Monday, February 24, 2014

Yesterday's sermon - More on Loving

Lev 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Today’s passages are central to the ultimate message of Jesus.  We are told by Jesus that really there are only 2 commandments.  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  But Jesus explains over and over who that neighbor is, and it is not just the person who lives next door, or the family member or the friend who can return the favors that you grant.  It is also that person whom you fear, and the person you hate, and the person who makes your very skin crawl.  It is that person who represents for you everything that you are against.  Who might that person be for you?  We all have people like this in our lives, and it is not usually those people we might first consider.  In this church we are very good at seeing and feeding and housing and LOVING the economically disadvantaged.  We give money and food to church street ministries.  We house the homeless through Family Promise.  We serve meals through Bethany and the Berea Area Ministers community meals.  We write letters for Bread for the World and we make lunches for our summer lunch program.  We make bags of food to give to families over Memorial Day weekend, we go on mission trips to provide help with housing and disaster relief, we give food from our garden to the food pantry, we provide mittens and gifts at Christmas and malaria nets at mother’s day, we buy heifer animals to help those in need in other places, and there is more.  When we serve this food we look at those we serve, we engage them, we sit with them, we eat with them.  We are good at seeing these people as our neighbors.  But there are others.  When you think of people who make you angry, or who make your skin crawl, who do you think of?  Are there people you consider the epitome of evil?  Who are they?

I shared this story recently with our Wednesday evening Bible study, but I think it is a good illustration of who those hard to love enemies might be.
Corrie Ten Boom Story on Forgiving
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
“It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’
“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

That was an enemy.  This man, who had partial responsibility of her sister’s death and for her own torture, humiliation and deepest suffering. – that is an enemy in the truest sense of the word.  And while the story I shared with you is a story about forgiveness, it is also a story about making the decision to love, truly love, your enemies, those people you would rather never see, never touch, never interact with.  It is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is our call.

I look at these words from Matthew, “But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”  There are so many books, so many studies, so many interpretations of these words.  There are so many explanations out there for what it means to turn the other cheek.  But this last week I heard these in a different and more profound way.  In each of these situations, the bottom line is one not simply of not seeking retaliation, not simply one of not returning evil for evil.  Each of these commands are calling us into engagement with the enemy.  When someone slaps your right cheek, are we told to just walk away and not retaliate?  That could have been what Jesus said.  Just don’t retaliate.  Accept what has come to you that is evil, accept it, don’t return evil back, and move on.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  He says, turn the other cheek to them as well.  In other words, engage them.  Continue to be with them.  Look them in the eye and continue the relationship, even in the midst of the pain they are causing you.  Second, we are told when someone forces you to go one mile, “go with them two”.  GO WITH THEM two.  In other words, don’t just quietly accept what they’ve asked you to do.  Don’t just allow yourself to be used for a mile.  Engage the other, walk with them for two miles, walk with this enemy, this brother.  Engage them.  We are told when they haul you to court and want to take your shirt, give them your coat too.  In other words, don’t just let go of anger and accept that you have to pay and pay and pay what is not fair and not right and not theirs for you to pay them.  Engage them further.  Give them more.  Interact with them and hand them what is more.

I am reminded of the musical and now the movie “les Miserable”.   The story begins with the release after 19 years imprisonment of Jean Valjean.  In the story, he was sentenced for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family as well as for attempted escapes from prison.  Now that he’s been released, he can’t find a place to stay because his papers mark his as a former prisoner.  But the Bishop, Myriel offers him shelter when no one else will.  Still, instead of expressing gratitude and thanksgiving to the bishop, Jean Valjean waits until night and then runs off with Myriel's silverware, stealing from the very man who has just given him a break, shown him grace and care. When the police capture Jean Valjean, the Bishop though surprises everyone, especially jean Valjean by pretending that the silverware Jean Valjean stole was actually given to him as a gift.  But he goes even farther.  Just like in what Jesus asks us to do, not only does he not press charges against the man who has hurt him, not only does he not insist on what is right and fair, which would be that the bishop be rewarded for caring for this man rather than punished by having his things stolen, not only this, but he follows Jesus command to give even more to those who would take from us and the Bishop presses Jean Valjean to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them, too.   He does exactly what jesus says to do – he gives, in essence, his cloak as well as his shirt; giving the candlesticks as well as the silverware that Jean Valjean would steal.  We know the rest of the story.  Jean Valjean is changed by this act of grace. He does change his life around and becomes a successful and giving member of society.
But the reality is that we cannot do good for the other expecting the good that we do to change them.  That isn’t our job.  Our job is to do what God asks us to do and leave the results of that love and that care to God.  Does that mean it might not make a difference?  Of course.  Does that mean that a person we offer care to might just take advantage of us and continue to use and abuse others?  Of course.  But again, what they do with the love we offer is not our job.  What is our job is to offer the love Jesus calls us to offer.

Still, what Jesus asks here is SOOO hard.  How many of us could do that?  When we are taken to court, we fight.  When someone steals from us, we want them to pay.  How many have we seen on the news who insist “in the name of God” on “justice”, completely missing that God’s justice is detailed here, by Jesus and it is NOT, NOT EVER one of revenge, or one of seeking what is “fair” for us, or seeking retribution.  NOT EVER.  God’s justice, what we are called to do, looks like this.  It looks like the behavior of the Bishop in Les Mis, it looks like Corrie Ten Boom in her response to the guard, it looks like what Jesus outlines here – it looks like loving our enemies and engaging them, giving much more than is deserved, even to those we fear, even to those we hate, even to those who are seeking, actively to hurt us.

How hard are these words!  For us, these enemies may be people we have loved, people closer than we know, people who have hurt us beyond compare.  I have a friend who has been divorced almost a year.  When his wife left him, the courts gave instructions for the children to live with their mother but to have a set amount of time with their father.  But his wife is angry, though it was her decision to seek the divorce.  She does not want the children to have access to their father, she does not want their father to have access to the kids.  So even though the law instructs that they have a certain amount of time with him, in the year since the divorce, he has seen them for a total of about 12 hours, or an hour a month.  His ex-wife is an “enemy” in the sense presented to us here.  She is taking from him what is rightfully his.  She is taking from the children a relationship with their father.  She is taking what matters most to him in all the world, despite the fact that she has no real right to do that.  What would Jesus say to do in a situation like this?  How do you love an enemy like this, that is taking what is most dear to you, what is most important to you?  And when that decision is not just affecting yourself but others as well, children as well, how are we to respond in a loving way?

The scriptures today again show us this one really important aspect that transcends most problems, and that, again, is engagement.  Continuing to keep those lines of communication open, continuing to work not from an adversarial position (no matter how much we may feel adversarial!) but from a place of love, of care, of outreach, that is what we are called to do.  What will the results be?  We don’t know.  We can’t know.  But again, the results are not up to us.  What is up to us is choosing to act in love, even in the face of our pain, even in the face of our loss, even in the face of others’ determination to hurt us.  Again, not easy at all.  Not at all.  And yet it is what we are called to do.  Every time.

As with everything that God calls us to do, this is not going to be something we are always able to do.  But we do it as much as we can.  And we trust in the grace of God, the love of God, that continues to encourage and hold us, even when we can’t spread that same love to others.  And that is the good news, today and everyday.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Today's Sermon - Living it All the Way

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37

The Matthean passages are what we began discussing last week....  Jesus declares that he has come to fulfill the law, to embody it and then he goes on to describe in today’s passages some of what that looks like.  In every case it looks a little different than the laws as they were written.  In each case it goes beyond them…far beyond them.  Each one of these could be the topic of a sermon all in itself.  But, taken together or apart, the bigger message is the same:  We talk a lot about what we should do as followers of Christ.  We focus constantly on our call to be more giving, spend more time in prayer, be more loving to the stranger, more willing to reconcile and to ask for forgiveness, more willing to talk to each other and work through problems, more willing to love even our enemies and to help them, too, become the most whole they can be.  If I wanted to go there again today, these would be the perfect passages to tell us how we are not quite getting it yet, how we need to keep striving to do better.
But today I want to focus a little differently.  It may seem odd, when we are finished this morning to take these scriptures that seem so strict, so demanding and use them to talk about gratitude and about living in joy.  But that is what I want to do today.  So we are going to focus on two parts of today’s readings.  From Deuteronomy, verses 19-20:  “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…”  And from Matthew, we will look at the bigger picture, the picture that says that these commands, too, are calls to live our lives fully, completely, and in the joy of God.
Choosing life.  What does it mean to choose life?  What are your thoughts about choosing life?
As I’ve said before, I believe that every single thing that God asks us to do is out of God’s love for us.  In other words, everything God asks us to do is in service to our own ability to really live.  Everything that God has done for us is out of God’s love for us.  God came to be among us, as one of us.  God showed us how to be and how to love.  God knew that would lead to death and God went there willingly.  We no longer have to fear death because Jesus overcame it.  We are offered real life.  We are invited into real living and reassured that we can do so without fear.  Even the strict mandates Jesus lays out for us in today’s passages I believe God gives us out of deep love for us.  Jesus invited us into real living.  Taking each of them in turn, when we let go of anger we are freed from the grip of negative thoughts, negative planning of revenge, negative focus.  When we find ourselves trapped and imprisoned in guilt, shame or addictions (such as the lust mentioned in this passage), we are enslaved.  Freeing ourselves from that, too, allows us to live fully, not just in ourselves, but in our relationships to other people as well – honoring our commitments and focusing our energy where it needs to be, on the people we love, on those in front of us, on what is real and not made up in our heads.  Not swearing also frees us to simply do the best we can in every area, not worrying that we’ve made oaths that somehow we may not be able to fulfill.  We do our best and we pray that we can fulfill every commitment, but we recognize that because of our humanity, that isn’t a reality all of the time.  We live life caring about the other, because life connects us and when I hurt you, I hurt me.  So we live, really live, our lives by living in God, through God, through our faith in and connection to God, not because these are rules we are told we must obey.  But because that is what living, really living looks like.

Finally, we live, really live, by seeing, with gratitude the blessings that God gives us and surrounds us with every single day.  We live by delighting every day in what we are given in each moment.  We live by inviting the joy of God, the joy of our faith, the joy of living in the Lord into our lives daily.  That is a real thing, a practical thing, but it takes practice to choose to live in gratitude for the blessings rather than in the many things that cause our lives to be difficult or challenging.  We are so blessed, even by the challenges that come our way.  All that we have, all that God gives us is a gift, if we can learn to live in each moment, deeply enough to really see the gift in everything.  These challenging scriptures which call us to be better than we are, that call us to be more wholly giving and loving and completely selfless than we probably will ever be.  These, too are gifts to us, calling us into wholeness, showing us a vision for what we could be and what the world could be.  Do we feel their strict words to be a burden?  Or can we live, really live, striving to fulfill them not because we “have to” but because we recognize the gift in all that God calls us to do and experience?
I picked songs for the Praise team to sing today that focus on those blessings, those many, many gifts which fill and surround our lives and I want to finish my sermon time by showing you a clip that also reminds us of the gifts that surround us.  (For those who come to our Wednesday evening service, you will have seen this before..for that I apologize!)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Yesterday's sermon - Failing to LIve by the Law

Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

     We begin today’s readings looking at this passage from Isaiah.  God is talking through Isaiah here and being very clear.  Following the laws is not enough.  Doing the required fasting, worshiping, honoring God with worship is simply not what God is wanting.  No, instead, Isaiah tells us, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  To quote one of my favorite commentaries, Feasting on the Word, “Acts of religious piety …. are meaningless when they are divorced from acts of justice and righteousness…..  Worship style and practice are not what pleases or offends God, according to Isaiah.  Worship … and practice are … not the measuring sticks by which the people of God will be judged. They will not restore or preserve a relationship with God in and of themselves.”  No, again, instead the people are called to do justice, to live out their faith in concrete ways that go far beyond worship.
    Andrew Foster Conners tells this story, “One year during Holy Week, a few Christians from well-endowed congregations in a major metropolitan area spent a night with homeless friends on the street. They were looking for the suffering Christ in the lives of those who spend their days and nights suffering from hunger, disease, and rejection. It was a chilly night, and rain rolled in close to midnight. Looking for shelter, the handful of travelers felt fortunate to come upon a church holding an all-night prayer vigil. The leader of the group was a pastor of one of the most respected churches in the city. As she stepped through the outer doors of the church, a security guard stopped her. She explained that she and the rest of their group were Christians. They had no place to stay and were wet and miserable, and would like to rest and pray. Enticed by the lighted warmth of the sanctuary, she had forgotten that her wet, matted hair and disheveled clothing left her looking like just another homeless person from the street. The security guard was friendly, but explained in brutal honesty, "I was hired to keep homeless people like you out." As the dejected group made their way back into the misery of the night, they knew they had found their suffering Christ, locked out of the church.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)
Then we come to the Corinthians passage.  And it tells us that each person’s own spirituality, own relationship with God, own commitment to living out his or her faith and own experience of the divine is what’s important.  It isn’t knowledge or education.  And while in the Presbyterian Church we put educated (way too educated in some cases) clergy up here so that we are teaching “correct theology” this is counter to this passage in 1st Corinthians, which emphasizes that what is important is how your faith affects your LIVING.  What do you experience from the spirit?  How do you live out that experience of being touched by that spirit?
And finally we have the Matthean passage, which must be read in its context.  Jesus tells us in this passage that he is here to fulfill the law and that not one stroke of a letter of the law will pass.  But it is followed immediately by the passages that we will look at more fully next week…The passage immediately following begins, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart….“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” And "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”  So Jesus says he has come to fulfill the law, but then he describes what that means as something far deeper than the simple rules that were written.  He describes the law as the enactment, again, beyond any rules, beyond any pietistic commitments to simply follow a set of instructions, of caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed – responding with love even to our enemies, of taking everything a step further from simply following laws into doing everything in our lives with a commitment to love and action.
      The words in these three passages are different.  Isaiah emphasizes justice over empty worship, Corinthians passage emphasizes experience over wisdom.  Matthew emphasizes that Jesus coming is not destroying what faithful people were taught but embodying it in actions of love.  The words may all be different, but the message is the same – our faith must be about more than a Sunday morning ritual.  It must be about more than just following the laws as they are laid out in scripture.  It must even be about more than just going through motions of doing what we believe God lays out for us to do.  Our faith must CHANGE us, and change us DAILY.  It must be something that we embody, all the time.  It must affect, most especially, how we interact with the “least of these” – the poor, the marginalized, the rejected.  To quote Connie Schultz, “How we treat those who can’t force us to be kind says everything about who we are as people….How you wear your advantages reveals your character.”  It also reveals your faith.  Is it something real?  Is it something that challenges you, shakes you, makes you better than you were?  Do we serve God by coming to church?  Or do we serve God by acting with love and justice?  Do we live out the commandments of God by sticking to rules?  Or do we live out what God calls us to live by doing our best to love, serve, and care for God’s people in every way and at every opportunity that we can?
        Again,  “It is our choices (our actions!) that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  And in this case, it is the choice to be a Christian – every day, and with all that we are and do, that determines who we are.  We sing “they will know we are Christians by our love’ and we are called to be different, to show a different way of being in the world, by that love.
        One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge woodland was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.  This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.
        All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
        And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."
That is what God calls us to do.  To let go of the results and to just live the life of love, which fulfills the law by going above and beyond it.  We do what we can, we do what is in front of us.  We live out of love.  Our faith gives us the strength to do that.  Our experience of God gives us the joy, gratitude and desire to serve with all that we have and are.  Our call to follow Jesus gives us the model.  And above all, God’s sustaining love gives us the love to shine and spread and live out in all we do.  Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2014

An uncomfortable challenge to our Presbytery...

Warning - this post will contain uncomfortable information and thinking.  Please read at your own risk!

I met with my dear friend, Meredith, last week and we were talking about Presbytery.  I have wondered sometimes if I haven't been "black listed" as a potential preacher for Presbytery because of what our family went through.  This is probably unfair.  It's probable that I've never been asked to preach here simply because I've only been here five years and just haven't been here as long as some others who have yet to preach.  But she challenged me by asking what I would say at this point in time if I were given the pulpit.  Truth is I'd probably be a "good girl" and say something that was designed to avoid ruffling any feathers.  But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself contemplating what I would really like to say that might offer challenge to the comfortable, instead of simply comfort to the not-so-afflicted.  So I am taking this opportunity to speak up...not at a Presbytery meeting, but here in this format.

I have seen, from the other side now, what it is to be one of the "least of these".  I have lived with and next to, (I have been associated with and condemned for being connected to) a man who screwed up royally, who became "anathema" to many, and who is paying for that by time in prison.  I get why people are angry.  I get why people are hurt.  I, too, am angry and hurt.  And I agree that there are consequences for actions, that this was wrong, that he is not the victim here but others are.  I made my own choices because of those actions, and, as most or all of you know, I am now divorced because of what happened.  But as a Presbytery, as a group of pastors and elders - church leaders, all - we are called to seek out and follow the model Jesus gave us for appropriate response to a person such as Mark.  So what would Jesus do?  How would Jesus respond to him?

How did Jesus respond to the tax collectors?  How did Jesus respond to the woman caught in adultery? How did Jesus respond to the woman at the well with her past of 5 different men and her present of a partner to whom she was not married?  How did Jesus respond to the Syrophoenician woman that the Pharisees condemned as a woman Jesus should never associate with, let alone allow himself to be touched by?  He didn't run away.  He didn't ignore these "sinners".  He didn't push them away.  He didn't even condemn them.  He invited them into his circles.  He included them.  He allowed himself to be touched by them.  He approached them.  On only one occasion did he even suggest a corrective.  To the woman caught in adultery he said, "go and sin no more", but that was after he saved her from any consequences others wanted her to suffer.  To the others, he did not even say this.  To the woman at the well with her 6 men, he never asked her to change.  He simply approached her and invited her into the life that he offered.

Perhaps some of you who might read this are now saying, "But those things were different!  They never hurt anybody else!  What Mark did was worse."  Prostitutes and others caught in sexual behavior that fell outside the acceptable values of the time were considered the worst sinners against God ever at that point in time.  But this did not dissuade Jesus from attending to them.  Tax collectors in those times were people who exploited those from whom they collected taxes, taking far more than they owed, leaving people, especially widows and other helpless people in the community destitute.  They, too, were absolute anathema in their communities.  But Jesus was kind, even to them.  He looked at them.  He forgave them.  He invited them into his communities.  Jesus himself said, "I came to call sinners and not the righteous."  He lived that.  And he called us to do the same.

In case we are unclear still, we have Matthew 25 to look to.  “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.  I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’  Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?  When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.  I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.  I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’  Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’   Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’"

Were these different kinds of prisoners?  Perhaps their crimes weren't as bad.  Perhaps these were prisoners who were charming or popular or the kind of person you feel good just being around and talking to.  Certainly Mark is none of these, so I can understand why we wouldn't want to visit him. Perhaps these were people who never made the mistake of claiming a position higher than perhaps they should have (such as pastor?) before making their mistakes.  Perhaps.  And so maybe that, too, is a good reason to exclude someone like Mark from that outreach.

The best excuse of all, of course, is that the prison systems are set up in such a way that we can't actually visit someone unless the prisoner himself puts us on his visitor list.  But there are other ways of reaching out...anyone can send a letter, for example.  Still, that would require effort and thought...Jesus wasn't condemning and a letter written that was condemning would not serve a Godly purpose.

Prison is the loneliest place in the world for someone like Mark.  And while we are able to visit about once a month, it is far away, and our visits, his phone calls to his children and the occasional connection with his extended family simply aren't enough.  He is not being "corrected" in prison (not that this ever, EVER happens, despite the fact that we actually call them "correctional institutions").  He is drowning there.  And the little bit of comfort a letter might make...  Does he deserve that comfort?  Perhaps not.  But again, that isn't the issue here.  Because frankly, none of us do.

This is someone in your community.  This is someone you knew, if only from a distance.  But he is, truly, now one of the "least of these", a sinner (like all of us), someone who really messed up, a person without rank or position in our communities, a person who will no longer ever have a full position in our society.  And it is hard to get past anger, and condemnation and a sense of righteousness that says he is not even being punished as much as he should.

And still, with all of that, I ask you, what would Jesus do?  And what does Jesus call you to do in the face of this?

(P.S.  If you are interested in writing him a letter, let me know and I can give you the directions on how to do that.)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Today's sermon - It's not that Easy

Micah 6:8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Today I’d like to focus on part of the Micah passage, in particular the part about walking humbly with God.  It can be really hard to be humble.  Even, or maybe even especially, when we are insecure.  It can be hard to not brag or at least state our credentials to those we admire or want to impress.  Even children’s books reflect on this simple fact that it is hard to be humble.  We all know the story “The Little Engine that Could.”  The engine that is supposed to take the train with children’s toys and food over the mountain breaks down.  So along come four other engines which the toy clown and the dolls and toys all ask to help pull the train over the mountain.  Three engines say “no” before the last one finally agrees to it and she is the hero of the story as she goes over the mountain saying “I think I can, I think I can.”  And really the moral of the story is that no matter how small or insignificant you think you are, you can do it if you put your mind to it - you can do that thing you find in front of you that you are called to do.

But along the way there is a lot of commentary about humility.  Does anyone remember the reasons why the other three engines don’t pull the little train over the mountain?  The third engine is old and tired and decides he cannot make the effort. But the first two engines the toy clown asks say no because of pride.  Because they feel superior or above the task in front of them.  And they both take the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments: to raise themselves up while putting down the train with the children’s toys and food.  The first engine they ask says, “I pull you?  I am a passenger Engine.  I have just carried a fine big train over the mountain, with more cars than you ever dreamed of.  My train had sleeping cars, with comfortable berths; a dining-car where waiters bring whatever hungry people want to eat; and parlor cars in which people sit in soft arm-chars and look out of big plate glass windows.  I pull the likes of you?  Indeed not!”

The second engine acts similarly, bellowing, “I am a freight engine.  I have just pulled a big train loaded with big machines over the mountain.  These machines print books and newspapers for grown-ups to read.  I am a very important engine indeed.  I won’t pull the likes of you!”

While we may not say words like this, I think it is a rare individual who is completely exempt from feeling the need to, at least occasionally, put our credentials out there to impress others, to prove we are worthy, to be accepted.  Some of you have witnessed these moments coming up for me, moments when my position, or abilities have been questioned.  When my ability to parent my special needs son, for example, has been questioned, I can feel threatened and respond with a quickness to defend that does not, I am certain, ever succeed in convincing whomever I am talking with that I am the competent person I am trying to show I am.  I think all of us can struggle at times though with threats to our egos.  When I was in CA, I ran into an old friend, who, when asked how he had been, felt it necessary to give me the entire list of his accomplishments over the years we had not seen each other. I had a conversation with a pastor friend of mine this week who was lamenting being excluded from a group of other pastors and who felt that his gifts and thoughts had not been valued.  Of course he was hurt!  Of course!  And these are normal reactions….wanting others to know we are good, smart, accomplished, successful.  Wanting others to appreciate us and include us.  Wanting others to see us and value us. We have pride in who we are, what we do, what we think, and we want others to know these things about us, too.

But the question is there…Why do we do this to ourselves?  What is it about being human that causes us to feel we need to defend our lives, defend what we have done, make sure the world knows that we have “made it”?  And why do we let others determine for us a sense of who we are and if we are okay by their compliments or critiques, by their ability to see the successes in us, or their failure to do the same?

It’s universally human to have difficulty with humility.  And yet, it is so important to work towards humility.  Today’s Micah passage says there are but three things required - just three things:
1.  To do justice
2.  To love kindness
3.  And to walk humbly with God.

What does it mean to be humble?  Does walking humbly mean simply refraining from bragging?  I believe it is a lot more than that.  First, I think we are called to recognize that we can’t really take most of the credit for the stuff we would brag about.  Let me say that again.  We cannot really take most of the credit for our accomplishments. We are born with certain gifts.  These are given to us by God.  We are given other gifts in the form of our education, the parents that cared for us and raised us, the community that offered us opportunities.  We didn’t earn these things.  The gifts that come from God and those that surround us are pure grace. I think about myself, and playing the piano, for example.  I began playing piano because in first grade I caught mono and was out of school for three months.  A woman on our block offered to come and teach me piano since I could not do anything else.  She gave me free lessons for a few years because I got sick.  It wasn’t because my parents cared for me to become educated in this way. And I played well because there was nothing else I could do with the time in those three months.  I was stuck at home, sicker than anything.  But I could manage to get out of bed for a little bit each day to practice.  There is nothing in that to brag about.  It was luck.  It was blessings found in neighbors and in an illness!

Another example: While at college, one of my roommates was a woman named Robin.  Robin married a man, Bruce, with whom I attended seminary.  Following seminary, Bruce, after knowing me first through his wife Robin and second through seminary, asked me to come work with him doing music at his church.

Through that work, I met Sarah, his mother, who happened to pastor a church in San Leandro where I happened to be living at the time.  When Jasmyn was born, she hated riding in the car, and the commute into San Francisco was excruciating for both of us.  Around the same time, the music director at Sarah’s church resigned, leaving an open position.  So, through Bruce, for whom I was still working in San Francisco, Bruce’s mother, Sarah, asked me if I might come work for her since she needed a musician and I needed a job closer to home.  What started as a three month temporary commitment turned into working with Sarah as Associate Pastor for 8 ½ years. I landed there because of connections, circumstances, timing – all of which I had no control over and all providential – completely beyond me.    

This is not to say that we don’t have a hand in our fate.  We do make choices that affect where we go, what we do with the privileges and connections we make, etc.  But again, the first part of humility is recognizing that we are called, at a basic level, to let go of our ego attachment to our achievements and to recognize that our successes are as much gifts from God as anything else.  Second, being humble does not mean denying the gifts we are given, but striving to use the resources God gives us towards helping others.  It is not humble to fail to use God's gifts.  It is not humble to reject God's call to use them either. Third, we need to remember that what we think of as “accomplishments,” the things our society recognizes as accomplishments are not the things that God prizes.  Does God think those who die with the most money win?  How about the most power?   The most fame?  How about the most friends?  The most successes?  No, instead, God prizes the very things Micah mentions:
A. Doing justice - in other words, caring for people, empowering people, loving your neighbors and even your enemies as much as yourself.
B.  Loving kindness - not being snippy or rude but compassionate, present with people, honest, yes, but with love and the other’s best interest in mind.
And, again,
C.  Walking humbly with God.

We walk humbly with God by doing the things that God places in front of us to do while recognizing that God is not calling us to a particular task because we are somehow “better” or “superior.”   We see this when we look at the Bible as well.  Why did God choose Mary to birth Jesus?  We are told nothing about Mary being superior.  Instead it seems she was quite ordinary except for one thing - and that is that she said, “yes” to God’s call for her.  The same could be said of any of the prophets or holy people in the Bible.  Though many resisted their call (Jonah, Jeremiah), in the end, all said yes.  If you say “yes,” to God’s call, you have succeeded.  If you do that without bragging about it or somehow feeling superior, then you have truly learned to “walk humbly with God.”

C.S. Lewis’ main character in the second of his space trilogy, Peralandra, says, “Don’t imagine I’ve been selected for (this task) because I’m anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly, it is never for what the (person) him (or her-)self would have regarded as their chief qualifications.”

Being humble.  It means giving thanks for the gifts we have, not in relation to others, but just giving thanks for the gifts we have.  It means taking the risk of doing the loving, doing the justice, being kind and saying “yes” to the tasks that come before us.  It means recognizing that all are called, and that we are called out of God’s love for us, not because we are more special than the next person.

Finally, and most importantly, I think walking humbly with God means, above all else, remembering that we are okay simply because God loves us.  God loved us into being, God chooses us, God calls us.  And no matter what we do or do not do in this life, no matter what we have or do not have in this life, no matter what we succeed in or fail in, no matter who we love or fail to love, no matter who loves and appreciates us and who fails to do so – no matter WHAT, we are “okay” simply and fully because God loves us.  That is being a child of God. And the recognition that it is GOD who determines our self worth, and that God has determined that we are worth it all to God – worth God’s coming to be among us, worth God’s dying in Jesus, worth God overcoming death in the resurrection, that we are worth it all to God – THAT is what gives us worth.  There is nothing we can or can’t do to earn or fail to earn that love.  It is grace, pure and simple.  And that should inspire us to humility beyond all else.  Walking humbly with God just means saying “thank you” to God for every breath we have, recognizing that it is by grace, and grace alone, that we have it.  Amen.