Scripture: Genesis 12:1-9
Destined for Greatness
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle into it, you shall take some of the first fruit of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket… You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time… when the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation… -Deuteronomy 26
They built a worship language to remember the generosity of God and the faith of Abram: faith to take up stakes and leave for a land unknown yet promised by a God who promised great things.
They wrote a liturgy to be used during offerings and recited during festivals so they wouldn’t forget their roots… so they wouldn’t forget the hand of the one whose blessing made it possible for them to give and to bless.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… say it over and over again… teach it to your children… inscribe it on your heart: he went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien… this is where we, the people of God come from — this is how we began: humbly, vulnerably… uprooted… sent out from all that was familiar…
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… prone to wander, Lord I feel it… it’s in our ancestral DNA to wander… to seek and keep on seeking… ask and keep on asking… to be restless until we find our rest in God… to be a people of pilgrimage, stopping to set up altars… ebenezers… raised stones along the pathways of our lives…marking places where we’ve experienced God’s presence with us – grace bestowed upon us — to remind us of God’s constant and abiding love. Prone to wander and prone to worship…
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… we didn’t come from privilege or blood line – exactly the opposite. Our patriarch… the great father of our faith became a stranger, living in a foreign land. He was the “other”, the outsider, an alien. He had no tribe so that he had no allegiance to one tribe over another – but only to God… all neighbors equal recipients of his blessing…
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… He was homeless – by choice. He said yes to a life of risk, lacking in creature comforts, living on the margins – to be a blessing there. He said Yes, when God said Go – Go away from all of your earthly attachments – all that you think tells you who you are… be free and learn whose you really are…
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor and he stepped out into a world he didn’t know believing he would meet God there… there he pitched his tent with all four flaps up, open toward all corners of the world ready to welcome any visitor… any stranger in need – to give them water, food, rest… because when my ancestor welcomed strangers, he saw the face of God.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… he had no land of his own – only what was given to him… everything was a gift from God and when I make my offering and I give my basket – my first fruit, the best that I have to give – I give it to the one who made, from my ancestor, a great people – a great community – a great family, of which I am blessed to be a part.
We are destined for greatness. but we take no pride in our greatness because it is not self-made – it’s God-made … not because of our wealth or our talent, our ingenuity or our pedigree…
Not because we are bigger than or stronger than or smarter than or louder than…rather, we are destined for greatness like the sun is great… to shine…
We are destined for greatness in order to exalt the least and to lift the lowly and to bless all families of the earth – because we have been exalted, lifted and blessed.
Back in the days before borders and boundaries, creeds and dogma and religious institutions… back in the days before Judaism and Christianity and Islam… before the Law and before the Bible and before the Quran… before nation-states and territories and tribes – there was one man, Abram, our ancestor. When God said: Go, he went. The author of Hebrews says, he set out, not knowing where he was going… for he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
He’s our ancestor… he’s not perfect. None of the biblical characters are. The Bible doesn’t shy away from telling the good, the bad and the ugly. Today, we remember the very beginning of our spiritual family tree when God promised Abram he would make of him a goy-gadol — way back in the day when goy just meant people – with no prejudice or racial slur – no ethnic judgment or shame attached. God said: I will make of you, a goy-gadol –a great people.
That was the intent. That was God’s dream – great people: great in number, great in heart, great in blessing for all the world’s families.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… from Aram – modern-day Syria –my ancestor — that’s good to know.
Scripture: Genesis 6-9
Endings and Beginnings
Momma always says, said Sandra Bullock in the movie Hope Floats – She says beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts most. Try to remember that when you find yourself in a new beginning, Just give hope a chance to float up.
Last week I met with one of the oldest members of this church, and one of the longest tenured members – Phyllis Lay. Phyllis is 91. She went to Sunday School here, sang in the choir, was a Deacon, and raised all her kids here. We were looking at one of her family photos – taken about 15 years ago.
Her finger hovered over each person in the picture as she told a little something about each one. She talked about marriages and divorces and her daughter’s challenges of raising a disabled child. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, she ponders them all in her heart.
You’ve gone through a lot with all of them, I said.
That’s life, she said.
That’s life… ups and downs, comings and goings, endings and beginnings and all the stuff between.
A couple of years ago I went to a workshop called The Art of Transitional Ministry. It was about pastoring though times of change. Every pastor needs this class — probably more than once. The reality is, at any given time lots of us – maybe most of us are going through some kind of transition – maybe several at a time. At any given time, we may be trying to navigate a change in our own lives and that of a parent, a child, a spouse, a best friend, a sibling, or a pet – simultaneously. And we bring all of that sadness, fear and anxiety with us into the church – whether we openly acknowledge it or not. It’s all right here.
The Apostle Paul says we need to carry each other’s burdens. It’s true — they’re too heavy to carry alone.
The story of Noah and the ark is a world in transition. God is starting over, heartsick over a good creation gone bad. The ark is a floating remnant. Everybody on board is in exile, stripped from any home, habitat, neighborhood, any familiar place they’ve ever known.
In the words of poet John O’Donohue:
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
Let’s say this is Noah. Is it any wonder his face looks like this?
A friend painted this and gave it to me years ago. She called me her spiritual companion. She had a therapist and a pastor. But when we met together she felt free to talk about things she couldn’t talk about with either of them. She gave me this painting in gratitude for sharing her burdens. I never liked it. I liked her, but him– I found disturbing.
I haven’t looked at it in years and last week I saw it peeking out from behind the bookshelf in my office – where I shoved it so I wouldn’t have to look at him. I pulled it out and took a good hard look at his face. Anticipatory stress, that’s what struck me last week about his expression.
He looks like I feel when I’m anxious about something in the future involving me or someone I love. Worry or dread about an upcoming doctor’s appointment or a deadline or test, a difficult conversation or important presentation… an upcoming last day… a goodbye… an ending… or maybe the start of something new: a job, a move, a first day… a beginning.
Anticipatory stress shows up in our dreams:
- you’re giving a big presentation and you can’t find your notes – they’re in your briefcase, but you can’t find that – finally you have it, but you can’t find the keys to the car – you’d walk there, but your legs won’t move…
- or you have a final exam, but you haven’t cracked the book and you don’t know the classroom number – your schedule is in your locker but you don’t remember the combination…
- or you show up to church but the sanctuary is under construction and you can’t get to the pulpit – even though you know you’re supposed to be preaching and the service has already started and everyone is waiting…
Experts say dreams like these may point to an uncomfortable situation we’re trying to avoid, something we handled poorly from the past, lack of preparation for something upcoming.
When Noah climbed into the ark and closed the door behind his family and all the families of the world, he was prepared – as prepared as you can be when planning to repopulate the earth. He had food and supplies. He’d obediently followed every step. But as time went on and the rain kept coming we can imagine his creeping anxiety…
Will it ever stop? Will the boat spring a leak and will we all drown? Will we run out of food? Will anybody get sick and die or because of stress, kill somebody? What will be on the other side of the door when it finally opens onto a brand new landscape? Will we know what to do? Do we have all the people, all the skills we need to start again?
For centuries theologians have compared Noah’s ark and the church. Physically, the area where you are sitting has traditionally been called the nave for the Latin word for ship. And spiritually, at our best, the church is a lifeboat, a shelter in the storm, a safe haven, refuge, sanctuary from the chaos that swirls around us.
Frederick Buechner describes it another way: In one as in the other, just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame… There’s backbiting just like everywhere else. There’s a pecking order. There’s jostling at the trough. There’s growling and grousing, bitching and whining. It’s a regular menagerie in there, and sometimes it smells to high Heaven.
It’s all of the above. A beautiful mess.
The world is changing, the community around us is changing, the church is changing, and most of us have challenges going on in our personal lives– illness, career, marriage, divorce, death of a loved one – endings and beginnings — and we bring all that transitional stress here onto the ship. It’s a wonder we don’t kill each other.
The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, the LORD God said, and we see that again and again in the biblical story and in our day. And yet, God said, Never again will I curse the ground… never again will I destroy every living creature… never again will all flesh be cut off… never again. Look to the bow in the sky – the brilliance and the beauty… look to the bow in the sky… God’s promise to the earth… whenever you see the bow in the sky, remember.
There are problems with this story. It’s easy to get distracted. Some of you have been to the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. It’s a Christian theme park that opened in 2016 around an ark built to scale according to the dimensions and material listed in Genesis 6. It’s the project of the creationist organization led by Ken Hamm, who you may have seen debating Bill Nye the Science Guy a few years ago.
I’m told it’s a wonder to behold – 510 feet long, 80 feet high – a $100 million dollar project. 1.1 million people visited it in the first year. It’s interesting and undoubtedly overwhelming to see a structure that massive in a field in Kentucky and to imagine life on the ark.
One of the goals of the project was to arm Christians with answers to questions from skeptics. But what if the authors of Genesis never intended the story to be understood historically and scientifically, but theologically?
What if its purpose was to describe the character of the Hebrew God? That’s problematic too. It’s a violent story. I remember reading it to my children from the old Children’s Illustrated Bible. Somehow I didn’t remember the drawing of the anguished people and animals choking and drowning – it’s the stuff of nightmares. Is this the God we meet in Jesus? A God who punishes with floods and earthquakes, tornadoes and fires?
I’ll never forget visiting with the wife of a hospice patient after the tsunami in Indonesia several years ago. I know why that happened, she said, it’s God’s judgment on the Muslims. What would our friend and Christian Indonesian mission partner Josef say to that? What do we say?
The Genesis story is one of several ancient flood stories. Details across these stories are strikingly similar – including a boat carrying seeds of every form of life. These stories were written and told hundreds of years before the Genesis story. The authors of Genesis knew those stories, but theirs had a different ending. In their story — in our story — there’s a rainbow – a promise and a changed heart of God.
12th century Jewish scholar Nachmanides, says it this way: With the flood, God took aim at the earth, but now the bow no longer points toward the earth, it no longer has a string or arrows. The weapon has been disabled and a ceasefire has been forever declared.
Look to the bow in the sky and remember…
An arc of unconditional grace, embracing the earth.
In this way, the Hebrew God was like no other.
It was a summer evening in June in 2012. I’d volunteered to drive the last remaining residents of Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor to the Delonis Shelter. Their tent city was being permanently shut down; this community of between 40-60 people evicted. A fence was going up and return to the place these “homeless” called home would not be possible.
I was a pastor of a church in Ann Arbor that partnered with several other churches and social service organizations to minister to the members of the tent city. We took turns hosting their Sunday night dinners at camp. We observed their democratically run meetings – they were self-governed. We laughed that they used Robert’s Rules of Order just like we did with our session meetings, but better. We marvelled at the way they worked through their issues together with respect and accountability.
I presided at a couple of their funerals. The camp was their ark as they navigated the chaos of life.
It turned out, the neighbors didn’t want them as neighbors, so they garnered enough signatures to pressure the governor’s office and finally, the end had come. 40 campers were given apartment vouchers- scattered throughout the city- to start a new life. But without the community, they’d be adrift.
That evening, while we stood for the last time at the entrance to the tent city, gathering the last of the campers, a double rainbow appeared. It was a hard and sad ending, a scary and uncertain new beginning, and God’s grace stretched across the sky – with a double blessing.
Last week, I watched as Phyllis Lay pointed to each person in her family, talking about the comings and goings, the losses and challenges, the heartaches and joys – That’s life, she said, and she has been alongside her children through it all.
How much greater, how much deeper, how much broader, how much higher is God’s love? God-with-us — always with us – through our endings and our beginnings and all the in betweens, with grace, always giving hope a chance to float up.
The rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness, says a contemporary rabbi, God pledges not to destroy humanity, but since God created humanity with freedom of choice, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.
Scripture: John 5:1-18
Leaving the Pool
As a child, Memorial Day meant the pool was opening and Labor Day meant it was closing. I went to the pool both days, summer after summer. Hot dogs, ice cream, watermelon and games… one marked the beginning and one marked the end. Every Labor Day when we left the pool for the last time that year, we said goodbye to summer.
That’s what Labor Day meant to me.
Since 1894, Labor Day has been a national holiday. Here’s what the Farmer’s Almanac says about it:
“Always held on the first Monday in September, Labor Day was the idea of Peter J. Maguire, (although I’ve read other convincing articles that say it was Matthew Maguire). Peter was a labor union leader who in 1882 proposed a celebration honoring the American worker. (Matthew was also a labor union leader in 1882, but a more radical politician. Some say the honor should’ve gone to Matthew, but Peter got it because he was a more respectable leader and knew the right people. Having the same last name helped). The date chosen was simply “convenient,” according to Maguire (not sure which one) because it was midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
“Although the day’s focus on organized labor has diminished over the years, the holiday has become a way to mark the end of the summer season—and the start of the school year.”
The Almanac goes on to include recipes for your family picnic like: fried chicken, summer salsa, zucchini pancakes, topless pear fig pie – nature links for family outdoor activities, camping and sky watching tips and a list of the best fishing sites… and nothing more is said about the historic origins of the holiday.
Today we’re concluding our “What’s Next?” sermon series. For the last several weeks, we’ve been focusing on the end of each week’s gospel story as our beginning: what hope, what expectation lies ahead for the characters in the story and for us as modern day hearers? Today’s Bible story ends with a puzzling statement from Jesus about work: My father is always at his work and I too am working…
It’s a great text for Labor Day, though on the surface it sounds like he’s an advocate for workaholics.
It happened on the Sabbath Day a day like today… a day of rest from work, set apart from the beginning: On the seventh day, so goes the first Genesis account of creation, God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
From this, comes commandment #4: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
You shall not do any work? Over the years this proved to be a challenge for Jewish rabbis and scholars – whose job it was to define the boundaries and interpretations of God’s law for God’s people. Any work? That’s impossible. Living requires working – getting out of bed in the morning… moving is work… ask the guy sitting by the pool: was it work to get into the pool? exhausting work – too much work for him it seems…
According to Jewish law, it’s not really any work but specifically, creative work. On the seventh day, God finished creating, so on the Sabbath, everyone was to stop creating – stop making things – as a way to remember and to honor God. The rabbis developed categories of creative activities that were prohibited on the Sabbath day: from cooking to sewing to hunting to building… with this critical exception: under life-threatening conditions, Sabbath work laws not only could be broken but must be broken in order to save a life.
So, for the man in the story, trying to get into the pool, although work, was not breaking the law. And although carrying his mat within his own home was not breaking the law, picking it up and moving it outside on the Sabbath day was forbidden… categorized as transferring material. Furthermore, he’d been ill for 38 years, his condition was chronic, not life-threatening, so all laws apply.
Jesus knew all this.
Do you want to get well? he asked the man, Pick up your mat and walk.
As far as Jesus was concerned, this man’s wellness, wholeness, soundness in some way depended upon him breaking the law… or breaking out of the ways the laws confined him…
Who told you, you could pick up your mat and walk? they asked the man – breaking the Sabbath laws, regarding work, was punishable by death. Jesus knew this. But the man probably didn’t – he’d been kept out of religious life for 38 years because of his illness… considered unclean.
So now what’s next for this man caught carrying his mat on the Sabbath? death.
Not surprising– as soon as he figured out it was Jesus who told him to pick up his mat, he told his inquisitors. After all, he’d only just been made well.
Why die now?
When the Jewish leaders caught up with Jesus and began to harass him for doing this on the Sabbath, Jesus said: My father is always at his work, up to this very moment, and I too am working. After this, they really wanted to kill him — to erase him from the history books. They could not have a radical revolutionary redefining Sabbath like this!
Several years ago I attended a Sabbath retreat with a group of women in professional ministry. I’ve been getting together with these women 3-4 times a year for the last nearly decade. This retreat was about Sabbath: the history of it, practices and purposes of it… the theology and challenge and joy of it. We checked in with each other on Sunday night –we were all exhausted.
We always are on Sunday nights, having tended to the tasks of ministry all week, prepared for worship, studied the text and written the sermon… but the irony was that here we were getting ready to talk about Sabbath – as the actual Sabbath that week was coming to an end, and rather than feeling refreshed and renewed and well rested, we were beat. Clergy are often among the worst at keeping Sabbath.
The next day we explored Scriptures and by the afternoon, we turned to Jesus – looking at what he had to say about it.
Jesus is a terrible role model for Sabbath practice, I said to the group. Especially for people in professional ministry. He never stops working… never stops healing… never stops ministering to people.
The facilitator of the group said: that’s because he’s Jesus.
Which I found completely unhelpful.
On the Sabbath day, Jesus said to the religious leaders, in defense of his actions: My father is always at his work, up to this very moment, and I too am working.
That has to mean we also are to be working, always working at our father’s work… and yet at the same time, Jesus honored Sabbath. So what gives? What kind of work is good and right, holy and purposeful– always – even on the Sabbath day?
Recently I met a Jewish Spiritual Director who introduced me to a website she loves. It’s called: myjewishlearning.com. In its own words: My Jewish Learning is all about empowering Jewish discovery for anyone interested in learning more. We offer thousands of articles, videos and other resources to help you navigate all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life — from food to history to beliefs and practices.
Sabbath, according to the site, is the pinnacle of creation… it’s a reminder of the purposefulness of the world and the role of human beings in it… It remembers God’s act of rescuing the Israelites from slavery by setting aside a day for personal autonomy and freedom from the harsh demands of labor… it’s a day of joy, a sanctuary from travails, a foretaste of the perfected world.
Sabbath is to be a day of enjoying the world, rather than doing battle with it; a day of relaxation rather than struggle; a time to live in harmony rather than to achieve domination.
What did Jesus see that Sabbath day at the pool in Bethesda? Bethesda whose name in Aramaic means house of shame … he saw many disabled people lying in the porticos: blind, lame, paralyzed… all of them waiting to be the first in the water when it began to stir… desperately hoping for a chance to be well.
He watched the man struggle on that Sabbath day – struggle to move as others cut in front of him – everyone tending to their own needs, no one paying any attention to this one man… he saw growing despair and resignation… the social fabric torn… a religious set of rules perhaps once well-intentioned, now denying purposeful and communal life … an economic system supporting perpetual hunger, exhaustion and defeat. A house of shame.
And his gut, like the water, stirred… moved with compassion and mercy. Any day and every day, always and in all ways, God is at work restoring dignity and freedom, acknowledging and relieving suffering, renewing community… lifting up and opening new paths toward justice. That all may be well. That’s Sabbath work.
The original founders of our national Labor Day had these ideals in mind as well – knowing that a large number of people could not afford to rest and were crippled by the burdens of work.
They dreamed for much more than a day off work, picnics, pool closings, or special clearance sales. Their hope was that Labor Day celebrations around the country would raise awareness of the plight of workers. They hoped for changed laws; relief from economic struggle through fair and equitable wages. They hoped for improved job skills training for a better equipped workforce. They hoped for dignified workplaces: healthy and safe and free from harassment. They hoped for good and right and holy and purposeful work for all people — that all would be well.
For over 100 years and up to this moment, the Presbyterian church has worked and keeps on working toward these goals as well: focusing on issues of education, systemic poverty, housing and transportation, mental health, food security – anything that impacts a family’s ability to be well.
In 2015, then Stated Clerk of our denomination, Gradye Parsons said:
We Presbyterians believe that God’s image is reflected in us, including our ability to be co-creators and co-laborers in the world. There is something fulfilling and even holy in doing your best work.
What’s next for the man who stood, picked up his mat and walked? Freedom? Life? Restored community? A chance finally to be blessed with an opportunity to work and work well? The choice is his:
Leave the pool of disgrace… leave the pool of dependence… leave the pool of false hope… leave the pool of miserable self-pity… leave the pool that the religious have relegated for those they call unclean, and claim your dignity. Leave your 38 year-old understanding that you are less-than and walk into your belovedness.
You are well. You are whole. You have agency and you have voice.
His best work… our best work is soulful work… worshipful work… dignifying work… restorative work. May this be our prayer for all people this Labor Day.
Guest Preacher: Lance Wiesmann
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
At the Inn
This sermon series is called: What’s next? We’re looking at a variety of gospel stories and wondering what happens after the story ends? What are the characters charged with doing or becoming? How will society change?
So we look to where the story leaves off, or in the words of ts eliot: in the end is our beginning. This week, we’re looking at a parable – a type of story Jesus used to describe the kingdom of God. Parables take common things from the natural world and twist them in a way that reveals God’s dream for the world. So, beginning with the end, I’ll summarize today’s story like this:
The kingdom of God is like an inn that a Samaritan led his animal to, and on his animal was a naked and badly beaten man. That same Samaritan stayed with that wounded man all night, caring for him until morning. Then the Samaritan paid for the night, asked the innkeeper to continue caring for the man, and promised he’d pay all of the remainder of the expenses when he returned.
Not being first century Palestinians, we miss a lot of cultural nuance. Thankfully, there are Middle-eastern scholars like Ken Bailey who help us understand how those first hearers gathered around Jesus would hear it:
- Back then, and in that part of the world, when you show up at an inn carrying someone who’s been beaten, stripped and robbed, everybody figured you had something to do with it. So relatives and friends of the beaten man would come after you for blood vengeance – they’d look for you first, and if they couldn’t find you, they’d go after your relatives or close friends. And if you’re Samaritan, the punishment will be worse, guaranteed.
It’s an irrational response, says Bailey. Irrational minds seeking a focus for their retaliation do not make rational judgments, especially when the person involved is from a hated minority community. This is not solely Middle-Eastern.
- You would never trust an innkeeper to continue caring for someone — that is, if you want things to go well for that person. They were notorious. Listen to how the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish oral traditions describes innkeepers:
Cattle may not be left in the inns of the Gentiles since they are suspected of bestiality; nor may a woman remain alone with them since they are suspected of lewdness; nor may a man remain alone with them since they are suspected of shedding blood. Suffice it to say, 1 star on TripAdvisor, at best.
- You wouldn’t leave, promising to pay whatever the charges were. Again– innkeepers were shady characters. They could say the charges were whatever they wanted. Furthermore, if the innkeeper was Jewish, he’d make the Samaritan take the man with him. He would not trust him to return and pay. The animosity ran deep between Jew and Samaritan – it went way back — they despised each other. Racial prejudice is at every turn in this story.
- And what about the man himself? It’s not clear what culture he is. People in that part of the world were known by dialect and clothing. He’s not talking and he’s naked. What about when he wakes up and learns the identity of his caregiver? If he’s Jewish, which he probably is if he’s traveling from Jerusalem, will he not also assume the worst, that the Samaritan was somehow involved in the cause of his suffering – even if he saved his life?
All these thoughts and more swirl around in the minds of the listeners — but that’s precisely what makes this such a provocative story. It points to a completely different reality and way of being.
It’s not describing the kingdom they know and live – or even the one we know and live, it’s describing a wholly other kind of dream — God’s way:
- Beginning with the word Luke used to describe the place the Samaritan took the man: an inn a pandoxieon – literally means all-receiving or all-accepting… this is a place welcome and open to all. There’s only one time that word is used in the whole of the New Testament – here in this story. Not the word used for the inn in the birth of Jesus – although that would be ironic: all-receiving except for this couple from Nazareth – the barn for you.
- The neighbor gave up his own animal, placing the wounded man upon it and choosing instead to walk alongside, as a servant would do.
Donkeys can easily carry two people, but there’s a social distinction between rider and leader. The Samaritan makes a purposeful choice, to humble himself and lift up the suffering man. That’s the kingdom of God.
- the neighbor stays all night long – continuing to care – even at his own risk and at his own cost – laying down self for the sake of the other – no matter who the other is. This is extravagant mercy – another characteristic of God’s dream.
- the neighbor refuses to reduce the innkeeper to a social stereotype. He expects more. Seeing his heart, the neighbor invites the innkeeper to be his most compassionate self … to follow the neighbor’s example.
He’s shown him what it looks like and now trusts him to take over. In God’s kingdom, people are entrusted to be more fully human with one another.
- the neighbor expects the innkeeper to be financially honorable – people in the kingdom of God do not take advantage of others. They charge fair rates and they treat people justly. It’s the standard. He can therefore leave and trust that when he returns, an appropriate rate will be charged. He won’t be gouged or exploited because of his ethnicity or his capacity to pay.
- the neighbor takes on the debt of the care and the accommodations until the man is well. He does this because he can and he knows the man can’t — he’s lost everything.
So, he freely and willingly carries his neighbor’s financial burden, allowing him to leave when he can, unencumbered by guilt or debt.
Life in the kingdom of God is like this. Like it was at the inn.
Jesus told this story immediately after seventy of his followers had returned from a mission trip. He’d sent them, two by two, to proclaim the kingdom of God. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick, and say to them, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”
They were to shake the dust off their feet from the towns that didn’t welcome them and keep on going.
Those who rejected the missionaries, rejected the one who sent them and they missed the kingdom of God in their midst.
They came back on a post-mission trip high – amazed by all they’d seen… the miracles they’d been part of… Jesus said to them: Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. They’d seen glimpses of the kingdom of God. But everybody hadn’t.
The priest and the Levite desired to see it and to hear it – they spent their lives steeped in pursuit of it – and they walked right by and never got to the inn. But the Samaritan didn’t miss it.
What does it mean to be a neighbor in the kingdom of God? Giving, receiving and teaching mercy. It’s more than just about one guy helping another guy in the ditch. At the inn, it becomes public, communal… they learn to see each other and treat each other differently– with decency and grace, honor and compassion. Experiencing that changes people.
The Kingdom of God is like an inn… a way station on the journey of life where all are welcome… the inn is like a church… the kingdom of God is like a church…
- Where a different way of being fully human together by the grace of God is learned and practiced: humility, service, creating a safe place to heal for all who are wounded and hurting …
- Where extravagant mercy is a core value and we hang in with each other, alongside eachother, praying with each other, loving each other well.
- Where we realize burdens are not intended to be borne alone- they’re to be shared. Neighbors show how to do it and then invite others to experience the joy of caring and serving themselves. A culture of mercy is contagious.
- Where we refuse social, cultural and religious stereotypes and we strive to treat each person with dignity.
- And where we practice big-hearted generosity… self-giving generosity… non-judging generosity… those who can give, do give, as a way of showing honor to another whose present way is hard and lean… a way of ensuring that all debts are paid… and a way of being the Body of Christ together – never considering one member weaker and one member stronger, but all connected to the head which is Christ.
What do you think, church? Does God call us to be an inn like this? an all-accepting, mercy given and mercy receiving place like this? From God’s dream to our reality, by God’s grace, may it be so.
Scripture: John 8:1-11
A Woman Forgiven
Here in the sanctuary as in the temple so long ago, we’re holding stones. Who’s the target?
What are the charges? What should the punishment be? How does society come clean?
Now, what do you say Jesus?
The Presbyterian Church lost one of our great prophetic voices this week: The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. On April 24, 1974, Katie became the first African American woman to be ordained as a pastor in our denomination. And on Wednesday, August 8, 2018, she entered the Church Triumphant.
As she celebrated her 44th year of ordained ministry earlier this year, Katie recalled her childhood of faith. In 1953, Katie’s mother enrolled her in kindergarten at the Mount Calvary Lutheran Church – the only place that provided early childhood education for African American children in Kannapolis North Carolina.
By the age of 5, Katie could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the 10 Commandments.
Her mother and her grandmother were ordained elders in the all-black Presbyterian Church. She grew up learning that God is good and God is love. And she grew up praying.
Katie remembered as a young child asking God in her bedtime prayers: What had people like her, black-skinned people, done wrong that made it a crime for her to swing on swings and slide down slides and play in sandboxes in public parks where white-skinned children played?
She said she prayed to this good, loving and forgiving God: Help me understand the entrenched reasons why my signing up for the Kannapolis city-wide spelling contest was a life-threatening transgression.
Katie Cannon grew up in the 1950’s in a racially segregated church, city, state and nation where black people were categorized and classified by society as less-than, second-class, inferior human beings. She devoted her preaching and teaching to truth-telling and courageous examination of the human heart and mind. And she engaged critically and faithfully with culture and the church– particularly in areas of racial and gender injustice.
We remember Dr. Cannon as a prophet, a pioneer and a humble servant of God.
There is no value-free space, was her mantra, no color-blank space, no apolitical space.
My neighbor, Erin Turner Horan, is one of the moms of the homeschooling group that meets upstairs in our church. Nine days ago, Erin wrote on the Facebook page Real Housewives of Tecumseh about an incident that happened to her family at the Splash Pad:
There was a boy about the age of 7… he called our sons (the n-word). He said he was allergic to black people and that black kids weren’t allowed to use the splash pad. Our kids ignored him but he continued to follow them around. He tried to tell our white daughters to be mean to their black brothers.
In the 1950’s in North Carolina Katie Cannon asked God why she couldn’t swing in the public park where the white kids played. This is in our town – in 2018. The boy was 7.
There is no value-free space… no color-blank space, no apolitical space.
And here I am, holding a stone.
Meanwhile, this weekend crowds converged on our nation’s capital on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Unite the Right 2 they call it. In anticipation of the rally, the Alt-Right organizer’s website included these instructions:
Do not react with anger to anyone. There will certainly be provocateurs trying to get a reaction out of you by trying to stick cameras in peoples’ faces, yelling, etc. Remember, there is no expectation of privacy: ANTIFA, the media and law enforcement know everything we do. Don’t let that rattle you. Law enforcement are there to help both sides safely express their rights (hopefully). Don’t react to ANTIFA or the media.
Don’t forget to bring these items: water, body-cam, American or Confederate flag, Do not bring: guns, pepper spray, clubs, knives or other weapons, shields or non-approved flags. Always be a good representative for our cause.
And what is the cause?
An ANTIFA (Anti-Fascist) group prepares to protest the rally in DC. On their website, are these words:
The police and the broader security state is looking to use the far-Right as a tool to attack the growing autonomous social movements across the US. The question is, will we sit on the sidelines, or will we show up in the thousands and refuse to let fascism build on the streets and creep into the halls of power? We need to build mass numbers. We need to come out in mass and shut down the streets, while protecting each other from police and far-Right violence.
It’s a setup… a test to see who can make the other side blink, and when the blink happens, there will be a battle for public opinion – with the goal of both sides to eliminate the other – for the sake and the soul of the nation – both sides believe.
There is no value-free space… no color-blank space, no apolitical space.
And here I am, holding a stone.
In other news, all of the pastors and the entire leadership board of the Willow Creek mega church in Chicago resigned this week on the eve of their annual leadership summit. This, after Pat Baranowski’s story appeared on Sunday in the New York Times. Ms. Baranowski revealed painful details of the sexual harassment she endured for years by mega-church pastor Bill Hybels.
After the story broke last Sunday, one of the other pastors resigned, then another and then on Wednesday night, the lead pastor and elders spoke with tearful confessions as they all acknowledged they’d made the wrong choice on who to believe. They’d let their beloved pastor’s power go unchecked and failed to see beneath what he wanted them to see. Their disregard for the truth hurt many women, their families and the church.
Bill Hybels took early retirement last April amid swirling controversy and rising accusations. He left adamantly denying charges. Many in his flock continued to support him and for the sake of the church they tried to move on. That was until Sunday.
Wednesday night the elders gave heart-breaking and very public apologies. But for the exploited women who’d suffered guilt, shame and grief for far too long, the damage was done. How can it ever be made right? What is the appropriate repentance? the just punishment? What’s next for these women? For the elders? for the church? For Bill and for his wife? Now, what do you say, Jesus?
He’d gone to the temple at dawn. Crowds gathered around him almost immediately and he began to teach. They came to Jesus, interrupting into his lesson, dragging a woman with them.
They placed her right in the center of everyone. They pointed at her… accused her… cited the law… picked up stones… and asked him: Now– what do you say about this, Jesus? It was a setup… a test… that they might trap him.
The woman has no name and we’re given no back story. They don’t drag a man in with her. She’s a pawn – a tool being used to prove a point. She’s known only by the sin she’s accused of: adultery. Caught in the very act, they say – and the crowd in the temple looks upon her with revulsion as if her very presence has made the whole place unclean – the only way to make it right — to cleanse this holy place and these holy people — is to stone her – to kill that which is evil. Isn’t that right Jesus? For the sake of the purity of the faith, Jesus?
Is that what we want too? Eradicate the evil and corruption out there that breaks God’s heart and stains the purity of God’s intention for the world? Eliminate racists and bigots, sexual predators and child abusers… cleanse the world: of all homophobic people and terrorists and money launderers and human traffickers and drug lords and domestic violence offenders, and environmental plunderers and polluters? Call down fire from heaven on all murderers and thugs and liars and thieves, teachers of hatred and fear… For the sake of all that’s good and right and decent and holy and fair and just and true?
There is no value-free space… no color-blank space, no apolitical space.
And God this stone is getting heavy in my hand.
What do you say about this Jesus – about all this, Jesus?
When he knelt down on the ground and wrote with his finger in the sand, they kept badgering him… questioning him… pushing him… until he stood up to his full stature, and called every person there into self-examination – a good, hard courageous look at their own hearts and minds – at the stones they were holding and the sins they were harboring, the shifting of blame, triggers of hurt, deep hidden shame and their own smug self-righteousness…
And he went back down to the ground – refusing to have anything more to do with any of them, but letting them alone with their inner selves.
God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. With a word, Jesus offers salvation.
What’s next for each person depends upon each person. They came in as a mob and they leave one by one – each invited to tend to his or her own heart before God.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the drama – focusing our anger and our judgment out there. And before long, we’re objectifying people into what we’re convinced they represent. We’re dehumanizing others according to their political party or their ideology, their skin color or their religion or which side we think they’re on… we’re equating them to the values we believe they hold… and we become convinced that the church or the town or the state or the world will be much better, much safer without them.
You can be the first to throw that stone in your hand, Jesus says, if you’re without sin.
In that moment we are invited into freedom. We’re invited to look with clarity and courage deep inside. We are invited to see ourselves through the eyes of the one we’ve targeted — and through the eyes of the one who loves us more than we could ever imagine. And we’re invited to see each other, one by one, holding our stones.
When Jesus goes back down to the ground, he’s no longer at eye level with the rest of us. We’re left to look around at each other and wonder. We become at once witness, judge and jury of each other and of ourselves – seeing in that moment the bond we all share.
There is no value-free space… no color-blank space, no apolitical space.
Yet the space between us has the potential to be blessed space between us… all ground, holy ground.
Listen! Listen God is calling, with the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy.
These stones we carry… often they’re age-old hurts that burrow down deep within us – but not so far that they don’t surface from time to time. In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue offers us a different way to examine our hurts — as opportunities for gratitude — pathways toward a new heart of compassion and grace.
For Someone Who Did You Wrong
Though its way is to strike
In a dumb rhythm,
Stroke upon stroke,
As though the heart
Were an anvil,
The hurt you sent
Had a mind of its own.
Something in you knew
Exactly how to shape it,
To hit the target
Slipping into the heart
Through some wound-window
Left open since childhood.
While it struck outside,
It burrowed inside,
Made tunnels through
Every ground of confidence.
For days, it would lie still
Until a thought would start it.
Meanwhile, you forgot,
Went on with things
And never even knew
How that perfect
Shape of hurt
Still continued to work.
Now a new kindness
Seems to have entered time
And I can see how that hurt
Has schooled my heart
in a compassion I would
Otherwise have never learned.
I have begun to glimpse
The unexpected fruit
Your dark gift had planted
And I thank you
For your unknown work.
O good, loving and forgiving God, help me to understand that the entrenched hurt in the world begins with the entrenched hurt in my own heart, yearning to break free and be born anew into life and love and grace, for the healing of your world. May it be so within me… within us…and between us, we pray.
Scripture: Mark 5:1-20
Going Back Home
What’s next? Is the theme of the sermon series we’re starting today. After the story ends and new life begins, what will that look like? What challenges await the main characters after Jesus goes onto the next town?
It was a Neighbors of Hope board meeting that planted the seed for this series. We were talking about our 3-5 year goals for the non-profit organization whose flagship mission is the men’s shelter in Adrian, and whose newest outreach is Transitional Housing for Women and Children.
One of the greatest burdens on my heart, said Executive Director Pastor Steven Palmer, is the recidivism rate for the men of the shelter.
The hope is that the men will graduate from the programs they offer and be able to return to society and live well. But the reality is too many of them fall back into old habits and hard times and land back on the doorstep of the shelter looking again for that safe landing.
As Jesus got into the boat and prepared to leave, the man who had been chained and was now free begged Jesus to let him stay with him a little longer. And Jesus said no.
He lived wild and naked among the tombs – sometimes literally shackled to the dead until with force and fury he ripped himself free – free to grab stones and bruise and cut himself … Day and night he screamed in misery — for who knows how long– in exile from the land of the living… isolated… tormented… suffering and alone.
Don’t torture me, he screamed as he ran toward Jesus, because that’s what he expected from anyone and everyone who came near him.
Jesus was the only one who had ever loved him well and now he’s dressed and in his right mind. Of course he wants to go with Jesus – to start a new life as a new person in a new town where people never knew him as a monster.
No. Go back home. Tell them mercy sent you.
Eleos, the Greek word for mercy and the name of the Greek goddess who embodied mercy, Eleos. Her Roman counterpart was named Clemencia – clemency.
She had an altar in the Athenian mall long before the time of Jesus. The wretched make it sacred, wrote a first century poet about the altar of Eleos: the place always has fearful people: always bristles with gatherings of the needy: people conquered in war, exiled from their ancestral land, stripped of kingdoms, those guilty of crimes through error –assemble here, asking for peace…
Kyrie Eleison is the chant of the Christian Church throughout the ages: Lord, have mercy.
Lord have mercy! beg blind men and lepers…
Lord have mercy! cry desperate mothers and fathers for their sick children.
Lord have mercy on me a sinner, cries the church.
Mercy is help for the afflicted… real relief for those who suffer.
Mercy is the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin until we can see things with his eyes, think things with his mind, and feel things with his feelings, says William Barclay,
Another theologian describes it as more than a feeling – a three-step process toward action: 1. I see the need, 2. I am moved by the need, 3. I move to meet the need.
You’ve heard it said: God helps those who help themselves. Mercy says: God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Go home, Jesus said, and tell them about the mercy of the Lord for you. Indeed the man is mercy personified – his transformation from horrific to beatific – nothing short of miracle.
Go home to yours, Jesus said (literally) yours. I imagine the man watching the boat carrying Jesus sailing away as he mouths the words: who are mine?
Could it be: Go home and take the message of God’s mercy to people like you? Who struggle like you? Are suffering like you?
Ceylonese pastor D. T. Niles said Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
A couple of months ago on NPR, I heard the story of 37 year old ER doctor Daniel Grossman. A mountain bike accident last year left Dr. Grossman paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the next 4 ½ months in 3 hospitals, learning to do what he would need to do to live on his own in a whole new way.
The only answer to overcoming the fear and the skill is to keep doing things until you’re comfortable doing things, he said. Now he’s back to work and this accident has transformed his relationship with patients.
When he meets a person in the ER who has suffered a traumatic injury and he looks at them and says: I know your life is about to change or is changing today, they look at me and they know I know what I’m talking about, and it’s pretty emotional.
Dr. Robert Brown, a colleague at the Mayo Clinic, became paralyzed 40 years ago when he was 14. He’s been a mentor to Dr. Grossman, coaching him through the transition to his new life, teaching him to focus on what he is able to do and how to work through obstacles, rather than what he can’t do. Because he knows the struggle – he’s been there.
A few weeks ago, I did a funeral for a man who spent several years of his life shackled to addiction. He met mercy through the AA community here. They came alongside him and loved him back to his right mind so that in the last few years of his life, he could love his children and his grandchildren the way he always hoped he would. They stood, one by one and testified to the power that changes life. And they could because they knew it. They lived it.
Go home and take the message of God’s mercy to people like you.
And could it be: Go home and take the message of God’s mercy to your family?
Years ago the true story of Antwone Fisher was made into a movie. Antwone was an angry young sailor. A fight landed him in the office of the base psychiatrist – played by Denzel Washington. Abandoned by his mother at birth, Antwone was bounced in and out of foster homes. He never knew the love of family. He was angry and bitter at the world.
His psychiatrist urged him to go home and take mercy to his birth mother. Why do I have to forgive? He asked. So you can get on with your life, was the reply. When he finally meets his mother, she’s so filled with guilt, she can’t look at him or speak – she’s emotionally incapable of dealing with it. He sees her and forgives her.
Knock knock, I’m home. Can you imagine the scene – they recognize his voice and they’re afraid to open the door – afraid of the pain and the shame of what he’s become – and maybe their part in it — naked, bruised and wrecked. But now he stands there before his family, whole and clothed and in his right mind. These are the people whose emotions ran deepest: hopes, fears, remorse, sadness, blame, heartache. And these are the people who will know most acutely the depth of mercy he has received. In his healing is their healing.
Go home and take the message of God’s mercy to your family.
And could it be: Go home and take the message of God’s mercy to your village?
These are the least likely to believe it and the most likely to have banded together to keep him from ever entering the village again. They’re afraid of him and what he’ll do to their children. Aren’t they the ones who tried hardest to bind him? How does he bring mercy to them? What happens when the victim stands before the ones who hurt him the most? What happens when mercy stands face to face with a society that would dare to inflict such torture on one of its own?
In April of this year the National Museum for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery Alabama. It’s a lynching memorial dedicated to the thousands of black people who died at the hands of white supremacists. 800 steel columns hang from the roof. Etched on each one is the name of a county and the names of every person lynched there. When visitors first enter the museum, these columns are at eye level. But the floor descends so that by the time you reach the end of the building, the columns hang above you, and you become like the spectators in the old photos.
Bryan Stevenson is the author of the book Just Mercy, and the founder of the non-profit organization behind the memorial. He believes that even those who have committed the most serious crimes should be given an opportunity for redemption. He says: If I believe each of us is more than the worse thing he’s ever done, I have to believe that for everybody.
When the museum opened, some Montgomery residents seethed in anger, while others consider it a turning point toward healing. Some feared more violence, others saw it as a path toward peace. Some denounced it as a waste of money and a waste of space. Others believe it will be embraced by everyone.
On a wall inside, are these words:
For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For the abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.
Bryan Stevenson says through this exhibit, he is not interested in punishing America, he is interested in liberating America.
Isn’t this finally the reason Jesus tells the man to go home? The wretched made sacred…standing before people like himself, his family and his village as a beloved child of God, teaching the power of mercy — that they would… that we would all be free.
In his first sermon, Jesus said: 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.
Unbind him and let him go, Jesus said of Lazarus, the dead man walking. Mercy liberates.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the farmer’s market, at the Neighbors of Hope booth, and I was talking to a couple of the guys from the mission there. I told them about this sermon series: What’s Next?
What is next? one of them asked. Exactly, I said. No, really, what is next? I want to know, he said.
What’s next? Learning to live with the power of mercy: for us, within us, and through us… to sustain us that we may live well together. May it be so for you and for me and for us as church to the glory of God.
Scripture: Micah 4:1-4
Vines and Fig Trees
It was carefully stitched by someone’s hands and fashioned into the back of a chair… vines and fig trees. Now it’s in Deerfield Massachusetts, in the Memorial Hall Museum collection, bearing witness to the way biblical images and themes resonated with colonial America.
Vines and fig trees — It was one of the most popular biblical images during the Revolutionary War according to Charles Royster, author and retired professor of American History and only son of the Rev. Ferd Neuman Royster, United Methodist minister of Robards Kentucky.
The soldiers of the Continental army took comfort and drew strength from the dream that one day they would be free: free from injustice, free from oppression, free to lay down their weapons and pick up their plows and go to work on their own farms, safe and self-sufficient.
For those in the trenches and their families anxiously waiting for word – it was an invitation to dream of a different way and a different day, when fighting would end and soldiers would come home in victory, and each family would rest in the shade, and harvest from the soil of their own gardens.
Vines and fig trees — it gained traction as an image of hope for others too. In 1787, a writer in the New York Journal wrote: I see a time advancing when the oppressed of all nations will emigrate to this country, and here shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, having none to make him afraid.
Listen to these verses again and try to imagine what they sound like to a family from Syria whose been living in a Jordanian refugee camp for several months…
-or a Palestinian family who sees a Jewish settlement where their neighborhood used to be, accessed by a highway on which they are not allowed to drive,
-or a family from Honduras so traumatized by gang violence that they cannot leave their homes to go to school or to church and they come, desperate for freedom to our country seeking asylum:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
British theologian Peter Craigie wrote: “One of the reasons for the beauty of this passage is that it is totally out of harmony with the reality of our world yet fully in harmony with the way we would like the world to be.” It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
Historians say Micah 4:4 was George Washington’s favorite verse. He referenced it nearly 50 times.
They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…
He used it to motivate his troops to see in their mind’s eye a future they were fighting for.
He referenced it in letters supporting his staunch belief in religious freedom – like the one he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport Rhode Island in 1790, in which he said:
Happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Our first president loved this image as an ethic for freedom, contentment and self-sufficiency. For a new nation, what better way to set a foundation encouraging each to be satisfied with what he needs; discouraging competition, overreach, or taking what doesn’t belong to you.
But Micah 4:4 wasn’t just a verse for George Washington, it was his dream, his home and his first love. Mt. Vernon was his vine and his fig tree.
He hated leaving it and yearned for it whenever he was away. In the darkest days of war, wrote one biographer, the very thought of Mt. Vernon soothed his burdened soul. It was a retreat, a sanctuary, a tranquil island in a bitter sea.
After he retired from the military, Washington wrote this in a letter to a good friend:
For George Washington, Mt. Vernon was his vine and his fig tree.
Lindisfarne is my vine and my fig tree. There I solace myself with tranquil enjoyments. This weekend, about 50 of us spent time there together – walking the trails, watching the sunset and sunrise, walking by the light of the moon, marveling at Mars reflected off the pond.
One of my facilitators from the retreat I attended in New Mexico called this imprinting: beholding an image and imprinting it to our hearts — like downloading images of grace, beauty and peace to be accessed when needed to sooth the burdened soul.
Several of you asked me how I ever leave it, and the truth is, I hate to leave it.
When I drive out the driveway to head to town I inhale — I draw it deep within me. When I drive back up it at the end of the day, I exhale — my breath like the outgoing tide.
What is Lindisfarne? Where did you get that name? Some of you asked.
First, it’s not Linda’s farm – which we get a lot. Ironically, the previous owner was Linda Brooks, so it used to be Linda’s farm. Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. That means sometimes it’s connected to the land around it and sometimes its not. It’s also known as Holy Island.
It dates back to the 6th century and was an important home of Celtic Christianity, primarily through Aiden and Cuthbert. Andy and I have been interested in Celtic Christianity for some time – we like the prayers and the earthiness of it.
We’d been kicking around a few names for the farm, but on the appointed decision day, when Andy began the morning reading daily devotions from two different Celtic prayer books – and both of them completely independently – included readings about Lindisfarne, we knew that was it.
It is, many say, a place of healing. It is both connected and a place apart. It is holy, a place of peace, and intended to be shared.
That’s why I’m so excited to share it with you. When I think about the best times I had on the retreat this weekend, it’s the joy and wonder I heard and I saw from you: when you stopped to take a photo of the way the light played through the trees… when you danced in the moonlight – awed at how bright it made the meadow – how much we could see at midnight without flashlights…when we took our first steps into the darkened woods – not sure, but trusting our eyes would adjust and the path would lead us…when you ran with eager anticipation, wondering how many eggs there’d be… when we stumbled on a patch of dew berries- tasting them for the very first time… when you sampled an early peach… and when you captured a close-up of a monarch on Queen Anne’s Lace…
I loved hearing you plan the next walk you’d take, and coming around the bend to see you praying in the labyrinth… I loved Alex and James seesawing and I loved Robert with his child-like joy flying his drone and I loved Karen and David so focused on seeing the intricacies of the moon through the telescope. I loved the excitement with which you brought your new recipes and how amazing they were.
I wonder if that’s a small sense of God’s immense joy and pleasure at the sight of us playing together and sharing together the fruit of the vine and the shade of the tree and the elegance and harmony of all of the blessings of creation.
From the prophet Zechariah: On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.
George Washington revelled in the sanctuary of Mt. Vernon and he too knew it was to be shared — to be imprinted on the hearts of others. George and Martha Washington freely opened Mt. Vernon to family, friends, business associates, fellow politicians, military colleagues, neighbors, community members, and complete strangers. It was a great joy for them.
It’s been estimated that during the seven years between 1768-1775, approximately 2000 people were entertained at Mt. Vernon, many of whom stayed for days at a time — solacing in tranquil enjoyments — storing up an image of an alternative dream — the way life was meant to be.
The Hebrew bible is full of poetic images of God speaking and healing through the beauty of creation and the vast majority of the teachings of Jesus take place on a hillside or a lake or the wilderness. God meets us and teaches us where we can be quiet and listen and feel and smell and sense and experience– God’s dream.
Welcome to the Wild Kingdom was just that – a welcome to God’s wild and wonderful heart all around us beckoning us to be still, to be simple, to be content, to be at peace with one another and with the world.
You are welcome to come and sit under the vines and under the shade trees of Lindisfarne – and no one will make you afraid. We’ll give you trail maps and you can take as long as you like – whenever you need a little dose of grace. We’ll give you garden tools if you want to cultivate the earth.
And if you’re in need of some love, the chickens will come running to you as soon as they see you – like the father welcoming the prodigal home; the cats, well you know cats – it depends on the day; and Zeus is always ready to play.
There are hard realities in the world today as in every day. May the memory of a moonlit walk bring us comfort, a soothing balm for our burdened souls… May we spend some time on a holy island in a bitter sea… And may the dream of that for all people motivate us to work toward its fulfillment.
Charge from St. Aidan of Lindisfarne:
Scripture: Exodus 16:9-15
Manna in your own backyard
They’d been wandering in the wilderness for a month and a half. Life was hard. The Israelites were hungry and they were angry –hangry. This freedom thing was not what they thought they’d signed up for… felt more like “Camp Broken Spirit”. They dreamed of life back in Egypt… where they’d sit by the fleshpots and eat their fill of bread.
They were whipped and beaten and oppressed… but the food was better.
The Lord God heard their complaining. Meat and bread I will provide, came the response from the cloud in the wilderness. In the evening true to his word, quail descended. And in the morning, when the dew lifted, the Israelites, expecting their fill of bread, saw instead a flaky white substance covering the ground. They looked at each other and said: manh? Literally: what?? What is it??
It was everywhere and they had no idea what it was or what to do with it. Over the next many years, they’d learn all about it: how to harvest it, how long it keeps, and how to prepare it different ways. And they’d learn several lessons from it as well.
Through the daily harvesting of manna, they’d learn a regular rhythm of returning to God.
Students asked their rabbi, so the story goes: Why wasn’t the manna provided once per year instead of once per day? To which, the rabbi replied: Think of a human father who decides to allocate his son’s allowance once per year. What would his son do? He would come to see his father only once a year. But if he decided instead to give it to him one day at a time, the son would come see the father every day.
Every day, they learned to trust. There was always exactly enough, every day, without fail. This is the generous heart of God: Give us this day our daily bead. Sufficient for this day, and only this day. Morning by morning new mercies I see.
Through the manna, they learned to return to God and to return to the land.
In Egypt the Israelites were part of a labor force – emphasis on force. Pharaoh commissioned new supply cities to be built, and under the whip of a cruel staff of taskmasters, the Israelites made the mud bricks used to build them. No longer did their hands turn the soil to bear fruit for their families. Now their hands toiled in other ways… in service to their oppressors… on whom they depended for their food.
Now in the wilderness, day after day they’ll put their hands back in the earth. Day after day they’ll harvest. Day after day they’ll learn to work the land again… to live directly from the land again… from God’s hands through their hands to their tables.
Here, we live in farm country. We drive past acres and acres of farms every day and many of us have family farms in our history. It may surprise us how many Americans have forgotten that eating is an agricultural act. Americans on the whole are what Wendell Berry calls industrial eaters. As such, we don’t think much about the actual connection between what we’re eating and the land. Much of the food we eat doesn’t even look remotely like it did when first harvested.
Years ago while driving a van of kids to a lake for an outing during summer camp, one of the boys from Detroit looked out the window and said: What’s that? Manna?… as he pointed to a field of corn. It’s corn, I said. Corn??? That’s corn?? He’d only ever seen kernels from a can.
Kids are often surprised to see what a potato plant looks like – so different than the bag of fries at McDonalds. Fruit rollups, ham and cheese snack packs, granola bars, ice cream cones, hamburger buns…
The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, writes Wendell Berry, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.
It all comes, in one way or another, from the earth, although for some of the things we eat, it’s impossible to trace it back. Just for fun, take a random item of food from your pantry and see if you can track where it came from and how it was put together.
We are enslaved in our ignorance of the politics of food, and just as our ancient ancestors the Israelites learned to be free by returning to the land, so can we. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all go back to putting our hands in the earth and harvesting our own food. It could mean we make small incremental steps.
Through the manna, the Israelites relearned what their ancestors at one time knew: where is my food coming from? How is it being farmed? What goes into bringing it to my table? Would it not mean freedom for us as well?
In the last few years, the farm-to-table movement has been growing in popularity. Fueled by demands for fresher, healthier food and a desire to help the local economy, restaurants like Evans Street Station, Three Dudes and Dinner, and the new Twelve in Clinton promote relationships with small area farmers and advertise local farm-fresh ingredients. Sometimes they include descriptions of their farmers and farming practices right in the menu.
The Portland-based comedy satire on all things uber-progressive Portlandia took this to the extreme – as they do everything – by airing a sketch where Fred and Carrie grill a waitress about the personal life of the chicken they considered ordering. Even after they were shown a one-page bio of the chicken, whose name was Colin… even after they learned of his breed and the acreage of his free-ranged home, his diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts… even after quizzing on how local, how organic, and what type of farmers are they? They asked the waitress to hold their table while they drove the 30 minutes outside of town to personally check it out and meet the chickens who’d grown up with Colin.
While this is funny and extreme, relearning the land to table process, from its energy footprint to waste management to chemical injections, helps inform our choices; for our health and the health of the land with all who live on it.
In the words of organic farming pioneer Sir Albert Howard: the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man is one great subject. And ultimately the journey for us, as people of faith, is to find our way back to the Creator of it all and the Giver of all good gifts.
It is by returning to God and the land and relearning our connection to food and its impact on our health and the health of the land that we are free to develop a new ethic of repair.
We can choose a different way – to eat more worshipfully, more healthily, more responsibly and more relationally—partnering with each other and with the land.
A few months ago, members of the Earth Care ministry team led an adult ed class on food. Together we explored food production, delivery and access and we began to dream… what would happen if we made different choices about where and how we source our food?
What if we drew a 100 mile radius around us and made a goal to source 90% of our food from within that circle? What would we need to learn? What’s in season and when? Who are the local farmers? Where are the gaps? Would it even be feasible? What difference would it make on our budgets, our health, energy and the environment, local relationships?
A 2018 study led by a non-profit group in Vermont called Strolling of the Heifers, answers the question: “How locavore is your state?” The survey measures how easy it is in each of the 50 states to choose to eat more locally: considering things like the number of farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms there are per capita, evaluating our farm to school programs, local food hubs and institutional local food pledges. Michigan ranks 16th.
These are changeable things. There’s no reason we can’t score higher. With our climate, seasons and resources, we can do better to make it easier for people to choose to go local.
What if we tried it? Not just talked about it and dreamed about it, but actually tried it? What if we tried eating food sourced within 100 miles for the next 30 days? Let’s do it! Let’s turn toward the land closest to us. For the next 30 days – starting today: A First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh Locavore Challenge:
o make incremental changes — try something you haven’t tried before:
o shop the farmers markets and get to know the farmers: what is their story? How did they get started?
o buy only fruit and vegetables that are in season right here, right now – exercise patience
o look for “local” labels in grocery stores and investigate what that really means.
o Get to know small local farms within 100 miles who are choosing different and more environmentally conscious farming practices—what are they doing and why?
Starting today we have a new closed FB page linked to our church FB page – called 30 Day Locavore Challenge.
You are generously invited to go local – as much or as little as you’d like. Challenge yourself over the next 30 days to learn to see the land immediately around you differently as a source of food. Share what you find and what you learn on the FB page… what’s hard and what surprisingly easy… Try new recipes and share those. Encourage each other to grow and learn…
Next Friday at the all-church retreat potluck, showcase something you’ve learned! Bring something made with local ingredients to share – along with the recipe – and if you connect with local farmers to do it, bring something about them to share.
We could make a killer cookbook with our experiences to encourage the whole community to come back to the land and reconnect with local food.
As I thought about those Israelites being awakened to a new kind of food provided by the hand of God day after day in their own backyard, I started thinking about my back yard and wondering what’s edible there. Berries I know – lots of them – blackberries are abundant right now. But what else is there – manna waiting to be discovered?
At the advice of a friend, I joined a Facebook site called “Will Forage for Food.” A friend I met through this group visited our home last week and took me on a slow walk, pointing out all along the way hidden delights: purslane, and wood sorrel, ox-eye daisies and sumac, lambs quarter, Amaranth, bee balm and milkweed pods. Sometimes I’d say, what’s that? And he’d say Comfrey or mallow or prickly gooseberry. Once he paused and looked a patch of flowers. What is it? I asked. Beautiful, he said.
He left me with some great illustrated books by Sam Thayer, an author, forager and workshop leader from Wisconsin. Enjoy, he said. And that’s what it is for me, joy. Morning by morning new mercies I see…
I opened the first page of Sam Thayer’s book entitled: Nature’s Garden, and read:
A few turns down the dirt road from my cabin there’s a place I’ve come to call simply The Garden… nannyberries and highbush cranberries… gooseberries and chokecherries, raspberries and red currants are there… and that’s just the fruit! More than anything, this garden has vegetables: crisp fiddleheads, cow parsnip, wood nettles, wild leeks and white trout lilies, sweet-rooted dwarf ginseng, stinging nettle and Jerusalem-artichokes… thistle, dandelion and winter cress… wood sorrel and wild carrot, milk weed and cattail… food is everywhere, in all directions.This is my special place. I’d give you directions, but luckily, you won’t need them. Your wild paradise is not in some far off land; it is in your neighborhood. All you need is to discover it: see it, smell it, feel it, unveil its secrets; make it your own. Enter The Garden.
What is it we’ll find there? Indeed.
Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Truth and Consequence
Our Children’s Message for today:
On a Sunday in June, 1824, Abi Brown Evans thought about the land which was to be her new home as she wrote these words to her sister-in-law Cornelia, back in their hometown of Brownville, New York:
Although a fine soil and climate, it is as yet in a state of nature and will require a steady perseverance to make it what we would wish it to be, and thee must expect to undergo thy share of fatigue and anxiety, as no new settlement ever yet was formed without a great deal of exertion…
In her book: One Hundred Years A Country Town, Clara Waldron explains that this “fine soil”… “still in a state of nature”, was in the upper watershed of the Raisin River, in the southern part of the Michigan Territory… the settlement of Tecumseh. Clara continues:
This Michigan wilderness had not yet been conquered… the river that flowed beside the new home was described as “crystalline clearness, fed by cascading springs, its banks covered by the vines of the wild grape.”
To this first group of 30 settlers, it was a land flowing with milk and honey.
A few thousand years earlier, another group of settlers stood at the edge of their promised land. On the brink between wilderness and their new home, Moses gave them these instructions:
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. – This is the Word of the Lord.
It was an advertisement in the Detroit newspaper, describing the beauty and charm of the river, the fertility of the soil along its banks, and the ease of transportation afforded by the stream, that drew the attention of those early Michigan settlers.
And the Israelites followed the word of Moses: The LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.
Both groups followed a dream: a future for themselves and their children and their children’s children stretched out before them… a made-to-order setting for a well-balanced, self-supporting community. Freedom, independence, plenty.
For people of God in any age, land is a gift – a gift with strings attached. We might think of it like an inheritance we’ve received from someone we loved deeply and for whom we had tremendous respect. We feel compelled to honor the giver by the way we use the gift. How we live with and in the land reflects our relationship with the One who gave it to us… the One who entrusted us with it.
Our oldest human vocation – going all the way back to the second chapter of Genesis – is to till and keep the garden – literally from the Hebrew: to serve and preserve the land.
God set the expectation: love me, and because you love me, live according to the way I laid out for you. That’s the deal – the arrangement – in biblical language, that’s the covenant.
Here are the keys, we said to our eldest child when he got his driver’s license. And here are the rules: for the first six months, only 1 other person in the car with you at a time and unless you’re alone, keep the radio off. To limit distractions. For your safety. Because we love you.
The next day I drove past him near the entrance to the subdivision and he had 3 other people in the car with him – his best friend and 2 girls. I called Andy to let him know Alex was busted. But Alex was smart. He dropped off the two girls a block away from our house and pulled into the garage with just one person in the car besides himself. He knew the rules. He just didn’t know there was a witness that saw him and he was busted. Mom got home and the truth came out, just as the girls were showing up at the house. And the consequence? We took back the keys for awhile.
Here are the keys, God said to the Israelites – the keys to a new life – all that you will need: a land overflowing. And for your own good, because I love you, here are the ten rules. Live by them and all will go well for you. Don’t, and there will be consequences. And we’ll all know if you keep the rules, because the land will be a witness, along with the sky… the atmosphere… The soil and the air themselves will testify.
And they only know how to tell the truth.
“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, says Wendell Berry, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” The heavens and the earth — they are honest brokers and enduring witnesses and they testify in a variety of ways:
There are no bees on your land, said a friend as we walked through a field of clover just after we moved into our house five years ago. How strange, she said. I’ve not seen a single bee of any kind on our walk.
More than 100 different crops in this country depend on honeybees to pollinate them, and industrial pesticides are killing bees around the world. The fields of the land on which we live have not been chemically treated for decades but could it be that the industrial farms surrounding us on all sides had wiped out the bee population?
If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live, said Albert Einstein.
Something’s wrong, the land says, where are the bees?
Scientists say this year’s Lake Erie algae bloom is predicted to be worse than 2016 but not as bad as 2017. It started appearing earlier this year—in mid-June – because of warmer water temperatures. The harmful blooms come from fertilizer run-off from nearby farms and neighborhoods. Nitrogen and phosphorous are fertilizer for the algae, causing big green blooms.
The CDC says people who come in contact with these blooms can get skin rashes and some research shows that breathing the fumes over an extended period of time can lead to neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Something’s wrong, the land says, the water’s not supposed to be this color or this smell or this harmful.
Our daughter took this picture from her turtle patrol on the beach last week in Boca Chica Texas.
Something’s wrong, the land says, this stuff’s not supposed to be on the beach or in the ocean. Marine life can’t eat this.
“Facts on the ground” are part of the land’s testimony too. The EPA released a report in February of this year that confirmed that people in poverty are more likely to breathe higher levels of air pollution than people living above the poverty line; breathing in more automobile fumes, smog, soot, smoke, ash and construction dust – leading to lung diseases, heart attacks and other serious illnesses. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests neighborhoods of people of color are disproportionately located near environmental hazards.
Something’s wrong, the heavens and earth say together, all people, not just some people, deserve clean air to breathe and pure water to drink. All people deserve healthy food.
The apostle Paul wrote: the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… longing to be set free from its bondage to decay… groaning as with labor pains… for the children of God to be the children of God.
Their witness cries out in compromised air quality, lost productivity of the soil, increased droughts and famines… truth and consequence.
Most scholars conclude that Deuteronomy was written around the time of the exile—which means by the time they heard the words we read this morning, the Israelites had already defaulted on their end of the deal… already poisoned the land with the blood of animals sacrificed to other gods… already abused the poor by withholding fruit of the land for the rich… already dishonored the giver by dishonoring the gift…already lost the keys… already lost the promised land to the Babylonians.
Hearing these words of Moses then is a reminder of what they were supposed to do, and failed to do, after the damage was already done.
What then is the use? What’s the point? Unless…
This ancient text for the people of God of anytime and anyplace is a call to return, relearn and repair.
Return: Come home to the land – to particular land. It’s been 200 years since those first settlers to Tecumseh called this home. What were their dreams? How has history evolved here? What choices were made and by whom? With what consequence to whom? What is our role in this chapter of the story? Come home to God in this land. The Lord said to Moses: You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth… In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. All ground is Holy Ground. We meet God in the sanctuary of the land: setting us down to rest beside cool waters, teaching us through the sparrows and the lilies of the field, providing manna in our own backyards. Return…
Relearn: Listen anew to the witness of the heavens and earth immediately surrounding us – what are they saying? Theologian Ched Myers calls this Watershed Discipleship – becoming disciples of Jesus within the locale of our own watershed and for the life of the watershed. What’s happening upstream and downstream? Consider this sage advice from Wendell Berry: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” What’s happening to the land and from the land? Who’s making the choices that impact local life? What are the motivations? Who profits and who is hurt? Return and Relearn…
Repair: More than “undoing” what’s been done, it’s about acting differently going forward – in ways that honor the giver, that restore the life of the land and that work toward the fulfillment of God’s shalom for all life – that all will be well.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, said the Once-ler, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
The future stretches out before us for our children and our children’s children. We are placed in the garden to serve and preserve it. For the love of God, and all that God loves, we’ve been given the keys.
Scripture: Psalm 104
This is Our Home
Today’s Scripture is a regionalized version of
the New Revised Standard Version of Psalm 104
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
2 You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
3 You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
5 You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the Ives Road Fen;
they flow between the glacial hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal: raccoon and squirrel, groundhog and opossum;
the white-tail deer quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
orioles and robins, cardinals and peewees sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the Irish Hills;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the alfalfa to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use, to bring forth corn, wheat and soybeans from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the oaks of Lenawee that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests: blue jays and crows, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees; the bald eagle has its home in the cottonwood trees of Red Mill Pond.
18 The forests of Raisin Township are for the wild turkeys;
the Evans Creek banks are a refuge for the muskrats and kingfishers.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young foxes bark for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder are the five lakes, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the trawlers and charter boats,
and sturgeon and lake trout that you formed to sport in it.
27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
We took liberties with the text for today. Today it was spoken in our language: our land, our backyard, our home – did you hear it? Places and species we know, we see… flora and fauna familiar to us… native to us.
I fear sometimes we hear the poetry and stories of the Bible as if they are detached – ethereal – holy sacred words with wings but without feet firmly rooted in the earth.
It’s true they do transcend time and place. They hold relevance for communities of any age, AND they are grounded in actual geography: Egypt, Lebanon, Canaan, Babylon, Nazareth, Galilee, Rome, Corinth, Athens.
So are we: Lenawee, Irish Hills, Raisin Township, Evans Creek, Red Mill Pond, Ives Road Fen.
And God is God of it all: creator, provider, sustainer.
Today we begin a four week sermon series about our connection to the land.
Palestinian theologian Munther Isaac wrote, “A church in a particular land exists for the sake of that land and takes her mission agenda from it. The church, in other words, derives much of its purpose from its locale.” Dr. Isaac is pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem.
It’s been said: If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. So for the next few weeks, we’re going to explore where we are.
Where are we? We’re here of course! Where is here? What is here? Who is here? Who are our neighbors here?
Years ago I attended a workshop about being a disciple in your own backyard. The speaker asked us to take out a half sheet of paper and draw a small box in the middle of it. That, he said, is your house. Then he asked us to draw boxes for our nearest neighbors – our across the street neighbors and our backyard neighbors – draw streets and cul de sacs and major cross streets if it’s helpful for you.
Write your neighbors’ names on or by their houses – first and last – and the names of their children – and their ages. Then he asked us to write what we know about each family – jobs, interests, challenges, etc.
I was awful at this. I worked a full-time job at a church a half hour away from my home and on many weeknights one or both of the kids had something going on. Saturdays we were usually running here or there. I didn’t even know many of my neighbors’ first names let alone last names. I sure didn’t know much beyond small talk at the fence about their lives. Ministry begins here, he said, in your own backyard.
Psalm 104 asks us to consider other neighbors – literally our backyard neighbors. Flip the page over and list all of your non-human neighbors – the types of birds and plants and animals that live alongside you… what are their habits? What do their voices sound like? What do they eat, how do they play? what do you know about them?
A couple of months ago, George Reasoner and Al Sadler – both avid birders – walked the trails out where we live. They were interested in catching a glimpse of some migratory birds who stop by on their way somewhere else. Both of them gave me a list of my neighbors – some of which I knew, and so many of whom I’d never seen, didn’t know what they looked like, sounded like or anything about them and they were sharing life with me:
American Robin, Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, Blue Jay, House Sparrow, Cardinal, Canada Geese, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Chimney Swift, Grey Catbird, Yellow Shafted Flicker, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Yellow Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, House Wren, Wood Duck, Red Tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Double-crested Cormorant, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture , Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, American Crow, swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Towhee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and the Brown-headed Cowbird.
I had no idea. Add to this list rabbits and chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, white-tail deer, minks, groundhogs, skunks, coyotes, fox, a whole variety of snakes, a plethora of trees, shrubs, flora, fauna… they all live with me… with us… this is their home too.
Who’s in your backyard?
Psalm 104 is a song of praise to the One who created it all: the One who built it, the One who breathed life into it and the One who provides nourishment for all who live alongside one another in it – human and non-human alike.
You make springs gush forth – giving drink to every wild animal
You provide habitat, refuge, shelter, food, work, even recreation
You open your hand and all are filled
In wisdom You made us all
All part of a whole – one community, one family. The author of Psalm 104 must have been an environmentalist.
Inherent within this song of praise is a deep honoring of God’s relationship with all of life – in the air, on the land and in the sea. It holds within it an awareness of God’s delight in the whole canvas of it – and the symbiotic relationship of it. It even references the coming and going of human and non-human – gracefully according to the rhythms of each day… human and non-human alike playing on the water. Life – full and abundant life for all.
In this psalm, human beings take their rightful and humble place: we occupy a position that is no more than and no less than every other kind of life. Out of 35 verses, we get 3 – 4 if you count the final verse about sinners applying to people – which it does – so 4.
In this psalm, we are alongside, a part, a partner. Everyone has their place and everyone has their fill. It’s a dream that hearkens back to Eden – or the land of the Lorax (of Dr. Seuss lore) when that story began:
Way back in the days when the grass was still green
and the pond was still wet
and the clouds were still clean,
and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space…
one morning, I came to this glorious place.
And I first saw the trees!
The Truffula Trees!
The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula Trees!
Mile after mile in the fresh morning breeze.
And, under the trees, I saw Brown Bar-ba-loots
frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits
as they played in the shade and ate Truffula fruits.
From the rippulous pond
came the comfortable sound
of the Humming-Fish humming
while splashing around.
Seek the shalom of the city… and in it’s shalom you will find your shalom. Remember that verse from the prophet Jeremiah? Seek the shalom of the neighborhood… seek the well-being of the whole community…
From God’s perspective, in light of Psalm 104, is there a distinction, a value judgment to be made between human and non-human life? Is our well-being connected to the well-being of the community of life – all life around us? Is praising God a radical ecological activity?
Last week we visited our daughter in South Padre Texas. She’s a biologist working with Sea Turtle Inc., a center for community education and advocacy, rehabilitation and release and conservation research for endangered species of sea turtles.
We toured the turtle hospital with her and saw the damage boats and fishing nets, plastic straws, balloons, Styrofoam, plastic bags and other trash do to turtles. 1/1000 baby turtles make it to reproductive age. Most of the 999 die from natural predators. Turtle babies are low on the food chain – and they’re an important food source for larger fish.
Organizations like Sea Turtle Inc. are tirelessly working to reduce and repair human negligence and destruction. That makes all the difference for these beloved creatures of God.
On the wall of the turtle hospital was a sign: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum, a forestry engineer from Senegal, said that in 1968 to the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in New Delhi India. He devoted his life to conservation issues in Africa – specifically agricultural policy and its effect on land and water.
First Presbyterian Church Tecumseh is an Earth Care Congregation, certified by the Presbyterian Church USA. As such, we have taken the Earth Care Pledge. It goes like this:
“Peace and justice is God’s plan for all creation. The earth and all creation are God’s. God calls us to be careful, humble stewards of this earth, and to protect and restore it for its own sake, and for the future use and enjoyment of the human family. As God offers all people the special gift of peace through Jesus Christ, and through Christ reconciles all to God, we are called to deal justly with one another and the earth.
- Our worship and discipleship will celebrate God’s grace and glory in creation and declare that God calls us to cherish, protect and restore this earth.
- In education, we will seek learning and teaching opportunities to know and understand the threats to God’s creation and the damage already inflicted. We will encourage and support each other in finding ways of keeping and healing the creation in response to God’s call to earth-keeping, justice and community.
- Our facilities will be managed, maintained and upgraded in a manner that respects and cherishes all creation, human and non-human, while meeting equitably the needs of all people. In our buildings and on our grounds we will use energy efficiently, conserve resources, and share what we have in abundance so that God’s holy creation will be sustainable for all life and future generations.
- Our outreach will encourage public policy and community involvement that protects and restores the vulnerable and degraded earth as well as oppressed and neglected people. We will be mindful that our personal and collective actions can positively or negatively affect our neighborhood, region, nation and world.
We will seek to achieve environmental justice through coalitions and ecumenical partnerships.
A church in a particular land exists for the sake of that land and takes her mission agenda from it, said Dr. Munther Isaac, The church, in other words, derives much of its purpose from its locale. He also said: Human beings are only tenants in the land, and as such must share the blessings of the land with their neighbors…the land is something to share, not possess.
This is our home, and not just our home. We share it. The well-being of the whole of it depends on us learning: how to share, how to restore… how to love.
Scripture: Isaiah 58: 6-12
Stories from Invisible City
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:9-18
Shalom for the World
I’m feeling dislocated, she said, dislocated from my church, dislocated from my Christian faith and dislocated from my country. A pastor described the present state of her heart in the language of exile.
I’m old now and I don’t have any friends here anymore. I wouldn’t recognize anyone and no one would recognize me. Nothing here is familiar anymore. A homeowner from Invisible City described what it felt like for her to move back to her childhood home. She lamented with the language of exile.
Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be. He read the Robert Browning quote on her door with tears in his eyes. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She doesn’t remember anything about our life together. It’s like my wife isn’t my wife. Every day I feel so alone even though she’s right here next to me.
The circumstances of exile vary: political, emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual, physical… yet there are common ways to describe it: profound loss, deep grief, emptiness, loneliness, fear, anxiety, despair.
We are social beings… created to share life in community. Exile is a stripping away of that which gives us identity, rootedness, a sense of belonging.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring shalom together: the biblical ideal of completeness, security of mind, body and soul, wholeness, all that is needed for a full life. Exile is the utter opposite. If shalom means all is well with the world, exile is chaos.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the leaders of Judah in exile in Babylon. In it, he made some suggestions.
Not what they wanted to hear. Nobody likes exile. If we’re in it, we want out of it as soon as possible… out of the tension and uncertainty and lack of control… back into order, familiarity, home.
Build houses, plant gardens, get married, have kids… they’ll grow up and get married and have kids — get ready for the long haul. Generations of bad behavior: arrogance, greed, affluence, economic injustice, idolatry, will take generations to heal.
They didn’t want to hear that. They liked what the other prophets – the false prophets — said: fight back! God is on your side. You’ll win and your revenge will be swift!
Jeremiah said just the opposite: don’t live as if in a ghetto of your own making, hunkering down within yourself or your own tribe. God is on the side of shalom for the world. You exiles: get out and invest in the shalom- the well-being of the city around you… because only through the shalom of the whole community will you realize your shalom.
Invest in the shalom of the city around them? These were their enemies — the ones they blamed for their exile — the ones who’d stripped them from their homes – taken everything from them… invest in these strange people who don’t think like us… don’t reason like us… don’t share the same faith as us… invest in their well-being? Invest in them? That’s the path to our shalom?
Is there something for us to learn in these ancient words for our day? Truth for healing in our exile?
I’m a new board member for Neighbors of Hope, the group managing the men’s Broad Street mission and the soon to be women and children’s transitional housing in Tecumseh. We had a half-day retreat last week to vision the future.
Recidivism was heavy on the heart of Executive Director Steve Palmer’s heart. We do recovery, restoration and release with the men of the mission, he said, When we release them back into society, they need to be able to live there. Too often, they can’t.
Neighbors of Hope has a well-developed program for rescuing homeless and addicted men through Bible Studies, counseling and education. There’s accountability and constant encouragement… affirmation and friendship… food and shelter. They live in a Christian community where the language they speak is dignity and honor and value and love. And then after several months, the men graduate.
It was exile that brought them to the Neighbors of Hope men’s mission to begin with – often the exile of addiction. And they’re released into a new kind of exile—where employment is hard to find and keep, and housing isn’t affordable and stresses mount and they want to go home to the family they had with Neighbors of Hope, but that’s not their home anymore.
Invest in the shalom of the city… in its shalom is your shalom.
Isn’t that what Zak is doing? A graduate of Neighbors of Hope, Zak runs the Fishes and Loaves food pantry providing food for families who live near or below the poverty level in our county. We met Zak through Invisible City.
And isn’t that Brent is doing? Brent is a graduate of the mission who works at Blessings and More, the Neighbors of Hope thrift store.
The food pantry and thrift store are “social enterprises”. They provide meaningful work for graduates of the program, income for the ministry, and healing outreach for the community. They also provide opportunities for people like us to connect and seek the shalom of the city.
We were sorting clothes in the back of the Blessings and More Thrift Store on Friday during Invisible City – figuring out which clothes could sell and which should go into the baling pile. Can we just come over here anytime and volunteer for a few hours? one of our team members asked. Absolutely! Kendra, the young woman in charge said – there’s always work to do.
Invest in the shalom of the city and in its shalom you’ll realize your shalom… Just a few hours cleared a section of the warehouse where donations pile up… just a few hours resulted in some new toys and clothing for the retail space in the front of the store. Just a few hours of mindful work can clear our minds of the big stuff we can’t control and reconnect us with the real humanity of our city.
Just a few hours of Invisible City– weeding, trimming, painting, clearing, sorting, stocking shelves in a food pantry… seeking the well-being of our city… the shalom of the world around us…
Is our shalom found in and through the city’s shalom?
Last Sunday I shared that one of our church family members Lisa Michelin and I met with Kelly Coffin, Tecumseh School Superintendent to stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap between reality and possibility around the struggles related to changes in the educational approach of our school district.
We met a second time last week. I gave Kelly a tour of our church facility, showing her all of the rooms and offering up the possibility that the church could be a location for programs that for whatever reason may not be held at the schools.
What is the church looking for in this? Kelly asked.
I thought for a moment. Wellness, I said.
Isn’t that right? Isn’t that the word of Jeremiah coming to life in our place and time? Seek the wellness… the well-being… the shalom… of the city. Isn’t that exactly what we’re to be looking for in this? in all this? the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual wellness – of children and families and hurting individuals…
-partnering with the schools where it makes sense to work together toward a hopeful future…
-partnering with Neighbors of Hope in the development and support of social enterprises…
-partnering with Catherine Cobb advocating against domestic violence…
-partnering with Department on Aging and Meals on Wheels to come alongside isolated seniors who have limited friends and support networks and to work with them for their greater wellness?
What is the church looking for in this? the well-being of the city… shalom of the world.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, I served a church as a pastoral intern. Littlefield Presbyterian Church sits on the border of East Dearborn and Detroit. In the past, it was a neighborhood church. Almost all of its members walked to church. Over time the neighborhood changed.
When I worked there in 2002, 70% of its closest neighbors were Muslim. Only a handful of the members lived within walking distance and everyone else drove into the church – some drove from quite a distance – passing as many as 3 Presbyterian churches on the way.
With dwindling membership and a neighborhood largely populated with people of a different culture, language and religion, they found themselves in exile. And they made an intentional choice.
Instead of Vacation Bible School, they held Peace Camp to teach and learn principles of peace and reconciliation with the children of the neighborhood. They partnered with a hilal market and Access, the organization who helps immigrant families from the Middle-East settle in Dearborn to provide holiday food baskets to families living at or below the poverty level in their city. And they opened their building as a space for English as a Second Language classrooms.
So in September of 2001, when planes flew into the World Trade Center and their Muslim neighbors were afraid of community backlash, they found sanctuary in the Littlefield Presbyterian Church. The pastor and local imams together planned worship services, prayer vigils and educational events. Membership still dwindled, and the gospel of Jesus Christ grew through practicing shalom.
Shalom for the world begins in each heart and radiates out to relationships and to the city. And Jeremiah reminds us that shalom flows the other way too – a heart in exile that leans into the well-being of the community, can be made well. Seek the shalom of the city and in its shalom you will find your shalom.
We’ve just come off another year of Invisible City – the 5th year. What did we see? What did we learn? What new questions emerge for us? How does Invisible City work toward the shalom of individuals, the community, the city? How do we find shalom through it?
In all and through all, we pray… we pray on behalf of the city… we pray on behalf of our country… we pray on behalf of the world… that all may one day be well according to God’s heart.
Scripture: Romans 12:9-18
Quaich: Peace Between You and Me
When I joined the Maumee Valley Presbytery as a pastor, Susan Meier gave me a Quaich. Susan was the former General Presbyter. And she’s Scottish. I was the first pastor to receive a Quaich –beginning what would become a tradition in our presbytery.
You’ll note it has two handles. If a clansman offered another clansman a Quaich of whisky, to take it with both hands required all weapons be sheathed. In Scottish weddings today, the bride and groom will each take a handle and drink from the common Quaich as they begin their new life together.
It had been a few turbulent years for the Maumee Valley Presbytery, and the Tecumseh church was at the epicenter of the chaos. Lines were drawn. Sides were taken. People were hurt. Brothers and sisters divided. It was time to live into a new future.
Susan Meier seized the opportunity to ritualize a new chapter for our presbytery with the Quaich.
She invited me to join her as she stood before the gathered body. First she turned to all of them. She called for a time of peace and a renewed commitment to friendship and trust. Then she turned toward me and offered me the Quaich and said: Peace between you and me.
We’ve been talking about peace in this sermon series: shalom in Hebrew: wholeness. It begins with the heart and radiates out. Today we’re talking about peace in our relationships – one to another: between you and me.
There’s a foundational practice In Judaism called Shalom-Bayit. It means “Peace in the Home” — wholeness within our most intimate relationships. In the collection of Jewish teachings called the Mishna, there is this guiding principle:
Whoever destroys a single soul, it is as though they had destroyed an entire world. And anyone who sustains one soul, it is as if they sustained an entire world. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5; YT 4:9; BT Sanhedrin 37a).
It may sound overdramatic until we stop and consider the ripple effect of abuse, humiliation, and public shaming and the ripple effect of genuine acts of compassion, empathy and affirmation.
Singer songwriter Ruth Gershon shared a conversation she had with her daughter to illustrate this teaching:
Ruth Gerson: The rabbis teach that when a soul is destroyed it is as though the person destroyed an entire world.+
Hope: But it is also true that whoever saves a single soul, it is as though they had saved the entire world? Did Mr. Spooner save you?+
Mom: He did. He was a retired marine working as a teacher in the New York City public school system. He gave his retirement years to kids who really needed him, and he provided mentorship that — I feel, personally— saved my life. Where others might have destroyed my soul, Mr. Spooner saved it.+
Hope: What did he save you from?+
Mom: My anger, I guess.+
Hope: What do you mean?+
Mom: When you’re older, I can tell you.+
Hope: Tell me now.+
Mom: (Pause) When I was growing up, the people in my family, they suffered greatly, and because they suffered, they felt very angry and they wanted to destroy the world. So, they hurt me a lot, every day, and I became very sad, and lonely. My soul was dim.+
Hope: What did you do?+
Mom: I believed God loved me.+
Mom: God showed me. God gave me my teachers, my friends, who poured themselves into me. They made me laugh. They kept me company. They gave me hugs. They challenged my mind. They relieved my suffering, and saved my soul.+
Hope: Did you save the world, Mama?+
Mom: (Laughs) No, but I am a teacher now, and a mom, and a friend, and I always put my whole heart into the souls around me, and you and your sisters, and maybe one of you will save the world, or one of your children, or your children’s children. I can do this because of them. Creating and destroying, saving and killing, order and chaos — we can choose. God has given us this immense gift. We have consciousness and we can choose what we do. Each good act makes more good, until the goodness created can save the world.+
Our words and actions matter and matter deeply, with the power to destroy and the power to sustain. We know this. There’ve been Mr. Spooners in our lives – people who’ve lifted us up—without them we wouldn’t be the people we are. And there’ve been others who’ve torn us down and without them, we wouldn’t be the people we are. And we’ve been some combination of destroyer and sustainer at various times of our lives. All of us are works in progress… still learning… still growing in and by and through God’s grace.
When writing about the way to sustain another’s soul, Quaker Parker Palmer uses the image of holding a baby bird in the palm of your hand. You have to hold it gently, tenderly… resisting the urge to fix it, overanalyze it, control it… we hold it open and we hold it in trust. We may think we know when it’s ready to fly, but only it knows, so we hold it lightly and patiently.
Let your love be real… authentic… unhypocritical, Paul wrote to the Roman church, Don’t pretend to love others to make yourself look good. Sincere and genuine love focuses on the wellness, the shalom of the other… the bird in the palm of the hand.
Hate all that causes pain and suffering, Paul wrote, and glue yourself to that which is intrinsically good, and kind and beneficial. Love each other with a brotherly, a sisterly tender-hearted love… honor each other… bless each other… celebrate with each other… weep with each other… with humility and honor, give yourself to each other… As much as it is within your power, Paul wrote, live at peace with each other… Shalom Bayit.
There’s an anxiety within many families in our community just now… lines are drawn… sides are taken… people are hurt…
Week after week, we’re reading about it in the paper and on Facebook… talking about it over coffee… overhearing conversations at the doctor’s office. It’s about our school district… about the education of our children… about the health and well-being of our community.
A little over a month ago, Lisa Michelin, an elder of our church and parent of two children in the district wrote an email to the Tecumseh Superintendent of Schools: Dr. Kelly Coffin. In it, she wrote:
I have an idea that I would like to discuss with you and Cathi King. As part of the Education Committee at Tecumseh First Presbyterian Church, we started a series of discussions about three years ago called Courageous Conversations. We regularly bring in speakers to present on topics that, are or, have the potential to be polarizing or just difficult to understand…
Lisa shared her sadness over the district’s struggle with the new educational model and her willingness to be part of a constructive, courageous conversation.
Lisa’s also been leading our church’s session and deacons in a visioning process, exploring our Why? Why are we here? What is our purpose as church in this time, in this town?
We built a timeline as we told our church’s story. Together we opened up our soul stories as well as our ego stories – the heartbreaks… the falling apart… as well as the joys and new life… the low dreams as well as high dreams.
What could a church who knows something about fear and faith, loss and hope, tradition and change have to offer about patience, empathy, courage, hopeful vision and a deep yearning for peace between you and me? What could a church with excess space and lots of people who love children and education have to contribute to a district with students in need of additional help?
When Lisa and I met with Kelly a little over a week ago, our purpose was, in Parker Palmer’s words, to stand in the tragic gap: the tension between reality and possibility. It is not unlike the gap we as a church stood in during the City Council meetings on transitional housing for women and children. In that debate, we stood for Tecumseh’s heart and the will of the people to be compassionate partners. We stood for shalom for all God’s children. We stood with a willingness to engage and support.
Now, again, an opportunity is before us. There’s a lot a stake. There’s a reason the gap is called tragic: we’ve fallen apart… lost our way… words are harsh… positions entrenched. It’s hard to hold the tension between reality and possibility without collapsing into cynicism or floating away into fantasy.
Many of us have entrances into this Tecumseh education conversation: family members, neighbors, friends, colleagues… what will we do? how will we listen? what will we say? who will we be? I’ve given you each a piece of paper and I invite you to envision community shalom in this conversation – what could it look like and how might you and we enter it?
Quaich is the Scottish word for cup. When we come to the family table, the Lord’s table, we break bread and we share the cup: the cup of suffering and of promise, the cup of forgiveness and of blessing, the cup of grace; the cup of shalom.
When we go out into the world, we are to be the cup… to be the Quaich… the vessel of God’s grace poured out to others, to point to:
- life beyond suffering,
– forgiveness beyond failure,
– future beyond now…
And we are, with our words and our actions, our body language and our presence — to keep lifting up a unifying vision of shalom for all God’s children:
-to listen with patience and compassion to the hearts of others…
-to learn from our own soul stories how to be with others in times of struggle and
to, as much as it is possible for us:
be peace in our families, peace in this town and peace in the world.
Scripture: John 14:1-7, 15-17, 25-27
Mind the Light Within: Shalom of the Heart
Jarvis Jay Masters had the sound turned down on his TV. He was using the light from the screen to read.
Are you watching this?? asked his neighbor in the cell next to him. It was a Ku Klux Klan rally in Louisiana. Do you hear what they’re saying??
Jarvis said he hadn’t heard anything – had his sound turned off. He saw it though — their unhooded faces.
Ten minutes later, his neighbor called out again: Jarvis – check this out! There must be a thousand people marching in San Francisco – do you see this?
Jarvis looked at his screen and left the volume off. It was a demonstration. He watched as the camera moved from face to face – shouting into the microphone and raising fists in the air. Police were pushing back the crowds. Some of the protesters were arrested.
Time passed and once again, from the cell next door: Jarvis—are you still watching? Look it’s the President and a bunch of congressmen. They’re fighting with each other. Right there on national TV! They’re blaming each other for the terrible economy.
Jarvis looked up at the silent screen and watched as a senator looked furious enough to spit.
Well, for the first time, I’m starting to see something, Jarvis said. The anger and the bitterness on the faces of these congressmen and the President of the United States is the same as on the demonstrators and the Klansmen.
I never thought about it until now, his neighbor said, we all wear the same hateful expression.
It’s something to think about, Jarvis said, learning to see everyone’s suffering, not just the frustration of those we agree with.
Jarvis Jay Masters has been on death row in San Quentin since 1990. That story was from a chapter in his 1997 book called: Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row.
He’s my age, and we grew up very differently.
Separated from his siblings as a young child because of his mother’s drug addiction, Jarvis bounced around group homes and institutions. He was arrested after a robbery spree at the age of 17. At 19, he entered San Quentin and joined a gang. Four years later, he was convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a guard.
He never actually killed anyone, but his anger and his violent past landed him a death sentence at the age of 28.
People who knew him as a young child remember him as someone with a lot of potential: smart, articulate with a sense of humor. For the last thirty plus years, Jarvis has been on a journey to shalom — wholeness of his heart.
Over the years, I’ve been asked when I “saw the light”… that transformed me from the person I was then to the person I am today, Jarvis wrote in his autobiography. The truth of the matter is I have never changed. Rather, I have simply discovered who I’ve always been: the young child who knew that his life mattered, that he could make a difference in the world, and that he was born to fly.
In spite of the pain and hurt, and however much I engaged in crazed violence and lashed out at the world for thinking it owed me something, in the center, in my heart, there was always something of a natural goodness. This may have been the place from which my tears poured when I was a young child. In that same place, the violence later grew so much larger than life that I stopped believing in myself. I dared myself to reclaim that goodness.
Mind the light within, Edgar Hicks wrote at the top of the banner that flowed through the angry and fractious Quakers in his 1829 version of the painting “The Peaceable Kingdom”. It’s on the cover of the bulletin. Look at their faces.
The Light Within is a foundational Quaker concept developed by George Fox – founder of the Quakers. Your teacher is within you, he wrote, if you have eyes to see and a light to see by. Fox claimed the light within him revealed his darkness, his inner deceit. He was awakened to the God-given gift of insight within, and in his awakening, Fox found freedom.
In the beginning was the Word… from the first chapter of John’s gospel. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not… will not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
The Quakers’ mission to the world was this: to bear witness in word and deed to the light in every human being… that they might know it is there within them, to lead them and teach them into the way, the truth and abundant life.
To Mind the Light Within is to tend first to self… to one’s own heart; to look deeply, honestly and humbly within and trust that all that is needed for shalom of the heart …wholeness of the heart is already there.
As true as that is, it’s not so simple. Lots of stuff gets in the way. Other voices drown out or impersonate the voice of the inner teacher: ego, culture… peer, family, work even church pressure. We get caught up in layers of self-deception, self-destruction, self-denial… our hearts harden and they close. And then– what happens then in our relationships with others and with God?
Shalom of the heart… peace… wholeness within… it has to start in here… learning to see everyone’s suffering starts with learning to see our own.
That’s what the retreat I attended recently in New Mexico was about: Journey toward Wholeness. In his book, “A Hidden Wholeness,” Parker Palmer outlines a deliberate and intentional process to mind the light within. At the retreat, we learned the steps and in small groups, we practiced them.
It starts with storytelling: writing or telling the stories of our lives, our vocations… our passions… our dilemmas, decisions, questions, or confusions. We practiced how to tell our stories, and we learned the difference between ego stories and soul stories.
Ego stories are the ones we tell in job interviews. They focus on our successes… we’re in control. We tell these stories at parties to sound interesting. They are the well-crafted stories we use to answer the question: “What do you do?”
Soul stories run beneath the ego story. They’re the shadow stories – when our best laid plans unraveled. These are the frayed edges, the dropped balls, the stories that taught us resilience… the character-shaping stories. We rarely lead with these. We tell them to people we trust. Yet, these are the stories that sustain us and make us relatable… they’re honest and painful, hopeful and true.
About a quarter of the participants of the retreat volunteered to tell a discernment story – something in their lives for which they needed co-journeyers in order to see more clearly the way forward… deep listeners… companions to clear the way for the light within them to shine.
I was one of those listeners. In my group, there were 4 of us. For 15 minutes we listened and took notes as she told her story. Then for 90 minutes we asked questions – questions designed to allow the storyteller to go deeper into her own heart… not leading questions… not advice disguised as questions… not questions that would clarify the situation for us… questions designed to invite her into greater self-reflection. We asked questions playing back her words and phrases – not our own.
After 90 minutes — no more and no less, for the next 10 minutes we mirrored her responses back to her: when you were asked ––––– you said –––––––. We’d been taking notes all the way through and she had not. Repeating what she said allowed it to resonate more deeply within her. And for the last 5 minutes we affirmed her — her courage, her honesty, her gentleness, her willingness, her wisdom, her generosity of spirit.
In total, we were together 2 hours. Closure was not the point. That she arrived at the answer we thought she should was NOT the point. That she was honored in her own work and that the light within her was given the opportunity to shine within her… and that the advocate, the helper, the Holy Spirit was allowed to teach from within her – that was the point.
It was an amazing process. Could it work in the church… in this town… in our workplaces… in our homes?
Some of the people I met at the retreat were already using this type of process in the work they do – like Virginia, the director of Playback Memphis.
As a therapeutic art, Playback Theater was started in 1975 and is now practiced in over 60 countries. It combines personal storytelling and live improvisational theater. In Memphis, Tennessee, Virginia and her team are using playback theater in anti-bullying programs in schools… they’re using it with released incarcerated persons to help with reentry… and they’re using it with the Memphis police force to heal community tensions around policing.
Last month, Virginia and a police officer named Chris Street were featured on “The Permanent Record,” a podcast about criminal justice reform.
Together they talked about their program called “Performing the Peace.” It brings police and people who have been incarcerated together. Before they ever come into the same room, they each do deep soulful work – shalom of the heart work.
Officer Street talked about what it was like for him to use Playback Theater to mind the light within him. He’s a big, tough white guy. After spending 20 years in the military, 1184 days deployed, then serving as a police officer in Memphis, he said: my perspective on the world had become dark. The lens by which I viewed the world had become shattered. I had lost all faith in humanity. So much negativity… to see the things people can do to other people… the evils of the world… it’s so easy to lose faith in humanity.
Officer Street continued: In the military when I joined, you didn’t have problems between the ears – if you did, you were weak. If you had issues, you put them away and that was where they stayed.
He said: The police department gives us the tools: like cultural diversity training, and Playback helps us practice them.
More than that, Chris said, it showed me what I looked like inside. It painted a picture for me of who I am. Before I could be something positive for someone else, before I could go out there and be the best police officer and the best father and the best husband, I had to learn to be the best me. I had to learn to love myself.
Then, Officer Chris Street talked about meeting Will. Will had been in prison and through Performing the Peace, Chris listened as Will told his story.
Will was a young man who was just trying to keep his family together. He wasn’t old enough to get a job. He didn’t have the skills… he was trying to provide for his siblings… all he knew was the hustle of the street. He wasn’t doing it because he was a bad kid. He was doing it because his brothers and sisters needed to eat.
Chris said: He didn’t wake up and have the choice I had that morning – his was a whole different world. It floored me. I had no idea.
Shalom of the heart: truth telling, deep listening, soul stories, journey toward wholeness of self, of community.
Still on death row, Jarvis Jay Masters does his shalom of the heart work by writing and writing and writing. In 2009, he released his autobiography: that bird has my wings.
If I had known how painful it would be to sit and write this book about my life, he wrote, I doubt that I would have ever picked up my pen-filler – the only writing instrument allowed to an inmate in solitary confinement on death row. It was only from not knowing what layers of memories — particularly from childhood – would slowly unfold, that I innocently began to write.
Jarvis’ co-journeyers include a defense attorney, a spiritual counselor, friends, fellow inmates and others. My correspondents have been my companions, he wrote, quiet listeners through whom I could hear myself speak, see the better part of myself reflected, and learn more about the world around me. Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was.
You know the way, Jesus said.
Lord, how can we know the way? Thomas said.
I am the way and the truth and the life, Jesus said.
The Father will give you an advocate – to help you and be with you forever: the Spirit of truth – lives with you and will be in you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit will teach you all things and remind you of everything I’ve said to you.
Peace I give you – I do not give to you as the world gives – do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7 (The Message)
To Be Whole
I had an image in my mind of a painting for the cover of this week’s bulletin: “The Peaceable Kingdom”, it’s called.
While we just read characteristics of this kingdom, the painting is actually based on Isaiah 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
When I asked Matt to find a copy last Tuesday for the bulletin, I didn’t know that the artist, a Pennsylvania Quaker named Edward Hicks, actually painted 62 versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom”. From 1820 to the mid 1840’s – 62 versions. He was possessed by this dream. It was the hope to which he oriented his life.
All of his “Peaceable Kingdoms” had a common scene in the foreground – animals from the Isaiah text and a child leading them. His earliest versions included a rhyming paraphrase of Isaiah’s vision as a frame:
The wolf shall with the lambkin dwell in peace,
His grim carniv’rous nature then shall cease;
The leopard with the harmless kid lay down,
And not one savage beast be seen to frown;
The lion and the calf shall forward move,
A little child shall lead them on in love;
When man is moved and led by sovereign grace,
To seek that state of everlasting peace.
In a subsequent version of the painting, he added a background scene of another Quaker, William Penn, negotiating a treaty with the Leni-Lenape Indians.
He changed the tense of the rhyme on that frame from future to past and replaced the last two lines with these words:
When the great Penn his famous treaty made
With Indian chiefs beneath the elm tree’s shade.
This, Hicks thought, is what it looks like to live out Isaiah’s dream. Penn’s successors did not honor his treaty, nor God’s dream. And Hicks was painfully aware.
Even still, he continued to paint. Again, he placed the dream of peace in the foreground while another scene emerged in the background… one that mirrored the reality in which Edward Hicks lived.
Edward’s second cousin Elias Hicks was also a Quaker. He was an outspoken abolitionist. He challenged his fellow Quakers to practice what they preached and pattern their lives after Jesus… to let the light of Christ which shines in the human heart guide their way forward.
Not all of his fellow Quakers agreed with his theology or his approach and by 1827, the Quaker family was deeply divided. And the background scene in Edward’s “Peaceable Kingdom” changed to a crowd of Quaker leaders with William Penn at the center. Hicks wove a banner throughout the crowd with the words of Luke 2: “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy, peace on earth and good will to men”.
Two years later, the conflict was worse and Edward’s painting reflected the mood. A new banner unfurled through the crowd of Quakers. “Mind the light within,” it said. “It is glad tidings of great joy,” the banner continued, weaving through a sea of anxious and disturbed faces – hardly reflecting the words: “Peace on earth, good will to all men everywhere.”
The characters in the foreground had changed as well: the child, turned toward the animals as if to protect them from the angry humans… the animals looked tense and watchful.
Over the next several years Quakers of different perspectives were openly hostile toward one another and more factions emerged. The animals in “The Peaceable Kingdom” looked weary and resigned. Some even sported a snarl. Gone was their innocence, playfulness and idealism.
Time passed and some of the animals had mates and cubs.They matured as did the artist and the dream of peace was shadowed by a long and painful reality of exactly the opposite.
The Hebrew word is shalom – from the stem meaning intact, complete, full, whole. Jewish sages praise shalom as the ultimate purpose of the Torah. “All that is written in the Torah is written for the sake of shalom,” they say.
The former President of Calvin Theological Seminary, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga says: The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
Joy… no more war… an end of oppression with its whips and cudgels and curses… fair dealing and right living… a kingdom of shalom… the way things ought to be.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls shalom: the flourishing wholeness of creation into the purposes of God… it’s peaceable life together among the nations and tribes and religious traditions, and economic justice so that everybody has enough resources to live a life of safety and dignity. Shalom is dynamic… always under way… always in process. We never finalize it. We take incremental steps along the way to try to create safer space for the flourishing of more people.
It’s a dream… a vision… a call… shalom… to be well… to be whole… always under way… always in process… step by step…
Toward the end of his life, Edward Hicks realized that the tension he’d wrestled with in his painting would not be resolved.
He wrote that all the intrafaith dissention he witnessed had destroyed his hope of ever seeing established in the here and now a kingdom like the one Isaiah envisioned. But that realization only caused him to cling to Christ all the more tightly.
There’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings…
Mind the light within, Hicks wrote at the top of the banner weaving through the fractious Quaker leadership… Mind the light within.
It was the only light Edward could consistently trust to lead him to shalom. His mother died when he was a baby and his father boarded him out to a Quaker family when he was 3. At 13, he apprenticed for a local wagon making company. There, they saw in him a gift for ornamental painting – fancy lettering and such – which the Quakers frowned upon. Simple and utilitarian not lavish – reign in your passion Edward!
So he gave up painting to become a farmer. It was a disaster. On top of that, he was high-strung. He was prone to angry outbursts and fits of crying. He drank a lot. And he was overly candid in his opinions—particularly his religious opinions. He felt very deeply the pain of the Quaker divide – emotionally and spiritually.
Edward returned to painting – to work out his restlessness in art. He never sold his pieces. They were for him and his family and his friends. They were like his journal – a way for him to find integrity in his own soul… to mind the light within.
Isn’t that where it starts? How can the world be whole if we as individuals in it are in pieces? How can we be reconcilers if our own hearts are divided? How can we seek peace if we are at war within ourselves?
What is our path toward greater integrity of heart? How do we move forward into a deeper well-being in our relationships? How do we work toward a flourishing and wonder-filled world?
Journey Toward Wholeness, was the title of the retreat I attended a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to go because: 1- it was in New Mexico – at the Presbyterian conference center called Ghost Ranch. I’ve never been to Ghost Ranch and it’s been on my bucket list… 2- Marjorie wanted to go with me – Marjorie preached at my installation service and is a colleague from seminary and a great friend… 3- the retreat was based on the work of Parker Palmer, another Quaker – whose writings I love … 4- the description called to me:
We’ll explore issues of transition, vocation, passion, life purpose, meaning, direction, and underlying life patterns to live in greater alignment with our deepest values, to listen to our own inner wisdom (minding the light within), and to reconnect who we are with what we do.
There were 2 facilitators and 32 participants, and although it was open to men and women, it turned out we were all women. We came from across the country: pastors, spiritual directors, counselors, nuns and “nones”, and it was the most amazing thing… the closest thing to shalom I’ve ever experienced. We were diverse yet joined at the heart. We didn’t know each other, yet we honored one another’s souls. We practiced deep listening and held space for each other.
What was different? The altitude? The dramatic and arresting mesa all around us?
It was about soul-tending – our own and each other’s… intentionally and purposefully. And it was about space and exhale and being present. We learned to tell soul stories rather than ego stories, to ask open questions and to listen more deeply. We practiced being attentive to the whole of what was going on inside us and around us. We practiced awe and we practiced grace. We were healing from the inside out and that made all the difference.
Journey toward wholeness… toward shalom… that’s what we’ll be exploring together in these next three weeks. For now, let’s close with a simple song of shalom I learned in New Mexico.
Guest Preacher: Lance Wiesmann
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21 (The Message)
Because of Will Fowle, I started thinking about Pentecost dreams. A few weeks ago, he shared a vision with me: a mashup of two great songs about dreaming: I Dreamed a Dream (Les Mis) and To Dream the Impossible Dream (Man from La Mancha).
It’s perfect for Pentecost! Dreams, visions – that’s what it’s about! Talk with Brett about it, I said. And Will did, but it wasn’t yet time for this idea to become reality. It’s still in the hopper… still waiting to be born – the weaving of two great songs and two beautiful voices together to inspire us:
To dream the impossible dream…
I dreamed a dream in times gone by…
when hope was high and life worth living…
This is my quest… to follow that star…
no matter how hopeless… no matter how far…
then I was young and unafraid…
and dreams were made and used and wasted…
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
to dream the impossible dream…
Alas, its time is not yet, the whole vision has not yet arrived – just a part – just the beginning – excitement… potential… a dream. Will is not meant to do this one alone. His idea will have to be woven together with Brett’s musical talent. And maybe they’ll need a third person – a writer… or even a fourth… and they’ll need time – not to rush it, but to enjoy the developing process of it – to have fun with it – to let the Spirit flow through it.
It often happens that way. We receive an exciting idea – a spark – a what if – and it’s not intended to be executed alone. In fact, it’s not sustainable alone. And it will never be the best it could be – if done alone. It needs to be woven together with other gifts – other hearts – other people – shaped and formed, developed and critiqued in community.
Ministry is not intended for lone rangers. It’s intended to be shared and sometimes to marinate until the time is right. Some ideas need to lie fallow, resting and waiting and bubbling until by the Spirit’s perfect providence, those who it will be designed for are ready to receive it and those who need to be involved to bring it forth connect with each other – and then that gospel dream can be born.
Let’s see if we can pick up the streamers again and hold them up. Look around you.
This, to me, is a better image of Pentecost than the single obedient flame over each person’s head – that image we see in traditional Pentecost art.
Like wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks. There’s nothing obedient about wildfire. It envelops the room and everyone in it. Nobody is left out. Young and old, men and women, sons and daughters… slaves and free. It’s unexpected, unanticipated, uncontrollable – engulfing everybody with its heat, its energy, its power.
Difference in background matters not, nor that we speak different languages: doctors and farmers, artists and teachers, carpenters and students, retirees and lawyers and politicians, caregivers, engineers and musicians, financial planners, writers and nurses – did I leave anyone out? Connected to this flame, this passion… hearts and spirits united in gospel dreams – of life – of abundant life in Christ.
Every year in the Church we celebrate and remember the Day of Pentecost… the day the Holy Spirit came… boldly sweeping through the room where the disciples gathered. Chaos ensued as the Holy Spirit poured visions of the kingdom of God upon them and they couldn’t help but speak about it.
Then heads really turned and crowds gathered and onlookers became amazed and astonished on that first Pentecost, because when the disciples began to speak their dreams aloud the people heard and understood in their own native language.
Imagine that happening here… A chorus of ideas spoken in different languages: artistic, mechanical, scientific, spiritual, psychological, technological, financial, musical and horticultural languages.
And we all hear these gospel ideas – ideas about how to live and grow in our walk with God… ideas for the healing of self, community and the world… ideas that reveal the unbounded creative imagination of God for the renewal of all creation… we hear them in our native tongue. We who need to hear a particular idea suddenly have ears to hear it – we who, by the sharing of our unique gifts and talents can help bring it to life – hear it – like the Spirit’s dog whistle on our frequency…
It’s happening even now. Even now the Spirit is at work among us handing out dreams or fragments of dreams and waiting for them to be spoken into life.
Sometimes it stops here, doesn’t it? We don’t speak that niggling idea – we don’t speak our deepest yearning – we don’t speak what’s burning on our hearts. Maybe it sounds too big, or we’ve been rejected when we’ve spoken before, or that niggling thing doesn’t feel formed enough, or we don’t know who to speak it to…
Maybe it’s not yet the time for it, but maybe it is and speaking it aloud is actually exactly what’s needed – speaking it with courage — over and over again – fleshing it out among the family of faith – seeing who picks up a thread of it and keeps weaving it…
Visioning in the Church of Jesus Christ depends on confidence and willingness: a confident belief that all of us are capable of seeing and feeling needs, and by the Holy Spirit’s work within us, capable of imagining possible creative ministry solutions… and a willingness to speak and listen.
No church can be all things to all people. Realistically limitations exist in resources, physical geography, demographics… but the Holy Spirit is trustworthy. The same Holy Spirit who bestows gifts upon each one of us and purposely gathers us together, knows our limitations and our potential and will guide us into discernment. So we pray over ideas and we brainstorm together and we turn to Scripture… and we let the Spirit guide us… and then what may come?
Even now, there are new visions taking shape, weaving the yearnings of our hearts into opportunities for ministry together. Here are just a few I’ve heard about:
- Some are talking about small group, maybe home-based Bible studies. There’s a new prayer ministry on the verge of launching. And others have voiced a desire for small spiritual formation groups.
- There are dreams of incorporating more art in worship: creative liturgy and poetry… maybe an art loft… and crocheting corners for prayer shawls. There’s a vision for innovative storytelling of the Scriptures.
- And there are new dreams about children’s ministries – involving our children more in our worship life – even as worship leaders.
- There are teen and tween dreams emerging and ideas for book studies and movie nights.
- There’s a dream to bring together cooks and teach cooking and nutrition classes at the Catherine Cobb kitchen.
- And ideas are being woven through the creation care team to improve the efficiency of our building and to engage the community around us in rethinking our stewardship of creation.
- I’ve heard some creative energy around a new pictorial directory project with photos of people doing the things they love to do and software driven ideas to network people according to their gifts and passions.
- There are ideas percolating about the new women’s shelter in town and forging ecumenical partnerships at the committee level with other churches in town.
- And a yearning to develop stronger partnerships with our international mission friends is on the hearts of others.
- Still others of you are eager to reach those outside our walls who’ve stepped away from church or been hurt by church — to extend a hospitable welcome.
- And others are dreaming of new small group vocal and instrumental ensembles – weaving together groups who haven’t been together before with a fresh energy and sound.
Lots and lots of ideas are swirling. It can sound overwhelming and maybe even exhausting – a little like a gale force wind or a raging wildfire roaring through our ranks.
This means the Spirit is busy and active here!
And let’s remember: sometimes dreams stay in the hopper frothing and fermenting until they’re ready. It’s not like Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner — everything doesn’t have to come out at once. Let’s see to it that ownership for the implementation of a dream doesn’t fall on a single person – but on two or three or more… Let’s trust, listen, discern, speak and connect… let’s plan and reach out and wait and move… and let’s fan the flames… seeking continually to be guided by the hand and word of God.
What dream is the Spirit placing upon your heart for this church… this community… this church in this community?
I invite you to tear off a segment of a streamer or two or three – take them home and pray with them – listen and wait – for what begins to take shape in your heart – a passion, an idea, an observed hunger, a name – maybe you’re feeling a nudge to connect with another person – to weave into a dream he or she may have that you may or may not even know of – but the Spirit does!
Reach out to each other – invite others to discern the movement of the Spirit with you and to participate with you – what dreams may come?
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” a true statement – although probably not said by Harriet Tubman, according to historians who have researched and written extensively on her life – not that she didn’t believe it.
“Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world,” she also didn’t probably say that, although she lived as though she believed it.
May we as well.
O Holy dreamer, pour forth into each one of us and upon all of us together your gospel dreams of hope and life, light and healing. Fill us with your strength, your patience, your passion, and your grace that your yearning for each of us and for the church and for the community and for the world may come to be.
Scripture: Philippians 1:27-2:13 (NRSV)
It was 1am in the morning when the phone rang in Richard Brookshire’s Manhattan apartment… a friend looking for advice on how to resign from his job. Brookshire, a 29-year-old manager of a Leadership Institute, spent the next half hour helping his friend choose the right words and tone for his letter – and like me, he paces while he problem solves on the phone. Leaving for work the next morning, he found a note taped to his door:
Hello, Regarding last night: It is extremely rude and inconsiderate to scream and stomp around your apartment until almost 2 a.m. A complaint has been submitted to the management. Next time this will go straight to the police. Please learn your manners.”
Brookshire is a US Army veteran, Magna Cum Laude graduate from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Columbia University. He is also black and the neighbor who wrote the note is white. Furious, insulted and particularly triggered by the threat of involving the police, Brookshire wrote this response to his neighbor:
He planned to slide it under his neighbor’s door when he got home from work, but first, he took a picture of it and posted it on Facebook. In no time, it went viral. Lauded by many for his courage to speak truth, Brookshire received the Millennial of the Month award by an online magazine whose stated goal is to help foster conversation and connections among the Millennial Generation.
Meanwhile, his neighbor told the Washington Post, that his note had nothing to do with race, and he asked them please not to publish his real name for fear of backlash. He said he and his wife just wanted to sleep and they didn’t even know the man was black. He said he understood how his note, written while he was sleepy and angry came across as aggressive. Then he wrote another note to Brookshire:
I know this was probably dictated by the tone of my note, but please do not perceive me as just another narrow-minded white person scared of anything outside of his little white world. I have nothing in common with such people, and I would like to emphasize it once (again) that my note yesterday, rude as it was, was nothing more than a response to a late-night disturbance. He signed this one and included his phone number and email, and he encouraged his neighbor to stop by and chat. You know where I live,”he said.
This is the world we live in.
Reactive, ignorant of generational bias and privilege and tone deaf to differences in perspective… living just one floor apart from each other yet in different universes… This begs for a courageous conversation!
Please learn your manners… Yes – let’s.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Philippi: Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Or, more literally: Conduct yourselves publicly in a manner that represents the gospel of Christ.
Note – the “you” in this letter, and all of Paul’s letters is “y’all”– it’s plural. He’s talking about a manner of life for the family of faith – the church together.
In the streets… in the city… as citizens living among your opponents and among your brothers and sisters.
Be of the same mind, he says. He is not talking about Stepford Christians… not envisioning some kind of Vulcan mind-meld… not advocating an elimination of creativity or unique insights… not talking about brainwashing. Same mind is not same brain. There’s a different Greek word for brain.
There really isn’t an English equivalent. “Mind” doesn’t do it justice. If you located where it is in the body, it’s not in the head, but in the mid-section – like the heart or the gut – the seat of emotional response.
But it’s not just an interior word – not just a feeling or understanding or judgment – not just a cognitive word — it’s inextricably connected to an external response. It is an inside-out concept.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Means pattern yourselves after the mindset and behavior of Jesus. Let’s look back again at the characteristics Paul describes in this portion of the letter with this in mind. See the connection between thought and action:
– do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit
– in humility regard others as better than you
– look not to your own interests
– look to the interests of others
This is a mindset that is aware of privilege but refuses to exploit it – rather pours it out in service to the other.
Paul wants the Christians of Philippi to live this other-honoring way consistently. Who can criticize it? It is not threatening or violent. It builds up and makes more beautiful. It gives no reason for the Romans to be suspicious, nor for the Jewish traditionalists to be concerned. Love out loud. Let people see your heart of Christ. Let people wonder about your gentleness and your grace – and be drawn to it.
I have no doubt that our brother in apartment 5J was frustrated as he and his wife tried to sleep in the middle of the night while listening to the thumping of feet above him and an intrusive conversation volume. We’ve all been there – on both sides.
And I have no doubt that our brother in apartment 6J was deeply offended by the patronizing and accusatory tone. And given history and circumstance and systemic abuse, the police threat surely hit an age-old worn and weary nerve. The truth needs to be told and heard, but in what manner?
Neither neighbor knew the other, yet they lived in the same building. I wonder what else they had in common? They dehumanized each other instead of reaching out to each other… built walls instead of bridges.
In Braving the Wilderness, author Brene Brown says: People are hard to hate close up. Move in. If we take a wide-angle shot of our world, she says, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations. On social media, we see opinions disembodied from accountability and truth. But when we zoom in… the picture changes from a distant, raging, and atrophying heart to the beating pulse of our everyday existence. We feel love and we know pain. We feel hope and we know struggle. We see beauty and we survive trauma.
What would it have looked like for the man in 5J to be full of the mind of Christ toward the man in 6J? And what would it have looked like for the man in 6J to be full of the mind of Christ toward the man in 5J? At several points of that story, it could’ve taken a different turn – a more mind-full turn… a more grace-full turn.
Here’s a different story:
After church one Sunday, my mother-in-law and father-in-law and another couple went out for breakfast. Near their table was a large Middle-Eastern party. They were animated, enjoying themselves and loud. It was hard for my in-laws to hear each other over the other group’s noise. They decided to move across the restaurant.
Concerned about how the other table would interpret their move, my father-in-law went to them and said: We just wanted to let you know we’re moving because we’re having a hard time hearing each other. We don’t hear so well and the floors of this restaurant don’t help.
The other table apologized for their noise, and my father-in-law laughed and said: No, no—you’re just having a good time together – it’s no problem – the restaurant is big enough for all of us.
The waitress went to my in-law’s table when they’d finished eating, and she said: Your bill’s been paid.
What? By who? my father-in-law asked.
They didn’t want me to tell you, she said, but I think you should know — that table paid for your breakfast.
On their way out they stopped to thank the generous group. You didn’t need to do this – really, as we said, you were just having a good time!
Oh but we want to, they said joyfully, we want to. Please.
And they were young adults! my father-in-law told me. Such well-mannered millennials.
This is also the world we live in.
That’s what the mind of Christ looks like: humble, generous, hospitable.
Please learn your manners, the note said, and I bristled as I read it. But that is our call as church: we are disciples, learners and practitioners of the mind and manner of Christ: thoughts and actions… ideas and behaviors… words and deeds.
May our education opportunities be mind-full: teaching us to honor all of the people in the room and the different perspectives and life experiences each brings to the ancient text… opening our hearts to hearing God’s Word anew and afresh and interpreting it together… listening to each other and making space for questions… Willing to risk considering something we’ve never thought about before… challenging ourselves to grow.
May our mission and outreach be mind-full: seeing people we’ve never seen yet who have lived among us as our neighbors… hearing the words that aren’t spoken but are etched on worn faces and expressed through weary postures… pouring out ourselves in service to others who are hurting or lonely or in need of friendship and support.
May our worship be mind-full: changing us and forming us through our family rituals: our prayers, our songs, words proclaimed, the peace of Christ exchanged.
I love this poem by Ann Weems called “Touch in Church”. I didn’t grow up in a church that passed the peace. I remember when it was introduced and people didn’t like it – it was too Catholic. My family wasn’t very touchy in church – Dad made a beeline out the side exit as soon as the last word was spoken and we followed pretty close behind. We didn’t shake hands, let alone hug…
Touch in Church
What is all this touching in church?
It used to be a person could come to church
and sit in a pew
and not be bothered by all this friendliness and
certainly not by touching.
I used to come to church and leave untouched.
Now I have to be nervous about what’s expected
I have to worry about responding to the person
sitting next to me.
Oh, I wish it could be the way it used to be;
I could just ask the person sitting next to me:
How are you?
And the person could answer: Oh, just fine,
And we’d both go home… strangers who have known each other for twenty years.
But now the minister asks us to look at each other.
I’m worried about that hurt look I saw
in that woman’s eyes.
Now I’m concerned, because when the minister
asks us to pass the peace,
The man next to me held my hand so tightly
I wondered if he had been
touched in years.
Now I’m upset because the lady next to me cried
and then apologized
And said it was because I was so kind
and that she needed
A friend right now.
Now I have to get involved.
Now I have to suffer when the community suffers.
Now I have to be more than a person coming to observe a service.
That man last week told me I’d never know how much I’d touched his life.
All I did was smile and tell him I understood
what it was to be lonely.
Lord, I’m not big enough to touch and be touched!
The stretching scares me.
What if I disappoint somebody?
What if I’m too pushy?
What if I cling too much?
What if somebody ignores me?
“Pass the peace.”
“The peace of God be with you.” “And with you.”
And mean it.
Lord, I can’t resist meaning it!
I’m touched by it, I’m enveloped by it!
I find I do care about that person next to me!
I find I am involved!
And I’m scared.
O Lord, be here beside me.
You touch me, Lord, so that I can touch
and be touched!
So that I can care and be cared for!
So that I can share my life with all those others
that belong to you!
All this touching in church—Lord, it’s changing me!
~by Ann Weems~
Scripture: Philippians 1:1-18a (The Message)
Blessing of the Letters
A few years ago, I presided over the wedding of my niece and her husband. Couples do all kinds of creative things in their ceremonies these days. The Internet is full of innovative ways to celebrate and symbolize commitment. But they asked me to do something I’ve never done or even heard of. In addition to a sharing of vows and exchanging of rings, they wanted a blessing of the letters.
For a good part of their courtship, Carrie and John lived in different cities and they did that thing that is sadly becoming a lost art – they hand-wrote love letters to each other. They saved them all and put them in a beautiful wooden box. On the day of their wedding, they asked me to bless their letters, that their written words might serve as timeless promises… touchstones for their life together…
that a sentence or fragment from another time in their relationship might serve to once again tie their hearts together, should the binding become frayed from day to day challenges.
Inspired, a few months later, on a cold and blustery day, Andy and I made a fire and pulled out the boxes of letters we’d written to each other when we lived in different cities during our dating years. Reading the oldest letters first, we laughed and blushed at the words of our young love. We read on and the tone changed. Letters chronicled our best and our hardest times as our relationship matured. Some of the letters were tough to read… just reading the words brought back memories of heartache. The letters were our history – the very personal history of our relationship – of our love.
Our Scripture reading this morning is an excerpt of a love letter from a pastor to members of his faith family – a church he started. Several of his letters appear in our Bible. They’re personal, yet they’ve become very public. I can’t imagine Paul ever intended people would be reading and interpreting his letters throughout ages, cultures, languages… across the world.
The letters of Paul are a blessing to us. They give us glimpses of a pastor’s heart, stories of life in early Christian communities, and timeless wisdom to help us navigate leadership challenges while building up the body of Christ and spreading the gospel.
His letters are as varied as the communities to which he writes them. They spoke to particular challenges and they named particular people. As readers of these letters, we can tell when Paul is frustrated and hurt, joyful and proud. He loved them all, but like a parent, he loved them differently, according to their needs.
When his letters were received, the whole community gathered and they were read aloud.
I invite you to imagine you are members of the church of Philippi and a courier has brought news from Paul, your beloved pastor. It’s been a few years since you saw him last. You heard he’s in prison. You fear he’s been beaten or worse. These are difficult days for preachers and teachers of the way of Jesus. You’ve been constantly praying and anxiously wondering: is he ok? is he alive? when will he be free? when will we see him again? A hush falls over the room as the messenger unrolls the scroll and begins to read:
Paul and Timothy, both of us committed servants of Christ Jesus, write this letter to all the followers of Jesus in Philippi, pastors and ministers included. We greet you with the grace and peace that comes from God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ.
Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah.
It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.
So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!
The letter goes on – and we’ll read more of it next week, but for now, just reading the beginning of it – the way Paul gives thanks to God for them… is so full of joy for them… prays for them and encourages them… it inspired me to write my own letter of blessing to you. So here goes:
To my dear brothers and sisters, co-workers with me in this gospel enterprise, I am so thankful to God for you. You came into my life at a most beautiful and providential time. I was in search of a new adventure, a new poetry for my Christian witness… a different landscape to call home. I wasn’t looking for you. I didn’t even know you existed. But God did. Always infinitely wise and creative – God knew us both.
Before I met any of you, I read about your disappointments and your hopes and dreams. Five years ago, you wrote: “As a congregation still healing from a painful schism, we see ourselves as a new or developing worshipping community,” and you called yourself an “emerging” church. You saw yourselves as new, developing and emerging. We who follow the risen Christ call that resurrection! You are, literally, a risen body of Christ. Excited to be alive. Anyone who spends time around you can feel it.
You wrote of a desire to become a church community based on care, kindness and outreach. You repeated those three words: care… kindness… outreach. Those aren’t just words to you!
`With deep admiration, I watched you pour yourselves out for two grieving families the first week I worked among you. In the same week, you said goodbye and laid to rest a beloved sister… a cherished member of this faith family and then a couple of days later, you opened these doors and your hearts to a family you didn’t know, one who had no church home.
Your kindness and your care surrounded this young mother and father as they buried their fifteen year old son. You welcomed his grief stricken younger brother, scores of high school students and teachers, counselors and neighbors… you held space for their unanswered questions and their never-ending tears.
What an inspiration you were to me that first week! You must have been exhausted, but without hesitation, you put flesh on care, kindness, outreach, and sacrifice… you loved freely and fully in the name of Jesus. My heart fills even now thinking about it.
Loving others comes so naturally to you. I see it every year during Invisible City, when we hit the neighborhoods with our bright yellow shirts. We work harder in other people’s yards than we ever do in our own yards and we have fun because we’re helping people together… making a difference… sharing our hearts and hands… embodying love.
Loving your neighbor led you to take on City Hall to give homeless mothers and children an opportunity for a better life. You’re fearless in your compassion for the community around you. Five years ago you wrote:
“We aspire to become a church viewed as a leader in the community.” Do you see how that dream is coming to life? Over and over again, you’ve shown a willingness to open the conversation, to challenge injustice, and to hold this town accountable for the nurture of its people, its natural resources, and its character.
This town has a heart and this church feels a responsibility to tend to it. Can you imagine if this church weren’t here – the hole it would leave?
You see people others miss, because God sees them. In your own words, you said: “By fostering a culture of openness and inclusivity and remaining outwardly focused disciples, we hope to reach the un-churched, disenfranchised, and disillusioned.” Isn’t that exactly what Jesus hopes as well? And look around you – how many are here, now, among you, exactly because of this hope?
“We love, because God first loved us.” Amen!
My dear brothers and sisters, how I love you. You are surely developing a reputation in this town as people who love. I pray that you feel it – that you feel loved – that you know fully the love of Jesus, and also that you feel loved by each other. This is my prayer for you: “that your love will flourish and that you will not only love, but love well.” To the church in Philippi, Paul wrote it beautifully: “Learn to love appropriately. Use your head and test your feelings.”
The best way I can say it is this: read the room. Tune your heart’s sensitivity to every one of your brothers and sisters sitting near you: in worship, in committee meetings, in potlucks, in Bible studies… Love one another well by listening to one another. Hold space for feelings and questions to be aired. Be patient with one another. Some truths are hard to speak and hear. Build each other up. Extend grace and honor to each other. Make sure that each one feels an important part of the whole.
Everything depends on this. It is imperative that we remember that our greatest asset is not the building and not the balance sheet. Our greatest asset is our faith family… our relationships with Christ and with one another. We truly bear witness to our Living Lord when it can be said of us that we love each other and love each other well.
This church has big dreams. We’re creative and energetic and passionate and faithful. Five years ago, you also wrote: “We recognize that in order to follow our calling, we must remain fiscally sound and maintain a healthy, sustainable budget.”
Here we lead with courage and faith because we know God has never failed us and is even now hard at work in us and through us. But we are not reckless. We must do our part to tend to our financial health, cultivating generosity and gratitude, looking for innovative ways to trim expenses, and investing deeply in the urgency of living God’s dream for all God’s children here and now — and investment that depends on all of us.
Paul wrote about the Philippian church in his letter to the Corinthians: “Fierce troubles came down on the people of (the Macedonian) churches, pushing them to the very limit.” He wrote: “The trial exposed their true colors: They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected: an outpouring of pure and generous gifts. I was there and saw it for myself. They gave offerings of whatever they could—far more than they could afford!” Paul talked about their giving as “spontaneous” and “unreserved”. “It simply flowed out of the purposes of God working in their lives.”
Trials indeed expose true colors.
Our lives, as followers of Jesus, reflect on him. We could say we are his living letters of recommendation. Isn’t our mission therefore – the purpose of our life together — to be a blessing of the letters – wherever we go and with whomever God places in front of us? To be a blessing. That all who read our lives know, without a doubt, the care, the kindness, the love and the generosity of God.
I thank God for you and I pray for you. I hope you find my words to be an encouragement to you, for I am incredibly blessed to be your pastor and your co-worker in Christ.
Scripture: Acts 17:16-31 Beyond Words
Just last week: Pew Research released a new study about Americans and our beliefs about God. It was designed to explore a host of questions:
When we say we believe in God, what kind of God do we believe in?
When we say we don’t, what are we rejecting?
How do we believe God interacts with our lives?
The survey was conducted last December. Just over 4700 participants across the country were polled.
“Do you believe in God or not?” was the first question.
Those who answered Yes, were then asked: “Do you believe in the God as described in the Bible?” or “Do you believe in some higher power or spiritual force?”
Then they were asked what they believe this God or higher power is like. They were given responses to choose from like: Loves all people, knows everything, protects, directs, punishes, determines what happens in our lives, talks to me…
This is a new survey, but the questions aren’t new. They’ve been debated throughout the ages. In houses of worship and marketplaces, from bathhouses to coffee houses:
Is there or isn’t there a driving force behind the world?
Are human beings in control of our own destiny?
What is the meaning of a good life?
What is the origin of suffering?
Is there a Divine Order to the world?
What is predetermined and what is the nature of freedom?
In the first century, Athens was like ground zero for these kinds of conversations. As we read: All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Throughout the Agora, the ancient marketplace, they gathered to debate and explore life’s persistent questions: Epicureans, Stoics and representatives from all of the major schools of philosophy. Today the impressive buildings of Athens are ruins, but their philosophies are alive and well.
Epicureanism is actually making a resurgence. See if this sounds familiar:
- Happiness or pleasure is the highest pursuit of an Epicurean.
- To be fair, they don’t get there by overindulgence – that’s short term thinking. They focus on the avoidance of pain, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger and negative energy whenever and wherever possible.
- They tend only to the needs they can control and let go of those over which they have no control.
- Contentment in the simple life is their choice: simple food, simple clothing – they’re not interested in power, fame or wealth – these things only bring complications and insatiable desires
In Athens, Epicurus set up a garden for adherents of this philosophy – a place where they could go to practice self-discipline, to engage in pleasant conversation with friends and to avoid people who lived in a perpetual state of anger, misery or frustration.
I may have been channeling my inner Epicurean when I decided last week to stop watching cable news.
Moderation, enjoyment of life, tranquility, friendship, and lack of fear is the tagline of a contemporary blogsite called Epicurus Today. Among the notable Epicurean quotes found on the site are these:
When you are young, think about the good times that lie ahead. Do not fear the future.
When you are old, think about the good times you have had. That will make up for the annoying pain involved in getting older.
Avoid upsetting and offending people and take no part in the activities of the body politic.
Don’t be afraid of the gods: they do not concern themselves with human problems; nor do they reward or punish you in this world or when you die.
Let us live while we are alive.
Maybe you’re more of a Stoic:
- Stoics are realists and they know that pain and misery can’t be avoided; they’re part of life.
- They believe in determinism – that what will happen to each person is set and cannot be changed
- And they also believe in freedom – that we are free to control our attitudes toward any given life circumstances
- Stoics seek to rid themselves of all negative emotions, channeling an inner peace and joy toward all things
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor of the 2nd Century and a Stoic says it like this:
I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . . So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
Most things, according to the Stoic, are not under our control: health, wealth, social standing – but what we think about it – what takes place within our own minds: our opinions, judgments – that is the cultivation of the inner life, or what they call “the Divine Mind within”. The Stoic says: It’s not what you endure, but how you endure it.
Try reading the letters of Paul with an ear tuned to the popular Greek philosophies and you’ll see how masterful he is – building upon concepts people understood and believed and reinterpreting them according to the way of Jesus. It’s why he was so successful taking the gospel into the Gentile world. Look how he did it in Athens:
There he was waiting for his companions to catch up with him – making the most of his time — strolling through the marketplace, striking up conversations with anybody who would listen… moving from merchant to merchant… hanging around the edges of the clusters of debaters – eavesdropping – looking for ways to butt in.
Who is this babbler? – some asked – Who is this busy-body, gossip, this trifler?
Paul knows he has something to add to the conversation – something real – something new – something life-changing… and he knows that in this city of intellectual and spiritual curiosity, surely he will pique somebody’s interest. And he does – somebody important enough to invite him to speak before the Areopagus! Paul gets a hearing before the governing council of Athens.
He’s done his homework. He took notes on all that he saw as he walked through the city – paid attention to what he heard. When he stands up on the Hill of Ares, and begins to speak, he knows his audience:
- He knows they’re deeply spiritual
- He knows they have a profound love of the created world
- He knows their poetry – and that for the Stoics, God is in all and through all but for the Epicureans, God is distant, uninterested, uninvolved with human life
- Paul knows that for Greek philosophers, it’s all about the search for wisdom and so he presents wisdom as the living God of the universe who has created everyone both with an innate yearning and with a means of finding
- Never does Paul talk about an Israelite God… never does he mention prophets or the Exodus or the covenant or circumcision or the commandments or Exile or sacrifice or any of the things that are particular to his religious tradition.
- Paul introduces the Athenians to a living and real God who created all that is – every inhabitant of the earth. They don’t know this God, but this God knows them and has been waiting for them their whole lives – waiting to welcome them home.
Paul doesn’t connect with everyone, but he does with some and a church is born.
In 1910, my grandfather’s first cousin and his young wife from Ohio: Murray and Olive- answered a call to the mission field. Sponsored by the Methodist church, they set sail for their first appointment in India. They were fired up! They were going to introduce Jesus to the Muslim world.
But they knew nothing about the language, the people, the culture… they knew nothing about the poetry, the music, the family life of those among whom they’d live. They knew nothing about Islam.
So Murray went to school to learn the Muslim heart.
While his wife Olive opened a boys’ school in the village, teaching literacy, Murray became one of the first 17 students to complete a PhD in Islamic studies. He credits one of his professors in particular, Dr. Macdonald, a Scotsman from Edinburg with inspiring him to deeply appreciate the heart and soul of the people he’d been sent to serve.
Murray grew to recognize and respect the religious zeal of the Sufis and the disciplined devotional practices of the Islamic community. He and other partners went on to open the Henry Martyn School of Islamic Studies in Lahore, employing Christian and Muslim faculty working side by side. He also published missionary journals that critiqued argumentative, disrespectful and forceful methods of conversion. He wrote: “if we desire that Muslims should give us their respectful hearing we need to add to our earnestness of spirit, knowledge – knowledge of the more important elements in their faith and practice, and of the history of Islam… and we should assiduously cultivate the virtues of courtesy, humility, and patience, in all our dealings with them.”
And he stressed the need for: a genuine religious experience in our own lives. To know God, to be conscious of His presence and power; to have talked with Him and to feel that He has spoken to us; to know Christ, and the sweetness of His friendship; to rejoice in personal salvation, and to experience the peace of God in our hearts – these things are absolutely necessary for any really effective service among Muslims.”
In his journals, Murray wrote about serving as a Christian missionary joining Gandhi in support of a unified India. And in 1947, when that failed and the British relinquished control through an agreement that split India, Murray wrote about the day the agreement went into effect – a day filled with violence and bloodshed on the border: “Christians, Indian and non-Indian alike literally risked their own lives and came to the rescue of the suffering Muslims of Delhi … In spite of threats of the direst consequences they went to the Muslim refugee camps day after day for weeks to give food and medical aid, thus revealing the true love of Jesus Christ and His followers for Muslims, as well as for others, a fact which they were not slow to appreciate.”
It went way beyond words for Murray and Olive – they shared their lives.
Seneca, a Stoic in first century Rome — contemporary of the Apostle Paul wrote: “There are indeed mistakes made, through the fault of our advisors, who teach us how to debate and not how to live. There are also mistakes made by students, who come to their teachers to develop, not their souls, but their wits. Thus philosophy, the study of wisdom, has become philology, the study of words.”
Revealing the love of Christ comes out of a life changed by Christ. It goes way beyond words to a way of life: humility, grace, courage, strength, a self-giving openness to the heart of the other, so that real kinship can form.
Here’s what’s going on in our day – documented in that study released last Wednesday by Pew Research:
80% of those polled say they believe in God.
56% believe in the God as described in the Bible.
23% believe in some other higher power or spiritual force.
72% of those who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated or “none”, 67% who say they’re agnostic and 90% who say they are “nothing in particular” believe in a higher power of some kind, even if not the God described in the Bible.
What do people believe about this higher power or spiritual force?
Most believe the Transcendent Other loves all people regardless of their faults and provides protection. There’s much more variety in opinion re: whether or not this spiritual force rewards and punishes, answered prayers, is all-powerful or determining what happens in an individual human’s life.
The spiritual landscape all around us is continuously changing. Our next Courageous Conversation on May 30 – is going to help us see this even more clearly. Our speaker is Renee Roederer, an ordained PCUSA pastor whose “flock” are the “nones” and “dones” – most of whom, at least if we believe the data of this recent survey, aren’t done with God.
When our children were young, they attended a private Christian school. Above the door leading out to the parking lot hung a sign that said: “You are now entering the mission field.” I never liked that sign. I knew the mission field was inside the school as much as it was outside the school.
All of us are life-long seekers of a God who reveals more and more every day to us – through the Bible, through the living Christ, through our neighbors, through culture, through poetry and songs and birds and bees… Beyond words.
May we be willing to be seekers and finders together… of a Higher Power, a Divine Mind, a Crucified and Risen Savior, a Spiritual Force, a Transcendent Other, a Loving Presence in which and through which we live and move and have our being – a Creator of the Universe who is beyond anything we could ever imagine, and yet as close as our very breath.
April 22 – Earth Day
Guest Preacher: Lance Wiesmann, Ordained Elder, PCUSA;
Enrolled in the Commissioned Ruling Elder Program and intern at
First Presbyterian Tecumseh
Guest Preacher: Debra Davies (MDIV), Ordained Elder and Deacon, PCUSA; Candidate for Ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament
April 8 – Holy Humor Sunday
April 1 – Easter Sunday
Scripture: John 21:1-19 Word of the Day
It is the largest national video network, boasting more viewers than 99% of all programming on television. Every month it delivers 276 million impressions (pieces of information): advertisements, sports news, headlines, interviews, weather, trivia and more to hundreds of millions of viewers. It claims twice the recall rate of televised information and double digit increases in advertising effectiveness. 1 in 3 adults over 18 are exposed to it every month… as they fuel up their cars. It’s called Gas Station TV.
Last Thursday morning, before the sun came up, I stopped at the Shell just before the cell lot of the South Terminal at Metro Airport, and as I swiped my credit card, across the Gas Station TV screen I read: “The Word of the Day: Convivial.” And because I had nothing better to do while I was standing there – which they count on – I read the definition. And I thought this is perfect.
A review of a trendy restaurant might call its atmosphere convivial. While scanning tripadvisor comments, you might read about convivial hosts of a seaside bed and breakfast. Convivial might show up in a crossword puzzle. But otherwise, it’s not like it appears in our regular everyday conversation. Although it is what we’re called to be.
Convivial. It’s an old word with Latin roots… an adjective that literally means life with and with life. So it’s both innately social, in that it’s meaningless for a solo person — it requires interconnectedness, and it’s intrinsically fully alive. It’s exactly what the followers of the Way of Jesus are called to be: convivial: lively in our life together.
That night on the lake was anything but convivial for the disciples. Their net mirrored their hearts: empty.
They were lost, heartbroken, guilt-ridden, confused, exhausted and sad. He was gone. What now? How could they go forward? And going back to fishing? That didn’t work either.
Those first few days after the death of Jesus were crucial; the gospel movement vulnerable. But with the dawning of that next new day, there he stands on the shore, the embodiment of life, enthusiastically holding out the promise of new possibilities… new potential… new life… abundant life. Not going back, but going forward into uncharted waters: Friends! he calls from the shore, Try throwing your net on the other side of the boat! Look! Now the net is full, teeming with life.
That’s when they know it’s him. Because no one else does things with such flourish! It’s like the wedding in Cana when they first met him. This is what God’s glory among us looks like: bigger, fuller life… blessed excess. Jesus never does anything less than… always more than… love overflowing. At that wedding party, six jars of water became six jars of the best wine – filled to the brim – enough to serve another cup of wine to 400 people… grace exaggerated.
Here a net empty of fish from a long night of trying – by people who’d fished their whole lives – becomes a net so full they can’t haul it in – they have to tow it in behind the boat and then drag in ashore. And not one tear in the net – not one lost fish.
They don’t even pause to consider how it’s impossible that it’s him. They just know it is. And when they see him and know him, light shines across their darkened hearts and death is a distant memory. That’s a convivial sight for sore eyes.
There’s fish already cooking on a charcoal fire, but he knows fishermen. They’re happiest when they can contribute what they’ve personally caught to the meal. After a frustrating night with nothing to show for it, to be fed only his fish is nice but kind of feels like salt in the wound to a fisherman. Those of you who fish – you know what I mean.
We go to a remote lake in Canada with friends in August. Sketchy cell service, limited electricity, no indoor plumbing, amazing sunrises and sunsets and great fresh fish. There are 4 cabins clustered together in the camp and one big bonfire on the rocks surrounded by Adirondack chairs – a convivial setting if there ever was one.
At the end of the week, we have a Puzzle breakfast – named for the lake, which from the air looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle piece. Everybody fishes throughout the week and the biggest and best fish are put on ice, saved to be shared for the Puzzle breakfast. Fishing hasn’t been as easy in the last few years. It’s not uncommon to see the diehard fishermen in the camp up early that last morning for one more try to catch a Puzzle-breakfast worthy fish.
Bring some of the fish you just caught, Jesus says, inviting them to contribute… to share… to provide a part of the meal… a part of themselves… to serve and be served. That’s a convivial host.
In its earliest use, the word convivial described feasts or festivals. Spirited, jovial, lots of food and drink and good company and laughter… A convivial party was a lively party. It didn’t have to be big or pretentious. Thanksgiving at grandma’s house could be convivial depending upon the relations around the table. But funerals would not be considered convivial – even the best ones. It’s about levity and pleasure and life.
Over time, the word began to describe individual people. So while a funeral itself wouldn’t be convivial, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for a person at a funeral to be — if that person brought life into the room… with a welcoming, open, warm and generous spirit. If that person made an effort to put people at ease, regardless of the circumstances. About that kind of a person, we might say: when he or she enters the room, the mood shifts, light shines, and there’s more peace and good will than before.
Again, we wouldn’t call a person convivial who simply enjoys being by him or herself… it is always in the context of life with and for others.
When Jesus reconnects with his disciples that morning on the beach, this is his primary purpose: to be life and restore life in each one of them, so that his ministry of life can change the world.
Simon son of John, do you love me? Feed my lambs. See how the interchange with Peter is described? It’s not just about Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus – although it starts there. Three times back in the high priest’s courtyard during the trial of Jesus Peter denied being a disciple. Three times on the beach, Jesus asks about his love. Three times in the courtyard, Peter’s word was no – No, I’m not one of his disciples. Three times on the beach, Peter’s word is yes. – Yes, I love you. And it doesn’t stop there.
If you love me, feed my lambs. The new way of fishing, throwing the net on the other side of the boat, was a preview to this: a new way of discipleship. Come and see! Jesus said to his would-be disciples at the beginning of their journey together.
Now they’ve seen. Now it’s time to be good shepherds… to be imitators of Jesus… to abide in him… to be with life in order to bring forth life in the world as convivial community. This is the call for the church – the people of the Way of Jesus – to be a convivial community: a community of life, with life and for life.
How will you grow the church? I was asked in my interview to be pastor here – over four years ago.
People will come here if you love to come here. They’ll see it in your face and hear it in your voice. You’ll invite people to be a part of this because you’re excited to be a part of this, I said.
That’s how conviviality works. It’s contagious. It’s a vibe. You can feel it. It’s authentic and heart-felt and honest and real… it’s boisterous… people laugh and have fun together… there’s always room for more at the table. It’s not perfect or boastful or sanctimonious… people matter… persons matter… relationships matter.
A convivial community is a port in the storm, a welcome home, a safe haven… it is family for the forsaken and friendship for the lonely… it is a healing balm and a place where truth is spoken with grace… where people can begin again and know that new life is not only possible but real… it advocates for the homeless, fights for justice, and loves openly. It is joyful and playful and hopeful and light. In a convivial community, people come together because they like to be together.
When the power was still out in some neighborhoods last winter and the hospital was supposed to be open for emergency shelter, it wasn’t. Our church had power and it was warm, so we made a snap decision to open the doors to allow people to come in from the cold for the night.
The police announced it on their website and the local radio station announced it. And the call went out to church members to come to the church to host members of the community.
People brought games and we ordered pizza and we created a wonderfully convivial atmosphere. Nobody came from the community but we were ready and we had so much fun eating and playing and laughing and being together! That’s being lively in our life together. That’s convivial.
These days in which we live can be inhospitable, divisive, depressing, confusing, violent, dark. We are people of the Word. We are people of the day. We are people of the Word of the Day.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Does God still speak? Always and in all ways. Even before the break of day to a pastor struggling for a Word for her Easter Sunday sermon… even through Gas Station TV. Thanks be to God!
Scripture: John 19:16b-22 Two Parades
Two parades took place outside Jerusalem that year before the festival of the Passover. One was peasant… the other imperial. In their book entitled: The Last Week, theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the parade honorees as if they were boxing opponents:
From the east, is Jesus, from the village of Nazareth. He’s entering Jerusalem riding a donkey, coming down from the Mount of Olives, surrounded by a crowd of peasants.
From the west, is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria. He’s entering Jerusalem on the back of a stallion, leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.
Pilate’s entourage hailed from the beautiful coastal city of Caesarea… home to a Roman outpost. From time to time they’d come to Jerusalem… as peace-keepers and reminders of who’s in charge. The Passover festival was one of those times.
Two parades: One for the top brass, the empire’s elite… the other for the frustrated, the worn out, the hurting and angry and fed up. “Save us now!” cried the crowd surrounding Jesus as they waved their palms.
All the gospels tell about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, but palms are only mentioned in John. We can thank him or blame him for the Christian annual tradition of waving palm branches. Ornithologists and conservationists are among those who aren’t so crazy about it. Because until recently, palm harvesting has been done without thought to sustainability, destruction of habitat, or overall environmental impact. Largely because of this tradition, the world nearly lost the yellow-eared parrot.
Native to the high cloudforests of the Northern Andes, the yellow-eared parrot of Columbia depends on one species of wax palm. It is the only place they’ll nest.
More than a century ago, tens of thousands of yellow-eared parrots lived in the forests of Columbia and Ecuador, but deforestation and Palm parades almost completely decimated its population. In fact they were thought to be extinct until a state forester found one in 1999 in Jardin, Columbia. There were actually a grand total of 22.
Three months after this amazing discovery, on an April Sunday morning, conservationists who’d moved to Jardin to tend this little flock looked down in horror on the town square as hundreds of people paraded behind Pastor Raul Ortiz waving their wax palm branches. In their heads they calculated the damage: for this many branches you’d need 200-300 wax palms — trees that take 25 years to mature … for this one parade.
A team of ornithologists met with the priest and pleaded with him to use a different branch. Please, their lives are at stake.
We have used this palm for 1000 years, proclaimed Padre Ortiz. It is God’s will that we use it. He will never let the wax palm die out.
The conservationists refused to quit. They set up public awareness campaigns and school programs… hired lawyers and talked with landowners.
Pastor Ortiz insisted it was all lies. A propaganda war broke out. Positions hardened. Then came the day when Padre Ortiz was transferred.
God doesn’t care what branches we use, the new priest proclaimed and he chose bamboo.
It wasn’t that easy. Church members rebelled. Trash! That bamboo was trash! said Doña Adela, a widow in the church. Every year for Palm Sunday I arrange beautiful palm branches everywhere. They are magnificent! Bamboo? No.
It was their tradition to save the palms after the priest blessed them and to tuck them behind the door. When a storm is coming, they take a leaf, burn it on the patio and recite three prayers. Then they draw three crosses on the ground with the ash, and the storm clouds pass away. With bamboo, the first day it was green and the second day it was brown. Then the dried leaves fall off and –poof- it’s useless.
Still, the bird advocates would not quit. With time and patience and steadfast work, the tide turned.These days, the children paint and carry banners and they use branches from a native and abundant tree called the iraka. Yes, we used to carry wax palms on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) but we don’t anymore, says a 60-year old man of the church, because the yellow-eared parrot makes his little nest in the tree and in no other. So now we use a different branch. Not as good against storms though, he said.
There are now over 1000 yellow-eared parrots. And Doña Adela? The iraka are puny, she says, but I guess they’re pretty.
Take heart, says a birder who has dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to saving their lives. Sometimes people feel so daunted. It turns out the yellow-eared parrot was suffering from challenges that could be addressed, so take heart.
Our palms came from Ginny – and I think they’re from Florida. But next year, we’re in the gospel of Matthew. The crowd in his story throws coats. Maybe we’ll start a different tradition next year on the Sunday before Easter– a coat drive?
So, why did John specify palms when no other gospel writers did? Knowing what we know about John, it was probably symbolic more than literal.
In ancient Rome, palms symbolized victory — waved regularly in Roman military parades. The date palm was also the symbol of Judaea; the prized fruit of the region. Date palms appeared on the imperial coins printed for Judaea.
Judaean peasants raising and waving palms could mean a few things:
- Waving the symbol of their precious natural resource could mean they were calling for freedom from an empire who harvested at will… employing peasants to work for unfair wages, under oppressive labor laws… waving palm branches could have been a show of resistance to ruthless landowners in the pockets of Rome. Or
- Raising palm branches, the symbol that appeared on their imperial coins could mean they were protesting life under Roman occupation… heavy taxation… economic hardship. Or
- With their palm branches flying high, it could mean they finally believed the day had come. Victory against the Roman empire was near.
Save us now! They cried urgently, expectedly, defiantly – pinning their hopes on this Jesus from Nazareth: Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!
Here’s what else John says about the crowd in this parade:
- They were great in number
- They were diverse in culture – Jews and Greeks
- And they shook up the religious leadership. Speaking to each other about this crowd, the Pharisees said: We can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!
Yet, less than a week after this great demonstration, Jesus walked out of Jerusalem toward Golgotha carrying on his back the instrument of his own execution.
He wasn’t surprised by this. Are we?
There were two parades. One peasant, the other imperial… one powerless, yet frustrated, hurting, hopeful for change, relief, salvation… and the other powerful, traditioned, authoritarian, and in control.
The parade that came from the east – the parade of the peasants looked and sounded like a rebellion. And so, it was treated as one by Pilate. Jesus received a harsh and swift punishment, designed to be both public and shameful: crucifixion, a death sentence reserved for the least and the worst… a slow, painful death… intended to shut down his movement by killing its head and to be a deterrent for anyone else.
Above his crown of thorns hung the sign of his treasonous sentence: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Written in three languages: Greek, Hebrew and Latin– that all may know what he stood for was finished.
The truth is, it wasn’t a rebellion, at least in the way the people in power thought of it. And the great crowd that followed him into Jerusalem? They fell away as soon as he gave his final public speech, and they realized he wasn’t their kind of king.
Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem to overthrow Rome, but to expose it. He lived his kingdom of love, truth and forgiveness until the end, in stark and visible contrast to the hatred and vitriol and dehumanizing power of the kingdoms of this world.
I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness, Jesus cried aloud to the crowd in Jerusalem.
I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.
The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.
I speak what the father gives me to say, and I know his commandment is eternal life.
He was fearless. He was clear-minded, He was truth in the flesh.
And they did not believe and they could not believe because, John said: they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.
When I was about 10, I remember listening to the album Jesus Christ Superstar over and over. I cried every time I listened to it.
When Mel Gibson’s movie: The Passion of Christ came out, I didn’t see it for years. I was in seminary at the time and one of my friends had to see it for a class. She said she stood at the back of the theater holding her stomach and crying as Jesus was brutally beaten for 45 minutes.
I’ve had similar reactions watching Twelve Years a Slave, Mudbound, The Birth of a Nation – and any movie or newsreel that shows pure hatred in the form of violence inflicted by humans against each other or against creation– as abusive power and exploitation of privilege.
Why do we cry and feel sick as we watch things like this?
Because we know it’s wrong… because we know it’s evil… because we know it’s not the world God intended… The trial, the crucifixion – it’s a mirror reflecting the worst of humanity… the darkness and hardness of the human heart. And when we see it for what it is, we cannot abide it. We’re called to renounce it and turn toward light and life and love in Christ.
The African American spiritual: Were You There arose out of the communal slave experience. It calls to mind both the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of humanity. It is at once both a song of condemnation of and solidarity in suffering. By his wounds we are healed.
But it goes far beyond the African American context. Civil Rights leader Howard Thurman shared a story of a visit with Mahatma Ghandi in India: before we left, he asked, ‘Will you do me a favor? Will you sing one of your songs for me? Will you sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”’ He continued, ‘I feel that this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.’”
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
And it should… cause us to tremble… and by our trembling to be moved to choose with even greater conviction a different way: to love, to serve, to forgive, and to stand on the side of truth… to march in the parade that’s coming down from the east… Hosanna is our cry: Save us now! Save us from destroying the world as you have dreamed it to be. Save us for a hopeful and God-filled future.
Scripture: John 19:1-16a What’s in a Name?
In his book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales, author Peter Rollins tells a story that he says was inspired after he saw a car speed by with a bumper sticker that read: If Christianity were illegal would there be enough evidence to convict you? And so the story begins:
In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested and dragged before a court.
You have been under clandestine surveillance… the prosecution has built up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs of you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. From your home, they’ve confiscated: religious books, worship CDs and other Christian artifacts. They found poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you lovingly wrote about your faith.
The prosecution closes by offering your Bible to the judge: a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlining throughout; evidence that you have read and reread this sacred text many times.
Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At times you’ve lost confidence and been on the edge of standing up and denying Christ. But instead, you’ve resisted and remained focused.
The judge asks if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers.
The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting for the judge to summon you back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you back into the courtroom. The verdict is in. The judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak:
“Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.
You stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.
“What evidence?” he replies in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you reply.
“They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.”
“But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?”
“Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more.” replied the judge, “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.”
“But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!”
“Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great, long forgotten secret.
“The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world.
We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christ-like endeavor to create it. So, until you live as Christ and his followers, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then my friend, you are no enemy of ours.”
Lest we be distracted by the seeming equivocation and ambivalence of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, his decision to convict Jesus to die on a cross was intentional. Jesus posed a threat to the empire. Twice in John’s telling of the trial, charges were leveled against Jesus. Two titles he’s claimed, they said. Two names that carry such weight and implication that Pilate physically moved to his touchstones of power to think.
He claims to be the Son of God.
Son of God… What’s in that name? From the heads of Chinese dynasties to Egyptian pharaohs to Greek and Roman emperors, earthly rulers have claimed this title, understanding themselves to be delegates or representatives or even embodiments of the divine. Roman coins during the reign of Caesar Augustus bore his name and the title: Son of God.
This man… this Jesus… makes himself out to be the Son of God? But Jesus was Jewish. Pilate had never heard of a Jewish person claiming to be the Son of God. They didn’t do that. Sons of God, yes – all of Judaism as a people of faith were God’s sons… heirs of God’s promise. But that wasn’t a claim of divinity. It was a claim of blessing.
Yet they said he claimed to be The Son of God… not a Son of God. Who is this man? Where is he from? What does he want? This title can only mean one thing to a Roman mind: power… divine power. And that’s frightening. So Pilate, greatly afraid, retreated to his sanctuary… his praetorium to think.
In Latin, the word Praetor means first. Within the Roman Empire, praetoriums were established for top political officials. When important Romans like Pilate traveled to Jerusalem, he stayed in Herod’s palace, but within Herod’s palace was an inner sanctum, a holy of holies so to speak where the highest ranking political officer executed his power. In our lingo, it would be like the oval office.
Surrounded by symbols of the empire: leather, armor, weapons, banners and golden eagles on poles, inside the preaetorium, this praetor, knew who he was… he could feel his power. He was second to no one there. This was his throne room. He was in charge.
But not because Caesar appointed him. Any authority you have over me comes from above, said the man in chains standing before him.
This is the moment of reckoning… the moment of choice for Pilate: how will he use his God-given authority?
If you release this man, they shouted, you betray Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a King threatens Caesar’s throne.
King? What’s in that name? Son of God was a threat to the imperial religion, but King is a threat to imperial rule… a threat to the whole enterprise. What would this Son of God’s kingdom be like?
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Jesus said. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
A kingdom of truth tellers: every corruption, every exploitation, every economic system that disproportionately favors some over others, every abuse of power, every oppressive law, every scheme and trick of evasion, every idolatry, every demoralizing human construct revealed… exposed for what it is and the damage it does.
That has the power to topple kingdoms and shatter empires.
So now Pilate moves to the stone of judgment: Gabbatha they called it in Hebrew – meaning elevated place. Here, lifted up for all to witness, the irony is at its peak: Pilate, the symbol of empire assumes the role of judge. Standing before him, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe, beaten and bleeding is Jesus, the beleaguered king. Appearing for all to see: the powerful and the powerless.
Pilate renders the verdict, but John tells the story in such a way as to convict the Jewish authorities for their own choice… their ultimate blasphemy: We have no king but Caesar.
And the truth is revealed. Who serves who?
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of men, but of God.
What’s in the name Christian? Who’s in the name? First used to identify members of a new community in Antioch, the name Christian literally means belonging to the anointed one. This new community broke convention by bringing together Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, women and men. They erased class and race lines. Despite their differences they all shared an identity with Christ.
They called themselves People of the Way. From the beginning, they believed that following Jesus meant living a new way of life; challenging the status quo and creating a new social order.
Historian Justin Martyr of the end of the 1st century described it this way: We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.
This way was not the Roman way. These Christians, with their strange customs and social inclusiveness were seen as radical and culturally disruptive. They were a threat to the empire. Sound familiar?
As Peter Rollins imagined that world where Christianity was illegal, he realized that a better bumper sticker might read: Christianity is illegal: is there enough evidence to convict you?
Because he said, if we really live lives that reflect the subversive and radical message of love that give a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced… if we really take on systemic injustice and oppression and expose all that’s undermining God’s dream for the world… we’ll be a thorn in the side of those who’ve made the rules.
I got a call last week from a woman who said: I hear from friends in town that you’ve got quite an activist church.
Active… engaged… living out our beliefs… praying for and working toward a more compassionate, more hospitable, more honest, more just, more Christ-like world.
What a compliment. What an encouragement. What a challenge.
The Rev. David Montgomery stood in this pulpit several months ago and reminded us to stand in our baptismal power. Through our baptism, we are born into a family of God — not subject to the will of people or institutions, but free to live and love and question… free to renounce evil in the pursuit of truth. Let it be so for you and for me and for us as People of the Way of the crucified Christ.
Scripture: John 18:28-40 Dual Citizenship
What accusation do you bring against this man?
In the Greek, the word is kategoria – from which we get our English word category. With whom will you group him? What name will you give him? Criminal they said. Nothing specific, just that he’s a bad man… troublesome… destructive.
The scene is his trial, but really, he’s the only one not on trial. He’s the witness – the only witness. He testifies to truth: exposing hypocrisy, corruption, duplicity, and façade – in every category of the world. Not to condemn it but to save it. It’s what he was born to do. It’s the essence of his kingdom.
Each one: the high priests, leaders and participants of the religious establishment, the governor and soldiers and political officials, people in the crowd and his disciples– you and me and every reader of the gospel of John comes under the light of this testimony.
All that’s hidden is revealed; secrets unveiled: words and silence… posturing and pretense… action and conviction… violence and courage and fear.
From the beginning, the religious authorities stand accused — exposed for their hypocrisy: not going into Pilate’s headquarters so that they could remain clean and undefiled for the Passover feast –while they condemned the embodiment of truth to die. Whitewashed tombs they were – clean and shiny on the outside for public display, but below the surface plotting and conniving to maintain their place in the kingdom of the world.
Pilate too, the face of government, stands trial before Jesus, revealing his own ignorance: What is truth? he asks. Rhetorically? Cynically? Sarcastically? A man in his position – a partisan agent of the empire – a talking head for what Caesar spins as truth…Does this Galilean represent something more? Could there be such a thing as objective, absolute truth? If this man is king of that kingdom – what is the future of Rome?
And then there’s the irony of the final outcry for the release of Barabbas – whose name literally means Son of the Father. Unlike Jesus, he actually is a criminal – guilty of some thievery – a physical manifestation of what they who run the Temple have become.
Remember Jesus’ words? My Father’s House has become a den of bandits.
What do you possess and what possesses you? I asked the group last Thursday night. Our Bible story was about the rich young ruler who asked Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
To which Jesus replied: You know the law of Moses, but there’s still one thing you lack: Go sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor, so that you will have treasure in heaven and then you can follow me. And the young man turned and walked away… sick at heart… for he was very wealthy.
As a group, we gave thanks for the riches in our lives: health, friends, family, church, jobs, homes… and we confessed that our riches can also be a distraction, a false sense of security, a source of pride and privilege and entitlement… they can lead us to strive for more, to never feel contented or that we have enough of a cushion… our riches can make us lose perspective on what’s really important… anxious and self-absorbed in our own “1st world problems”.
What do you possess and what possesses you? I asked. And a variety of answers surfaced: work, overwhelming projects, technology, time…
Interestingly, nobody said truth.
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Jesus said. And then he said: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
To belong to the truth… is to be possessed by truth.
What would that look like?
Remember Jim Carrey’s character Fletcher Reede in the movie Liar Liar? – the fast-talking lawyer who’s built his career on lies and broken promises… Would being possessed by truth look like Fletcher after his son Max blows out the candles with a birthday wish that his dad would go one whole day without the ability to tell a single lie…
Fletcher’s held captive for the next 24 hours — incapable of even the smallest deception – telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to every co-worker, person on the street, judge, juror and witness and even to the police officer who pulled him over and asked:
You know why I pulled you over?
Starting from the top — here goes: I sped. I followed too closely. I ran a stop sign. I almost hit a Chevy. I sped some more. I failed to yield at a crosswalk. I changed lanes at the intersection. I changed lanes without signaling while running a red light and *speeding*!
Is that all?
No… I have unpaid parking tickets.
Is that what it looks like to be possessed by… to belong to truth?
My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus said. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, it’s not a place – it doesn’t have territorial boundaries. It’s not a where, but a how – a way of being and living with God at the center. It stands in stark contrast with all the other imperial models of dominance and control. It operates by different rules.
Jesus said: If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. There’d be a zealous contest – a power struggle – an employment of the world’s weapons and crafts – an uprising — but that’s not how his kingdom of truth works. It’s about shining light upon darkness… exposing and revealing and confession and choice.
To be possessed by truth, is to be filled with an inner drive toward it… to be grounded in it, awakened by it and attentive to it. But to belong to the kingdom of truth is more than about us individually. Kingdom implies it’s communal and mutual – that there’s a social component to it.
It’s not just my truth or your truth or even our truth, but an interconnection to the objective truth of God.
The PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith says it like this:
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
Do you hear both the individual indwelling of the Spirit of Truth and the witness in community: the revealing of hypocrisy in church and state, the listening and working and praying… We are citizens of the world. But as followers of Jesus, we hold dual citizenship. We also belong to his kingdom of truth.
I looked again recently at information I pulled together 5 years ago for a post-Sandy Hook conversation I facilitated at the church I served in Ann Arbor. The school shooting happened December 12, 2012, but I didn’t host the conversation until January 6. A few weeks had passed and I gathered together news clippings representing a variety of perspectives, talking about a range of contributing factors and responses.
I remember the room was full of parents and grandparents. We started with lament: “Where was God?” and “Where wasn’t God?” We read from the psalms, we prayed and we even sang together a contemporary hymn written by Presbyterian Pastor Carolyn Gillette – set to the tune of “Ah Holy Jesus”:
God, we have heard it, sounding in the silence:
News of the children lost to this world’s violence.
Children of promise! Then without a warning,
Loved ones are mourning.
Then we got about the business of naming some truths. I put categories on the board:
- Mental Health,
- Support resources for families with special needs children,
- Gun violence,
We talked about the importance of community to heal social isolation. We named powers and principalities and their hold upon us.
We confessed and we talked about who we were becoming as a human community and what it meant to be children of God in it – dual citizens of the world and of the kingdom of truth.
5 years ago I pulled together news clippings from a whole host of perspectives in preparation for that conversation. This week I looked through them all again and it’s as if, on this conversation, time has stood still.
Jesus, you came to bear our human sorrow;
You came to give us hope for each tomorrow.
You are our life, Lord God’s own love revealing.
We need your healing!
There was a perspective we didn’t have in the Newtown conversation – one that I saw in an article written by Aaron Stark, a stay-at-home dad and writer. It appeared in the Washington Post last week with the headline: I Would’ve Been a School Shooter if I could’ve Gotten a Gun: Laws and Love Prevented Me from Fulfilling a Dark Teenage Fantasy.
In it, Aaron tells his story: a child of a violent and evil father… stepson of a man involved with drugs and crime. Kicked out of the house at 14 for fighting with his stepfather, this obese teenager with a passion for poetry and comic books felt alone and unloved. When the bullying became too much, he dropped out of school at 16 and sought help from a mental health clinic.
Despite his simmering anger and thoughts of suicide, the young and inexperienced intake person at the mental health clinic, decided Aaron didn’t need to stay overnight and sent him away.
He snapped. He tried to get a gun. All he wanted to do was hurt as many people as had hurt him. He wanted to feel something other than pain… wanted to feel in control.
Too young to buy a gun from the store, he contacted a gang of drug dealers his family knew. They agreed to get him a gun. For the next three days, they talked details over the phone.
On the third day, love intervened – in the person of Mike – a neighbor who’d grown up in an intact family… Mike who grew up rich in kindness and love… Mike who stayed in school and stayed in touch… Mike, the face of compassion to Aaron – intervened on that third day and brought him home for the night.
Of course Aaron’s problems didn’t vanish overnight. But Mike never knew what Aaron planned to do and it never materialized. Months later, during another dark time, Mike’s friend Amber stepped in, throwing Aaron a surprise party with blueberry peach pie, a place to clean up and a place to sleep. She literally showered him with grace.
When you are at the bottom, being shown you matter can save you, Aaron said. His recovery took a decade and lots of intensive therapy. That was 25 years ago.
He writes: I do not say any of this to get attention.
I’m not trying to advance a partisan anti-gun message, and I’m not trying to say that mental health is the only issue. But if I’d possessed a rifle, I would have been a killer. If I’d known love, I would never have wanted a rifle.
Heal us from giving weapons any glory;
Help us, O Prince of Peace, to hear your story;
Help us resist the evil all around here;
May love abound here!
I was moved by Aaron’s story. It took courage to tell it. It touched on so many elements of the conversation: social isolation, mental health, gun access laws, the ability to procure a gun illegally and that waiting can make a difference.
He confessed his teenage angst and the desire to hurt others out of his own profound hurt. His story included the impact of growing up in a broken and unsafe family, and the power of love and redemption and embodied grace.
Then I read the comments. There was an overwhelming resonance with this article.
I wonder if this is a voice that’s been too long missing from the conversation. What name will we give this voice, what category? Troubled? Abused? Fringe? Forsaken? Forgiven? Beloved? Child of God?
This is a voice that puts us all on trial – including the voice itself – calls us all into confession and into a deeper truth about our responsibility to one another in every sphere of the world’s kingdom and a renewed call to living and abiding in God’s kingdom of truth.
I ask again the question I ended the Newtown conversation with that day 5 years ago in the Ann Arbor church: Who are we becoming? as individuals, as neighbors, as politicians, as teachers and students, as activists and pacifists and co-workers and as church: Who are we becoming as dual citizens — of the world and the kingdom of truth?
By your own Spirit, give your church a clear voice;
In this world’s violence, help us make a new choice.
Help us to witness to the joy your peace brings,
Until your world sings!
Scripture: John 18:12-27 The Moment of Truth
Traditional Jewish morning prayer begins with 15 blessings, the first of which goes like this:
Blessed are Thou, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, we thank you for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night.
We haven’t had a rooster on our farm since the Halloween Massacre of 2016 when we lost several of our hens, a couple of guineas and our one and only rooster. They went out free-ranging and never came home.
And it’s been blessedly quiet in the mornings – that is until the guineas wake up – which is after sunrise.
Roosters sense the coming dawn; while it is yet dark, they start. The cockcrow for Peter came at his darkest hour… a wake up call… a moment of truth.
All four gospels record Peter’s denial, but John tells it uniquely. This shouldn’t surprise us by now.
We’ve been studying the gospel of John since January and we know he’s more interested in describing the Jesus experience theologically than literally or historically.
Only John interweaves the trial of Jesus and the denial of Peter – crafting a tale of two trials that beg to be read and interpreted together. Only in John is Peter initially left outside – needing the gatekeeper’s permission to enter the courtyard of the high priest. The same Greek word is translated in English as courtyard or sheepfold depending on the context. Only John capitalizes on this word play.
Only in John does Jesus say: Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said. And one who saw and heard everything – the best eyewitness Jesus could ask for – Peter — is there.
But what happens when he’s questioned?
Listen how John’s account of Peter’s denials echoes the 10th chapter of John’s gospel:
Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The gatekeeper opens the gate and the sheep hear his voice… the sheep follow him because they know his voice… I am the good shepherd… I know my own and my own know me.
Peter – where are you? In whose sheepfold? Who are you following? Who do you know? Who knows you? Peter warms his hands by a charcoal fire – standing with them – the Temple servants and officials…
In this account, Peter’s not asked if he knows Jesus. He’s asked if he’s one of his disciples.
For the gospel writer John, to know Jesus is to be in relationship with him and with God’s family… to know Jesus, is to claim allegiance to his tribe… to know Jesus is to call him friend – and to be friends with his friends… to know Jesus is to hold to his teachings… to know Jesus is to love him and through him, to love others.
Am I one of his disciples? No – I am not, Peter answers.
I get that – don’t you? Not really his disciple.
Who could get a passing grade as a student of Jesus? He demonstrates a grace that honestly- who can imitate? Who can really love like that? Forgive like that? We lose our temper or we get weary of caring, or hope gives way to frustration and despair… Am I one of his disciples? Is anyone worthy of claiming that title?
This is Peter who on that same night, lost it in the garden and cut off somebody’s ear – I’m not one of his disciples. He wouldn’t want me on his team. I’m too impulsive… too easily triggered… I won’t be a good spokesperson… I get that — don’t you?
In the mid 1990’s the Christian rock band DC Talk came out with a song titled: What if I Stumble. It opened with a quote from Brennan Manning:
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when the walk becomes a crawl?
Is this one for the people?
Is this one for the LORD?
What if I stumble, what if I fall?
Am I one of his disciples? Sometimes? When it’s convenient? When it doesn’t ask too much of me? When I won’t lose friends? When I won’t offend anyone?
Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?
Today’s text makes me think of a few moments of truth in my life — moments when I weighed the cost of discipleship… moments when I doubted or compromised:
Like in the spring of 2004, when I gathered with fellow McCormick Theological Seminary graduates in the hall outside the auditorium. As we waited to process, several of our fellow students moved through the line, offering us rainbow ribbons to wear as stoles – showing our public support for the ordination of our gay colleagues. I took one and put it on but my best friend who I knew believed it was right – declined the ribbon. I’m not going to be pressured into that right now – this is the wrong time and place, she said.
I wore the ribbon because during my time in seminary, I came to believe I was following Jesus by standing in that place.
And yet, because of her response I began to worry about the consequences of my choice – what would my parents think? or members of my home church? would a church not call me to be their pastor? I worried about photos and having to explain… But wasn’t that exactly the time to bear witness? Where was my courage? Where was my faith? Where was my truth?
In the fall of 2010, I returned from Palestine after experiencing heartbreaking oppression. As a disciple of Jesus, I had to testify. But I took a tempered approach – teaching instead of preaching about it… speaking for the rights of Palestinian Christians instead of the rights of all Palestinians. Being careful and cautious not to speak too critically of Israel. Making the message more palatable for the people in the pew.
Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?
I returned to Israel/Palestine with people from this church in 2015. This time for deeper education on the issues of injustice and to meet Christian activists for the cause of peace. More of us now stand in solidarity, but what does the Lord require of us?
In January of 2016, I chose to exercise my discipleship by joining the Women’s March in Washington DC the day after the inauguration. For the sake of dignity and honor and to speak out against abuse and bullying and demeaning language… for a call for civility and decency, I marched with a sign that said: We Will Hope, We Will Love, We Will Stand, We Will Speak. Several of us went from this church and there was a photo of a few of us on the front page of the newspaper. Did some leave this church because I marched? Maybe. I think so. Did others come?
That’s not why I marched. For me, it was a moment of truth.
This January several pastors in Tecumseh came together to sign a letter of petition to the City Council asking for their support for transitional housing for women and children. One of the pastors in town declined to add his name. He said he supported the shelter, but the cost of engaging publicly for him was too great.
Moments of truth — they punctuate our lives. We have them at work and among our family members. We have them at social gatherings and at church. Courageous conversations in which we dig deep into the roots of our faith identity, into the Way and the Life and the Truth of Christ — seeking to live out the heart of God — purely… honestly… humbly and without fear or offense.
Jesus stood before the chief priests – the religious leaders. After one of the officials slapped him in the face he said:
“If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”
Something Wrong means: destructive, harmful, wicked, disparaging, life-depriving…
Truth means: beautiful, useful, commendable, honorable, genuine, precious, pure, noble, with no room for blame.
So Jesus said: If I said something destructive, harmful, wicked, disparaging, life-depriving, tell me what it is. But if I spoke beautifully and usefully, commendably, honorably – with words that are genuine, precious, pure, noble and without blame, why do you strike me?
We are called to take stands as followers of Jesus: to love and lift up… to fight oppression and oppressors… to speak truth… to make room and to demonstrate grace. There are many, many ways we do that – as varied as we all are. But the truth is this: We are his disciples not because of our worthiness but because of his call.
Jesus chose us, calls us friends and sends us out – as imperfect as we all are – sustained by the Spirit’s power and enduring love – to speak openly – not in secret – unafraid and free.
Peter’s story does not end with that cockcrow. It only just begins. With the dawning of the new day comes realization and confession and a new invitation: I am yours and you are mine, says the Lord, Do you love me? feed my sheep. May it be so for you and for me and for us together as church.
Scripture: John 15:1-17 Celebrate With Me
You should have seen the look on Michael’s face when he bit into the peach.
My gardener friend Julie Conley and I were hosting a farm day for the Evans Creek homeschooling families last August. Several families signed up for it, but that day, one by one they dropped out – sick kids or schedule changes — and it became a private tour of our farm for Michael and his mom.
Michael was about 7 and bursting with energy. He took great delight in everything we did — for about 5 minutes tops. So we just kept running – from one thing to the next: Let’s go feed the chickens! Wanna see the labyrinth? Let’s explore the gazebo! Do you like apples? Let’s pick some berries! Michael – do you like peaches? Let’s go see the orchard – maybe, just maybe there’s a peach ready to taste…
They’re good peaches – great peaches really – Red Haven, freestone – juicy, sweet – Julie says ours are the best peaches she’s ever tasted – and that says a lot. But Michael stopped in his tracks – and maybe even the world stood still – when he took his first bite. His face shone with pure ecstasy. This tastes like God, he said. And we all stood there and took that in.
There’s more to the story of the peaches. Our first spring at the farm, 4 years ago, we decided to build an orchard. That March we ordered about 50 fruit trees: apples and pears, plums and cherries and peaches.
The next month, the trees arrived in their boxes. It was the first week of April 2014. You may remember the ground was still frozen solid by the first week of April 2014 – still covered by a foot of snow. For a couple of weeks they sat in the garage, in their boxes, untouched – 50 trees.
We had nowhere to put them so we didn’t want to open them. After awhile, we were afraid to open them because we knew after this long, they must all be dead.
Expecting the worst, Andy and I ventured, hand-in-hand into the garage. We opened the first box. It was perfect – alive and well-packed – box after box we opened – every tree was safe and protected. They stayed like that until the ground finally thawed and by the end of April we planted them in the nursery.
They all did great, but after two years, they’d outgrown their space and had to be moved. So in April of 2016, with the help of friends, Andy built the orchard: Each hole dug and prepped … the trees transplanted one by one. We doted after these trees – watering them… praying over them.
If love was enough to save a transplanted tree, they all would have made it. But the shock of the move was too much for some. We lost about 1/3 of our trees.
Nobody but the gardener knows the behind the scenes work that goes into producing fruit. Nobody knows the fear, the patience, and the physical effort. Nobody knows the love and the hope, the loss and the disappointment. And nobody knows the joy and delight of the harvest like the gardener. That’s the goal – that’s the prize – that makes all the rest worth it.
This tastes like God, Michael said, indeed.
We lost 1/3 of our trees, but every peach tree made it. Of the fruit trees that made it, only the peaches bore fruit. And they bore a ton of it and it was delicious.
If we focus on the whole orchard, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with loss, cost, frustration and urgency. If we focus on the peaches it’s about celebration and gift and joy and life. And focusing on the peaches gives us hope and strength and motivation to do what we need to do to tackle the rest of the orchard: like getting replacement trees.
This is a metaphor for the church.
It was one of the newest members of our church who suggested we need to celebrate the fruit of our labor more. And she’s right. It was the Tuesday Bible study and we were exploring today’s text together. She’d attended the annual congregational meeting a couple of weeks ago and later, she’d taken the time to read through the whole annual report.
She said she was amazed at all that we accomplished together last year as a church. You’ve been busy! she said. And then she said: Sure there’s lots more work to do – there’s always more work to do – but we need to celebrate the fruit of the harvest more!
It’s the surprising abundance – the unexpected gifts – the peaches that taste like God – that we are invited to delight in. I want you to know the delight I experience, Jesus said.
The worry is not that we will forego our responsibility to the whole enterprise. The worry is that we will get overwhelmed by it… burdened by the workload of it and miss the replenishing joy… the sustaining delights.
One of the things I’ll miss most about Susan Meier as she retires from the presbytery is that she reminded me of this on a regular basis – with her tears of all things.
Susan is the Presbyter for Common Life of the Maumee Valley Presbytery and she’s leaving at the end of this month. Many of you know her because she played a critical role in standing with and supporting this church through the split a few years ago. She spent a lot of time up here in Tecumseh, preaching during times of transition and praying with this church.
The clergy women of the presbytery got together for a send-off party for her on Friday night and we shared favorite Susan stories.
I told about the first time I saw her cry. She was here for a session meeting. Before the meeting, I saw her standing in our gathering space holding the 2014 annual report for this church. Her eyes filled with tears.
Susan, I said, why are you crying?
You have an annual report, she said.
Of course we have an annual report, I said.
And then I remembered the day I first walked into this church. It was May of 2013 and Andy and I were moving to Tipton. I was delighted to see a beautiful PCUSA church right here in Tecumseh and I ventured inside to get more information. The halls were lifeless; the gathering space was bare.
Alena, the church secretary at the time, came out of the office to introduce herself. I told her I was new to town and a Presbyterian and I asked for a visitor packet or annual report or brochure or anything that would tell me about this church and she ran to get Rev. Jim Brown.
Jim was the interim pastor who had come out of retirement to shepherd this church through a split.
When Jim came out of his office, he looked like he’d just climbed out of a bunker. And I don’t mean the kind on the golf course. He looked war-torn and exhausted. We don’t have anything like you’re looking for, he said. We’ve been through a difficult church split and the dust is just now settling. Alena told me later that as soon as I walked out the door, she and Jim put together a brochure.
Susan held that 2014 annual report as if it were the holy grail. Her tears were tears of joy and hope and life. She knew we had a long way to go, but she celebrated that she held in her hands a symbol of early attempts at stability and structure – a budget and a plan.
Over the last three years as I’ve worked with Susan, I’ve told her story after story about this church – about your forgiveness and your courage, about your engagement with the community – and your new ministries. Every time I talk about you she cries – tears of thanksgiving for the harvest. You have to tell the presbytery these stories, she told me often – they will want to celebrate with you.
On Friday night, I gave her a gift bag with the 2017 annual report inside. And I said We’ve come a long way and we still have a lot of work yet to do. But oh how I love to celebrate every step along the way with you.
I will miss her for the perspective she brought to me and to us.
Celebrate the peaches. God’s got the orchard.
Jesus didn’t talk about an orchard, he talked about a vineyard. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all referred to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard.
50 years after the death of Jesus, when the gospel of John was written, God’s vineyard was a mess. There’d been a split in the Jewish family. The traditionalists had kicked the Jesus followers out of the synagogue. So this gospel was written to a fledgling, fragile, embattled and exiled community – a group banished from their place of worship – their home – their faith tradition — their spiritual grounding.
Their wellbeing and the survival of their mission depended upon letting go of that past and leaning into their identity in Christ; turning from the pain and stress of schism and deeply rooting into the grounding of their being in Christ – writing a new story of love and life for the world.
They had huge challenges ahead of them, but all along the way there were unexpected moments of abundant grace. The secret is love. Jesus said: My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. You celebrate our friendship if you obey this command.
Jesus said: You celebrate our friendship if you love.
We too have a lot of challenges ahead of us and hopefully we’ll always have challenges – that’s the sign of a church that’s alive – and a church that’s alive in Christ will bear fruit.
But always remember: God oversees the whole orchard- and as such, knows well the behind the scenes work that goes into producing fruit. And God knows the joy and delight of the harvest and longs to celebrate it with us. So all along the way, there are amazing unexpected abundant gifts provided for us — gifts that bring glory to God… peaches that say: O Taste And See! The Lord is Good!
Our spiritual ancestors celebrated harvest festivals together — huge feasts with family and neighbors and strangers intended to remember the faithfulness of God, to develop and strengthen holy friendships, and renew hearts and hopes and lives.
I pray for an openness to spontaneous celebrations of God’s joy and friendship among us. Like last night’s mini golf outing. I pulled into the parking lot at 10 minutes to 6 — and found it half-full. And I went to that place — that familiar place of disappointment — wondering why more people weren’t there. But was I wrong! God is good!
People continued to pour in– filling the house with laughter and joy — playing together – the biggest field we’ve ever had – celebrating new friendships in Christ – friendships that didn’t exist a year ago – friendships that will pave the way for new ministry together – bringing hope and light and love to our church and our town.
I give thanks to God for each and every one of you: for the opportunity to work hard alongside each other, yes, but also for the fun we have together– celebrating the goodness of God. To God be the glory now and forever.
Scripture: John 9 Learning to See
What did you think of the opening ceremony of the Olympics Friday night?
What did you think of the North and South Korean athletes walking together – the flag bearers – one from each side of the deep division together holding the Korean flag? And of the torch bearers one from each side – both women playing for the same ice hockey team… a unified Korean ice hockey team?
What did you think of the singers singing John Lennon’s Imagine: Imagine all the people… living life in peace… singing: you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one – I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one – to a stadium full of people waving candles?
What did you think of the symbols – the doves, the fire, the future with hope?
Can we dare to believe in the transformational hope that such deeply divided people on the brink might find their way to reconciliation? Could they exemplify for the world that a seemingly impossible peace can be achieved? Is this the place for miracles? For God’s work to unfold?
Or is it just propaganda – the manipulation of a tyrannical regime?
What do you see? How do you see?
That’s really the better question.
We all saw the same thing – with the exception of colors maybe – but how do we perceive what we saw?
They all saw him standing there before them.
Some saw him as the blind beggar, others saw someone who looked like the blind beggar but couldn’t be him. Still others saw him as a sinner, a liar, a threat, maybe even a demon. His parents saw him as a son – and yet, in him, they also saw their own presumed guilt and because of him, they saw in the faces of the others, pity and shame.
Helen Keller once said, “a person who is severely impaired never knows her hidden sources of strength until she is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape her own life.” Jesus saw the man born blind as one in whom the glory of God waited to be revealed. He saw a witness, a beloved child. He saw him whole.
Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is traditionally Transfiguration Sunday in the Christian Church. Preachers around the world today are turning to the 9th chapter of the gospel of Mark: Jesus on a mountaintop with his disciples Peter, James and John – and suddenly he transfigures before them… his clothing dazzling white. The glory of God shines through him.
But we’re in the 9th chapter of the gospel of John – the only gospel of the four that doesn’t include the story of Jesus on the mountaintop. Instead, the whole gospel of John is about transfigurations – of God being made known.
Returning from the pool of Siloam just outside the city gates where he washed the mud from his dark eyes as they filled with light, the man came and stood among them – transfigured. What happened to him and through him is extraordinary. The glory of God poured forth from him –
but they couldn’t see it.
They knew who he was – day after day for years they’d walked past him – sitting there with his hands out eager to receive their contributions – but standing there now in front of them — it’s not what they see, but how they see – how they perceive what they’re seeing.
They just can’t believe it! It’s true. He tells them it’s true. But it’s crazy the lengths they’ll go to deny it and then finally to deny him. He’s an outsider at the beginning of the story – a beggar – destined to a life beyond the Temple gates – born blind – born in sin they believed. And he’s an outsider at the end of the story – his sight, his testimony, his challenge proving too uncomfortable for them.
It’s not surprising, really, that they react the way they do. We all do it. It’s the way our brains work when faced with cognitive dissonance – the uneasiness that comes when new ideas collide with others we’ve deeply held.
We are capable of changing our minds. The human brain has neuroplasticity — we can accommodate new information and our thinking can evolve. But the more entrenched our attitudes and convictions, and the stronger our emotional investment in them, the harder it is.
How we see the world is determined by our deeply ingrained patterns of thinking – mind-sets we were raised with… or learned overtime from our life experiences, convictions reinforced by people or institutions we trust.
The more hard-wired these are, the more difficult they are to remap. Add to that our fear of being wrong… of losing confidence… of being kicked out of our tribe… and we will ignore, deny, justify and rationalize with the best of them.
In his book: Body, Soul and Human Life, Dr. Joel Green talks about how this plays out in the political realm: Staunch Democrats and hard-core Republicans hear the same data but, predisposed to interpreting them differently, they walk away with opposing conclusions. He cites a study conducted at Emory University prior to the 2004 presidential election:
Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they were to evaluate damaging information about their own candidate. As the researchers studied brain activity, notably absent among the subjects was any activation of the neural circuits implicated in conscious reasoning once they were confronted with damaging evidence. Instead, emotionally biased reasoning led to reinforcement and a defending of beliefs. The participant’s “revisionist” account of the data resulted in positive emotion, relief and elimination of distress.
The same can be said of racial bias and religious conviction – leading to an inability to see what we cannot believe to be true.
Jesus is looking for a different response—a courageous faith and trust – a willingness to learn to see anew. Leaving behind the people who chose to remain blind, Jesus found the man they threw out. This one, he welcomed into his fold.
How can we learn to see anew? How can our deeply ingrained attitudes change?
Do not be conformed to this world, wrote the Apostle Paul to the Romans, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote to the Philippians.
This is conversion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. This, when you really think about how stubbornly we hold onto things – returning over and over again to the deep-set patterns of our behaviors – this is where God goes to work – this is the stuff of miracles – transforming us from the inside out.
And this is also where the church comes in – the community of faith.
When we practice living the mind of Christ together, the experiences we share actually shape and form our perceptions – literally they remap our brains, changing the way we behave and think. Think about this:
— When we participate in local mission… when we step out of our comfort zones to get to know our neighbors through Invisible City, we learn to really see people… to see the love of God in and through them and our hearts change. They get a little bigger.
— When we sit at the table for a Courageous Conversation – especially one that we think might really challenge what we’ve always believed… when we participate in education classes and we listen to other voices, other stories, other perspectives… we learn to see differently – learn to see God at work in and through the room and our minds change. They grow a bit wider.
— When we share a prayer request or write down one that’s been shared and really pray for someone else… when we pray for eyes to see them with compassion, to hold them with care and to lift them into the light of God, we learn to sense God’s healing grace in all and through all.
— When we give generously and we pay attention to the way our gifts go out of this place into the community and into parts of the world ravaged by storms and earthquakes, we feel what it is to be part of the body of Christ at work – restoring the streets and rebuilding hope. And our spirits lift.
Two stories with parallel trajectories appear in our transfiguration text this morning. One of a man born blind who learns to see and to believe and the glory of God is revealed through him. The other of people who choose to remain in darkness, stuck in what they think they know, rigid and closed and blind to the power and presence of God right there in their midst.
Who are we and where are we? Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD we pray, and teach us to see.
Scripture: John 4 Spirit and Truth
The story of John 4 is interspersed throughout our service this morning,
introducing different parts of our worship.
GATHERING AT THE WELL
In a small Samaritan town known as Sychar, Jesus and his entourage
stopped to rest at the historic well that Jacob gave his son Joseph.
It was about noon when Jesus found a spot to sit close to the well…
From his vantage, he watched as a Samaritan woman approached
to draw some water.
We’ve gathered together again, as we do week after week, at the well.
We come to step out of the world where the rush and hurry of life can leave us parched and dry
and step into a place of grace.
Here we remember who and whose we are.
Here we hear the old, old story of Jesus and his love again:
his love for you, his love for me, his love for the world.
Here we sing songs and pray prayers that connect us to a greater reality than our own individual story
— yet one which hallows each life… each heart… each voice.
Here we are invited to experience and share a peace that passes understanding.
Here we’re encouraged to drink deeply of honesty, humility and community centered in Christ.
Like so many years ago in a small Samaritan town,
Jesus meets us here, at the well.
He’s thirsty for genuine relationships.
We’re thirsty for meaning and purpose and connection and home.
“GIVE ME SOME OF THAT WATER”
Can I have a drink of water?
You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink?
If only you knew what God gives and who is asking you for a drink,
you would ask him and he would give you life-giving water,
and you would never be thirsty again.
Sir, can I have some of that water?
This morning we’re welcoming new members to our faith family.
All of their stories are different — where they’ve come from, their faith backstories,
their interests, gifts, passions and hopes.
Most of them grew up in the church.
Some walked away for awhile.
Others were driven away.
None are life-long Presbyterians.
In this group of 7, we have Jewish, Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Evangelical,
Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran and Presbyterian roots.
About the only constant in their stories was a spiritual hunger… …a thirst… a longing for home.
Each one of them talked about finding it here.
Here they feel welcome.
They’re excited to follow Jesus with this family of faith.
At this time I invite the new members to the baptismal font.
Go, call your husband, and come back.
I have no husband.
You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’
for you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true!
This part of the dialogue is heartbreaking.
It’s about loss and abandonment… social ostracism and desperation.
We don’t learn the circumstances of this woman’s life,
only that it’s been punctuated by a series of broken relationships.
Widowed? Divorced? Some combination of both?
Resist the urge to label her immoral. We don’t know her life.
We do know that patriarchy defines her social, economic and theological reality.
Jesus knows what this means for her.
That’s why he refuses to leave her alone, but instead, calls her deeper into truth and life.
We too are invited to face the truth of our lives before one who knows everything there is to know about us, sees us for who we were created to be and loves us with a deep and abiding love. Let us open our hearts before God in honest and humble confession…
THE LIVING WORD
Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,
but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem.
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will
worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
You worship what you do not know;
we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
But the hour is coming, and is not here,
when true worshipers will worship the Father
in spirit and truth.
I know that Messiah is coming.
When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.
I am he, the one who is speaking to you.
Last week we met with Al Chambers a retired journalist and educator.
He’s our speaker for the February Courageous Conversation Wednesday evening the 21st at 7pm.
The title is: Real News Matters.
It’s about a thirst for truth… a frustrating and nagging thirst to get to the bottom — the essence
— to cut through political theater and bias
— to lay bare distortion and manipulation of data and reveal absolute and objective truth.
Al is a news junkie — he’s spent his life researching, writing, interpreting and teaching the art of journalism. He’ll talk with us about this phenomenon known as “fake news” or “alternative facts” and how we can become better equipped to navigate a story. But, he said, and we agreed, truth is much bigger than real news.
To his disciples, Jesus said: If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
I have no husband, the Samaritan woman told Jesus.
What you have said is true. Jesus said. But not the whole truth.
That’s not the end of the conversation. It’s only part of her story — the part that constrains her and keeps her self-identity slave to the way she’s perceived by others– culturally, religiously, and socially.
It’s the past reality of her life, she knows it and he knows it — and now she knows he knows it — and the terrible consequence of it — but the truth of her future sits patiently before her — embodied truth — promising living water — promising an end to her thirst — promising new life.
Her community condemned her. Orthodox Jews condemned her.
But God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. That’s the truth that led Jesus into her land to her well to sit with her and see her and reveal God’s way to her.
She asked him about worship — the great theological question of her day — where can we find God? On our mountain or in Jerusalem? No — not in a place, God is Spirit, Jesus said, those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Week after week we come into this sanctuary… this sacred space with the past realities of our lives in tow and we remind each other – through all of the movements of our worship together: songs and prayers, confessions and grace, passing of the peace, sharing of joys and concerns, the offerings of our gratitude, and breaking bread at the family table — that our past realities — who we have been and what we have done – that’s only part of the story.
The future embodied Truth in Jesus sits patiently here before us and among us, seeing us for who we really are and who we were created to be and calling us forth, emboldening our voices, strengthening our witness for each new day.
She came to the well to get water – like she did day after day after day in the only life she knew until she met him and on that day, everything changed. She even left her water jug behind — like it really didn’t matter anymore — just as he said.
In the words of Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis: She left behind her ostracism, her marginalization, her loneliness, because Jesus brought her into his fold. She left behind her disgrace, her disregard, and the disrespect she has endured to enter into a new reality, a new life that is abundant life… she is not only an example of what it means to be a witness. She embodies fully the transition from darkness to light, from outsider to insider. She is reborn.”
And her voice is critical. Her story is the story of every woman who ever leaned into the Truth of Jesus to find sure footing and inner confidence to deny the boundaries and limitations put upon her by a wider society and speak.
She is crucial to the purposes of God. As Rob Bell says it: “If you don’t have her leadership,if you don’t have her wisdom, her voice, her perspective, you’re not just missing her, you’re missing something central to the very core of who God is.”
As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called by the Spirit to be practitioners of truth in all the corners of our lives — practitioners of a deeper truth — a capital T Truth – that reveals the heart of God to and for all people… to and for all creation… to and for ourselves.
We are not, as some would say, living in a post-truth world. There’s nothing post about the living Truth who is and was and ever shall be.
Come to the table set in his name and for his glory. Come and see the Body of Christ for the world.
COME AND SEE
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!
He cannot be the Messiah, can he?
Who he is, she’s not sure. All she knows is that he knows her, truly.
And the people of her village do come and see and they believe because of her word.
And the word spread and they heard it and they came to know him as the Savior of the World.
Come and See, he said. Come and See, she said. Come and See and Know and Live.
Scripture: John 3:1-21
Sermon Title: How Can This Be?
In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find, Philip Yancey tells a story about his college roommate Reiner. Reiner was from Germany and after he graduated, he returned to Germany where he taught at a camp for the disabled:
Relying on college notes, Reiner gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life: ‘Regardless of the wheelchair you’re sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!’ he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged.
He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.
The campers found listening to him equally disconcerting. Some of them went to the director of the camp and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. ‘Well then, tell him!’ the director said.
One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner: ‘It’s like you’re talking about the sun and we’re in a dark room with no windows,’ she said. ‘We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming, about victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.’
Reiner was crushed. To him the message seemed so clear. His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: ‘there’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.’
Thankfully, instead after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: ‘I don’t know what to say,’ he told them the next morning, I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.’ He stayed silent and hung his head.
The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room of disabled people: ‘Now we understand you,’ she said, ‘Now we’re ready to listen.’ Now we can begin.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, the apostle Paul wrote to the church he founded in Corinth, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
How can this be? Nicodemus, the learned Jewish leader and scholar, pinnacle of human wisdom, who prided himself on a lifetime of exploring and explaining Jewish law to the finest detail and application… asked Jesus. How can this be?
There in the darkness – symbolically the place of hard-heartedness, ignorance and spiritual blindness… this renowned teacher and intellectual elite couldn’t get his head around it… this whole idea of being born again – what did it mean?
I was raised Presbyterian but when I was a child, my mom began attending a women’s Bible study led by a Baptist and not long after, my parents joined a couples Bible study led by the Baptist minister. We never changed churches, but I started hearing about the need to be “born again”.
In middle-school, my parents sent me to a Baptist camp. I bought a King James Bible there – the only version they sold. They taught me about the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. And at every chapel, they told us we were sinners in need of forgiveness – a forgiveness that could be ours if and only if we prayed the sinner’s prayer that went something like this:
Dear Jesus, I know I’m a sinner and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you into my heart. I want to follow you. In your name, I pray, AMEN.
If you prayed that prayer, sincerely, from the bottom of your heart, you were born again. You only needed to do it once – if you meant it – but at the close of every chapel when they asked again, I was never really sure if I meant it enough. This was serious business and the stakes were high because, as they reminded us over and over again, only those who are born again will go to heaven.
I took that theology with me through high school and into college, but the world got bigger and things got more complicated and the box around God wasn’t nearly big enough. That phrase “Born Again” started to feel like a spiritual bludgeon — used as a litmus test of faithfulness.
I had a growing number of questions and the answers weren’t comfortable anymore.
Last week I talked about a book I’m reading: Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. It’s filled with story after story told by people, most of whom were actively involved with their church, about why the church no longer felt like the place where they could grow in their faith. Every person and every story is unique, but common themes emerge.
People are looking for dialogue not lectures… meaningful conversation and an enlarging faith.
Mystery, doubt, uncertainty, questioning… people want the church to engage them in authentic conversation rather than provide predetermined canned answers.
Mark said: I question things. It’s how I understand God.
Jackson said: I want to think critically about my religion, and to critically challenge things.
I do a lot more questioning now, Ella said, If the church can accept that and facilitate it, then great. I would love to go there. If it can’t, I’ll move on.
Trying to know God by distilling him down to a set of dogmatic assertions is just crazy, said Joel.
I was warned when I headed off to cemetery… seminary that it would kill my faith. It didn’t. What it did, by design, was systematically challenge all of the beliefs I brought in with me – all the things I thought I knew for sure – and break them wide open, forcing me to look at them again in different contexts, with alternative interpretations… seen through other eyes. I left a lot of theology classes with a pounding headache.
But it was there that I leaned into the counsel of poet Rainer Maria Rilke: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Seminary is a journey of loosening tightly held convictions in order to gain comfort in ambiguity, to practice holding hospitable space in the midst of theological difference and to learn, by God’s grace, to speak a new language of humility and openness, what Brian McLaren calls Generous Orthodoxy. He defines orthodoxy not as right thinking or right opinions, but rather what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which, we all have a whole lot to learn.
Haven’t we in our education classes here at church often left with more questions than answers – or maybe a new set of questions? That’s by design — to invite us into deeper exploration and openness to the heart of God… for therein lie opportunities to be born anew.
How can this be? Nicodemus asked. And he went silent… there at the edge of human finitude is where the unbounded divine mystery waits. There is the opportunity for new life – for new eyes to see what hasn’t been seen before… for the kingdom of God to be revealed… for faith.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: verily verily – meaning listen up – what I am about to say is of ultimate importance: No one is able to experience the realm of God unless they are born – and here the Greek word has two meanings: again and anew.
Nicodemus chose the first meaning – literally asking how someone could be born a second time.
Jesus intended the second meaning – describing a different kind of birth – a new birth of the Spirit. People are born both of water – meaning biologically and of spirit – of God.
It is a spirit birth… an awakening… a process of transformation that brings a new way of seeing the world through God’s love. This way, according to Jesus defies definition and reaches beyond the limits of human knowledge, manipulation or expectation. It doesn’t depend upon us getting the words right in a prayer or really meaning it from the bottom of our hearts, in fact, it doesn’t depend on how we do it at all… it’s a letting go and opening up to God. And it’s not a one and done thing, but a lifelong moment by moment opportunity for greater life and light and love by God’s grace and God’s Spirit at work, blowing like the wind in and through us. In this, we come to know God. By this, the realm of God is revealed.
German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote: “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.”
Church refugee Cora learned this when her infant grandson died.
Pre-packaged theological answers were not at all helpful to her. But she came to know God, experiencing God’s love through her dark and tender grief. I heard God speaking to me for the first time, Cora said, I don’t think about God in the same way anymore. It was painful, but it has deepened my understanding of the love of Christ.
Often in graveside services I share this poem by Susan Palo Cherwien:
There is no stillness in life,
but what one holds in the heart.
There is no peace,
but what one has in the soul.
There is no calm in life,
but what one finds in God.
God has not promised us security
God has not promised us certainty
God has not promised us freedom
freedom from suffering
freedom from pain.
Life is a journey through all of these.
But what God has promised is…
“When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers
they shall not overwhelm you.”
What God has promised is
Have no fear.
How can this be? we ask.
And Jesus says:
God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who opens his or her heart, mind and soul to him in an intimate relationship would not remain lost but would have abundant, unending life, beginning now. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved over and over again through him.
What is the response to that kind of love but wonder: How can this be?
Scripture: John 2:13-25
Sermon Title: Zeal for Your House
Before I sat down to write my sermon this week,
I had to clean my closet. I don’t have that big of a closet and everything was wedged in there –
wedged to the point of hanging funny and falling off hangers and wrinkling.
Just to get something out that I wanted to wear was an effort.
I knew some things in there didn’t need to be there anymore… they were out of season, out of style or in Marie Kondo’s words: they just didn’t spark joy anymore.
I asked my 22 year-old daughter Courtney to be my consultant and we got to work. Do we need to do this right now? she asked, Yes. Right now, I said.
Sounds like procrastination to me, she said.
Really? Actually, it’s theological reflection, I said.
Hidden behind things I never wore anymore, I found a long lost sweater I love. Removing the excess clutter gave me access to the clothes I want to wear. Now I can see what’s missing and there’s room for new life.
My minor irritation at the state of my closet, pales in comparison to the zeal that consumed Jesus as he entered the Temple.
Harvard Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy, Rabbi Shaye J.D. Cohen says this about the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus:
Everybody realized that this was the one most sacred place on earth, the one place on earth where somehow heaven and earth meet, where somehow there is a telephone connection, perhaps we would say, between heaven and earth, where the earth rises up and heavens somehow descend just enough, that they just touch….
Jesus called it “My Father’s House”.
He and his disciples came down from the seaside village of Capernaum in Galilee to join faithful Jews from around the world in Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover.
What they found when they got there was a far cry from the Passover theme of liberation from slavery and a far cry from worship. Everything smacked of the big business of Passover… the economy of the Temple. At every turn were merchants selling animals for sacrifice. But the poorest pilgrims could only afford a bird, so there were people selling pigeons and doves too. But at two days wages for a pair of doves even that was hard. And if the doves you just bought didn’t pass inspection inside the Temple gates, you’d have to buy two more, but this time at 40 days wages.
And you can’t use your Roman coins. Coins with images of the Roman Empire had to be exchanged for Temple currency. Otherwise, it’s idolatry according to the Jewish law.
And the Money Changers don’t work for free.
And what about the cottage industries that cropped up to sell “needed” products and services to the pilgrims – to guarantee their purity or supplement their offering or give them a token to take home to remember their trip.
And everybody upped the ante by adding the religious element: you want to buy the best for God.
Yet, where was God in any of it? As Jesus looked around and took it all in – watching the pilgrims buying cheap substitutes for the real hunger that drove them there – while the religious authorities looked on, profiting from all the layers of excess and distraction… This wasn’t his Father’s house… it was a marketplace!
I’m reminded of a church in Denver — Connection Metro Church, it was called. Their eight satellite churches had foyer coffee bars to attract visitors. They decided to abandon ministry altogether to focus on coffee. A press release described their decision:
“People liked the coffee a lot better than the ministry, according to congregational surveys, so we’re practicing what we preached and focusing on our strengths,” says former teaching pastor and now chief marketing officer, Peter Brown.
Many in the congregation seem downright relieved.
“The sermons were okay, but the vanilla frappes were dynamite,” says one woman who regularly attended the church for two years so she could enjoy the special brews. “I even brought my Jewish neighbors and they loved them.”
The staff of Connection Metro Church began noticing last year that more money was coming in through the coffee bar than in the offering.
“People complimented us about the pastries and mochas but didn’t really mention the teaching,” says Brown. “After feeling disappointed, we got pragmatic about it and realized God was telling us where to put our efforts.”
The church renovated each of its locations into Connection Coffee Houses and removed most traces of its spiritual past. Now crowds are up and many former members are flourishing.
“Who knew I was so gifted at making foam?” says the former head usher, now the head barista, as he makes a heart-shaped design on a cappuccino.
The church’s small groups have been turned into neighborhood reading clubs, with some reading Christian titles and others following Oprah’s recommendations.
The only visible remnants of the coffee house’s past are the offering bucket which serves as a tip jar, and the greeters stationed at the door to give a more welcoming feel than the nearby Starbucks.
Some former members were stunned to arrive at church Sunday morning to find the sanctuary transformed into a seating area with newspaper racks and coffee-themed gift items.
“I guess we’ll go back to the Methodist place,” said one father who had brought his family. “But only after we try those delicious looking chocolate cream-filled croissants.”
People in the surrounding neighborhoods say they are far more likely to stop by now. One man who came occasionally says he feels less guilty standing around the coffee counter now that there is no service taking place.
“Before, we had to sit through the service and pay our dues,” he says. “Now we go right to the good stuff — the double espressos.”
The staff also feels liberated now that the pressure of ministry is off.
“The best way to be relevant is to give people what they want,” says Brown. “In our case, that’s coffee drinks.”
It’s not a real church, but it could be. It, like the story in John’s gospel is a cautionary tale, of an institution that’s lost its heart and forgotten its purpose… selling out to cheap and crowd pleasing substitutes, tangling up in rules and bureaucracy, or running itself ragged in busy work that fails to nurture faith.
We laugh at the made up coffee church, but it’s easy to get distracted… caught up in the next latest and greatest marketing idea designed to grow the church… when the best strategy is the oldest strategy: remember whose house it is.
Rachel Held Evans is a New York Times best selling author from Tennessee. She writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt. She left the church when she was twenty-seven. Three years later, as she was trying to find her way back, she wrote a blog entitled: 15 Reasons I Left the Church.
Here is a link to her blog for the whole list https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/15-reasons-i-left-church, but for now a few excerpts:
- I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers…but they only wanted me to plan baby showers.
- I left the church because when we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex.
- I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities.
- I left the church because sometimes it felt like a cult, or a country club, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.
- I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt.
- I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
- I left the church because I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up.
- I left the church because I wanted to help people in my community without feeling pressure to convert them to Christianity.
- I left the church because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience.
The next day, she followed up with another list: 15 Reasons I Returned to the Church: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/15-reasons-i-returned-church
Again – excerpts:
- The fact that when somebody gets sick or dies or has a baby or loses their job, it’s the church ladies who are the first to show up at the front door with a casserole and a hug
- Sucking up my pride and embracing the fact that, like it or not, I need community…and real community isn’t about surrounding myself with people just like me
- Liturgy that reads like poetry
- Learned that I didn’t have to choose between my intellectual integrity and my faith
- The Mission (our church plant), which even though it failed on paper, changed my life and gave me hope for the future of the Church
- Friends with whom we gather each week for movies, food, and conversations about God…
- Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace
Story after story like Rachel’s appear in the book Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. https://www.amazon.com/Church-Refugees-Sociologists-reveal-people/dp/1470725924
The people they studied remarked time and again that they worked diligently for reform within the church but felt the church was exclusively focused on its own survival and resistant to change. If they stayed, they would risk further estrangement from their spiritual selves, from God, and from a religion they still believed in. Hence the word refugee.
Every church refugee’s story is unique, but the authors of this book summarized four common tensions:
- They wanted community and got judgment.
- They wanted to affect the life of the church and got bureaucracy.
- They wanted conversation and got doctrine.
- They wanted meaningful engagement with the world and got moral prescription.
Reading this book makes me want to flip some tables. I get angry and sad and reflective and humble and confessional and determined. It would be a great book for us to study together. In the words of one of our elders: Where we are any of these things, we need to fix it and where we’re not, we need to communicate it.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order defines the Calling of the Church this way:
- The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body.
- The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
- The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation… a new beginning for human life and for all things.
- The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
- The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
After I put the finishing touches on my newly organized closet, I sat down to write this sermon.
From my loft office I look directly across the room at big wooden beams supporting the walls and ceilings of our log house.
In the place where two of the beams met at a 45 degree angle – where the ceiling and the wall meet, there was a huge spider web. That cannot stay there, I thought to myself. So I left my desk, grabbed a long dust pole and swept it away. Free once more of distractions, I lit a candle, made myself a pot of Peaceful tea and got to work.
Free from distractions… free to worship… free to question… free to experience real community… free access to the Source of all life and meaning… free to forgive and be forgiven… free to love and be loved… free to discover purpose and meaning and new life.
May all that we are and all that we do as Church bring glory to God. May zeal for Your house, O Lord, zeal for Your people, zeal for Your Kingdom and zeal for You consume us, we pray.
Scripture: John 2:1-11
Sermon Title: The Life of the Party
Oh that the stone jars could tell their story. What would they say? There they were, standing off to the side of the room like six obedient soldiers. The all-important first stop of the evening.
It was the custom… religious ritual. First thing’s first: pay homage to the purification jars. Dip in the cup, pour the clean, pure water first over one hand and then the next… careful, careful… nothing dirty comes in contact with the water… people’s hands come into the room dirty – contaminated with who knows what… unclean! Unclean! Not welcome to the table. Not welcome to the feast until they visit the stone jars. That’s how important they were.
All night long they worked faithfully, these jars, doing what they had always done. Accomplishing the task they were ordained to do… until that moment when everything changed.
What was inside them became totally new. And then, what a dramatic turn of purpose!
People no longer came to them to be made clean. What was inside them was taken out… enjoyed, celebrated… The stewards enthusiastically dipped, served and returned to them for more and more…
People seemed genuinely surprised and amazed by what they tasted – they couldn’t get enough. What these jars held now was refreshing, desired…
They had been transformed… from the inside. And what they offered now changed the whole room. Ordinary jars became extraordinary vessels… dispensers of something fine, something noteworthy. No longer off to the side visited out of obligation, they became the life of the party.
What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.
So begins John’s story of Jesus’ public ministry – not in the synagogue or on a mountaintop – not preaching or teaching – but at a wedding – a family celebration shared with the whole community.
He was there with his mom and his disciples, as a guest alongside all the other common folk of the village. And this is the first sign of his glory, his excellence, his brightness, splendor, dignity, majesty… revealed… epiphanied – only to those close to him and the servants and us (the readers of John’s gospel). To everybody else, it was just another wedding – except for that amazing wine that came out after awhile.
But we, we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only son.
This is what we’re in for in the gospel of John – over and over again – glimpses of God’s glory revealed in Jesus among us.
They’re signs – pointing to something bigger and fuller… signposts of that which is other and outer, C.S. Lewis says… or what theologian Stephen Webb calls blessed excess.
God’s grace, God’s love is never just enough, but always, over the top. One of those jars would have given another cup of wine to over 400 people – instead 6 jars were filled to the rim – and not 3-buck chuck, but the best wine.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, Jesus said. Come and See.
Can we learn to imagine more than we know, Stephen Webb asks,
Can we say more than we dare to believe,
act more boldly than we know is wise and rational,
see more than realism displays,
hope more broadly than the facts would allow?
When the wine gave out at the wedding, his mother said: They have no wine.
The wine came up short… failed to be enough. She made a rational observation… stated a fact. And the she in this case was his mother. A voice of human authority — to Jesus – spoke definitively: It’s done. It’s gone. The party is over. There is no. more. wine.
And Jesus aware of an authority greater than his mother’s, answered with a question – literally What to you to me. It’s a Semitic idiomatic phrase that might best be translated: – What’s this to us?
That’s the generative question in this story: the question that gives birth to all that happens next:
What’s this to us?
What’s this problem to people of hope?
What’s this insufficiency to people of faith?
What’s this limitation to people of light… people of life… people of God?
What are failures and dead-ends but resurrection opportunities… stone transforming possibilities… moments of epiphany… God’s glory – God’s blessed excess revealed?
Tomorrow night our City Council will once again vote on a proposal before them – the next step toward allowing the former Herrick Manor to be repurposed as transitional housing for women and children. A place transformed with new life.
They’ve voted against it once already, despite Promedica’s desire to gift the facility to Neighbors of Hope a non-profit ministry well experienced in managing housing and services for people in need… despite the city zoning commission’s recommendation to approve it… despite meetings held before rooms full of supportive city residents.
Rumors abound as to the reasons some council members may not support it.
Some think there’s prejudice, racism or fear lurking under the surface. Others see politics and economics at play.
Meanwhile there’s an empty facility and families in need of shelter and a future with hope.
Several of the pastors in town signed a unified statement of support last week, printed in the Herald, encouraging the city council to vote in favor:
Within our churches are volunteers standing at the ready, we wrote, eager with open hearts and willing hands to reach out with love. Through this proposal, we have the opportunity to come together to provide realistic and practical support for families in need of temporary housing. Secure shelter and compassionate neighbors can pave the way for restored hope and dignity, leading to a stronger future.
Still, the fact remains, the vote could come up short tomorrow night.
There could fail to be enough members on the council in support. The mayor could put down the gavel and effectively say: there is no more wine.
If this happens, and it might happen,
What’s this to us? As people of faith, hope, light and life… As people of God:
What’s this to us?
Can we learn to imagine more than we know?
Can we see more than realism displays?
Can we hope more broadly than the facts would allow?
Can we act more boldly than we know is wise and rational?
Can we dare to believe that Jesus meant it when he said:
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly…
What are failures and dead-ends in our personal, professional, religious or civic lives but resurrection opportunities… possibilities for new beginnings… for long-held traditions and institutions to be made new from the inside out… for stone cold hearts to be broken open … for moments of epiphany to burst forth… revealing God’s glory?
Glory. The Greek word is doxa from which we get our word Doxology:
I do not seek my own glory, Jesus said, If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my father who glorifies me. It is for God’s glory that the Son is glorified, he said.
And then, in his farewell prayer recorded in the gospel of John, he said this as he prayed for us:
The glory you have given me I have given them.
If God can be glorified through stone jars, how much more can God be glorified through our lives… through our church… through this town? In ways we’ve never even dreamed of.
They are out of wine. Really? Look again.
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace upon grace upon grace.
Let us see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, the real life of the party that never runs out.
Scripture: John 1:35-51
Sermon Title: Come and See
When you’re new to a town, you want to at least pronounce the name right. And when you’re interviewing for a job in a new town, you want to know how to say it before the interview – so you look like you did your homework.
I grew up in a town named by French traders. Great White is the English translation and it should, by all rights, be Grahnd Blahnc – but to the locals, it’s Graand Blaanc – and you want to know that going in. So just over four years ago when I moved here, I asked people in the Maumee Valley Presbytery how to pronounce the name of this town – knowing even as I did that they were from Ohio where they have Layma and Bewsayrus and Versales.
The people I asked were split in their opinions so I still wasn’t sure. I asked Siri. She’s confident it’s pronounced Tecumseh. When I say Tecumsee into the phone, all Siri hears is To Come See. As it relates to name pronunciations, I’m not sure Siri even bats 500. Although being the First Presbyterian Church, To Come See is pretty great.
Speaking of seeing… this weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating Epiphany. Traditionally, the gospel reading is from Matthew – about the Magi following the star – seekers looking for a special child.
In Germany, young people – singers- in groups of three — go house to house dressed as wisemen, carrying a star. They give treats to each house, collect donations for worthy causes and mark the top of the door frame with chalk as a blessing. They write: 20+C+M+B+18 – the initials of the traditional names of the wisemen: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar inside the year.
In the Philippines, children put shoes outside their doors on Epiphany Eve and the Wisemen leave candy and money in them.
In Puerto Rico, children leave grass under their beds for the camels – along with a wish list for los Reyes – the kings.
I don’t know what you did for your Epiphany parties, but this year, I went on a star scavenger hunt throughout Tecumseh – buying up all the stars I could find for 50% off. I decorated my house with stars, and hosted an Epiphany dinner party for the church staff. Everybody got a keepsake star ornament and we topped off our dinner with starburst candies.
Epiphany literally means to show forth… to appear. That which was hidden, is now seen. We say we’ve had an epiphany when we experience a revelation or a flash of brilliance – a breakthrough – a moment of clarity – brand new vision. John doesn’t talk about Magi, wisemen or kings in his gospel and there aren’t any stars, yet his is a whole story of epiphany – starting with the opening verses:
The Word was made flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Come and See, Jesus said, in the opening chapter of John’s gospel. Come and see, Philip said to Nathaniel. Come and see.
John’s whole gospel unfolds as an invitation to follow Jesus and open your eyes. Where the other gospel writers give descriptive accounts of the events of Jesus’ life, John wants his readers to see themselves in the transforming stories – to see not just with our eyes but with our hearts – to look beyond the surface at the epiphanies beneath. Come. What you’ll see defies words.
Come and See, Mother Teresa often said when people asked about her work in Calcutta. How is it going? What is it like there? Come and See.
In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne talks about what he saw when he did.
What are you looking for? Jesus asked his first followers. I’m looking to see Christianity really lived out, Shane Claiborne would have answered.
Discouraged with the church of his youth, Shane went to Calcutta to see. It was, for him, one epiphany after another. About his visit to a leper colony, he wrote:
There are no famous lepers. It is a disease of the outcasts, the untouchables. Oftentimes lepers don’t even know the words ‘thank you’ because they have never needed to say them. That gives new meaning to the story Jesus told about the 10 lepers he healed and only one returned to give thanks…
But then, wrote Shane, there was this leper community called ‘Gandhi’s New Life’. Years ago the land had been given to Mother Teresa and she began caring for lepers. Then the lepers began caring for each other. Now there are over 150 families teaching each other ‘thank you’. They grow their own vegetables, raise animals and fish. They make their own shoes and sew their own clothes. They make saris for the sisters, blankets for the orphanage and bandages for the medical clinic. Some of the lepers who’ve been treated are doctors for other lepers.
Shane wound the cotton bandages into balls each day as he followed the doctors during their rounds.
I would watch intently, Shane wrote, fascinated by their love and compassion. One afternoon as things were winding down, one of the doctors had to leave early, but there were a few patients still waiting to be seen. He looked at me and emphatically said: “you know how this works; you have been watching. It’s your turn.”
I came forward and sat in the doctor’s seat and began staring into the next patient’s eyes. I began carefully dressing the man’s wound. He stared at me with such intensity that it felt like he was looking into my soul. Every once in a while he would slowly close his eyes. When I was finished he said to me that sacred word I have come to love: “Namaste”. I smiled with tears in my eyes and whispered “Jesus”. He saw Jesus in me. And I saw Jesus in him.
The lepers had shown me a glimpse of what God might have in mind for the world, Shane wrote: a people on the margins giving birth to another way of living, a new community marked by independence and sacrificial love.
Come and See. It’s that good. A compelling vision of love in action. Words don’t do it justice. Jesus went from town to town inviting people to open their eyes and see it for themselves – see it and be it.
A few years ago, I revamped the new member class around following Jesus.
Eventually we cover our particular identity as Presbyterians and specifically this family of faith, but we start where they started – with his call to come and see.
It’s in our mission statement as a church too.
Let’s read it together:
We are a loving community of faith
following Jesus Christ,
where everyone has a place
and a face,
and a voice.
Our minds, hearts and hands are engaged,
as we humbly serve our neighbors
near and far.
Come and See
Without the Come and See, the rest would just be words. Good words. Great words. But just words.
Come and See means we want to be authentic and real and practice what we preach – not play church but be church.
Come and See means we believe in the incarnation – that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh and we are his body here and now – his hands, his feet, his heart, his mind.
Come and See means we trust that God is at work in our midst in and through every person – each one a work in progress – being shaped and formed in the image of Jesus.
Come and See means we believe so much in the transformative power of the Spirit of Christ and the kingdom of God that we can’t keep it to ourselves. We want to learn and practice and teach and say: You know how this works, you’ve been watching. It’s your turn.
Come and See means we bear witness to a story that is bigger than our own individual life stories – that is even now being written by the author of life – and it’s a drama so magnificent as to cast each and every person in it.
Come and See implies commitment, expectation and revelation.
Come and See holds out the hope and the promise of epiphany.
We are the First Presbyterian Church, To Come See. To come see and feel and be the love of Christ in this place, in this time, we pray, to the glory of God.