God’s Outta the Box

child-in-awe-r1

 

Click here for an audio of the sermon~09041602

 

 

 

 

King David knew where God was, at all times. He had a handle on God, specifically he had two handles, or rather poles. It made it more convenient to carry God with the army when they went to battle and when they weren’t, well they could place God in the tent of the meeting where only holy men were allowed to enter, those who were complete, whole and perfect, who were clean. It was embarrassing, to say the least, when David lost God in a battle and had to retrieve the ark from the enemy; I mean, how does one explain to God that you allowed him to be captured and carried away? Solomon, being wiser, fixed God geographically by creating a permanent home, a temple, around which all decent people for centuries would center their lives.

 

Remember the Samaritan woman questioning Jesus, “Our ancestors worship God on the mountain but you say God is only in the temple” She was baiting him because for centuries God was in the temple, behind the holy of holies, behind the veil. A place so sacred and dangerous that when priests would venture back there they would wear bells and a rope so that those in attendance could listen for the movement of the bells and know if God had found this man displeasing and killed him off. If so they could retrieve the body by pulling on the rope rather than risking themselves, especially if God was angry.

 

The Holy, the Sacred, is dangerous. It transforms and threatens and changes things. It is unpredictable and wild. The Spirit blows where it will, but mostly, we like to contain it. God in a box. God in a temple. God in a church. This wild ruach, this untamable God, is one we would really like to fix permanently in safe places, in sound theology, in proper worship. We like to tame the wildness and contain the wideness of God’s majesty. It is too overwhelming, too uncertain.

 

Yet we all want an experience of the divine. The language of God is written on our hearts, simply waiting for them to break so that the words may fall in. It’s the breaking that we fear even as we long for God’s word to enter us, change us, transform us. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it will not yeild anything, and yet we hold tightly to what we have, fiercely maintaining the good that we know, that we possess and refuse to allow it to fall. Falling we are transformed, remade, broken open and something new, something really truly wonderful grows in, thrives in, the broken places which are surrendered to God, given over that they might be transformed, remade, reborn.

 

We have this resurrection faith and yet death and dying to what we know, what we possess frightens us. Our fear is evident in our grasping and resistince even as we must be gentle with ourselves on account of this. The holy of holies is a frightening place to be, better to enter with bells on and a safety rope firmly attached because who knows what might happen within?

 

When I was younger I used to tiptoe into the sanctuary when it was empty. I was convinced that God was watching, no longer distracted by the crowds of worshippers that usually filled the place, if I went in alone, it just felt too visible, too vulnerable.

 

During holy week we would hold an Easter vigil, from the moment the Good Friday service ended until the Easter morning service began someone would be sitting alone, in the sanctuary below the cross. Parishioners were encouraged to sign up for fifteen minute increments to insure that someone would always be there. My mom liked to sign up for the midnight hours and she would come and wake us in the dark of night and we would drive silently to the church, still half asleep. Once there, one of us would enter the sanctuary in silence, walk to the front of the church and relieve the person who was sitting there and then for fifteen long, interminable minutes, one would sit there at the base of the cross and re-member, re-embody the ones who sat beneath the cross while Christ died on it. It was a holy of holies to sit with death and loss, in silence. It was a moment of being with the horrors of torture and murder at the hands of a police state, at the request of religious leaders. It worked its way into me as I sat there in the silence. God who suffered, God who died, God who came to live with us and became vulnerable to us and who scared the powers that be so much they had to have him killed. You just can’t put that God in a box. Not a god-box, not a pine box. That God simply won’t stay put. No matter how much we want him to.

 

That God breaks in like sunlight at the dawn changing all our fears into easily dismissed shadows of the night. But we must not be afraid to get down on our knees and look into the tomb, look into the shadow of death itself. This is the God that flows like water into every hidden space, softening what is hard, feeding all the green and growing things and cleansing us of all impurities. This is the God who our ancestors tried to bury and who would not stay buried.

 

We have this resurrection faith, a faith that tells us death and loss do not have the final word and that God cannot, will not be contained, that God continues to bring new life in the most unexpected and startling ways.

 

This uncontainable, irreverent God invites us to kneel down in silence, in awe and wonder, and see the vastness of life springing from the seemingly dead inert places in our life. With all humility we are asked to open ourselves up to all that we do not know and to recognize that nothing we know or do can possibly contain God; that the beginning of all wisdom is to be in awe, to tremble with wonder and to let go of our attempts to put God in a box.

 

The writers of scripture might well have said, the beginning of wisdom is vulnerability. It is not found in the safety of what we believe we know or what we can contain or own. But rather to stand humbly and vulnerably before God and wait silently to be surprised, to be astonished. Standing in the holy of holies is risky business. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And the holy of holies shows up where it will; it moves through people’s hearts and speaks through their mouths. It whispers among the pine trees and it dances with baby goats. If we are observant and we are careful, we might find the holy of holies almost anywhere. The veil has been torn from the temple and there is no separation between us and God. In all aspects of our daily lives God waits to greet us.

 

Faith is not the absence of doubt nor an unquestioning certainty but the willingness to surrender and continue on our journey trusting only that God journeys with us and that as long as God goes with us, all will be well. Faith is to lay belly up on the waters of God’s love and care trusting that you will not drown in it but will be carried, will be held. It is to allow yourself to feel the warmth of sun above and the cool of the water below and trust the current which carries you on. This week President Jimmy Carter spoke about his faith journey. His astonishing witness was that he is “..perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to a new adventure.”

 

When we release our anxious striving and trust that God is in control and it’s OK that God is out of our control and beyond our understanding, then we too can look forward to even death as a new adventure.

 

Our challenge today in this church is to accept that we really don’t know if this church will survive in this form. It may. It might continue for another couple centuries just like it is, and people will say, wow, First Presbyterian has been in Jasper since the beginning! Because it will feel so long ago to them, but it may not. It’s possible that God is calling us to a new adventure, one which we may not understand right away and one which we might be inclined to resist because it feels too strange. What boxes have we placed around God, how have we attempted to define our expectations of God, and what happens if God turns up elsewhere?

 

We are very attached to how we do church here. It is uncertain if we will be able to continue doing so. Our faithful response is one of continuing our journey with God, not knowing how it will all turn out, but knowing for sure that God is with us.

 

We have this resurrection faith and we know that what often looks like dead inert matter can give rise to a rich harvest, even when we don’t expect it, even when everything seems gone, done, finished. God startles us by showing up when we are near death, when we are in exile, even when we look into the tomb.

 

Our psalmist speaks to us today, “How lovely are your dwelling places, Yahweh Sabaoth” for God dwells with you, and you, and you. For God dwells in startling and surprising places, filling the world with grace and light. “My whole being years and pines for the Lord’s courts.” Yes, and yes, we long for God. Our whole being aches to know that God is here with us. “My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its young.” But Jesus laments the son of man has no place to lay his head. God wanders with us, among us and will not be contained. “How blessed are those who live in your house, they shall praise you continually. Blessed are those who find their strength in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Because we too are on a journey and God alone is our strength. We ache to stand on the threshold, in that liminal space where we see God most clearly.

 

We praise God and we enjoy God’s dwelling places, knowing that God is always with us, and no one and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God is out of the box, the veil is torn from the holy of holies. God is loosed upon the world, out among us, in the most unexpected places. So let’s walk through the world looking for God, seeking God out, until God taps us on the shoulder and says, “You’re it, I mean you’re really it!” and we are invited again, to delight in God and all that God has brought into our life.

 

An intolerable message, a reflection on John 6

Click here for audio~09040901

Gracious God, disturb our calm, unsettle our understanding, and shake us loose from all we hold precious that we might receive you. Amen

 

communion

This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it? The shock, the outrage, it was clearly intolerable, clearly wrong. Eating flesh and drinking blood? Gross, no way! Who would say such a thing, let alone do it. Sometimes I think we have grown too used to such language; it fails to shock us as it would have shocked Jesus’ audience that day. I think that to really get a good idea of how shocking this was we need to know that kosher meats always have the blood drained out them. Blood was mysterious. It embodied life itself. No one would think of eating something that literally carried life within itself. It was unconscionable

 

And can we hear threads of Philippians in this, God emptying himself out, becoming less, pouring forth and allowing himself to be diminished. Can we hear the thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician woman also, if I but touch the hem of his clothing some of his power, his vitality, his being will pour forth and heal me. Can we hear the fear of loss and vulnerability that made this kenosis, this melting heart, ooey-gooey, emotional stuff feel just too scary? Kenosis being the Greek word used over and over again for the compassion Jesus has for the crowds, for the towns, for the people he meets. This way of speaking, of the pouring out, the emptying, the loss of control and vulnerability is at odds with our understanding of God the Father Almighty. God, who is in control. God who demands retribution. God who’s sovereign identity requires we make good on the debt we owe him, one which, we can never repay. This God, the one who is invulnerable, is at odds with the god we see in Jesus Christ. Who came to us as an intensely vulnerable child born in poverty to an unwed mother.

 

I wonder if perhaps, Jesus didn’t come in order to change God’s mind about us, about the debt we owe and need for retribution. I wonder if Jesus might have come in order to change our minds about who God is.

 

And I wonder if, in John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t trolling the righteous religious people of the day. Those good and upright people who have studied the scriptures long and hard, who have kept every rule and are ever so careful to maintain their scrupulous behavior. Jesus wants to shake us loose from all our rigidly held ideas of right and wrong, of correct and mistaken. I wonder if Jesus isn’t asking us to think very deeply about what really does matter and how too often we let those things which are really side issues interfere and take us off track from the truly significant and why is it we do that?

 

One of my internship supervising pastors took his first call in Scotland. He used to tell many tales from his time there and his deep love of the country and the people resonated through these stories. There was one story though, that brought some uncomfortable laughter. One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the area had gotten involved in worship wars. They argued over the correct hymnal to use, the correct liturgy, the correct use of liturgical props, you all know this story, right? We’ve all seen it, which, I suspect, is why some of that laughter was a little uncomfortable when he would tell this story. This story is our story, although this church made a choice that few of us would. They decided to split the church right down the middle and so, in the middle of the sanctuary they erected a wall. Sort of like when my sister and I were little and we used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our room. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine and we’ll get along just fine.” And they did. They chose a side and they stayed on it.

 

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who live according to the ways of the world. It is a messed up, intolerable message. And then, Jesus tops it all off with, and take up your cross if you would follow me. Uh huh, take up a cross and die to the ways of the world. Die to the dream of making it, of maintaining your own security, of taking care of number one first. Let all that go.

 

Is it any wonder that we prefer to focus our attention on whether the correct colors are being used on the communion table? Or whether our liturgy is correct and proper? Dying to all that we know, to our certainty and security is frightening. And so, as we struggle to get everything right and correct, Jesus comes along and says, here is my body eat it. Go on chew it up, feel the toughness, the gritty-ness of my body and then, wash it down with my blood, for all that I am is poured out, broken up for you. There is no correct way to say that. There is no right way, no proper way, nothing in our human understanding that can make that OK. Is it any wonder that our text goes on to say, “after this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.” Following Jesus is to have our certainties removed, again and again. It is to be startled into newness, thrown into vulnerability and to have all that we think we know for certain thrown into doubt and questioning.

 

God invites us again and again to move out of certainty and our attempts to capture God, to hold him in some contained way which falls apart again and again, and we are thrown into mystery. We are too prone to wanting to capture God, to having the correct theology and the correct responses, the correct way of living and being so that we can rest in certainty, but the God we meet in Jesus won’t let us do this. The God we meet in Jesus is one who defies our expectations over and over. He hangs out with the most unsuitable sort of people, the unclean, the dirty and morally suspect. He breaks all our rules which give us a simple and predictable life. He heals on the Sabbath, he allows unclean women to wash his feet, he chats women up at the watering hole. The righteous people must have wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do!

 

A pastor once served one of those churches who solved the worship wars by holding two services, a traditional and a contemporary. Both were still compromises as there were lots of people who held very strong opinions about what proper worship was, but he did the best he could. He was really surprised and, admittedly felt a little justified, when one of his more conservative and traditional parishioners began attending the contemporary service. He approached this lady feeling just a bit smug because she had been so adamantly opposed to the contemporary service. “I see you’re attending second service now,” he said, “I guess you’re enjoying it after all.” “Oh no, Pastor,” she replied. “I hate it. But a few weeks ago you preached about how important it is to be hospitable, to meet people right where they are, and all of the young kids were going to the contemporary service and I realized I didn’t know any of them. I realized I hadn’t been very welcoming to them so I started attending that service so that I could better support them, get to know them, and be hospitable.” Instead of erecting a wall whether the physical kind or the temporal kind, that hour of separation, she crossed over to where those whom she was called to love and serve were.

 

The root of wisdom is awe and wonder of God. It is to engage the mystery knowing we are about to have the lid blown off our attempts to contain and limit God. We are about to be drawn into the unknown and to strange and new places, strange and new relationships, and we are asked to respond to this again and again with love, with kindness, with compassion.

 

I want to tell you about Syeda Ghulam Fatima. You can read about her on the Humans of New York Facebook site although Syeda lives in Pakistan. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten many times for her activism. She is most certainly a woman who knows what it means to take up one’s cross. In the deep rural areas of Pakistan there are brick manufacturing companies which use bonded labor. In return for a small loan an unsuspecting individual will promise to work for a while, only that while never ends. The loans are rigged and there are fees and additions such that keep these workers in debt for the rest o their lives, and when they die their debt transfers to their children. Syeda has worked tirelessly, literally putting her body between the owners and the workers. Syeda does not say that it is too much, too dangerous, too risky. She knows it is and yet she returns again and again. She pours out her life with deep compassion and love for those she would protect. She speaks truth to power and she keeps hoping that love will win, and she doesn’t stop. This is the intolerable message of the gospel, that following Jesus asks us to take up our cross and give of ourselves and all that we have and are, out of love for one another.

 

It would be easy for Syeda to say that these people are foolish and they got themselves into this situation, they can get themselves out. It’s really not her problem. Except that we have been called to love one another. Except that we are all a part of one another. Except that we are called to be food for the world. This is who Jesus has shown us that God is, this food for the world, this joining with those who suffer and are oppressed or cry out. Jesus has forever changed our understanding of who God is. The god we see in Jesus is not aloof, is not distant from our suffering, but is deeply vulnerable to us, has forsaken anything that would keep us separated from God’s self. This is not the angry God who demands retribution, but God who feeds us with God’s very self, standing between us and all that would harm us, all that would separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

Knowing who holds our hand, how can we be afraid? Yet we are so often, and it is easier for us to focus on who is right, who is wrong, is this correct, or that. We nothing if not masters of distraction but the invitation is ever before us, let go of your certainties, your securities, and prepare to let God carry you into the unknown where life is renewed, where grace becomes tangible, and where the invitation to love radically is ever extended.

 

Perhaps Jesus did not come to convince God to let us off the hook, on a debt we could never pay, to give us another chance. Perhaps Jesus came to invite us into a new kind of relationship with God. One in which we are fed and nourished in our inner being that we too might be food for the world. May it be so.

Rooted and Grounded, Paul’s Love Poem

Sun-Sky-Quote-Picture

Click here for the audio file~09031901

I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.

And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:

Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name

And I

I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge

Yet

Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
This then
Is the love of the Father

A love which has no height
No depth
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.

(can you not feel it?)

An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,

But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
In love
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.

(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)

Be strengthened
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Be strengthened
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
And
Love says yes
Be strengthened
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now

(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)

Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.

It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.

Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”

In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-

Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!

This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.

But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.

I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.

When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!

God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?

Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.

But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.

This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.

Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:

Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.

Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen

This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.

Amen

Feeding All of God’s People

cafe reconcile

 

Click here to hear the sermon~09031201

 

He knew they were tired. The disciples had just returned from the first ever mission trip. But Jesus could not turn away from the crowd which gathered, which appeared lost and desparately seeking some source of sustenance, of authority, of nurturing. And seeing their need, their seeking and their asking, he had compassion, he was moved in his guts with empathy, he could not turn away.

 

It was almost too much, these apostles whom he sent out to proclaim the good word, to heal and to serve, to be caretakers, they were tired, and yet when he sees this crowd, he responds immediately. He turns to them, cares for them, teaches them. And when they get hungry and his disciples, who, let’s face it were tired and hungry themselves (oh how they their hearts must have leapt when he first suggested they move off to a lonely place, to rest and rejuvenate!), tired as they were, they must serve and heal, and care for others again. Right now. Urgently, respond. They must have been so deflated.

 

Imagine that moment when you have worked hard all day, meeting people’s needs, helping them, hearing them out and you know they are going to be getting hungry very soon and you say to your boss. “Let’s call it a day, before they get hungry and cranky and irritable. Let’s send them away so they can feed themselves.” And your boss, your teacher, the one you admire so much says, “You feed them.” Wow. It’s not as if you haven’t worked hard all day, and now he asks the impossible.

 

Yet, the disciples know too what it is to be lost, to be frightened and to be desparate. Alone on the sea, after feeding this huge crowd, they too cried out, and again Jesus , moved with compassion, responded. Our text tells us that he “intended to pass on by” but hearing them, seeing their lostness, their fear, their seeking and their crying out, he could not refuse them. Our text also says, they did not understand because their hearts were hard. What is it about our human nature that helps us to see our need while failing to see the needs of others? It’s a very human thing to do.

 

Our Ephesians text deals with just this type of hardness; that of self selecting our own kin, of seeing the needs of those like us and for us. Last week as I wandered through the streets of New Orleans I wondered what Jesus would see differently than I did.

 

It might have gone something like this: As Jesus walked through the city of New Orleans there were many people of many different tribes. They were tattooed and wore little clothing. Some slept outside in the parks and washed themselves in the fountains. They were brown and white, some with close cropped hair, others with long dreds hanging down their back, still others wore their hair braided or in long luscious locks, each according to the custom of their people. Jesus walked among them without regard to these divisions, speaking, healing and teaching as the need directed him. If his disciples had been there they might have wondered, why would he speak to such as these? Yet when they themselves were lost and scared, they would cry out, and Jesus would answer them, assuring them that all is well, God is still in charge, and things will turn out OK.

 

If you have traveled much you know the need of keeping one’s eyes away from other eyes, especially those belonging to people holding cardboard signs. Just as, if you have lived in a touristy area, you learn to spot the tourist quickly and avoid any unnecessary entanglements. We learn early to protect ourselves and our resources.

 

But…Jesus calls us to another way of being. See one another, he asks, feed one another, he commands, care for one another.

 

This last week I visited a place called Café Reconcile. It is in what used to be called the murder capital of the US, according to a member of their board. On the corner where the Café is located an old pay phone used to hang. It was the phone drug dealers and pimps would use to conduct their business. But not today. Today it is a place of hope, a place of promising futures, of health and wholeness, of new beginnings.

 

Walking up the roads to Café Reconcile is a bit of a stretch for an upper middle class white woman. I walked past lovely houses which were in horrible states of disrepair. One of them bore a grafitti stating , “No one cared,” not so much grafitti as a cry for help, a cry for caring. As my daughter and I walked by it brought up instant reflections on the Matthew’s farmhouse where we live. We care. And it is only because we care and John cares, and other family cares, that the farmhouse is still standing. Because we care. And in the middle of this poor neighborhood, a black neighborhood which borders on the wealthier white neighborhood, the grafitti calls out, “Will no one care?” And this touches my daughter and I especially because we care, we care that the Matthew’s farm and cemetary be saved. We care that this old historical house, with all its history, be saved. And so we walk by this grafitti on this gracious old house, with its windos knocked out and the walls rotting, with our hearts on our sleeves, talking to one another about how one person, with a power drill and some determination, might care. We walk by another house, large enough to house at least two generations if not three, but it’s roof had collapsed against the brick and plaster front wall. Does no one care if this family is left on the street?

 

But one walks on, avoiding eye contact with the black men in lawn chairs seated in the shade on the corner. Because it’s scary and it’s different and to be honest, I’m the circumcised, circumspect, grade a approved american citizen and they are not, and I feel this difference in every wondering stare that greets me as I walk down these streets. Do I need to say more? In a country where the risk of being killed is 18 times greater if one is black than white? (Feed them, Jesus says, but I, scared and frightened, walk by, avoiding eye contact).

 

But then, woohoo! We made it to Café Reconcile. Which today feels like the domain of white people trying to do good in a black neighborhood! Safe! At least, it feels that way. Here black youth hold open the door and greet me eagerly, guide me to a table and serve me a delicious meal.

 

OK, let me be honest. I know these are youth, scared and excited and hopeful; hopeful that they too might share in the economic safety and growth that I was born to, but I want to know them. And I want to feel good about this, because I know that the huge tourist industry, which crowds the streets of the french quarter, and which pays for lap dances on Bourbon street, or cheap Mardi Gras masks at every other venue, won’t venture down into this neighborhood, so I want to pat myself on the back….but I can’t.

 

I can’t because, even as I see these wonderful, incredible young people, who are just beginning to seek out a better future, I know I am one of those people who would avoid eye contact with any of them if I met them on the street. I know that I am one of those people who would be scared if a group of them approached me on the street. Like the Ephesians, I am scared of people who are different, and like the disciples, I cannot believe that Jesus would ask me to feed this crowd…but, that’s what he asks me to do. It’s what he asks you to do.

 

Sitting at the table, in the Café with the board member, I hear her say, “Some people think that coming here and eating a meal is a fair way to support our work but it isn’t. It doesn’t begin to cover our costs.

 

Feed my sheep! Jesus said, and how could I not? How can we not? All around us are youth who see an impoverished future waiting for them. How can we not help them out? Some part of us wants to say, “Well, if they worked harder, if they were willing to make the sacrifices I made, if , if, if..” but all that does is excuse us from our own venture, our own risk of caring for the other. Jesus stands before us saying, “Well, you feed them.”

 

It does not excuse us from seeking the safety of a white place with white rules where brown and black youth serve us with the hope that they might be cared for, that they too, might matter. It is so easy, for me, for others to simply see these smiling young faces and feel as if we have done enough, but if we allow that to be enough, then we have failed to follow Christ, we have failed to join him in the response to such grave need. “For he intended to pass them by’ and perhaps seek some well deserved time off and perhaps take a breathe, just one breathe that wasn’t dedicated to serving someone else, but he heard their cries and out of deep need he responded; out of deep need and deep caring, he responded. He had compassion and so should we.

 

Do we feel God responding to our need? When we cry out, and we are frightened, and we are scared, do we feel the rising of the spirit in God’s community? And are we willing to be that response? Are we willing to be that response to those who do not look like us? Who are not the “appropriate” people to care about? Are we willing to be the answer to those who cry out, “No One Cared”? are we brave enough to care?

 

A couple years ago a wonderful ministry was begun in Bend Oregon to feed the homeless people. It was called Common Table and the theology that began it was one that said justice is not the receiving of scraps from the table, but an invitation to the table, and as such everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, was invited to share the same meal at the same table. When I visited I would sometimes pass homeless youth on the streets begging for money, hoping to spend a night in a hotel instead of outside in the cold, in temperatures cold enough to kill, but then, moments later, I would be sharing a sumptous meal with them at Common Table.

 

It isn’t really enough, but it’s something. White people, doing good, in a black neighborhood, those who have sitting side by side with those who don’t have, and sometimes, yes, trying to absolve themselves of some guilt in the process, but still, trying to do some good. We see the writing on the wall, does anyone care? And we must respond, no matter how tired we are, that we care, that we will give of what we have, and yes, we really, really, care. Even when it’s outside of our safety zone, we care.

 

We will not be reconciled to those who our society disregards simply with a meal or a smile, a simple hello or how do? We will be reconciled with the disempowered and disenfranchised, the disregarded when we participate in their struggle to be seen, to have a voice, to make possible a brighter future. There is no simple solution but there is a call to participate, to identify those systems which continue to oppress others and to help break through these systems to a better way of being.

 

Jesus did not tell his disciples, “Well, tell them you’re sorry they have nothing to eat and tell them you’ll pray for them. Wish them well and then let’s move on.” No, he said, “You feed them.” And so we stand challenged to pull together what resources we have, even if they seem too small, and set about feeding God’s beloved people. Does anyone care? We do. We do because God cares for us, because God has changed our lives, because God asks us to care. We do. We care. Go forth and love my people, Jesus said, go and love them and heal them, bring them a word of grace and love, feed them. And so we shall, even if all we have is five loaves and two fish.

 

 

Seeing the blessing, being the blessing

leaf skeleton

Audio File~09022601

The weaker I get, the stronger I become. And there the Spirit goes again, inverting our understanding, turning everything up.side.down. Does it ever feel like we will never get it right? I go to the gym pretty frequently. I lift and I enjoy getting stronger and here Paul goes saying, my handicap is my blessing, is my gift, to keep me in touch with my deep need of God and God’s grace. I don’t want to be weak or handicapped! I want to be strong and smart and successful! That is what we are supposed to want right?

But Paul calls us out. We are not here to live and be for ourselves. Paul goes a little beyond the spirit of Ubuntu that we have been speaking about; that spirit of “I cannot be well if my brother, if my sister is not well.” Paul goes further. Glory in your weakness, because it is through this that God will speak, it is through this that God will work. Most of us have experienced that it is through sharing our stories, through acknowledging our own faults and weaknesses that we become connected to one another. A friend of mine once said that a hallmark of a healthy community is that when we acknowledge our faults, our weaknesses, our baggage, that someone present will say, “yeah, me too.” We do not connect to one another through our perfections, through our strength, which is lucky for someone like me. We connect through the fullness of our stories and in 2nd Corinthians, Paul does just that.

This community had gone off the path. They had begun to long to be the big steeple church, the one with the biggest numbers, the biggest crowd and the biggest social standing. We all know churches like that. We study them in seminary as even seminary professors sometimes long for those “glory days” of Christendom—but, is this who we are called to be?

This text is Paul playing at court jester, calling himself a fool and in the nature of a court jester he is calling out those in power; those who feel they are beyond and above the criticism because they have, in one way or another, made it. They are the big, the powerful, the moneyed. For Paul, they are the “super-apostles,” sort of sounds like a comic book story doesn’t it? The super-apostles have come to save the day! All we need do is follow them…except, that we are called to follow Christ. In our bible study over the last few weeks we have talked about the need to seek out that which points towards Christ and not confuse it with Christ. Like a finger pointing to the moon we don’t want to focus on the finger, but see and appreciate the moon. But it feels safer and more secure sometimes, to turn our conscience over to the care of those who know. There is something scary and unsettleing about having to look and see on one’s own. If there is some charismatic person to tell us the answer, to suggest which way we ought to go, well that’s easier.

Or perhaps there is some program, something that other churches are doing that is bringing in the people. One of the bigger cowboy churches began featuring bull riding recently. It seems the pastor had decided that riding a bull was just as powerful as giving a good sermon. I hope you all aren’t expecting that! Talk about your super-apostles!

The weaker I am, the stronger I become. No super-apostles here. We are called instead to a life of humility and self-giving. When Paul does brag about his strength, his accomplishments, he talks about the community of believers lowering him in a basket from the city walls. He talks about God working through ordinary people to subvert the powers that be. He talks about being in a very vulnerable and dependent situation. This is not the way of the world.

We are drawn to largess, to a certain majesty and power of position; this is the way of the world. This is the way we avoid our vulnerability. This is the way we avoid our complete and utter dependence upon God.

500 some odd years ago the poet Hafiz wrote:

Don’t surrender

Your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more

Deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human

Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight,

Has made my eyes so soft,

My voice so tender,

My need of God

Absolutely

Clear.

It is in seeing and knowing our brokenness that we are brought face to face with our inescapable need of God. It is in opening our hearts in true humility, in a childlike honesty, that we begin to grow, to learn, to change. How often do we pray that we might be conformed to the way of God but in our minds we already have a vision of what that ought to look like, we think we know and we aren’t really open to whatever God wants of us. We are open instead to what we have already decided God should want of us.

Outside of Eli Minnesota there is a dirt logging road that leads through the woods, a couple hundred miles to the great lakes. On the outskirts of town a sign on the road says, “Choose your rut carefully, you’re going to be in for quite a while.” How often are we set in these ruts before we are even aware of them? How often do we soak up cultural biases and prejudices, certain expectations, without even being aware that we have done this, are doing this? How often do we get a chance to step outside of ourselves and see ourselves? See how we are living, what we have accepted as normal and acceptable without any ability to think about it critically?

But along comes Paul and says, “Hey you, you think you know what you are supposed to be doing, what you are supposed to be accomplishing, but I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. I’m here to tell you that in your weakness, not in your strength, not in your accomplishments, not in your advanced degrees or fancy houses, not in your great speeches or sermons, not in your fancy cars, or good jobs, not in your fancy credentials or any other thing you can imagine, will you be made great. Only in God, only in surrender, only in humility and self-giving, only then will you be made great. This is the way of Christ. Not one of authority or power, not one of greatness as the world would see, but only through giving of oneself in all humility. Only through Christ.”

The world tells us we must be strong and mighty, we must be successful and grand. But Paul reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient. End. Stop. Period. Nothing else need follow. We are so given to seeking our own safety that it is hard for us to stop. This is the rut we began in. Is it the one we want to continue in? Achieve, earn, be the best student, the funniest, the prettiest, the best athlete, only be something! be something. Is this the track we are supposed to be on? The rut we are supposed to be stuck in? The word that is used in the text for perfect is teleos, as in finished, complete, mature, the end, teleology. Perhaps our maturity, our completeness is found in making peace with our weaknesses and faults, in surrendering and accepting our deep, deep need, our utter reliance on Christ? Perhaps it means learning to rely not on ourselves but increasingly on God’s grace, which we are promised, will be, is, sufficient.

These two scriptures are paired together in the lectionary and this suggests that there is a connection to be made. Both Paul and Jesus are facing rejection, are being judged as not quite good enough, too common, too ordinary. In our gospel today we see Jesus faltering a bit, missing the mark. This is a different Jesus than we are used to seeing. This one doesn’t know who just touched him, this one can’t accomplish much in a town where few people believe. Where does Mark get off showing us this portrayal of Jesus? And what does it mean for us that Jesus, early in his ministry, sometimes seems to be shaking his head, wondering “how can they not see?” What does this say to us as we struggle not really to understand Paul, because he is very clear as he defends himself against the implications that he himself is not enough but to live as if we are enough?

If Paul has been replaced by these glamorous super-apostles, the new in-crowd, Jesus is in his hometown, the place where he used to run up and down the streets like any other child. The place where he used to get in trouble for staying out too late and being too loud. How can he have any significance? And it’s not like the people of his hometown are unaware that he is healing people; they recognize the power, they just doubt the source. It is too great, too unimaginable that God would work through the common, the ordinary. They are too familiar with Jesus to actually see him. Their biases and understanding of who he is and what he might be were established long ago when he was just one more kid running the streets. Perhaps Mark shows us another Jesus in order to ask us if we too are too familiar with him. Can we see Jesus for who he really is?

Perhaps if Jesus had been a super-apostle! Then it might all have made sense, but he is too ordinary, too usual, and how can God have anything to do with that? The sheer potentiality, the possibility that Jesus is, is caught up with fierce trust, fierce faith, with our participation. Isn’t that incredible? Jesus isn’t able to do much without their faith, without their belief, and what about our faith, our belief? How often do our expectations keep us from seeing the miracle that is there for us, the gift in the ordinary blessings? When we name the blessing around us, recognize and name that which is sacred we make our whole lives holy. We invite others into the sacred by our recognition of the holy. Today’s text reminds us that when we limit our expectations to the everyday and ordinary we limit our ability to receive grace, to receive the blessing that is all around us.

We have a God who does not force himself upon us. A God who stands at the door and knocks, who does not impose himself upon us. We have a God who participates in our hopes, dreams, fears, and loneliness. We have a God who does not hold himself separate or apart from us, but one who weeps with us, one who sings, dances, laughs with us too!

What does all this say to us and our craving for safety and social standing, for achievement and success? What does this mean for churches that long for their glory days, to sustain themselves in all their worldly influence, and what does it mean for churches that long to be a part of change in the world, even at the cost of sustainability, glory and influence? What would it mean for us to be humble and assume the servant role? What would it mean for us to participate in the hopes, fears and dreams of the people around us, how are we doing this? This is an invitation to participate that involves the manifestation of the kingdom.

We are given a word, but this word is not just for us, but for all people. We have been blessed that we might be a blessing to all people, to all nations. This blessing is not just for us but for the whole world. We have this gift, this incredible gift, but we can only keep it by participating in it. Like love itself, it only survives when it is given away.

It is in weakness, not strength, that we are blessed. It is in vulnerability and a tender, compassionate heart, that we draw closer to God, and are a blessing to others. May our hearts and our minds be open today, that we might see the prophets and the blessings all around us, that they might call us into being the people of God we were created to be, that we might be a blessing to all people and live fully into our identity as children of God.

Being Brave, Brave, Brave

09021902 ~ click here for an audio of the sermon

woman-with-hemorrhage

She did the one thing that was riskiest, that put her at risk of the most painful loss, she dared to hope things could be different. We have this tendency to keep a back door option available. Sometimes it’s just a way of being able to keep hope alive and that’s all good but it also keeps us from fully engaging. I can imagine that this un-named woman might have thought to herself, “If it doesn’t work, well at least no one will know I tried and I can tell myself that it might have worked, might still work if I really tried, you know, if I asked him.” Because that’s what we do, we keep our options open.

 

It’s not unlike the way we pretend that we would have done things differently than victims of crime. Except, of course, that none of his creative thinking about what he would have done differently really makes us any safer at all. It’s just the way our minds work. We want to pretend that if we had really tried, really put forth our best effort things would have worked, so yeah, it’s not like we really failed, we just didn’t give it our all, and we save face.

 

Except…except this woman does give it her all. She was ritually unclean, and had been for years. In the minds of the people around her the fact that she bled and didn’t sicken or die was either profane or sacred but whatever it was you didn’t want to mess with that stuff, it was better and safer to just not go there, don’t let that stuff get on you, so she was, whenever she bled, untouchable. Elsewhere we hear Jesus say, “Satan has bound this woman for 18 long years, isn’t it right to free her?” I can almost imagine him asking of this crowd, “Satan has cast this woman out of community, out of connection with her loved ones, Satan has isolated and condemned her to being untouchable for 12 long years, isn’t it right to restore her to community, to her loved ones?”

 

In order to understand this passage and what her life would have been like we need to hear the laws under which she would have lived, from Leviticus 15 we hear:

 

19-23 “When a woman has a discharge of blood, the impurity of her menstrual period lasts seven days. Anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Everything on which she lies or sits during her period is unclean. Anyone who touches her bed or anything on which she sits must wash his clothes and bathe in water; he remains unclean until evening.

24 “If a man sleeps with her and her menstrual blood gets on him, he is unclean for seven days and every bed on which he lies becomes unclean.

25-27 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, but not at the time of her monthly period, or has a discharge that continues beyond the time of her period, she is unclean the same as during the time of her period. Every bed on which she lies during the time of the discharge and everything on which she sits becomes unclean the same as in her monthly period. Anyone who touches these things becomes unclean and must wash his clothes and bathe in water; he remains unclean until evening.

28-30 “When she is cleansed from her discharge, she is to count off seven days; then she is clean. On the eighth day she is to take two doves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest will offer one for an Absolution-Offering and the other for a Whole-Burnt-Offering. The priest will make atonement for her in the presence of God because of the discharge that made her unclean.

31 “You are responsible for keeping the People of Israel separate from that which makes them ritually unclean, lest they die in their unclean condition by defiling my Dwelling which is among them.

 

 

It was a life in quarantine. How isolating it must have been for this woman to be untouchable, to be seen as something that is contaminating, for twelve long years. Imagine not being able to touch your child, not to brush the hair off his forehead, or wrap your arms around your parents, not being able to touch your husband without contaminating them. Twelve long years of being unclean, untouchable, of having to throw out or wash things you accidently touched. Not being able to sit with friends, or share a meal. Is it any wonder she snuck up on Jesus?

 

How many times had she gone to one healer or another, desperately seeking help. The noxious remedies she must have swallowed, the suggestion always, that she must have done something to deserve this, to have earned God’s wrath, the incredible shame of feeling not right, not OK, not clean for 12 long years. Always the suggestion either implied or outright that a good person, a wise person would have handled this differently and her illness, her uncleanliness was such an imposition.

 

When we know what doesn’t work, when we know the usual ways and the status quo continue to be painful, we must try something different. We must be brave enough to let go of how things are in order to hope for what might be. This woman did just that. She was not faithful once but, perhaps out of sheer desperation, was faithful over and over. If this remedy does not work, she must have thought while swallowing one bottle of snake oil or doing another set of prescribed exercises, I will try another. If this doctor, this healer, this shaman, cannot figure this out, I will try another. Her faith was not in reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe but in reaching out again and again and again. She had depleted her finances and yet she did not give up. Still she reached out, still she tried again and again. Complacency tells us we’d better give up, complacency asks us who we think we are that we can make a difference? Complacency and our fear that nothing will ever work makes our lives very small.

 

Better to crowd a little closer to God, a little closer to Jesus and reach out one more time. Better to keep pressing on.

 

Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer whose book we will be studying for a PBU book study beginning in July. He had the good fortune to meet Rosa Parks and two of her friends, Ms. Carr and Ms. Durr who were pioneers from the civil rights era. On many occasions he would be invited to come and sit with them, to simply listen and learn. The first time he did this Ms. Parks turned to him and asked him what he did. He enthusiastically told her,

 

“Well I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors…”in his enthusiasm he realized he was going on too long, and he stopped. He says that Ms. Parks, Ms. Carr and Ms. Durr were all looking at [him].

 

Then Ms. Parks leaned back smiling, “Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed [Mr. Stevenson reports, he was a little embarrassed to be going on so in front of these three pioneers, these three amazing women who had fought so long and so hard. Then he says, ] Ms. Carr leaned forward and put her finger in my face and talked to me just like my grandmother used to talk to me. She said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”(Taken from Just Mercy (C) 2014 Bryan Stevenson)

 

In our scripture reading today this unnamed woman was brave, brave, brave, even though she must have been exhausted. In her bravery she crossed lines and broke boundaries. She risked defiling this incredible man, this wild and uncertain healer and holy man who came to her town. Caught out she falls to his feet confessing and trembling. Can you imagine her fear? If one touch cured her, what might he do now that he knew she had defiled him? I imagine Jesus reaching a hand down to her, taking her by the hand and lifting her up.

 

But this story isn’t done with us yet! If we are to fight on and on, never giving up hope for 12 long years, is there a point at which we simply stop, give up, say this is the way it’s always been and will always be?

 

By the time Jesus gets to Jairus house his daughter is dead. They are too late, the house is filled with wailing and crying. This then must be the time to say, well that’s it. Even King David gave up beseeching God when his son died. Even King David said, well, that’s it. God has taken my child and no amount of beseeching will return my child. He removes his sack cloth, cleans the ashes off and eats a good meal. It is really no use trying anymore.

 

But death is not triumphant with Jesus. Death is not the final answer. How many years, oh lord? How many deaths? “Go on now, be brave, brave, brave, don’t give up”, Jesus says. “Sneak up if you have to, but reach for God’s grace, reach for the healing and the resurrection that every cell in your body is reaching for.” Be brave, brave, brave.

 

Faith in this story is not about a lack of doubt. It is not about having the right answers or the assurance that this time it will work. It is about Not. Giving. Up.

 

 

Jesus goes in to this 12 year old girls room and says to her, Talitha kum! Arise little girl, and…she does. She not only gets up she begins walking around, talking and laughing, a healthy 12 year old girl.

 

12 years of lamentation, of isolation, of crying out to God and we must continue. 12 years in quarantine, and we must continue to hope, to reach out. When do we get to give up, curse God and die, as Job’s friends advised him? Not even when death has come and all seems lost. Not even as we gather to mourn and bury our dead. Not even when our house is filled with lamentation and sorrow, not even when we are tired, tired, tired. Not even when it seems like the status quo, the way things are is just what it is and will always be. Not even then.

 

To be ambitious, to push on, to keep seeking justice and peace and mercy for all people is to be faithful. To continue to seek the good of our neighbors, to seek reconciliation and the peace of God is to be faithful. We are not promised success. We are not promised huge numbers in the pews or a balanced budget. We are not promised great standing in the community. We are asked to press on even when it has been years and even when death has touched our lives. We are asked to celebrate the gifts God has given us, the abundance that God has filled our lives with even as we cry out against injustice, inequality, discrimination, loss, and pain.

 

We are not asked to wait until things are perfect but to seek the grace of God here and now, in the midst of this work. We seek the grace of God because we can’t do it on our own. We seek the grace of God because when we try to take it all on ourselves it breaks us. We seek the grace of God because it is never failing and it continues to show up, and fill us up, and lift us up, even when we are yet broken. We seek the grace of God because we know our salvation has already been secured even as we long for and cry out for the fullness of God’s mercy. We seek God’s grace and healing through long years of waiting and crying out and we do not stop, nor withdraw, not even in the face of death.

 

We will not yield and let fear and complacency make us small. Jesus said “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly” and so we will be faithful and seek out that full, abundant life that has been promised to us and we will neither cease nor desist until we can touch the hem of his robe and feel the healing in the depths of our bones. Talitha Kum! My friends, arise and celebrate, it is the faithful thing to do for not even death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting on the Porch

 

 

1434735386-Emanuel-AME-Church

 

09021202~click on this to hear an MP3 recording of the sermon.

Usually when we talk of the prodigal’s father we join him on the race down the road to greet his son, but not today. We like to talk about his grace and long standing devotion to his wayward son, but not today. Today we cannot talk about happy endings and pretend that everything is OK when one of our sons has committed a horrific act of terrorism.Today we gather with thousands of other churches across the nation, across the world, to mourn the terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel.

Today we must count ourselves one with the parents of terrorists all over the world and sit with the prodigal’s father on the front porch, staring down the dusty road, wondering where we went wrong and if it will ever be put right. Today we must wonder if there is wisdom that we forgot to impart. Today we must wonder if there were times when we were silent and our child took that as affirmation and consent rather than the polite avoidance of conflict. Today we must wonder why we didn’t notice that our son was hanging out with a bad crowd and we might even wonder if we too say things that ought never be said. We must ask ourselves if we clutch our purses a little too tightly when passing a black man. We must wonder how it is that we have arranged our lives so that we ourselves have no friends of color or very few. We must ask ourselves if we have become complicit in the systemic racism that pervades our country.

For surely as we sit on this porch feeling the failure of our parenting we must question everything. We must question the teacher who said “it’s natural for them to segregate. They don’t really like to be around white folk.” We must question those who say, “You don’t want to live on that side of town, that’s where the coloreds live.” We must question the TV shows and movies which make all black men seem dangerous and violent. and black women too sexually available.  We must ask ourselves if we have defended violence against black youth by insisting they were “too rowdy,” or “not respectful enough.” We must ask ourselves how often we refused to show up because we were too scared to stand with our brothers and sisters in their time of trial. How often was keeping the peace was more important than protecting the lives, hopes and dreams of our brothers and sisters?

Today we sit on the porch with the prodigal’s father and we mourn and we repent. We repent not because we ourselves committed an act of violence but because we like to sit and discern the truth for a very long time, too long a time, when action is called for. We repent because while we are not necessarily guilty of violence we are responsible because we have the privilege of choosing our response. Unlike the congregation of Mother Emmanuel who has no choice but to engage we can choose not to. We can choose to avoid the matter, to pretend it doesn’t affect us and too often we have. Even when it is our son who is wreaking violence.

The young man who committed this act of terrorism was raised in a church not unlike this one. I am sure they were glad to have him as youth are so energizing to a congregation. He could have been raised right here. Surely he is one of us. He could have been our child’s best friend, a classmate, a neighbor. Today we join the ranks of those whose children have gone off to do horrific things and surely we can now see how horrible it is to wonder if you could have done better. What might we have said that would have helped that man see the image of God in all people? What might we have done that would have helped that man develop empathy? How could we have affirmed for this young man that we are all so intimately connected that we cannot be well if we allow the persecution of others let alone participate in it. And perhaps more importantly what do we need to do now to end the systems of racism and the complicity of our nation in this horror?

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy for the four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the Birmingham church. His words apply as much today as they did then:

“[The victims] say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Surely we join the prodigal’s father on the front porch today as he looks for and longs for his son who has gone so far off the righteous path. Even as we seek out and learn to see the systems which shaped and formed this young man we must acknowledge, if not our own guilt then at least our complicity. Too often we have defined racism as the malicious acts or words of an individual and we have been quick to absolve ourselves of these types of behaviors stating that we have not done these things. We fail to notice the racist systems that pervade our country and we have not done enough to stop them.

What will we do to change our legacy? How will we engage this conversation? Some will say, “well, that has nothing to do with me,” and retreat into silence. Others will stand with our brothers and sisters of color and refuse to let them stand alone. How will we change our legacy?

We must also recognize that alone we can do nothing and we raise our cry before God because without him we are powerless. But we must not say that this act of terrorism is beyond our comprehension, or that it is solely the result of mental illness and is not about race. We must not say this while we still benefit from and live in systems that perpetuate and continue the very oppression that fueled this young man’s attack. We must recognize that in the midst of this horrific year of the black lives matter campaign that we are only seeing what has already been happening unseen. We must recognize that it is not that things are worse than they have been but rather that a light has been lit which is shining on our national shame. And even as this light is shining on the evil which hates the light, some places are trying to enact laws to halt the videotaping, to blind us all to what is and has been going on, to try and get us to un-see what we have seen and  un-know what we know. Yet we know, we have always known, that evil hates the light.

Chris Crass a blogger with the A Few Good Men Project writes:

“If we truly abhor this devastating act, then we must recognize it as terrorism and seek to understand the worldview, the institutional backing and political agenda this terrorism is embedded in. We must recognize that white indifference and denial is key to giving space for this terrorism to operate and thrive, and commit ourselves to destroying the vast network of support giving rise to the terrorist attack against Black members of a Black church, rooted in Black liberation struggles and a vision of beloved community for all.“

If our hearts are breaking, Chris goes on to say, then let them break away from white supremacy and let us be brave enough to look at how white supremacy and systems developed to perpetuate it have crept into our hearts and minds. Let us be brave enough to admit that none of us who has been raised in the United States is free of this evil. Let us admit that when we come before God in contrition acknowledging that we need God’s help and cannot achieve salvation nor be righteous aside from God that white supremacy is part of that sin, a sin we cannot wash away by ourselves.

Glennon Doyle Melton writes a blog called Momastery which is very popular with the mothers of young children, wrote in response to the Charleston shootings. I never saw the original blog. She said in a later post, I lay awake all night wondering if my words were any good. Were they fair, were they honest, were they helpful?  And who could I ask? And then I wondered how it is that I can arrive at this stage of my life without any real friends who are people of color. I cannot be a good ally, she said, because I am not a good friend. Today she must join the prodigal’s father on the front porch wondering where she went wrong and if there is time to make it better.

You see, white supremacy and the systems that support it rob us of our goodness, of our children, of our friendships, of our possibilities, of our humanity, as surely as it oppresses people of color. We will not be well while our sisters and brothers are not well. We will not have justice nor mercy nor peace, until our sisters and brothers have justice and mercy and peace. This is not a pretty or convenient thing to say nor is it a judgment; it’s just how it is. We cannot evade the reality that we have accepted an evil into our lives, because we would rather not look at it too hard, and because we benefit and that’s hard to give up. Our default in this society is white supremacy and we are fed a diet of it 24/7. We must actively seek to interrupt it, to break it down or it becomes “just the way it is,” fully internalized and accepted.

We gathered here on Thursday, several of us, several members from other churches black and white, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. It was pre-arranged as if God knew we would need it in ways we could not have imagined when we first arranged the service. For those of us who attended it was an act of grace; it was a moment when the kingdom began to break in, it was exactly what we needed at that very moment. It was as if, sitting with the prodigal’s father in silence and in mourning we caught a glimpse of dust stirred up on the road and our heart rose wondering if this might be him, could he be coming home, could healing be happening?

I want to tell you that the son is coming. I want to tell you that Cain and Abel are reunited and the murdered blood no longer cries from the ground. I want to tell you that the older brother has gotten over himself and his need to be special, to be above and better than his younger brother and is no longer sulking in the courtyard. But it would be premature.

God has promised to wipe every tear but first the tears must flow, and perhaps that justice which will roll down like waters is in those tears and they must not be staunched nor dried up until justice does roll down. Perhaps that justice which will roll down needs not only black tears and brown tears and red tears but white ones too and it waits until we can humbly say we need forgiveness for things done and things left undone.

For the heart is right to cry out! And perhaps we may stomp our feet and yell in great anger, but we are so right to cry out, like Rachel who weeps for her children and will not, will not, will not be comforted! Go on then and cry out! For our brothers, our sisters, their mothers, fathers, and children have been terrorized, have been murdered, and there is no place of safety. So cry out and let our tears join their tears and let us not stop until justice, peace, and mercy roll down upon us, cleansing us, freeing us and uniting us as one people, one body, one church. Let us raise such a ruckus that God himself will stir in his heavens and say, “My, what a noise you all are making.”

We may not be guilty, perhaps some of us carry some guilt, I know I do, but we are all responsible. We are all responsible adults who can affect the discourse in these united states and who are we really to absolve ourselves of that responsibility? A great light is being thrown on the national shame which is the brutalization of black bodies upon which this nation was built. It is horrific. No wonder we want to look away. But it is also within our purview to change, to create change, to be the change, to demand change. If we will only be brave enough to see what has been hiding in the darkness, if we will only be brave enough to acknowledge our wrongs, then we can begin to heal.

We remember today that we were never called to lives of comfort or security. We were never called to play it safe. We are called to be faithful. We are called to love one another-no exception. We are called to be peacemakers, to be those who bring the good news to those who hunger for it. Today perhaps that is us. And the good news is that we can, if we are very brave and very faithful, begin to dismantle the systems of oppression. We can. We have been entrusted by God with the care and the loving of his very dear beloved children. Let us be faithful to that charge and let us not turn away from the wrongs that have been done, that are being done, and that yet may be done if we fail to intervene. When did we see you Lord? We may ask one day. Let it be for the right reason.