Sunday, October 28, 2018

Reformation and the World We Now Live In

Job 42:1-17

Mark 10:46-52

Today is Reformation Sunday, the day when we celebrate that an injustice that was going on in the Catholic church at the time was confronted with depth, commitment and a promise that if the Catholic church would not or could not change, that people would step out of it and find another way to be Church in the world.  And while I had an entire sermon planned around this, I feel that the world, once more, has stepped in and needs to take first focus.  So yes, we are going to talk about what it is to be Protestants, reformed people, but we will be doing it today in the context of what is happening in our country.

You know what began the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, was incensed at the corruption in the leadership of the Catholic church, a corruption that led to taking advantage of the poorest and most vulnerable in the church communities.  Priests “sold” indulgences, which meant that they were selling “get out of purgatory and hell” cards.  You had to have money to be “saved” in this model, and you had to be giving it to the church.  There were other problems as well, but of the 95 theses, the injustice of selling heaven was a theme that came up again and again, the cruelty of the church towards the poor was a central motif.  Martin Luther was not trying to leave the church, he was trying to change it.  But the selling of indulgences was a lucrative business, and so those in charge at the time were not really interested in the major overhauls Martin Luther was suggesting.  As a result, the protestant church was formed.  Note the name “protestant.” 

Diana Butler Bass says, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest?  Yourself?”

And yet, that is what we are being called to do again.  The racism, the hatred, the white, “our way is the only way”  and “our faith is the only faith” attitudes are leading to a violence in our country against anything that is other than mainstream, white, Christian.  And these attitudes are not only tearing our country apart, are not only destroying lives, are not only causing irreconcilable divisions, but are, absolutely, unchristian in every possible way.  Jesus never advocated violence. I want to be clear about this.  He never advocated or condoned or supported violence, even as self-defense. When his disciples defended him against the guard trying to arrest him, he healed the guard and told his disciples this was not the way.  He also said, “you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evil doer.  If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well.”  He never harmed another person and he called us to behave in the same way.  There is no excuse, none for shooting people in a school or a synagogue or on the street.  And the hatred and racism and anti-every-other-belief system, and the sexism and heterosexism that we see being demonstrated more and more each day has to stop.  Doing it in the name of God just deepens the evil.  We are protestants for a reason.  And we are, frankly, called to continue to be protestants, “protest-ants.”  We are called to show a different way, to continue to live a radical way, and to stand up for those who do not have the power or authority that we do.   

Easy to say.  Hard to do.

We, like the Catholic church of 500 years ago, can become stuck.  Despite our catch phrase of “reformed and always reforming,” it is easy for protestant churches to become comfortable country clubs where what goes on in the world outside is not about us.  We gather together to be friends without recognizing that our call to be together is so that we are then empowered to do the work of Christ in the world: confronting injustice, healing the broken, loving the unlovable, empowering the unempowered, and seeing everyone as our brother and sister, who should have the same luxuries, experiences, gifts and lifestyles that we want and claim for ourselves.

We aren’t called to be comfortable.  Our scriptures for today really point that out.

Change is hard.  Standing up against injustice is hard. But frankly, I believe very deeply that a lot of the exodus we see from our churches has to do with the fact that we claim to follow a God who calls us to justice and action, and yet most of us do not act.  We are comfortable being reminded that God loves us.  We do not feel the need to take the next step into, “and therefore we will serve God by serving, loving and caring for all of God’s people.”  That hypocrisy, I believe in my soul, is the major cause of people leaving the church.  And if we cannot step forward into being the church in a real way in the world, then Protestants too will be split in half, just as the catholic church was so long ago.

God calls all of us to continue to move forward.  Therefore God’s answer to Job, and Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus did not just leave them where they were or call them to a life of ease and comfort.  Even as God restored Job’s fortunes, God still did not leave Job comfortable. 

Bartimaeus, too, was not allowed to just celebrate his new sight.  He was called to radical change as well.  He answered that call by following Jesus after he gained his sight.

I want to point out, it is not enough to comfort the afflicted.  We are called to live lives and create a world that prevents situations like the Pittsburgh shooting from taking place at all.  Comfort is not enough.  We are called to create a world in which there is justice and people have what they need.  Carl Denis wrote a poem called Editing Job that I think describes the reality of our world right now well.  I am just going to post a piece of it here.  He wrote:

Let Job be allowed to complain

About his treatment as long as he wants to,

For months, for decades,

And in this way secure his place forever

In the hearts of all who believe

That suffering shouldn't be silent,

That grievances ought to be aired completely,

Whether heard or not.

As for the end, if it's meant to suggest

That patience will be rewarded, I'd cut it too.

Or else I suggest at least adding a passage

Where God, after replenishing Job's possessions,

Comes to the tent where the man sits grieving

To ask his pardon. How foolish of majesty

To have assumed that Job's new family,

New wife and children and servants,

Would be an ample substitute for the old.


            The reality is that when we try to offer comfort after the damage is done, it is just not enough. Those lives that died will never be replaced.  The families will never be whole again.  We can’t give them back that sense of a safe place of worship. We must be "protest"-ants still, actively working to change a world in which violence, hate, and fear are the new norm; where that kind of anger that cannot see the other person as a human being, as a brother or sister has become the way of life.  We have to start now, and we have to start today by loving much more deeply, much more fully; by standing up for those who are without voice; by speaking with clarity and demonstrating with our lives behavior that is about love rather than hate, hope rather than fear, and compassion rather than anger.  It starts with us.  And it has to begin today.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Listening and Communication, Part II

       After I had written my blog on listening and communication, I had a very interesting experience.  Let me back up and say that I wrote the blog post on listening while I was on study leave.  I couldn't post it: I didn't have internet access so waited to publish it until I was solidly home.  But I wrote the post while I was gone at the CREDO conference.  CREDO is an amazing and wonderful conference that is given to Presbyterian Pastors (you go by invitation only) that focuses on renewal, education, intense self-reflection and creating a future plan in 5 major areas: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and vocational health.  Incredibly helpful, especially if there are areas you avoid or that make you uneasy.  They gave a great deal of information, but also allowed time for processing with a small group and on your own in order to look at what ways the information applied to us personally, and what we would then need to do with the information we were gathering.  At the end of the week, we were expected to have some plans for stepping forward with all the information.  As I was gathered with my small group in order to share those plans, I found myself laying out my ideas in these five areas but stating that there was absolutely no connection between any of them.  And that's when the conference took a complete 180 degree turn for me. My small group all stared at me like I was insane, and then calmly pointed out that not only was there a very clear unifying theme throughout all five of my areas, but that I'd even been using the same word over and over in each area to describe where I was and what needed to be addressed.  The group reflected back to me clarity, they challenged and deepened my thinking, they brought my scattered thoughts together into a single forward direction.
          And as I sat with this information, I had the uneasy revelation that it was not just that there had been over the last few years an increasing number of times when I have felt unheard by the people around me; it was, more seriously and more harmfully true, that I had been and still was unable to hear myself.  And THAT realization felt like a strong punch in the nose.
           I've always felt good about the fact that I am a self-reflective person.  I own my sh...  I easily apologize.  I am more than willing to do the work to figure out which pieces of a problem are my own, and which pieces I don't need to claim.  I am not afraid to ask for help with that self-reflection and to get other people's insights into what is really happening both within and without. When confronted, I take seriously what the other is saying to me and am able to be okay with owning my mistakes and the areas in which I still need growth and change. That is a core piece of my identity: I am self-reflective and willing to do the work of changing. And so, to realize that I had spent a week (and frankly, years before the week) working on specific issues and to have totally and completely missed what was actually at the base, at the root of what I was doing... well, it was a shock, to say the least.
          And it brought me back to the issue of listening.  Meditation is not just about listening to God (or the Divine or the Universe or whatever it is you listen to that is outside of yourself).  It is also about taking the space and breathing deeply enough to listen to yourself.  Training on how to listen to others can also help us to learn how to listen to ourselves.  Journaling, writing, walking, talking... all of these can help us to listen to ourselves.  But if we are not intentional about taking the time, if we are not purposeful and willing to really look deeper at things that may be uncomfortable, listening and being willing to really hear ourselves is not a given.
           I also found myself thinking that if we struggle to hear ourselves, how much are we really able to hear others?  Don't our own unexamined motivations get in the way of truly going deep into hearing what another is saying?
           Looking, then, to take this to the bigger level, I wonder if part of our increasing inability as a country, as a people, to hear one another hasn't started with the busyness of work, social media, entertainment and the blasting of the world with noise and lights that has prevented us from listening deeply, and firstly, to ourselves. It takes time and space to really hear.  It takes enough quietness that our thoughts are not drowned out by everything else going on.  It takes genuine rest and breathing in air that is not cluttered by worries, fears, anxieties, and that thing we have to do next.  If we can't make the space to learn to hear ourselves, how will we ever create a place where we are able to hear one another, especially across differences and diverse world views?
           I left the week with many goals.  But my primary goal is simply to make sure there is time and space to listen: to God, to myself and to others.  This isn't something I can learn once and then move on: it has to be a life long commitment to being in the world differently: without all the noise and distractions and fears.  One step at a time I strive to move into this.  I am grateful for the wonderful people around me who listen better than I.  I have much to learn.  I am grateful for those who have much to teach.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Burn out on Caring in a difficult time, and one response.

         We live in a time when burn out for people who really care is an increasing risk, an increasing likelihood.  If you care about the homeless and the housing crisis in California, if you care about our immigrant brothers and sisters, if you care about people of color, people of faith traditions other than Christianity, if you know any women (and we all do, whether we are aware of it or not), or even men, who’ve been assaulted: if you care about the “least of these” as we are called to do every single day; if it bothers you that we live in a society that manifests increasing apathy towards those who have suffered and even condones violence towards those who are already knocked down then this is a hard time to be active and engaged in our world. If you take seriously the call to love your neighbor as yourself and therefore are able to have compassion for people who are different that you are; if you remember that all of us are God's children, and that by corollary, all of us are siblings to one another; if you are aware therefore that the suffering people are people we are both deeply connected to and called to love like our biological siblings; if you care about the increasing division and growing irreconcilable differences between people in our country, in our communities, and even in our families; if you see meanness and are affected by the lack of simple courtesy and kindness towards strangers, then this is a hard time to keep going with hope and purpose and conviction that we can make the world a better place.

         Of course we hear about things we can do to counter this: focus on gratitude, name five things for which you are thankful each day; make sure that you have room for play in your life; take breaks from the struggles; exercise; laugh; sing.  But there is one other thing that can really help. In the midst of the daily struggles, sometimes the choice to do or be part of service that helps others (or even just one other) at this moment, now, with a real problem they are having  - this choice in itself can bring healing, can bring a tiny and reassuring sense that we can and do make a difference, a glimpse into the possibilities for genuine change and healing that can be brought on by people who care no matter what else is going on in the world.  Find a place to help.  Donate to a food bank, give school supplies, help serve meals, be part of a shelter program, donate to other organizations that make a difference.  Or, join in, give to, and work with organizations that create more permanent long term healing and change for people who are down and out: a new job training program, an education program, tutoring and care for disadvantaged children and youth, be part of a permanent low income housing program.  Yes, advocacy will always be of prime and extreme importance so that deep problems and issues can be confronted before they become monumental traumas and tragedies.  But being involved in a program that is not dependent on the politics of the day, but is simply dependent on our time, energy, resources and dedication and that really touches and changes lives: this can be healing not just for those served, but for our tired and frustrated souls as well.  Truly, we are called, as we are called into any caring work, to do this as much for our own souls, our own minds, our own spirits as we are for others.  I am grateful there are programs and opportunities out there for this kind of service.  They give me the strength and renewal to continue to work for advocacy too.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

Listening and Communicating

         I have been in a number of situations recently in which it was clear the other person was not listening, or at least not hearing me.  An example: after being away from home for a few days I was asked how I was doing.  I responded, "I’m doing well.  However, I am an introvert and because of that I think it takes me longer to form the deep and fulfilling relationships that maybe others form quickly.  As a result, after five days of being away from home, I'm feeling a bit lonely for those people with whom I do have those deeper connections."  His response, "Oh, yeah, My wife is an introvert too, so I'm sure you must be wanting your alone time."  Huh?
        Another example:  I was looking at a map in order to find a place to hike.  A man was showing me a path by tracing his finger along a road and describing it as a hiking path, "The hiking trail you are talking about; does it run parallel to the road, or is it the road itself?  Is it an actual walking path you are describing, or is it the road itself?"  His response, "No, if you walk on the road, you could get hit by a car."  "So there is a walking path near the road?"  "No. It's a lovely walk.  Just follow the road." "So it is the road?"  "If you walk on the road, you'll get hit by a car." What?
        I wish I could say these are isolated events, but actually they aren't for me.  I run into this problem of being mis-heard, mis-understood, or having my words responded to in a way that shows they were taken to mean something other than what I meant to communicate on a fairly regular basis.  This happens often enough that I have found myself wondering  lately if it is ME that is the issue.  Do I communicate in a way that is less than clear?  Am I somehow communicating things other than what I am saying in ways I'm not even aware of?
       When I ask my friends, or those who read my blog, or those who listen to my sermons if this is the case, they all assure me it isn't.  But even if the fault is at least partly mine (and I'm sure I need to claim some fault here), I also observe that as a people, as a country, we are having a harder and harder time actually LISTENING to one another.  We impose on the speaker our own world views, our own agendas, our own expectations of what we think they will say or mean.  We transfer onto the speaker our own worries, thoughts and cares.  We don't listen.
         Of course there are exceptions.  We can learn how to listen with more honesty and truth.  We can learn how to listen without spending that hearing time trying to think of how we will respond when the other person is done talking.  We can ask questions that try to clarify what we are hearing to be sure we are truly understanding the other.  We can try to stop thinking about how what they are saying relates to ourselves, and instead listen to it for the other person's sake.  We can learn this.  Circles that focus on spiritual direction, counseling, emotional and spiritual care all focus on this intentional and deep listening to the other.  But we seem to have lost this skill in normal, every day living.  And the result is a country torn apart by misunderstandings, by an inability to hear, love, have compassion for and insight into beautifully human and wondrous beings that "others" are.  It is a problem of epidemic proportions.  One which I believe can only be answered first and foremost by a commitment to listening, deeply, and truly, without agenda or ego to one another.
        In the mean time, I am striving hard to remember that every response another person gives to words I have spoken reflects much more on that other person than it does on me anyway.  Our responses are about ourselves.  Therefore when someone does respond to something I've said, it is an opportunity for ME to practice listening as well, regardless of what it was I was trying to communicate.  That's not always easy: if I'm saying something, it usually means I'm wanting it to be heard.  But sometimes the lack of understanding on their part is an invitation, an opportunity, a plea for me to hear them.  So I will start by listening.  And perhaps, once they have felt heard, there will be more space for them to hear me as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

I Believe God, Help my Unbelief

James 2:1-17

Mark 10:17-31

Mark 9:24

One year at famous acrobat who wanted to show the world the extent of his talents.  He decided he would push a wheelbarrow with a person inside across a tight rope that was strung over Niagra Falls.  He practiced often and early, working hard to make sure that it would be a success.  As he was practicing one day, an observer came by and said, “Wow!  This is such a wonderful idea.  And I have seen your talents and abilities and I have every confidence that you can do this!” The acrobat replied, “Do you really?”  “Absolutely,” the observer countered, “There is no doubt in my mind that you will be successful at this.”  The acrobat pushed him a little harder, “You really think I can do this.  Even with a person in the wheelbarrow?”

“Yes!  I have complete faith in you.  Even with a person inside, your skill would overcome any danger!” came the quick reply.  The acrobat smiled a huge relieved smile as he replied, “Good!  Then tomorrow you will ride in the wheelbarrow!”

“Are you crazy?” the observer countered, “I could get myself killed!”

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.

Faith.  We say that we are believers.  But do we really believe?  This joke points out to us that belief, that faith, is not just about declaring that we accept something as true.  Our actions show at a much deeper level what, in fact, we actually believe. 

Historically we know that there has been a division in our church, between those who believe in salvation by faith, and those who believe in salvation by works.  This was one of the key issues that surrounded the Protestant Reformation.  Parishioners in the Roman Catholic church at that time were told they needed to earn salvation, first by doing good things, but also by buying indulgences in order to get out of time in purgatory and into heaven.  And Martin Luther said “no” - we are not saved by the things we do, or the money we give the church, but by our very faith.  Salvation does not have to be bought with action or money or favors or anything other than our faith. He had a good point in saying that grace is a gift, not earned, something we can do nothing to obtain.  But I would dare to say, that what began as an important point, what started as a stand against injustice, has in itself become a corrupted understanding that has now led once again to the creation of injustice in some of our churches.

In bible study, we have talked about one example of this that was really evident in Central America for a long time. For many years, the dominant religious leaders were enforcing injustice, keeping the poor people poor by proclaiming that since they are richer in their faith when they are materially poor, and since God promises their reward will be much greater because of that wealth of faith, that they should be grateful for their poverty and not try to raise themselves up.  This is a corruption of the doctrine of salvation by faith.  It is a misuse of biblical passages, it is a mistaken declaration that future salvation means that the present life doesn’t matter and that it is okay for those who are wealthy to ignore the current suffering of the poor, because we believe that they will be saved after death by their faith.

When I worked as a missionary in Brazil for a summer, I saw a very similar situation there.  There were two kinds of missionaries serving in Brazil, and often standing across the street from one another in an especially poor area.  On one side of the street would be people handing out Bibles.  In Brazil, the Christian church is starkly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and the people handing out Bibles were Protestants trying to “save” Catholics into Protestantism by declaring that Catholics were not really believers.  Across the street from them would stand the other group of missionaries, with a hot pot of soup, a truck full of good, second-hand clothing, a couple chairs for people to sit and rest for a minute.  These two groups of Christians were often at great odds with one another.  Those handing out Bibles told those serving soup that they just obviously did not care about the salvation of the people, the only thing that really mattered. And those handing out soup stood on the passages of the Bible such as the passage in James 2: 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  In the middle of this fighting, the faith itself, Christianity itself, looked problematic to those they would serve; it seemed confused and corrupt, it looked like a faith that was lost.

Today in the story from Mark we met the rich man of faith.  He had read the scriptures, knew and believed the commandments, he had lived by the law to the best of his ability.  But it didn’t feel like it was enough and it made him uneasy.  So he went to Jesus, and after flattering him (because my guess is that this usually got him the answers he was hoping for), he asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life.  Jesus didn’t play the flattery game, but challenged it: “why do you call me good?  Only God is good!”  He also didn’t just tell the man he was fine and everything would be okay.  He told him in order to earn eternal life, he had to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We are told that the man responded by walking away sadly. It wasn’t that he didn’t have faith, at least not in the way it has often been described: I think he believed Jesus. But he didn’t have ENOUGH faith to believe that what Jesus was offering was better.  He didn’t have enough faith to believe that what God offered would be more full, more filling, more everything.   

The dichotomy which we have set up, between faith and works is a false one.  If we really, actively believe that Jesus is the divine incarnate, then we will believe what Jesus says.  And if we believe what Jesus says, then we must believe that the call of our lives is not only to love God with everything we’ve got, but also to love our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves.  If we really believe, at our core, that we are to love everyone as ourselves, then we will live lives that try to make sure that all people, not just our family members, have enough to eat; we will live lives that work to make sure that all people, not just those close to us, have lives worth living; we will do everything in our power to make sure that all people, not just those who agree with us politically or are in the same economic class, same race, same upbringing, same economic class, same country of origin, or same whatever can all live the lives that they want to live: lives filled with enough material good, with education, with healthcare, with dignity, with respect, with joy, with opportunities for their kids, with safety and well-being.  If we really believe, then we will have to take very seriously Jesus’ statement that our call to serve the poor is not just for them - it is for our very salvation as well. 

James makes really clear in this passage that we are asked to do this, we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, for our own sakes as well as for the sakes of the poor.  I am poorer in my faith because of my wealth.  It is only in giving that away, in being willing to risk and in living by that faith that my faith is built and increased.  We are called, by this passage, not just to help the poor because they are poor and in need of our help, but for our own salvation, for the increase of our own faith, for the living out of God’s kingdom for all.

Taking this to the next step, then, we have to recognize that this call is hard, hard, hard beyond anything.  As Jesus himself said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  And ALL of us here are richer than the people Jesus was referring to at the time.  The reality is that we are not just short in our works, it is not just that we all fail to earn our salvation, the reality is that we also don’t have enough faith for our salvation.  We just don’t have it.  Very few with resources like we have really do.  Very few are willing to get into the wheelbarrow when we are called to the test.  So where is the good news in this?  Where is the good news that we are promised in our faith when we fall short both in works and in faith?

I am reminded of a story in which a man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven.  The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see.  I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.”  St. Peter replied, “That’s very good.  That’s one point.” 

The man looked scared but he continued,  “Oh my.  Let me think again.  I was a good husband.  I never cheated on my wife.  My children loved me because I was a good father.  I tithed, and volunteered at the soup kitchen.  I was in the Lions Club...”  St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too.  It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works.  One more point.”  The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points.  Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.”  At this St. Peter exclaimed,  “And that’s worth 200 points.  Come on in!”

We fall short in our Christian actions because we fall short in our Christian faith.  We believe, God, Help our unbelief.  But the good news in this is that we aren’t saved by our works, and frankly, we aren’t saved by our faith either.  The good news is that God wants to make possible our impossibilities.  As Jesus said to the disciples, “what is impossible for humans is possible for God.”  The good news is that God loves us despite our inadequacies of works and faith.  The Good news is that we are saved, not by works, not by faith, but by Grace.  God saves us through God’s grace which chooses us, forgives us, loves us, and calls us.  It is through that grace and only that grace that we are brought into eternal life.  It is through that love which gave its life for us that we are brought into God’s realm.  It is through that passion by which God overcame even death to be with us, even when we killed God’s son, that we, too, are brought into new life.  We have failed ourselves, each other and God.  But God still loves us more than life and still wants us to be part of God’s kingdom.

I’m not saying that faith and works don’t matter.  They do.  But they, too, are reflections of God’s grace.  Faith itself, Paul tells us, is a gift from God; not earned, but given.  Works are a living out of that faith, a grateful response to that grace freely given.  In other words, it is through God’s grace that we have faith and do works.  It is through God’s grace that we find our faith and have the courage to begin living it out.  Through God’s grace, God helps us to grow closer to God and to love more deeply.

Dear God, we pray that you would give us the faith to see your grace all around us, in every day, in every way.  We pray that You would help us to live out that grace through deeper faith and more generous works.  We believe God, help our unbelief.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Discerning the Body

1 Corinthians 11: 17-33

Ephesians 2:14-18

               In today’s first passage Paul is confronting bad communion practices.  He starts with this: “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.  Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?”  So his first point is that all are included, regardless of economic level, regardless of what they can bring to the meal.  Also note, as I’ve mentioned before, that communion was meant to be a meal.  It was meant to fill those who came, feed them in a very real and concrete way.  It was a supper, it was a gathering of community, it was a celebration of God-in-our-midst, God who provides our daily needs of food and drink, God who comes to us in the ordinary and every day experiences of eating and drinking, of joining together with friends.  Today’s passage from 1 Corinthians ends with this, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.”  We do this after church on Sundays: just snacks, most of the time, but that eating together, that time for community and sharing of food, that is communion at the deepest level.

               By the way, this idea that communion is a meal is mirrored in the very words we use when we say, “this is the joyful feast of the people of God.”  It is meant to be a feast, a meal.  A feeding.

               Obviously we don’t do it that way anymore.  The communion “feast” became limited to a small piece of bread and a small sip of drink in a time when people were afraid that folk were coming solely because they were hungry and wanted to be fed, rather than for the “proper” reasons of remembering Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  But I will tell you honestly, it always feels more like real communion to me when we are feeding and sitting with those who are there simply out of need than it does to me to take a single bite of bread and call that communion.  Jesus fed people, including the hungry.  And when we do the same, we are more accurately following Jesus’ footsteps, we are more accurately acting out the “sacrament” than any other way we do communion.  Sacraments in the Presbyterian church involve three components: 1.  Jesus participated in it.  2.  Jesus did it for us.  3.  Jesus called us to do it.  When it comes to communion, Jesus ate, Jesus fed, and Jesus called us to do the same.  We are sacramentally called to feed one another, and when we do so in community, it truly gets at the heart of the sacramental practice of communion.

               Paul ends this passage in Corinthians with the following statement: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”  So what does it mean to “discern the body?”  He’s already said that excluding anyone who comes to the table is a failure to discern the body.  He has also said that eating within your own small groups is a way of failing to discern the body. 

               The passage we read from Ephesians gives a bit more insight.  “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”  So “discerning the body” has to do with an ability to get past our differences, to remember that we are connected, united in Christ.  “Discerning the body” is about seeing one another with eyes of love and peace and recognition that we are all children of God despite our differences, despite our disputes.

               Roger Wolsey sent me a story this week in which he described an encounter he had with someone on the opposite side of the theological spectrum from himself outside the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  They were arguing with each other loudly, with passion, with intensity, about LGBTQ inclusion.  Wolsey wrote, “In the midst of this nasty melee, I felt a breeze against the back of my legs. I turned and saw a tall man in a suit reaching in between us with a large cookie in his hand, saying, “Have a cookie!” The guy with the sign and I looked at each other, then at him, and then we took the cookie being offered. We broke it in half and started to enjoy the cookie. The guy in the suit walked off hardly breaking stride at all. We found ourselves still arguing, but our volume level went way down and we somehow shifted into a more civil mode of, slightly, more rational debate. He learned my name is Roger. I learned his name is Fred. And at the end, we honored each other as being fellow Christians, we shook hands and pledged to pray for each other (both of us certain that the other needed prayer).”  He continued, “the line between enemy and friend is not a rigid one and … the concept of “enemy” is only there to the extent that we want and allow it to exist.  Historic writings about the early Church tell us that non-Christians often remarked of Christians “See how they love each other!” There was a time of such a lack of love in ancient Roman society that any show of love or joy, let alone unconditional love like the kind that had them going out of their way to ensure that the poor people of Rome received proper burials, set Christians apart from the rest of the crowd. People could sense something was different about those Christians. That difference was inclusive, radical love and compassion – and that difference made Christianity worthy of consideration. Those early Christians provided proper funeral services for the indigent strangers when no one else would. They rescued infants with birth defects from the garbage heaps who’d been rejected and discarded as refuse by families unwilling to raise them. And they notably tended to each other when they took ill, experienced hardship, became widowed, etc.”

               On this World Communion/Peacemaking Sunday it is especially important that we remember this.  We are celebrating communion with Christians around the world today.  We are also remembering the needs, and especially the hungers of people around the world as we collect the peacemaking offering which goes in large part towards the ending of hunger around the world.  These three things: our connections to each other around the world, our feeding of each other through communion, and peacemaking are all intimately connected. 

               So today as we celebrate both peacemaking and world communion Sunday I invite you to take part at a deeper level in both being fed and in feeding.  In terms of being fed, we have baskets full to the brim with different kinds of breads from around the world.  Do not just take a bite, but take a real piece of bread.  Savor it, taste it, let it fill you in body as well as in spirit and in soul, let it be part of you even as you see that same bread becoming part of those around you.  In terms of feeding one another, I encourage you to give generously to the peacemaking offering that we will be taking in a few minutes.  In our praying, I encourage you to remember people around the world, our brothers and sisters, our family whom we have yet to meet, and to lift up deep prayers for their wholeness, their well-being, their safety and health.

               Communion is so many things.  It is remembering.  We remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We also remember what God has done throughout history.  When Jesus ate the Passover meal, he was remembering the Israelites freed from slavery.  We also remember the return from exile.  We also remember that Jesus was recognized by his disciples after the resurrection through the breaking of the bread – through eating with them in communion and community. 

               It is New covenant of forgiveness and grace and life. 

               It sustains the church by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuing presence.   

               And on this World Communion Sunday it also connects us to people around the world in a commitment to love, to peace, to justice.

               We thank you, God; we bless you, God; we anticipate, God, your fulfilling of the kingdom on earth.  We trust in and receive Christ’s love, we manifest the reality of the covenant of grace in reconciling and being reconciled.  We proclaim the power of Christ’s reign for renewal, justice and peace in the world.  We bind the Church with Christ and with one another, united with all Christians, nourished by Christ’s presence, and we ask to be kept faithful.  We renew our baptism vows through this taking of communion.  We celebrate the joyful feast of the people of God and anticipate the great banquet where all people will be united and made whole.  Amen.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Having the Courage to Include

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

How do we understand who we are?  How do we understand what makes us ourselves?  In a lot of ways we do this by identifying what we are NOT, and who we are NOT.  I am NOT male, not a Southerner or East Coast person, NOT a fundamentalist, NOT a sporty kind of gal.  It is okay to figure out who we are in relationship to what and who we are not.  But often we then take this to the next step of excluding others, keeping out those we identify ourselves against.  We exclude folk, don’t invite them to our gatherings, to our dinners, to our activities. We pick people usually who are in the same “categories” that we put ourselves in.  And we either don’t even see, or specifically bar and exclude people who don’t fit into our categories or what is okay, what is good, what is “us”.  But in so doing, we run the risk of keeping people from God, from God’s grace, from God’s redemption, from the life that God gives to each of us. 

We know this.  As we’ve worked closely, for example, with the Rainbow Community Center, it has become extremely clear that the Church (big C) has lost thousands of LGBTQ+ members as a result of Christian exclusion, or prejudice, of unkindness, of intolerance.  Again, we know this.  We are called to be known by our love.  But how many times, instead, are we known by our judgments, our exclusion, and even our hate?

We too easily feel threatened, feel jealous, feel scared of those who are different.  We are too easily afraid we will be “corrupted” or damage or harmed by those who are different from us.  We judge as a way to protect.  We set up boundaries of inclusion as a way to try to be safe.  But these choices to exclude are much more dangerous than any inclusion could possibly be.

All three of today’s passage emphasizes the deep and real importance of not excluding, not keeping others from God.  The story of Esther is a story of a woman who had the courage to beg the king to not destroy her people, people who were being excluded because Haman, the king’s advisor, felt threatened by them.  Haman almost succeeded.  His fear, his jealousy, his anger led him to almost destroy an entire group of people.

In the James passage we are encouraged to not ever give up on someone else, to never consider another beyond redemption but to rejoice in the possibility that all can find their way back.

And of course the Mark passage emphasizes that when we are quick to exclude, we need to look again.  I love this passage because the disciples were clearly people like all of us: they became jealous, they felt threatened by the power and attention that this other person was getting.  And Jesus basically said, “do not allow those feelings to cause you to treat another person as an enemy.  Don’t decide they are against you because they aren’t with you at the moment.  Don’t decide they are your foe because they hang out with other people, look different, make different choices, see the world differently.”

I have shared with you before some of what author Mitch Albom has written. In his book, Have a Little Faith, he really is writing his own story of ‘drifting’ from his faith.  As he looks into why he drifted away from his own faith, he at first claimed that it was mostly apathy.  But as he told his own story, it became clear that there were other reasons at the heart of his drifting from his faith.  He noticed hypocrisy.  Well, we all do, right?  We all know about the many people of faith who claim to be about love who act hateful, for example.  Or the many people who shout condemnation only to be caught doing whatever it is they are condemning…

(On a side note, I find it a bit confusing that people expect church folk to BE perfect, or to somehow be less hypocritical than everyone else.  We are here because we need TO grow.  So if we came in perfect, what would be the point?  As Jesus himself said, Mark 2:17, “ It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”).

But for Mitch, also, he started to notice that he was excluded, as a Jewish person, from the larger culture.  And instead of staying true to his faith but stepping away from an exclusive culture, he chose to be part of the culture and step away from a faith that would leave him out. Additionally, and this is described more than stated in his book, he found good things in other traditions…he married an Arab Christian, not rejecting her because of her faith, not finding her hideous or unacceptable because of her faith.  And yet because of his own upbringing, he felt guilty about not having an exclusivist vision when it came to his faith.  He found wisdom in other faiths, such as Christianity, and felt this must be wrong.  At one point when he was talking to his Rabbi, the Rabbi had made the comment, “I have what I need, why bother chasing more?”  To which Albom responded, “You’re like that Biblical quote, what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

“That’s Jesus” responded the Rabbi.

“Oops, sorry,” I said.

“Don’t apologize,” he said, smiling.  “It’s still good.” 

The Rabbi was able to accept the wisdom in other traditions.  Albom, though, felt guilty in quoting Jesus.  He felt he was crossing an unacceptable line by valuing wisdom from different faiths.   

At one point Albom confronted the Rabbi about this asking how he could be so “open-minded” as a clergy person for the Jewish faith.

The Rabbi responded, “Look.  I know what I believe.  It’s in my soul.  But I constantly tell our people: you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything.  And since we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe something else.” He sighed.  “I’m not being original here, Mitch.  Most religions teach us to love our neighbor.”

Albom continues, “I thought about how much I admired him at that moment.  How he never, even in private, even in old age, tried to bully another belief, or bad-mouth someone else’s devotion.  And I realized I had been a bit of a coward on this whole faith thing.  I should have been proud, less intimidated.  I shouldn’t have bitten my tongue.  If the only thing wrong with Moses is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with Jesus is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with mosques, Lent, chanting, Mecca, Buddha, confession, or reincarnation is that they’re not yours - well, maybe the problem is you.  One more question? I asked the Reb.  He nodded.  When someone from another faith says, ‘God bless you’ what do you say?  ‘I say, “thank you, and God bless you, too.’  Really? ‘Why shouldn’t I’  I went to answer and realized I had no answer.  No answer at all.” (p 168)…  “You can embrace your own faith’s authenticity and still accept that others believe in something else.”

            My son and I were watching the movie “The Help” last week.  It’s one of my favorite movies, so we’ve watched it a number of times.  But this time what struck me the most was the story that Skeeter’s mother finally told her about what had happened to their life-long African American maid who disappeared from the family while Skeeter was away at college. The story takes place in the 60s in Mississipi, where the household servants were exclusively African American woman serving all white families. Skeeter had been raised by their help, their maid, by Constantine.  Constantine had been with and worked for this family forever.  And in many ways she was one of the family, though in other ways the limits and social behaviors of the time would never allow for close connection.  But at the point at which the Daughters of America had come out to offer Skeeter’s mother an award and the President of the Daughters of America behaved in a very racist, exclusive way, expected the same exclusive, judging, condemning and belittling behavior in Skeeter’s mother, when suddenly Skeeter’s mother was being judged for being too kind, too inviting of the woman who had raised her kids, who had taken care of their family for decades, suddenly Skeeter’s mother had a terrible choice to make.  She either had to stand up to a woman she respected, the woman who had the power to give her this honor that she had sought for so long, or she had to throw out the helper, Constantine and her daughter who had given all of their lives to care for Skeeter’s mother and her family.  Skeeter’s mother made a terrible choice.  She chose to impress her guests by kicking out and firing Constantine and her daughter for coming in through the front door of her house, something that had never been unacceptable in that house before.  She chose to impress her guests by taking livelihood and a family away from someone she loved.  She chose to exclude, to judge, to condemn – all for the sake of appearances, for the sake of her own acceptance into a group that was behaving in a manner we know to be deeply racist, to be utterly atrocious.

            We may not face these exact same challenges.  But we know there are times for many people when they are called on to choose between being inclusive but losing the respect of people they had otherwise looked up to, or to exclude in a way we know is wrong but puts us in a better place with someone who has power in our lives.  This can happen at work, this can happen at the store, this can happen on the BART train when we witness cruelty towards a Muslim or an immigrant.  Do we choose to speak up?  To stand up for those who are being attacked?  Do we choose to include, to love, to stand up for people who are different from us even when we might lose something, personally, by doing so?

            I was reminded of a time in one of the churches I served where one of the members who volunteered constantly to be a greeter was a woman that others found… well, slightly repulsive.  She didn’t bath nearly as often as she should have, she didn’t have a good sense of personal space, but would tend to stand too close, and touch too often.  She said whatever came into her head, which was never unkind, but often revealed more than people really wanted to hear.  And I remember when one of our other church members “suggested” that having her act as a greeter might be sending the wrong message to visitors.  “She isn’t like the rest of us.  She should not be the spokesperson for our congregation.  She will turn people off!  We want people who dress right and look good and say the right things to welcome our guests.”  We were in a group of people when this man declared this, and as I looked around to see how other people felt, I could see the discomfort.  The man speaking in this way was highly respected, a big donor, a leader in the church.  At the same time I think most of the people in that room also knew that our job as people of faith, as Christians, is not to turn away someone from a service they feel called to do because they don’t fit the stereotypes we have.  I finally gently suggested that I thought her presence as a greeter sent exactly the right message: that all are welcome in this place, that we are not just a country club for the rich and comfortable, but a sanctuary for all people.  But I have to admit that for me, too, it was not easy to say those words, it was not easy to put a different perspective forward, even if it was one of inclusion, one of love, one of acceptance and celebration of all of who we are.

            The reality is it goes farther than simple inclusion.  It also has to extend to really seeing the other.. it has to extend to respect.

            Thinking about all the #metoo stuff that’s been going on lately, and the harrassments and assaults that have been coming to the forefront of our awareness lately, reminded me of one of my favorite MASH episodes.  Hawkeye needs to give Margaret a shot because Hepatitis is raging through camp.  This is shot that you get on your rear.  And Hawkeye is making comments about Margaret’s appearance, which he believes to be a compliment, but which she hears, as most women would, as crossing a line, as being a form of harassment, of being an invasion, of being disrespectful.  She doesn’t like it.  And she says to him, “How dare you come in here on the pretext of giving me a shot and then stand there ogling me as though I were a sideshow attraction.”

His clueless response, “Boy, I show you a little appreciation, and you hit the roof. - What do you want from me?”

To which she responds, “Respect. Simple respect. I expect nothing more, and I'll accept nothing less.”

            Because in MASH people actually grow and change he is able to hear that, he is able to hear her and learn.  Can we do the same?  Can we learn to include, and more, learn to respect, even people who are different from us? Who have different visions of the world, different views, different understandings, different backgrounds, different skin colors, different heritages, different genders and orientations, different ways of being human in an increasingly complex and difficult world?

            It takes great courage at times to stand up for one another.  It takes deep courage to include people that other people would reject.  But Jesus’ phrase, “for whoever is not against us is for us,” is one that we need to take to heart, in our dealings with one another, and in our choices to live with courage in the face of other’s judgements, exclusive behavior, and acts of injustice and oppression towards others.