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

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

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

Finding Your Mystic:  Listening Behind the Voices

Romans 12: 1-12

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

April 7, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The poet Mary  Oliver, says 

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Finding Your Power:  Listening for Healing

Mark 5:24-34

March 31, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev Kathy Donley

Albany, New York

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

My mother sang with full abandon

With the kitchen radio

When she was washing dishes.

She liked the old songs,

And she’d swing her hips,

Sashaying as much as a woman can

When elbow-deep in soapy water.

I would sit on the hardwood steps

Filled with pride and wonderment,

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

As I recall, my dog agreed.

 

Years later,

Standing side by side on Sunday morning,

I was horrified,

In the way only a teenager can be horrified

When her mother is singing

Loudly and confidently,

Completely and consistently

Off key

In church,

In public,

In front of her friends.

 

But now I understand

That my mother was a cautious soul,

Private and intentional,

And so I am grateful

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

And look both ways before I cross the street.

But I am also thankful

That either she did not know,

Or she did not care,

That her voice was not smooth or perfectly pitched.

She sang anyway,

Because some things just have to be

Exactly what they are,

And a song must be sung

One way or another.[1]

 

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

 

 

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

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

Finding Your Breath:  Listening to Our Bodies

Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

March 17, 2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

Finding Your Cave:  Listening Spaces

I Kings 19:9-13

March 10, 2019, Rev. Kathy Donley

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Heart

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2

March 3, 2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Losers

Luke 6:17-38

Emmanuel Baptist Church , Rev. Kathy Donley

February 24, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

When the Wine Runs Out

John 2:1-11

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

February 17, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Home Crowd

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

February 3, 2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s when the fighting started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Today  

Luke 4: 14-21

January 27, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But friends, hear the good news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Water, Fire and the Holy Spirit

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

January 13, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. John Paarlberg                                                                                               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is love that gets us outside of our selves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Way                            

Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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