Welcoming Children

“Welcoming Children”

jesus and child

Mark 9:30-37 (9:37) – September 23, 2018

Can you remember back to elementary school? Remember the bickering and fighting on the playground and in the hallways—“who is the best?” Who is the best speller? Who is the best at math? Who is the best kicker at kickball? Which one is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether you remember your own school days, or the bickering of your children or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. Isn’t that a common conversation among children? They are encouraged to compete, to win ribbons or trophies—who’s the greatest? Who’s the best?

Just before the Gospel reading for today, Jesus and the disciples are walking on the road to Capernaum. The disciples have an argument: they are bickering over which one of them is the greatest—the “best” disciple. One problem: they tried their hardest to have this argument privately, without their Rabbi Jesus hearing about it.

Of course, we all know what really happened. Jesus knew about the argument anyhow. Except, He acted like He didn’t, and asked a leading question: “When Jesus was in the house, He asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’”

I suspect you are all familiar with the reaction of a small child when he or she has been found out, and is guilty of something. Perhaps breaking a glass, or spilling some milk, or something even a little more serious. The guilty look, the sidelong glance, the trembling lips, ducking the head. Even a few tears. There is embarrassment, even feeling ashamed. We all know the signs. We’ve all been there. The response from the disciples? “34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”

Who is the greatest, anyway? Jesus tells us, in His usual puzzling, even roundabout way. With a seeming paradox, no less.

Jesus sits down. That’s important! Did you know that teachers and scholars in the first century would always sit when teaching? Our Gospel writer Mark wanted to make that clear, so that’s why he mentioned Jesus sitting down—going into teaching mode.

We already know the disciples were confused about a lot of things. This was another of those things. Just before this reading, Jesus reminds them about His death and how important it would be. Immediately after that, almost as if Jesus had never mentioned such a serious thing at all, the disciples start to bicker about which one of them is the greatest. Imagine! We always knew the disciples were pretty clueless. As if we needed another reminder.

Next, Jesus did something quite unorthodox. (As was His habit, after all.) Jesus brings a little child front and center, right into the middle of His teaching session.

Sometimes, when children are brought to the front of some churches, it’s because “they’re so cute!” With pretty little outfits, and darling, chubby cheeks. Often, children act silly or say the darnedest things!

As one commentator says, “However, during the rest of the sermon, are the children central? Are they models of faith? Or are they there just for the giggle and cute factor?

Jesus very distinctly does not say, ‘I love these cute little guys. Isn’t this kid so adorable?’” [1] That is not the purpose at all.

Just to make sure we all understand just how unorthodox this was, we need to know the position of children in the first century. Children were not considered persons, yet. They were considered helpless and marginalized in that society. Isn’t that what Jesus always did? Didn’t He go straight for the helpless, the marginalized, the outcasts, the least of these? That is what He did, in this situation.

Bound up in this spotlight on a small child is Jesus’s statement about who is truly “the greatest” in God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus is still in teaching mode. He states that “the kingdom of God was based on a completely different set of principles. God’s kingdom ushers in a new world order…. [This] radically reverses normative standards and declares a different definition of discipleship—service to others. The one who is willing to be last of all and servant of all is, in fact, great in God’s kingdom.[2]

Talk about turning the world in its head! Jesus was, indeed, turning the world the disciples knew on its head. I suspect the words coming from Jesus did not compute in the disciples’ brains. Not right away, anyhow.

What does this definition of greatness mean to you and me? Jesus’s definition is completely counter-cultural, whether we are talking about the culture of the first century or of the twenty-first. This does not mesh at all with any modern idea of “the best” or “the greatest” or ribbons or trophies or Olympic medals. However, Jesus does not concern Himself with adjusting or accommodating to other people’s standards. Instead, He “calls us to imagine that true greatness lies in service by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore.[3]

Isn’t that Jesus, all over? Isn’t that what Jesus would do? He wouldn’t hang out with the cool kids on the playground, or with the rich folks on the right side of the tracks. Instead, Jesus would seek out the lepers, the tax collectors, the Samaritan woman by the well, the blind and the lame and the demonized ones. Those most vulnerable, those with little influence or power.

What would Jesus do? Who would Jesus hang out with?

As we consider our church, St. Luke’s Church, and our children, we can follow the excellent example of many African American congregations. Overwhelmingly, they have “reached out to children in love. This spirit has deep roots within African American history and culture. Now, more than ever, vulnerable children need to be embraced by the church just as Jesus embraced children.[4]

That’s what Jesus did. Listen to our reading: “Taking the child in His arms, Jesus said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.’”

Jesus reached out to the margins of His society and drew a small child into the center of His community. What is more, He welcomed the child. He welcomed the least of these and integrated them into our fellowship. Can we do any less?

It’s not only the children, but also the other people on the margins, on the outskirts of society today. The outcasts, the lonely, those who are stigmatized or separated. We need to welcome all of these, the least of these. No matter what. Just as Jesus welcomes the children fully into our fellowship today.

Who would Jesus welcome? He welcomes you. He welcomes me. Praise God, Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome everyone.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary25bgospel/

Children in the Center of the Assembly, Clint Schnekloth, The Hardest Question, 2012.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

[3] http://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/

“A Different Kind of Greatness,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2018.

[4] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love as Jesus Loves

“Love as Jesus Loves”

John 15-12 love one another, words

John 15:9-17 (15:12) – May 6, 2018

Love, love, love. When you think of love, what comes to mind? Valentine’s Day hearts and heart-shaped boxes of candy? Bouquets of roses? What about popular love songs from musicals or the radio? Or, do you think about loving your family—your parents or children, or grandchildren? Loving your spouse, or your pets? Or, how about dear friends?

At first glance, this seems like something natural, common sense. Of course, I love my children. Of course, I love my husband. Of course—when they were alive, years ago—I loved my two dogs. Of course, I go out of my way for my loved ones. I bet we all do those things.

But, is that the kind of love Jesus is talking about here? Jesus gives His friends the command to love: what does that look like?

Some people say they love one another. They talk really big. You know the kind I mean. They might speak of loving all different kinds of people, and put on a great show. How much they talk the talk of love! Telling everyone how big their heart is. But, when it comes to doing anything related to love, and caring, serving, and helping others, where are these people? Do they walk the walk of love? Do they practice loving like Jesus loved?

When I was in kindergarten, my parents started me in piano lessons. As the youngest of six children, I followed all of my older brothers and sisters in having at least a few years of playing the piano. And, practice I did. As I practiced over the years, I became better and better at playing the piano. I had a teacher to show me how to play an instrument, and I practiced.

The same could be said for anything people want to become skilled at. Practice! Whether it’s playing baseball, football, hockey or tennis, when we practice an activity, we can’t help but become better at doing it. Whether it is sewing, dancing, painting or whatever else we are striving to get better at, practice doesn’t necessarily “make perfect,” but it does help us to improve. A teacher or coach helps us to become more comfortable and accustomed to doing whatever thing we are trying to do.

Let’s go back to the blowhard, the one who says they love everyone. Can you hear them bragging and boasting? Look at them! They are so tremendous at loving. In fact, no one loves half as well as these super-special lovers.

Question: is their talk of  “love” only self-serving and selfish? Or, do they walk the walk of love? Can we see the genuine effects of their loving, in their families, among their friends and acquaintances, and out in the community?

Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel reading for today, from John 15. Jesus starts His command with a few words of preparation: “10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

The big thing I get from this introduction to our Lord’s command? Jesus tells us to keep His commands. This ought to be a no-brainer. We all need to keep, or follow, Jesus’s commands. Piece of cake, right? Walk in the park! No problem, Jesus.

Well, not so much. Jesus must have known how much of a problem we all would have with this command. He said, “IF you keep my commands.” I am assuming we are not braggarts and blowhards like some people. No, we really mean to try to love others. So help us, God! But, it is not so easy. That thing called sin gets in the way, snarling and tangling us all up.

But, why does Jesus say this? He wants us to be filled with His joy. It says so, right here in this reading. We all have the possibility for the joy of Jesus of be in each one of us. Not only the joy of Jesus, but the complete joy of Jesus. Chock full to the brim! Filled with His joy!

I don’t know about you, but I think that being filled with the complete joy of Jesus sounds amazing. Beyond awesome.

However, I keep coming across this problem. I know very well that my heart is sinful. I have sinful thoughts, and sometimes I say sinful words, and do sinful deeds. Self-serving things, selfish, bragging, and boasting. I wonder whether you might do or say selfish things, too?

I suspect Jesus knew that this was the case, which was why He phrased His command in this way. But, wait! There’s more. The next thing out of Jesus’s mouth: “12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! What do You mean? Sure, “love one another,” that I get. But, “love each other as I have loved you?” Didn’t Jesus sacrifice a lot? Didn’t Jesus love people with an unconditional love? Jesus finishes the command by not only telling us about unconditional love, but He shows us what it can mean.

I consider these words of loving command serious words, indeed. Show one another unconditional love, just like Jesus. Let me tell you how one commentator’s mother followed Jesus’s words of command to love as He loved.

“My mom started a backpack program 8 years ago with an elementary school down the road from my parents’ church that has morphed into a partnership. Among many other ways that they support the school’s students and teachers, congregation members pack food every week for more than 100 children who may not otherwise have anything to eat during the weekend.

This story was relayed by the mother of a child who receives a weekly backpack.

“This mom watched from her window as her child and his friend got off of the school bus one Friday afternoon. Her son took his food bag out of his backpack and started unpacking some food at the bus stop. This little one shared half of what he had with his friend. When his mom asked him about what she saw, he told her that his friend needed some extra food, too.

“Word got back to the school counselor. We sent extra food in this little one’s bag, until we could get the new child enrolled in the program. We added a note telling him how proud we were of him and that we would send extra food for him to share with his buddy until he could get his own bag of food on Fridays.” [1]

That weekly commitment – shopping, packing, delivering – is a way to put action to the words of love, a way to show others we care. We have the opportunity to stop being selfish. That makes possible other acts of self-giving and generosity. It’s a way to love with actions, the way that Jesus would love.

What self-sacrificing love! This kind of love is not self-centered. It does not brag or boast, it does not get all puffed up and just blather on about how loving they are. No, this kind of love is love with workboots on. Love that rolls up its sleeves and goes to work, for anyone. Loving one another, no matter what. Loving people the way Jesus would love them.

I ask periodically, “what would Jesus do?” Would Jesus roll up His sleeves, get in there and pack backpacks for kids who did not have enough to eat? I think so. What can we do for Jesus? How can we roll up our sleeves and show others that Jesus loves them?

We all have the opportunity to follow the commands of Jesus. Love one another. Go and do. Go and love, in Jesus’s name.

[1] http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/05/what-is-love/

“What Is Love?” Anna Macdonald Dobbs, Ekklesia Project, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Scripture Alone

“By Scripture Alone”

2 Tim 3-16 Scripture God-breathed, script

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (3:16) – October 1, 2017

Who remembers going to Sunday school? Remember the bible lessons, and learning about God’s faithfulness? How God was faithful to people over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, and how God is faithful to us, today? Who remembers going to confirmation classes, and learning about God’s grace? How God extends abundant grace to us, today? Who remembers learning about Jesus, and how He came into the world to save sinners, including us?

The young Timothy learned lots of that kind of bible stuff, too. He grew up reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and was carefully taught about God and the ways of salvation and faith. Except, timid Timothy needed a knowledgeable mentor, an older brother in the faith, and he found one in the Apostle Paul. Paul zeroed in on the fact that Timothy grew up with the Scriptures. He praised Timothy for learning the Bible; “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

I mentioned last week that I will be preaching this month on the five “Solas,” the five foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

This week, I am preaching on Sola Scriptura, or by Scripture alone. This foundational principle sets Protestants apart. This was a big deal in Martin Luther’s day. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, by Scripture alone was not the case in the minds of many, many people in Martin’s day. Not only clergy but also lay people in the 1500’s thought that they needed more stuff to add to the Bible, for salvation—to get them to heaven.

“I need the Scriptures plus the Pope to save me.” That was what some people thought. They considered the Pope’s pronouncements to be equal in weight to the Scriptures. That was one thing that Martin Luther publicly denounced in his 95 Theses, in several pointed statements.

Don’t get me wrong; I have highly praised both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II from this pulpit, on several occasions. Francis is a spiritual, kind, caring and devout man, a marvelous representative for the Catholic Church worldwide. I could say similar things about John Paul II, may he rest in peace. Great leaders, and wonderful examples. Just not elevating their pronouncements to the level of the Holy Scriptures.

“I need the Scriptures plus church tradition to save me.” That was what some people thought. Yes, Holy Scripture was important. But many, many people for centuries thought that the doctrines and traditions of the Church Universal were of equal importance. The creeds and confessions and catechisms of the church were considered of equal importance, too.

Guess what? Doctrines, traditions, and creeds are all human creations. That means that humans made them. In most cases, very carefully. They checked and double-checked to make certain they agreed with Scripture. However, sometimes these faulty humans made mistakes. Sometimes these fallible, sinful humans goofed and put down their goofs on paper, for posterity to see. Sometimes sincere people of good conscience passed rules stating that certain things were good or positive or “the way things should be” or “it’s always been that way.”

“Over the centuries, doctrines have been developed with the interests of the Church in mind.  These doctrines have come to us from human hands and minds.  They are imperfect.” [1]

One vivid example? In 2017, we now understand that slavery is immoral. 150 years ago at the beginning of the American Civil War, sincere people of good conscience in certain denominations split ways over the biblical condition of slavery, described numerous times in the Scriptures. They did not reconcile for many decades. Similar to people at the time of Martin Luther, many were bound to tradition and following the church leaders of past centuries.

What about today? Is this still true? I think, yes. Today, “men use the Bible to enforce patriarchy.  Bigots use the Bible to justify discrimination.  The calling to serve the poor falls on deaf ears.  ‘Healing the sick’ is not a community responsibility, lest we have to pay more in taxes.  [Many] Christians use the Bible to satisfy their desires, promote their own interests, and express their own fears and bigotry.” [2]

How can people so blindly follow tradition, we might ask? To illustrate , here is a short story. “The new bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Her husband thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

Bothered by this, the young bride calls her mother and asks, “You know the roast brisket recipe? Why do you cut off the ends of the roast before you put it in the pan?” Her mother answers, “That’s the way your grandmother always made it.”

“The next week, they go to the grandmother’s house, and she prepares the famous roast brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she asks her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “My dear, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” [3]

What does Paul tell Timothy? “How from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. We, too, have learned Scripture in Sunday school, in confirmation classes, in bible studies and sermons over the years. “The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” That is a foundation stone of our faith. By Scripture alone.

Returning to the words of the Apostle Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So, Scripture is God-breathed. Divinely inspired. Breathed out by the Ruach ha Kodesh, the Holy Spirit.

The important part? “The descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The Scripture invites us into a pattern of gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma.” [4] What the Bible does offer us—these blessed, holy Scriptures invite us into a pattern or example of gospel living. In other words, live like Jesus.

Is this an easy example to follow? No, but it is straight-forward. What would Jesus do?

As John 1 tell us, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Do you hear? Holy Scripture equals the Word. The Word equals Jesus, the Word made flesh, come down from heaven.

We look to Scripture for our nurture, our faith, and our salvation. We look to our Lord Jesus to save us from our sins. We look to the Word made flesh, the Word we celebrate and remember in Communion, today. Praise God for salvation. Praise God for Scripture.

[1] https://modernlectionaries.blogspot.com/2013/10/making-sense-of-god-sound-doctrine-and_20.html

“Making Sense of God: ‘Sound Doctrine’ and Divine Inspiration,” Richard Mario Procida, Modern Lectionaries, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.snopes.com/weddings/newlywed/secret.asp , adapted.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=725

Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

What the Lord Requires

Micah 6:6-8 – January 29, 2017

micah-6-8-word-cloud

“What the Lord Requires”

Many people have very particular ideas about how to do things. Ask the editors at Vogue or GQ, or other high fashion magazines, and they will tell you precisely how a well-dressed person ought to look. What about Emily Post, Miss Manners, and Ann Landers? Don’t they let everyone know how to act and how to behave in polite society, in just about any situation?

What about the police and lawyers, and what is legal or not? Aren’t there basic rules and requirements for behavior and actions in this community? You and I have a right to wave our arms as much as we like. Except—my right ends where your nose begins. And what about public intoxication? Drunk and disorderly? There are many examples I could mention about recommended behavior.

Welcome to our mainline American culture, here in the 21st century. I’m not even going to go into the multitude of different cultures and the differences of practice and of culture, world-wide. Yet, many people have quite particular ideas about how to do things, and what types of activity are recommended, even required.

One of our Scripture passages today gives us a short list of what the Lord recommends for each of us. A summary statement, if you will. Let’s read Micah 6:8: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Let’s unpack that summary statement, and take a look at the two verses that come before. Verse 6: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” This is a sincere question, I believe. It’s sincere for the prophet, and sincere for all of us here today. What is the best way to come before God? How can we come to the sanctuary, to the holy place? Who may approach God? What kinds of things do we all need to do (and say, and think) to be acceptable and worthy in the sight of the Most High God?

These verses do not concentrate on what we ought to wear. Different people wear different things, depending on their culture, their context, and their preferences. At some churches, the minister wears super-fancy robes (like at my priest friends’ Episcopal churches in Maryland and Virginia). I have several friends who attend church in Chicago at a very youth-oriented congregation. Their minister wears blue jeans and an open-collared shirt for a Sunday morning service. Clothing choice is NOT what this sermon is about. The choices of what we do with our lives, how we treat each other and live together—this IS what the prophet is talking about here.

What does the Lord require of us, anyway?

Some people and some churches think God wants a showy service, and spectacular offerings. As one of the commentators said, “Perhaps our worship is wrong; perhaps we have not been serious enough in our acts of praise? “What do you want, Lord? Burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” (6:6b-7a) [1]

In the time the prophet Micah wrote, a small portion of people did not stop there. They went even further. Listen: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Yes, sometimes, in the Old Testament times, when people from other tribes and nations thought they had sinned so severely—so grievously that their god could never, ever forgive them, they would actually turn over their firstborn to the temple. In some cases, their firstborn would even be killed by the priests. (This was NOT in Israel. The Lord considered this practice an abomination!) However, in certain places, at certain kinds of temples with horrible blood sacrifices (for example, at the temples of the horrible, bloodthirsty god Moloch), this was true.

Again, NOT the case in Israel. And, NOT the case here, today, either.

The people were too preoccupied about what they could do to please God through their religious ceremonies, only on what happened in the sanctuary. They did not care about the rest of their lives, and how they behaved the other six days a week. How could these people live their lives during the week any old way they wanted to, but just wanted God to put a stamp of approval on their foreheads when they came to Temple (or church) on the weekend? Because, that was what they were trying to get away with.

Which leads us to the general summary in Micah 6:8. What is it that God requires of us? First, to do justice. Justice is dynamic! Not just written down in some dusty book. Justice means that we “work for fairness and equality for all, particularly the weak and the powerless who are exploited by others.” [2]

Who speaks out for those who have little or no power or influence? Throughout history, Christians have felt strongly that they ought to speak for those who have no voice. Like, children, the elderly, and the mentally disabled. People in asylums, prisons, and orphanages. All of these need fairness, equality, and help against exploitation.

Second, the Lord requires us to love kindness. Yes, one meaning of the Hebrew word chesed is kindness, but the full meaning can hardly be conveyed by one single English word. It means a whole lot more than simple kindness! Chesed “has to do with love, loyalty, and faithfulness. It can be used to describe the key element in relationships, whether in marriage or between human friends or between God and humanity.” [3]

This is more than just “being nice” to each other. Much, much more! It all comes down to relationships.

Third, the prophet says to walk humbly with our God. The key word here is “walk.” Not to do things pleasing to God every once in a while, but be “careful to put God first and to live in conformity with God’s will.” [4] Our life’s journey—our continued walk with God—is a journey with our loving, giving, embracing God as our constant companion.

Again, this verse, Micah 6:8—is NOT about worship practices on Sunday mornings, and that’s all there is. This verse is NOT about how to dress for church, or other kinds of exterior behavior, just for show. This verse is about our inside attitude.

This is one verse where the expression “What Would Jesus Do?” has pertinent meaning. What would Jesus do, with that homeless veteran on the street, begging for money? What would Jesus do, with the elderly woman in subsidized housing, trying to make ends meet on only her Social Security check each month? What would Jesus do, with the pregnant teenager kicked out of her home because of an unwise choice?

Is this requirement from God easy? No. Not easy. Is it simple and straightforward? Yes. In plain language, the prophet tells us what God expects of all followers of God.

Let’s close with Micah 6:8, again: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Let those with ears to hear, let them hear. And do, and love, and walk with God.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Justice-Not-Worship-John-C-Holbert-1-20-2011 Justice, Not Worship, Reflections on Micah 6:1-8, John C. Holbert, Patheos, 2011.

[2]  Daniel J. Simundson and the The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 7, The Book of Micah), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Confront Evil, Love Enemies

“Confront Evil, Love Enemies”

Luke 6-27 love your enemies

Luke 6:27-28 – July 17, 2016

This week in the news has been difficult, to say the least. Thinking of two situations: the truck rampage in Nice after the Bastille Day celebrations, and the attempted coup in Turkey. Horrific situations. The loss of life, the horror, grief and trauma. Localized in the case of Nice, France. Widespread, in several regions of the country in Turkey.

I know, as sure as I am standing before you today, that many people are traumatized. The deaths, hospitalizations, shootings. Not only affected and grieving people in localized areas, but people throughout the region. Maybe even the world.

I chose this particular passage a week ago to discuss our sentence of the week from the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission. This week’s sentence: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to name and confront the powers of evil within and among us.”

I searched the Bible to find verses and passages which dealt with evil and confronting the powers of evil. Yes, I could have chosen verses by the Apostle Paul that dealt with powers and principalities, institutional evil and great wickedness. Or, I could have gone with generalities, and centered on sin. I can think of several passages from both the Old and New Testaments that deal with sin, both individual and corporate sin.

However, a week ago, I chose chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus talks about enemies and how His followers ought to treat their enemies. This was before the attack in Nice, before the attempted coup in Turkey, and before the Black Lives Matter protests here in this country. Jesus had some pointed things to say about enemies. Some surprising things, too.

Karen read this passage to us, a few minutes ago. I will read verses 27 and 28 one more time, to let us hear the words of our Lord, again. 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Another way of saying this comes in verse 31:  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Wait a minute. Maybe, more than a minute. Enemies do bad things to us. They speak in mean and calculating ways, and sometimes act viciously, even heartlessly. Enemies are sometimes evil, through and through. That is exactly what our sentence of the week from the Statement of Mission talks about, too.

When I think of evil, sometimes I think about something that slithers or sneaks. Something that hides in the shadows, creeping along in the darkness. Occasionally, evil acts blatantly, coming right out in the open, swaggering around all over the place, like someone who curses and cusses a blue streak. But, I would like to concentrate on evil that sneaks around secretly, even unnoticed. Spreading its poison, insidious in its grasp.

What can we do in the face of this kind of evil? When these kinds of enemies continue to rise against us?  

These words of Jesus are challenging words. Some might say hard words. Even, impossible words. But, think about it. The whole focus of evil and of enemies is to get us to retaliate. To be just as evil in return, if not more so. “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi said. What good is that to anyone?

Not only individuals, but groups also can be sucked right in. Groups—often with the tribal mentality—can be drawn into a cycle of evil, even violence. Is that what Jesus advocates here? What about when He says “Do to others as you would have them do to you?” What do you think He meant here? Did Jesus want us to retaliate and do evil acts? Say nasty and mean things? Or, did Jesus want us to try something radically different? Unusual? Counter-cultural?

I would like to tell you about a town in Denmark. Middle-sized town, generally peaceful and harmonious. Except, in 2012, the police received calls from a number of concerned people, including some parents. Several guys in their late teens or early twenties left their homes, their town, and all that was familiar, to go to Syria. To work for Muslim terrorists.

The two police officers, Aarslev and Link, are police specialists with a role in crime prevention. This article featuring them and their idea appeared Friday on the National Public Radio website. “They usually deal with locals who are drawn to right-wing extremism, or gangs. The landscape of global terrorism was completely new to them. But they decided to take it on. And once they did, they wound up creating an unusual — and unusually successful — approach to combating radicalization.”

“The rest of Europe came down hard on citizens who had traveled to Syria. France shut down mosques it suspected of harboring radicals. The U.K. declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several countries threatened to take away their passports — a move formerly reserved for convicted traitors.”

“But the Danish police officers took a different approach: They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.”

“Their program came to be known as the ‘Aarhus model.’” [1]

This program, this way of treating enemies reminds me a lot of Jesus. Let us listen to our Lord’s words from Luke 6, again. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Isn’t this knowingly being kind to those who wish to do us harm? Who hate us, curse us, and wish to mistreat us? Correct me if I am off base, but I think these police officers are very much following the commands of Jesus.

These are challenging words which we find in Luke 6:27-36. I suggest re-reading this passage with an open mind and open spirit, and then ask yourselves (and myself, too—I always preach to myself, as well!), “What would Jesus do?”

As Father John Dear says, “Jesus wants us to break the downward cycle of violence by refusing to practice further violence. Violence in response to violence will only lead to further violence, he teaches, so do not retaliate with further violence. Break the chain of violence.”

Father Dear goes on to say, “Does that mean sitting back and do nothing in the face of violence? No, quite the contrary. Jesus also forbids passive resignation or indifference to evil. Instead, he demands an active, creative nonviolent response that will disarm our violent opponent without using their violent means… Through our nonviolent resistance, we insist on the truth of our common humanity, until… he repents of his violence and agrees to treat us with respect as human beings.” [2] As the Hutu and Tutsi tribes reconciled in Rwanda, as whole groups of people of all colors, classes and races reconciled in South Africa.

Is it difficult to follow the commands of Jesus? YES. Yet, I strive to do this very thing. Imperfectly, yet I strive on. I remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

I invite us all to seek the ways of Jesus, and search out an active, creative nonviolent response to evil, to enemies, and to violence. Will you join with me in striving to follow Jesus, today?

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/15/485900076/how-a-danish-town-helped-young-muslims-turn-away-from-isis

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dear/an-eye-for-an-eye-makes-t_b_8647348.html

Yes, And … (Not ‘No, But’)

“Yes, And … (Not ‘No, But’)”

holy trinity stained glass

John 16:12-15 – May 22, 2016

Just about everyone has been involved with play-acting at one time or another. Either as a child in a school play, in church at a Christmas pageant, or in a high school musical or other production. Or, if you weren’t in the play, one of your best friends was. Remember? Acting. Playing a part. Pretending you are someone else.

What about Jesus? He does not act fake or play a part or put on a false face (or voice). He is genuine, real. Jesus meant what He said when He was talking about the Holy Spirit, and about God His heavenly Father. His interaction with the other two Persons of the Trinity is completely natural, real, and genuine. Just as it was from before the foundation of the earth. The interaction between the Three Persons of the Trinity? Completely natural and perfectly genuine.

Let’s look at this passage of Scripture. From the Gospel of John, where our Lord Jesus spoke to His friends on that last night of His earthly existence. I suspect He had so much on His heart, so much that He wanted to say. Concerning His passion, death, resurrection, and all of the ramifications and consequences that would unfold. Jesus wanted to share all these things, but He tells us specifically that we cannot bear them now.

I don’t know whether anyone here has been in the position of understanding the full ramifications of a difficult situation. I am more familiar with healthcare, since I served as a chaplain for some years. In certain cases, I would be told about a patient’s diagnosis and prognosis, but then be hesitant to share that information fully. Because, the patient just couldn’t bear the full brunt of all the heavy, sometimes catastrophic news at that time.

It was sort of that way with our Lord Jesus, at that Last Supper table. He knew His friends could not bear the full brunt of the awful news Jesus knew so well. As the Amplified version of the Bible renders John 16:12, “I have still many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them or to take them upon you or to grasp them now.” In other words, in our 21st century understanding, the words and sentences Jesus could have told them would not compute. Would not penetrate into their brains.

The disciples must have been confused—anxious—maybe even downright fearful. And, who wouldn’t be? I’ve mentioned several times before about the tense situation in Jerusalem on that Passion Week, that last week of Jesus’s life. Our Lord Jesus delivered these words of our Scripture lesson today on the night of that Passover dinner, the night in which He was betrayed.

He knew He was going away—out of the disciples’ sight and daily experience. Jesus was preparing His friends for His departure. He wanted to remain with His friends, in fellowship and community. Letting them know He would be sending the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to be with them, always. Yet, in this situation—in absolutely every situation—our Lord Jesus was absolutely truthful. Real, and genuine.

A number of years ago, I wanted to use my voice for radio, and for commercials. I was coached by a professional. A professional voice-over artist. She had superb skills in using her voice, and was an excellent coach, besides. Since I was not as fluid and sometimes stumbled in interaction with others, she recommended that I try improv. Comedy improvisation classes. That led to two of the most enjoyable years of my life.

I went to small group improv classes at IO (formerly Improv Olympic) and attended comedy shows on a weekly basis for two years. In this improvisational work, I acted a multitude of parts. I wore different personas. That part of my story is important. Yes! I did play any number of roles. Yes, these roles were play-acting. However, improv brought my acting to a whole new level. Not only were my roles seem more real and genuine, my close-knit relationship with the rest of the improv team was cemented more firmly. For that little while, it was as if I were really embodying whatever role I was playing.

My parts and roles? Seem almost incidental compared to my most foundational learning from that time of doing improv. That lesson? “Yes, and … !” (As opposed to, “No, but … “)

If I say “No, but … “ it stops a scene right in its tracks. Difficult to keep going with that kind of negativity. “No, but … “ shuts people down, and cuts off possibilities. It’s like letting the air out of a balloon, and sometimes forces a scene to a full stop.

However—“Yes, and…!” is just the beginning! It’s a jumping off point. You have a multiplicity of possibilities.

In improv I learned—so well—about collegiality, cooperation, welcome, and helping people out. Being together in community, and fellowship. Yes, I knew about all these things, before, but not in quite the same way. I had learned about all those things in the abstract. More like book-learning, in school. But, how was it all different when I was on an improv team?

Instead, “Yes, and … !” was very much experiential learning. Where people depended on me, and I depended on everyone else. Where people grew very close, very quickly. Where there was mutual interdependence. Friendship. Fellowship And, extravagant welcome.

Sort of like the doctrine of the Trinity, which discusses the relationship and communion of the Three persons. The Trinity affirms “the total equality and complete uniqueness and diversity of the divine persons.” [1] Just so: opening up possibilities for us to see in the Divine Trinity, that Divine community from before the foundation of the earth. Mutual interdependence, friendship, fellowship, and—extravagant welcome.

Remember, Jesus told His disciples, “13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
This is the Holy Spirit Jesus is talking about! The Third Person of the Trinity who Jesus, God the Son, knew from before the foundation of the earth! Of course Jesus wanted to let His friends know that they would not be alone after His resurrection and ascension. That friendship fellowship and community that Jesus shared with them would continue. And, of course the Holy Spirit would remind believers of the things Jesus had taught them while He was on the earth. Guiding into all the truth—the Spirit of truth.

Three in One. One in Three. Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as traditionally identified for us in the Gospels and other places in the New Testament). All three Persons are included here, in this passage today. This holy mystery is about relationship and indwelling. It is about community and the self-communication of God. The Trinity is about the mutuality of God within the God-head, about our invitation into relationship by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. “And it is about our mutuality with each other, guiding, speaking, and declaring to one another the glory of God, Father/Creator, Jesus/Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is our way of life made possible by God.” [2]

Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the three Persons of the Trinity—had and continue to have a real, genuine relationship. I have seen something like this among the congregation here at St. Luke’s Church. Our church members are real, genuine, concerned for each other.

I would like to invite us all to think “yes, and!” Yes, we at St. Luke’s Church are loving, genuine and real to others in the congregation. Praise God! That is not all. We can go further. Do more. Be genuine and real to as many people as we can.

Is this sometimes … difficult? Sometimes … a challenge? Yes, to both. However, it is a God-given challenge.

A few years ago, it was a popular thing in churches to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” I am not absolutely sure, but I suspect Jesus would live in community. Be real and genuine in all His interactions. Embody friendship, fellowship, and—extravagant welcome.        Jesus would not say “No, but …” “No, but—that won’t be possible.“ “No, but—that looks too difficult.” “No, but—that is just too much work.” “No, but—that person seems scary. And different.”

Instead, I am sure He would enthusiastically say “Yes, and … !” “Yes, and, I’ll be glad to help!” “Yes, and, we can be welcoming to those newcomers!”   Yes, and—friendship. Yes, and—community. Yes, and—genuineness. Yes, and—countless other exciting opportunities.

We all can practice this foundational learning I absorbed in my comedy improv training. Yes, it prepared me to be a better improv player and a better member of an intimate team. And, it also helps me navigate life, today. Be a friend in community—any community. Be as real and genuine to as many people as possible. Just like the deep, intimate relationship between the Persons of the Trinity.

Are you ready? Can you say “Yes, and … !” Not just here, in this community of believers, but outside in the world? In other places, other communities? I encourage you—I challenge you—I challenge all of us not to shut down conversations and opportunities by saying “No, but … “ Instead, be open. Be encouraging. Be positive. Say “Yes, and … !”

What would Jesus do?

[1] Lacuogna, Catherine Mowry, “God in Communion with Us,” from Freeing Theology: the Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, 92.

[2] Hogan, Lucy Lind,  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1697