Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

* * * * *

[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.


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.

New Beginnings – Romans 8.15-16, Acts 2.1-21

May 15, 2016 – Pentecost Sunday

I want to tell you about the outcomes of the New Beginnings retreat that 33 of us participated in three weeks ago. It was the outgrowth of small group conversations, workshops and community conversations that have involved more than 100 different people in our congregation.

The goals of New Beginnings have been to focus our energies as a congregation, to deepen our relationships with our neighbors, to raise our profile in the community, to build on our long history of commitment to social justice and to attract new people who will become active participants ensuring the longevity and sustainability of Central Church and its mission.

The work of the retreat was to decide on the focus for our energies around education equity for the next twelve months.

How would we decide on what that focus would be? We looked at our interests as a congregation—and there are many, many interests. Maybe even more interests than there are members of our church! We talked with people in our neighborhood to find out more about the strengths and needs of our neighbors. At the retreat, we heard reports from the eleven people who had conversations with 25 people in our neighborhood and in neighborhood organizations.

Then all the retreat participants voted on the projects and ideas that came out of the neighborhood conversations and we came up with three areas, which the session has endorsed, where we will focus as a congregation for the next twelve months.

Let me pause and say this does not mean these are the only things we will do as a congregation. It does not mean we will stop the ministries of our congregation that many of you are already involved in.

But these three areas are ways that we believe God is calling us to engage as a congregation in our neighborhood now. That’s been the question of New Beginnings all along: What is it that God is calling us to do and be in this time and place?

So here are the three areas of engagement:

  • Acknowledge and mitigate systemic racism and white privilege.

We want to build intentional relationships with Simmons College, an historically black college, right across the street from us. We want to continue doing our work to understand systemic racism and white privilege. And we want to advocate and do our part to dismantle those systems of injustice in order to provide an equitable environment for all people to live, learn, work and thrive.

  • Connect and extend our relationships with the Wednesday Lunch Community.

We already have lots of neighbors who consider Central their church on Wednesdays at noon. We want to deepen our relationships with our neighbors to positively impact the quality of life in Old Louisville and to support Wednesday lunch participants as they strive to live fulfilling lives.

  • Enrich and Empower Children’s Success at School.

We already have connections with Engelhard Elementary School, three blocks away at First and Kentucky, and with Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, to our north and west. We want to build on those relationships to be partners in meeting the needs of children, their families, and the teachers and administrators who nurture, teach and support them so that all the children in our neighborhood can succeed in school and life.

The fire colored insert in your bulletin tells you more about all of this and there’s a smaller fire colored piece of paper for you to sign up to get involved. Don’t read those pieces of paper now—I’d like you to still listen to what I have to say. But do take them with you and read them and get involved.

This whole New Beginnings process has been about trying to figure out what it is that God needs us to do and be in this time and this place.

There are parallels between us and the disciples waiting in Jerusalem in Acts 2. Both of our situations are situations of change—the world has shifted around us and what we know to do is no longer enough. So we have waited on God, asking “What do you need us to be and do in this time and this place?” And in our waiting we give space for the Spirit to show up.

We often talk about the Holy Spirit being the manifestation of the Divine who leads, guides, directs, blows open the doors and sets our hearts on fire; moving us into places where we never thought we would be and calling us to do what we couldn’t imagine we would do.

In the language of the Strengths Finder, the Spirit influences and gets us to act in service of the Divine work of love and justice in the world.

In Romans, it is the Holy Spirit who sets in us the desire to cry out to God in prayer and that we do cry out to God is a confirmation that we are children of God—adopted into God’s family. We don’t have to prove ourselves in other ways, simply reaching out to God in prayer is the affirmation that we are God’s daughters and sons.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fills the disciples and they begin to speak in the native languages of the immigrants who have come from other areas of the Roman empire to live in Jerusalem. The Spirit gives power to the followers of Jesus to tell the good news to all people[1] in the language that is most meaningful and closest to their hearts.

So it is that the Spirit sets in the followers of Jesus the desire and gives us what we need to do the Divine work of love and justice in the world. So may the Spirit give us the desire and the gifts and strengths we need to do the Divine work of love and justice in this time and this place.


* * *

[1] Margaret P. Aymer, “Acts 2.1-21: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 17.



Take Heart. Take Courage. Jesus Is Calling You. – Mark 10.46-52

October 25, 2015 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost / Reformation Sunday

In our gospel reading today, Bartimaeus is blind. In Jesus’ day, if you were blind, there was little for you to do other than be a beggar—which meant finding a spot along the side of the road and spreading out your cloak to invite coins to be tossed your way. Jericho was a good place for a beggar to spread his cloak because it was a major stop for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship—and a beggar might just catch the good spirits and a generous handout from those on their way to worship in the great city.

He couldn’t see Jesus, but Bartimaeus made sure everyone knew that he wanted to catch Jesus’ attention. He didn’t just say, “Jesus, over here.” He yelled out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Like the response to those who brought children to Jesus, he was told to be quiet. Not to bother the teacher. But that only made him yell louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stops. Stands still and tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus. Hearing this, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang up and went to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It’s the same question Jesus asked his disciples James and John in the story right before this one. James and John ask for places of privilege and status to be reserved for them—one on the right hand of Jesus and one on the left hand of Jesus. Jesus tells them it is not his to grant privilege and status. And he says what he’s been saying repeatedly in Mark’s gospel: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (10.43, 31)

What Bartimeus asks from Jesus is to see. And to Bartimeus, Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And immediately Bartimeus regained his sight.

Then, the beggar by the side of the road, who now can see, follows Jesus. He does not “go” as Jesus told him to, but he follows Jesus on the way.

In the middle of the story when Jesus hears Bartimaeus calling out to him, he has the crowd call the blind man. They say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” You may know the word “heart” is also related to the word “courage.” So at the same time they were saying “take heart—be glad” they were also saying “take courage—don’t be afraid.”

Bartimaeus will need courage. Because he’s following Jesus and the next stop is Jerusalem. They are going to Jerusalem for the great Passover celebration—giving thanks for God’s liberating power on behalf of those who are oppressed and down trodden. But you and I know what also happens in Jerusalem. It is where Jesus will be tortured and killed. But Bartimaeus doesn’t know that yet.

Bartimaeus will also need heart. The grace to keep his heart open to love despite the terrible things that will happen as he follows Jesus on the way. The natural tendency most of us have when terrible things happen is to close our hearts because we think that will keep us from being vulnerable. The grace we need is to keep our hearts open, despite the pain, in order to stay connected to life, to God and to love.

I wonder sometimes if Bartimaeus will wish he hadn’t seen what he will see. Will he wish his eyes hadn’t been opened? Would he have leapt up quite so quickly and followed if he knew what lay ahead?

For some people, when their eyes are opened they become radicals and reformers and revolutionaries. Today is Reformation Sunday—a day that takes us back to October 31, 1517 when a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted his 95 statements of disagreement with the Roman church on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Did he have any idea where that action would take him? And take the whole church? Perhaps if he had known, he would have just written those things in his journal and kept it tucked away.

To do what he did must have taken courage. And heart—some part of his action must have been motivated by love. A love for God and for the church and a desire to see the church be faithful. He wanted to see the Roman Church reformed to more fully reveal God’s glory—it wasn’t until it became clear that change wasn’t going to come in the ways he thought that he left the Roman Church and the Lutheran Church and the Protestant Reformation was born.

A reformation, a revolution, a radical shift comes into being when people begin to see differently. In the biblical story of Job, everything is taken away from Job except his life. The book of Job is the first edition of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There is lots of wrestling in chapter after chapter about why terrible things happen to Job and what he has done—or not done—to deserve it. In the final chapters, God responds directly to Job and assures him that God does, indeed, care for him and all of creation—even when that care is far beyond human comprehension.

At the very end of the story, Job says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Job discovers a deeper and clearer vision of God. And when God restores Job’s fortune, there is this little bit at the very end of the story where we are told Job is given seven sons and three daughters. And we learn the names of the three daughters. We don’t know the sons’ names but we hear the names of the girls: Jemimah, Keziah, and Kerenhappuch. To name those three women is remarkable when so few women’s names throughout the bible are recorded. And then, even more remarkable, their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. Now that didn’t happen in the normal course of events. The father’s inheritance goes to the sons. Why would a daughter need an inheritance when she will go to live with her husband and her husband’s family? But in this story, the daughters have names and an inheritance. Honestly, that’s pretty revolutionary. And it comes after Job sees God in a new way. His eyes have been opened and with that new vision, his political, economic and social choices change and change for the well-being of his whole family.

For some people, when their eyes are opened, they become radicals and reformed and revolutionaries but perhaps in not such an obvious way. The author and Presbyterian Kathleen Norris tells the story of learning from her grandmother about the life of following Jesus. Her grandmother inhabited “one marriage, one home, one church congregation for over sixty years. Her faith,” writes Norris “was alive for anyone to see; her life demonstrated that conversion is no more spectacular than learning to love the people we live with and work among….Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classroom, and on the job, in a new light. Can it be that these very people—even the difficult, unbearable ones—are the ones God has given us, so that together we might find salvation”[1] and healing and wholeness.

I remember Ann Philbrick, the facilitator who helped us get started on the New Beginnings process—our exploration of what it is God wants us to do and be in this time and place, said the goal of New Beginnings is not to take up a new issue or cause. The goal of New Beginnings is to build relationships with people who are looking for a spiritual community and who might find a home at Central. Which just could cause us to see ourselves and others in a new light.

And when we connect with people who are looking for a spiritual community to call home it is entirely possible that God will be at work to open our eyes to see God and the world—in all its pain and its beauty—in a new way.

The New Beginnings Task Force meets tomorrow night and I am hoping we will have things to talk with you about very soon.

Take heart. Take courage. Jesus is calling you.

Like Bartimaeus, when we as followers of Jesus see the world, we need courage and we need heart. Courage, because some of what we see shakes us to our core and can drive us to despair. Courage, because following Jesus on the way requires more of us than we have believed we could give. And heart because it is easy for us to create distance by judging others as we try to keep ourselves from feeling the pain of the world. Pain, that certainly God feels too. We need heart like God’s heart that can hold it all and still breathe and live and be open to love.

Take courage. Take heart. Jesus is calling you.

* * *
[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, 44.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine – Ephesians 3.14-21

August 16, 2015 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost

A year ago in July we began the New Beginnings process, asking the question together “What is it that God wants us to do and be in this time and place?” Last July we shared the gifts we experience in this community. In the fall we met in small groups to talk together about the demographics of our neighborhood as well as what we’re most passionate about, what we’re best at and what our resources are; and then to pray together about where all those gifts and opportunities might connect in what God desires for us to be and do in this time and place.

In the winter, the small group leaders met to share the conversations that took place in their group and to gather together all the lists of our passions, what we’re best at, what our resources are and the long list of ideas of what we could do next.

The rather amazing thing to me is that while the list of all of those passions, best at, resources and ideas was long and varied, all seven small groups which included a total of 81 people in our congregation came up with a very similar big idea for the shape of what God seems to be calling us to do and be in this time and place.

The overarching idea that emerged is twofold. One: that we would engage a few social justice concerns to get involved in as a congregation and, two: that we would focus, as a congregation, on spiritual and leadership development.

In the spring the nominating committee asked people to serve on the task force that would take the overarching idea and all the particular ideas gleaned from the small groups and bring back to you some possibilities for the specifics of how this might shape the next couple of years of our life together. How all this conversation and prayer, how the ideas and the possibilities, how the resources of our neighborhood and of our congregation might come together in the particulars of what we sense God calling us to do and be in this time and place.

The task force began its work together this summer and the goal is to bring those pieces together by the end of the year.

As we’ve embarked on this New Beginnings process and spent a year talking and praying about what it is that God desires for us to be and do in this time and place, I have often thought of this line from Ephesians 3: “Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” (3.20-21)

It’s a sentence of doxology—a hymn of praise to God. We typically think of The Doxology which we sing after the offering is received. “Doxology” comes from the Greek word that means “honor” or “glory.” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” we sing, giving honor and glory to the One from whom all blessings flow.

Ephesians started with blessing. “Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” the author writes, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” And now the theological foundation in chapters 1, 2, and 3 comes to a close with doxology. Praising God for all that God has done in Christ.

In verses 14 through 19 we hear the author’s prayer for the church. The author prays “that God will empower the church” to become what we are called to be: “a new humanity in Christ.”[i]

In the old version of the Book of Order, the second part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) there was this great little line: “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.”[ii]

Professor Allen Verhey and Pastor Joseph Harvard in their commentary on Ephesians talk about this demonstration using the image of demonstration plots in agriculture. “Demonstration plots are places where new crops are cultivated and nurtured so that others may observe their growth and development for the benefit of the whole community. Sometimes those new crops provide essential produce for those in need of nourishment.

“The church is a demonstration plot for the new humanity brought about by God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ. To be the church is to be…people who respond to God’s work with joy and praise, who display something of what God intends for all of humanity in [our] common life…It is to be a community that resists efforts to [re-establish…the] walls of division and [hostility] that Christ has broken down.”[iii]

The author also prays that God will strengthen the church so that we will can grasp on to the truth of God’s love. That we will hold on to God’s love and allow God to hold on to us in love. That we will be rooted and grounded in love. Living in a culture of divisiveness and hostility, where reactivity and defensiveness is the norm, the author prays that we will be held and nourished by God’s love. A love that is not just for us as individuals or even just for us as the church but that we, the church, will be a demonstration in the world of God’s great love. And having received that love, we will live our lives rooted and grounded in love and then the fruit of our lives will be love.

In chapter 1 of this letter, the author writes of “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power” (1.19) and now we hear that again at the end of chapter 3. This time the author is not just praising the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. The author praises the power of God that is at work within us—at work in the church—a power that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

This letter feels so relevant to where we are in our life together.

As we seek out God’s desires for us as a congregation, it could be easy in a culture of scarcity and fear to wring our hands and play Eeyore, the gloomy and pressimistic donkey who was a friend of Winnie the Pooh, or Chicken Little, who was convinced the sky was falling and disaster as imminent. But instead, we pray to be a demonstration of the new humanity in Christ that God is creating and that rooted and grounded in God’s love, we can trust ourselves to the God who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. What God desires for us is good and is beyond what we can even begin to imagine.

James Finley, who was a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a clinical psychologist and who now teaches at the Center for Action and Contemplation says, “If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.”[iv] [read that quote again!]

In this liminal time when we have invited God to reveal to us what it is we are to do and be in this time and place, may we pray to be so rooted and grounded in the love of God that we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love. May we pray to be open to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

* * *
[i] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Ephesians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 126.
[ii] The Constitution of the Presbyerian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order (2009-2011) (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2009), G-2.0200.
[iii] Verhey and Harvard, 106.
[iv] Quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 30, 2015, cited as: James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013).

I Will Put My Spirit Within You and You Shall Live – Ezekiel 37.1-14 & Psalm 104. 1-4, 14-24, 27-30

May 24, 2015 – Pentecost

Typically on Pentecost Sunday we focus on the story of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit as it’s told in the 2nd chapter of Acts. But, of course, the Spirit has been around long before that—in the very first chapter of Genesis we hear about the Spirit moving over the waters before anything was created. This morning I’ve chosen to look at one of the other great Spirit texts—this one from the prophet Ezekiel. The story of the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem until the the Babylonian army came through, marched the people of Israel, including Ezekiel the priest, into exile and destroyed the Temple. Away from the land God had promised them, the reign of the house of David disrupted, and the destruction of the Temple which was identified with the very presence of God, everything that assured the people of Israel of God’s presence and providence was destroyed.

As the years dragged on, the exiles despaired: “Our hope is dried up; we are lost and cut off completely” they lamented. “We might as well be dead.” It was in this theological, psychological, social and emotional void that Ezekiel’s career as a prophet began. For some perspective, one writer says Ezekiel wrestles with a disaster similar to the modern problem of understanding the Holocaust. “Why did God allow Jerusalem and the Temple to be destroyed and why did God allow the people of Israel to be carried away into exile?”[1]

While few of us in this congregation have personally experienced a devastation like the Holocaust, many of us have had, or are living now, in circumstances that take us to the brink of hopelessness. Losing your job or a partner or a child. Chronic pain or illness or depression. Addiction that holds you or a loved one in its teeth. Poverty and all its limitations. Incarceration. Discrimination because of your skin color or gender identity or sexual orientation. Circumstances in our lives that take us to the depths of despair, persuaded that God has abandoned us. Where we too say, “Our hope is dried up.”

In the midst of the despair, Ezekiel had a vision. The Spirit of God took him to a valley filled with bones. And God says to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

Well, the answer to that question is no. There is no life in those bones.

But God says to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say, ‘Hear the word of the Holy God.”

And don’t you just know Ezekiel wants to say, “Hey bones! Get yourself into a grave.”

But God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that the bones will live again.

So Ezekiel looks over at the expanse of dried out bones, “Hear the word of the Holy God.”

He said it sort of under his breath at first. Then he said it again with a little more spirit. “O dry bones, hear the word of the Holy God.” And he hears a rattling behind him. And the rattling grows loud all around him as the bones come together.

And then the bones are covered with tendons and muscles and skin.

And then it is silent again.

And Ezekiel looks at the bodies all around him—bodies of the thousands who were murdered in the destruction of Jerusalem and who died of broken hearts in the exile.

But God is not finished. Speak to the breath, God says. And in Hebrew that word for breath also means spirit and it means wind).

So Ezekiel does as he’s commanded. And the Spirit fills each of the bodies—just like in the story of creation. And they lived. As far as Ezekiel could see. The bones once scattered in hopeless disarray now are living beings filled with God’s spirit.

Once more, Ezekiel is told to speak. Speak to the exile’s hopelessness with words of hopefulness. That they are not cut off. That even from the grave—even from the valley of death—God’s spirit still blows and breathes among them.

Can these dry bones live? Yes!

Those dry bones, filled with God’s spirit, are reshaped into the community of God’s people, healed, restored and made whole again.

A number of years ago I heard Judith Jamison, who was then the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, talk about Alvin Ailey’s vision. “Celebrate what you couldn’t see” is how Jamison described it. For Alvin Ailey, back in 1958, I suspect that meant celebrating African American dancers and choreographers, the rhythms of African American musical traditions, the beauty of African American bodies.

I think of that vision when I hear this story from Ezekiel. Looking for what can’t be seen with human eyes but can be seen through God’s eyes. Even in that valley of bones we will celebrate the power of the Spirit— the power that surrounds us and fills the universe.

It’s the power of the same Spirit that came upon the disciples in Jerusalem centuries later—Jesus had left and they weren’t sure what was next or what they were supposed to do and the Spirit arrived and their lives were ignited with God’s power to tell and live the Good News of Jesus who is alive.

“Ezekiel challenges his fellow exiles and us: Can these dry old bones live? Not on the face of it. But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones” coming together. Watch as bones become bodies. Watch as the Spirit “infuses them, so that they rise up…testifying to the power of [God]. Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home. When we raise our vision to look beyond [the circumstances] our [ordinary] eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”[2]

Jim Wallis in his book The Great Awakening, raises the question about whether the church is an institution or a movement.[3] An institution prefers things to be settled and contained. A movement lives in the arena of risk and possibilities—celebrating what cannot yet be seen—attentive to the Spirit who blows where it will.

A movement might look more like an Alvin Ailey Dance Company where the barriers that keep us in our place are broken down and the possibilities of life and freedom are celebrated not just with our heads but also with our bodies. Where traditional forms are learned at the same time they become the springboard for something even more amazing and transforming. And new ways of being emerge—ways that we couldn’t even imagine until one person starts moving and then a second person starts moving in response to that first person and then a third person starts moving in response to the first two…and on and on.

As a congregation we are still in the process of New Beginnings that began last July—asking “What is it God wants us to do and be in this time and place?” The small group leaders have met together to share the passions and resources and ideas from their groups. The common big idea from all seven groups is two-fold. First, for us to focus as a congregation on a few social justice issues and, second, for us to pay particular attention in our congregation to spiritual and leadership development.

A group of five to seven people will take all that the small groups talked about and help us get specific about that two-fold big idea.

The nominating committee welcomes your suggestions for the people who will help lead us in this way. There’s a form in the back pages of the bulletin to nominate people. Those nominations are due today.

What is it that God wants us to do and be in this time and place? What does God desire to celebrate that we cannot yet see? Where is the Spirit sending us to bring new life into old dry bones?

* * *
1.  “Ezekiel – Introduction” in The Access Bible, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (Oxford: University Press, 1999), 1058OT.
2.   Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, 1504-1503.
3.  Mentioned in Walter Brueggemann’s article “Elisha as the Original Pentecost Guy: Ten Theses” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2009, p45.

What Never Changes is Change – Matthew 21.33-46 & Philippians 3.4b-14

October 5, 2014 – World Communion Sunday

Last Sunday Mark preached on the parable about two sons and their father’s vineyard. This morning we have another parable set in a vineyard. And again, the parable is told by jesus in response to the religious leaders’ questions to him about his authority to teach and act.

The religious leaders are anxious. This Jesus is drawing a lot of attention. Earlier in chapter 21 we hear the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem in what turned into a parade with crowds of people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which was the cry people would use to greet the promised Messiah.

Then he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, he cured those who could not see and those who could not walk. And all along the way he has been teaching about the realm of God in confusing and confounding ways. It was certainly not the same teaching that the religious leaders learned in seminary.

And the religious leaders are anxious. Instead of answering their questions about who his teachers were and what governing body ordained him to the ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus tells yet another confounding parable.

And this parable does not bring any clarity to the religious leaders because they end up being the ones in the story who lose everything; they are the ones who don’t know the right way to live in the realm of God.

Because this parable is so focused on the religious leaders, I had half a mind to suggest that Mark and I, seminary professors, clergy friends, and those who work at the Presbyterian Center to stay in our places to hear the sermon and dismiss all the rest of you to go enjoy the afternoon.

But this parable has a larger context than just the first century religious leaders so I went back to my sermon drawing board to find the 21st century connection and I thought maybe you could all stay for the sermon. (Did I just hear a sigh of disappointment??)

If I can do a little psychoanalysis on the first century religious leaders, I would observe that their anxiety comes from a feeling of being displaced and the fear of what they will lose. You don’t have to be a first-century religious leader to have that anxiety. Just look at what’s happening right now in Hong Kong or with the priorities of Pope Francis. Leaders in China don’t want to see people demonstrating for democracy in Hong Kong. Religious conservatives don’t like the changes Pope Francis is advocating and demonstrating.

The world is changing. The church is changing. Whether we like it or not. Whether we welcome it or not.

The other Friday night when our New Beginnings1 assessor, Ann Philbrick, was helping us think and talk about change, she pulled out her cell phone and said, “How many of you have one of these in your pocket or handbag? Nearly everyone in the room raised their hand. “This is a sign,” she said, “that we have navigated changes and adapted to a new reality.”

So perhaps we can hear this parable about change and specifically think about it in light of the New Beginnings process in which we are engaging. (The small groups are beginning this week. If you’re not already signed up, sign up today.)

Did you notice in this parable all the ways the landowner prepared the way for the tenants? The landowner planted the vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press, built a watchtower. There was little the tenants had to do besides provide the labor to tend the grape vines, keep the weeds down, subdue the pests, watch for those who would steal the grapes, harvest the grapes when the time comes and make the wine. That’s still a lot of work but everything that was needed prior to the labor of the tenants was provided.

When the harvest time arrives, the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, the produce, the fruit–those are all words this passage uses for the same thing. The writer of Matthew’s gospel uses the word “fruit” as a metaphor for good works.2 If we think metaphorically, in the parable it’s not just grapes and wine that is being produced, the real harvest is the fruit of the lives of the tenants. If the vineyard with the land and the grape vines and the fence and the watch tower and the wine press are part of the realm of God, the tenants are the people who have been entrusted by God with all those blessings and what God the landowner wants from tenants is the fruit of their labor–God wants the lives of God’s people to bear good fruit–which is the evidence of faith.

Sometimes for Presbyterians, the emphasis on fruit–the harvest–the produce–is a little hard for us. We’re used to the Reformed emphasis on grace. As in, we are saved by grace alone. It is not our work that saves us. We are redeemed by the grace of God and not because of some merit or spiritual heroics on our part. That’s what we hear Paul saying in his letter to the church at Philippi. Paul had a lot of credentials, a lot of accomplishments, a lot of stellar religious lineage. But he considered all of it garbage in comparison to the value of knowing Christ Jesus and being found in Christ, not because of Paul’s own righteousness but because of the faith of Christ3 and God’s righteousness.

It isn’t that Presbyterians are opposed to good works–or fruit–as Matthew says. We just think they come after God’s grace. In response to God’s grace, we respond with gratitude and service. Our hymnal is arranged around this Presbyterian theological assertion: God’s mighty acts and our response to God. It’s why we baptize babies because it’s a theological claim that God’s grace precedes any cognitive or behavioral ability we have to convince God that we are worthy of God’s love and provision. God already is convinced of that.

But what grace does require is a response. And so God gives us gift upon gift (in the parable it’s the land and the grape vines and the wine press and the fence and the watchtower) and God expects us to do something with all those gifts. God’s expectation is not that we will hoard them or use them only for ourselves or do nothing with the gifts and just let them lie fallow.

In the parable we don’t actually know if fruit has been produced–if there has been a harvest. The landowner assumes there is fruit to be harvested and so sends servants to collect it.

Interestingly, in Mark and Luke’s telling of this parable, the servants come to collect the landowner’s portion of the harvest. In Matthew’s gospel, there’s no qualification of the landowner’s portion. Matthew says the servants come to collect the fruit of the tenant’s labor. Maybe that’s just a little detail that Matthew left out because he assumed his readers would be thinking about regular old landowners who collect a portion of what the tenants produce. But what if this landowner really expects to receive all of the harvest of the tenants’ labor? We might think of the gouging, exploiting landowners of the first century (and the way the labor of the poor is exploited in our own day). We might also think about the landowner who this parable clearly intends us to know as God. The psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”4 From the perspective of the parable (and the rest of the Bible), everything we have has been given to us by God. It all belongs to God. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided” we sing in the old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The amazing thing is that God entrusts gift after gift to us. Not for us to hoard or squander or bury but for us to use for the common good5 as Paul writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

When I look at all of you, I know that God has entrusted a lot of gifts to us. Together we have financial resources, we have physical space, we have reputation and influence, we have abilities and talents, energy and passion. God has entrusted to us an abundance of resources. Speaking metaphorically, some parts of the vineyard are bleak and desolate–the fence is falling down, the vines are dying and the wine press is in disrepair. That is not so in our part of the vineyard.

And so the question we are invited to consider as we begin our discussion and prayer together in the New Beginnings small groups is: What will we do with all God has given us? Who will we be? Will we be tenants who don’t have fruit to give back to God or will we be tenants who have an abundance to share?

* * *
1 http://www.whatisourfuturestory.com/
2 Fred B. Craddock and M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 83.
3 An alternate reading of Philippians 3.9.
4 Psalm 24.1
5 1 Corinthians 12.4-7