Ash Wednesday

March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5.16-20 and Isaiah 58.1-12

We often speak of Lent as a journey. Which might cause us to wonder, Where are we going?

The season of Lent is a time to prepare to enter the mystery of Easter. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self. That is a big theological claim: that in Christ we are made new and reconciled to God, and not just we as individuals, but the whole world, all of creation. How do we comprehend this Good News? How do we comprehend it not just with our minds as a theological idea but as an incarnational reality—a truth we live with our lives?

We get to the Good News of Easter through Lent. Lent is an invitation to begin this journey again, to ask the question, What helps me live my faith? And what gets in the way?[1]

For many of us the world around us is chaotic and cluttered. We are bombarded with more information—both truth and false—than we can take in. We are saturated with messages and expectations that distort our humanity. Lent is an invitation for simplifying and for traveling light[2]; for laying aside the heavy baggage we carry and taking only what is essential.

Do you remember the story of Jesus’ baptism? As Jesus comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” In our baptism, we too are marked by God’s love. We are marked as God’s beloved children, the delight of God’s life.

But often we forget that identity. We obscure or deny it. Our identity as God’s beloved is also obscured or denied by others.

Lent is a time to excavate our identity as God’s beloved, to find it again, to practice living it more deeply.

This Lent we are encouraging everyone to read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. For hundreds of years, the belovedness of African Americans in our country has been obscured and denied. To recover our own identity as God’s beloved, we must recover the belovedness of all people. In Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self—not just us as individuals but us, collectively, all people. James Cone’s book invites us to a collective Lenten journey to look at ourselves honestly; to remember, repair, and restore[3] the mark of God’s belovedness in all people.

In baptism, we receive a new identity as a follower—a disciple—of Jesus. Baptism is a sign of new life, a mark in our lives of God’s great love for us and a sign of our life now dedicated in love to loving God and loving our neighbors.

Lent is a good time to ask “Is my identity rooted in [God’s love], [in] baptism, [in] discipleship or is it rooted in something else? If it’s rooted in something else, what do I need to do about that?”[4]

Simply by living in our world, our identity is, at least in part, rooted in something else other than God’s love, baptism and discipleship. So we all ask, what do I need to do about that?

Isaiah 58 guides us to develop congruity between our identity as God’s beloved people and the way we live our lives. The journey of Lent—often spoken of as the Lenten fast—is not about making ourselves look humble or adopting a practice of self-denial as a means to spiritual elevation. The journey of Lent is rooted in justice. The way Isaiah talks about it, it’s the way we live out loving our neighbor as ourselves: doing justice, caring for those who are vulnerable, changing systems that diminish the humanity of others. The journey of Lent is more than giving up a food group for six weeks. Our journey is toward life-long transformaiton. Our goal is not to deprive ourselves of something for six-week and then quickly resume it again after Lent is over. The invitation of Lent is to embody new life in Christ—not just for six weeks and not just for ourselves—but for a life-time and for the sake of the whole world.

Now I know I’ve been talking about being marked by baptism and I know that today is Ash Wednesday when we are marked by ashes so let me say something about ashes.

Typically we look at the ashes on this day as a reminder of a mortality. From dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, we say in the funeral liturgy.

Tonight, I want to add another possible meaning to being marked by ashes. Just this week there has been some research released about forest fires and it reminds me that in the ecology of the forest, fire is an important part of the health of the forest. Periodic fires burn up the underbrush and leaf litter that, if left to accumulate on the forest floor, can become an enormous amount of flammable kindling that turns a regular forest fire into something catastrophic. What often happens after a forest fire is that native plants are able to sprout and gain a foothold when they’ve been choked out by invasive plants. In this way, fire supports the healthy and robust biodiversity of an ecosystem. Fire also helps germinate the seeds of many tree species. Some seeds need fire in order to sprout. In this way, fire can become a catalyst for new life. And if you’ve been in a forest after a fire, amidst the grey, ashy soil and blackened trees, there is also a remarkable green that begins to show up. The green of new life.[5]

Now, I don’t want to push this metaphor too far because forest fires can also kill and devastate people’s lives and homes. So I want to keep the metaphor to the ecology of a forest in which fire is a welcome catalyst for new life and life which is abundant and flourishing.

So perhaps tonight, we might let the ashes on our forehead be not only a reminder of our mortality but also be a mark of the new life God desires to bring forth in us.

* * * * *

[1] Michael Waschevski and John G. Stevens, Rhythms of Worship: The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy, (Louisville: Westminster Knox Press, 2015), 53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 241.

[4] Waschevski, 54.

[5] http://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2013/07/24/how-fire-can-restore-a-forest-time-lapse-video/, accessed 1 March 2017.

Overshadowed by Love

February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration

The reading for today in the narrative lectionary is found in Luke 9. It’s the story of the transfiguration. Eight days earlier—one week earlier—Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying that he is. His disciples throw out “John the Baptist” and “Elijah.” Peter speaks up and says, “You are the Messiah of God; the Christ.” Jesus tells them not to tell anyone and then talks about what is coming as he makes his way to Jerusalem. He will suffer, be rejected, he will be killed and raised from the dead three days later. And he told them about what it meant to be his disciples: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.

The writer of Luke tells us none of the reactions of the disciples other than to leave a week of silence in the story. Jesus has dropped the word of what will happen to him and what is required of those who will follow him and the next thing we hear is where our story this afternoon picks up.

Listen for the Word of God.
Read 9.28-36

The following day, the disciples and Jesus come down from the mountain and are met by a large crowd. There is a man whose son is possessed by a demon and the man begs for healing for his son. He tells Jesus that his disciples have been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus is able. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy and gave him back to his father.

So what happens in those eight days? The days after Jesus has told them what is going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. News that they do not want to hear. Are they stunned? Are they in denial? Do they scatter? Go back to fishing? Do they pretend Jesus didn’t say what he said?

We don’t know. What we know from the story is that Jesus took three of the disciples, Peter, John and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. I suspect Jesus—who has an idea about what he will face in Jerusalem—is in need of spiritual strength. And so he takes his companions and together they go to a place away from the crowds to be in God’s presence.

Do you remember the fog from last Monday morning? A friend of mine who walks early in the morning said he was taking his regular route but at one point he lost his bearings. Everything looked so different in the fog. He was in a place where he had been before but the landmarks were obscured because of the fog. It’s a disorientating—even frightening experience—when you’re enveloped by fog. Even though you would ordinarily know what is right in front of you now you’re not so sure what is ahead.

I wonder if the cloud that overshadows Jesus and Peter, James and John is a little like that. Luke writes that a cloud overshadowed them and they entered the cloud. From other stories in the Bible we know that the cloud is the presence of God. Jesus and Peter, James and John, are overshadowed by the presence of God.

This word that gets translated “overshadow” is related to a Hebrew word that means “right smack dab in the middle” and “completely surround by.” It’s like that experience of fog all around you. Which can be frightening and unsettling. It can also be holy and mystical.

The language of overshadow also shows up in the annunciation story where an angel comes to Mary and says she will have a baby and that baby will be the Child of the Most High God. When Mary asks how it will be that she will have a baby, given some physical constraints in her life, the angel says the power of God will overshadow her.

This experience on the mountain is one of glory and wonder and awe. It is probably not what Peter, James and John were expecting and Peter, particularly, isn’t exactly sure what to do with it. He’s ready to erect an historical marker or take a selfie with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Something to sort of concretize the experience that he knows is monumental but perhaps doesn’t really know its significance.

In the overshadowing cloud, the presence into which the disciples enter right into the middle of, the disciples hear a voice—it’s almost the same voice they heard at Jesus’ baptism—“This is my Child, my Chosen, my Beloved.”

I wonder if the disciples aren’t going to need this experience for the coming days when their life with Jesus is tested, when they aren’t sure who they are or who Jesus is. When they’re not sure whether to stay or flee. I wonder if in those uncertain moments they will remember the glory, the dazzling radiance, the overshadowing, the confirming voice. I wonder if they will remember that and draw strength and courage from their experience?

Eight years ago in January, I was on my way to fly across the country to be part of an experience that would change my life for good in some profound ways. I knew a little bit of what I was signing up for but I was also really nervous.

That January morning was snowy and when I walked out the door to go to the airport and there in the tree in front of our house was a bright red cardinal.

From the time I was in middle school, seeing a cardinal—the red song bird (not the UofL mascot)—was many times a sign, for me, of God’s presence and care. I didn’t grow up where there were cardinals but they appeared at times in my life when I was scared and uncertain and in need of encouragement.

In that moment, eight years ago, I experienced God say to me, “I am with you.”

I wonder if you’ve had an experience of beauty or love or holiness? We Presbyterians don’t talk about this sort of thing very much but what people confide in me tells me that lots of people do have these sorts of experiences. But we’re not sure what to do with them or how to talk about them.

This afternoon, I invite you to remember a time when you experience unexpected beauty or love or holiness. Perhaps something that took your breath away. And maybe you wanted to stay just in that moment.

If you’d like, you can close your eyes. You might ask God to bring to your remembrance an experience. Trust whatever comes into your heart or mind.

I’m not going to ask you to share this with anyone so let yourself be free to remember whatever it is that God is bringing to your awareness.

Be with that memory.

What is it that you felt? That you saw? That you heard?

I wonder if there is a gift you received.

In the silence of your own heart and mind, give thanks for this experience and the ability to return to it.

When you are ready, open your eyes and bring your awareness back to this place.

What we hear next in the story of the Transfiguration is that Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain to return to their ministry. And so do we. And this presence, this memory, this awareness, this gift of God, goes with us.

No matter what this day has been like,
no matter what the days ahead will bring,
whatever the action is that we need to take,
we can return to this gift, this experience,
and draw courage and strength for whatever will come.

 

Blessing and sending
May the nourishment of this table
and the sustenance of this community
be part of the overshadowing presence of God
that goes with you everywhere and at all times.

The Word We Don’t Want to Hear

February 19, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5.38-48

My sermon title is “The Word We Don’t Want to Hear” because, as you heard me to talk with the kids, what Jesus tells us to do is really hard.

Yesterday afternoon I saw the documentary about (but also more than just about) James Baldwin titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” It’s currently sold out at the Speed Cinema but will open in early March at Village 8 Theatres. I highly recommend it. It is not an easy film to watch but the truth James Baldwin speaks is so important for us to hear. We who are white need to hear it. And what I heard from African Americans in the audience is that as hard as it was to experience, there was something affirming about having the truth of one’s life named.

When I got to the theater, I was thinking about my sermon for this morning. Thinking about what Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Part of “I Am Not Your Negro” is James Baldwin’s reflection on his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Medgar Evers worked for the NAACP investigating injustice. Evers, Baldwin wrote, was a “peaceful man, who had constantly urged that violence is not the way.”[1] On June 12, 1963, Medger Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his home in front of his family members by a Ku Klux Klan member. “So much for not resisting an evildoer,” I thought to myself.

Malcolm X “exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism ‘by any means necessary,’ including violence.”[2] Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in a ballroom in Manhattan, where he was preparing to deliver a speech. “Resisting an evildoer doesn’t save you either,” I thought.

Dr. King, of course, was a proponent of non-violence, learning the ideals of it from Jesus and the “operational techniques from Gandhi.”[3] In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” on the same text we have heard this morning, he says, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiples hate, violence multiples violence…into a descending spiral of destruction.”[4] On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Dr. King was assassinated. “Loving your enemies does not protect your life either,” I thought.

It would be so much easier if these words of Jesus were just ethereal admonitions. You know, great ideals but nothing we’re ever going to actually do in our real lives.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with our enemies? If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof you probably remember this exchange. Someone asks the rabbi, “Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?” The rabbi ponders, “A blessing for the tsar?…Of course…May God bless and keep the tsar…far away from us!”

But the kind of evildoers and enemies Jesus talks about are not just a few people from whom we can distance ourselves. In the Jesus’ day it was the entire oppressive and coercive system of the Roman empire. And for Dr. King and Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and James Baldwin it was not one or two Klans men, it was an entire entrenched, and legalized, system of white supremacy which remains largely in place today, remodeling its method from enslavement to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to gutting voting rights to whatever this period of time after President Obama will come to be called.

75 years ago today, February 19, 1942, three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, another President signed an Executive Order. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

“The order allowed the secretary of war to declare that an area was a military zone, clearing the way for more than 110,000” people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, who were living in Washington, Oregon, and California, to be evacuated and interned.[5] They were forcibly moved inland, without a hearing or a trial to internment camps (also called concentration camps by some historians). They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, leaving behind homes and businesses, farms, possessions and communities in which they had been respected and contributing members.

Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” How does that even make any sense in the face of white supremacy? How does that make sense in the face of evil?

Let me offer a few possibilities that give me some way to tentatively move forward with this text—and maybe it will for you too.

This word “resist” in verse 39 is more, scholars say, about retaliation than about being passive. The Greek word for “resist is usually used in military contexts referring to armed resistance.” Talk of armed resistance was not an abstract conversation. Pastor Karen Sapio tells us that “The appropriateness of violent resistance to the Roman occupation was a matter of intense debate in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day.”[6] One writer summarizes verse 39 to say, “Love does not retaliate.”[7] Retaliation and the violence which comes with it are not part of the realm of God. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message says it like this: “‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’”

In a recent interview, Representative John Lewis from Georgia talked about taking part of the lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s when he was in his 20s. A recent documentary about Rep. Lewis is titled, “Get in the Way”—which is what he has done his whole life. In both the interview and the documentary, Rep. Lewis  talks about the preparation for the sit-ins. There was serious training for this work including practice with the kind of physical and verbal abuse the young adults would experience when they asked to be served at the lunch counter.

Rep. Lewis said, “[We were trained that] if someone kick[ed] you, spit on you, pull[ed] you off the lunch counter stool, [we] continue[d] to make eye contact. Continue[d] to give the impression, ‘Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.’”

Krista Tippett, the interviewer, said, “In the way I come to understand this…the point of all of this role-playing was not just about being practically prepared. I suspect that some neuroscientist now in the 21st century probably understands what happens in our brains somehow with what you knew about that moment of eye contact and human connection. But you also understood this to be a spiritual confrontation, first within yourselves, and then with the world outside.”

Rep. Lewis responded, “You’re so right. First of all, you have to grow. [Nonviolence is] not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.”[8]

Love does not retaliate, Jesus says.

Listen to how The Message translates verses 43-45. “You’re familiar with…‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.”

More than a decade ago, a church member said in the prayers of the people, “The Bible tells me to pray for my enemies so today I want to pray for [and he named the man who was President of the United States at the time].” There was a lot of laughter in the congregation but this church member was serious.

John Lewis again: “From time to time, [we] would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? [Did] something go wrong?…Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”[9]

In Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence, the third principle is, “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”[10]

James Baldwin asks, “How can you lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourself?”[11]

We white people are coming to see that white supremacy and systemic racism is damaging not just to people of color but it is also damaging to those of us who are white. It distorts our view of the world, of ourselves, of God’s creation. It makes us assume we are something we are not. As the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “We violate the image of God in others and ourselves, [and] accept lies as truth.”

So loving our enemies is not just our enemies, it is also for us.

Professor of Theology, Matthew Boulton, says Jesus calls us to a way of discipleship that “points toward a deeper, more radical resistance: namely, noncooperation in the underlying [system] of hate and brutality involved in evildoing…Jesus advises defiance—but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.” The endless cycle of you do something bad to me so I retaliate against you. Then you retaliate against me. And then I retaliate against you. And on and on until we both die and our children pick up the retaliation, back and forth. “Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather, fight fire with water, and therefore refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.”[12]

Before “I Am Not Your Negro” began there was a preview for a movie to be shown at the Speed Cinema this coming the week. It’s called “Disturbing the Peace.”

The film is about people born into conflict, sworn to be enemies, who challenged their fate. The film follows former enemy combatants—Israeli soldiers from elite units and Palestinian fighters, many of whom served years in prison—who have joined together to challenge the status quo and say “enough.”[13] The film tells the story of their journey from being soldiers committed to armed battle to nonviolent peace activists.

In the trailer, a woman is challenging one of the Palestinians who has given up fighting and now is a nonviolence peace activist. “You think a small group like [yours] will change anything?” she asks skeptically. The former fighter turned peace maker responds, “Nelson Mandela, one person, was able to change the whole country. One man. How did he do that?”[14]

One man. One person. Nelson Mandela. Or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Rosa Parks. Or Ella Baker. Or Jesus. Disturbing the Peace. Getting in the Way. Loving Our Enemies.

It might seem crazy, naïve, even hopeless. But what other choice do we have? Continue the violence or choose another way?
* * * * *

[1] Quoted in printed notes for “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Art Museum Cinema.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 51.

[5] www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/japanese-american-internment-75-years-ago/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[6] Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 1, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 111.

[7] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 193.

[8] www.onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-action/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub2, accessed 18 February 2017.

[11] Quoted in “I Am Not Your Negro,” 18 February 2017, Speed Museum Cinema.

[12] Michael Myer Boulton, “Matthew 5.38-48 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Vol 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 2010), 385.

[13] http://disturbingthepeacefilm.com/about/, accessed 18 February 2017.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A95PDQWr4xs, accessed 18 February 2017.

Lost

September 11, 2016 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 15.1-10

I have a friend, Catherine, who is a shepherd. She has sheep. She has twenty of them. Catherine counts her sheep when she moves them from the pasture to the barn at night. She doesn’t count them in a line, one at a time. Sheep, she says, do not stand still to be counted. So she counts them in batches. She has “nine black sheep. Seven white sheep. Four little lambs.”[1] It’s easier to keep track of her flock that way and she has a better idea of who she’s looking for if a sheep is missing.

Last summer Catherine had a lamb who was missing one night. A lamb is particularly vulnerable to predators so Catherine went out to the pasture to look for the lamb. It didn’t take long to find her. She was a ways out in the pasture, “off by herself, head down, grazing.”[2] It’s not typical sheep behavior—to go off on one’s own, to not travel with the rest of the flock when the flock is moving. But this little lamb went missing a number of times. Sometimes Catherine had to look for a long time to find her. But she always found the missing lamb, “off by herself, head down, nibbling away.”[3]

Knowing that story about Catherine’s flock makes me wonder about how someone keeps track of 100 sheep. The 100 sheep Jesus talks about in the parable. How do you notice one is missing? I can see missing one of ten coins. It’s a lot easier to count to ten plus coins don’t move around like sheep do.

Just like Catherine searching for her missing lamb, the person responsible for the 100 sheep and the woman who has lost a coin go looking for what is missing.

What is puzzling to me is that the 99 sheep are left in the wilderness while the sheep owner goes to look for the one missing sheep. Unlike Catherine who puts her sheep in the barn before she goes to look for the missing sheep, the 99 sheep left in the wilderness are likely to wander, just because they’re curious or hungry or they’ll get scattered by the presence of a predator. So when the sheep owner comes back with the one found sheep, wouldn’t it be likely he’ll have even more missing sheep?

Then there’s an indelicate question of whether lamb chops will be served for the feast which celebrates the return of the missing sheep. For someone who raises sheep, the party food likely diminishes the number of sheep in the flock. Same thing with the woman and the coin she recovers. Isn’t it likely the party will cost as much as the value of the coin that was lost and then found?

There’s an extravagance here. A joyful, rejoicing extravagance. In these ten short verses, the related words rejoice and joy are used five times. It’s an extravagance that goes beyond the value of the one sheep or the one coin.

The editorial comment on each parable is about the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Neither the sheep nor the coin repent, so the link to sinners repenting seems a little odd. Maybe this is another of Jesus’ arguments from the lesser to the greater. He used this with the bent over woman that we heard last week. If you will give water to your ox on the Sabbath isn’t setting a human being free on the Sabbath of even greater value? Similarly, if a person rejoices exuberantly when they find their missing sheep or their missing coin, how much more exuberantly does heaven rejoice when one lost person is found?

The last line in the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” imagines when all is as God intends it to be and we, God’s creation, are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” There’s a kind of getting lost that’s about being caught up in rejoicing and joy. I wonder if that’s another way to understand the joy of the angels—when we live as God intends for us to live, when we find that our truest self is being connected to God there is great rejoicing.

In the Godly Play class most stories from the Bible include a question at the end of the story that asks how this story is about you or where you are in the story. This morning I invite you to ponder how these parables are about you or where you are in the parable.

I wonder what of value you have lost? It could be something that had monetary value or maybe the something or someone you lost had a different kind of value—perhaps a spiritual or emotional value.

What happened when you looked for it?

What did it take for you to find it again? Or if it was not found, was there something of value that you began to discover in its absence?

I wonder if you have experienced joy or rejoicing?

I wonder where God was in the losing or the finding or the rejoicing?
* * * * *

 

[1] https://ucucc.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/a-sheeps-new-year/, accessed 10 September 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Setting People Free

September 4, 2016 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13.10-17

A few weeks ago the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the kind of feedback he received in response to columns we wrote. One column was about the death of his 12-year old family dog. The other was a column calling for “greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far.” He received “a torrent of touching condolences” when readers heard about the death of his dog, Katie. He received “a different torrent of comments” about his column calling on the international community to do more to end the civil war in Syria. Many of those comments Kristof said, were “laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them?” He said many of the comments about Syria felt to him “like callousness toward millions of Syrian children facing starvation or bombing. If only,” Kristof wrote, “we valued kids in Aleppo[, Syria] as much as we did our [dogs.]”[1]

Kristof’s observation reminded me of what Jesus says in this story from Luke 13.

Encountering a woman who had been bent over for 18 years, he sets her free. But, this happens on the Sabbath and so he is criticized for working on a day reserved for rest.

Now Jesus knows that a person was allowed to untie an animal and lead it to a source of water on the Sabbath. If you can provide water for your animals, Jesus reasons, shouldn’t you be able to set a human being free on the Sabbath? Do we care more for an animal than for another human being?

Jesus challenges the interpretation of the Sabbath that saw responding to human need as work that violated the Sabbath. Jesus declares that the Sabbath is a time of liberation.[2]

Many of us most likely associate Sabbath as related to rest. When I was growing up, Sunday, the Christian Sabbath day, was the most boring day of the week. After we came home from church and had dinner, my parents sat around reading the newspaper all afternoon. My mom didn’t make anything for the evening meal that night. We had to make our own peanut butter sandwiches. We never did much of anything—although we did get to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and then the Wonderful World of Disney at night.

Sabbath is about rest but rest is not just about taking an afternoon nap. Rest is about liberation. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Sabbath year was when debts were redeemed and slaves were freed. For my parents, and more so for centuries of people who worked without benefit of vacation or paid sick days or minimum wage or a 40-hour work week, the Sabbath was a day to lay aside the work of a job and child care and house keeping and to be liberated from the lying tyranny that says our value is linked to how much we can produce. Sabbath is a radical act of liberation. Reminding us of who we are in God’s eyes. Not just replaceable laborers but beloved children of immeasurable worth.

In his inaugural sermon, back in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus says,

“The Spirit of the Holy God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of [jubilee and restoration.]”[3]

Part of Jesus’ ministry is to let the oppressed go free. And in this story from Luke 13, he sets an oppressed woman free. It is fascinating to me that Jesus did not heal this woman. “Heal” is not the word that’s used in this story. He heals lots of people but with this woman, he sets her free. Several people I read on this story say this is not a woman with a physical ailment to be healed. She is a woman in a culture that does not value women. That sees her as less than fully human. She doesn’t need to be healed. She needs to be set free from the oppression of her culture and community that has degraded her dignity; that has told her she is not worth much at all.

And that’s exactly what Jesus does—on the Sabbath day of liberation. He sets her free and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

I don’t know if you read Elizabeth Mays’s op-ed in Monday’s Courier-Journal. Elizabeth is a white woman who lives in Crescent Hill with her husband and four children. She wrote about mentoring Leandra Rodgers, an African American student at the Academy @ Shawnee. Leandra graduated from high school this past spring and starts college this fall. Shawnee was the fourth high school she had attended. Her mother had moved a lot which meant Leandra had to change schools a lot. After her mother lost custody, Leandra lived with a variety of relatives and often stayed with her father’s ex-girlfriend which meant at 18 years old, she was technically homeless. After school, Leandra worked at a fast-food restaurant to have money for a cell phone and to pay for food.

As a mentor Elizabeth learned first hand about the challenges Leandra faced in applying for college. “I have come to realize,” Elizabeth wrote,

“how many obstacles there are for low-income students trying to navigate the path to college. It’s little things like not having envelopes or stamps available when you need to mail in a parent’s signature—and it’s larger issues, like not having a home computer or reliable transportation options when trying to get copies of important documents. Can you imagine how hard it is for an essentially homeless teenager to keep track of important financial records, such as a W2 form?”[4]

            Elizabeth also is a mentor to Leandra’s half-sister and her cousin “because,” as Elizabeth said, “they don’t have anyone else to whom they can turn.” Leander’s younger half-sister and her friend, who will be seniors next year asked Elizabeth if she would help them go to college.

Elizabeth writes this about these girls who are changing her life.

“These girls have seen so much in 18 years. They all live below the poverty level. Two were taken from their mothers. One has lost her mother and has a father in jail. One has a child whom she gave up for adoption. They have experienced so much heartache…Each of them kept going to school. Each graduated. Each wants to go to college and build a better life. One wants to be a nurse, one wants to study business, and one wants to help kids ‘like herself.’…No one should doubt these women can be successful, given the chance and just a little help.”[5]

            There’s a lot in our community that poor African American girls (and boys too) bear that weighs them down, bending them over and oppressing them. Regina Jackson-Willis, who is the Family Resource Center Coordinator at Engelhard Elementary has this quote below her email signature: “Remember: everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. 9 times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.”

Another teacher told me before he confronts a student who clearly needs more support at home he looks at the student and silently asks, “What are you up against?” It builds compassion in him for his students.

When Jesus calls the woman who had been bent over for 18 years “a daughter of Abraham,” he was saying this “woman is a full member of the people of God.”[6] She has a new status. No longer is she a second-class citizen. No longer is she someone to be overlooked or ignored or discriminated against or marginalized or excluded or oppressed. She is an equally valued member of the household of God.

As followers of Jesus, isn’t our calling to be about that same work of setting people free? Working to undo and dismantle the structures and systems that keep people bent over, unable to be their full selves as God created them to be.

There are realities of life in our community that many of us don’t have to know about. But when we put ourselves in relationships with others whose life experiences and circumstances are different from our own, we are given the opportunity to grow and develop greater compassion. And we can learn to put our efforts toward changing systems that keep people oppressed and bent over.

You may already be engaged in this kind of work of liberation. If you’re not, our three New Beginnings projects offer great ways to make these connections—through supporting kids in our neighborhood schools, getting to know the gifts and needs of our neighbors who come for lunch and prayer on Wednesday, and by being an ally for Simmons College and doing our work to understand and dismantle systemic racism.

May our efforts together be part of God’s great work of liberation in our community and our world.

* * * * *

[1] Nicholas Kristof, “Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?” New York Times, 18 August 2016, www.nyti.ms/2bpjrA3, accessed 25 August 2016.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 232.

[3] “The year of the Lord’s favor is the time of jubilee and restoration.” The Access Bible – NRSV, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), Luke 4.16-21 note, p90 NT.

[4] Elizabeth Mays, “Mentoring high schooler eye-opening experience” The Courier-Journal, 29 August 2016, 12A.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boring and Craddock.

Being Rich Toward God

July 31, 2016 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12.13-21

Last year it was reported that there are more self-storage facilities in this country than there are McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined.[1] Perhaps you did not know that “the self-storage industry is the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry” or that “one in every ten people in the US has a storage unit somewhere.”[2] I did not know that there also exists what you might call valet self-storage. Companies send you a box (or two or four), you fill it with your stuff and then the company picks it up and stores it. They will also deliver it back to you when and if you ever need it again. All for a fee, of course.[3]

Stuff. Personal Belongings. Effects. Equipment. Junk. Objects. Things. Trappings. Possessions.

It goes by a lot of names.

Jesus wades right into the middle of it.

Picture the scene, a crowd has gathered around Jesus. The text says there are thousands of people there. Jesus is speaking to his disciples when someone from the crowd yells out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!”

Most likely this is the younger brother complaining about his older brother who has yet to divide up the family estate after the death of their father. In the Jewish tradition of the first century, the older brother would get 2/3 of the inheritance and the younger brother would get 1/3 of the inheritance. (Daughters got nothing.) Jesus refuses to take sides in this family dispute. Instead, he speaks about a deeper issue at the heart of the matter. “Be on your guard,” Jesus says, “about all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he tells a parable.

It’s a parable about a man whose land yields an abundance. The harvest is so big he doesn’t have enough space to store it all.

To many observers, then and now, the man is a picture of success. He made a sizeable return on his investment. His gain allows him to build bigger and bigger. He has everything he needs now and for the future.

But remember what Jesus said at the start of the parable? “Be on your guard about all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Now you might say, what about saving up for a rainy day? The man will not always have an abundant harvest. And we could look at the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis. Joseph listened to God and then advised the Pharaoh to build bigger and bigger storehouses to store up grain for years of famine that would strike Egypt. And Pharaoh did that and the people of Egypt and others, including Joseph’s family, survived the famine because of the stored grain.[4]

But what about greed? One writer defines greed as “‘enough’ is never enough; ‘more’ is only to be hoarded; ‘I, me and mine” matter more than anybody else.”[5]

Did you hear the conversation the man had with himself? Did you hear the pronoun he used the most? He says: What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will pull down my barns. I will build larger ones. I will store all my grain and my goods. There is so much “I” and “my” it is as if the man is saying, “I alone can do this.”

The man is so focused on himself and his possessions he has forgotten that it is God who sends the sun and the rain to make the crops grow. It is divine providence that provides the harvest.

The man is so distracted by the need to provide for his possessions that he also loses sight of the community he is part of. Chances are he didn’t do all the planting or the harvesting himself. He probably didn’t build his barns all by hi self. There were other workers who made this possible: field hands, neighbors, along with his wife and children. He did not get all this on his own. Nor was the harvest all his own. The law said when a farmer gathered the harvest of the field they were to leave the edges of the field unharvested so that the poor and the immigrants could gather the produce of the edges of the field.[6] And I am reminded of what the Rev. William Barber said this week at the Democratic National Convention: “The watchword of democracy and of faith is ‘We.’”[7]

But the man has lost sight of this. In the first century, this abundant harvest “would have been regarded as a generous blessing from God.”[8] but for the man it’s a dilemma—where will I store it all?

The idolatry of our culture says that life is measured by the abundance of our possessions. The parable says that is a fool’s dream. And of course the man who is going to build bigger and bigger dies in the night. And then what becomes of all his possessions? What benefit are they to him? What good have they served?

Jesus calls us away from storing up treasure for ourselves and calls us to be rich toward God. Jesus has been showing us in the stories that proceed this conversation in the crowd about it means to be rich toward God. (If you’ve been here this month you’ve heard these stories as the basis of our preaching.) “Being rich toward God [means] using our resources for the benefit of our neighbor as the Samaritan did. Being rich toward God [means] intentionally listening to Jesus’ word as Mary did” when Jesus came to her and Martha’s home. “Being rich toward God [means] prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life.”[9] “Give us each day our daily bread” we pray, and as Mark reminded us last week, there is enough for all of us.

Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel, “What does it profit [people] if they gain the whole world, but lose…themselves?”[10] We lose ourselves when we forget what it is to be fully human. To be fully human is to be connected to God and to be connected to others. To lose either of those connections is to lose ourselves.

Our possessions can distract us. Our desire for possessions can distract us. Distract us from the truth that our life is not about what we have. Distract us from using what we have for the well-being of our neighbor. Distract us from listening to Jesus. Distract us from prayerfully trusting that God will provide what we need.

Grace Winn Ellis, the daughter of a former president of Louisville Seminary, wrote about a medical mission trip she took to Haiti a few years ago. The day’s distribution of medicine was shortened because a stream was quickly rising that the medical team had to cross in order to return to where they were staying. The crowd waiting for the medicine—desperate for the medicine—started pushing and shoving and yelling. She wrote this experience gave her a new perspective on the stories of Jesus healing and the crowd of people, who had next to nothing, who gather and push against Jesus and cry out for help. The experience also awakened her to “the behavior of those of us who have enough. Although we have plenty, we constantly worry about keeping what we’ve got. Thinking about this,” she wrote, “I felt a spotlight shining on many of Jesus’ teachings. Stop trying so hard to hold onto your stuff, he keeps saying. When you’re obsessed with what you have, you can’t leave your nets beside the lake, walk away, and follow me. You can’t accept the invitation to the banquet. And you’ll waste your energy building bigger barns to hold your bounty.”[11]

Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, says Jesus. Life does consist of being rich toward God. Caring for our neighbors, listening to Jesus, prayerfully trusting God to provide our daily bread. It sounds easy but we all know it isn’t. So much around us, and so much in us, resists. But it is the way to life. The way to true life. The way to being fully human.

Maybe we need to empty out the storage units in our lives. Let go of the stuff that distracts us from being rich toward God and generous toward our neighbor.

In a minute we’re going to sing a hymn whose text was written to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. The words celebrate the many blessings we receive from God and each stanza ends with a translation of Calvin’s personal motto: “Sincerely and completely I offer you my heart.”[12] Calvin had a seal that showed a hand holding out a heart. It was the emblem of his motto. It’s difficult to offer our heart when our hands are holding on to all our stuff. May God give us grace to release our hold on our possessions so that we too may offer our hearts to God and to one another.

* * * * *

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/21/self-storage-mcdonalds_n_7107822.html, access 28 July 2016.

[2] http://www.rejournals.com/2015/04/17/think-theres-a-mcdonalds-on-every-corner-try-counting-the-number-of-self-storage-facilities-dotting-the-country/, accessed 30 July 2016.

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/02/self-storage-startups_n_5631538.html, accessed 30 July 2016.

[4] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective: Luke 12.13-21,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 312.

[5] Ibid., 310.

[6] Leviticus 19.9; cf Deuteronomy 24.19.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gARt1GGM7d4, accessed July 30, 2016.

[8] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective: Luke 12.13-21,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 313.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] Luke 9.25

[11] http://www.lpts.edu/about/our-leadership/president/thinking-out-loud/thinking-out-loud/2016/07/12/shedding-greed, accessed July 21, 2016.

[12] David Gambrell, “Great God of Every Blessing,” © 2009, in Glory to God, #694.

The Elusive Neighbor

July 10, 2016 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10.25-37; Psalm 82

On Wednesday, like many of you, I went to bed knowing Alton Sterling had been shot and killed in Baton Rouge. On Thursday morning when I sat down to work on my sermon I read the news that Philando Castile had also been shot and killed. God, have mercy, I thought. On Friday morning, like all of you, I heard the news that five police officers, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens had been shot and killed in what had been a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march. A nonviolent protest about legitimate grievances that black Americans face—hijacked by violence.[1] Christ, have mercy.

How does one find words to say in a week like this one? Like you there are a cascade of thoughts and feelings in my mind and heart.

As I thought about the familiar story of the Samaritan and the man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, I was also thinking about a black man driving his car—it doesn’t matter where, really—just driving his car. He was approached by others and was shot and left for dead.

The minutes passed by. His son wailed in grief by his father’s body with no one to comfort him. His four-year old daughter, still buckled in her car seat, started to cry. In their sorrow we hear the words of the psalmist,

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Several hours went by. But no Samaritan arrived. The man died. Where was the Samaritan?

 

In the biblical story, we can assume the man who is robbed, beaten and left for dead is a Jew. While he’s lying wounded in the ditch. Two other Jews—a priest and then a Levite (a person who served alongside the priests in the Temple) came down the same road, see the man who is injured and bleeding and they crossed to the opposite side of the street. For whatever reason, some of them probably really logical, understandable reasons, they didn’t get involved.

But the man is still lying in the ditch, so injured that he cannot even cry out for help.

Then a Samaritan came along. He also sees the guy lying half dead in the ditch. He’s moved with compassion and his impulse is to help the wounded Jewish man.

Samaritans and Jews, you may know, were not friends. They despised each other in fact. Each considering the other a heretic. Samaritans and Jews disagreed about the proper place and the proper way to worship God. Samaritans were descendants of both Jews and non-Jews. They were part Jewish but not all Jewish. Today they might be called bi-racial. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that if the man who had been beaten was able to crawl for help, he might have preferred to crawl on his hands and knees than to be helped by a Samaritan. And it would not have been surprising for the Samaritan to look at the injured man and think, “He got what was coming to him” or at minimum, “He’s not my concern.”

But in this story, what we would expect is not what we get. The Samaritan becomes the means of healing and restoration of life for the wounded man. Without the Samaritan intervening on his behalf, the man would have died.

 

But for the black man driving in his car, there is no Samaritan.

It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened—not the first time someone has been shot on this road. In fact the road is strewn with black bodies. The road is dangerous and everybody knows it. And I keep wondering, if the road is dangerous and everybody knows it, where are the Samaritans? Where are the people who bind up wounds and take people to the hospital and pay the bill and check back to see that they are recovering? More than that, where are the people who have organized themselves along the road so that no one has to go there alone? So that everyone has a community to make it from one place to the next place safely and still alive? Where are the people who put their bodies on the line all along the route to make sure there are no more beatings and no more robberies and no more shootings and no more deaths? Where are the people demanding of the powers that be:

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Now I don’t mean no one is working on this. But collectively we have not moved the needle to decrease the amount of violence targeted at people of color. And we have not moved the needle to decrease the use of deadly violence as an outlet for frustration, disagreement, anger, and fear.

Not enough of us who are white have made this our problem. Not enough white people have decided that white supremacy and white privilege are a problem for us—as well as for communities of color. Not enough white people are convinced that we are a big part of the problem and therefore we must be part of the solution.

We are part of the solution when we fall on our knees and recognize that this way of living is killing us too. Not in the same literal killing that people of color experience but in the deep dehumanizing that we absorb into our hearts and minds in order to maintain systems and structures that enforce and preserve our privilege.

 

Central Presbyterian Church is a congregation that has had a commitment to social justice for decades. Our commitment is rooted in the Bible and the many times we hear, all throughout Scripture, of God’s intentional concern for those who are most vulnerable and most at risk in our communities. We are continuing that commitment in the projects that have grown out of New Beginnings: supporting kids in our neighborhood schools; developing closer relationships with our neighbors who come for lunch on Wednesdays; and standing as an ally and advocate for Simmons College of Kentucky in part by doing our work to understand and dismantle systemic racism. (If you haven’t signed up to be part of one of these three endeavors, you can find more information and sign up sheets on the table outside the sanctuary.)

Even more today our work in our community feels significant as an expression of God’s good news and as a witness to God’s redeeming love. But I also want to be careful that we do not think that is all we must be about. It is too easy to let the killing of black men and women and children be someone else’s problem.

Years ago I heard the acapella women’s group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, sing “Ella’s Song.” The refrain and one stanza go like this:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes[2]

 
And so we do the holy work of mourning and lamenting and crying and then we gather ourselves together and we continue to do the holy work of working for justice, building relationships and responding to God’s call to be a neighbor.

In the biblical story Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus does not ask, “Who is your neighbor?” He asks, “What kind of neighbor are you—[what kind of neighbor are we?]—to those who have been left for dead?”[3]

Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a poem titled “Shoulders” that could be an appendix to the story of the Samaritan.

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.[4]

* * * * *

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/what-white-america-fails-to-see.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share, accessed 9 July 2016.

[2] http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/ella.shtml, accessed 9 July 2016.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/irreverin/2016/07/who-is-my-neighbor-police-shootings-and-those-we-leave-for-dead/?ref_widget=related&ref_blog=irreverin&ref_post=the-end-of-us-where-love-is-not-enough, accessed 9 July 2016.

[4] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shoulders, accessed 9 July 2016.