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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Can You Picture That?

A Sermon for Sunday April 12 (The Second Sunday of Easter and Holy Humor Sunday), Acts 4:32-35 and I John 1:1-7a (The VOICE translation)

Have you heard the recent rumors?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is deathly ill.

It is dying.

It is irrelevant.

It is out of touch.

It is unfaithful and toxic.

It is irredeemable.

So say a small group of loud obnoxious voices about our denomination choosing to become more loving and welcoming of all of God’s people.**** However, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the PC(USA)’s death was exaggerated.

True, Presbyterians have traditionally been known to be more stiff and reserved in the practices of faith, i.e. “the frozen chosen.” Fozzie the Bear gets it right when he walks into the church, sees the rocking band and says to Kermit: “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” The colorful, zany muppets of Doctor Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, we are not.

We Presbyterians are not inclined to raise our hands during a hymn or shout “Amen!” during a sermon or call loudly on the Lord Jesus while the pastor is delivering a prayer. We’re not eager to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, as in “I believe the Holy Spirit moved me to connect with you today.” We like things to be decent and in order—a Reformed maxim that is often beneficial but sometimes can be a detriment for ministry.

And yes, not all Presbyterian churches are healthy. There are several churches that are stagnant and unsure of its calling or hurting from conflict or heavily divided over the interpretation of scripture or struggling with aging members and financial debt.

All churches, Presbyterian or otherwise, go through times of hardship, conflict and transition. And some churches do cease to exist. They close their doors because there are no more members, the funds dry up and the congregation doesn’t ever ask hard questions bout the purpose of their ministry.

But none of that means the denomination—with 1.7 million members and more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S.—is dying. It doesn’t mean that Presbyterians are longer viable or creative or imaginative or faithful or passionate about following Jesus and being Christ’s body in the world.

Nor does it mean that Presbyterians should accept that they are eventually headed to the precipice of death without hope in sight, even if the current state of Church and religion seems shaky at times.

Like billions of other Christians around the globe, we actively proclaim in this season of Easter that we are Resurrection people! We are about spring, and rebirth and new life! We are about planting and cultivating and growing! We are about sharing and loving and walking in the light of a bright dawn and a fresh day! We are Resurrection people!!!!

This is not a naïve rose-colored-glasses believing that ignores brokenness and suffering and strives for nice, cute answers to life wrapped up in a bow. It’s risky, faith-filled believing that says that even in the midst of the muck, we will painstakingly forge ahead in God’s hope so we can fill the cracks and holes of life with love and grace.

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie "Dogma"
Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie “Dogma”

It’s the topsy-turvy wildly creative Jesus believing that says we can create life in the midst of destruction and death and shine light into the darkness.  As the late theologian and writer Mike Yaconnelli puts it:

Jesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. Shouldn’t the followers of Christ also be dangerous? Shouldn’t everyone be awed and dazzled by Christians? Shouldn’t Christians be known by the fire in their souls, the wild-eyed gratitude in their faces, the twinkle in their eyes, a holy mischief in their demeanors? Shouldn’t Christianity be considered dangerous—unpredictable, threatening to the status quo, living outside the lines, uncontrollable, fearless, wild, beyond categorization or definition? Shouldn’t those who call themselves Christians be filled with awe, astonishment, and amazement?

The answer is YES! YES! YES! That’s our purpose as Resurrection people!

The early Christians, the Jews and Gentiles who were figuring out how to follow Jesus post-Resurrection, embraced wholeheartedly that call to be dangerous, unpredictable, uncontrollable, fearless, and wild! According to the Book of Acts:

During those days, the entire community of believers was deeply united in heart and soul to such an extent that they stopped claiming private ownership of their possessions. Instead, they held everything in common. The apostles with great power gave their eyewitness reports of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Everyone was surrounded by an extraordinary grace.

The actions of the first Jesus followers may seem foolish and unrealistic in the 21st Century, particularly in a more individualized, capitalist society.  And yet it’s not all that strange when you pause to consider that their practice of being deeply united, sharing ownership and holding things in common is reflected in how the Church operates today.

PC(USA) churches (as an example) contribute financial tithes, offerings and stewardship pledges to make up the budget which provides pastor salaries, curriculum for church school, meals and resources for the poor and much more. And members creatively share together their time and gifts for preaching, teaching, praying, serving, inspiring, healing, comforting, nurturing and creating so that the church can be a presence of grace in its community and world.

So if holy mischief  and being united in heart and soul is part of our DNA as Presbyterians and Christians, then why are so many congregations in our denomination and Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, including Pleasant Hill, been experiencing drops in worship attendance and budget shortfalls?

Could it be that while we aren’t dying, we are sometimes lost and stumbling around a bit in the darkness or at least in a gray haze of uncertainty about the future?

Our wandering would be completely understandable, of course:

In less than two years, we’ve had two major staff changes, encountered a dip in our finances and said goodbye to beloved church members who have died, moved away or left for other reasons. We’ve also been going through some transitions with our mission programs. And we’re trying to determine what Pleasant Hill’s ministry looks like in an ever-changing multi-cultural community and evolving social-media connected society.

Change of any kind is hard to embrace and change of this magnitude can be so overwhelming that it spins us around and causes us to stumble on one another. We have the gifts and ideas to move forward and do something incredible and extraordinary, but we’re unsure if they will be accepted and given the opportunity to thrive.

The author Marianne Williamson suggests that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Image is from Biblia.com
Image: Biblia.com

It is God in Christ whose light shines brightly in our lives as the First Letter of John to the early Christian churches testifies:

This One is the manifestation of the life-giving Voice, and He showed us real life, eternal life. We have seen it all, and we can’t keep what we witnessed quiet—we have to share it with you. We are inviting you to experience eternal life through the One who was with the Father and came down to us. What we saw and heard we pass on to you so that you, too, will be connected with us intimately and become family… What we are telling you now is the very message we heard from Him: God is pure light, undimmed by darkness of any kind.

Many of us have seen and shared God’s light in our lives and we are invited to illuminate the lives of those in our midst and beyond that are having trouble getting their light to shine.

It doesn’t do us any good to play small and not make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Nor does it help for congregations to rely solely on their church leaders to manifest God’s glory. Each of you are capable of shining light in amazing ways. Each of you are capable of transformation. And you don’t have to have a Masters of Divinity or be an ordained elder to shine!

You just need a touch of love like the nuns of Sister Katherine’s Catholic Church in the movie Sister Act. The 1992 comedy stars Whoopi Goldberg as Dolores, a lounge singer who is goes into hiding after witnessing a murder. Pretending to be a nun named Sister Mary Clarence, Dolores soon realizes that the church is on hard times. In addition to a dilapidated roof, graffiti on the building and a chain link fence to keep out thieves, worship attendance is down to a handful of people and the choir’s music is quite stuffy and sleep-inducing. Being an outsider who sees the potential for something better, Dolores suggests to the other nuns that they can make a difference by leaving the safety of their church walls.

Did you notice that even though St. Katherine’s had a repair-the-roof fund sign, they didn’t ask a single person to give to the project? The nuns also didn’t invite people to come to worship or attend a class or a program. Instead they did something much simpler and more important: they went out to meet their neighbors and build relationships!

Although it wasn’t their intention to fill the pews with more bodies, the result was that more people came in the church to be a part of their ministry, and more people shared gifts of time and money to ensure the ministry would continue. And people did this not out of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because the nuns truly cared about them and desired to be in authentic relationships with them.

Image:  Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net
Image: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

This concept of taking Church “out there” is something I learned by attending the NEXT Church Conference in Chicago last month.  The NEXT Church is a network of leaders across the PC(USA) who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative more hopeful and more agile. More specifically their mission is:

to foster relationships among God’s people:

sparking imaginations;

connecting congregations;

offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace,

NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections,

celebrating emerging leadership and innovation,

and working with congregations and leaders

to form and reform faith communities

From a conference filled with breath-taking worship, captivating workshops and testimonies of new and vibrant ministry occurring across the country, I’ve discovered that the key to sparking imagination and vitality in the local church, the key to making sure a church stays viable and relevant, is about discerning important questions:

What biblical stories are we telling that  feed people’s hunger to know more about their faith and beliefs?

What might happen if we focus less on attendance in worship and other areas; less on the church building to hold classes, programs and events; and less on the cash it takes to run programs and maintain the building?

Image: "Imagination" search on google.com
Image: “Imagination” search on google.com

What cultural shifts are we willing to make so we can nurture and embolden others (who hardly participate in the life of the church) to be the body of Christ? Could we offer online worship devotionals and church school videos for adults, children and youth?

What does ministry look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in our church building? What happens if we change from being magnets that attract people to bring slingshots that go out among the people? For instance, what if we:

* held an adult church school class at a coffee shop near the church?

* attended Bible study on Psalms in a hospital waiting room?

* led VBS at a community rec center? 

* worshipped in the food court of a shopping mall?

* gathered for The Blessing of The Animals at a local park? 

* offered the imposition of ashes near the Five Points Metro Station at the beginning of Lent? 

* create worship stations or a spirituality walk in downtown Atlanta?

What is the purpose of the ministry we do:

* Are we passionate about participating?

* Are we comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

* Are we doing something because “we have to do it even though we hate it” or because we feel deeply called to use our gifts to serve?

* Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are nurtured from the ministry we do?
 

* Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?
 

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA
Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

How might our worship on Sunday morning be filled with more creative and artful collaborations:

*Hanging paper cranes with prayers of forgiveness from the ceiling of the sanctuary?

*An artist painting on a large canvass during a sermon or anthem to express the message in a different way?

*Offering prayer concerns out loud from the pews?

*A social-media focused service where people dialogue with the sermon or share their responses to liturgy on Twitter and Facebook?

How can our ministry take us beyond Sunday worship and spill over into every aspect of our week and lives?

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/
Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

How is God moving us to do something different, unexpected, colorful and imaginative with our ministry?

What might be revealed to us when we move beyond ourselves, our fears and walls and do more out there with a “touch of love”? Friends, I believe we must all grapple with the answers to these questions so that we—the community of believers who are deeply united in heart and soul and who walk step by step in the light of Christ—can join God in creating what’s next for our church, our lives and our world.

 

Can you picture that?

Amen.

****Google “PC(USA) is dying” and many articles and blog posts will appear, claiming the death of the denomination. Also, several news articles about the PC(USA) passage of Amendment 14-F have received numerous comments, stating that Presbyterians are irrelevant, toxic, unfaithful, condemned, etc., none of which is true. So let’s not ever give them the satisfaction, eh?

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing "Can  You Picture That?" in an old country church
Image: The Electric Mayhem performing “Can You Picture That?” in an old country church

 

As God’s Chosen

A Sermon for Sunday January 18, Colossians 3:8-17, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church (Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend)

Screen shot from the music video "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.
Screen shot from the music video “Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Intro:  When news outlets reported in early December that a New York grand jury decided not to indict police in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, popular hip-hop-reggae artist Michael Franti immediately wrote the lyrics to Same As It Ever Was (Start Today). And in less than two weeks, he recorded the song and filmed a 4-minute music video. I would like to show you the video to open the sermon, but first I want to let you know that it contains some images of white police brutality toward blacks over the last five decades—including the death of Eric Garner—which may be difficult to watch.

Of course, the subject of race is never easy to talk about; it stirs up many emotions for people. People are at odds over the grand jury’s decision to not indict officers in both incidents. And not everyone agrees that Garner’s death or the incident between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson was racially motivated. But matters of race can’t be ignored completely when it is clear that views regarding discrimination are almost evenly split between whites and blacks. In a predominantly white congregation such as ours, it’s important that we discern and pray about such issues of justice. Please know that neither the video nor the sermon is an attempt to disparage our brave men and women who have sworn to serve and protect our communities. It is merely an opportunity to “touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change” because we could all do better[1]:

Prayer:  Will you pray with me? ….May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God the harbinger of justice, peace and love. Amen

……………………………….

Same as it ever was/There’s gotta be a better way/It’s the same as it ever was/But today is a different day/You and me could make that change/But it’s the same as it ever was/We better start today            

An activist for peace and social justice issues, Franti said in an interview[2]:

My intention for the song was to give voice to feelings that many of us are going through right now and to offer a starting place for friends, family, school classes, and workplaces to have dialog about the issues surrounding police killing of unarmed African American men, police/community relations, the justice system and where we all go in the future. The song is not an indictment against all police officers or departments. I have friends, fans and family members who are honest, fair, hardworking people who do a job everyday that’s much more difficult than mine, where quick decisions are made that affect people’s life, death and freedoms. But when police make mistakes, those individuals should be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else. This would be a first step in creating an opportunity for substantive change to occur.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, there have been more than 25 incidents of unarmed black men and women (a few under the age of 18) being killed by whites—sometimes police and sometimes citizens. And there have been nearly 80 of these types of cases since the 1999 brutal New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. [3] Despite the humongous strides that have been made since the times of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking of color barriers in all arenas of life (entertainment, sports, academia, business and politics) over the last five decades, black-and-white racial tensions and issues surrounding race are still a thing of the present. Not something in our past.

The notion that we are post-racial anytime we have the first African-American of something is a myth. We have never been post-racial. We are always presently immersed in matters of race. And as Christians, we are always answering God’s call to understand the values of another’s race because of the love that unites us as the body of Christ—the love that identifies God’s people as being chosen ones, holy and beloved by our Creator.

America’s a better place/than it was fifty years ago/There’s been a whole lotta change/But we gotta long way to go

selma_ver2 On Friday, Elizabeth and I saw the Oscar nominated Selma—an inspiring and powerful film about the summer of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign in Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for blacks in the face of cruel and violent opposition from authorities. King and the marchers sought to be recognized by whites as God saw them: chosen ones, holy and beloved.

It is one thing to read about the events from that time or listen to interviews, view old photographs or watch grainy documentaries. And it is quite another to see, on a large screen, the brutality that many citizens and civil rights activists faced before, during, and after the courageous movement in Selma. Our eyes were streaming throughout the movie. One of the most tear-jerking scenes is of the incident known as Bloody Sunday, in which state troopers attacked 600 unarmed blacks that were attempting to march to the Montgomery state capital to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

As I watched the troopers, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing and beating the marchers unmercifully, I was reminded of the standoff in Ferguson between military-armed white police officers and mostly peaceful protestors, many of who were black.

While blood wasn’t shed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, the conflict between the Ferguson police and the people of Ferguson was eerily similar to the tension in Selma. The “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” protests held across the nation, including the campuses of Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary, in response to non-conviction in the Garner case also flashed in my head—affirming that we are not far removed from those 60s protests.

It’s true, as Franti sings, that America is a lot better than it was 50 years ago. The police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and the use of fire hoses and police dogs on black protestors by Birmingham Police in 1963 are non-existent. There are no more savage beatings, bombings or lynchings or burning crosses. Public places are no longer segregated with designated “white only” signs in restaurants, schools, parks, businesses and government buildings.

And blacks are no longer vehemently denied opportunities to make their lives and the world better; they have the right to vote and be elected to public office, to make a living and influence the progress of industry, technology, the arts, and athletics.

There’s been a lot of change, but there is certainly a long way to go:

*The 114th Congress, which began its work this month, is the most diverse in our country’s history and yet it is still more than 80 percent white.[4]

* The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.[5]

* In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.[6]

I share these examples not to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists. I mention them simply to raise consciousness that we still live in a system where the color of one’s skin has a great (and often unjust) impact.

When we used to have a problem/we would call the police/But who we gonna call when the police make a problem/I’m not saying that they’re all bad/I’m not saying that I’m any better/All I’m just trying to say is that we could all do a lot better

When a recent CNN poll asked “How many police officers in the area where you live … are prejudiced against blacks?” 17% of whites said “most or some,” but more than twice as many non-whites — 42% — felt there is prejudice.

And when asked, “Does the U.S. criminal justice system treat whites and blacks equally?” 50% of whites said yes while nearly 80 percent of non-whites said no. [7] Other studies reveal that African-Americans are incarcerated more often than whites, even if both races commit the same crime.[8] It’s also been reported that while white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans, blacks are far more likely to go to prison for the drug offenses than whites who break the same laws.[9]

None of this is to say that most or even half of the authorities (police, lawyers, judges, politicians) in a white dominated society are prejudiced or bigots. There are many good people, white and black, serving on our streets and in our courtrooms, government buildings and jails. I met many upstanding police officers when I was a newspaper reporter in the late 90s in Birmingham, Alabama. I observed many white and black cops performing risky and courageous deeds to better the community. I met honorable lawyers and judges who strived to make fair and just decisions.

However, despite the good of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is much that is corrupt about it. There are many who have not ridden themselves, as the apostle Paul writes, of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” from their mouths. And that holds true for everyday citizens like you and me.

We lie to one another. Deceive one another. Judge one another. Despise one another. Resent one another. Fear one another. Hate one another. We cling so tightly to those old clothes of deceit, trickery, judgment and harm instead of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul describes— A new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” A fresh identity, which is being bound in the unconditional and redemptive love of Christ Jesus.

I say it in my own house/and I say it on the street/I say it on a record and I say it on the beat/I paint it on the wall so everybody sees/when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

In my house growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, several family members uttered the n-word quite often. Distinctions were made between black people who were the n-word and those who weren’t. The distinction was based on a person’s criminal activity, education, or economic status: “He’s not like other blacks.” “She speaks very well for a black person.” “That’s interesting, his voice sounded white on the phone.” “Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

1973 James Bond in "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images
1973 James Bond in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

I remember in 1986, when I was 10 years old and visiting my grandparents in Florida, the 70s blockbuster movie Live and Let Die was airing on syndicated TV. Starring Roger Moore as British spy James Bond and Gloria Hendry as double agent Rosie Carver, the film marked the first time a black woman was ever sexually involved with the white 007. When the romantic scenes appeared, my grandfather and grandmother openly expressed their disgust over James Bond kissing that “n-word” woman.

Flash forward more than 20 years to 2008, a time in which I naively believed I had escaped the prejudices of my upbringing and entering the post-racial society of the 21st century. We had just come to the Duluth area, and our white real estate agent was driving us around various neighborhoods in Gwinnett County to look for a home. As we were coming out of a house that we sorta liked, we noticed a black family living next door. The real estate agent looked at us and said, “Well, you don’t want to live here anyway.”

About a year later at our current home in Lilburn, Elizabeth was outside chatting with a couple of neighbors, both white, when an African-American woman drove by in a fancy sports car. She was in the neighborhood to see a million-dollar home that was for sale—a house and piece of property much swankier than the rest of the neighborhood. One neighbor scoffed and said to the other: “Don’t worry. They can’t afford a house like that.”

Racism these days is subtle, institutionalized, and implicit. It is often disguised as white concerns about crime, property values, and schools. In public—at schools, restaurants, shopping malls and football stadiums—black and whites co-exist without any trouble. Things are much different than they were 50 years ago. But sometimes in private, whether in our individual thoughts and attitudes or in one-on-one chats with other whites, subtle and implicit (and sometimes explicit) prejudice survives. I confess that for all the preaching I’ve done on race relations and issues of justice.

For all the admiration I’ve expressed in regards to the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, I too have held (and still grip) many subtle prejudices toward blacks.

I’ve anxiously clicked the lock button on my car when I’ve seen a black man in casual clothes walking down the street, something I’ve never done when a white person has walked by my car. I’ve assumed that all black people in the projects are drug dealers, thieves and gang members, forgetting those decades of intense segregation, racism and white-flight to the suburbs that helped create slums and projects where its residents hardly have the means to escape. I’ve thought of a black person who acts like a jerk on TV as an n-word, but consider the white person demonstrating the same behavior to just be a jerk.

I’ve seen black people unknown to me sitting in the church’s coffee area and assumed they were poor and in need of financial assistance when actually they were professionals waiting for a meeting. Essentially, I’ve forgotten at times that I am one of many members of the Body of Christ who has the privilege of being part of the white majority. And for all of the talking that a lot of us do about equality and God’s love for all, it’s time to admit that many of us here and many in our society still have some prejudices towards blacks.

BmHRke3CIAAwKhq
from Google Images

It’s time to start confessing our prejudice, and it’s time to start talking about prejudice and racism with other whites, and most certainly people of color. It’s time to do so because, as Dr. King reminds us, we “can’t be silent about things that matter.” It’s time we start praying to God to forgive us our sins and show us a new way. It’s time today to shed those old clothes of sin and wear new clothes given to us by Christ.

They can try to divide us/They can try to increase/all the pain and suffering/But this is everybody’s street/There is just one love y’all/and there is just one beat/And when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

The powers and principalities of this world can try to distract us from adhering to God’s call of us. Those loud and extreme voices in the media, the ones that come at us from the Left and the Right, can try to divide us. Try to tell us we are foolish for showing God’s love and working for God’s peace and justice. But we mustn’t let them. None of us must let them.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” says the apostle Paul, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, 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.”

I don’t have a 7-step plan for what white folks can do to be more loving and just toward people of color in our society. There’s no magic formula or ideal blue print.  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all that any of us in this world have is our hearts, enveloped by the clothes of Christ’s love. We must simply follow the beat of our hearts, practicing what Paul teaches and trying to change the world for the better.

For me, the best example of what it means to abide in love and peace might be the story of 12-year-old Devonte Hart and police Sgt. Bret Barnum of Portland, Oregon.[10] A few days after Thanksgiving, Devonte and his mother went to a Ferguson rally in their hometown of Portland, Oregon “with the intentionality of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.” Standing alone in front of a police barricade, Hart held up a “Free Hugs” sign. As the rally proceeded, the young boy began to cry and that’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed him. The interaction was awkward at first, with the officer trying to make general chitchat with a distraught kid.

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014
Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

But then Sgt. Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and the boy told him his concerns about the level of police brutality towards young black kids. The officer replied, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…can I have one of those free hugs?”

Barnum and Devonte’s example doesn’t solve all of our racial problems instantly.   But it’s a good start if we are to clothe ourselves in love and let peace dwell within us.     It’s the beginning of a new life for all people whom God has made, all whom are chosen, holy and beloved. Amen.

Hymn #543  “God Be The Love to Search and Keep Me” (Glory to God Hymnal)

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.
A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

Benediction (Benedictine Prayer, 1986):

May God bless you with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

…………………………………….

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/premieres/hear-michael-frantis-powerful-song-for-peace-between-police-and-communities-20141217 [2] http://www.relix.com/news/detail/same_as_it_ever_was_start_today_michael_franti_on_grief_anger_and_utter_bewilderment_following_eric_garner_chokehold_case [3] http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349 [4] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-congress-mostly-male-white [5] But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, 2013 [6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html [7] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/02/us/foreman-police-race/index.html [8] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/ and http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet [9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html [10] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ferguson-hug-between-protester-and-police-office-goes-viral and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/devonte-hart-hug-at-ferguson-rally-goes-viral/ and http://papertrail.co.nz/meet-devonte-little-boy-big-heart/

A Shelter from the Storm

A Sermon for Sunday October 12, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the PC(USA), Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25:1-9, (The Voice translation)

This summer, as I was looking at curriculum and choosing topics to present to the High School Youth Group, I decided on “ethics in college sports” for a Sunday night in mid-September. It seemed to be a timely and relatable subject:

Many youth are athletes and/or college sports fans.

We live in the South where college sports are king, especially football.

And there are always ethical issues about cheating, sportsmanship, etc.

13388859
Ray and Janay Lewis. Google Images.

But in the week leading up to the lesson, news agencies reported on three separate incidents where NFL star running backs were caught in domestic abuse scandals. The incident that garnered the most attention revolved around Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens who is seen on video punching his then fiancé, now wife Janay Palmer, in the face and knocking her unconscious inside an elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL player scandals immediately stirred up dialogue about domestic violence on talk shows, social media and office break rooms, and I knew that I needed to bring that conversation to our High School youth.

Every few years, the High School Youth Group engages in a lesson on teen dating and how to spot the occurrence of abuse in a relationship.  Anna Brown led that lesson several times when she worked with the High School Youth Group for more than a decade, and I have picked up that practice during my six years at Pleasant Hill.

I remember talking about dating and abuse with the High School Youth Group in 2009 when one of our young women shared her experience with an ex-boyfriend who had verbally abused her. She spoke openly about the pain and shame that she felt being told that she was unworthy or useless. She talked about how hard it was to be in a relationship that was controlling and manipulative. And she explained that it was the help of family, friends and the church that allowed her to end the relationship and enabled her to see how much she was valued, appreciated and loved in the eyes of others and God.

So similarly, when the High School Youth Group gathered in September to talk about dating and abuse, some of the youth told stories of friends and relatives who were victims of domestic violence. Another youth expressed their bewilderment over seeing a male neighbor on their street get hauled away by the police for allegedly striking his wife.  And one of our advisers courageously shared her story of how a boyfriend verbally and physically abused her in college. The adviser expressed how the love of family and friends and the awareness of her self-worth, which helped her get out of the relationship and eventually heal and become whole.

Suffice it to say, it was a powerful evening in which we ultimately affirmed that God created us to embody love instead of indifference, hate and abuse.

index
Love Is Respect.org poster

I carried that experience into the following Monday as I began preparing for today’s sermon.  And while looking at the lectionary passages on the Presbyterian Church (USA) calendar and discerning what I should preach, I discovered the denomination had set aside this particular Sunday of October 12 to address the issues of domestic violence.

Feeling the Spirit stirring deep in my heart, I realized the conversation about domestic violence needed to continue in this sanctuary. And my hope is that the conversation and the stories will go beyond this place and me.

I understand this might not be the topic you expect or want to hear about in worship. Pondering the nature and effects of domestic violence are uncomfortable and unsettling …even if you’ve never personally experienced that type of abuse.

It would be much easier to sing lovely hymns and hear a nice word about Jesus and then go on with our day without a care in the world.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping in that manner…some of the time.

But if we always enter and exit this place with rose-colored glasses, we miss out on seeing what an active, restorative God is doing in an actively broken world.  At Pleasant Hill, we are all about the motto “Connecting Faith With Everyday Life,” which means we wrestle daily, even in our worship, with how our faith and belief in God intersect with the details of our lives, i.e.

How my faith connects with my understanding of the pain that a loved one, friend, neighbor, stranger or I experience.

How my faith connects with my realizing that “worship, witness and service are inseparable” and that just “as God is concerned for the events in everyday life, so members of the community in worship appropriately express concern for one another and for their ministry in the world.”

How our faith connects with our being responsible as a church to routinely raise the issue of domestic violence to break the code of silence and help us as a congregation to focus on the violation of God’s will for families and to recommit ourselves to directing our ministry toward addressing the brokenness in families within and beyond the church.”

How our faith connects with our calling as the body of Christ to care for and nurture the parts of the body that have been broken, abused and deemed unworthy.

In other words, we can’t “connect faith with everyday life” and not discuss heart-wrenching issues like domestic violence, especially when there are people walking through the darkest of valleys—fearful of the evil that has or will be done to their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

According to the Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network, the malevolent act domestic violence is defined as:

A recurrent pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors directed toward an intimate partner. The violence can be actual or threatened and can cover a wide range of behaviors. Many people think of physical, sexual or verbal assaults, but subtle forms of abuse are also common: isolation, humiliation, ridicule, threats…These learned behaviors are used to control the victim and they cause physical and psychological damage. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; there are no specific categories of typical victim/survivor profiles. Likewise, abusers come from all contexts… Domestic violence has no boundaries. It cuts across all religious, economic, racial, cultural, educational and age lines.[1]

Many organizations devoted to domestic violence prevention also point out that many victims, most of whom are women, stay in an abusive relationship because they…

feel responsible or that they deserve the abuse

think that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of love

are threatened by their abuser if they try to leave or express any dissatisfaction in the relationship or marriage or mention the abuse to others.

 still love the abuser

 believe they are breaking the covenant of marriage by leaving

 believe that their faith requires them to forgive the abuser and save the marriage at all costs

want to prevent the abuser from harming their children and pets

 may not have the financial resources to care for themselves and their children apart from their partner

 may not have access to supportive services in her community or lack knowledge about those services

may have come from an abusive family and think that this is normal and expected behavior.

 may not have anywhere to go and no one to turn to for help[2]

When there are people—mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, neighbors, our child’s schoolteacher or the postal carrier—suffering right under our very noses, we have to speak out against the abuse.

refuse-abuse-640_s640x427
Anti-Abuse advertisement. Google Images

We have to acknowledge that domestic violence happens everywhere (even to people of faith) and that abuse is always inexcusable. We have to be open to creating a safe and welcoming space where victims and survivors can share their stories of abuse without judgment. And we have to be willing to speak out so that the cries of others might be heard.

We can no longer be silent knowing that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, or that an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. [3]

We can’t be silent when 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women, or when females between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence.[4]

We can’t keep silent when nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year, or when one quarter of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or when 3 million children have witnessed domestic violence in their homes annually.[5]

And we certainly can’t keep silent when there are victims and survivors of domestic abuse sitting in the pews, and more among us who will potentially suffer.

We have to be voices of hope for the hopeless, voices that attest to the reality of a living God who, in the words of Isaiah,

makes marvelous and beautiful wonders;

stands up for the poor and weak, giving them comfort and empowerment

provides protection from the relentless heat and torrential rain

silences the arrogant sounds of violence

swallows up oppression and death

gently wipes away all tears and deflects scorn and shame

and saves us so that we may rejoice and celebrate the gift of life

This God, whom the prophet describes, intends for creation to live in harmony—in trust, love and mutual respect—with one another.  This same God strongly opposes abuse and violence, violations of the Creator’s desire for us to live as beloved creatures. And this God stands mightily on the side of the abused and oppressed.

ruth-patzloff-psalm-23
The 23rd Psalm. Artist Unknown. Google Images.

Like a shepherd, this God, writes the psalmist, walks with the abused.

This God leads, restores and comforts those who have been threatened and mistreated.

This God walks through the darkest valley with a staff to ward off predators.

This God prepares a table for the abused, a feast overflowing with mercy and goodness, even as the abuser lurks nearby in the shadows.

This God brings blessings of peace and love.

This God brings hope.

And God’s hope can show up in some surprising ways.

For Lizzie Hampton, it arrived in the form of Rainbow Village, which has been dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness, poverty and domestic abuse in Gwinnett County for more than 20 years.  Here is Lizzie’s testimonial which was filmed in 2010:

Before I came to Rainbow Village, I was in denial. I was in a domestic violence relationship and I decided to leave my home. My name is Lizzie Hampton. I was in the Rainbow Village program from 2003-2004. The reason why I decided to leave was because of the things I experienced in my home, which was mostly verbal, emotional and mental abuse. And for so many years, I thought that wasn’t really abuse. I thought physical abuse was really the key to being abused. It can be a cycle in your children’s life if you don’t get free. I was in the program for one year. … The turning point for me was they gave us opportunities to be able to meet with a full-time counselor. And the caseworkers and the people who worked at Rainbow Village were mentors to me. When I met with my counselor, I was able to vent my feelings about what I went through. My children were able to be a part (of the program) and talk about their feelings and (participate) in the afterschool program. All of it was very important in all of us getting back to being healthy again. Rainbow Village had classes about being abused and the right way to be treated. And it woke up my eyes to realize that I deserved to be treated in a loving and kind way. And it taught me about myself, self-esteem and how to love myself. It taught me how to be a better mother. It taught me how to not look back on my experience and beat myself up. It taught me to go forward. I would like for women to learn from me to not be in denial of their situation and circumstances that they’re dealing with in their home; to get help because there’s so much help out there for them; and they’re not alone. And to go forth and reach the skies because the sky’s the limit to what God has called them to do and be on earth. Spiritually, I am loving God more, seeing who he has made me to be. I didn’t love myself before. I didn’t think of myself as being beautiful. Now I know who I am in Christ and I know he fearfully and wonderfully made me to be where I am.[6]

If you’ve been abused or are being abused by an intimate partner, know that you are a beautiful creation of God who is fearfully and wonderfully made, deeply loved and cherished.

Remember always that you didn’t do a thing to deserve the abuse. It is never your fault. Never. Your. Fault.

Tell someone your story and share your pain so that you can receive help and escape a situation that will only get worse. You are never alone. There are pastors and church members who will support you.

Heed the advice from Lizzie Hampton, currently a board member of Rainbow Village and an employee of a Gwinnett County elementary school, who says:

Go forth and reach the skies because the sky is the limit to what God has called (you) to do and be on earth.

images-67
Isaiah 25. Artist Unknown. Google Images

And finally, as one who grew up with domestic violence in his home as a child and survived and is standing before you now,

cling tightly to the truth that no matter how much the oppressive winds and rains threaten to weigh you down,

this living God, whom we worship and adore, and whom we put our hope in,

will always be a shelter from the storm.

Amen.

………………….

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[3] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[4] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/ ; http://www.ncadv.org/ and  http://www.loveisrespect.org/
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmNlpnOQno

………………………………….

Resources for Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention

Ahimsa House: Helping People and Pets Escape Domestic Violence (71 % of victims entering domestic violence shelters report that their abusers threatened, injured or killed the family pets)

Love Is Respect

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network

Rainbow Village: Breaking the Cycle of Homeless, Poverty and Domestic Abuse

World Health Organization International Statistics on Domestic Violence

Rooted & Reaching

A Sermon for Sunday June 29, Matthew 13:31-32, Ephesians 3:16-19

SHOVEL2The most prized possession my younger brother Ben and I owned as kids was a plastic yellow shovel.

The toy was ideal for digging up dirt and sand at the playground, but it had other uses as well. The shovel was a sleek looking spaceship that carried our heroic action figures to distant planets or it was the legendary sword that slayed a fierce dragon. Ben and I hardly ventured outside without one of us holding onto that plastic yellow shovel. It was as if it was an integral part of us, an extra limb attached to our bodies.

One summer, while living for a brief time in a suburban cul-de-sac of Jacksonville, Florida, we discovered that our plastic yellow shovel could be used for other things than make-believe.

On a hot Saturday morning, my dad cranked up the chain saw to cut down a large tree in our front yard and I was curious and eager to help out. Gripping the yellow plastic shovel, I boldly marched out the door to survey the yard for other trees that might also need to be chopped down.

At the age of five, I determined that anything taller than my two foot self was a tree worthy of whacking and the “trees” that I noticed immediately were the three nestled in the front flowerbed of our house. Unbeknownst to me, they weren’t actually trees but split-leaf philodendrons, the kind you commonly find in tropical areas or see in jungle movies, about 4-5 feet in height and width with beautiful thick green branches and long curvy leaves.

They were my mother’s favorite plant, and with my yellow plastic shovel, I whacked and hacked all three philodendrons to the ground in mere minutes, a tangled mess of green at my feet. I was feeling quite proud of my task and preparing to go inside and tell my mother about my hard work when I heard a loud rap on the front window. I looked up and saw the face of my mother, her eyes bulging out of her head and her mouth agape. And then came the scream, a noise so loud that it penetrated the glass window, screeched across the yard and rang in the ears of my dad who was still operating a chain saw with headphones on:  “MIKE!!!!! LOOK AT WHAT HE’S DONE!!! HE’S CUT DOWN ALL OF THE PHILODENDRENS!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”

Before I could utter a word of explanation, they both scooped me inside to smack my backside and lecture me on the difference between trees and plants, shovels and saws.

Ben, who was 2 and a half at the time, missed this important discussion on proper shovel usage, which might have benefited him when he appropriated the shovel several weeks later.

A boy my age had recently moved in the house across the street and was hanging out in my driveway along with other pre-school kids from the neighborhood. The new kid was a loudmouth who liked to brag about being the fasted runner or insisted that he knew the right way to play every game. And if he liked the toy you had, he would snatch it out of your hand and threaten to punch you if you tried to reclaim it. 

His target on this particular day was Ben’s Big Wheel—a plastic tricycle with an over-sized front wheel that rides low to the ground. And the new kid didn’t waste anytime telling Ben to get off the toy and give it to him; he just pushed my brother off and took it!

But Ben didn’t say anything or tear up. He got up on his feet, walked into our open garage and returned with…the yellow plastic shovel which he then used to whack this 5-year-old bully (who was twice his size) several times upside the head until the kid fled home crying.

Despite my parent’s amazement at skills they were unaware my brother possessed, he got a spanking and a brief lecture on how you’re not supposed to hit people.

That plastic yellow shovel got us into some trouble.

It’s incredible what harm we cause when we whack and hack our away at the problems that tower over us.

Our minds, hearts, words and hands have many incredible uses in this world. We can imagine and create extraordinary things, whole worlds and realities, just as God intended in the beginning of time. 

And yet the slightest amount of misunderstanding, fear, hate, greed and selfishness can cause us to use these amazing tools God has given us to whack and hack our way through the wonders of God’s creation. 

Within seconds, we can use our own yellow plastic shovels to tear down the people that God has planted in our lives.

 Disagree with another person’s political viewpoint; turn to the comment section of an online news story or Facebook and post cruel and angry rants that seeks to dehumanize that person. 

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Don’t like the way an athlete is playing their sport; boo, ridicule and curse them from your place in the stands or on Twitter.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Can’t stand people of another race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, call them offensive names in public.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Offended that the Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly voted to divest from three American companies who are participating in questionable business practices in the Middle East; declare on national TV that all Presbyterians are anti-semitics who hate Israel.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Appalled that more and more states are legalizing same sex marriage, and that Presbyterian churches are opening its doors to gay couples; write letters claiming that the denomination is officially dead and make public statements that gays and those who support them are going to hell.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Angry over a misperceived slight or fearful of one person or an entire group of people who are vastly different from you; pick up a gun and start shooting, send in the drones or kidnap scores of teenage girls.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgusted by the poor and homeless on the streets; support the passing of unjust ordinances and laws that make it harder to address the systemic issues of poverty and care for people in need.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgruntled by those who are making your life miserable; let them know it in words and deeds:

You’re beneath me.

Whack.

You’re an idiot.

Hack.

You’re unworthy of God’s love.

Whack.

We as a society do so much whacking and hacking that it appears as if we don’t know any other way to live and interact with one another.

But Jesus and his earliest followers remind us that we were not made to whack and hack. And they suggest there is another way—an alternative to our senseless thrashings and foolish attempts to uproot and destroy what God has planted.

As the High School youth and adults learned during the Montreat Youth Conference “we are rooted in God’s love and acceptance for us, no matter what.” That is the good news we forever proclaim in the waters of baptism and celebrate at the Lord’s Table. We know who we are and whose we are. We are children of God who belong eternally to God.

And because God has rooted us always in love, God expects us to grow and reach out in that love, recognizing we are all connected and called to care for one another.

Jesus and the apostle Paul encourage us to continually sow seeds of love to help the kingdom of God spread and bear much fruit, especially in places where there is none—barren lands where human beings have tried to whack and hack away at God’s handiwork.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

In Jesus’ day, farmers and peasants were quite familiar with the growth of mustard seeds, which like the South’s infamous kudzu, vigorously and unassumingly takes over gardens, roads, forests, mountainsides and even buildings. Since the people of that era valued order, they had very strict rules for keeping a tidy garden, and that meant no planting mustard.  At the same time, the people had high expectations that the kingdom of God would come in splendorous and towering triumph like the giant cedar trees described by the Hebrew prophets.[1]  

url
Illustration by Ryan Sharp, “Jesus For President” by Shane Claiborne

Jesus counters all of this by describing the kingdom of God as a small and wily mustard seed bush.  As activist and author Shane Claiborne interprets it:

What Jesus had in mind was not a frontal attack on the empires of this world. His revolution is a subtle contagion—one little life, one little hospitality house at a time…His power was not in crushing but in being crushed, triumphing over the empire’s sword with his cross. Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released…Mustard was also known for healing and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vick’s vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.[2]

 I wonder if the apostle Paul (once a whacker and hacker of Jesus’ followers) was thinking about the mustard seed parable when he wrote to the church in Ephesus:

I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

My prayer and hope for the Church Universal, for followers of Christ and for this church is that we cease our whacking and hacking so that rooted in God’s love we can do….

a lot more sowing,

a lot more tending,

a lot more growing,

a lot more caring,

a lot more forgiving,

a lot more listening,

a lot more loving,

a lot more reaching, and

a lot more turning plastic yellow shovels into plastic yellow mustard bottles.

Amen

[1] Insight gleaned from Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

[2] Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.