God’s Servants

Art Credit: “Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace” by Jen Johnson and Sonia Sadler, 2010

A Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Sixth Sunday After Epiphany. (Celebration of Infant Baptism) 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.

In the last six weeks, I’ve had the privilege to officiate two weddings for good friends at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up. Never did I expect that, on both occasions, I would be reminded of how the promises others made during my baptism has greatly impacted my life these 44 years.

I was simply browsing the shelves of Shades Valley’s library, more than a half hour before the wedding of the Rev. Lindsey Wade who I’ve known since 3rd grade, when I noticed a book that seemed oddly familiar. Adorning the cover was an illustration of two men looking quizzically at an extremely cross elephant who was refusing to strut around like elephants often do for the merriment of visitors. Intuition told me it was a book I read as a child, but I couldn’t recall a single detail of the story, known as The Day the Animals Went on Strike.

Opening the book, I was startled and elated to see a bookplate on the inside cover that read: “In honor of Michael Andrew Acton, son of Michael F. and Sharon Daughtry Acton. March 7, 1976.” Three months after I was born into the Acton family, I was baptized in front of a congregation who promised to raise me as a member of God’s family and nurture my faith.

They more than kept their baptismal vows. The lessons I learned early on from Shades Valley Presbyterian about the triune God have shaped me in profound ways. I carry forever the memories of the adults who first affirmed I was a child of God and taught me about God’s love from infancy to young adulthood and through good times and bad.

Last weekend, I had the fortune of seeing some of those folks who made those promises to me and my family so many years ago. We had come together to celebrate the marriage of Tricia Harkins who was a member of the youth group of which I served as an adviser in the late 90s. At the reception following the ceremony, I sat down at a table with Gail, Jane, June, Anne, Augusta and Bill where we enjoyed plates of food, a couple of cocktails and told stories and laughed. Although I hadn’t seen many of them since I got married and ordained more than a decade ago, we picked up exactly where we left off. Through the wonders of social media, they’ve been able to keep up with me, my family and ministry for several years.

They have been and will always be in my heart—these men and women who raised me in the faith. I’ve seen reflections of their personalities, character and gifts in the previous two churches I’ve served, and I see them reflected in you now. And thus, it is a great comfort to know that through miles and years we are all bound by the baptismal waters and connected in the story of God and humanity.

While it’s true that nothing magical happens when we’re baptized there is something mighty powerful that occurs. When a group of people, mostly strangers to you as a baby, agree to love and nurture you—promising to show you how to follow the One who fed the poor, tended the sick, welcomed the stranger and dined with outcasts—that is nothing but the holy transformative work of God.

Our Reformed tradition teaches us that in baptism (our own and the ones we witness), we are called to share in Jesus’ ministry, to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to help build the beloved community of God, recognizing that every life is precious and sacred—especially those who are constantly marginalized and told they are worthless or “less than.” Just as God proudly claims us all in Christ’s baptism, we are to affirm the spark or Spirit of love that resides in another human being and makes them a unique and wondrous creation.

The Corinthian community, which the apostle Paul founded, had lost sight of that truth (as have many modern Christians) by engaging in arguments over which religious teachers were the most superior in their wisdom of God. Paul responds by saying no single human being can attain all the knowledge of God, regardless of how well they’ve studied philosophy and theology, and that only the Holy Spirit can equip or inspire humanity to know God. Paul insists that people who are truly in touch with God’s wisdom are recognized, as one biblical scholar explains:[1]

“not by their philosophical sophistication or impressive speeches, but by signs of the Spirit’s presence with them. What kinds of signs indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit, of course, is none other than the Spirit of Christ. …So, in general terms, acting, thinking, and loving like Jesus are signs that a person is one in whom the Spirit is active, and thus one who is capable of properly understanding the gospel. …

This is a startling teaching for modern Christians, because we, like the Corinthians, place high value on technical skill in our preachers and teachers. We look for knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, facility with exegetical technique, historical and theological expertise, and above all an engaging speaking style! As useful as such skills are, Paul insists that the primary qualification for knowing God and understanding the gospel rightly is to be a certain kind of Spirit-formed person, living a life that looks like Jesus.”

 The elders of Emory Presbyterian drew a similar conclusion after studying this passage as part of a Session retreat held at the beginning of the month in Fellowship Hall. They noted that God calls a variety of people in the community’s history to lead the church and teach about God (pastors, elders and lay people); and that we have different skills and different experiences and all of them are needed for ministry. The elders also shared that Christ is the foundation of we do and God holds us accountable when we don’t act Christ-like. And they concluded that leaders seeking to follow Christ must maintain humility, never be too sure of themselves, and respect and employ the gifts of others. “There is going to be quarreling about perspectives,” said one elder. “When it happens, the objective is not to get people to have the same perspective. We are not going to be acknowledged as ‘right’ all the time and we won’t get our way all the time. We mustn’t lose sight of the real objective which is spiritual growth in God.”

In a commentary on this passage, a retired Presbyterian pastor expands on the insights of Emory’s elders further, saying:[2]

By learning to live in Christ we grow into the discovery that we are loved. The image Paul uses for growth is a horticultural one. … I recently came upon another image that extends Paul’s: the notion of “ecotone,” meaning a special meeting ground between two different ecological communities, for example, a forest and a meadow. Ecologists tell us that there is an “edge effect” between these two ecological communities that is particularly fertile and life giving. Indeed, they speak of the “pregnancy of edges.”

This notion of the “edge effect” is particularly apt for describing the experience of the community of the wounded who encounter the living God in Christ, in whom we are healed. Indeed, the sacrament of baptism is a powerfully fertile place where we encounter the edge effect. Baptism reminds us of the story of God’s love that comes to us amid our woundedness to give us healing and life. … Baptism, in other words, is symbolic of the fertile place for life—the edge effect—when the community of the wounded encounters God in Christ, who heals our wounds.

The late Wangari Muta Maathai—raised Catholic by her parents who were members of the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya—took this concept of baptism quite seriously and literally in her incredible life. The first woman to hold the job of Minister of the Environment in Kenya and the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari believed strongly that there could be a peaceful coexistence of people and nature, and in 1976, she created the Green Belt Movement, a national grassroots organization to combat deforestation in Kenya.

She bravely led the fight against political and economic powers that stood to gain financially from cutting down trees and destroying the livelihood of indigenous farmers. Wangari’s work often landed her in prison where she was beaten and called names and yet, she persisted. Collectively, Wangari and the all those who joined the movement, have now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya and many other countries.[3] Wangari, who died from cancer in 2011, wrote in a book on her experience:[4]

“I’m very conscious of the fact that you can’t do it alone. It’s teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it.” 

Echoing in Wangari’s words and her ministry of planting seeds is Paul’s message to the Corinthians:

God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

We are God’s servants. We work together so that God may plant seeds of love in our hearts; shower us with the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and to whom we belong; and who grow in the Spirit of Christ by nurturing other human beings, particularly the suffering and broken.

May this always be our calling and aspiration—even our desire, as the brilliant novelist and poet Alice Walker expresses in one of her poems:[5]

My desire
is always the same; wherever Life
deposits me:
I want to stick my toe
& soon my whole body
into the water.
I want to shake out a fat broom
& sweep dried leaves
bruised blossoms
dead insects
& dust.
I want to grow
something.
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it.

We are God’s servants. We are God’s garden which we and God both tend, so our hearts may grow and be filled.

Amen.


[1] P. Mark Achtemeier. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Roger J. Gench. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers, 2019. Watchfire Media.

Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson, 2010. Simon & Schuster.

[4] The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience by Wangari Maathai, 2003. Lantern Books.

[5] The World Will Follow: Turning Madness into Flowers by Alice Walker, 2013. The New Press

 

Blessed Are You…

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights by Carole Boston Weatherford and Tim Ladwig, 2010

A Sermon for Sunday, February 2, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. Micah 6:8 and Matthew 5:1-12.

(Note: The original title for this sermon, printed in the bulletin late last week, was “Mercy, Mercy Me.” As I begin writing the sermon, I realized the better title was “Blessed Are You…”)

Nearly two weeks ago I was sitting in my office browsing news headlines when I read with a bit of melancholy that Terry Jones, one of the founding members of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python died at the age of 77.  Monty Python is an acquired taste. Their humor is surreal, satirical, silly, and occasionally taboo. No subject is off limits, including religion.

I cherish their comedic style because, oddly enough, Monty Python, makes me nostalgic for my teenage years spent in youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian in Birmingham. My buddies introduced me to Monty Python with VHS viewings of their most popular films, The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, both directed by Terry Jones. And Monty Python’s clever and non-sensical banter was my first exposure to religious parody and the idea that mimicking believers who ridiculously misconstrue faith can be as thought-provoking as it is funny. Among my friends, Monty Python gags became “our thing” that we laughed about and quoted constantly, to the chagrin of some adults. Quite honestly, I think Monty Python helped us learn to laugh at ourselves and not become too self-righteous about our beliefs.

Of all the classic lines, none was uttered more often than the Sermon on the Mount scene in The Life of Brian. Jesus is speaking to a large gathering of people when the camera pans more than a hundred yards away to the back of the crowd where some are straining to hear. Confusion emerges as these few Israelites, all played by British actors who keep their accents throughout the film, try to discern Jesus’ message:[1]

“What did he say?
I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’
Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products. …

You hear that? ‘Blessed are the Greek’ The Greek? Mmm. Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth. …Oh, it’s the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that’s nice, isn’t it? I’m glad they’re getting something, cause they have a hell of a time.

The brilliance of this bit is that it highlights how the Beatitudes (and a lot of Jesus’ words for that matter) are greatly misunderstood. Over the centuries, the Beatitudes have been confused for a set of commandments, a list of rules, a code of ethics or an instruction manual that we as Christians have to strictly follow in order to be blessed by God and enter the kingdom. A commentary on today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel suggests:

“If we distort the beatitudes into duties, or worse, into a supposed method for acquiring divine blessing, we’ll miss Jesus’ primary point. God’s blessings are already among us, surprising and counterintuitive, gracious and undeserved, world-turning and beautiful, and we’re called to live lives that are responsive to those blessings at every turn.  …  When it comes to divine blessing, as the great preacher and scholar Fred Craddock once put it, our lives are to be lived “because of,” not “in order to” – and that’s only possible, after all, if blessing comes first.”[2]

For many decades in popular culture, “blessings” have taken on a different meaning than originally intended in Jesus’ day. Blessings have been long viewed as gifts or rewards that are earned if one is being a perfectly good Christian. And as a result, society has created the false notion that those who are doing well in life must certainly be blessed for doing all the right things, and those who have hardship are definitely not blessed because they’ve made many mistakes.

Even worse, in this climate of social media, many people who self-identify as Christians, flaunt their blessings with pictures of themselves at fancy parties, wearing luxurious outfits, eating gourmet food and lounging on exotic trips—all accompanied with the #blessed. The hashtag has become so trendy on social media feeds that it’s been printed on T-shirts, sunglasses and water bottles. It’s admittedly obnoxious and just another form of bragging, as an online columnist for AOL.com pontificates in a post in 2015:[3]

“It’s fine to acknowledge that you’re #blessed because you have amazing friends who support you or you find yourself in any other situation that would actually deem you blessed. However, you’re not partying in the VIP section of the Four Seasons at Cannes because you’re #blessed. You’re there because you’re rich, you have connections, or you just decided to splurge one night. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having money and enjoying lavish things. However, when you post pictures of this lavish lifestyle, just acknowledge that your Insta pics are a bit boast-y regardless of the hashtag present in the caption.”

While the criticism is a bit harsh perhaps, the author makes a valid point. Blessings are not the material goods we curate for ourselves, but rather the intangible things that money can’t buy. Still, we have to be careful not to then assume that those with a dream job, a life-partner, friends, children, and a decent home are more blessed than those without some or all of those things.

Bless Your Heart Pie Graph https://www.southernthing.com

It’s also important for us Southerners to recognize that we have become fully accustomed to blessin’ others with just a smidgeon of bite. Many of you know the phrase well: Bless your heart. Initially, it came about as an expression of sincerity, of deep care for someone as part of the community: Bless your heart. I feel for ya. But nowadays bless your heart is voiced with much less sincerity and more sarcasm. The delightful website It’s A Southern Thing cites as an example:[4]

“You must have been out in the humidity, bless your heart,” which is a passive-catty way of saying, ‘Your bouffant flopped and you’re looking a bit like a soggy sheepdog.”

The website explains further that it’s all about the tone which can take some skills to apply correctly:

Beginner’s Level, Sincere: ‘I just heard your dog went in for a colonoscopy, bless its little heart. Could I bring over a squash casserole?’

Advanced Level, Sarcastic: ‘You really need to get your money back from that hair stylist, bless your heart.’”

A lot of us use the phrase both ways, and hopefully it’s more with sincerity than sarcasm, although there are appropriate occasions where only the latter will suffice. And in the interest of transparency, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m presently wearing a blue T-shirt I got on my birthday that says, “Bless Your Heart.”  But I’ll leave it up to you to decide which tone I’m using.

All kidding aside—and the phrase is exactly that, a quirky joke that shows we try not to take ourselves too seriously—I mention this Southern colloquium so that we don’t err in thinking Jesus was implying a similar tone with the crowd he was teaching.  He wasn’t saying, for instance, “You’re so meek, you’re scared of your own shadow, bless your heart.”

Nor is Jesus giving the people something. He’s actually honoring them. He’s proclaiming that they holy and worthy, that they are marked as God’s beloved. And this is particularly noteworthy because many of those in the crowd were not considered to be the best and brightest of their time. Marcia Riggs, a professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Seminary, notes:[5]

“Jesus delivers the blessings to an audience of followers … whose sociopolitical context is the Roman Empire and whose religious context is the elite Jewish establishment. What Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes critiques both contexts because of the groups upon whom these blessings are pronounced. Those who receive God’s favor are not the privileged classes of the Roman Empire or the Jewish establishment. The Beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peace makers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.”

As you are aware, February is Black History month, a yearly observance in which we as a nation celebrate and remember the endeavors and struggles of African Americans nationally and globally. It seems fitting that we explore the Beatitudes on this second day of February for it is scriptures like Matthew 5:1-12 that brought hope to African Americans during the days of slavery and the era of segregation and still does today in these times of racial injustice.

“The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights” by Weatherford and Ladwig

The Beatitudes—“blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc.—held deep significance for men, women and children who were torn from their homeland, cramped into the holds of ships and forced to be slaves in the cotton fields; and for folks like Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune who built colleges and inspired black youth who were denied the same quality of education as whites; and for people like the participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s and the Freedom-Riders who traveled the south to stage sit-ins at lunch counters. The Beatitudes were the assurances from God in Christ that oppression and injustice wouldn’t prevail.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims that each person is blessed. Not because anyone has done anything worthy to earn such an accolade, but simply because the God who made human beings is the same God who loves wholly and unconditionally and who liberates, redeems and sustains gloriously and triumphantly.

In response to—or “because of”—God’s blessings, we embrace and live into the honor God bestows. We become the people God fashions us to be. In the words of the prophet Micah, we respond to the blessing of God by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with the Creator. As another commentary points out:[6]

“For Micah, too much Israelite religion (and we might add, too much Christianity today!) comes before God with “sacrifices” and “offerings” as if God will “be pleased” with our gifts – whereas in fact, God is the giver of all good things, the font of every blessing.  The proper human role, then, is not to pretend to be God’s benefactor, or to attempt to earn or maneuver into God’s good graces, but rather to be God’s continual beneficiary, gratefully living out responsive, fully human lives of justice, kindness, and humility.”

Emory Presbyterian, are you aware that you are blessed by God?

You are chosen, adored and loved by God. There is nothing you’ve said or done to earn this honor, to receive this gift. You are chosen, adored and loved by God.  You are made holy. You are blessed.

Blessed are you whose spirit and faith gauge is on “low,” for you belong in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who mourn about the brokenness and tragedy in the world, for you will be comforted.

Blessed are you who is weak, timid or shy, for your life on this earth is important. 

Blessed are you who yearn for goodness to prevail, for you will see that goodness fill your heart. 

Blessed are those who take genuine responsibility for their mistakes, for you will be forgiven.

Blessed are you who practice unconditional love, for you will see Christ in others.

Blessed are you who works for peace and justice and reconciliation, for you belong to God’s family

Blessed are you who suffer and are oppressed and maligned because society considers them unworthy, for you belong in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are all of you who face the daily challenges of life and struggle to overcome evil with the goodness of God’s love. For “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Amen.


[1] Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Handmade Films, Monty Python Pictures, Orion Pictures, 1979

[2] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/1/28/blessing-first-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-4

[3] https://www.aol.com/article/2015/07/17/why-blessed-is-the-most-annoying-hashtag-on-instagram/21210868/

[4] https://www.southernthing.com/bless-your-heart-is-all-about-the-tone-2581652582.html

[5] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Matthew 5:1-12, Theological Perspective by Marcia Y. Riggs. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.

[6] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/1/28/blessing-first-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-4

 

For the Kingdom

“Take My Hand” by Michael Rosato, Mural of Harriet Tubman, Cambridge, Maryland

A Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Third Sunday of Epiphany. Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

After being anointed by God in baptism by the Jordan River and refusing the devil’s temptations of power and prestige while spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus commences his ministry. And the place he chooses to begin provides tremendous insight into Jesus’ purpose and work.

The territory of Zebulun and Nephtali is where King Hezekiah, the Judean monarch, resisted the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem about 700 years before Christ’s birth. It is in the context of this event that the prophet Isaiah writes that a messianic king will restore the Israelites from oppression to a new day of liberation, i.e. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” 

The writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes the prophet to show that God is about to again deliver the people from Roman occupation as God delivered their ancestors from Assyrian domination. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the liberator who has come to rescue the people from the brutality of the Empire and the tyrannical rule of Herod, its client king. And Jesus accepts the role and proclaims across Galilee about the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word for “kingdom” is basileia, which can be translated as reign, rule, realm or empire, which immediately makes Jesus a threat to the authorities.

Jesus is encouraging the Galileans to turn from the way of tyranny and instead embrace the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign—the way of unconditional love and never-ending grace—that is arriving to dismantle the oppressive rule of the kings, authorities and Empires now and forever. Repent, for the basileia of heaven (not Caesar or Herod) is imminent.

In a commentary on this passage, my friend Raj Nadella, an associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, notes that Jesus puts his life at risk to deliver this good news:[1]

“The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death integral aspects of the society and tried to normalize them. In Matthew’s appropriation of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the destructive ethos of the Roman empire and demonstrate that darkness and death need not be accepted as normal. This is no small task or mere sloganeering. The devil tried to coopt him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing seemed to deter him. Jesus … stepped right in the heart of the empire. He boldly stepped into a dangerous space so he can lead others to safety.”

“Jesus calls the disciples” by He Qi.

Next, Jesus continues this bold initiative by asking members of the lowest of the low professions to be his disciples: fishermen. Jesus’ invitation, according to some scholars, “was to leave the caste system behind and join him in ushering in a whole new way of living, economically, socially and otherwise.” The verb aphiemi, translated “they left their nets, is used elsewhere in the gospels to indicate the leaving behind debt, sin and bondage. The author and theologian Ched Myers refers to aphiemi as a “Jubilee” word. Put simply, the observance of Jubilee among the Hebrews was a time in which debts were forgiven and God’s mercies were celebrated. Thus, it is a new Jubilee world that Jesus invites the disciples and others to enter. It’s as if Jesus is saying: Leave the basileia of Rome behind, and come, follow me – for the basileia of heaven, the Great Jubilee, has come near!

In response to the invitation, Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately left their nets, boats and family, and “followed him.” The Greek word for “followed,” is akoloutheo, which means to join one as a disciple; to side with the party of the one preceding. These two sets of brothers didn’t just merely follow Jesus. With great intention in their hearts, they joined Jesus in the ministry he was born to do. They took God’s side over that of Herod and Caesar. They sided with the kingdom of heaven, the way of God that Jesus represented (and still represents) in all its fullness.

In an instant, the Peter, Andrew, James and John quit the only career they and their fathers and grandfathers have ever known to live out a new calling. The men cease being catchers of seafood and become fishers for people.

They become disciples, followers of Jesus, who for the kingdom of heaven, help liberate the ones who’ve been caught in the grip of earthly kings and Empire—

the ones who have been victimized through acts of violence

the ones who are sick and shunned for their illness

the ones who are hungry and lack sustenance in a world of plenty

the ones who are blind and ignored by those who pass them on the street

the ones who are imprisoned and denied basic human rights

the ones who have chosen to accommodate the system of oppression

What was true for Andrew, Peter, James and John centuries ago is the same today for each of us who God in Christ invites to followWe are also called to be fishers for people. However, to be clear, becoming fishers for people is not an opportunity for Christians to just check off “to-do” lists of church tasks, responsibilities and ministry activities so we can move onto the next items in our busy and compartmentalized lives. And it’s certainly not a time for any of us to obsess over church growth statistics as a gauge of success when energy can be better used to relish the holy moments of grace that occur regardless of the number of folks present.

Becoming fishers for people…for the kingdom of heaven is about devoting ourselves entirely to the way of God.  It’s about caring for humanity with every breath of God that is within us. As one commentary puts it: “Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to participate in the struggle for justice and kindness, inspired and encouraged by past generations.”

A notable figure in American history, someone from past generations who has lately inspired and encouraged me through their faithful discipleship is the abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman.

When Harriet was a teenager in the 1800s, she suffered a head injury when an angry slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave but striking her instead. The injury caused Harriet to have dizziness, pain and sleeping spells; she would suddenly fall asleep and became difficult to wake. According to Harriet, the spells were visions and dreams from God—divine messages that enabled her to escape from a slave plantation in Maryland and travel 90 miles, mostly on foot, through rough terrain and slave territory to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harriet soon became a conductor of the Underground Railroad—a network of secret routes and safe houses that enslaved African-Americans used to escape into free states and Canada. Unable to read a map or a sign, Harriet allowed God’s visions to guide her on 19 trips to free 300 slaves over the course of a decade. She was the only conductor who never lost a single passenger or allowed them to be harmed. [2]

Her remarkable story finally came to life on the big screen in November with the powerful film Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo as the title character. In one scene, when asked what it’s like to be guided by God’s voice, Harriet replies: [3]

“Sometimes, it stings. Like a smack in the face. Other times it’s soft. Like a dream. Fly off soon as you woke. Seem like I learned to see and hear God like some learn to read a book. I put all my attention on it. Act without question. Fore I can wonder if I even heard it at all.”

Harriet was unequivocally a fisher for people, called by God to help liberate others for the kingdom of heaven that is drawing near. And we too are being called by God to participate in the struggle for justice and kindness. But how do we discern and follow Christ’s invitation? What direction are we to move for the kingdom of heaven? Are we dragging our feet? [4]

The call may seem daunting because we’re worried that our ministry has to be mistake free. Yet the anguish is unnecessary because it is humanly impossible to be impeccable anglers. Being a fisher for people doesn’t mean we have to be absolutely perfect. It only requires that we keep responding to God’s call, even when we mess up.

Author Sarah Miles

And don’t ever doubt that God will call you and me again and again in spite of our mistakes, because, truth be told, there isn’t anyone else.  No other living creature on the planet is capable of being fishers for peoplefor the kingdom of heaven, except human beings. Consider, as an example, a story by Christian author Sara Miles regarding a Friday at her church’s food pantry where she works as the founder and director. She writes:[5]

I was standing at the bus stop across from the church…as the food pantry was winding down, talking with Miss Lola Brown. A tiny, elderly black lady with sensible shoes and bent, arthritic hands, she was shaking her head in despair because she didn’t know how to get her groceries across town to her apartment… 

I was exasperated. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money to give her for a cab. I had to be somewhere else in a little while. I looked at the man standing next to us, a big, quite psychotic white guy, a ranter, who’d also just been at the pantry. ‘Ok, we’ll help you,’ I said, not very nicely. I had no idea how. And then the bus pulled up, and the man shuffled forward, muttering, and the two of us lugged her cart on board.

Miss Brown smiled and raised her hand to heaven. ‘I know,’ she testified. ‘I know the Lord will always send me help.’ I told that to my wife, Martha, when I got home and she rolled her eyes. ‘Couldn’t the Lord send her a taxi at least, if he’s got all the power to help?’ she asked. ‘Instead of a crazy guy and some feeble middle-aged lady, and she’s still got to take the 22 Filmore for an hour?’ 

‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Jesus has a sense of humor. He just sends us.’

Jesus calls and sends us to be fishers for people…for the kingdom. That means all of us. There are no exceptions. We are each called to help liberate others through acts of service. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:[6]

Everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity… You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can serve.

Everybody can serve. Everybody can follow in the way of God. Everybody can be fishers for peoplefor the kingdom.

So, let us get going.

Amen


[1] Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23 by Raj Nadella, associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4366

[2] There is historical debate over how the number of trips Harriet Tubman made and the number of slaves she rescued. According to Harriet’s own words and documentation of her missions, she made 13 trips and freed 60-70 people. Others say it was 19 and 300 people and that some of those trips were guided by others who followed Harriet’s instructions. The 19 and 300 figures appear to come from a biography written in 1868 by Sarah Bradford who guesstimated the numbers. Organizations like the Harriet Tubman Historical Society and PBS claim the larger numbers as fact, while The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway claims those numbers are a myth. Recent biographies and mainstream news stories about the film cite the 13 and 70 figures. Regardless, what Harriet did was incredible and as some say, superhuman.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

http://www.harriet-tubman.org/facts/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html

https://harriettubmanbyway.org/harriet-tubman/#myths

[3] Harriet, Focus Features, November 2019. https://www.focusfeatures.com/harriet

[4] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/1/18/the-reign-of-heaven-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-3

[5] Jesus Freak by Sarah Miles, Cantebury Press, February 2012

[6] The Drum Major Instinct, sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ebeneezer, February 4, 1968

Come and See

John 1:29-42 by Cerezo Barredo, 1999

A Sermon for Sunday, January 19, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Second Sunday after Epiphany. John 1:35-42.

Come and see. It’s one of the most popular phrases used in our home. Whenever the kids are cuddled up together on the couch, playing sweetly with one another, acting silly or sleeping adorably, Elizabeth or I will call to the other who isn’t in the room: “Come and see.”Whenever Davis and Katie build a fort out of couch cushions or create art or come up with a funny song and dance, they excitedly shout: “Mom, dad! Come and see!” Whenever Elizabeth discovers fun shirts or pajamas for the kids while browsing online or reads something humorous, she’ll beckon me to sit beside her on the couch to look at what she’s found: “Come and see.”

The saying is also part of everyday speech in society. Whenever there is something fascinating to behold and share with someone else, we passionately respond: “Come and See.” Come and see… the hawk perched on the roof of the porch; the beautiful flowers blooming in the yard, the incredible night sky with the starts shining brightly; the delicious spread of food at the party, the exquisite sculpture exhibit at the High Museum, the baseball team play on a gorgeous day at the park. Come and see is an invitation to step into a moment of wonderous discovery.

In today’s gospel reading from John, the disciple and writer, we learn that John, the preacher and baptizer, is conversing with two of his students when his cousin Jesus walks by them. Upon hearing John pronounce, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” the two students decide to follow Jesus on the path to wherever Jesus is headed. Almost immediately they ask him, “Teacher, where are you staying?” and Jesus issues the invitation: “Come and see.”And, according to the text, “they remained with him that day. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Biblical scholars have made some interesting observations about this interchange between Jesus and his new followers. Audrey West, a New Testament professor in Chicago, points out that the Greek word for “staying” is meno—which means abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in a state of stability—and it is found elsewhere in the gospel. During Jesus’ baptism, John the baptizer sees the Holy Spirit remain (meno) upon Jesus (1:32). A day after feeding the crowds with five loaves and two fish, he tells the people to work for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (6:27).  While teaching the twelve disciples, Jesus promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (15:4-10). And when Jesus stays (meno) with the Samaritans for two days (4:40); and later in a place where his cousin had been baptizing (10:40), people have the opportunity to believe.

West says that the use of meno implies that the disciples aren’t interested in the specifics of Jesus’ lodging. They simply want to be with Jesus. She wrote:[1]

“They are not asking Jesus for the location of his tent, or the address of the guest house at which he is visiting; they want to know about the enduring, permanent, eternal, undying dwelling place of this Lamb of God. Where are you staying? Where can we find you? Where shall we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we be in the very presence of God?”

Another clue in the text that supports the claim that the disciples desire to do more than see where Jesus lives is the gospel writer’s mention of the time of day that the disciples stayed with Jesus.  Alyce McKenzie, a United Methodist pastor in Texas, noted:[2]

“It was then about four o’clock in the afternoon. John included this concrete significant detail. It is concrete because it was the beginning of Sabbath. It was significant because Sabbath meant staying in one place until the end of the following day. That means that the disciples had an extended opportunity to remain with Jesus and commune with him, enjoying his presence and learning from him. They had the chance to stick around Jesus. We do too.”

The Church and its ministry, of course, offers prime opportunities to abide, remain, endure with or stick around Jesus. At Emory Presbyterian, we stick around Jesus through worship and various spiritual, educational, fellowship and missional activities. As recently as Saturday, a group from this congregation joined other Atlanta residents in doing home repairs and yard work from 9-5 for elderly residents who can’t afford the maintenance and upkeep. They stuck around Jesus.

And once a month, beginning in February, will be a brand new activity called “Lunch and Learn” where we’ll gather in Fellowship Hall for a simple meal and a chance to get to know one another and grow in our faith as staff members share their stories about how they connect with God in their daily life and in their work at EPC. This also is an invitation to “Come and see”—to stick around Jesus, to be in the presence of unconditional, sacrificial, transformative love.

These opportunities to abide are summed up best by the celebrated quote of Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a delightful sentiment; however, it doesn’t always match up with the struggles other biblical figures have with God’s call like Moses, Isaiah, Peter and Paul. Nor does the statement reflect the reality that many of us don’t always feel “deep gladness” when God calls us to serve. One commentary I read the other day suggests that we might do well to also consider the complementary opposite of Buechner’s quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.”[3]

Come and see is an invitation to witness the wonder of God but also an invitation to be challenged as disciples of the Lamb of God who comes (like the Passover lamb of Exodus) to protect and liberate all people, especially those on the margins.

When Jesus says to the disciples, “Come and see,” he is inviting them to spend their entire lives following him, the One who will turn the world upside down—cleansing the temple of moneychangers trying to make a profit off the poor (2:13-17); speaking to a Samaritan woman (4:1-30); healing a crippled man on the sabbath (5:1-18);  feeding the 5,000 (6:1-15); preventing an adulterous woman from being stoned to death (8:1-11); raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45) among other acts.

Jesus also invites us to Come and see. And accepting that invitation to follow Christ and abide with God in the world means we are to practice kindness, share peace, offer compassion, show love, seek reconciliation and work for justice. It is the whole point of going to church, living out faith and being one of Jesus’ disciples and it’s usually challenging and uncomfortable.

On Monday, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who fully embraced Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see,” and who took great risks doing the work of justice by boldly speaking out against racism, poverty, violence and war. In his last Christmas sermon, before being assassinated in April 1968, Dr. King said:[4]

“And so today I still have a dream. (People) will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream that … every (person of color) in the world will be judged on the basis of the content of (their) character rather than the color of his skin, and (everyone) will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had the fortune of going with a group from Emory Presbyterian and Druid Hills Presbyterian to see the powerful film Just Mercy, which is based on the best-selling book by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. A renown public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned, Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or prison release for more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

Just Mercy chronicles the case of Walter McMillian, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. After working tirelessly for five years to prove McMillian’s innocence, Stevenson convinced the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to rule that the conviction was unconstitutional and then the State to drop all charges, releasing his client from death row as a free man in 1993.[5]

“Just Mercy”: Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian. Jake Giles Netter (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Stevenson, whose religious convictions are rooted in the tradition of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, is portrayed in the film by actor Michael B. Jordan. In the final scene of Just Mercy, Jordan’s Stevenson makes the following statement before the U.S. Judiciary Committee following McMillan’s exoneration:[6]

“I came out of law school with grand ideas in my mind about how to change the world. And Mr. McMillan made me realize that we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts. This man taught me how to stay hopeful because I now know that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to move forward even when the truth is distorted by the people in power. It allows us to stand up when they tell us to sit down, and to speak when they say be quiet. Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. The character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we teach the rich and the privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and the condemned. Our system has taken more from this innocent man than it has the power to give back. But I believe that if each of us can follow his lead, we can change this world for the better. If we can look at ourselves closely and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice …we all need mercy, and perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

In an article for an online magazine, Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne, a friend of Stevenson’s, reflected on the film and an opportunity he was given to visit the set during the filming of Just Mercy. He wrote:[7]

I was invited on set to watch a scene being shot in an abandoned prison in Georgia. At one point a bitter white corrections officer throws a prisoner against a wall. Undaunted, the man smiles with a defiant hope, eyes set on heaven, and begins singing an old hymn: “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Later, I got to meet a bunch of the actors, including the man who played the correctional officer. He smiled when I mentioned how good he was at being bad. As we ate, I saw an image of the world Bryan is building: prison guards and death row inmates talking and laughing over lunch. It was a world in which each of us is more than the worst things we’ve done. Where if we have the courage, we can see past the costumes we wear and get to know each other as children of God.

Friends, my hope and prayer is that we have the courage to keep accepting the invitation to follow Christ and to continue doing the work of justice that God has called us to undertake.

Come and see, says Jesus. Come and see.

Amen.


[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=24

 

[2] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/stick-around-alyce-mckenzie-01-15-2014

[3] https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/1/4/lamb-of-god-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-2

[4] King Jr., Martin Luther. The Trumpet of Conscience (King Legacy) (p. 79). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition. Preachers Note: I updated some of the language (in parentheses) to be more inclusive and reflect post-modern vernacular

[5] https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson/

https://justmercy.eji.org/responsive/

https://eji.org/cases/walter-mcmillian/

https://eji.org/issues/death-penalty/#Innocence_and_Error

[6] https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/just-mercy

[7] https://www.redletterchristians.org/the-defiant-hope-of-just-mercy/

 

Pointing to the Light

“Visit of the Magi” by Rev. Andy Acton, December 2016

A Sermon for January 5, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Sunday of Epiphany. John 1:1-14.

We’ve barely begun a new year and the prospects for a more peaceful, just, and compassionate 2020 already look grim: The upcoming Senate impeachment trial of a U.S. president. A looming war with Iran. A rash of anti-Semitic attacks occurring across our nation. The United Methodist Church splitting into two denominations over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQIA persons. The Australian wildfire catastrophe. Severe flooding in Indonesia that has killed 30 people and left more than 60,000 displaced. Mounting tensions with North Korea.

These are just the major news stories that have occurred in less than a week. There are many more deeply rooted age-old problems that persist, even though 2019 just ended: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, abuse, poverty, disease, environmental destruction, corruption, violence, selfishness and greed.

Then there are the personal hardships to contend with—problems that didn’t cease with the stroke of midnight on January 1st: strained relationships, family troubles, health challenges, financial worries, unexpected home and auto repairs, academic stress, job security woes, and the loss of loved ones.

Although a new year can be a fresh start—365 opportunities to improve the quality of our lives and society—it’s not a clean slate. When the ball drops in Times Square, conflict, pain and brokenness doesn’t magically disappear. We still have to contend with the ugliness of the world and grapple with the darkness to find our humanity.

It is for this reason that we need the light of God in Christ and it is why Christians observe Epiphany, the conclusion of the 12-day celebration of the Christmas season, established by the medieval church in the 4th century. The event of the Epiphany, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, focuses on the story of how magi, astrologers from the east, followed the star that led them to the home of the baby Jesus—the self-revelation of God and savior of all people. According to the Rev. Michelle Bartel, a PC(USA) pastor in Indiana, Epiphany is key to a Presbyterian’s discipleship in the world God so loves. She explains:

These days, we celebrate Epiphany because it reminds us of who we are called to be as followers of Jesus. We are formed as people who see, recognize and point to God’s saving presence in this world. We strive to give ourselves and our lives to God in joy, just as the Magi did. The celebration of Epiphany also gives us an opportunity to consider what it means to live out the difference the birth of Jesus makes for us and the world.

But are we fully celebrating Epiphany if we don’t ponder — and live out — the complete reorientation of our lives to Jesus? Have we really been changed by the Christ Child — reorienting our words and deeds — if we pay no attention to imprisoned migrant children at our southern border?

We know from the Bible that unless we seek justice for all people, especially the vulnerable, our worship is meaningless to God. We see even in their return home, the Magi are guided by God, away from Herod’s worship of power. Where we invest our worship, we invest our lives. And where we invest our lives, we invest our journeys. We see in the Magi, too, a reflection of our longing to see the God in whom we believe. As the Magi understood, Jesus is the savior of all. This includes our sibling children of God who are immigrants, widows, orphans and the poor, as we read over and over again in the Scriptures. This is at the heart of our Presbyterian faith. …The star the Magi followed reveals the light that shines for all people.[1]

The light that shines for all people.

The light of God.

The writer of the Gospel of John expresses the wonder and holiness of that Divine light in a poetic prologue that evokes the magnificent and mysterious beginning of creation in Genesis 1:

    The Voice was and is God.
This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;
    His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating,
    all things that exist were birthed in Him.
His breath filled all things
    with a living, breathing light—
A light that thrives in the depths of darkness,
    blazes through murky bottoms.
It cannot and will not be quenched.

A man named John, who was sent by God, was the first to clearly articulate the source of this Light. This baptizer put in plain words the elusive mystery of the Divine Light so all might believe through him. Some wondered whether he might be the Light, but John was not the Light. He merely pointed to the Light. The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos.

The passage is epic in its scope and immensely encouraging. I become giddy every time I read or hear the version of Jesus’ birth in John 1. And whenever I’m experiencing despair, I feel an enormous sense of comfort when the phrase “the light shines in the darkness” pierces my clouded mind and heavy heart. More so than when I see the opening crawl and hear the familiar trumpets that accompany a Star Wars film and also witness the stalwart Jedi triumph over the Empire with their light saber and the power of the force.

I particularly love the phrasing of The Voice translation, “a living, breathing light—a light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms. It cannot and will not be quenched.”

There is not a single place or thing that can’t be touched by light, whether natural, manufactured or spiritual. Because all light comes from a living, breathing God who creates the light, inspires the light and manifests the light.

The light blazes through murky bottoms, pitch-black skies, dark corners, and everywhere in between. The light illuminates, reveals, exposes, transforms, heals, and redeems. The light fuels the capacity to show love and mercy. The light drives out darkness and hate. The light shows us the way toward wholeness and grace. The light gives us life and energy and hope. The light opens our eyes to the truth that we’re all beloved creations of God and we are to view every human being who is vastly different from us as special and unique—regardless of their race, culture, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and economic status.

The light shines eternally, and it can’t be extinguished, quenched, or snuffed out. Not ever.

The light is not us. Like John the Baptist, that wilderness preacher cousin of Jesus, we are witnesses to the light and on the best of days, we can be bearers of the light. But we are not the light. The God that created the cosmos–who came down and dwelt among us as unconditional, sacrificial love-in-the-flesh—is the “true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone.”

We are called to be people who are always pointing to the light of God. In the same way that we excitedly gawk and physically point at fireworks, or a full moon, or Christmas decorations or the special affects at a rock concert or an important date circled on our calendars.

The light of God is all around and ahead of us.

Which places and types of ministry do we need to point others toward to see the light that has come into the world?  Where do we need to go to witness and embrace the light that is shining?

Mercy Community Church?

Hagar’s House?

Organizations that seek to stop domestic violence?

Groups that address food waste, hunger and care of the earth?

The MLK Day of Service Project?

An outing to see the movie Just Mercy?

The Atlanta Hunger Walk?

The sanctuaries of nearby African American PC(USA) churches?

Synagogues and mosques?

Refugee communities in Clarkston?

City streets, schools and neighborhoods?

Railroad tracks and roadside ditches covered with trash?

Hospitals?

Prisons?

There are so many opportunities to choose from as Jesus’ disciples and followers of God’s light.

So, over the next 360 days, let us always be pointing toward the light, wherever it shows up, and following the light, wherever it takes us. Especially in the darkest of moments when it’s not visible to others.

Because friends, that is when our pointing, witnessing and following is needed the most.

Amen.


[1] “Epiphany is at the Heart of Discipleship ” by Rev. Michelle Bartel, Presbyterians Todayhttps://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/pt-0120-wpb/.