, all without any guarantees that they are making a good trade.  They do not focus on what they left behind, but on the possibility of a new home and a different future. 

When Bartimaeus gets to Jesus, Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus grants him the dignity of speaking for himself.  He doesn’t presume that he knows what is best for him.

Just before they came to Jericho, James and John had made a request of Jesus.  Jesus had asked them the same question he asked Bartimaeus – “What do you want me to do for you?”  James and John had said they wanted to sit in the seats of honor, at Jesus’ right and left, when he came into his glory, while the other disciples conversed about who would be the greatest among them.   This story about Bartimaeus comes at the end of a long section which shows that “Jesus’ closest followers have failed to fully grasp the upside-down kingdom that Christ has brought near to the world.”[1]

What do you want me to do for you?  James and John said “give us the high status positions.”  Bartimaeus’s was direct and simple “Teacher, my sight.” 

For Bartimaeus, faith is a matter of life and death, not a path to religious rewards. He is an outsider who gets it, while the insiders still don’t understand.

When the migrants are asked what they want, they say “I want asylum, safety, a home. I’m honest.  I want to work hard and make a better future.”   They are courageously and desperately fleeing the self-perpetuating cycles of violence and corruption and poverty.  It is quite literally a matter of life and death.  

The Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, a Presbyterian minister from Hudson, New York says, “Faith is needy. Faith is eager. Faith is assertive. Faith is hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky and raw. Faith is personal and relational. Faith ends something and faith begins something. Faith is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and faith is about us, out of dumbstruck gratitude doing for God what only we can do. Most of all, faith often leads us to places we would just as soon not go.”[2]

When I think about this story of Bartimaeus, I usually consider how much I am or am not like Bartimaeus.  What do I really want from Jesus?  Do I have enough faith to throw away my cloak?  What are my life and death issues?  I usually compare myself to Bartimaeus and I don’t look good in the comparison.

But reading it this time, I see that I could locate myself in another place in this story.  It’s possible that I’m in the crowd somewhere.

There’s the crowd at the beginning, the crowd that wants to keep him quiet.  Maybe that crowd thought that Bartimaeus should just accept his lot in life and not be so obnoxious, so demanding, so eager to get Jesus’ attention. 

And then there’s the crowd that encourages Bartimaeus.  After Jesus stops and tells them to call him over, then they switch gears and maybe pretend they had never tried to shush him in the first place.

What if I am in one of those crowds?  I notice that not one of Jesus’ disciples speaks up for Bartimaeus when the crowd hushes him.  They know Jesus.  They know that he responds to people in need.  Surely, by now they might expect that he would want them to help those folks get to him. But they just go along with everyone else, not wanting the distractions of poverty and disability and human need to interrupt their business.  They are on the road to Jerusalem and some of them are afraid of what will happen there.  They are on their way to celebrate Passover and maybe some just want to get on with the holiday preparations. 

Maybe I am just going along with the crowd around Jesus, taking my cues from those close to me, instead of what I know about Jesus.  Maybe I am watching the migrant exodus from afar, not too engaged, thinking more about my Thanksgiving celebration.  Maybe I am overwhelmed with the intensity of individual needs, seeing only the limitations and not the possibilities.

And so I look one last time at this story through the lens of the migrant exodus.  I wonder --  why did people travel with Jesus then and why does the migrant caravan move now?  My answer to both questions is hope.  The most hopeful character is Bartimaeus.  But sadly, I think I am not that hopeful, not that faithful.  The next most hopeful character is the second crowd, that one that encourages Bartimaeus to take heart.   Maybe I can locate myself there. Maybe I can, in some small way, encourage the migrants, even as their faith encourages me.

I wonder where you find yourself.  I wonder if together, we might call our community to attend to the cries for mercy that others would silence or ignore.  I wonder if we might stop and attend to the Spirit of God, gathering a crowd to bear witness, to see what God is doing in the lives of faithful, eager people. 

The Rev. Howard Thurman, African-American preacher and teacher of the last generation said this, “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”[3]

Sisters and brothers, may we be found in that movement, challenging wisely and kindling hope. Thanks be to God.

 

 

[1] Victor McCracken in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 216.

[2]The Rev. Susan Andrews in her sermon “How Eager are You?”  http://day1.org/493-how_eager_are_you

[3] Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream:  The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples, (1959), p. 7

11/11/2018 - Identity Crisis - Mark 8:27-38

Identity Crisis

Mark 8:27-38

November 11, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

For most of us, this is one of those familiar passages.  The danger with familiar passages is that we have heard them many times, read them many times, perhaps even memorized them, so that our power to hear them may have been diminished.  It seems to me that Christians in America are in the midst of an identity crisis and these words are critically important to us right now. Let us slow down and try to understand them as if they are brand new to us.

Peter’s confession “you are the Messiah” is the structural center of Mark’s gospel. We should note that because Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?”  is one that we could come back to again and again as a centering point for our own lives.

The disciples have been following Jesus around Galilee for a while now. They have seen him cast out demons and heal the sick and feed thousands of people.  They have heard his amazing parables and watched him hold his own in conversational sparring matches with well-educated authorities.  They have been listening to the crowds, so when Jesus asks “Who do people say that I am?”  they have ready answers.   “People say you are John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah or another one of the prophets,” they tell him.  But suddenly he asks a different question “Who do you say that I am?”  I wonder if Peter’s answer came to him in that moment, like flash of insight as he put all the pieces together or if he had already been thinking this about Jesus, but just hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about it yet.  In either case, he says “You are the Messiah.” 

This is the right answer.  We know it’s the right answer because Mark already told us so.   In my 7th grade algebra class, the right answers were in the back of the book.  Well, in Mark’s gospel, the right answer is in the first verse.  Mark 1:1 says “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Christ is the Greek word for Messiah.  So, in the first verse of his book, Mark tells us that Jesus is the Messiah.  Eight chapters later, Peter has figured that out, but does he get an A+ or a gold star?  No, not at all. When he says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus shuts him up in the very same way that he told the demons to shut up and commanded the winds and waves to be still earlier. 

Peter says the exact wrong thing a lot, so it seems really unfair that this time, when he gets it right, he still gets told to shut up.  Jesus does not say the answer is wrong, just that he should not tell anyone.   

We know that Jesus is the Messiah or the Christ and we don’t understand what the big deal is. But those words are mostly just church words for us.  We don’t hear them like the first century folks did.  Messiah is a Hebrew word.  Christ is a Greek word.  They both mean “anointed.”  “In ancient Israel, [centuries before Jesus,] both kings and high priests were anointed as a sign of their office and of having been chosen by God.  To declare Jesus the Messiah or the Anointed One was to declare him king and high priest—a challenge to both the political and religious establishments.”[1]

Last week, a billboard went up in St. Louis. It featured the face of a well-known politician, whom I am not going to name, and under that face were the words “The Word became flesh” and the reference John 1:14.[2]  When I saw it, I said something I almost never say.  I said, “Blasphemy.”  The message I took from the billboard was that the supporters of this politician were equating him to Jesus, the word made flesh according to John’s gospel. For them, I guess this earthly politician is anointed by God as a leader in the political and religious realms.  God’s claim on this one is so strong that they see him as a divine Savior.  I found that blasphemous.

To declare Jesus the Messiah in the first century would be to label him with a scriptural title which the first century clergy would likely have also found blasphemous and also to label him with a political title that the Roman empire would have found treasonous. 

So it’s not that Peter’s answer is wrong, but that his timing is bad.  Jesus silences him because he does not want any more  attention from the authorities than he already has.  They will kill him soon enough.  He wants more time for his teaching and ministry to take hold before that happens. 

The other reason he silences Peter is because of the popular understanding of Messiah.  The Messiah was the one that everyone was expecting to overthrow the foreign domination and restore Israel’s glory.  That was not the kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be.  It was not Jesus’ intent to be one more in a series of earthly rulers.  He did not want the title of Messiah bandied about because it might increase the number of military revolutionaries among his followers and  that was not his mission. 

So he silenced Peter and he changed the narrative about himself. Instead of claiming the title “Messiah”, he referred to himself as the “Human One” or “the Son of Man” depending on your translation.  The Human One refers to a figure in the book of Daniel.  Daniel was written two hundred years earlier, as a manifesto of Jewish resistance to oppression by Greek rulers.[3]  In Daniel’s vision, the beast-rulers of the earth wreak havoc on the world until they are dragged before the divine court of the true judge, God.    The Human One is then vindicated and receives dominion and glory and kingdoms.   

Jesus uses this title for himself.   Jesus will become a defendant in the courts of the earthly authorities, will be tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  The oppressive rulers will appear to prevail, but a deeper look, like in Daniel’s vision, will reveal that the Human One is establishing justice.

For Peter, Messiah necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor.  Jesus argues that for the Human One, the path inevitably requires suffering.[4]

The thing is that Peter wants Jesus to win the election.  There is no time for a long-term, kinder, gentler solution.  His people have suffered long enough. The right answer is that Jesus is Messiah.  If Jesus doesn’t know that yet, he needs to get with the program.    He wants Jesus to displace and take over the government that is abusive and offensive and malicious and mean.  If you have ever felt that way, then you might have some sympathy for Peter.

There’s a kind of identity crisis going on, not for Jesus, but for Peter and the others who have been following Jesus.  This crisis becomes apparent here in Caesarea-Philippi, which is the seat of Roman  government for that area.  The crisis is a challenge to the disciple’s identity as Jewish people living in the shadow of empire and their identity as people who have left everything to follow Jesus.  The challenge is to determine which allegiance has the higher claim. 

It seems to me that Christians in America are in the midst of a similar identity crisis.  I say that from my observations of the last two years in particular.  It seems to me that American Christians who occupy the left side of the theological and political spectrum have put their trust in government to enact policies that will bring about the kingdom of God on earth.  I don’t think this is conscious or intentional.  It only comes to my awareness as I see Christians in despair over their current impotence to prevail upon many government leaders.  Many of those on the left seem to have been dumbfounded and dismayed at the reality of the evil present in our structures and our citizenry.

On the other hand, Christians on the right side of the theological and political spectrum, those who have historically claimed to uphold high standards for personal morality, sexual purity and integrity  -- they seem to have sold that birthright for access to political power.

I wonder if one of the issues in this identity crisis is our response to Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?”  I wonder if we are faced with a similar challenge to that faced by Jesus’ first disciples – to determine where our primary allegiance lies. Are we Christians first or Americans first?  Who is Jesus to us?  And how does our answer to that shape our self-understanding?

The disciples have been following Jesus for a while.  You might think that they would understand more about him than they do.  But you know, I have been following Jesus for 44 years and I sometimes still catch myself confusing what I want Jesus to be and who he really is.

We all need regular ways to check ourselves, to answer the question “Who do I say that Jesus is?”  Each of us can only answer that question for ourselves, but it seems reasonable for you to know how your pastor would answer. 

Who is Jesus for me?  Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior.  He is the one I seek to follow in my daily life, the one who has forgiven me and continues to extend grace to me because I fall down and fall short of my own expectations and desires to be more like him all the time. 

Jesus is my Lord, but also Lord of all.  Jesus of Nazareth is God in human form, the demonstration of God’s profound love for the kosmos, including, but not limited to, human beings.  What Jesus did with his time on earth shows us the heart of God, the mind of God, as much as we humans can begin to grasp it.

Jesus reveals a God who is angry at injustice and oppression and exploitation – also called sin.  God is generous and understands that humans are weak and broken, that we are damaged by the sinful systems in which we live; therefore God is abundantly forgiving, always, always willing to receive us when we turn back to God, always ready to welcome us home.  

Choosing to identify as the Human One, to take the path of suffering instead of the way of triumph, Jesus put himself in solidarity with all who suffer.  I understand his call to take up my cross as a call to also choose to identify with all those who suffer under the present order of the world.  Jesus’ first disciples lived in the shadow of empire and so do I.

That is my answer, at least part of it, at least today.  You and I will continue to wrestle with it.  Who do we say that Jesus is when our candidates win elections and when they lose?  Who do we say that Jesus is when our neighbors are mistreated?  Who do we say that Jesus is when we create a church budget and set priorities for how we will do God’s work together?  Who do we say that Jesus is when a loved one is in pain?  Who do we say that Jesus is when we have more than we need . . . and when we don’t have enough? Who is Jesus in every aspect of our lives?

This is the question at the heart of Mark’s gospel and I believe, the question at the center of our lives.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  And, in light of that, who are we?

 

 

[1] [1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 120.

[2] https://www.christianpost.com/news/pro-trump-billboard-quotes-john-114-the-word-became-flesh-make-gospel-great-again-228363/

[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988, 2008), p. 243

[4] Ched Myers, p. 244.

11/4/2018 - Communion Meditation - 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Communion Meditation

I Timothy 6:17-19

November 4, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

 “Take hold of the life that really is life,” Paul says to his protégé, Timothy.   This comes at just about the end of the letter.  Maybe Paul thinks he’s offering a summary statement.  Maybe in his mind, the rest of the letter has been about “the life that really is life”, but I wish he had boiled it down a little bit more.

I’d like to ask him, “What is life?’  What is the difference between life and ‘life that really is life’?  And how does a person take hold of that better kind?”  I mean, I have read enough of Paul to know that he would say it has to do with Jesus, but in this context, he was mostly talking about money and generosity and sharing. 

This is Guadalupe.  She was born in southern Mexico on Halloween.  Her mother had been walking long distances every day for the preceding two weeks.  She was 8 ½ months pregnant when she and her husband and three children left their home in Honduras because of abject poverty and violence.  I saw a video of Guadalupe.  She was crying and obviously hungry, because what does a newborn know about the meaning of life other than the need for food and clean diaper and a warm place to sleep?

Maybe that is what her parents and the other  members of the migrant  caravan want too. Two-thirds of the people in Honduras are underemployed.  Two-thirds of the people live under the poverty line.   If a person is asking questions about the meaning of life, then maybe starting with the basics – food, clothing, shelter, safety – is appropriate. But what if your basic needs are met or as is true for almost all of us, what if they are more than met?  How do we answer the question?  What is the meaning, the purpose, the goal of my life?

I think of the windigos, the native American monsters with whom we began this season.  The windigos whose hunger could never be satisfied. The story of the windigos became a way to warn against letting hunger or fear or the desire for self-preservation become the only goal in life. 

I think of windigos when I see this bumper sticker  “the one who dies with the most toys wins” 

Some of us have found a real joy in life in toys or fabric or yarn or tools or guitars or books, and there is nothing wrong with that, except that the windigo voices in our culture keep saying that we need more toys, more yarn, more tools, more books.

Earlier in this chapter, Paul said to Timothy that we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  The bumper sticker version of that is “whoever dies with the most toys still dies.”

Isabelle Allende, is popular and award-winning novelist.  She is the niece of former Chilean President Salvador Allende. A few years ago she was interviewed on the NPR program This I Believe.  She said:  

I have lived with passion and in a hurry, trying to accomplish too many things. I never had time to think about my beliefs until my twenty-eight-year-old daughter Paula fell ill. She was in a coma for a year, and I took care of her at home until she died in my arms.  During that year of agony and the following year of my grieving, everything stopped for me. There was nothing to do — just cry and remember.

Paralyzed and silent and in her bed, my daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich. Paula had given her life away essentially. Gave her life to others, serving, helping, volunteering. When she died she had nothing—but a heart full of love.

Allende continues:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved.

She concluded:

Give, give, give . . . what is the point of having experience, wisdom, or talent if I don’t give it away? ? Of having stories if I don't tell them to others? What is the point of having wealth if I don’t share it?”  [1]

It is often difficult to discern what our excess baggage is, to realize that we might still be chasing after the most toys, long after that stopped being rewarding or meaningful or joyful. Sometimes it takes an experience like Isabelle Allende had, a significant grief or the wisdom that comes from living a long time, before we will realize what is truly essential. 

But most of us in this room are trying to learn what we can, without necessarily undergoing that kind of difficult teaching and while we still have some years of life left.  We are doing our best to follow Jesus who said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  If we look to Jesus as our model for abundant living, for the life that is really life, what might we find?  Reading the gospels, we see a man who enjoyed good stories and meaningful conversation and meals with friends, and parties.  He liked to laugh.  It’s too bad that the humor has been translated out of much of his stories, because we might not think of him as funny, but he was.  His reputation, among his detractors, was that he wasn’t serious enough.  His critics called him a glutton and a drunkard.  The picture that emerges from the gospels is of someone who loved life, who knew how to enjoy the company of other people.  I have to think that is part of the abundant life he offered to everyone.

But if Jesus is our model for abundant living, then we also need to attend to his compassion demonstrated in his acts of healing and his efforts to include those who had been marginalized.  We also need to remember his preaching and teaching that challenged injustice and oppression and encouraged those who were suffering.   That was also part of the fullness of life that Jesus demonstrated.

One time someone asked Jesus what the most important commandment was.  That’s as close as anyone ever came to asking him the meaning of life.  Jesus’ answer was that the most important commandment was to love God and the next most important was to love your neighbor as yourself.  Love of God and love of neighbor – that was Jesus’ summary for the good life. Everything else that he said or did fits into one or both of those categories. 

I’m not going go through all of the gospels and illustrate that.  But since we started this with Paul, who was talking about money, I do want to remember one more thing that Jesus said.  He said, “You cannot serve God and money.”  We cannot simultaneously love God and still be trying to get all the toys before we die.  Loving God and loving our neighbor is going to affect what we do with our time, our money, our possessions, our energy. 

And so for the final time this year, we hear the challenge to move out of scarcity, to trust in God’s abundant faithfulness and to learn to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. The challenge to discover, in Isabel Allende’s words that we only have what we give  -- our wealth, our love, our lives – and that it is often in letting go that we take hold of the life that is really life.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2005/04/04/4568464/in-giving-i-connect-with-others

10/28/2018 - Much More than Enough - Exodus 35:4-5, 20-24, and 36:1-7

Much More than Enough

Exodus 35:4-5, 20-24, and 36:1-7

October 28, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

Every once in a while,  I make it my business to correct a stranger who is wrong on the internet. Last week, I got into a fairly civil conversation with a woman named Nancy.  By the end of it, she said to me, “Read the Holy Bible.  I am disturbed by your train of thought and pray one day that you find God.”  So I responded by thanking her for her prayers and saying that as a Baptist pastor, I can use all the prayers I can get.  I also told her that I had, in fact, read a lot of the Bible.

There are times when I think I must have read it all by now, but a few months ago, I came across this story in Exodus[1] and I don’t remember ever knowing it before.  Maybe the last time I read it was before I was a pastor preaching stewardship sermons.   This Exodus text appears to be the first known religious capital campaign.  And they left it out of the lectionary – what were they thinking?

Remember with me what has come before this time.  We could start with the ancient Hebrews who left Israel during a famine and went to Egypt.  One of them, Joseph, was an advisor to the Pharaoh and things went well for them because of him.  But then a new Pharaoh came to power who did not know Joseph or his descendants.  Under his leadership, the Egyptians both feared and oppressed the Hebrew people, enslaving them, forcing them into heavy labor. The people cried out to God who heard their suffering. 

With fear and some courage, the people fled with Moses, across the sea with their oppressors hard on their heels, into the wilderness, where they complained that they didn’t have the vegetables they had enjoyed back in Egypt, where they grumbled that the water was not as plentiful or as fresh as what they used to get from the Nile and where they murmured because they were afraid.  They were living in Scare City, weren’t they? 

But God kept inviting them to move into abundance. When they were afraid of getting lost, God provided a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night to guide them.  When they were hungry, God sent manna and quail.  When they were thirsty, God told Moses where to find water in the rock. 

Maybe God thought they were ready to leave Scare City behind for good. God summoned Moses up Mt. Sinai to make a covenant, which we know as the 10 Commandments.  And we remember that while Moses was away, the people again gave in to their fears and made their own god to worship, in the form of a golden calf.   

What happened in chapter 34, just before our reading, is that God forgives them.  God gives them another chance and sends Moses back down the mountain with another set of tablets.  What we read happens just after that.  Moses tells the people that what is needed is a suitable home for God’s glory.  Moses’s request is very simple.  “Let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering”  or “Everyone who is willing is to bring to the Lord an offering . . .” are two translations of Exodus 35:5.    No guilt trip, no teaching on tithing, no slick stewardship campaign.  Just a simple appeal to those who wanted to respond.

And respond they did.  Everyone whose heart was stirred, everyone whose spirit was willing.  They brought gold and silver and bronze and yarns of blue and purple and crimson and fine linen, and precious stones and fragrant spices and oil for the light—which is another way of saying that they paid the electric bill. 

Do you understand? They move out of Scare City into Abundance and in that movement, they participate in an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a moment of new beginning for Israel, as new and fresh as new creation.  Brueggemann says, “in that moment, nothing impedes generosity, nothing qualifies extravagance. The only compelling motivation for generous stewardship is an . . . awareness that life is pure gift and that gratitude is the only fitting posture for life.” [2]

In gratitude, they stepped out of their fear of the unknown. They left behind their worry about not enough. They remembered God’s goodness over the long haul, and they brought their offerings, gifts of their precious and beautiful things to Moses. 

And they kept bringing them.  Did you hear the last part of the story?  They kept bringing freewill offerings  until someone, I think it was the trustees, told Moses they had to stop.  They said, “The people are bringing much more than enough.”    So the people were kept from bringing more, for what they had already brought was much more than enough to do all the work.” 

Can you imagine?  What if, this afternoon, after today’s offering is counted,  we were to hear from our financial people?  What if they said “We don’t need any more money for the rest of the year. We have enough to pay all our bills and make up the deficit and pay for the new furnaces.  What if they said, “You’ve got to stop giving like this, Emmanuel, because what you’ve given is more than enough!”

Wow!  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  I hope I’m here the day that happens. 

It took 40 years of wilderness wandering at least, for the people of Israel to move from a mindset of scarcity to one of generosity.  It will take most of us a long time too and we may need to move between scarcity and abundance a few times before we can leave scarcity behind for good.  What we need is the courage to move out from behind our fear.  Sometimes the reward for courage is joy, and isn’t that where we really want to be?

This film clip is a demonstration of that.  What is happening here is that some singers and actors are trying to get financial backing for a film, so it’s a workshop for potential producers.  What is also happening is that Keala Settle has been grudgingly persuaded to sing a just-written song.  She had never intended to be in the movie and what we see is her courage in stepping into the role.  Watch and listen for the abundance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLFEvHWD_NE

The first time I heard this song was at the Wild Goose Festival[3] this summer.  It was the opening session on the main stage.  Some group I did not know had just been introduced and they suggested that the song they were about to sing might be a kind of theme song for  the Wild Goose Festival.  And the next thing I knew, hundreds of people were on their feet belting it out.

Listen to the lyrics:

I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one'll love you as you are

But I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious
[4]

Do you hear the mindset of scarcity, the fear of rejection, the brokenness and inadequacy?  And then the counter-assertion that “I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be.”  

Many of us at Wild Goose have learned in our families and schools and, unfortunately,  also in our churches that we are too broken, that we should hide away, that there is not enough love, not enough grace, not enough of what we need,  to go around.  But many people have also discovered a theology and a community of faith that says “We are made in God’s image and we are glorious.”  It is the good news of God’s love in Jesus which coaxes and supports and encourages them, and us, to move out of fear into love.

Someone recently said this about the Wild Goose community, “I want a community where we can sit on a couch together and swear about how badly we want to be loved by a god we’re not even sure we believe in anymore.”[5]

This sums up the longing for a faith that is authentic, that is found in community, that lends us courage when we are afraid and helps us to believe when we doubt.  It is a yearning that so many people are feeling.  What they want, what we want, is the gospel’s alternative to the culture of enmity and fear at work in the world.  It is what can happen when we determine to be faithful and courageous and loving and to accept God’s love ourselves and let it flow through us to those who are desperate for it.

If someone would describe Emmanuel this way “a community where we can sit on a couch together and swear about how badly we want to be loved by a god we’re not even sure we believe in any more” – I would take that as the highest affirmation of our ministry. 

So friends, unlike Moses, I am preaching a stewardship sermon.  I am going to remind us that hosting the holy requires a concrete strategy.  Creating and sustaining an authentic faith community costs money. 

This week, you will receive a letter and a commitment card inviting you to prayerfully consider what you will give to God through this church in the next year. As you make that decision, let me invite you to remember two things.  First remember what Moses said.  It was something like “Whoever is willing, whoever has a generous heart, whoever wants to move out of Scare City, should bring an offering to the Lord.”  And then, also please remember that there’s a place for us, for we are made in God’s image and we are glorious. 

And who knows?  Maybe at lunch next Sunday, we will have to be restrained.  Maybe the financial people will say, “You are giving much more than enough.  Your generosity is overwhelming the church.”  Wouldn’t that be something?


[1] I discovered this text through the Rev. Shannon J. Kershner’s  sermon “Too Much Giving” which provided the inspiration and much of the foundation for this sermon.   http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2014/101914.html

[2] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), pp. 962-63.

[3] http://wildgoosefestival.org/

[4] https://genius.com/Keala-settle-this-is-me-lyrics

[5] https://www.facebook.com/micahjmurray/photos/a.10150997569992820/10153648604412820/?type=3&theater

10/21/2018 - Christ is Our Peace - Acts 15:1-9; Ephesians 2:11-17

Christ is Our Peace

Acts 15:1-9

Ephesians 2:11-17

October 21, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

Some rescue crews discovered a castaway on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. She had been there for five years before they found her, and when they found her they discovered that she had seen fit to construct for herself three buildings, using only sticks and vines. They asked her about them.

“Well, that one is my home,” she said, beaming with pride. “And that one,” pointing to the structure directly next to her home, she said, “is my church.”

“Well then, what’s that third one?” one of the rescuers asked.

“Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”

It seems likely that wherever there is a church, there will be church fights.   Evidence of that comes from the New Testament where many of the letters were written to address conflicts in particular churches. 

In Acts 15, we heard one version of a church fight that seems to repeat itself in multiple locations in the first century.  If you were listening to the two readings, you probably noticed that the word “circumcision” was repeated a lot.  That was the buzzword of the day.  At other times in church history, there were other buzzwords like papal infallibility or the inerrancy of the Bible or abolitionism or women’s ordination or many others.  We might not attach theological significance to the word “circumcision,” but that’s just because it’s not our current buzzword.

The fight in Acts 15 happens because the church is expanding rapidly.  It started as a movement within Judaism, but there are Jewish people spread out all over the Roman empire.  As the Jesus story spreads to Jewish people living beyond Israel, it is also received by Gentiles.  And that’s when fighting really starts.

At this time in history, one scholar says, “To the Jew, the Roman or Greek was an idolater; to the Roman, the Jew was an atheist who refused to acknowledge the gods or the divine authority of Caesar.”[1] The hostility was thick.  Add to that the Jewish rebellion of 66 and you get a bloody, horrific war.  That was probably the context when the letter to the Ephesians was written.

The fight about circumcision, like so many other church fights, is really about identity.  Who is on our team?  Who is against us?  And how do we know?  Some Judean Christians think they know all about the Gentiles and their idolatrous ways, so they are sure they have to set down firm rules at the start.  They are trying to hold onto a strong identity in the midst of the hostile culture surrounding them. 

The culture around them said that Jews and Gentiles were too different to get along.  As the Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago says, “They could not pray in the same worship space, sit at the same lunch counter or around the same table, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, be church together, because they were too different. Jews and Gentiles were different. They had different stories, different rituals, different histories, different diets. How could they be one? How could they live out any kind of unity? No, culture said. No, no, no. You cannot. You stick with your own kind. You watch only the news that will support what you already think. You read only the scriptures that are your favorite ones because they buttress your theology. You eat meals only with the people who either won’t talk about hard things or who agree with you as to what to do about hard things. You don’t invest energy in nurturing friendships with people who might wear you out with difference. The proposition of Jews and Gentiles together, the culture claimed, is not only ridiculous but dangerous.”[2]

Some of the Judean Christians absorbed that cultural message and thought that the only way to resolve the issue of differences was to eliminate them.  Instead of recognizing that God was doing a new thing, they maintained that in order to follow Jesus, a person had to follow Moses first.   Before we judge them too harshly, we might remember that Protestant denominations made similar assertions, to follow Jesus best you had to follow Luther or Calvin or Wesley or Roger Williams. 

Acts 15:5 identifies the people  arguing for required circumcision as Pharisees.  This is so interesting.  When we read about Pharisees elsewhere in the New Testament, it is almost always a negative, combative encounter with Jesus.  But these are Pharisees within the Jerusalem church.  Somehow instead of opposing his teachings, they have joined his followers.  They have already accommodated a lot of changes in their thinking.  It may be that giving up this central piece of identity is just more than they can imagine.  There is a paradigm shift taking place among the people of God, but some folks just can’t get on board. 

That paradigm shift is still happening. It is the shift that moves us out of a mindset of fear and scarcity to one of abundance and trust. 

The first time I ever preached here was on the Sunday I candidated 8 years ago. (It’s OK if you don’t remember it.)    On that day, I talked about walls. I mentioned the photos I saw in a college journalism class.  They were photos of people who escaped from East Berlin by digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall for weeks, and then crawling through it as it filled up with ground water.  I also told you about the seminary class in 1989 when my professor, Glenn Stassen, returned from Germany and passed around a chunk of that wall.  He had been there as it came down. 

Last month, I stood on the ugly, rusty side of the  U.S. border fence with two 22-year-old women. I told them that when I was their age, there was a wall in Germany that I expected to be there always.  Then I told them that it was destroyed before they were born. They seemed to be listening earnestly, so I put my hand on the border fence and in my best wise-old-woman-who-knows-the-future voice, I solemnly said, “This wall will not be here forever.”    I fervently hope that is true. 

I have seen the border wall in San Diego and the so-called peaceline in Belfast. I have seen pictures of the wall in Israel-Palestine and the wall that no longer divides Germany.  I am aware of other invisible, but equally potent walls, like the wall of apartheid in South Africa and the Mason-Dixon line in the United States. 

I am convinced that walls like these are built and maintained by fear, fear of the other, fear of differences, the fear that without boundaries, I will lose my identity, the fear of scarcity and the belief that walling off resources from them is the only way to make sure we have enough.  Walls are built and maintained by fear.  When those on one side try to get through or under or around or over the wall, it just increases the fear.  The Berlin Wall was rebuilt three times, each time bigger, stronger and more repressive.  The Peaceline Fences in Belfast have been increased in height three times. 

The first fence along the border near San Diego was installed during the Clinton administration, the second fence running parallel to it was done after 9-11.  They are currently replacing the Clinton-era fence with materials approved during the Obama administration, while Trump requests proto-types to make it higher, stronger, longer yet again.  Building bigger and better walls seems to result in more deaths as people go to the desert to get around them and it creates more of a market for the coyotes who smuggle people across the border. Surely, we need a paradigm shift.   

In Acts, the paradigm shift is explained as God making no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, giving the Holy Spirit to both.  In Ephesians, the shift is Jesus, who has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us. 

Not everyone can handle this paradigm shift. I see a parallel in the movements for religious freedom that happened in other times.  We often hear that the first Europeans to come here were seeking religious freedom. That is somewhat true, but more specifically, they came for their own freedom.  Once they got here, they did what had been done to them.  Eight of the thirteen British colonies established official churches.  Practicing a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith, was illegal and often met with violence. Baptists and Quakers were two notable exceptions.   It took a long time for the idea of providing religious liberty for everyone, not just for ourselves, to become the law of the land.

People often do what has been done to them.  When we are shut out or excluded, we often we exclude others.  Sometimes, when we are welcomed we learn to welcome others and then sometimes, when we welcome others, they welcome even more people.   We can choose to be part of the God’s paradigm shift, moving from fear to trust, from scarcity to abundance.  We can be generous with our hospitality, caring for the stranger, offering a roomy theology that welcomes peaceable differences. 

The most effective expression of that welcome is often in sharing our finances and physical resources.  The gospel spread in the first century because people invested their money and time and even their lives to make it happen.  Christ is our peace.  Christ has broken down the walls.   That work is done for us, but being part of God’s paradigm shift requires our own generosity, our own willingness to move out of scarcity into abundance.  

Maybe it would be best to try to show what I’m talking about:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQVC_m4GtDs&t=1s One of the things I love about this is that one person’s generosity inspires others which inspires others so that even those who received the original gift are giving back.

Let me close with some hopeful, inspiring words I read in a commentary late this week.  Two Presbyterians, Allen Verhey and Joseph  Harvard wrote this: 

 “The church is a demonstration plot for the new humanity brought about by God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.  To be the church is to be a people who respond to God’s work with joy and praise, who display something of what God intends for all humanity in their common life. The church is called to provide an alternative to the culture of enmity at work in the world. It is to be a community that resists efforts to build up again those walls of division and enmity that Christ has broken down.  It is to be a place of hospitality to the stranger, a place of peaceable difference.”[3]

“The church is called to provide an alternative to the culture of enmity at work in the world.”  Sisters and brothers, what a high calling this is.   What task could be more important in the world just now?  May God grant us the wisdom and the courage for the living of these days.

 

[1] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Belief:  A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Ephesians, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), p. 29.

[2] Rev. Shannon J. Kershner, in her sermon “A Place for Me?” July 19, 2015, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2015/071915.html?print=true

[3] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Belief:  A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Ephesians, p. 106.

10/14/2018 - More Than I Needed - Genesis 11:1-9

More Than I Needed

Genesis 11:1-9

October 14, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

The image on the bulletin cover is of a windigo. This one is an abstract sculpture at the Albany Institute.  Judy told me about its existence.  I’m grateful because all the images of windigo that I found on the internet are way too gruesome to put on a worship bulletin cover.

In Algonquian folklore, the windigo is a mythical monster native to the northern forests of the Great Lakes region and the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada.  It may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them monstrous. I have only been introduced to this concept recently, but from what I understand, it is probable that the idea of windigo began when people were hungry, in the winter when food was in short supply. The monster windigo became a way to tell the story of the power of hunger, but also a cultural warning about sharing resources and not being selfish.

Basil Johnston was a Canadian Ojibwa scholar.  In one of his eleven books on First Nations mythology, he devoted an entire chapter to windigos. He says that almost all windigos are self-created.  A windigo is a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible. That is why windigos are always hungry no matter how much they eat.[1]  They are pictured as simultaneously gluttonous and emaciated from starvation because they can never get enough.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else…. The very word…can be derived from roots meaning…’thinking only of oneself.’”[2]  Dr. Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY-ESF and an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation and, by the way, a personal and professional friend of Kathy and Judy.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about Native American concept so much, why it is on the cover of our bulletin.  I have two reasons.  First, the windigo fits the image of a monster, a scary thing suited both to Halloween and to the idea of scarcity.  It is an image for our spiritual journey this season, a journey away from a mindset of scarcity and selfishness.  Second, there are often some similarities in old stories from different cultures, not perhaps in the stories themselves, but in the warnings they contain.  Having the windigo in our minds may help us understand the story from Genesis 11 in new ways.

The story seems simple enough.  Way back near the beginning, when everyone spoke the same language, the people of earth learned how to make bricks.  Doing what people always do with the technology at hand, they used it to its fullest. They determined to build a city and a skyscraper with the bricks.  Somehow, they thought that in building this tower they would make a name for themselves and they could stay together in that one place forever.  For reasons that aren’t spelled out within the story, God is not happy with this plan, so God makes it impossible for them to work together by disrupting their language.  They can no longer understand each other and, as a result, they are scattered across the earth, which is what they had been afraid of in the first place.

Without context, it seems like the humans are finally getting along and working together, which we might think God would be happy about, but instead it seems like God throws a temper tantrum and messes everything up.  That doesn’t really sound like a story that would have been saved and preserved in the Bible, so how else might we understand it?

If we read Genesis from the beginning to this point, we might see this story in a different light.   In Genesis chapter 1, just after humans were created, it says, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’  And then came the rebellion of Adam and Eve and Cain murdering his brother Abel and a level of evil among humans that resulted in a world-wide flood.  After the flood, God determined never again to destroy the world.  It was a huge do-over for God and for the creation.  In Genesis chapter 9, God says to Noah and his family the same words God had said to the first human beings “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

Then in Genesis 11 the people said “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4) The reason given for building this city and tower is fear, the fear of being scattered. So, they are united, but their unity is around resisting God’s intentions and their motivation for that is fear. 

One scholar says, “The setting for this passage is the ripple effect of sin in the world. It is far more about human beings and their capacity for sin and disobedience. The very real concern here is about the tremendous capacity of human beings to bring disruption into the world, the incredible and sometimes horrifying ability of human beings to perpetrate the most unspeakable actions against each other.”[3]

God is not throwing a hissy fit, but rather God has a justified concern about the nature of human beings to do evil, and the propensity of humans with power and united by fear to commit atrocities and cause suffering and even to put the creation itself at risk. 

The tower-builders are like the windigos, they care more for their own survival than for anything else.  Walter Brueggemann suggests they have a “fortress mentality that seeks to survive by its own resources. . . it is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion.  A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.”[4] “A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to mean oppressive conformity – we have seen that to be true, haven’t we?

The tower-builders were afraid of the unknown, afraid of living in another place where they did not have a reputation, afraid of taking up their God-given task of filling the earth. In strong contrast, the very next chapter begins to tell the story of Abraham whom God tells to leave home and set out for a land that God would show him. For generations, that action has been cited as evidence of Abraham’s faithfulness. 

Fear of the unknown, fear of hunger, the concern for self-preservation – all of these have been part of what it means to be human for a very long time. 

The litany of confession we heard a few minutes ago, emphasized “more time, more power, more work, more money.”  I suspect that most of us here are not really driven by a desire for more, more, more.  We are not greedy or selfish, but we may feel that we have to work harder to maintain what we already have.  It may seem that there is not enough time to do what we need to do or want to do, not enough money to provide a secure retirement or a better future for the next generation. 

Somehow, living in this country with so much wealth and so many resources, we have been made to feel that there is not enough.  We are constantly warned of imminent danger and potential loss by loud voices all around us that want us to be afraid, very afraid.  Those are the voices of windigos. 

But I think of Abraham, who refused to be controlled by his fear of the unknown, but set out to find what God would show him. I think of the faith of the disciples commanded by Jesus to scatter to the ends of the earth.  I wonder how to move from the mindset of scarcity and fear that entraps so many of us to one of confident living within God’s abundance. 

And then I remember a woman named Comfort.  She is from Ghana, but I met her in Tijuana.  She was one of thousands of people who went to Brazil before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.  Those were years when jobs in construction and hospitality industries were plentiful.  When those jobs dried up, the migrants moved again. Comfort walked for months, from Brazil to Columbia to Panama to Costa Rica to Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico, a journey of 6,000 miles.    When I asked how she had made such a journey, she said “God provided for me, more than I needed.”  She emphasized more than I needed.  That was all she said at first.  But later, I asked her to tell me more. 

She said that her daily prayer was that God would provide helpers for her. She set out from Brazil, walking with a few others.  I think they had made it as far as Panama when her companions suddenly abandoned her. She found herself completely alone in the jungle. At first, she tried to continue on her own, but she stepped into a fast-moving river to cross it and became convinced that she would drown.  So, she stopped walking.  She sat down in the jungle, by herself, and she prayed.  She told God that she needed one of those helpers to come to her now.  And she stayed in place and prayed and sang hymns like It is Well with My Soul and Great is Thy Faithfulness. 

She stayed in place like that for four days and nights.  Alone, in the jungle, trusting that God would provide. On the fourth day, some Chinese people wandered by.  They asked what she was doing there and she explained.  One asked if she had any water left, and when she said no, he pulled out his canteen and gave it to her.  Another pulled food out of a backpack for her. They helped her make it to a refugee camp in Costa Rica.  By the time they got there, she could no longer walk.  She spent 8 days in the hospital recovering from a lung infection and other illnesses from her time in the jungle. Eventually she continued her journey north to Mexico with the ultimate goal of being united with a cousin in Arizona.

Comfort said that every time she felt like giving up, God stepped in and delivered her.  She said she heard God’s voice again and again in many ways, telling her that God was with her.  She still feels that way, stuck on the other side of the last border, just 300 miles from her cousin in Phoenix.

I am amazed at her faith, amazed that she could stay in one place, alone, in the jungle and trust that God would deliver her.  And I then I remember what she said at first about this experience – that God provided more than she needed.  Now friends, that is not how I would tell the story if it happened to me.  I might say that I almost died, that I was grateful to be alive, but I’m pretty sure I would not say that God provided more than I needed. 

I wonder if that is an important clue to moving away from a scarcity mindset.  What if I imitated the faith of Abraham, moving into an unknown future?  What if I adopted the confidence of Comfort, trusting that God will provide help when I need it?  What if I intentionally saw the creation through the lens of abundance, of God’s good gifts shared with me and with many, provided for the well-being of all creation? What if, on a daily basis, I sang Great is thy Faithfulness and It is Well with my Soul and gave thanks for the living of that day.  Maybe then I would come to say “God has provided more than I needed.”    


[1] Basil Johnston, The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), p. 222

[2] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass:  Indigenous Wisdom:  Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis:  Milkweed Editions, 2013) p. 306.

[3] Dennis Bratcher, http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cpentecostot.html

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 100.

 

10/7/2018 - The Migration Parable - Luke 10:25-37

The Migration Parable

Luke 10:25-37

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

October 7, 2018

This parable is usually called the parable of the good neighbor or the good Samaritan.  I have just recently come to understand it also as a parable that says something about human migration.  Let me supply just a little bit of background before we get to the parable itself.

Going way back to ancient Israel, at one time there were 12 tribes united in one kingdom.  Saul was their first king and then David and then Solomon.  When Solomon died, not everyone was willing to recognize his son as the next king.  So, the kingdom of Israel split, with ten of the tribes coalescing around Israel in the north and two tribes forming Judah in the south. 

In 721 BCE, Assyria invaded Israel.  Assyria deported 27,000 of Israel’s citizens and imported other conquered peoples to repopulate it. Generations later, some of those deportees’ descendants returned to Israel.  Those left in the country and those who were deported intermarried with people of other cultures.  Because of this, the people in Judah saw them as impure and unfaithful to the covenant.  Their capital was in Samaria; thus, they became known as Samaritans. 

Later, a similar thing happened to Judah.  In 587 BCE, Babylon captured Judah and deported many of its citizens to Babylon.  A couple of generations later, the deportees were allowed to return to Judah.  Some did that, bringing their Babylonian wives home with them.  So, the Samaritans, now at home in the land for a hundred years, considered the Judeans to be impure and unfaithful to the covenant.

There were multiple waves of deportations and emigrations associated with both countries. People were moving in and out, sometimes by choice, sometimes by government force.  There are other disagreements, theological and historical, between the Judeans and Samaritans, but today what I find significant is their parallel histories and the way their forced migration patterns led to enmity between them.

This ancient story is particularly relevant on this 2018 World Communion Sunday, as an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.[1]  The United States admitted only 22,491 refugees last year and just set a limit of 30,000 for next year.  For comparison, we resettled almost 85,000 refugees in 2016.[2]

Against that backdrop, let us recall this parable of Jesus.  Travelling down to Jericho, a man was mugged, beaten and left half-dead on the road. Sometime later, a Jewish priest also travelled that road.  He saw the man, and he walked on by.  A bit later, another religious man, from the tribe of Levi walked by.  The Levites were assigned to assist the priests, like today’s deacons or church moderators.  The Levite did not stop either.  Now, we might think that the priest and Levite are the bad guys, the villains, but maybe we should not be too hard on them.  They are only doing what is legal. They were not allowed to touch a dead body.  Making contact with the dead required a lengthy purification process.  Until they were purified, they could not do their jobs as religious leaders and that is not something to be taken lightly.  The rule in the Torah was that they could not have contact with a dead body, with some specific exceptions.  They could defile themselves only for their parents, a son or daughter, a brother or an unmarried sister.  The man on the Jericho road did not fall into any of those categories.

Then, Jesus says, a Samaritan man came down the road.  This is a surprise.  By this time in history, Samaritans and Judeans did not have anything to do with one another.  They went miles out of their way to avoid each other.  This Samaritan is on a Jewish road, known for its bandits.  You might think that a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, would feel particularly vulnerable and have even more reason to keep moving.  But he draws near, and explodes with compassion and risks himself to help the stranger. 

Remember that the Jews and Samaritans have an ancient shared history, even though they might not remember it.  By this time, they have excommunicated each other, and they worship in different places and they don’t even agree on all the books that count as Holy Scripture.  But they both accept the Torah, the books of the Law, which means that the Samaritan also knows the rules about contact with the dead, and the exceptions to those rules, how contact with a dead body was permitted if it was the body of your parents, a son or daughter, brother or sister.    And so, it seems, the Samaritan believes that the wounded man fits the category.  It was this Samaritan, the one whom no one else would possibly see as a brother, who saw his blood relative in the face of the stranger.[3]

Many of our leaders are threatened by the presence of so many different people on the move in the world.  They are busy labelling the threats, stirring up fear, criminalizing foreignness, militarizing our borders.  What if, in spite of all that, in resistance to that, in the name of Jesus, we commit to seeing every person for who they really are – our sisters and brothers, our blood?

Perhaps that is a hard request to hear today.  Maybe on this particular day, after the events of this particular week,  many of us are feeling like the we are the ones half-dead on the side of the road, the ones who need a neighbor ourselves to restore our hope. 

In that case, let me offer a different story.  This is not my story.  It is a story Ray Schellinger told during our Immigration Immersion experience.  If you ever go to Mexico with him, and I really hope you do, then let him tell you this story.  Don’t tell him you already know it.

He said it was the worst day of his life, about 6 years ago. They were on the verge of opening the second story at Deborah’s House, a domestic violence shelter, most of which he had built or had supervised Baptist church groups in building.  He hadn’t slept in two nights because he was trying to finish things up as new families were moving into that space.  He had a particularly threatening encounter with the husband of one abused woman.  He was keenly aware that these women and children were traumatized by the violence in which they had lived, and he wondered if he was making any difference at all. He was so discouraged that he called his wife, who was in the USA at that time, and wondered if he should quit.  She suggested that he get some sleep and pray before making a decision. 

So, he went to bed, and with his head on the pillow, he prayed, “God please let me know if I am where you want me to be.” 

He was asleep for perhaps 30 minutes when he was woken by the director of the shelter.  She wanted him to go pick 3 new residents.  He asked why him and she said there was no one else available.  So, feeling very groggy from his too short nap and still overwhelmed by everything, he drove across Tijuana to get them.

One of them was a European woman I’ll call Elena.  She had lived in California some years earlier on a student visa.  During that time, she had become a Christian.  When she returned to her home country her family had disowned her because of her faith.  Things had never worked out for her there, and in fact, her life was threatened, so she sought a way to return to the USA. She contacted a man in California whom she knew from her time there.  He offered to marry her, as a way of getting her into the country.  She didn’t like that idea, but he assured her that it was just a matter of paperwork, not because he expected an actual marriage.  Once she was safely here, they could divorce.  Finally, she agreed.

They met in Tijuana.  They had a couple of fun days together and got married. Then he imprisoned her in a motel room and daily attempted to break her will so that he could traffic her.  One day, he was distracted and left the door unlocked.  Elena grabbed her papers and ran past him.  He chased her.  She ran to a police officer, at which point, he quit chasing her and disappeared.  When she said that the man was her husband, the officer said he could not help her. 

She was in a foreign country, having been disowned by her family, with no way to get where she wanted to go. Wanting to at least see the United States, she made her way to Friendship Park.  Elena was so close and yet so far from her dream there in Friendship Park.  In despair, she determined to simply walk into the ocean and end it all.   She was following the border fence down to the water, when she noticed the graffiti painted on the fence and started reading it.  What she read reminded her that people – many people, people who did not even know her – cared.  She began to believe that maybe there was hope.  In what she called a moment of transformation, she decided to look for help.  So, she had made her way to people who referred her to Deborah’s House.

She poured out this story to Ray as he drove her and the other women to the shelter.  Later, when she was settling in, Ray asked her, “What did you read on the fence that spoke to you?”  She said “I read, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.  And I read “No wall can contain my heart.”  Those words in particular spoke to her and gave her hope.

And then Ray told her that a week earlier, a team of Baptists had gone with him to the fence to paint messages there.  LeDayne Polaski, the Executive Director of Baptists for Peace, had written “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  And Ray, whose wife is Mexican, and whose daughters consider themselves both Mexican and American, had written, “No wall can contain my heart.” 

He told her that.

Elena said, “No way.” 

Ray said, “Way.”
“No way.”  “Yes, way.”

So, she said, “Now I know that I am in the place God wants me to be.”

And then Ray realized that in her words, he had received the answer to the question he had asked God just a few hours earlier.  Elena herself offered Ray a transformation—a reminder that even when we are discouraged and feeling useless God is using us, even us.  

Sisters and brother, the good news, the great good news, is that God often shows up where we least expect God to be. Because perhaps the only way we can see ourselves as the Samaritan – the one called to act like a neighbor– is first to recognize how often we have been the traveler left for dead.  Friends, do not lose hope. Even now, God will show up where we least expect God to be.  Amen.

[1] http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/10/the-trump-administration-set-a-record-low-limit-for-refugee-admissions-it-let-in-half-that-number/

[3] Ray Schellinger, “Who is My Neighbor?” in Pastoral, Practical, Prophetic and Personal:  A Resource on Immigration produced by the Immigration Task Force of the American Baptist Churches/USA, April 2015   http://www.abc-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pastoral-Prophetic-Practical-and-Personal-FINAL.pdf

9/30/2018 - Who is My Neighbor, Again? - Galatians 5:13-23

Galatians 5:13-23

Who is My Neighbor, Again?

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

September 30, 2018

Go back with me to November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election.  On that day, a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky received three desperate contacts from beyond his immediate congregation.  The Rev. Derek Penwell, is the pastor of Douglas Boulevard Christian Church.  He also serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Louisville.  The first call that day was from a lesbian atheist he had met when they were both graduate students.  She and her partner had planned a destination wedding to Hawaii in 2017, but now they felt that they had to get married before January 20th.  So they called to ask him to perform the ceremony. 

Next he heard from a Syrian man.  This man was the father of a family of refugees that Derek’s church had welcomed and helped to start a new life in America just four months earlier.  The man was worried that his family might be sent back or sent off somewhere else and they were just beginning to settle in.  

The last call was from his doctor, who happens to be Muslim.  The doctor called from work to report his distress that people were high-fiving each other in celebration.  He said that these people know him, they know his children and they did not attempt to hide their glee at electing a president who was clearly anti-Muslim.   

Derek said that he learned something very important that day. He learned that even people with no personal commitment to Jesus have expectations of Jesus’ followers.  They expect Jesus’ followers to protect them from the suffering and injustice and terrorism.[1] 

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.

Our reading from Galatians offers two keys to being the people of God.  1)  God’s will is summed up “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And 2) you know the people of God by the fruits they bear – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.

I don’t have to work hard to imagine the people of God, because I know you and that’s who you are. But in the last eight days, I saw the people of God more vividly and I learned some things with my head, but more importantly with my heart.  So I invite you to come along with me as a sojourner in faith. Bring along a sense of expectancy, a glimpse of future possibility, a working imagination. For God’s creation is not done.

Early last week, we met Yolanda.  She lived in the USA for 18 years.  When her son became a U.S. citizen, she thought there was a path to citizen for her through him. So she applied for citizenship from within the USA. Not only was her request for citizenship denied, she was deported for life.  She lives Tijuana to be near her son who lives in San Diego.  It has been 8 years since she has seen her daughter, who is afraid of deportation herself.  Yolanda says “I will never be the woman I was before.  My motherhood has been truncated, severed.” 

Three years ago she started Dreamers Moms, to support women in similar situations.   They offer counseling, and immigration legal services and a help for immediate needs like food and housing.  She said she discovered more suffering, more injustice that she anticipated.  At first the participants were from Central America and then from Mexico and also Europe, which she says indicates that this is a world-wide problem. 

We met Patricia, who was taken by ICE from her workplace and simply did not ever come home to her children, the youngest who was then a 9-year-old boy.  She was detained for 18 months and then because she did not understand her rights and did not pay a $100 fee for an appeal, she was deported.   Now there are two grandchildren she has never met.  One is 5 years old; the other is 3 months.   She said “Everything gets broken.” 

Monserrat moved to North Carolina with her husband when she was just 17.  He was abusive to her for 12 years.  Domestic violence is a theme that echoes in the lives of most of the women we met.  Her husband told her he would kill her if she did leave.  She believed him and she went back to Mexico.  Later when she attempted to come across the border, she was jailed and then deported.   Some time after that, he was deported, leaving their U.S. citizen daughters in the care of his second wife.  Her daughters, now teenagers, found her through Instagram.  But their relationship is difficult because they believe their father who told them she had willingly abandoned them.  Monserrat suffers from ongoing depression and physical illnesses which she says are a result of the forced separation.  She says that what keeps her going is the struggle to be reunited with them, so that they will know she did not abandon them. 

Ray Schellinger, who was a missionary in Tijuana for 15 years was our guide on this trip. He is now the Global Consultant for Immigrants and Refugees.  Ray has the most compassionate, most broke-open heart I have ever seen.  Many years ago, the Dreamers Moms asked him to be their pastor. So before we left, Ray prayed for them.  It was a long prayer, in Spanish, and I didn’t understand many words, but halfway through,  I was aware that people were weeping.  I sensed that there was profound comfort in this prayer.  So later I asked about the prayer and was told that Ray had quoted the Bible, specifically the prophet Isaiah where there is promise of restoration and hope.  Ray was pleading with God to rain down love and joy and peace and reunification of families, imagining the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. 

Friends,  God’s people are suffering.  It is deep and real and goes on and on.   It’s not religious persecution.  It’s racist persecution  They are not suffering because they are God’s people, but because they are God’s people they suffer together. 

Yolanda has been deported for life.  There is no way to appeal that injustice.    But there are possibilities for other deported Moms and she works with them and encourages them and cheers them on.  At the end of her speaking time, she looked around at the other women and she called them warriors, women with internal strength and capacity for hope unknown even to themselves until they had to draw upon it.  She said unequivocally that their lives and the lives of their children matter. She was loving herself and loving her neighbor in the same way and it was a powerful Spirit-filled moment. 

To  those of us from the USA, she said “you who are sensitive and have compassion for others, we ask your help.  Respect the migrants who are in your midst.  You have the power to elect leaders who will create a better system.  Maybe in the next election you can elect someone who is compassionate.”

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith and our sisters in Christ call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.

On our last day, we were told we were going to a working class neighborhood. As I got off the bus, I immediately took in the stench of rotting garbage strewn along the road and the buzzing flies and I quickly sidestepped a pile of nastiness directly in front of the bus door.  Then I saw a line, like a fence, of assorted pieces of cast-off lumber, intermittently secured with padlocks.  Slowly, I realized that these were the homes in this neighborhood. I was seeing the front doors or the front gates, locked because everyone was at work.

This neighborhood is home to people who work in maquiladoras, foreign factories in Tijuana, Mexico.  They might make $8 per day for a 12-hour shift on an assembly line where they have to ask permission to use the bathroom. In this neighborhood, as in another one-third of Tijuana, there is no water or sewer system.  It costs $10 per week to have water delivered via truck.  In more wealthy Tijuana neighborhoods, it costs $10 per month. The poor pay four times as much for the same product.  This particular neighborhood runs alongside the freeway which means car exhaust and traffic noise, but also easier access to transportation.  Workers who live in other areas may face a 2-hour daily commute plus more hours spent waiting for the bus. It costs time and money to be poor.

I heard a dog barking and noticed a small sign on this door. I stepped closer to read the sign, expecting it to say “No trespassing” or “Beware of dog.”  Instead, to my surprise,  it read “Paz de Cristo”  The Peace of Christ

We walked to the end of the neighborhood and turned around.  Coming back, I noticed more personal touches, including this beautified entrance. There was a hard-to-read, hand-lettered sign in Spanish. 

My companion at that moment was Nasteho, a 22-year-old, Somali-American Muslim woman who happens to also know Spanish.  I asked her what the sign said.  On her first attempt, she translated the sign as “I am always here, at the end of the world.”  My heavy heart sank further in recognition of the despair that might lead someone to post such a message on their door.  Nasteho found this Spanish different from Spanish she had encountered elsewhere.  Unsure that her translation was accurate, she consulted a third member of group, Luz a Columbian theologian whose first language is Spanish.  Nasteho came back to me with Luz’s translation, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Then I recognized the words of Jesus, the One who moved into the human neighborhood, the One whose words have been passed from generation to generation, in hundreds of languages, to provide comfort and hope.  In this Tijuana neighborhood, they were passed from a Mexican factory worker to a Somali-American Muslim, to a South American professor, back to the Somali-American, and then to me, a white American Christian who has never endured poverty and is illiterate in Spanish.  They brought tears to my eyes and a lift to my heart.  And I realized again, what I knew, but kept forgetting.  God’s people were already in this place.  God’s people in Mexico do not need me to bring God to them.  God is there.  God’s people do not need me to rescue them.  They simply need me to love them as I love myself, even unto the end of the world. 

Remember Monserrat?  She was the Dreamer’s Mom we met at the beginning.  At the end of our time together, she said to us, “Now you know the truth and it remains with you.   You are responsible for many things. You can’t remain silent.” 

That was a strong statement.  It set up echoes in my head of Jesus’ words “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” 

That, in turn, resonates with today’s text.  Galatians 5:1 which we did not read says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  And then verse 13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another. 

You know the truth and it remains with you.  You can’t be silent.  The truth shall set you free, but don’t squander it, instead through love serve one another. 

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith and our own brothers and sisters in Christ call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.

 

[1] This experience was shared in a presentation by Rev. Penwell at the Wild Goose Festival 2018.

9/23/2018 - Renewing Your Mind - Romans 12:1-3

Renewing Your Mind 

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff

Romans 12:1-3                                   

September 23, 2018                                                                                   

During my junior year in college, I spent a semester studying at the University of London.  I had never been abroad before and I felt like I spent my entire semester with my eyes wide open, exclaiming, “This isn’t what it’s like at home!”  When my term was over, I spent three weeks in Zurich, Switzerland where Dan had a job.  On the weekends, we had some amazing hiking expeditions in the Alps.  I flew home at the end of June and my parents picked me up at the airport in Minneapolis, loaded my enormous suitcase into the trunk of the car, and drove me home.  As soon as we started driving, I noticed something.  Minnesota looked flat.  As funny as it sounds to say, I had never noticed that before.  But after six months in deep green rolling hills of England and three weeks in the great peaks of Switzerland, I suddenly saw what I hadn’t seen the whole time I was growing up in Minnesota.  The state is basically flat.

That’s a kind of silly story, but it is for me a strong memory of seeing something in a completely new way because I had an experience that changed my perspective.  Have you ever had an experience like that?  Do you know what I mean?

I’m thinking of my friend Bev who spent a couple of weeks working at an orphanage in a village in Haiti.  She told me that when she came back home and went to the grocery story, ready to get back into the swing of her normal life.  But when she walked into the produce section, she was completely overwhelmed and burst into tears.  “There was just so much,” she told me later.  “It was all so fresh and clean and perfect—I couldn’t bear it.”  Two weeks in Haiti had changed the way she saw food.

My friend Mary Jane told me a similar story about having her first child, a sweetheart of a kid named Andrew.  She had been an elementary school teacher for almost seven years before she went out on maternity leave.  She had perfected her techniques of classroom management, had all her routines down, but when she came back to the classroom, she found she had to re-think everything.  “I looked at each of those kids,” she explained, “and I realized that each one of them was somebody’s baby Andrew.”  Three months on maternity leave had changed the way she saw children.

Have you ever had an experience like that?  Has something happened to you that made it impossible for you to see the world in the same way again?  Think of those experiences, for a moment, and then let me ask you:  What if faith was like that?  What if your faith affected your life like traveling to Switzerland, working in Haiti, or having a baby?  What if your faith made you see everything differently?

Faith, as we usually talk about it, is focused on belief.  Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?  If you can say “yes” in response to that question, then you are by definition part of the Christian faith, right?  And when people say that their faith is shaken, or when they say that they’ve lost their faith, that usually means that they are started to doubt the things that other people in their church say they believe.  Faith, as we usually use the term, is something that happens up in your brain.   

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul seems to agree with this description.  “Be not conformed to the world,” Paul writes.  Don’t just mimic the behavior and attitudes of the people around you.  Don’t just live on automatic pilot.  Instead, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  In other words, get your thinking straight and then the world will change.  Many Christians have taken this advice to heart.  Instead of focusing on our actions, instead of teaching the practices of faith, we focus on teaching people what to believe and helping them chase away all of their doubts.

Does anyone have a problem with that?  I sure do.  For one thing, having hung around churches all my life, I’ve known quite a few people whose beliefs are perfectly orthodox and they still act like a jerk.  Clearly, all sorts of things can happen in your mind that have absolutely no affect on your behavior. 

And for another thing, I have argued with all sorts of people during my life about their beliefs and as far as I can tell, none of these arguments have ever transformed anything.  I’ve argued with people about the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, the meaning of passages in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality and womens’ role in the church.  For that matter, I’ve argued about climate change and nuclear disarmament and gun control and vegetarianism and as far as I can tell, no one’s life was different as a result of any of these arguments. 

So I have now come to the conclusion that belief is highly over-rated, most especially by Christians.  We can’t just think different—we have to BE different. 

Is that even possible?  Paul, writing to people who lived right in the midst of the most entrenched system of power and control in the world at the time, was convinced that it was possible.  And if we step back and put Paul’s words in today’s reading a bit more into context, we can see that Paul is talking about more than having the right beliefs.  Our reading for the morning began with the exhortation to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…to God”.  Paul’s not talking about nodding and smiling and singing along with a few hymns.  He’s telling people to go ALL IN, to hand their whole lives over to God made known in Jesus Christ and not to hold anything back.  To be as immersed in the Good News as someone is immersed in a service trip to Haiti, or immersed in parenthood.  To allow every aspect of your life to be shaped by the promises of God, as lived by the people of God.  Do you think that is possible?  Can we as the church, the People of God, promote something more than belief, something that really can transform the world?

I’m not asking this as a rhetorical question, one that we all should obviously be able to answer affirmatively.  This is the question that is quite literally keeping me awake at night right now.  The public conversation that has happened over the past week in response to the accusation that Professor Christine Blasey Ford made against Judge Brent Kavanaugh has illustrated over and over that there is something in our culture that is in desperate need of transformation.  All week, women (and a few brave men) have publically shared stories of being sexually molested as adolescents.  All week, men in power have suggested that the women who tell these stories are mistaken or lying.  And as the mother of a 19-year-old daughter and two 22-year-old sons, as a Chaplain on a college campus, I am sickened at the thought that young men have and will continue to receive that message that there is something understandable, even excusable, about treating women as objects of conquest and not as human beings worthy of care and respect.

What do we as a church have to offer to that conversation?  Some shaming and blaming language about the dangers of drinking and premarital sex?  Some high and mighty exhortations about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you?  That can’t be all we have to offer because no one is going to be transformed by thinking alone.  We need to show the world what it looks like to hand everything over to God’s love and God’s law—mind, body, spirit, everything.

This is not just a pipe dream.  I’ve had enough glimpses of this kind of community to keep me from utter despair.  Here’s just one story: 

The congregation I used to serve in Columbia, Maryland was, like EBC, very involved with programs that addressed the needs of people living on the economic margins.  As one part of this work, the church hosted the community’s Cold Weather Shelter for a week each year.  During that week, 24 men, women and children struggling with homelessness lived in our church building.  The members of the church were there with them much of the time as we helped staff the shelter and provided three meals a day, activities for kids and conversation for the adults.  One year, the shelter was in our church the week before the Sunday in January when we read the story about the baptism of Jesus when a voice came down from the heavens declaring, “This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased!”  Our church planned worship in teams (as EBC is starting to do) and so a group of us spent the week discussing this scripture and crafting a worship service around that powerful declaration.

And then, on the Monday following that week, I saw one of the people who had slept in our church the week before sitting in the food court at the mall.  He had a bunch of plastic bags with him and he was kind of muttering to himself.  Other people were keeping clear of him and I would have reflexively followed suit.  But then the words popped into my head, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well-pleased!”  Beloved, I thought.  Well-pleased, I repeated to myself.

You see, those were no longer just words to me.  That was a shorthand description of the world I had lived in for the past week.  That was the language we had spoken together.  That was the law we had lived by.  And it was transforming me from someone who did nice things for homeless people to a person who saw a homeless person as beloved.

That’s what faith can do—faith that reaches way beyond belief and becomes the language and the law of the People of God.  With faith like that, transformation is not just possible, but certain.  May it be true for us, and may we offer that promise to this whole, hurting world.

 

 

 

 

9/16/2018 - Letting Go of Privilege - Philippians 2:1-10

Philippians 2:1-10

Letting Go of Privilege

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

September 16, 2018

Paul was connected to a number of congregations as the good news of Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.  He was connected to many, but based on the letters which survive, I suspect he was particularly close to the church in Philippi. It was to this church that he wrote, “I thank God every time I remember you”  and “I long for all of you.”  It is only this church that he calls “my joy and my crown.”  Good pastors should probably never admit to having a favorite church, but I think Philippi was Paul’s favorite.  

In chapter one, the focus is mostly on the struggle between Christians and external enemies, but by chapter two, Paul is concerned with  possible divisions inside the community.  I called this a congregation, but of course, we know that there was not a Methodist church and a Baptist Church and a Catholic church in Philippi. There was just one group of Christians, who were probably a small minority of the 15,000 people who lived in Philippi, and Paul was writing to all of them.  Some form of the Greek word for “all” occurs 6 times in the first 9 verses. 

Paul frequently addresses his letters to “holy ones” or “saints.”  So this letter is “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi”.  He does not call them saints to put them on a spiritual or moral pedestal.  He calls them that in reference to their commitment to Jesus, to remind them of their calling as the people of God, all of them, together.

If this is Paul’s favorite church, I suspect that it is because they live out his best sense of what it means to be the people of God.  They come the closest to getting it right and that is a source of great joy for him.  But even as wonderful as they seem to be, they have issues.  And one of the issues seems to be internal conflict.  If we read through to chapter four, we would see that Paul is concerned about two women in leadership.  Euodia and Syntyche disagree about something.  Paul doesn’t say what their argument is about, but it must be serious if word has reached him from a distance. 

These women are the real deal, from all we can tell.  Paul says “they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”   The word translated struggling can refer to the battlefield or the athletic arena.  They have worked hard.

They are not false teachers trying to lead people astray.  They are committed to Jesus, but  now they are in a fight with each other.

The idea that Christians could disagree, even angrily, does not come as a surprise to us, does it?   From our place two thousand years after Paul, we know that Christians disagreed enough to form factions and the factions solidified into tribes called Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.

But let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves why.  If our goal is to follow Jesus, and Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God with all your being and the next most important thing is to love your neighbor as yourself, then why are there fights among the people of God? 

I guess the most obvious reason is that we don’t follow Jesus perfectly.  Despite our best intentions, we are still sinful, broken human beings and sometimes we fall short of our goals. 

Another way to analyze this might be to return to that idea of external and internal pressures.  I said that in the first part of this letter, Paul is concerned with external enemies of the faith.  Roman culture was highly stratified.  There was a pecking order and you climbed the social status ladder by making sure you paid all due respect to those above you.  Philippi was a developing Roman city and those who lived there would have felt strongly compelled to proclaim the honors they had received and their social location.  Christians would have felt that same pressure.[1] 

Paul appeals to them, to imagine themselves as the people of God, to adopt not the mindset of the culture around them, but to adopt the mind of Christ.  The people of God are to be counter-cultural. Our goal is not achieving social status; our goal is serving each other in love.  When we lose sight of that, we become prone to the internal fights that can ultimately destroy a community.

Privilege is kind of a buzz word in many circles right now.  There are conversations about white privilege and male privilege and the privilege of education and health care. 

Equality with God was Jesus’ privilege.  If you are equal with God, you’re pretty high up on the ladder, but Jesus let go of that privilege.  He came down the ladder as a demonstration of love and it is Jesus’ attitude and action which Paul is holding up as a model for us.

Philippians 2:5-11 contains one of the most succinct and important descriptions of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  We think this is an early hymn:  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

These are very important words.  Like all significant theology, they have also been subject to abuse and misuse.  Sometimes they have been used to hold up Jesus’ suffering as something to be imitated by those who are currently suffering.  They were used to keep slaves under the thumb of their masters, to tell abused spouses to submit to their abusers, to maintain the status quo of injustice.  What we need to notice is that this hymn does not start with the suffering Jesus.  It starts with the Christ who is equal to God.  The poor who are told to suffer like Christ rather than to struggle for freedom are not in the position to copy the Christ of this hymn.  The challenge of this hymn is addressed to those who have privilege, who have some status or power, just as Christ had the status of God.[2]

Maybe, just now, we relaxed a little bit and thought, “O good, I’m off the hook.  I don’t have status or power.   This is not talking to me.” 

That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it?  It is very hard for us to recognize our own privilege.  The Rev. Peter Storey was a Methodist pastor and bishop in South Africa for many years.  He was one of the white church leaders who fought vigorously against apartheid and rejoiced when it was finally dismantled. One time he was invited to the United States with a group of church leaders.  Arriving at the airport, they were surprised to learn that they were booked in business class. He had never travelled business class before.  In fact, the thought of a Christian minister travelling any way other than economy went against his principles, but their American hosts had booked the tickets and who were they to argue?  Travelling to Amsterdam in business class, he discovered that the seats were wide and could be leaned back and the cabin crew kept bringing all sorts of nice things.  He found it very pleasant and by the time they arrived in the Netherlands, he was getting used to being pampered. 

Before they boarded their plane to New York, an airline staff member pulled them aside to say that the original aircraft had engine trouble.  The replacement plane had a smaller business class section and so these four ministers were being moved back to economy. The airline apologized and gave each of them two seats in economy to make up for it.  Reflecting on that experience, Rev. Storey said “I should have been grateful to revert to my more appropriate and humble image, but I wasn’t.  Truth be told, I was fed up!  I found myself wondering why I had to be one of the unfortunate four.  Didn’t I look like business class material?  And what was so special about the others who hadn’t been bumped down to economy?  Ten hours of business class travel had weaned me quite effectively from my humility.” [3]

The effects of privilege are subtle.  We feel entitled -- to the rightness of our opinions, to the appropriateness of our needs,  to support for our decisions.  We can assert this privilege without having much awareness that we’re doing so.  If we are not careful, we may deceive others into believing we don’t have power or privilege when we do.

Of course, there is also danger in the opposite direction.   We could ignore the idea that we bear the image of God and act as though our opinions and needs don’t matter because we are worthless.  Then we need to remember that Jesus came to our level.  He came to our level to elevate us, not to push us down further.  We do not need to view ourselves as lower than Jesus views us. 

This is how the people of God are to relate to each other.  We recognize that we are the beloved children of God, that we have worth because Jesus says we do, and at the same time, we honor the worth of all the other children of God around us.  

The people of God trust that we are God’s beloved.  We abide together as partners in that love, not competing for it, not earning it, not setting up winners and losers, but reveling in it, growing in it, expanding with it, together.

In 1974, Adrienne Rich received the National Book Award in poetry.  Other poets in contention for the award were Audre Lord and Alice Walker.  As Rich accepted the prize she said, “We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world. . .”[4]  The three women had written that statement together in advance and no matter who officially won the prize, this would have been their statement.  They said that  they believed that by supporting and giving to each other, they could accomplish more than by  competing against each other.

What a demonstration of cooperation instead of competition, a way of asserting one’s own worth while looking toward the interests of others.

I appreciate how Walter Brueggemann describes this.  He says, “The world in which we live, . . . is premised on a rat-race of competition, on the turmoil of ruthless individualism, and the collection of commodities, of rude social interaction and crude survival shows and toxic public life.  And Paul says to the church do not be so mindless.  Do not be like sheep that imitate the world. Do not act like fearful citizens of the Roman empire or of the American empire.  Paul does not do that so that the church can be the snug, comfortable, happy place in town.  Rather Paul intends that the church should be an exhibit to the world how our common life can be ordered differently. . . . The community gathered around Jesus is called to be as odd in the world as he himself was such an odd Messiah.”[5]

Paul writes his most joyful letter to this church and he says, “Make my joy complete.  Have the same mind, the same love, found in Jesus.”

Sisters and brothers may we imagine ourselves as the people of God, letting go of our privilege, not even grasping our status as God’s beloved, but imitating Jesus our Lord.  Amen. 

 

[1] Todd D. Still, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Philippians and Philemon, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2011) p. 45

[2] Pheme Perkins, from “Philippians” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol Newsome and Sharon H. Ringer (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), pp. 434-35.

[3] Peter Storey With God in the Crucible:  Preaching Costly Discipleship (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), pp 161-162.

[4]  http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_arich_74.html#.W5wgS6ZKiUk

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “On Changing Our Minds” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), pp. 103-104.

 

 

9/9/2018 - Wild Wonder Fueled By Love - Ephesians 3:14-21

Wild Wonder Fueled By Love

Ephesians 3:14-21

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

September 9, 2018

Kaitlin Curtice is a citizen of the Potawatomi Citizen Band Nation. The Potawatomi people originally lived in the Great Lakes region, until they were forcibly removed to what is now eastern Kansas.  Kaitlin is  Native American and Christian, and she often has to defend that dual identity.  To some white Christians, she is too Native.  Some Native people question how she can embrace the religion of the colonizers, the oppressors.  She certainly recognizes that the Bible was used to control and manipulate, to support the goals of greed and Christian empire which led to great suffering and trauma for her people.  But she also says that the true way of Jesus, the way of prayer and nonviolence, is a path that indigenous people have been following for a long time.  I heard Kaitlin speak this summer.  One thing she said that stuck with me was this “Christianity was meant to be a display of wild wonder fueled by love.” 

She imagines the people of God, living our day-to-day lives, finding glory in the ordinary, drawing on the power of the deep, deep love of Jesus.  She says that history often repeats itself, but it doesn’t have to.  We can imagine a better path.  And if we can imagine it, then we can start to live it.

This idea comes out in a slightly different way in the letter to the Ephesians.  We do not know much about the original recipients of this letter, but it seems that they include a number of Gentiles who have recently been welcomed into  the Christian faith.  (Ephesians 2:11-13)  We could say that this letter is an attempt to help them understand how to live into that role, how to imagine themselves as God’s own people.  

In the verses that we read, two in particular stand out for me. 

Verses 18-19 say,   “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Bible scholar Pheme Perkins says “Ephesians is not concerned with knowledge in terms of human minds stretched to their limits in apprehending the creator or with cosmological speculation but with the experience of the love of Christ …” [1]

Her idea then, is that we cannot comprehend the dimensions of this love apart from experience.  We don’t know this love intellectually.  We know it experientially.  We begin to comprehend this love when we receive it or when we share it or when we allow it to be the fuel that sustains our lives. 

I suspect we can also experience it vicariously, that is through the stories of other people.  So let me invite you to open your imagination as wide as you can and enter into some of the height and length and depth and breadth of this love.

Imagine this love as the power that deliberately nurtures children as individuals and cares for the elderly with dignity and respect.  It strives for  healthy relationships with people of all ages. It is the compassion of a friend keeping vigil at a hospital or hospice bed so that a loved one will not die alone. This love tutors other people’s children and makes sure the food pantry is stocked for hungry strangers and visits those in prison.  It is the daily fidelity to marriage vows and other significant commitments which turn out to be both more difficult and more joyful than anticipated.  It is also the passion of an activist with a protest sign or in handcuffs who refuses to let injustice and suffering become normal.  It is found in the bonds between the most unlikely people, and between humans and animals, and, I believe, in the bonds between some animals as well.  This love is the boldness that welcomes the stranger, champions the underdog, embraces the refugee, and summons the courage to change minds, hearts and behaviors. 

Do you remember Yusra Mardini?  She was a swimmer from Syria on the Refugee Team at the Olympics in 2016.  Until the war in Syria, she swam in her hometown of Damascus with the support of the Syrian Olympic Committee. When the war came, she kept training, even when bombs destroyed the roofs over her swimming pools.  Finally, at 18 years old, she fled with her sister Sarah, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying for Greece. 

They set off in a boat meant for 6 people, but carrying 20.  Thirty minutes out on the Aegean Sea, the motor began to fail. Yusra, her sister Sarah, and two others jumped into the sea and swam, pulling the boat in open water, eventually reaching Greece.  They were the only ones on board who knew how to swim.  The other two swimmers eventually gave up, exhausted.  Yusra said,  “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”[2]

Can we try to imagine what Yusra and Sarah did?  We might call it strength, grit, determination, endurance, stubbornness.  Or we might call it love  -- love of self, love of neighbor, love of life in all its fullness.  A power that tapped reserves of strength Yusra and Sarah did not even know they possessed.  Imagine with me the incomprehensible love of Christ which is like that.

Remember earlier this summer when a soccer team and their coach were trapped in a cave in Thailand?  I told you then that I could not watch that story because of my claustrophobia.  But now that they are safely out, I went  back to learn more.

Nine days after being trapped, the boys were located by a British diving team.  Only one boy spoke English, limiting their communication.  The next day, seven Thai Navy Seals, including a doctor, made the 6 hour journey to the boys, bringing supplies.  Four of them, including the doctor, stayed with them underground for the rest of their time in the cave.  They were the very last to exit.

The international rescue effort involved more than 10,000 people, including over 100 divers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers and 2,000 soldiers, and required ten police helicopters, seven police ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion liters of water out of the caves.[3]

The soccer team was trapped about 2 ½ miles from the entrance, at the end of what one diver called an underground obstacle course of rocky chambers, half-flooded canals and fully submerged sections.  One of those fully submerged sections was 350 meters, which is longer than a football field, and the water was so muddy, he said it was like “swimming in coffee.”[4]   There were extremely narrow passages; the smallest was 15” x 28”. 

On the way out of the cave they spent at least 3 hours submerged in water, with one rescue diver accompanying each boy, but that was not the entire journey.  For the last part, hundreds of volunteers stood along the treacherous path.  Each boy was sedated in a stretcher, so these volunteers slid and/or carried him, passing him from one volunteer to the next, until they reached the entrance which was about an hour away.

The dimensions of Christ’s love are beyond my comprehension.  So is the scope of the international cooperation that saved the lives of 13 people, and received the sacrifice of one diver who died early on.  If we had the right instruments, the height, width, breadth and depth of Christ’s love might somehow be measured in the persistence of the original searchers and the skill of divers and the narrowness of passages and the courage of the soccer team and the frustration of language barriers and the thickness of the muddy water and the weeks spent underground and the dedication of those who pumped out water and attempted to drill through the mountain and the fervor of so many all over the world who were praying for them. 

The professional divers advised the Thai governor on rescue options.  He asked about the likelihood that this plan would succeed. One American military diver said that he expected that they would save 60-70 percent of the boys.  In other words, he predicted that 3 or 4 or 5 boys might die.[5]  What a terrible responsibility to make this decision.  And yet, this love was not paralyzed by fear.  This love took deliberate, coordinated, strategic action.

And great was the joy when the team and their coach and all their rescuers made it out alive.  Some might have called it “a wild wonder fueled by love.”

It is hard to measure this immeasurable love of Christ for lots of reasons, one of which is of course that it is invisible.  We cannot see the internal process behind the love.  We only believe that it is there because of the caring, sharing, and trusting, that we witness.  And so I’d like to imagine one more dimension of this love, which is maybe closer to that internal process. 

I’m thinking of a man named Desmond Doss.  He was a Seventh Day Adventist Christian from Virginia.  He took the commandment “thou shalt not kill” very seriously, believing that even in combat, killing was against the will of God.  World War II was happening and Doss wanted to serve his country, so he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps as a noncombatant.  Because of his conscientious objector status boot camp was difficult.   He was threatened and harassed. Many of the other recruits threw shoes at him while he prayed, and they tried to have him transferred out of their unit.  His commanding officers also thought he was a liability.  They tried unsuccessfully to have him court-martialed. 

He was assigned to an infantry rifle company.  They marched into machine gun fire in Guam and the Philippines and Okinawa, and he never carried a weapon.  In late April 1945, 26-year-old Doss and his battalion were repeatedly trying to capture an escarpment, which they called Hacksaw Ridge.  They had secured the top of the cliff, when suddenly enemy forces rushed them.  Officers ordered an immediate retreat.  Soldiers rushed to climb back down the steep cliff.  Less than one-third of them made it.  The rest lay wounded, scattered across enemy soil, abandoned or left for dead.  Doss disobeyed orders and charged back to rescue as many as he could.  Over the span of several hours, Doss treated the injured and, one by one, dragged them to the edge of the cliff and lowered them to safety in a rope sling.  After each successful delivery, he reportedly prayed, “Dear God, let me get just one more man.”  By nightfall, he had rescued 75 soldiers, including many of those who had labelled him a coward.  When the war was over, the captain who had wanted Doss out of his unit said, "He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing,"  Doss was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Medal of Honor, all without ever harming another human being.[6]

This section of Ephesians begins with a prayer that God will grant “strength in your inner being with power through the Spirit.”  Private Doss had that kind of inner strength which enabled him to live out his convictions with honor and courage and integrity.  He could imagine a way of life in which Christians did not kill.  And what he imagined, he lived out.

Our worship theme for the month invites us to “Imagine the People of God”.  It shouldn’t require much effort to believe that we are those people.  We know that is our calling; that’s why we’re here.  It is beyond our comprehension to grasp the full depth and weight and power of Christ’s love, but let’s imagine any way.  Imagine what would happen if we spent our lifetimes in the awareness of the extravagance of Christ’s love.  What if we entered every situation, grounded in that love, confident in our inner beings of the presence of God’s Spirit, filled with the fullness of God?   I think, if we tried to do that, we might come to know a wild wonder fueled by love.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Pheme Perkins, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 415-416.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/yusra-mardini-rio-2016-olympics-womens-swimming-the-syrian-refugee-competing-in-the-olympics-who-a7173546.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tham_Luang_cave_rescue

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3NB9-x8itY

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3NB9-x8itY

[6] https://www.army.mil/article/183328/pfc_desmond_doss_the_unlikely_hero_behind_hacksaw_ridge

8/26/2019 - My Rock and My Redeemer - Psalm 19

My Rock and My Redeemer

Psalm 19    

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

August 26, 2018

The Bible is old, very old.  Sometimes I am more aware of that.  The family dramas in Genesis remind me.  Psalm 19 reminds me.  It is ancient poetry which classical musicians like Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Haydn set to music.  C.S. Lewis said “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]

The first six verses are older than the rest.  They are a song of praise to God the Creator.  This section only uses the word “El” to refer to God.  El is a more generic name for God.  It can be used in reference to the God of Israel, but also more generally about any god.  This hymn, like many of the psalms, praises the God who creates and sustains creation.  This God is known, perhaps obliquely, in the beauty and order and rhythm of the cosmos.

Some of us resonate with that way of knowing God.  We might identify with the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.  After she left parish ministry, she and her husband found a place in country with oak trees and trillium and elderberry, persimmon and blackberry and milkweed and water.  She said, “ I found my place on earth.”  And she said, “I know plenty of people who find God most reliably in books, in buildings, and even in other people. I have found God in all of these places too, but the most reliable meeting place for me has always been the creation. I have always known where to go when my own flame was guttering. To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of that same power that makes the green blade rise. To remember that I am dirt and to dirt I shall return is to be given my life back again. Where other people see acreage, timber and soil, and river frontage, I see God’s body. . . . The Creator does not live apart from creation . . . When I take a breath, God’s Holy Spirit enters me.” [2]

Some of us feel that way, but not all of us do.  Some of us would say that the creation only reveals a Creator to those who already believe or that seeing God’s glory in the on-going pattern of nature is an interpretation one chooses to make.

With that in mind, we might turn to the next section of the psalm, verses 7-11 which praises the Torah, God’s law.  Living by Torah is living life as God intended it.  Six times, this section uses the personal name for God, the name which was revealed to Moses just before the giving of the law.  What makes life possible is relatedness to God and that personal relationship is mediated by God’s instruction. 

Scholars believe that these two sections were each once independent units, a hymn to creation and a hymn to Torah, but someone put them together on purpose to make a statement.  In its current combined form, this psalm is not concerned merely with the Creator God; rather it expresses the conviction that God has broken through the silences of nature, disclosing God’s own name and speaking and acting in the historical experiences of the people of Israel.[3]  We might also add that God has come even closer in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but of course the psalm was written long before his time. 

And then there are the last few verses where the psalmist is concerned that he or she might unknowingly go against God’s instructions and asks for forgiveness.  The focus draws even closer, down to an individual life.    May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable.  The first section of the psalm speaks to me of wonder, and the second speaks of knowledge.  This last part seems to be about an interplay between the two, about the insights gained from observation and experience, about knowing my dependence on God, my ability to ignore or be unaware of my own faults, and my need for forgiveness. 

 “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  What a great one-sentence prayer.   Some translations say “be pleasing in your sight.”  How would we evaluate what is acceptable or pleasing to God?  The psalmist would point to the 10 commandments, which remain a strong guide for healthy living.  We might think of the words of the prophet Micah, “God has shown you  O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Or the words of Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

“My the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing.”  In so many ways, this psalm speaks to me of balance.  There is the balance between wondering and knowing, between the times when God seems utterly silent and the times when guidance is clear, the balance between what I say out loud and what I think internally, the balance of life which might be found in a purity of heart centered on one overriding purpose.  

E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day.” [4]  Yes. We live in God’s good world.   We also live in God’s world which is wounded and broken and desperately in need of healing.   There is a balance in how we live our days. 

Thinking of rocks and balance reminded me of the amazing people who spend time actually balancing rocks.  Apparently for some, it is a kind of spiritual practice.   So I invite you to watch this video which showcases the work of Michael Grab.  Enjoy it, wonder at it, and as you watch, allow part of your brain to begin to think about the balance or lack of balance in your own life.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vswc7xB0V6c&t=288s

There is a balance within our days and across our days.  There is a balance in the change of rhythm with the seasons.  This is our last time of worship together this summer.  I know that fall won’t officially begin for a few more weeks, but we live by a different schedule.  On our calendar, September 9 marks the beginning of the church program year.  September through December are always busy months in the life of this congregation and in many of your personal lives.  My normal rhythm, in any season, is to move from Sunday to Sunday. I’m usually planning more than one sermon, more than one worship service at a time.   On Sunday morning I live in this moment, but by Sunday evening, I’m already thinking about what comes next.  Except that today, I want to pause.  I invite you to pause with me.    Instead of looking ahead, I want to take a moment to notice what is behind us. 

I wonder what has happened in your life this summer.  Maybe you took a trip, to see family or a new landscape.  Maybe you read a great book or found a favorite new song or gathered up the courage for a hard conversation. Maybe you were energetic or ill or weary.  Within this faith community and beyond it, there have been funerals and weddings, births and deaths, with all the accompanying loss and gratitude and contentment and joy of those occasions. 

What has happened in your life this summer?  I would note two things relevant to our common life.  After five years of sharing space with the Karen congregation, they moved to their own building.  That move will make a big change in their lives and in ours and I wonder what or who God might send our way next.  I also note that this is the end of my eighth year as your pastor. I am grateful for so much and as I pause to wonder how those years passed so quickly,  I say thank you.

Today is not a momentous day, but it is the end of a season.  It is the end of a worship series built around the Psalms.  One of my favorite psalm verses says,  “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  And so we pause together to notice the passing of time, to take stock, to remember.  For the second half of the summer, we have reflected on God who is like a rock, providing a foundation for life,  and God who is like the rock that beckons us onward through the deepest, hardest, truest things.  We have sought shelter in God through worship and through the companionship of each other.  Throughout this time, we have used the refrain of the psalms “God is a my rock”.

And so, today I invite you to pause with me, to take time to remember whatever it is that you need to remember.  Perhaps it is something about the psalms – their confidence in God, their expression of the range of human life.  Perhaps it is something about your own life, a celebration, a need for forgiveness, an insight to carry with you. Maybe it is no more than the fact that God is present in all of this.   Sometimes it is good to pause and make a memory.  So, as we sing our final hymn, I invite you to take choose a rock to take home with you. There are rocks scattered around the sanctuary.  If you prefer to stay in your seat, I’ll pass a basket of rocks around.   Find a rock that speaks to you, that will remind you of what you want to remember.  Take it home, put it by your backdoor or on a shelf or in your special drawer, so that when you see it, it will remind you of God’s abiding love and powerful presence always.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church:  A Memoir of Faith, (New York:  HarperOne, 2012), pp. 79-80

[3] Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths:  The Psalms Speak for Us Today (Philadlphia:  Westminster Press, 1983), p. 147

[4] Quoted in profile by Israel Shenker, "E. B. White: Notes and Comment by Author"The New York Times (11 July 1969)