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

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!

Blessed

 A Sermon for February 24, 2013, The Second Sunday of Lent, Matthew 9:18-26 and Luke 13:31-35

                One of my top five favorite films celebrated it’s 25th a few months ago, the romantic-comedy-adventure flick, The Princess Bride[1]. A modest box-office success turned cult classic, the movie is immensely popular among people of all ages and is eminently quotable.

             There are so many great scenes and one-liners in the story, but my favorite is not—as you might guess—the sword fighter Inigo Montoya’s delicious declaration of revenge against the six-fingered man who killed his father. Nor is it the Impressive Clergyman who, during the wedding of Prince Humperdinck, is unable to pronounce his “R’s” and “L’s” when talking about “twu wuv” and “mawage.” [2]

The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from "The Princess Bride" 1987.
The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) from “The Princess Bride” 1987.

            The moment of The Princess Bride that actually sticks out for me, more often than not, is when the heroine Buttercup is in the clutches of the Dread Pirate Roberts. She is pining for her beloved Wesley whom she believes was killed by her captor. The Dread Pirate Roberts, a mysterious man clad in a black mask and outfit, explains in an arrogant tone that he has to dispose his prisoners or folks will think he’s gone soft. Upon hearing these words, Buttercup screams: “You mock my pain!” And the Dread Pirate Roberts bluntly responds: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Life is pain—the most serious line in the entire movie and one of the deepest and truest sayings ever uttered in history. 

             Suffering is ingrained in the human condition, a significant part of reality that can never be completely avoided in one’s lifetime. We dread the misery and yet are also inexplicably drawn to it because suffering is so familiar, so much a measure of who we are as flesh and blood people.  We are avid consumers of stories of pain and heartache, especially the ones that permeate every aspect of pop culture: chart-busting country songs by Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker; critically acclaimed TV shows like The Good Wife, The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey; Oscar-nominated movies for best picture such as Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook; and best-selling novels by Nicholas Sparks and Gillian Flynn.

              And then, of course, there is The Holy Bible. Printed in more than 6,000 languages and distributed to billions of people for centuries, this sacred book of the Christian faith is brimming with some form of suffering on nearly every page, like this story from the Gospel of Matthew 9:18-26:

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagoguecame in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.And the report of this spread throughout that district.[3]

"Loved Ones Mourn Teen" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999
“Loved Ones Mourn Teen” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Wednesday Dec. 29, 1999

A desire to not ignore the plight of the suffering and to be fully present with them (just as Jesus was) stirred within me while working on a story for The Birmingham Post-Herald in December 1999, the week after Christmas.

             Jamelle Grace, 16, had spent most of a Monday helping move furniture into the home of his older brother Warren Grace Jr. Hoping to do more work the next day, Jamelle stayed overnight at his brother’s.  About 12:30 am, as Jamelle lay sleeping on the living room couch, someone kicked in the front door and began shooting. Warren and a cousin who lived in the house were able to escape without much harm. But Jamelle was killed instantly.

              Later that Tuesday evening, I visited the home of Jamelle’s dad Warren Grace Sr. so I could write a front-page feature story about the tragedy and its impact on the family.  Sitting next to the father on the sofa, I heard wonderful stories about “a good kid” who loved building model airplanes, and cars, enjoyed music, had a pet snake named Polo and was looking forward to getting his driver’s license. Warren Sr.’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke about his son. Instinctively, I put down my pad and pen and placed my hand on his shoulder.  You will be in my thoughts and prayers, I told him.  A half hour later, I thanked Warren Sr., for talking to me about Jamelle. And then I left for the office to bang out an article for the next day’s newspaper. In that moment, I discovered that I’d prefer to hold the hand of someone who is suffering instead of simply writing their story and moving on to the next article to fill up space in the newspaper. Thus, a call to be an ordained minister began to emerge and in mid summer of 2002, nearly three years after that visit with the Grace family, I entered seminary.

                In the decade that has followed, I’ve witnessed more pain and suffering in full-time ministry than the numerous deadly crimes and accidents that I covered for the newspaper.  There are so many folks in this congregation and other churches who are experiencing profound brokenness and heartache in their lives (most of which doesn’t make it on most prayer chains because of reasonable requests for confidentiality). 

               On top of personal agony, there is immense suffering in the community, nation and world around us. We observe others dealing with an immense amount of pain on a regular basis whenever we enter the office or go to school or walk down a city street or flip on the TV or browse social media from our smart phones: divorce, illness, poverty, hunger, starvation, oppression, pollution, slavery, abuse, murder, war, fraud, drug and alcohol addictions, estranged relationships, death of a loved one, loss of a job.

               Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end apartheid in South Africa, says: “In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”[4]

               It’s important to note that neither Tutu nor I are suggesting that God causes suffering so that we as human beings can learn a life lesson. God doesn’t move us around like chess pieces or randomly inflict harm on some but not on others.  And God doesn’t doll out pain as a punishment for our sins.

             A lot of suffering in this world is actually caused by human choice, not by a hateful and vengeful God.  If someone is slapping around their girlfriend or sexually abusing a child or bullying another kid at school, it is not God’s will that the victims should suffer such horrendous torture and pain. If someone is born into a third-world country rife with war and famine, it is not God’s will that the person should suffer such appalling injustice.

            And incredible phenomenon like disease, earthquakes and storms—which is largely out of our hands—are ordinary occurrences, not God’s unleashing of destructive forces on those deemed to be unworthy of love and grace.

"Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering" by Rob Bell
“Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering” by Rob Bell

Regardless of the cause, whether nature or human beings, suffering is here to stay.  We have no other choice but to bear it, to try to alleviate it some in the lives of ourselves and others through selfless acts of love, and to grow from it—to be emboldened and not embittered by it. In his book Drops Like Stars[5], pastor and theologian Rob Bell puts it this way:

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.

 A few pages later, Bell recalls a novel he read in which a theologian visits a sculptor in her studio. The theologian offers elegant and complicated ideas about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor offers a different and simpler perspective:

No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.

When I was a teenager, a dear friend who was a member of my church’s youth group and a football player at my high school, Bonkey McCain, was killed in a drive-by shooting outside a local restaurant following a football game. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest when the occupants of a passing car opened fire into the crowd of teens gathered in the parking lot.

                   The death shook up the church, the high school and the community, and it completely changed the life of Bonkey’s mother, Carmen. She was already known for going into urban communities at night to preach Jesus to gang members and drug pushers. But with the loss of Bonkey, she began a new crusade to combat gun violence and to be a voice for hundreds of moms whose kids were killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by.

 

"Here fight against violence hits home" from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.
“Here fight against violence hits home” from The Birmingham Post-Herald, Thursday April 13, 2000.

And then several years later, in April 2000, another senseless act of violence struck Carmen’s life when her sister Anne was stabbed to death by Anne’s ex-husband.  I was doing my stint at the Post-Herald at the time so naturally I interviewed Carmen for the newspaper.  I remember her telling me that it was God’s strength that helped her through suffering:

I don’t stay laying in tears. You get up, dust yourself off and swing at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming…You have to instill with people that life must go on. Things are going to happen unforeseen; you can’t up and move away every time a tragedy occurs. You still have to carry the torch for other people to see…God always allows you to go through something so you can be a help to someone else. I know the force behind my message is pain.

                 Like the hemorrhaging woman and the sleeping girl in Matthew’s gospel, Carmen reached out to God in the midst of suffering. In doing so, she let the suffering embolden her and brazenly shape the pain into a message of non-violence. Carmen allowed suffering to make her more open and aware that there is a lot of work to be done in the name of God’s love. She courageously reflected the actions of Jesus who understood better than any of us that suffering can not slow down or even stop the work of God. Consider the following story from The Gospel of Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He  said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

              It’s remarkable isn’t it? Jesus is receiving death threats on the job and he shrugs it off as if it’s no big deal! In the words of Carmen McCain, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to pick himself up, dust himself off and keep swinging at the devil because he’s never going to stop coming!

                The fiery pronouncement quickly turns to a cry of lament as Jesus broods over the suffering that the city of Jerusalem endures at the hands of the Roman Empire and the people’s refusal of the prophets who come to rescue them.  Jesus, of course, is also ruminating over the suffering he must endure to save the whole lot of ‘em (and us for that matter). Jesus knows you can’t create without “waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.”

               Jesus concludes that since the people of Jerusalem have chosen to be embittered by suffering, he must be shaped by the agony that will come in the form of mockery, beatings and a horrendous death on a cross. He must be shaped by the suffering so that he can use the anguish to reshape and redeem the world, making it whole once again.

            Therein lies, amid this Lenten season, the hope for humanity and the brokenness that all of creation suffers:

            Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 

Amen.


[1] The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by William Goldman, author of the book the film is based on. 20th Century Fox Films. 1987.

[2] During the first wedding I ever officiated (2006), I began the meditation by quoting the Impressive Clergyman. J

[3] New Revised Standard Version

[4] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, Doubleday Publishing. 2006.

[5] Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, Zondervan Publishing. 2009.

Receive The Kingdom: A Reflection on The Gift of Stewardship

A Sermon for October 16, 2011, Luke 10:38-42, 18:15-17 & I Peter 4:8-11

I have to confess that I’m a bit tired and worn out today. I’ve been quite busy over the last three weeks. First, I accompanied 15 adults on an 8-day mission trip to Haiti. I put in a fairly good week at the office, doing various youth and mission-related work and then the next weekend, a Middle School Youth Group adviser and I took 8 youth to the Presbytery’s Middle School Retreat at the Calvin Center, about an hour and a half south of Duluth. In the middle of the retreat, I got a call from Elizabeth saying that she and Katie both had pretty bad colds so I contacted another Youth Group adviser who cancelled his Saturday afternoon lake trip to come and take my place while I rushed home to tend to my girls. The following week, the most recent one, was again full of various tasks to check off the list, including the planning of today’s worship service. Then, this past weekend, Anna Brown and I co-lead a session of the Youth Ministry Leadership Initiative at Columbia Theological Seminary for 11 Christian Educators, Youth Directors and Leaders from various parts of the South.  And finally, I came home at 3 pm yesterday to write the sermon I’m preaching to you now…and the pace I’m afraid is not going to let up for at least two more days. Even if the church work slows down a bit, I’ve still got family and home responsibilities that include a 6-month-old high energy black lab and a equally high-energy precocious 3-year-old.

The busyness I’ve been experiencing reminded me of one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Andy Griffith Show, and a particular episode from the fourth season, which aired in 1963, entitled “The Sermon For Today.”[1] The episode opens with the townsfolk of Mayberry North Carolina, singing a hymn during worship:

After the sermon, Andy, Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney and Gomer head to the Taylor residence for a big lunch and then head out to the front porch to relax. Andy and Barney lazily decide to “run” down to the store and pick-up some ice cream for later while Gomer says he is going to casually “run” over to his cousin Goober’s house to watch him wash his car. The word “run” sets off Aunt Bea who reiterates the importance of the preacher’s message about slowing down and not being in a rush.

So everyone sits back down…but only for a couple of minutes because they immediately come up with the idea that they should put on a band concert in the town square that evening, just like the preacher suggested! Sure the band hasn’t played together in years, and the uniforms need patching up and the gazebo requires some serious carpentry repairs, but that can’t stop them from doing something that will, at least from their perspective, be ultimately relaxing!

The results of their efforts, however, are a complete and utter disaster. The citizens of Mayberry waste an otherwise leisurely afternoon rushing all over town to complete an impossible to-do-list that ultimately results in more stress and frustration. After several hours, they abandon the project and return to the front porch they never should have left in the first place. Exhausted, Andy and the gang realize that in their attempt to heed the preacher’s words, they missed the point entirely. They allowed their hearts to be distracted from being calmly present with one another.

But of course, that’s the way things were in Southern towns in the early 60s. More than half a century later, we’re not nearly as busy as those folks who skip breakfast, quickly scan a news headline and dash off to the office, working from morning to night. With all the technology we have at our fingertips, life is more efficient and easier to manage. …right?

Heh  …well, not so much.

To be completely honest, we’re busier now than any other point in the history of time. Technology and progress for all the good it does has made us more stressed, more frustrated, more anxious, more hurried and more inclined to go, go, go, and do, do, do, and fix, fix, fix… in every aspect of our life! Job. Family. Friendships. Hobbies. And yes, even Church.

We as Americans have a tendency to think that missions and serving others is ideally reflected in our completion of physical labor or applying a tangible solution to a complex problem. And while developing a project or building something tactile to help the poor and suffering is done with the best and most loving of intentions, at the same time, it also can be—more often than not—an act of stroking one’s ego:

“Hey, take look at this bathroom/bench/classroom/house we’ve built that is going to make a difference in someone’s life!”

Maybe this tendency we have to want to show off what we’ve accomplished for someone else is because we’ve gotten the concept of “giving and receiving” all wrong for too, too long. Samir Selmanovic, a Christian pastor in New York, explains it this way:

Ever since I became a Christian, I have been taught to give. That’s what I was told over and over again, and it’s what I taught others as a pastor, all the time… We call each other to minister to others, and that ministry always means serving others, caring for their needs, teaching them what they need to know. Giving, giving, giving to them. Blessing, blessing, blessing them. Loving, loving, loving them.

 Since we have been teaching and acting in our Christian churches to love others and to organize our lives to love others how curious, I thought, that polls report that non-Christians perceive Christians as not loving! How can that possibly be?

 After adopting a practice of regularly stepping out of my evangelical religion and its meanings to look at them from the outside, here is what I have noticed. By and large, we don’t really love because we don’t know how to receive. We may love enough to take some help others have to offer in terms of material possessions, compliments and friendships, but we are not willing to let them teach us anything about God, goodness and grace—the stuff that really matters.

 Yes, we receive their kindness in a spirit of thankfulness, but in matters of God, we think they have nothing to add in our search for the eternal kind of life. In our minds, we are givers and they are receivers. And this is not just true of Christians.

 We give because givers are in control. We bless because blessers are in charge. To receive on the other hand, means to lose something. Gifts inevitably change relationships. As the Eskimos say hyperbolically, ‘Gifts make slaves.” The recipient is usually perceived as the weaker party in the transaction and can become obligated and lose independence. Giving, in contrast, keeps us in control, subtly communicating the superiority of our worldview. [2]

Now, we don’t intentionally mean to keep control of a situation through our giving.  Many of us truly want to lead a life of humility and not ever seem as if we are delicately expressing to the recipients of our gifts that our worldview and way of giving is unsurpassed.  But what we know to be true doesn’t always match up with what we actually do, as Henri Nouwen, the renowned author on Christian spirituality, eloquently puts it:

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time and freedom to practice this simply ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my own time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans…not to feel that you are working directly for social change. But I wonder more and more if the first thing should be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories, and to tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.[3]

http://www.jesusmafa.com

That’s Jesus’ message for us in the two stories from Luke’s Gospel—be in the presence of God, and don’t allow your hearts to be distracted by anything else. You see, Martha is not doing anything inherently wrong by cleaning and straightening and cooking. Martha doesn’t despise the work. On the contrary, she quite enjoys it. And she is merely following Jewish customs by making the home a hospitable place for the visiting rabbi. But she has allowed her to-do list and her frustration with Mary to distract her heart from the presence of God.

In similar fashion, the disciples don’t mean to scold the parents and their children. They don’t despise the parents for bringing their toddlers to sit in Jesus’ lap. They are trying to protect their rabbi from being mobbed by a crowd of people. And they might be pondering the to-do-list of pastoral visits, teaching and preaching engagements, healings and making meals for the poor.  The disciples aren’t inherently doing anything wrong. But they allow their anxiety over the busy ministry schedule and their need for control to distract their heart from the presence of God. Worse, the disciples try to keep others from God’s presence.

Jesus reminds Martha that her sister Mary has chosen the most important thing and that is to be present in Christ—the unconditional and merciful love of God. And Jesus tells the disciples that the little children shouldn’t be prevented from being with him for it is the children “that the kingdom of God belongs.” Jesus says to each and every one throughout time and space: Receive me. Receive God’s free gift of grace. Receive the kingdom.  Selmanovic reminds us that:

It is in the act of receiving that we concede God’s presence in the other. … Sharing of the good news is first and foremost a process of receiving the good news not as a once-in-a-lifetime event but as a way of life. We are to approach others by saying, “What I don’t know about God, goodness, and grace, this person might.” … By receiving a blessing from the other, we become partners with God. Each time we receive, we complete one circle of blessing that God began with them. It is by receiving that we give.[4]

 What if ministry is not mostly about the particular work or things we make or do? What if it’s not solely about us making quick Band-Aid fixes or attempting to make permanent changes to the system? What if it’s not just about being nice so we can feel good about ourselves before moving onto the next scheduled activity? What if it’s more about building loving relationships with the disenfranchised through laughter, play, conversation, comfort and prayer? What if it’s more about setting aside our own goals, agendas and to-do lists, and immersing ourselves in another culture and story? What if it’s more about receiving blessings that will shape our faith in ways we could never imagine?

In the context of church life at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian, what if it’s simply about:

  • gathering at the table to receive communion with family, friends and strangers or worshipping together in this space
  • playing games and talking about faith with the youth
  • sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is ill
  • listening to another church member share memories from their childhood
  • embracing someone who is sobbing in pain over a broken relationship
  • getting to know the Family Promise guests who are finishing up their week-long stay in the church
  • having breakfast and fellowship on an early Friday morning with the  men of the church
  • laughing and swapping stories with some of the women of the church, including two refugees from Burma, while sewing more than 200 blankets or “lovies” for children at an orphanage in Haiti

In the context of the mission trip in Haiti, what if it’s simply about:

  • holding an orphan baby longing for human touch.
  • deferring to the wisdom of the Haitian church leaders on how best to feed a hungry and restless crowd of 300 children.
  • watching an 8-year-old girl share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a friend.
  • twirling a giggling 2-year-old boy around in the air.
  • listening to a young man share his hopes for the future once he completes his academic work
  • witnessing and sharing the stories of Haitians and American transplants whose soul purpose is to stay in the country the remainder of their lives, working for social justice and change.

What if it’s all about practicing the ministry of presence—of just being with God? Joyfully. Humbly. Lovingly. With. God. What if it’s about receiving God in our lives like the children receive the love of Christ and the kingdom of God in Luke’s Gospel. What if it’s about simply living “out of the joy and generosity of our goodness,” as retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu beautifully notes:

When we slide across the threshold from living our goodness to “doing good” in order to “be good,” we work in the mistaken conviction that what we are doing will enable us to merit God’s love or that it will, perhaps, increase God’s love for us. But God already loves us perfectly. There is not task we must complete to earn God’s love. God already loves us perfectly; God cannot love us one iota more.[5]

In a letter to Jewish-Christians living in exile in Asia and other parts of the globe, the apostle Peter frames it this way:  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received…so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.

 To be good stewards, we must humbly receive the gift of love that God has given us. To value and nurture what we’ve received means we must fully be in relationship with God and others. Before we make our financial pledge to the church for Stewardship Season or make a missional pledge to sign up at the Time & Talent Fair (both important acts of faithful discipleship), we must not let ourselves get distracted by the work we are doing…but instead focus our hearts on what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for all of humanity.

To verb our faith, as the Stewardship Committee creatively refers to the Time & Talent Fair, we must first and foremost be in God’s presence. To receive the kingdom, we must remember we are children of God who are called first and foremost to be in the love of Christ that has, is and will always be our reason for living.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Amen.

 

 


[1] “The Sermon For Today” from The Andy Griffith Show, Season 4, Paramount Pictures, 1963.

[2] It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic, Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2009.

[3] Gracias: A Latin American Journey, by Henri Nouwen, Orbit Books, 1993.

[4] It’s Really All About God by Samir Selmanovic.

[5] Made For Goodness and Why This Makes All The Difference, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.