The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

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Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

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Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

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Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

Homeless Man on the Street

Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

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Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

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In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

Each Other’s Angels

A Sermon for Sunday August 28, 2016, Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13:1-2, 16

             Le Chambon 2About 5 months ago the middle and high school youth, along with Rev. Jennie, the youth advisers, and myself, visited the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in downtown Atlanta to hear the story of a Holocaust survivor and visit the facility’s permanent exhibit, “Absence of Humanity: The Holocaust Years, 1933-1945.” Toward the end of our hour-long tour—in which we viewed detailed accounts of the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis during World War II—our guide directed our attention to a grainy black and white photo of a Protestant village in France called Le Chambon, population 5,000.

Le Chambon

           Between 1941-1944, the residents of Le Chambon and nearby villages provided refuge for 5,000 Jews, more than 3,000 of which were actively fleeing from the Nazis and the collaborating French authorities that sought to put them to death in concentration camps. Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, the villagers offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and sometimes guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. Despite some visits to the area and a raid on the town, the Nazis never discovered the hidden Jews in Le Chambon and the surrounding area. The town never divulged its secret or considered giving up any of the refugees they had welcomed.

As one former child refugee recalled many years later:

Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.

            The residents of Le Chambon never spoke of their deeds until decades later in the mid 1980s when filmmaker Pierre Sauvage returned to the town that had sheltered him as a newborn in 1944. But even then, the villagers, whose story is breathtakingly captured in the documentary Weapons of the Spirit, were reluctant to say much about their role in history:  “How could you call us good? We were doing what had to be done…It happened so naturally, we can’t understand the fuss…We never analyzed what we were doing, it happened all by itself.” [1]

For these incredibly humble Christians, the words from Hebrews 13:1-2 and v.16 were ingrained on their hearts:

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it….Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

             If the Nazis had discovered their plans, the villagers would’ve been executed and the town would’ve been burnt to the ground. And yet the town of Le Chambon never thought twice about their decision to show mutual love to Jewish refugees nor did they question the danger of taking in strangers. They simply did what they intuitively felt in their hearts was the right thing to do.

And thus, Le Chambon’s humble actions continue to be seen 75 years later as one of the most inspirational examples of the radical hospitality that is encouraged in the scriptures and which God calls humankind to live out each day.

          Unquestionably, not every practice of hospitality has to be that grand or require such enormous risk. But all practices of hospitality can be bold, creative moments where we leave our comfort zones and reveal our vulnerability to welcome the stranger into our hearts and lives. As author Lonni Collins Pratt explains in her book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love: [2]

Hospitality requires not grand gestures, but open hearts. When I let a stranger into my heart, I let a new possibility approach me. When I reach past my own ideas, I begin to stretch myself open to the world, and this opening of my heart could change everything.

          The opportunity to open our hearts can come when we least expect and change our life instantly. This was certainly true at the recent Olympic Games in Rio during when the qualifying heat of the women’s 5,000 meters when American runner Abbey D’Agostino accidentally clipped New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin from behind, causing both runners to fall down with about 2,000 meters remaining.

          Nikki landed heavily on her shoulder. She was in a daze as she laid on the track, her hopes of a medal dashed.  Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder and a voice speak into her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”  It was Abbey.

Instead of running to catch up with the other runners, Abbey was crouched down next to Nikki and encouraging her not to quit. Abbey put her hand on Nikki’s shoulder and then under her arms to help her up.  “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Nikki said of Abbey D’Agostino later. “I’ve never met her before. Like I never met this girl before. And isn’t that so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”

Olympic Race 1But Nikki Hamblin turned out to be just as amazing. As both women began running again, Abbey realized that she had severely hurt her ankle in the fall and soon crumbled to the ground. Nikki then stopped and helped Abbey to her feet and offered her encouragement before running ahead. Nikki then waited for her new friend, grimacing with every stride, come across the finishing line. The two women hugged and then gripped each other’s right arms as Abbey was seated in a wheelchair.

Because of their extraordinary act of sportsmanship, Nikki and Abbey were both awarded the International Fair Play Committee Award and allowed to enter the final of the women’s 5,000 meters days later.  And while Abbey dropped out due to her injury and Nikki finished last in the final as a result of her fall, both women achieved something great—they showed hospitality to a complete stranger.

Olympic Race 2They opened their hearts, expanded their worlds and changed each other’s lives forever. As Nikki so eloquently put it, mere moments after finishing in 17th place, “You can make friends in the moments that really should break your heart.”[3]

When we open our hearts to practice hospitality, we create space for something new to happen. The late author and theologian on spirituality, Henri Nouwen, says it this way:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

When we reach out to love the stranger, the person who is different from us;

When we do good for others and share what we have from our hearts;

When we create free spaces where a stranger can enter and become a friend;

When we offer another the freedom to be who God has made them to be, instead of the divisive, judgmental label that society has placed upon them;

We are showing hospitality.

We are entertaining God’s angels.

We are helping to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

            It’s quite revolutionary and counter-cultural to demonstrate hospitality to strangers and accommodate angels. It’s not always acceptable behavior.

Politeness and manners, yes. But a hospitality that offers love, respect, honor and dignity to the other—not so much.  The radical hospitality that God calls us to practice is often frowned upon in our society much like it was in Jesus’ day.

There has and always will be banquets that place the most honorable, the most successful, the most rewarded, the most privileged and well-to-do in the best seats in the most splendid room in the most luxurious of places.  And upsetting that system will not win a person much influence of wealth and power.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t care about such things. He’s not much for keeping the status quo and maintaining rituals that exclude others. Jesus eye is set on God’s kingdom table where all are welcome, including the poor and the oppressed. So he insists that traditional seating at a banquet or any meal where the “insiders” are given room over the “outsiders” should be tossed aside. Speaking to his host in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus says:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Or as Kayla McClurg, the creator of the daily devotional site inwardoutward.org puts it:

Turn the tables on your usual patterns. Get out of your cozy rut. Hang out sometimes with the wrong kind of people, notice who is missing from the circles you participate in, get to know and care about some strangers. Rearrange the familiar. Urge the humiliated components of your life to move on up, and the proud and aloof parts to come on down. Practice getting your life into balance—you’re rehearsing for a resurrection feast!

            If that seems impossible, consider another story from the Rio Olympics.  Knowing that the country of Brazil is amid a deep recession and that Rio’s government had to close or cutback service at 16 meal centers, world renown Italian master chef Massimo Bottura decided to create an upscale restaurant to exclusively serve the poor during the Olympics.

Rio restaurant 1From August 9 to August 21, Refettorio Gastromotiva served 100 meals per day—breakfast, lunch and dinner—to the city’s homeless—using tons of leftover ingredients Olympic caterers and other local partners. Food that normally doesn’t sell at stores and goes to waste because it’s ugly looking or not ripe enough.

One evening, more than 70 homeless men, feasted on a three-course meal of ossobuco (cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth), along with buttery barao potatoes and a gelato dessert.

Bottura said that on the second night of the restaurant’s opening, two homeless men left the building saying it was the first time they were treated like human beings—like princes and princesses.  “It’s breathtaking,” Bottura told reporters. “Because it is exactly what we want to do here. We want to build the dignity of the people.”

        Rio Restaurant 2   And Bottura and his restaurant are continuing to build the dignity of the people and practice hospitality and entertain angels even now that the Olympic festivities have faded away. As originally intended, the exquisite dinners for the homeless will be offered every evening, with funding for the project coming from lunch paying customers eating at an affordable price.

We want the whole community to come here to sustain this project because it is a social project and we need to add as many people as we can,” Bottura said. “I’ve just been rated best restaurant in the world…what more do I want from life? I have to give back to people.”[4]

Rio Restaurant 3Bottura’s example is precisely what Jesus meant by turning the tables, rearranging the familiar and practicing a resurrection feast.

We also can do what Bottura and many others have done to practice radical hospitality and to make the resurrection feast or God’s kingdom more and more of a reality in this world.

Practicing radical hospitality, according to a TED Talk speaker I heard last week, means: “seeing every person as an individual who is worthy of respect and honoring them as an equal.”[5]

It can often be inconvenient in a world where the slightest hiccup in our daily routine can annoy and frustrate us. As a friend and colleague wrote recently:

It’s easy to offer genuine hospitality when everybody’s saying please and thank you. It’s not so easy when people don’t wait their turn or they smell bad or they take more than their share…Imagine a church that offers hospitality even to the children of God who make everybody uncomfortable.”[6]

Radical hospitality requires risk, creativity, boldness, an open heart and a willingness to sacrifice our egos, agendas and uncomfortability to do what pleases God.

And to be perfectly honest, this church is already doing as such…

Delivering communion to the home-bound,

Hosting fellowship meals after church,

Serving as a Blood Drive center for The Red Cross,

Yard-work project on MLK Day,

Mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Asheville and Blue Ridge,

Women’s retreat,

Vacation Bible School,

Summer Worship and Church School,

Caring for Burmese refugee families,

Sponsoring a low-income family at Rainbow Village,

Feeding the homeless men at Clifton,

Collecting toiletries and clothes for the homeless women and children at The Salt Light Center,

Donating and sorting canned goods at The Duluth Co-Op,

Laundry Love, and so much more.

You are practicing radical hospitality all the time. You are entertaining angels without knowing it.

           But friends, let us not ever be completely satisfied with how we do good for strangers and share what we have with them. Let us be humble enough to know that the work is never complete, can never be achieved on our own and that there is always more work to be done.

Let us constantly look for ways to open our hearts and create spaces where strangers and “enemies” can become friends. Let us continue to seek it in this church and beyond these walls to our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our cities, our state, our country and our world.

Let us be each other’s angels to all we encounter–angels who keep each other going and show each other signs of the kingdom of God that is here and is still to come.

Amen.

[1] Weapons of the Spirit by Pierre Sauvage, 1989. http://www.chambon.org/weapons_en.htm

[2] Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan, 2001 and 2011, Paraclete Press.

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-rio-summer-olympics/rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-show-true-n632476

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nikki-hamblins-5-000-meter-000000095.html

[4] http://www.refettoriogastromotiva.org/english/

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/19/sport/feeding-the-poor-rio/

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6a8e702c40224f6a8345d9f6fe4def54/renowned-chef-feeds-rios-homeless-excess-olympic-food

[5] TEDTalk San Diego, Grace Rodriguez, “Embrace Radical Hospitality,” Feb. 16, 2016

[6] https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hospitality-is-inconvenient/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33

       

Cerezo Barredo's Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27
Cerezo Barredo’s Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27

        The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.

             We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:

                     “The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”

                      “Go in the peace of Christ.”

               But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?

              Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?

             Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith

             Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?

              In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.

               In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.

                David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas…[1]

            It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:

            The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.

              Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.

               With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?

                 The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.

               As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:

               “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

               “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

               “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

                Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!”[2]  In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”

             What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.

            In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.

             Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:

Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.[3]

               Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:

As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.[4]

               The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us.  And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.

             The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:[5]

One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.

Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.

          And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.

         And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.

          Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.

            Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says:  “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”   

             There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:[6]

 

             There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.

            And so I say to everyone here:

            “The peace of Christ be with you”

Amen.

(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)

[1] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/david-lamotte-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[2] John 20:19-21

[3] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/jan-edmiston-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[4] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/alan-bancroft-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[5] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004. Doubleday Publishing.

[6] The Officer of Make Believe: Being Black in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by Great Big Story (2:32)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ

Pouring Out Love

A Sermon for Sunday March 13, 2016 (Fifth Sunday of Lent), John 12:1-8

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel of John. I will be reading the New Revised Standard Version that we are accustomed to hearing. But I’ll be reading from this slightly battered navy blue Bible, which was presented to me during my installation at Colesville Presbyterian in Silver Spring, MD, the first church I served as a newly ordained minister and associate pastor.

This Bible was a gift from the head of staff, the Rev. Mike O’Brien, and his wife Pam. And on the inside cover, they wrote the following inscription:

 

May God bless you and walk with you in your ministry.

We love you!

Mike and Pam,

In honor of your installation

September 25, 2005

A little over a week ago, Rev. Mike O’Brien died at the age of 64 from the effects of radiation treatments for an aggressive brain tumor that he was diagnosed with in early January. Yesterday, family and friends gathered for a memorial service and burial in Massachusetts (where Mike had recently been serving as an interim pastor) to celebrate Mike’s life and witness God’s love in Christ Jesus. And so it only seems appropriate, as a way of honoring our work together long ago and his life and ministry, that I read the scripture from this Bible that he gave to me:

………………

John 12:1-8

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Let us pray… (Prayer of Illumination)

……………………….

Since learning the news of Mike O’Brien’s death, my mind and heart has been flooded with memories of the three years I served alongside him at Colesville. I learned a lot from Mike about being a pastor in those early years of my ministry (when I was young, naive and didn’t have a clue about what I was doing). And what’s often popped in my mind are the hospital and home visits we made to church members; as the only two pastors in a congregation of 400, we did a lot of tag-team pastoral care.Photo 1-Mike O'Brien

One of Mike’s greatest strengths was caring for others when they were struggling deeply with something in their lives or when they were ill or even dying.  The amount of empathy, mercy and love this large, jovial man showered on them was generous as well as blind to the person’s faults or grievances they may have held for the church or us. It was always a blessing for me to witness such holy encounters.

I also recall snippets of several conversations we had about the meaning of life and death and the importance of serving God in the short time we have on this earth.  And I remember the central theme of the sermons he preached during Lent and Holy week: God’s call of us to pour out unconditional love on others in the midst of a broken world where Empire puts Divine love on a cross to die.

          In this morning’s story from John’s gospel, Mary—who lives with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus in the town of Bethany—answers this call to pour out love even though it will subject her to much scrutiny.

          During dinner with her siblings and Jesus and his disciples, Mary brings out an expensive perfume. She then kneels before Jesus and pours out the entire contents of the bottle onto Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. The incredible fragrance lingers in the air long after the act is done, a free gift that is freely received by all who breathe in the air and the moment.

         f215aab6-32cc-4f6b-8da4-141e1e2f332a But in this act of anointing, Mary has broken four social customs of the day:  1) she has let down her hair in a room full of men, 2) she has poured perfume on the feet 3) she, a single woman, has touched a single man and 4) she wipes his feet with her hair.

Unlike the unnamed women in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who anoint Jesus’ head, and the notoriously sinful woman in Luke’s gospel who weeps over Jesus’ feet, Mary has been friends with Jesus for a long time.  She loves him and he loves her like a friend or sibling would cherish one another, which makes the anointing so much more bizarre and excessive and over the top.

            The scene bothers Judas so much that he angrily questions Mary’s extravagance; it is the only time he speaks in the gospel: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Jesus quickly brushes him aside because as everyone was already aware, Judas could care less about giving money to the poor. Judas became angry because he was greedy. He believed the money that Mary spent was wasted on Jesus feet when it could’ve made him a richer man.

Jesus tells Judas that if he truly cares about the poor then he will have plenty of opportunities to care and feed them for the rest of his life. But moments like the one they are currently experiencing are precious and fleeting because soon Jesus will no longer be of this earth.

           Mary knows and understands her rabbi’s fate. As soon as Jesus showed his power by raising Lazarus from the dead (in the previous chapter), Mary sensed that the religious authorities would turn him over to the Roman Empire to be killed. (Because in those days, the emperor Caesar, who considered himself to be god-like, didn’t tolerate those who would usurp his power, even Emmanuel.) In a sermon on this text, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God—not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance—Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard—wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral?—and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.”[1]

It’s also worth noting that Mary shares her lavish gift in plain view of others while Jesus is living whereas when Jesus dies, two men who are afraid to publicly express their faith will sneak out into the middle of the night to anoint the body for burial. 

Mary’s humble act also models discipleship. In the next chapter, Jesus will wash and wipe the feet of his disciples, telling them to care for another in the same way that he has cared for them. Mary comprehends what it means to be a disciple before Jesus even gives verbal instructions to the 12 men who have worked closely with him.[2]

          Because Mary knows, she anoints the Anointed.  She honors the gift that is Jesus—the God-in-the flesh that comes bearing mercy and hope for a world that desperately needs to be freed from its ruling powers and principalities. She takes care of Jesus just as Jesus has come to take care of humanity. She pours out love on the One who, in life and death, spills out love onto the entirety of creation.

             As Holy Week and the events of Christ’s suffering and death quickly approach, there may not be a more appropriate story for us to hear on this Fifth Sunday of Lent than Mary’s anointing of Jesus.  And, aside from Christ himself, there may not be a more important figure for us in our current socio-economical and political climate than Mary, who demonstrates what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

              What Mary does—pouring out love—is so intuitive and simple, and yet it is extremely difficult for a lot of people to emulate.

                Sadly, I don’t need to list examples for you of the awful things human beings say and do to one another in this country alone. Turn on the TV, check our social media feeds or walk down the street. We are constantly surrounded by the deep seeded hate and fear that some have for those who are different because of their economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture, country of origin and race.  And there’s no escape from the vitriol.

            But there’s also no way we can ignore what’s happening or become swept up into the bitterness and hostility. Dismissiveness, silence and meeting violence with violence (verbally and physically) is not an option for us as Christians. The only option we have, the one that God bestows on our hearts, is to love one another—the neighbor, the stranger, the broken, the marginalized, the oppressed—just as God has loved us. We are called again and again and again to pour out love.

That call to pour out love reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. That call inspires us to connect our faith with everyday life and it guides us in our ministry of building the beloved community of God.

                Sometimes acts of pouring out love are displayed in the same manner as Mary, like in 2013 when Pope Francis went to a detention center in Italy to wash and kissed the feet of young people, including two women one of whom was a Serbian Muslim. [3]

Photo 2-Pope Francis

Others are more modest gestures and random acts of kindness that can be found on at StayHumbleandKind.com, a website inspired by the hit country song Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw—stories like[4]:

 

Photo 3-Feeding Homeless

Yoel Correa of Atlanta who, despite living paycheck to paycheck, sets aside money every week so that once a month he can buy food from a restaurant and feed the homeless out of his car.

 

Photo 4-Giving ShirtA passenger on a subway train in New York who gave his hat and T-shirt to a shivering man who was shirtless and looked sick at a time when temperatures in Manhattan were near freezing.

Photo 5-Talking

A young man who bought a homeless man named Chris a coffee and a bagel at Dunkin Donuts and then asked him to share his story. They talked for a couple of hours as Chris explained how folks are usually mean to him because he’s homeless, how drugs ruined his life and how he lost his mom to cancer. When the young man had to leave to get to a class, Chris gave him a note on a crumped up receipt, which said: “I wanted to kill myself today. Because of you, I now do not. Thank you beautiful person.”

Photo 6-Handing out MoneyA man in east Nashville who handed out money at numerous bars, grocery stores and pizza joints. One store employee said, “I know one lady, he put down a $50 before she paid for groceries and she seemed like she was really overwhelmed and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, it’s just a blessing, this is just like an answered prayer today.”  The same employee also received $20 from the man who they said was in a hurry and didn’t have much to say. “He was just like, ‘I’m giving my money away.’”

             When we pour out love on another human being like these folks have done, we honor Christ and the gift that is each and every person and life is in this world. When we pour out love, we boldly proclaim that the everlasting, sacrificial and faithful love of God in Christ Jesus can never be overcome by fear, hate and violence.

             It is a challenge, of course, to pour out love when we are incessantly worried about the state of our country and world. I’ve been agonizing lately about how we are hell bent on destroying one another and my powerlessness to change it.  But last week I saw a quote on social media that assured me that we can overcome this fear and make the world a better place:

Photo 7-Love Others

“If the state of our nation is terrifying you, PLEASE love your neighbors, befriend someone who you suppose is too different from you, be irrationally friendly to whoever you consider the other.”

             Let us be model disciples of Christ like Mary and pour out love, lavishly and abundantly on our neighbors and anyone who is deemed “other.”  We won’t always do it perfectly or consistently. There will be mountains to climb. But may always stay humble and kind:

Amen.

[1] The Prophet Mary, sermon by The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College and Columbia Seminary. John 12:1-8, 5th Sunday of Lent-Year C, March 21, 2010.

[2]  The ideas in this paragraph and the one preceding come from Encounters With Jesus: Studies In the Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench, 2007. Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] The Telegraph, March 28, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/the-pope/9960168/Pope-washes-feet-of-young-Muslim-woman-prisoner-in-unprecedented-twist-on-Maundy-Thursday.html

[4] http://www.stayhumbleandkind.com

 

 

The Force Awakens

A Sermon for Sunday December 27 (The First Sunday Of Christmas), Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

star-wars-posters-pic1

There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light.

Those are the words that the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke says to his young apprentice Kylo Ren, a masked Darth Vader want-to-be, during the latest installment in the Star Wars movie series: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Three decades after jedi master Luke Skywalker and his friends have shattered the Empire by blowing up the Death Star and defeating The Emperor and Vader in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, the dark side of the force is rising once again.

NEAgkrY1damxDC_1_b
The First Order

And this time it appears in the form of the Nazi-like First Order, an organization led by Snoke and Ren, which is determined to rule the galaxy and extinguish the light side of the force, which is beginning to manifest itself in the life of a young woman named Rey.

Living alone on a desert planet, Rey survives by daily scavenging parts from wrecked space ships to buy meager amounts of bread to eat. Throughout The Force Awakens, Rey displays cleverness, compassion, kindness, humility, bravery and resiliency as she learns the ways of the Force and battles the Dark Side of The First Order.

rey-bb8
Rey and the droid BB8

For Star Wars fans and regular film goers, Rey has become an instant favorite, a powerful heroine for the 21st century. But some of the characters in the film, both good and bad, don’t fully understand her.

Even though these characters are well acquainted with the story of Luke and Vader and have seen the Force at work, they don’t recognize Rey’s unique gifts.

There’s been an awakening of the light side of the force in their galaxy. They have felt it. The light. The dark. They know it has to do with Rey.

But they’re not sure what to with this immense power associated with her. And so they put Rey in a box made of their expectations about how a young woman should act, which of course, she defies at every turn during the film.

 

Similarly, there’s been an awakening of a powerful force in our universe. We celebrate it every year in the seasons of Advent and Christmas:

Carol Aust Nativity medium res
“The Nativity” by Carol Aust

–The light of the peasant child born in a smelly, dirty manger that got the attention of angels, shepherds and magi and frightened a terrible murderous king.

–The light of the child who grew up to be  man who–with only the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet–would share a whole lot of love and grace with the poor, the oppressed and the sinners.

–The light of Christ that shines in the dark and which the dark cannot overcome.

We’ve felt this awakening. The Light in the dark.

But we’re not always sure of what to make of Christ’s birth or how to respond to this powerful force of Light in our lives.

011-young-jesus-temple
The boy Jesus in the temple

According to today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is 12 years old when he and his family go to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Biblical scholars point out that a 12-year-old boy wasn’t “just a kid” by Israel’s standards—“he is becoming a man.” Jesus, like all 12-year-old boys of the time, is entering young adulthood. He is learning more about life and the world. He is discovering his purpose and calling.

Unlike his peers, though, Jesus is beginning to embrace his identity as savior and redeemer of all of creation. Jesus, scholars say, “isn’t just Mary’s boy or Joseph’s son. Jesus has a direct relationship with God as his Father, and he knows his life will follow a path of working for God.”

Oddly, though, Jesus’ mother Mary and stepdad Joseph appear to have forgotten about Jesus relationship with God and don’t seem to appreciate that their missing son is in the only place he could be: God’s sanctuary, preparing for his ministry.

And even after Jesus questions them, the gospel writer says Mary and Joseph were still unable to understand him.

Maybe they were so wrought with emotions that all they could think about was getting their boy home and nothing else. It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, to be the caregivers of Emmanuel—God-with-us who is both perfectly human and perfectly divine. And I suppose Jesus could’ve cut Mary and Joseph some slack and not talked back to them when they were clearly distressed.

However, I think there is something more to this gospel passage than a lesson to be learned about the relationship between parents and teens or that Jesus’ family life is a lot like anyone’s with mishaps and misunderstandings.

With no disrespect to Mary and Joseph’s parenting and their genuine concern for their son, I’d like to suggest that this incident says more about their and our desire to make Christ stay within the boundaries we set for him. And assumptions that Christ will stay there.

Mary and Joseph expect Jesus to stay with the caravan of travelers (extended family members and neighbors from their home in Galilee) and to not leave. When they discover Jesus is missing and search for him, the temple is the last place they check. And when they see him inside talking with the rabbis, they feel Jesus has mistreated them.

But it’s kind of silly that they’re acting this way because this is not just any missing Jewish kid. This is Jesus. Son of God. Savior of all.

His question to them, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” makes a lot of good sense.

Where else would he go but to the temple? Why else would he be there than to be about God’s business of building a kingdom where the good news would be brought to the poor and the captive would be released and the blind would recover sight and the oppressed would go free?

None of this about Jesus was new to Mary and Joseph. They knew Jesus was God-in-the-flesh and the One who would conquer the Roman Empire that ruled over them and save the world from sin and death.

But maybe they didn’t know what to do with all that knowledge at the time. It was probably too overwhelming to contemplate on most days and much easier to see Jesus as an ordinary child who would always obediently stay by their side and never leave.

So rather than focusing on Jesus’ true identity and purpose, they chose to cling to a different version that placed Jesus in a box or within boundaries defined by their own view and expectations of him as a regular ole dutiful Jewish son.

Because when Jesus defied those views and expectations, as he so often does in the New Testament and life, Mary and Joseph panicked!

In the moment that they discovered Jesus was missing, they never stopped to consider that he might actually be safe or that he might be somewhere else doing God’s work—the work he was born to do.

They just freaked out.

And the truth is that we’re no different from Mary and Joseph.

We know and feel deep in our hearts that this child is the harbinger of hope, peace, love and joy. This baby laying in the hay, this 12-year-old boy in the temple, is the most creative, loving and merciful being there ever was, is, or will be, and this being, this God-with-us, cares about each and every one of us.

There’s been an awakening. We know it. We feel it.

And yet, we don’t always act on what we know and feel and what we say we believe. The entire concept of Jesus can be so difficult to comprehend, let alone respond to, at times that we choose to keep a much more manageable version of God-with-us for ourselves; we unfortunately put Jesus in boxes and within boundaries of our making.

Maybe it’s the one called home where Jesus is more known, read, talked and prayed about than anywhere else.

Or it’s the location known as the neighborhood where all the good Christians live and raise their families.

Or it could be the state of residence where the most devout believers of Jesus work and pay taxes and vote.

Or maybe it’s the nation where Jesus’ teachings have lived and thrived for more than 200 years.

Or quite possibly it’s the church with the most friendly and welcoming and inclusive congregation.

Whatever the box or boundary may be, when we turn around and realize Jesus is no longer where we thought we put him, we panic. We become frantic and upset and indignant:

Why isn’t Jesus close by so we bring him home and keep an eye on him?!?! What do you mean Jesus is far from here and with people who are so vastly different from us?!?! How could this be?!?!

No matter how accustomed we become to the boxes we make and the boundaries we set, Christ can never be contained.

Christ is always with the people and in the places we least expect. And when we try to keep Christ in, we inevitably shut others out—those whom Christ also calls beloved.

The apostle Paul reminds us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

 The awakening of Christ’s Light is not a force that we can fully comprehend or always understand in utmost detail. And it’s definitely not something we can keep and manage in our comfort zones.

Instead it is a force that knows no bounds as it connects and flows through every living thing—a force that continually calls us to boundlessly share love and peace everywhere we roam.

We just have to set aside our own expectations and boxes and allow the Light to dwell within—filling our hearts, enveloping us completely and guiding all of our steps.

That, my friends, is not make-believe. It is true…all of it.

Amen.

…………………

Biblical scholar quotes come from editors notes in The Voice Bible

All photos come from Google Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Stories Are Intertwined

A Sermon for Sunday, September 6, Ephesians 4:15-16 and Luke 6:19-31

(A shorter version of the third keynote I delivered for the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, Wednesday July 29)

During my last sermon in July, I preached about how God meets us in the mess of our stories, life and world with love and grace, and how God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

In that spirit, I’d like to take us one step further by saying that God continues to call us to live out and to share our story with others as well as listen to other people’s stories, particularly the messy and difficult parts.

God calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

God doesn’t intend for us to disregard other people and their stories; to duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes; to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined would be un-Godlike and inhuman. To attempt to live solely unto ourselves conflicts with God’s design for us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings.

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

ubuntu

This concept is reflected in the scriptures, particularly Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections and our sharing of one another’s stories that remind us we are bound together with God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. When we sever a connection, we are going against God’s purpose for creation.

This idea of ubuntu—of connectedness and intertwining—is obviously counter cultural. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

However, our faith demands that we live a different way. God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to discipleship and a common thread throughout the scriptures. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version of the story comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Btw, The Cotton Patch Gospels were written in plain Southern speak and therefore it must be read with a thick accent)…

 Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The rich man had everything one could dream of having. He had the finest education, the best job, the most delicious meals and the biggest mansion in the most luxurious neighborhood. And like any good Jewish person of the time, he was intimately familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.

And yet with all that wealth and power and opportunity to do some good, he chose to focus solely on himself instead of recognizing another person suffering outside the gates of his home.

That mistake—that sin—burned him. The problem wasn’t that he was wealthy and fortunate. The issue was that he refused to see and help someone in his midst who was hurting. He refused to reach out to Lazarus and hear his story.

 Even when the man is enduring the scorching heat in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him—a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

You see, when we ignore our connectedness and view someone else as inferior, as the rich man does, we also ignore God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them, like the rich man, we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

When we refuse to help out someone who is hurting in our midst and get to know his or her story, we end up crafting our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

We become more destructive and less creative; more hateful and spiteful and less loving and merciful. And we end up forming a deathly and expansive chasm between God, humanity and ourselves.

Therefore it is vital to our existence as human beings that we live and thrive together in the mutuality of God’s wondrous and transformative love.

It’s crucial to our well being that we become aware of our connectedness and that we do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

The wise retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system known as apartheid in South African more than 20 years ago, reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

 You can’t be human all by yourself. And when you have this quality—ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.

 What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it. Maybe not right away and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way. Stand up for what is right and show compassion to the Lazarus’s of the world who are being mistreated and pushed to the margins of society. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better. It’s a lesson the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning crew “The Bert Show” learned several months ago when Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal.

While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

And then she remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “PROFOUND impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” Davi knew right away that she needed to find this woman and thank her on the radio show. And so she wrote the following letter which Jillian Zinn will read for you now:

 Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

 It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

 I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

 I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

 When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

 “As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

 Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

 We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

 Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

 just to name a few.

 So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

 “I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

 One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

 “beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

 You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

 After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

 I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

 This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

 We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

 And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

 I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

 Kindest Regards,

 Davi

Kelly received the letter and responded a couple of days later with the following message to Davi, which will be read by Kristen Ching (8:30 am worship)/Amy Lewis (11:00 am worship):

Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.

 Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

 a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

 Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

 And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

 How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involved in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

 (And by the way she says both of your pictures on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

What an injustice!

I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

 You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

Thank you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly  

 Our stories affect one another for the better in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone and ignore others.

We are meant to live together and love one another.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to build those connections, recognize how we are intertwined and strengthen our relationships with another human being—

the suffering and downtrodden as well as those we disagree with or those we consider enemy.

We are called as the church to be the hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart of Jesus who helps bind people to one another…every ligament knit together for the purpose of building up love!

We are called as the church to be the body of Christ—

a community of faith that reaches out to others, regardless of who they are, and says:

Welcome. Join us. Be loved. I am because you are.

Let us always take the time to be and become and grow the body of Christ.

Let us always make the effort to see and cultivate the connections and stories that are all around us.

And as we go into the week, let us never take the connections in our lives or the chance to be a part of someone’s story and life for granted…

 And the body of Christ said:

 Amen!

This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 7:36-50

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry
Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

I don’t know if you are aware, but the Bible is full of poop.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Indeed it’s not. What I mean is that it’s literally full of it!

There are piles of scatological references in this sacred text, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that throughout history people have always had to figure out how to deal with their crap.

In the time of the Israelites, modern conveniences like trash bags, compost bins, and indoor plumbing didn’t exist, so folks followed specific guidelines for handling waste, whether animal or human:

But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)

With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

And much like the graphic violence that one finds in cable TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the Old Testament writers didn’t pull any punches when it came to stories about killing the crud out of oppressive rulers:

Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself[e] in the cool chamber.” (Judges 3:21-24)

God also doesn’t shy away from using manure to make a point. In the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to do the grossest thing possible as a symbolic way of showing the people of Israel that they would be eating unclean food in the pagan lands of their soon-to-be exile.

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. …You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.”

Even Jesus mentions human waste as he gives practical advice to his disciples about what will happen when they share the news of God’s kingdom:

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family….A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dung Face,’ what can the workers expect? (Matthew 10:21-25)

Likewise, the apostle Paul explains to the early Christian church in Corinth that those who follow Christ will be treated by the Roman Empire as if they were scat on the bottom of a sandal:

 When others choose taunts and slander against us, we speak words of encouragement and reconciliation. We’re treated as the scum of the earth—and I am not talking in the past tense; I mean today! We’re the scraps of society, nothing more than the foulest human rubbish. (I Corinthians 4:12-13)

Let’s be honest: The Bible is a mess.

And it isn’t solely because the word “dung” is mentioned more than 30 times in the NRSV. There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole messiness within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison!

The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

It is essentially one hot stinking glorious mess.

And that’s exactly what I love about the Bible!

It’s not a 12-step guidebook to success or a rulebook to be followed faultlessly, verse by verse so one can dwell in the clouds with golden wings and a harp. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s love for all of humanity throughout time, despite all its sins and crap.

Some Christians, like the TV evangelists, often say that the problem with this messed up world is that we’ve strayed away from the good ole values of the families in the Bible. We need to return to those stories, they say, so we can make the world and our lives more perfect.

But you and I know that’s bull honkey.

Yes, we need to go back to these stories again and again, but not because they give us examples of how to live an impeccable existence.

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014
Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people so that we can be reminded that no matter how messy life gets, God is there with us in the muck; and that no matter how much we mess up, God still loves us; God still calls us to show love to the most messed up among us.

What was true in the ancient world remains true in this post modern one: Life is messy and thus our stories are messy.

Sometimes the mess is of our own making as human beings.

We dump our waste on the earth, filling the land, skies and water with garbage and pollution. And we dump on one another—people we like, people we love, people we hate and people we don’t even know.

We have difficulty seeing God’s image in our fellow human beings. We have trouble showing dignity and respect to others who are different from us. We spew a lot of hateful things instead of speaking in love, and the garbage that comes out of us only makes the situation messier.

Then there are the messes we put ourselves in as the result of a bad choice we made…

—The traffic tickets we receive for constantly zipping through a red light.

—The tummy aches we get after eating a pint of ice cream and two bowls of tater tots for dinner.

—The moody demeanor and poor health we experience following months of late night partying with illegal drugs and bottles of alcohol.

—The cutting marks we make on our skin because it’s the only way to release the amount of pain we feel inside over things that we dare not tell another soul.

Isaac's Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images
Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

These messes threaten to consume us bit by bit by bit until our identity is completely lost, much like Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob caused quite a mess when he manipulated his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. And after fleeing home for fear that Esau will kill him, Jacob still manages to wade even deeper into trouble in an encounter with a man named Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

Other times the messes are beyond our control—the stuff that suddenly happens without any reason or explanation…

—The family dog that has an accident in the middle of the living room during a party.

—The child who flips out in the middle of a department store because the annoying pop song is blaring too loudly from the overhead speakers.

—The tree that falls onto your fence during a heavy rainstorm.

—the landscaping crew who kicks up a rock while mowing and breaks your car’s back windshield

—The boyfriend who breaks up with you and gives you the silent treatment.

—The grandparent who gets cancer.

—The sudden death of a friend.

These messes comprise a lot of daily life. And more often than not, we try to stick our chins out and wallow our way through the messes in the best way possible.

And finally there are the messes that the world and society has deemed to be a problem, but actually aren’t messes at all…

 —The working poor and homeless

—The LGBTQ person

—The African-American man wearing a hoodie

—The transgendered athlete

—The developmentally challenged child

—The woman with a black eye

—The young adult struggling with depression and anxiety

—The man with severe skin burns on their face

—The middle-aged adult battling their weight

Each of these folks is declared to be a mess by society, and they hear the message so much that they start to believe it themselves. They start to hear their inner voices say: “You’re a mess, you’re a worthless piece of trash!”

But it is up to us to tell those who are viewed as rubbish that they are indeed worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace. It’s up to us to say to the marginalized and downtrodden, “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of a mess; whether it’s our own doing or otherwise (and all of us have our own messes to deal with), that mess doesn’t completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved creations of God.

Therefore we should show great compassion to others who are dealing with their own mess, unlike the religious leaders who dismiss the sinful woman who comes inside the Pharisee’s home to greet Jesus.

While the details of her mess are not known, the woman is viewed as one who is unworthy of human contact. To Simon the Pharisee and his cohorts, the woman might as well be a pile of dung. Even if she has managed to distance herself from whatever mess she created, the woman can’t seem to escape the label of disgust that has been placed upon her.

And yet hope is not completely lost. Because it’s in the mess that we find God. Or better still, it is in the mess that God meets us face to face.

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012
Jacob Wrestling by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012. edwardknippers.com

In Jacob’s case, it took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get him unstuck. And the resulting limp in his walk slowed down this slick thief who’d been on the run for so many years. It made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

 

 

It’s always the messy struggles that leaves us with a scar and shapes us forever. As one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell, says in his 2010 book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts On Creativity and Suffering:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

From the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals. Often it’s a matter of laying the mess at the feet of Christ so that we can be changed.

Anointing of Jesus' feet, artist unknown, Google Images
Anointing of Jesus’ feet, artist unknown, Google Images

For the woman who has become a pariah in her own community, there is nothing else she can do but interrupt a dinner party to bring all of her pain and tears to Jesus and pour it into the washing of his feet—an incredible act of humility and servant hood.

Jesus responds to this act—in the midst of the Pharisees who want to make more of a mess out of the situation—by showing the woman compassion and mercy. And the woman, we assume, is changed for a lifetime by Jesus’ love.

When the mess is too much to bear—too much to lift an arm to wrestle with—the only thing we can do is humbly bring it to Christ so that we can be cleaned and made whole.

And just as Jesus awaited the woman at the table in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he awaits us at this communion table now—ready to forgive our messes, to promise us hope of a kingdom and a future without messes and to send us out in peace to clean up the messiness of the world.

And all God’s messy people say Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is a short version of the 45 minute keynote I will give during Week V of the Montreat Youth Conference, Day 2 “Our Stories Are Messy.”

The sermon was inspired by the 2014 book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by The Skeptical, The Faithful and A Few Scoundrels, edited by Cathleen Falsani

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, head-writer and executive producer of the primetime TV dramas phenoms Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which all air on ABC.