Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The one about your power to heal

In Easter season the church worships, ponders, and considers the resurrection of Jesus.  We are not so much interested in proving the validity or historicity of the claims that God raised Jesus from the dead.  It cannot be proven scientifically.  100% of human experience contradicts the claims of Jesus’ disciples.  We have before us ancient texts, written by Jesus’ followers who tell us what they saw and heard, what they experienced.  Empty tombs and appearances of Jesus in the flesh are only part of that story.  In fact, if we read the gospels, Acts, and all the letters—the easter stories take up only a small part of the material.  Not that much is actually said about the risen Jesus.  In Mark’s gospel, he doesn’t make an appearance and the empty tomb story is a mere 8 verses that ends with the terrified women fleeing the tomb in silence.   Luke and John have extended stories about the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and on the beach beside the sea.  But even these stories are strange.  Jesus appears, disappears, is recognizable and hidden from their recognition.  He is there, but on his way somewhere.  Going to the Father.  It is told by Luke that after 40 days Jesus ascends, is taken up.  St. Paul records that he appeared to the women and apostles, to 500 people, and finally to Paul himself as one born at the wrong time---as if to say his vision of Jesus was by happenstance, at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Or right place at right time. Not sure what he meant, actually.  Nevertheless, the resurrection was an event that reimagined the power of God and the people of God.  Rather than a divine liberation and rescue of all the people of Israel,  God rescues Jesus from death.  This Exodus was not like the first.  And it did not put an end to Roman oppression.  One could ask, what about the lived experience of the people of God changed as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  This is a critical question for us.  Because we need to have an answer to this accusatory question.  If the answer is, nothing, then why does it matter?  And if it doesn’t matter, then why worship or any devotion whatever?  I suspect some people might say, Jesus was a good teacher.  His teachings inspire.  Living like Jesus is the right way to live.  But was it?  His revision of Torah that rejected purity laws got him crucified.  Jesus didn’t so much teach his followers how to live as how to die.  Basically serve others, pouring yourself out for the needy, until you die. Ok.  Very few people will actually do this.  The rest will fail miserably.  If martyrdom is the Christian life, most of us will opt out.  So what of the lived experience of the people of God changed as a result of the resurrection of Jesus?  That is perhaps more significant than proof of his bodily resurrection.  How did they live after that? 

Peter and John are arrested, standing before the same Jewish leaders that accused Jesus and had him dragged before Pilate and killed.  The High priest was a powerful man of influence and justice in Jerusalem.  He was the shepherd of the flock of Israel, whose job was to keep the peace and the commandments so that the Romans would allow them to practice their religion.  This meant identifying and silencing zealots and extremists.  Were Peter and John two of them?  They healed a man at the gate of the temple.  Then they proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead as a sign of God’s favor and vindication in their conflict with Jesus that ended in his crucifixion. If so, Jesus won.  And they said that faith in his name healed that man.  So they arrested them for stirring up the crowds with talk of resurrection from the dead.  And they questioned them and Peter responded with the verse we heard. But verse 13 says it all:  Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were ordinary uneducated men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.  When they saw the man who had been cured standing there they had nothing to say.”   Peter has been speaking boldly and publicly about Jesus.  It seems that the confrontation between Jesus and the authorities did not end with his death on the cross.  The assumption was that the movement dies with its leader.  But now a new leader has emerged.  Maybe even more than one.  Cut off the head and two new heads emerge.  Peter’s proclamation about Jesus is clear and very Jewish.  He is bold enough to accuse them of killing Jesus, quoting Psalm 118 a Messianic Psalm.  Basically Peter is saying, Jesus was the Messiah, the king.  You killed him.  God raise him from the dead.  That power also healed this man.  If we are being accused of doing a good deed by healing a sick man, let it be understood that we are not guilty.  Jesus is!  And they can’t arrest Jesus.
The community of the resurrection consists of ordinary people with no special abilities, competencies, or powers.  That’s good news for us.  Jesus powers their action. And ours.   Health and healing are signs of God’s mercy.  And when a sick person becomes well, many things change.  His social status changes. He need not beg anymore.  He is whole, so can participate in the community’s religious life.  His healing was not just physical.  He was seen, heard, received, and treated as one worthy of health.  They did not throw money at this problem.  They empowered him to stand.  Healing is spiritual---its about the whole person within a family. One might say everything changed for that person.  The risen Jesus lifts up people who have been made low.  The community of the resurrection acts under that power—the power of love to heal.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  The church is called to respond to that question.  The love we dare is the power of the risen Christ in us to heal people. How have you participated in someone's healing? In a broken health care system in which there are no winners, what is our calling as a community of the resurrection?  What role do we play in health care?  Nutrition?  Education?  Addiction recovery?  Hospitality?  Are we a hospital, welcoming guests in need of care? Do we provide emotional healing or spiritual healing for those who have been wounded by a venomous version of Christianity?  What is your healing story?  Did you know that it was Jesus?   I have been seriously ill three times in my life. Once as a four year old, and twice as an adult. Yet, here I am to tell you that the Lord Jesus healed me so that I may share this good news with you.  Having been infected by Jesus' healing power, we are empowered to become healers in the name of the risen Jesus. How will you and who will you heal this week?  

the one about how faith frees us from fear

The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. This was the cultural experience of the first Christians on that first Easter.  Fear.  They were afraid.  And yet, none of them had been arrested alongside Jesus in the garden.  Despite his identity being questioned, Peter is not mistreated by the restless public.  It was clear that Jesus was the one victim and example the Jewish leaders wanted to make.  If you publicly shame and destroy the leader, the followers will abandon the cause.  Better that one man die for the people than all Israel suffer, said the High priest.  So, given this information why were they afraid? 

 The fact that some of the disciples were absent must have caused alarm.  Was Thomas betraying their location, like Judas?  Crucifixion under the Roman occupation was an effective tool to control deviance, to maintain authority and order.  What they did to the human body was gruesome, bloody torture.  Living under violent oppressors for decades, seeing random violence and the destruction of Palestinian bodies, having their land and resources taken from them they were a helpless and hopeless people. Intimidated into paralysis.  But Jesus had helped the people and given them hope.  Hope for freedom and peace.  But they had taken him from them too.  Violence and hopelessness breed a high level of fear.  The disciples had a reason to be afraid.  They had experienced the betrayal and death of their leader.  They were leaderless, lost, and possibly in danger.  What if they were labeled as deviants and seen as a threat and sought for arrest or even death? 

We understand fear.  Despite FDR’s statement, there is nothing to fear but fear itself, we continue to live in it.  Since 9/11 Americans have lived under a constant state of anxiety-producing fear, documented most prominently by sociologist D.r barry Glassner in his book “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things.”  We live in fear.  The fear of attack.  The fear of violence.  The fear of disease.  The fear of accidents.  The fear of terrorists, gunmen, and violent criminals.  Fear of the other, the non-white, young adult male. Fear of the stranger, the foreigner.  Fear drives daily politics.  Who is threatening us this week? If it bleeds it leads.  News is full of violence, making it seem common and local and universally threatening.  What is the level of concern you have for safety?  The local police are conducting building safety and active shooter trainings for churches.  We will attend one of these in two weeks.  Our doors are not locked.  But many people are suggesting that it is foolish of us not to do so.  And I believe they are right.

Most of the time, when we hear this gospel story, we focus on doubting Thomas.  I think his doubt is not the real matter.  His absence from the group is.  Why wasn’t he with them?  Where was he all week?  What does it mean that Thomas is both present and absent in this story that shows the disciples huddled together in fear?  Was he somehow less afraid? Was he hiding somewhere else?  During his absence, Jesus appears among them.  He shows them his wounds.  They are forced to confront their fear of crucifixion and the taste of disgust that accompanies their fear.  They rejoice that they have seen him.  They evidently leave the house and find Thomas.  This is the first sign that their life as Jesus’ people will continue.  I think this is why Thomas is absent.  So that they have a legitimate reason to leave the house, to seek him out and tell him the news. It restores their mission—to invite others to come and see Jesus!   A week later, Thomas is with them and Jesus appears again.  Like Thomas, Jesus is both present and absent in the story.  He shows up where and when they need him to be present.  He shows up so that others might also come and see.  But more than his mere presence, he gives gifts.  Peace and the Spirit breath of life.  Jesus passes on to them his own breath, his own spirit—that which gives life to his body he gives to them.  We all breathe the same air.  And in this way we are joined to one another. Jesus gives them a spirit of peace.  Can you imagine not feeling anxious or afraid or worried or concerned about safety?  Can you imagine feeling confident and brave?  Can you imagine risking your own safety to do Jesus’ work?   One of my colleagues was arrested on good Friday at a nonviolent protest at Lockheed Martin.  Others face threats because of their public witness. What gives them the courage?   

Somewhere between hiding in fear behind locked doors and the liberal and generous and public testimony about Jesus’ resurrection and the radical sharing of all their possessions, so that no one among them had need—something had happened to them.  Between John 20 and Acts 4, they become a different group of people.  No longer hidden, locked, afraid, they are boldly telling others about Jesus and publicly claiming their loyalty and faith in him.  What happened to them?  The body and the Spirit of Jesus happened to them.  The Thomas problem is how the gospel writer tells us that Jesus’ resurrection appearance was not a collective illusion or trauma induced hallucination.  It was real, happened more than once, and to specific individuals.  Jesus is both present and absent as the crucified and risen Christ. Why? He is free.  Free from death’s power, and therefore free from fear.  Only someone with faith and hope in the resurrection from the dead can be truly free from fear.  From locked doors to public sharing---this is what the body and spirit of Jesus does to the disciples.  He frees them from fear to love with power and joy.  What is he doing with us?  He gives us his body and spirit today.  He is present.  We hear his voice. Receive the holy spirit.  Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe. He’s moving us out of safety and comfort to confront the world with love and peace.     

The one about the Eunuch, sexual discrimination, and the church's accompaniment mission

We follow a three year lectionary cycle of scripture readings following the life of Jesus and the church year.  We are in season of Easter year B.  The cycle allows us to hear about 70 % of the bible in 3 years.  If we hear all four readings every Sunday, which we don’t.  I’m telling you this for two reasons; one we hear a lot of the bible in worship, but not all of it.  There are good parts that we never hear.  So you have to fill in the gaps yourself.  At home.  With a bible.  Two,  I don’t choose the readings we hear or I preach on.  They’re chosen and sometimes they’re crap.  Sometimes the lectionary is like going on a date with someone you sort of know like a friend set you up?  Sometimes that date is amazing, and you talk for hours and have a ton in common and you can se yourself being in love with this person.  And sometimes its like that date, a dud, the one where you have nothing in common at all.  Nothing to talk about.  No attraction. Just a desire for it to end so you can go home and watch a movie on the couch.  This is the lectionary.  Sometimes it’s a treasure field.  And sometimes its like dumpster diving for a half-eaten piece of fruit.  All of this is to say that about 60% of the time I feel like I’ve heard treasure and have treasure to share.  And 20% I’m still looking for the half eaten banana. 20% is reserved for treasure that I just miss because I’m too tired.  Its not you, Jesus, its me.  Sorry.

Today is a treasure trove.  I could preach three sermons.  So here’s one.  Philip is a Christian and a deacon in Jerusalem.  His job was to serve the poor in the name of Jesus, so the 12 apostles could devote their time to preaching and teaching and writing the gospels.  Instead, a persecution scatters the Jerusalem church and prohibits them from distributing to the poor.  So Philip is waiting.  And Stephen, his fellow deacon is stoned to death for preaching about Jesus.  So Philip doesn’t apply for that position.  Who would?  Then he is sent by the Spirit.  He is dropped into a story.  An Ethiopian Eunuch, in the court of the Queen, and the treasurer of Ethiopia, is traveling home from Jerusalem, in a chariot.  Reading a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.   This is a very black, very wealthy man.  He is Jay Z.  Wearing Armani.  In a Limo. He is literate.  Though he is likely reading Hebrew and apparently struggling with it.  A personal scroll of the prophet Isaiah was a treasure itself.   He is a worshiper of God.  Jewish religion and theology was known around the ancient Mediterranean.  It was old.  They proclaimed one God, the creator. Their temple was a wonder to behold.  Their sacrificial worship was a massive religious machine.  He is a Eunuch.  A mark of slavery.  Though not to be correlated exactly, this text opens us to acknowledge sexual and physical discrimination.You’ve heard of transgendered or gender nonconforming or queer? These are aspects of sexual identity that I didn’t know about until recently.  I thought people were male or female.  I was ignorant.  But just because we don’t have knowledge or understanding of something or someone doesn’t make them wrong or abnormal.  We get to learn, to grow, to change.  Neither the eunuch nor the 21st century gender nonconforming youth chose a path of vulnerability and discrimination for themselves. This Ethiopian man was someone with a very high status, who was likely dismissed in Jerusalem because of his low status as a eunuch---they were outcasts in Roman and Jewish society.  Gender non-conforming, transgendered, queer.  Not accepted.  Not welcomed.  Branded on his body as a nobody. Unable to participate in the worship of God. He lives with physical humiliation.  He is status inconsistent in a world that loved and required status consistency.  Black men who make it in this country still experience status inconsistency.  The privilege of wealth or education and the disadvantage of being black make for an uncomfortable life.  Philip is sent to this man.  And asks if he understands what he’s reading.  Philip doesn’t seem to notice the external issues---wealthy, foreign government official, branded on his body as a nobody. He sees an internal struggle, pain. He is reading a passage from Isaiah about someone who has experienced humiliation.  And he wonders, is this about Isaiah or someone else?  I think this man went up to Jerusalem to worship and was rejected there because of his status as a eunuch.  I believe he was humiliated in Jerusalem.  Isn't it amazing that he opens this text from Isaiah about humiliation?  I think his question is this;  How is it that my humiliation still haunts me, despite my place in the court of the queen of Ethiopia?  How am I both royal and a nobody at the same time?  I wonder if he heard his own story in Isaiah?  A royal figure who gets rejected in Jerusalem because of his nonconformity.  Philip share the gospel about Jesus with him—a gospel about the Son of God, the savior of the Word.  Titles reserved for emperors. From the house of David.  A King of the Jews, a prophet, a preacher, a healer, a teacher, the hope of the people.  Crucified.  Physically Humiliated.  But raised from the dead.  God turns Jesus’ humility into the power of salvation and life.  Especially for those who experience humiliation and shame.  Jesus death and resurrection means that God loves the rejected ones; the Eunuchs and the gender noncomforming and the transgendered and the queer and the black man and the cis-gendered, heterosexual white upper middle class pew sitter.  So this Ethiopian finds water in the desert, because God is crazy, and says what is to prevent me from being baptized?  Well, eventually the church would.  But on that day, before all the rules and dogma and exclusionary sexual morals, nothing could prevent it. Because nothing can separate us from God’s love for us.  Not even bad religion.  And he was washed and welcomed as a child of God.  And the spread of Jesus’ message leaves Israel in the abused and humiliated and loved body of an African man.  Black and brown bodies received this gospel before us.  They are our ancestors in faith.  Our great grandparents.  What wisdom they have to offer us, if we’re willing to listen.  Just as quickly as Philip entered the story, he left it.  Holy encounters may be brief, confrontational, and transformational.  But these personal one to one accompaniment relationships are where real authentic gospel ministry happens.  This accompaniment mission is how the gospel is shared, transmitted, and spread.  Not by forcing people to read the bible, but by coming alongside people who are wrestling with their shame and pain and humanity in the context of their faith in God.  You may meet someone tomorrow who changes your life, who guides you, shows you God’s love and grace anew, makes you feel welcome and accepted and treasured.  Or you may give that to someone else.  Either way, that’s where we see the risen Jesus.  Amen.            


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Covenant Series, part 2. Abram and God's future

From Second Sunday in Lent. Based on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.  The covenant with Abram and Sarai.
What if Abram said "No?" What if he said, "I'm too old, too tired for this." It’s a long journey.  It’s scary.  I don’t have what I need, I don’t know how to respond. What if Abram chose comfort and stability over leaving and going and trusting and obeying the LORD?  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this origin story.  Its worth noticing that this is Genesis 17, and that God has been communicating with Abram since Genesis 12.  This is actually the fourth time God has made a covenant promise to Abram, with the hope and expectation that Abram would receive the promise and live his life as if it were true. God had to talk to Abram four times in order to get through to Abram!  Have you ever had to say the same thing, give the same direction four times before the person you’re taking to hears you?  If you’re married or have children, this has happened to you.  How many times do I have to tell you?  Didn’t you hear me?  I’ve told you four times where we’re going.  We listen worse to the people closest to us.  Abram listened badly to God.    

 God promised descendants, land, and a national identity.  A nomadic people will become settled. To live as if it were true would be for Abram to see his life as one filled with meaning, significance, and hope far beyond himself. It’s also worth understanding that Abram is a representative character and not merely an individual as we think of an individual.  Abram saw himself as an insignificant member of a tribe or clan.  Individuality is a modern thought about the person.  Abram was part of a group, perhaps its leader, but still an interdependent tribe or ethnic group.  Later known as Israel or the Hebrews.  Abram represents to us the revelation relationship between this God and this God’s people.  This God is invisible, yet appears to speak.  We can hear God, too. But we have to listen.  And listening for God involves trust.   

 I love this text for so many reasons.  1.  If you are under the age of 99 you are eligible to play on God's creation restoration team. God is inconveniently disrespectful of retirement. You're not too old for this stuff.  This is especially important because our congregation has a number of elder adults in it. God is a lot older than you, so…you’re not done yet, God ain’t done with us.  2.  If you haven’t figured out what God is saying to you, maybe you’re not listening.  Listening to God involves silence, stillness, and Scripture.  3. God intends for covenant faithfulness to be generationally passed down. So, children matter as much as elders do. God is the creator.  If we want more youth and children in our faith community, then we have to be willing to do our part, to be fruitful and multiply.  Create space that is inviting to children and youth.  4.  God is exceedingly generous in the unfolding drama of creation restoration. The covenant is lopsided with God taking the brunt of the responsibility for the unfolding plan. 5.  There is hope for the future.  God invites Abram and us to imagine a future beyond ourselves.  I'm guessing that Abram could have said 'NO', but having said "yes" by falling on his face, he is changed. His life was about himself or a nomadic tribal experience of daily survival, until his life was consumed with the God who spoke and speaks. After that his life was about the descendent, the nations, the people more numerous than the stars who would call him "Father Abraham." It was about the land on which he walked.  The name change signifies that he received his life direction as a gift from God that changed him.  So, to what adventure is God inviting us to say yes? Is there a future child of God depending on our faithfulness today? You know, God doesn't need us to do anything, but our children do. And our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s never too late to be faithful.  I see in the Wittel Farm and the growing community of children who worship and serve here a sign of God’s covenant promise to Abram in this place. Land and descendants!  But what are we willing to sacrifice, to change, to give up, to surrender in order to be faithful, fully committed to this walk with God? The promise cannot be fulfilled if we are stubbornly clinging to ourselves, our time, and our possessions.  This covenant is serious.  Involving flesh and blood.  Both Abram and Sarai are equally part of the covenant promise.  Sarai and Abram will die long before the covenant is fulfilled, though they will experience the joy and laughter of an infant named Isaac, which literally means laughter.  But they will not see a kingdom or a national identity emerge.  In four generations they will become slaves for 400 years.  But the promise is everlasting and continues. The amazing endurance of Jewish and Christian community, despite thousands of years of change, disruption, war, political upheaval, abuse of power, persecutions, holocausts, plagues, is testimony enough to see that God keeps promises alive. We are enduring a time of great challenge and change, in which faithfulness is tested.  What do we stand for?  What do we say as the community of Jesus?  How we love our neighbors matters. 
So what does it look like to live in the Abrahamic covenant? As a community of Jesus, we have been drawn into that family of faith. Our response to God’s activity, God’s voice has a name.  We call it discipleship.  The lifelong pursuit of Jesus, his way of life, and the formation of a community that looks and sounds more and more like him.  Eugene Petersen calls Christian discipleship “A long obedience in the same direction.”  It looks like the cross.  A lifelong pursuit of the life God is giving you.  Its like receiving, unpacking, and putting together a great gift.  Its like building a cathedral, one brick at a time over several lifetimes.  There were faithful Christians right here before us. Will there be faithful ones after us?

Parade Watchers or Protest Marchers

On Palm Sunday, the day after a massive student movement called "March for our Lives", marched on cities across the country to mobilize against gun violence and demand action.
Was it a parade or a protest march?  I guess it depends on your perspective.  Parades celebrate victory and power and cultural pride.  A parade gathers a crowd to celebrate life as it is, the status quo. Every fourth of July parade is the same.   Protest marches, on the other hand, demand change, justice, an end to oppression, often instigated by marginalized or disenfranchised people, those who are struggling with the way things are.  Protests provoke, challenge, and confront the powers that be.  Nobody gets arrested at a parade.  Was it a parade or a protest march?  We know what happens after Palm Sunday’s protest parade.  He’s arrested and put to death for rebellion. 

Pain.   Violence.  Destruction of bodies.  This is what we are confronted with in the story of Jesus.  The state and religious sanctioned killing of an innocent man.  Our vile familiarity with cruelty, our casual acceptance of violent acts perpetrated by those with power against those without, our callous disregard for the fragility and beauty and wonder of life, any life, one person’s life at best leaves us with shame or righteous anger.  We may feel the weight of the injustice and the shame of our cowardice in the face of it.  We may not.  We may accept death and dying as undeniable truth.  We may wonder why Jesus had to die?  For our sins?  Because of our sins?  As a consequence of sin, injustice, violence, prejudice, rage and hate that kills us. Those who benefit from the status quo are not interested in revolutionary change.  Protect what is mine, even if someone else bears the cost.  I am now aware that many black lives, southern black migrant workers, the grandchildren of slaves who worked on our farm-- bore the cost of my childhood and education.  I do not know how to repay that debt.  They bore the cross for me.  I did not ask them to do it.  I was not responsible for it.  But I benefit from it. This is why the message of the cross matters.  It tells us the truth.  We are in that story somewhere.  Politicians.  Religious leaders.  Crowds.  Police.  Executioners. Bystanders.  Fellow prisoners. Mourners.  Family members.  God, this keeps happening.  We keep doing this to ourselves. Yesterday’s march for our lives and that march on Jerusalem 2000 years ago have this in common:  a resilient hope, despite strong opposition, for political change that ends suffering and violence and brings peace to all people.  Call it the coming of the kingdom of God.           

What happened to Jesus of Nazareth on that hill outside of Jerusalem was not and is not a unique, unprecedented, or unexpected event.  We will not turn Jesus’ crucifixion into a special divine act, an act of great courage or holiness.   The cross was not and is not a one-time event that happened to one man many called and call the Christ.  No.  Jesus was not crucified alone for a reason.  It was to show his compatriots that Jesus was not special, that he was no more or better than any other common unnamed prisoner of the empire.  Killed by the empire to protect the status quo, to demonstrate power and control, to assure everyone of their place in the world.  Palestinian Jews, the poor, the sick, the non-citizen, are at the bottom---are nothing, disposable, expendable, less than human.  So they can be treated as such.  Stripped, beaten, mocked, crucified, left for dead.  The empire destroys the body to show that they have the power to control the body.  To take life.  They decide who is free and who is not.  Who is good and who is not. Who benefits and who suffers.   Rome is not the only empire to use violence to control.         From European colonialists and slavers to totalitarian regimes.  Every war.  War is always about power and control.  Someone is trying to take it from someone else.  The crusades.  The holocaust. Hiroshima.  Apartheid.  Slavery and segregation.  Sometimes the Christians are the oppressed, sometimes the oppressors.  Sometimes the oppressed become the oppressors.  The abused become the violent abuser.  There is always innocent suffering, collateral damage.  In Syria. In Vietnam.  From the trail of tears to the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, this country, this empire has its own way of maintaining power and control.  Segregate by race.  Marginalize, dehumanize, and destroy black and brown bodies.  In ghettos and prisons and impoverished schools and jobless communities.  We don’t crucify anymore.  Its too inefficient.  We have found far more efficient ways to kill.  Unarmed black bodies are targets.  From whippings to lynchings to drug wars and incarcerations and shootings.  If we want to understand Jesus and the cross, we have to look at communities of the oppressed and suffering.  We must look at the refugee, the disabled, the impoverished, and especially the non-white person of color.   

The effect of Palm Sunday is to snap us to awareness. So we can find our place in that story. In the crowd. As bystanders.  Onlookers.  Indifferent.  Or worse, ignorant.  Are we powerless victims?  Are we privileged citizens that can afford to look away?  If we have not grieved for the death of Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento police last week.  If we have not grieved the murder of school children.  If we do not grieve the death of Syrian children.  What have we become? Fragile avoiders of pain? Parade watchers?  But if you find yourself marching with Jesus in the story, then its not too late.  We can become protest marchers, hoping against despair that the world changes, that the gun fight ends, that the war ceases, that nonviolence prevails, that love wins and peace comes to earth. May we march with that King and that Kingdom of peace to come. May we shout Hosannas and march on until it does.  Amen. 

The soil we're planted in

The soil you plant in matters.  My work with the Wittel Farm Growing Project in these last few years has given me much to reflect about in my life.  I grew up in a farming family in Upstate New York.  Started in the 1920s by my great-Grandfather Lenahan, we were a large commercial green bean farm and dairy, until the 1970’s.  Gradually, we transitioned from a commercial cash crop business toward a small market vegetable and fruit business.  We grew hundreds of acres of crops that we sold in a farm market store we built, similar to our Reiff’s or Hoover’s.  I grew up working on the farm, harvesting crops, tilling, planting, and selling.  As a teen, I loved taking my pickup truck load of fresh-picked sweet corn to a weekly outdoor farm market (like Lititz Farmers market) to sell.  I also loved to eat what we grew on the farm.  Summer was a daily diet of fresh fruits and vegetables.  It was hard work and in 1992 I left for College with a strong desire to follow another path.  I heard a call to ordained ministry while I was at Susquehanna University, a call to leave behind the family farm and pursue another work.  I never imagined that this path would bring me to another farm to grow fresh vegetables for hungry neighbors.  Along this journey I have learned many things about God, myself, and other people.  Now I am learning the role racism and white advantage has played in my life.     

I had my only encounters with non-white people on the farm.  We hired migrant Hispanics from Guatemala and Mexico to labor and live on the farm in the summers.  They taught me Spanish, hard work, and how to eat hot peppers.  They didn’t watch TV.  They played guitars and sang together.  They were generous and happy men, who sent their paychecks home. Nobody worked longer or harder than they did.  They rarely took a day off.  Now I know that their charm for me was based on racial inequality and white privilege (dominance).  At the end of the day, I went home to a comfortable place with my family.  These men spent months apart from their homes and families in order to support the children they left behind.  I will never have to do that because their work provided income for my family that helped me to go to College.   

I was always a passive racist, not personally prejudicial toward people of color, but not aware of systemic bias and oppressive inequality either.  Only now am I learning to become an active anti-racist.  Like an emerging seedling, I'm beginning to see the light above the soil in which I was planted.  I recently had a conversation with my parents about race, because I knew that our farm used to employ and house southern blacks migrants on the farm to pick 800 + acres of green beans in the summer time, in the years before mechanical bean pickers.  I learned that over 50 people came up from the south, men, women and children.  In the 50s and 60s, they came up to our farm, lived in crude shacks with no plumbing, and worked hard for very little pay.  They held dances and played music and drank beers on Saturday nights---to feel human and free, and not like a “negro”.  Now I understand that my family’s livelihood, my childhood, and college education were bought by the hard, cheap labor of poor southern black families.  It was understood then that they needed the work and that they were willing to live under those crude conditions. I don’t blame my ancestors, least of all my parents. (They were kids then). This was the way of things. It was a cultural reality, a system, a way of life.  My ancestors' ignorance and prejudices were embedded in the American story. How many of those black migrant workers were the grandsons or granddaughters of former slaves? Though I lived in a racially homogenous, predominantly white rural community, my life was also bound to the black experience in America in ways I am only now beginning to understand. This is hard to share. But it is my truth.  
What is your race story?  What is your experience with people of color?  How have you benefited from being white? I understand how uncomfortable these questions and this conversation can be for us.  I am uncomfortable, too. But I am also enriched by this awareness of race and by a growing passion to actively resist and oppose the systemic racism that effects American life in so many ways.  I cannot live in ignorance or denial of my own story anymore.  And I believe God is calling me again to till this soil and plant seeds of courage and water with hope and ready us for a harvest of love and understanding, justice and reconciliation. 

In peace,

Pastor Matt         

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The rainbow and the cross

God's protection and peace be with you wherever you go this week.  What a week it has been. One that may have provoked questions like these: How can you believe in a Good God when the world is so bad?  The chaos, cruelty, violence, and injustice point away from a benevolent creator.  What sort of a God creates this and then threatens his creatures with the possibility of hell after death? As if this isn’t bad enough.  The best we can say is that the worst hasn’t yet happened to me or to those I love.  But it sometimes feels like I’m waiting for that to happen.  There is a capricious randomness to the whole thing.  After another mass shooting at a public school and the subsequent rage, sorrow, and powerlessness that follows, I wonder how long.  How long until it gets me or how long must we live under the pall of violence and death? Do we hunker down?  Protect our own? Lock the doors, arm the ushers?  Should all of us be trained gunmen? This doubtful cynicism is symptomatic of a culture of death, violence, and powerlessness.  And it is spiritually dangerous, because it perpetuates the dehumanizing effect of violence and makes it acceptable, even necessary.  It leads us to wilderness survival against the threats around us.

In other news, in a scene of gruesome poetic justice, an infamous South African poacher was attacked and eaten by lions.  Which suggests that the whole animal kingdom is hardwired toward violent retribution.  All that remained was his rifle and ammunition.  The world is deadly enough without those manmade killing machines.  We’ve just become more efficient at it.  The most efficient killers the earth has ever seen.  When will there be peace?  How do we make it?

The Noah story with its rainbows and doves, is the most beloved of the bible stories.  You’ll never find a children’s first bible without it.  And yet it is the deadliest.  The flood, the ark, the animals, Noah and his family, the rainbow.  Benign images in a picture book.  We forget that the purpose of the flood was to cleanse the earth of the violence, cruelty, and chaos of humanity.  The creator’s original blessing and intent for creation had been rejected and distorted by the image-bearing creatures, who saw God in themselves and decided to take that literally.  Argument erupts over power, who’s in charge, who’s the most right, the greatest, the highest ranking.  Fighting and killing ensues. Brother against brother, we’re told. A civil war among God’s first children. So, God takes action and puts an end to the violence with one violent, destructive, death-dealing act of power---a mighty flood.  But, God rescues Noah and his family and all the animals.  And then the God of the bible does a radical, unprecedented, and misunderstood thing.  God makes a unilateral covenant with Noah.  Now a covenant is a binding legal agreement, a partnership relationship, a quid pro quo.  In the ancient near east covenants ended violence between warring tribes or bound two families together in mutual agreement over land or women.  Typically, a covenant is conditional and requires both sides to agree to some compromise arrangement.  Give and take.  But this covenant is different.

The almighty, powerful creator binds Himself to his creation with an unconditional promise.  Never again will I destroy the earth with a flood.  God will not be responsible for the destruction of the earth and its creatures.  God binds himself to them as protector and savior, not violent dictator or destructive overlord.  The rainbow is a reminder, not to us, but to God. This covenant is unconditional and eternal.  God will not use violence as a means to achieve peace. Ever.  God will use patient forebearance and forgiveness as that means.  In fact, at the right time God will descend and walk the earth, literally entering the wilderness, the chaos, cruelty, and violence of human civilization in order to rescue us from it.  In Jesus Christ, God continues to live out the Noah covenant—coming not as a military messiah or powerful destroyer of evil, but as a teacher and healer and forgiver of sins.  In Jesus, God floods the earth with life and love.  And the wood that built the ark will also build a cross.  Just as the ark once saved Noah, so the cross saves us. Jesus’ death is life for us. It is symbol of God’s devotion to our lives, God’s protection, God’s promise not to abandon or forsake us.  I believe that Jesus Christ was present in that school, is present in every school and nightclub and concert venue and city street and abusive home and refugee camp and prison.  Jesus joins our journey through the violent wilderness that is civilization as we’ve made it, in order to remake it “on earth as it is in heaven.” The God of the bible has not given up on this project to make a peaceful home with us.  And the good news is that God continues to act.       

I believe that the rain, the snowfall is not God’s destructive power any more.  I believe they are God’s tears.  And that God’s hope is that we will be moved by those tears to stand against the violence and the suffering and the chaos.  God has given us what we need to bring peace.  God has bought us time, taught us a way to walk in love and compassion with neighbors and enemies.  Commanded us not to be afraid.  Sent the Spirit to give us power and wisdom and courage to act for justice, to do what is right, to cry out against this culture of violence and death.  This culture that idolizes guns and protects the rights of those who want to use them to commit murder, so that the best justice the culture can offer is the death penalty or life in prison or death by cop or suicide for the perpetrator of the crime.  Death is what we have to offer.  We can stand against this culture of violence and death.  We must be rainbow people—promising never again to act with violence and anger toward one another.  We must seek to understand trauma and anger and disconnection and alienation---the sin that tears the human family apart.  We must enter more deeply into the suffering of others, into their stories, their grief, their shame, their fears, their despair.  And we must affirm the covenant relationship—that God in God’s mercy and love has chosen to become vulnerable and human, in order to draw near to us, to show us love, to heal us, and to lead us toward the rainbow of non-violence.  Lent begins with the Noah covenant of protection and non-violent peace-making, with the God who enters the wilderness with us. The rainbow and the cross.  May they be for us talisman of hope and the promise of a new creation that is yet to be born, one for which we long with all our hearts and work towards with all the tenacity and courage we can muster as the covenant people of God.  Amen.                 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Last Christmas Eve

Welcome, friends, guests, neighbors, family, people of peace and goodwill.  You have come here tonight to worship Jesus, to hear the story again, to sing the carols, to join in fellowship around the one table, to pray for peace during a time of war, violence, and suffering; you have come here to participate in this annual pilgrimage from your home and streets and neighborhood to the manger, to the little town of Bethlehem, to the site of a holy birth, to the surrounding hills and valleys where sheep graze and shepherds watch and angels sing.  You have come to be transported to another place and time.  And though we cannot physically go there tonight, the words we hear and sing move us there in our minds and hearts.   Perhaps because you are in need of some nostalgia or an escape from the real world.  Perhaps your soul hungers and your heart grieves. Perhaps you are weighed by the heaviness of recent world events, elections, attacks, overt public acts of discrimination and hate.  You are concerned about places like Aleppo, Syria or Afghanistan or Cairo, or Chicago or Berlin.  Places where people live and suffer unjustly, live with perpetual war or fear of violence.  Perhaps you are work weary or fighting illness or grieving a loss. Maybe you are eager to feel the presence of God or taste the goodness of the Lord.  Maybe you just love this night. The anticipation of the children.  The beauty and majesty of candlelight and silent night.  Maybe you are here by invitation or obligation.  Someone else wanted you or needed you here.  So here you are.    We welcome you here.  There is a place for you, wherever you are in your life circumstances.  We only ask that you be present with us in the activity, the work of worship.  Your presence is appreciated.  Thank you for coming.  There is always room here for you. 

There was no room for them in the inn, Luke said.  Internally displaced by the occupying governments of imperial Rome, because emperors like to register religious groups as a form of intimidation and social control, they traveled 100 miles on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem---a hard journey.   A system of oppression was in place that forced the young couple to travel far from their village and family.  Forced to deliver her baby in a distant town, they will be forced to flee to another country to avoid violent persecution by their own governing rulers.  This new family will become refugees, until a change in government allows them to return to their home town of Nazareth.  These people experience rejection, homelessness, and internal displacement.  As do an unprecedented number of people in the world today.  Some 60 million people are displaced.  1 in 100 people on the planet.  60 % of all Syrians have been forced from their homes.  They experience what Mary and Joseph and Jesus did; no room in the inn.  It is to an inhospitable world that he comes.  According to Luke, there was no room in the kataluma, or guest room.  Many homes had a guest room, prepared for travelers to rest.  Customary hospitality would have prohibited the residents, likely Joseph’s extended family, from turning them away, especially because she was in labor, even if the guest room was already occupied.  Instead, they would’ve made space for them with the animals on the side of the house.  Sort of like the garage, connected to the main quarters of the home.   Family members, villagers, animals, and shepherds would have surrounded the very public birth.  It was not a private, silent night in a solitary cattle shed in a field.  It was downtown Bethlehem, during a time of forced migration.  Jesus is born under these circumstances, received by strangers and extended family. When we welcome the displaced, the refugee, the single mother and child, those experiencing poverty and systemic injustice, we welcome Jesus.        

We have heard so much bad news, so much fake news, so little good news that we find it hard to believe.  Don’t we?  This year has left many of us feeling anxious, afraid, and disturbed by what we have seen and heard on the news.  So, listen to the angels and sing what they sang. For to you has been born on this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  So many of us see the need for a savior, a rescuing helper, a divine intervention in the world’s crises.  We have seen refugees drown and children die in war.  We have seen shooting violence and racism; heard of islamophobia and the denigration of immigrants.  Dehumanizing.  Cruel.  Sad.  We may feel powerless, defeated by forces of injustice and evil.  We see the widening gulf between the rich and the poor.  This ugliness on the news leaves us jaded and cynical.  Can anything get better?  Can anyone help?  Angels says, to you is born a savior.  While emperors threaten and power is displayed through violence, peace maintained through war---a prince of peace is born to peasants in an ancient Palestinian village.   He comes to save us from our sins, from our worst selves.  More than ever the world needs angels, messengers of good news to announce a savior’s birth and a promise of peace and goodwill toward all humankind.  We are invited to join the angels and the shepherds, and tell others the good news of what God has done.  If we don’t the world will not know it.  Perhaps nothing gets better, as long as we remain silent.  As you go home tonight, ponder these things in your heart.  His birth says that God comes to us.  God abides with us.  God seeks us.  God comes near.  God is present.  In space and time.  Present to us.   

Far from home, he comes to dwell among people and animals.  This is the good news.  Received, but not welcomed.  He comes to this world beset by violence, forced migration and displacement.  According to the story, Jesus is God with us, God in the flesh dwelling among us.  No doubt you are making room for guests this weekend as extended family gather to celebrate.  If you must travel and become a guest, remember the story. If you receive guests, may your hospitality be received with gratitude.  And may you be blessed by your guests, as if the holy family were present. May the presence of the savior be made known to you in the breaking of the bread.  Bethlehem literally means house of flesh or house of bread and reminds us that wherever the bread is broken and eaten, Jesus is present to save.  May you experience his loving presence in this place and in all the places you find yourselves this holy season. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Mark 14. The last Days

Mark 14

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus* by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,* as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,* and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news* is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

Reflection Questions:

Why did they want to arrest and kill Jesus?
Anointing oil was used for healing, for burial of the dead, and for crowning a King.
When have you seen or experienced extravagance, generosity, and/or real physical care?
What does the woman's action teach about the body?
What does Jesus mean by: "You will always have the poor with you...?"

MARK 14, continued

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread* into the bowl* with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

Reflection Questions:

In your own life, what would betrayal look like?  How have you experienced betrayal?  To whom are you most loyal? What does loyalty require?

What does it mean that Jesus' betrayer is one of the twelve, sitting at table with him?
What does it mean that the others at table question their own loyalty by asking, "Surely not I?"

MARK 14, continued
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

Reflection Questions:
To whom have you given your life?  Your body?  Your blood?  Your tears?  Your sweat?  Your allegiance?  Your entire being?
Who has given the same to you?
Why does Jesus give them a physical expression of his gift, in the form of a simple meal?  Why Bread and wine?  

A prayer against the violence

Another violent act in which your children fall.
Another invisible man with more guns---automatic killing machines-- and enough ammunition to kill or wound hundreds of bodies.
Another crippling sense of national grief, anger, and intransigence.
Another argument about rights, privileges, responsibility, and guilt.
Another search for heroes, sacrificial lambs, compassionate helpers, protectors, and survivors.
Another prayer into the grief and horror.
Another day of work and grocery shopping, and television watching, and homework, and vacation planning, and commuting, and ordinary routines.
Another moment in which fear, mistrust, and insecurity threaten to tear us apart.
Another, in the liturgy of perpetual violence against human bodies that we witness, experience, receive, and mourn.
Bodies bleeding on the ground.  From wounds inflicted.  By self or other.
A war rages on here.  Unending.  Eternal.
Generating fear and hate and more violence.  And more fear.  

And You, declaring, "Fear not."
You, warning us against greed, idolatries, and apathy toward life.
You, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
You, life-giver.  You, death destroyer.  You, raiser of the dead.
You, willing victim of violence.  Crucified.  Shot.  Bleeding.  Dying. On the streets.  In the crowd.
You, among us, your falling children.
Promising to lift us up.
You, peacemaker. Forgiver of sins. Deliverer of justice.  Promiser of salvation.
Dare we to believe this?  In the face of so much constant violence?
Dare we to trust you?
We, who dare, need your help to stand and walk forward.
We grieve.  We struggle. We wait.  With hope and cynicism.
Come in peace.  Come in love.  Come in mercy. Come in power that effects change and brings down systems and leaders that protect the violent and permit harm.
Come and heal us.