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

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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.

No More Invisible People

09020501~ click this link for an audio version of the sermon.

David, alone in the fields watching his sheep might have prayed like this:

Holy One, do you even see me here? I feel so alone. Sent out to the fields by my father to tend sheep. “Maybe this will make a man out of you,” he had said, “or maybe a wolf will kill you but either way I will be rid of the puny, effeminate thing you are. No more hanging around the kitchen with your mother! Now go!” and I went. I am an obedient child Lord. Why can’t I be big and strong and handsome like my brothers? Why did you make me so small, so tender? Why am I inclined to the lyre while my brothers are inclined to the sword? Why am I drawn to poetry when this world rewards action? I don’t even feel like a real man, I am small and I am weak. Do you see me Lord? Is there anything of value about me? “

Perhaps David, the greatest poet of scripture, the ardent man of prayer, would have gone on and on. The days must have stretched endlessly. The days must have been very long for this child who loved poetry, music, and dance, for this child who would grow to be a compassionate and loving man, one inclined to mercy and not vengeance. Out in the midst of the vast hills and fields alone with a flock of sheep David would have been very alone. Loneliness has a way of seeping into one’s skin, into one’s heart and soul. One only needs to be unseen to be alone. One only needs to be invisible to be alone. David alone in the field, sent out to tend sheep by his father, might have cried out to God, “Do you even see me? Do you know I’m here? Does any of this matter?”

Until that day when the anointer of Kings, the high priest Samuel comes to visit. He comes in secret, bringing with him a heifer to sacrifice but they soon learn this is a ruse. Samuel has come to see David but first he must see all the others. First he must see the big and strong, the handsome, strapping lads that Jesse has to offer. First he must see exactly what he had expected to see when he came out there and learn that his expectations are wrong. Samuel must see beyond his expectations to the breaking in of the kingdom. For certainly there is a breaking in of the kingdom when the runt of the bunch, the unheralded, unconsidered, unwanted lover of poetry and music, the one who’s first intimate relationship is with Jonathon, this outcast, reject, maybe a passing bear will kill him and rid me of this effeminate son, is truly seen. Is seen as God sees and not as we see. Is seen and chosen.

Imagine the confusion when this one is chosen and not the others. Jesse, later to his wife, “I think Samuel’s lost it. Unbelievable that I could show him all of our fine, tall, strong sons and he looks at them and just shakes his head no. How are we to understand this? That God would choose that weakling of a boy over the others? He told me I must be hiding one and honestly I was. I sent that one out to the sheep so the neighbors wouldn’t see him prancing about. I had hoped it would make a man of him. “ David is the underdog, the abandoned child. He is the one who is unseen even by his parents who conveniently forget him out in the fields.

There is incredible power in being seen and incredible insult in being overlooked or seen wrongly. Insult not in the common use of the word where someone with malicious forethought tries to inflict injury, but insult in the actual wounding, the actual leaving of a mark on one’s heart and soul. We do not simply crave to be seen for who we are, we need it. A healthy mother will hold her child face to face, smiling into the infants face and say over and over, “I see you! I see you, you beautiful child!” and over time the child learns from this that they have worth, they have value that is intrinsic to who they are. Cut off from the beauty of being seen we become vulnerable, even sickly. Our hearts and souls begin to twist and we struggle to find solid ground to stand on.

Kalief Browder lost that solid ground during his two years in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island. Although he knew he had done nothing wrong and was never charged with doing anything wrong, he could not hold onto his sense of self during that time of abuse and isolation. Even when returned to his parents after three years of being detained he could not find that solid ground. Although his parents and others gathered around him, saw him as best they could, his despair was overwhelming and just last week he took his life. Kalief was invisible to our society and there was no Samuel to anoint him and tell him that God sees him. There was no Jonathon to love him and keep him safe from the crazy abuse he suffered.

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Walter McMillan, sitting on death row for a murder he did not commit, greeted his new lawyer with tears in his eyes saying, “I just need to know that you can see me for who I am. I am not a murderer. I didn’t do it. I couldn’t have done it. Can you, will you, see me for who I am?”

Pastor David Stewart’s wife, a native woman, stands at the cash register with her friends, also native women, and the lady ringing them up can only see the pastor’s wife, the one with authority, not the other women. Elona stops her, “These are my sisters,” she says, pointing to the women who walk invisible through the town, ”please acknowledge them too.”

It has been years since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published but we still struggle to see one another and this seeing is so vitally important. We all know what it is to have someone see you as something you are not; perhaps to see you as rich and snobby, or to see you as incapable and incompetent, or perhaps to simply not see you at all, as if you did not matter nor have any voice. It’s deeply unsettling and it drives an urge in us to shout out, “Hey! See me! I’m right here, I’m not like that!” whatever that is, it isn’t us.

The sad sack of a janitor in the play Chicago sings his lament, call me Mr. Cellophane because, “You can walk right by me, look right through me, never even know I’m there.” Who are the unseen people in our society today? Who do we struggle to see for who they are? In all their glorious humanity?

Kalief, alone in his cell, might have prayed like this, ”God, do you even see me? Does anyone care that I am alone in here? I feel so alone. I try to believe it will all be OK but honestly, I’m beginning to give up. I don’t understand why no one cares. Please God, let me know that someone cares, that someone can see me.” But no Samuel came to anoint him, to tell him that God does see you, that you have immense worth and value, and without this seeing Kalief slipped away.

There are those among you who know those moments when you felt seen, really, truly seen. Those moments when someone greeted you at the door and said, “God has sent you here for a purpose,” and something inside you came to life in that moment. We have been called just as Samuel was called, to see and affirm the precious children of God all around us. We too are called to say, not only your bright and beautiful, your tall and strong, but show me the children you yourself struggle to see. Show me the small and easily forgotten, show me the uncomfortable and overlooked, that I might see and affirm them too.

We have been called to see, truly deeply see so that no one need cry out, “Don’t you see what’s happening to us? Doesn’t anyone care?” King David was no king when Samuel anointed him. He was a small and weakly poetry loving, dancing, prancing, lyre playing boy. He was sent out into the wilderness to live or die trying. He was forgotten and unseen even by his own parents. “Is there another?” Samuel asked and Jesse responded, “Well, yes, but he’s the runt of the bunch, surely you don’t want to see him.”

And God said, “Yes, I do. I want him seen.” Who are we called to see? To really, deeply truly see? Who’s voice is missing from our discussions? Like Samuel we are called to go out and find these people. Like Samuel we may have to take a heifer with us, insist we are only there to worship, all that we might find those people who have been left out of the dialogue. Like Samuel we are called to look and earnestly see one another that no one is left feeling invisible. Like Elona we are called to insist that others see those around us who are invisible to them. Like Walter McMillan’s lawyer we are called to hear the cry of the disowned and forgotten pleading with us to “please see me for who I am.”

Who do we see and who do we refuse to see? God calls us to see all people as children of God and bearers of the Imago Dei and this changes everything. It changes everything because we cannot refuse to see Kalief Browder any longer; we cannot refuse to see Walter Mcmillan; we cannot refuse to see the children at the Mckinney pool. We cannot sit idly by as others insist that it is OK and even right to lock up, beat, or abuse these children of God. We are called to see and hear the cries of our brothers, of our sisters and sometimes this will stretch us. Sometimes we will have to redefine who our sisters and brothers are. Sometimes we will have to insist, “Yes, bring that one in from the field, bring that one in from solitary confinement, bring that one in from the neighborhood, I want to see them too.”

We have been called to see and affirm the nature of our brothers and sisters, to see them in all their glorious, beautiful and difficult humanity. We are called to see them as a deliberate act of justice. A rabbi once instructed his students, “How do you know the moment when the dawn begins to break” he asked them, “When there is enough light to tell the difference between a man and a woman walking the street,” one hopeful student answered, “No,” the rabbi said. “When there is enough light to tell the difference between a horse and a cow out in the field,” another answered, “No,” the rabbi replied. “The dawn begins to break when you look into the eyes of a stranger and you see there a brother, a sister, then the dawn will begin to break.” More than 500 years ago the poet Hafiz wrote,

I wish I could show you

when you are lonely or in darkness

the astonishing light of your own being.”

Our calling is to see the beauty, the fullness of the image of God, in others when they cannot see it themselves, when others cannot see it, and to proclaim to the world that this too is a child of God. It is a beautiful and sacred calling; how amazing that we have been blessed to see the image of God in each person we meet. How wonderful that we have been blessed to affirm the beautiful, God-given, sacred nature of those around us.

Who is My Family?

09012901~ click this link for an audio of the sermon.

 

Please pray with me, “God, our relationships are difficult. We want so much to know we are accepted and belong but we struggle to accept others and create a space of belonging. We see differences more than we see similarities. We hang with those who are like us, those who make us feel comfortable and we ignore and fail to see those who discomfit us, who call us out and challenge us to greater things. Help us, Lord, to see with the eyes of love, to see with the eyes of compassion, and strengthen our hearts that we will stay present and not turn away.” Amen

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With God all things are possible. This is our reality, our faith, the ground on which we stand. With God, all things are possible. We live in a world where change is hard, where divisions are easier to see than healing. Yet we stand within God’s word and proclaim the healing power of that word nonetheless. We insist on the basic truth of this word, this healing. We create our lives and make our decisions based on this unseen truth, that with God, all things are possible, all healing is within reach.

Today we are speaking about family, who is my family, and this is sort of an odd thing for a church that calls itself a family church to ask. We might almost take comfort in today’s scripture as it seems to affirm that all people who abide in Jesus, who follow Jesus’ way are family. But it’s a little uncomfortable too. There is a part of me that wants to take Jesus to task. I want to ask him if he forgot himself and where he came from that he would ignore his own mother standing outside the door. It was bad enough that when she came to him at the wedding at Cana asking him to help with the lack of wine that he called her “woman.” For all the mother’s out there I just want to say, “WHAT? You called your mother WHAT?” So just maybe there’s a little discomfort here too.

There is something about Jesus insisting that all who seek God, who follow him, who desire to be closer to God, are family and that blood bonds are not as significant that is deeply radical. We are familiar with the ten commandments including the need to honor one’s father and mother. This is a basic societal expectation in Hebrew society, but do you know how strongly it was enforced? When Jesus defied the expectation that he would drop everything and tend to his mother and his blood relatives he was again being the radical rabbi who turned every expectation on its head. In the era in which Jesus lived if a young man defied his family he could be drug outside the city gates and stoned to death. But Jesus defies this tradition just as he encouraged his followers to do so. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow him and the answer is yes, but. Yes, but, let me go and bury my father. And Jesus responds let the dead bury the dead, no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

It’s a scary text. It’s a text that insists we let go of our obligations, our community ties, our societal expectations and simply follow God. Just follow, now, right now, without hesitation. No wonder the pharisees and other religious thought this was cult! Would we be any different today?

Is anyone feeling a little less comfortable with our being a family church yet? Whew! Deep breath, so what does this mean for us? Are we to be a family church and if so what does that look like? What does it mean for us to follow Jesus, just go, now, right now, forsaking all other obligations and ties?

Robert Frost once defined home as the one place where, when you show up they have to take you in, no questions asked, you simply belong. I love this definition. To me it not only speaks of home but of church. Now I know there are churches that don’t really want the social misfits, the uncomfortable people, the ones who challenge our sense of what’s right, but I’m talking about church that welcomes all people exactly at they are. A church modeled on, formed on, in and through the very love that Christ shows us, gave to us and in which we seek ever to abide, is a church that sits with prostitutes, tax collectors, traitors, lepers and HIV positive people. No matter who you’ve been, or what you’ve done, you are welcome here, no questions asked.

This is the counter cultural church in action. I once knew a pastor who believed firmly in instant obedience. If he was in prayer and something came to him, he felt that he must act. So one day, this happily married pastor was in prayer when it came to him that he should go down to the corner where the prostitutes gathered in his town and invite them to church- so he did, immediately. He got up and walked down there, and evangelized. He brought a good message of hope, of love, of inclusion to these women who were treated very poorly by most upright, upstanding members of the community. Now, it took some time to win their trust but he felt that God had called him to do this and it was a bit uncomfortable to be standing down there talking to prostitutes when members of his congregation would drive by, but he did it anyway. He carefully explained to his wife what he was doing and he just kept on.

One bright sunny Sunday morning as the service was getting started a couple of these women walked in late to church. Now, you all know how we are, as the service was getting started and they were a bit late the only open pews were the ones in front, the ones no one wanted to sit in. The so-called “pews of shame” so called because that’s where the late comers and the pastors always end up sitting. And they walked down the center aisle dressed to the nines in their best outfits, which still looked a little like street wear, and sat down in the front pew. This went on for a few weeks and the pastor was thrilled! Clearly God had sent him to these women to help them transform their lives and it was working! It was incredibly validating.

You all know where this is going, right? Because for a while the upstanding members of the congregation tolerated their pastor hanging out with prostitutes and they tolerated these women showing up in church dressed inappropriately, but slowly it became evident, in all the small ways that we do sometimes, that they didn’t approve and these women didn’t fit in and they weren’t really accepted. And they quit coming.

The underbelly of the church was exposed. It isn’t that these were bad people, but being church is about so much more. It redefines who my brother, who my sister is. And just like family, we don’t get to choose, but we do get to love and we do get to honor, accept, and create a place of belonging for all the incredible, wildly diverse, unexpected people that God sends us to be our family in Christ.

I didn’t watch the interview with Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar gave to Fox news but I did catch some of the hard and painful clips. Unlike this church that found itself being called into relationship with a group of prostitutes, who’s mistakes and sins were immediately apparent, Michelle and Jim Bob knew and loved their son long before his sins and mistakes were evident, he was already family, already one of them and he was given the acceptance and belonging that we all crave long before he made any mistakes. When people come to us and we can see that they don’t have it all together, that sin has touched their lives and changed them and we can see that, it’s harder to invite them into our space and say, “hey, you are one of us.”

Who is family today? Do we hold out our hands to all people, sinner and saint alike, or do we strive to keep ourselves safe? The radical, inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ exceeds all boundaries. It pulls us into unsafe places where we have to see and recognize the sinner in the saint, the powerless victim who reminds us of our own vulnerability, and the ones who we can save, who’s lives we can change, if we are willing to forgo our own comfort. Family isn’t easy. No one pushes our buttons like family and yet, in healthy families, we commit to working out our issues. We commit to honoring our differences rather than being divided by them. If relationships are change agents, then family relationships are master change agents! Being a healthy family means so much more than tolerating one another. It means being willing to be changed by and for one another. It means learning uncomfortable truths and hard truths and loving anyway.

When Jesus’ family came to the door of that crowded room they came because they were concerned about him and they didn’t understand what he was doing, who he was, or what it all meant. They wanted to stop this disruption of the social order because they were good citizens and they, like all of us, like to keep things calm. And besides, they loved him and didn’t want him to get in trouble. Jesus refuses all of this. Jesus wasn’t about maintaining the status quo, he wasn’t about staying safe. Jesus was all about getting into trouble and upsetting the status quo. He was all about loving the most inappropriate and socially unfit people-without having to shun the upright and popular, no choosing sides!

Edwin Markham sums this kind of family so beautifully when he wrote:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

Love and I, Love and you, Jesus and all of us, we have the wit to win because we know, we really know, that our family circle is so very wide and vast, it takes everyone in. All of our marvelous, flawed humanity is in, prostitutes, Josh Duggar, that obedient pastor, that difficult congregation, you, me, all of us, have been taken in. We have a home and a family where we belong, where we are accepted, where we are loved in all of our difficult glorious humanity, because Jesus has come to us and no one and nothing can ever take that away.