Sunday, October 21, 2018

Who's on first?


 Scripture   Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 10:36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?”  10:37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

10:38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

10:39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


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Today’s passage is yet another example of the cluelessness some of the disciples could exhibit.  We have to wonder, sometimes, why he picked these guys.  

You know, it is baseball playoff season.  Last night one of the teams in the National League won the pennant, and the World Series is coming up.   I know these things and I don’t even follow baseball.  It is highly possible that baseball has given us one of the best examples of cluelessness outside of the Bible. I give you, “Who’s on First.”   (two people perform a short section of the Abbott and Costello routine.)

James and John really seemed to have no more idea what Jesus was talking about than Costello did in this famous comedy routine.   They thought they were asking to be his closest advisors, his lieutenants, as it were, when he defeated the Romans and became known to the whole world as the King of Israel.  Whether they simply hadn’t been listening or they were just too self absorbed to hear what he had been saying, no one really knows.   Just before they asked this question, Jesus had said to them, “33 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.  And in the moments after this, his third time telling them about his coming death and resurrection, these two come forward and say, “We want to sit at your right and left hands when you come into your glory.”   Reading this, we aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry or just shake our heads.   And the other disciples got mad.   Maybe they were all thinking the same thing, wanting to be the ones closest to Jesus, but James and John were the only ones who had the nerve to go up and ask for what they wanted.  

You know, we laugh - or shake our heads - at these two sons of Zebedee.  But I think we really aren’t that much different from them.  We may not be asking to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands, but how many of us sort of pray that First Christian Church can be restored to its former glory?  We were a big, influential church.  Our Bible study groups overflowed the building - had to meet in other places around town, because even in this big, beautiful building there wasn’t enough room for all who came.  There are pictures in the office of hundreds of people out in front of the building, and that’s just the Sunday school classes - in 1933.  Today, instead of hundreds, we count 35 or 50 in worship, maybe 10 in Sunday School, and we get really excited when a special event fills the sanctuary.   We would love to “grow the church” back to the way it was in 1933 or 1963.  But It is no longer 1933, or 1963, or any of those long ago glory days.  The world has changed.  How people view church membership has changed.  “Regular attendance” no longer means showing up every Sunday like it used to, when I was growing up.  Today it might mean showing up once a month or every other week - because there are so many other demands on our time.   Used to be nothing else happened on Sundays but church.  And if I’m being honest, sometimes I think if I just preached well enough I could fill this building.  Or if Leah managed to recruit half the high school then all their families would come and fill this building.  Or if Bring a Friend Sunday resulted in everyone showing up with at least one person who had never been here before and stayed from that day forward and brought their families, and filled this building . . .  Wait, what if every Sunday was Bring a Friend Sunday?   hmmmm.    We may not ask for these things out loud, as James and John asked to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands.  The other disciples didn’t ask, but I bet they were thinking about it, just like we think about it.  And some of us sit here, you know, and gather in meetings, and we plan ways to stay alive.  Cause we don’t know what the future will bring for a small church that used to be a big one.   And we are afraid for the future.  

The disciples were afraid.  And maybe, just maybe, James and John were just trying to deal with their fear, looking for a future that was secure.  They were on their way to Jerusalem and their rabbi, their Lord, kept telling them, “I’m going to die there.” And they didn’t want to hear it, but they knew that the Temple leaders opposed him.  They knew that his preaching was really upsetting some powerful people.  And they knew that John the Baptist had lost his head not that long ago for preaching against Herod.  They probably weren’t that stupid.  But they were that afraid.  And when we are afraid, we do every thing we can to make ourselves feel safe.  So, James and John asked to be close - at Jesus’ left and right hands - And Jesus said to them, “Can you do what what I’m doing?”  And they said, “sure we can!”  Because they didn’t quite understand what he was asking.  

Many times, when this passage is preached, we look at Jesus’ words to these sons of Zebedee as a threat.  We often interpret “You will drink the cup I am drinking,” as meaning “Being a leader in this group is not what you are hoping for.  Instead of power and wealth, you, too, will die a horrible, painful death.”  But what if Jesus is simply reassuring them?  What if this is not so much a threat as a promise?  What if what Jesus is telling them is actually, “Your fear will not always drive you, as it does now.  You will be empowered by the baptism of the Spirit to follow me into places you cannot imagine right now.  You will drink of the cup I drink from - the cup of salvation, of healing - and you will know peace in your heart.  You will be faithful, no matter what comes to pass.”   What if that is what we are supposed to hear in this passage?  What if Jesus is saying, in yet another way, “Do not be afraid.

Jesus tells them again, as he has told them before, that whoever would be first must be last.   He says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. 

Once again, Jesus is asking his disciples, his followers - us - to give everything, with no promise of a reward of the sort we typically think of.   Not “give and you will be rich and successful,” but “give because you love me.”  Not “go out into the community and do good, and I will fill these pews.”  But “do good because you love me.”  Serve others, because you love them.  Give of yourself - whatever you can give.  If you have money, give money.  If you have time, give your time.  If you have special talents, share those.   

Jesus only wants one thing from us - everything.  Our hearts.  Our love.  Our service.  Our lives.   Jesus gave it all for us, and asks us to do the same.   So ask yourselves, my brothers and sisters, what can I give?  


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Camels and Rich Folks


Scripture   Mark 10:17-27  NRSV

10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

10:18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.   10:19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’"  10:20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 10:25 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."10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

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I always feel a little bad for the rich man in this story.  I mean, it is possible that he goes away shocked and grieving because he simply doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle of the rich and famous 1st century style.  But given the culture of the time, it is unlikely that this guy is a young, single billionaire buying fancy chariots, maintaining bachelor pads in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, and frittering away the wealth that was given to him by dear old dad,  like good old Joe Camel here.   Chances are that a wealthy man of Jesus’ time is married with children, and is responsible not only for his immediate family, but also his widowed mother and any unmarried sisters, all the servants in the household, and all the clients and employees who depend upon him for their income.  We might think of him as the owner of a small manufacturing company or a ranch upon whom his extended family and many employees, as well as contractors and suppliers depend for their livelihood.  He has to weigh his desire to serve as Jesus has asked him to against the consequences that would befall all of those people if he just walked away from it all - sold everything and gave it to the poor.   

It is pretty much a given that this particular man, a man who followed the Law of Moses, tithed.  It would have been unthinkable for him NOT to give 10% of his income - and not just 10%, but the very best 10% of what he had.   Not for him the gift of used clothing, dented cans of peaches, and those shoes that somehow never looked as good on my feet as they did that day in the store.  No.  He gave the strongest of his lambs, the choicest cloth his maidservants wove, the juiciest grapes, the most blemish free grains, plus 10% of any cash that had come into his household.  He gave his best - first - before he took any for himself.  Not for him questions of whether to give 10% of his gross or net income.   Because, and this is the part that we usually miss somehow, that 10%, the tithe, is the minimum required giving.  Not the “try to work up to it” giving.  But the minimum required giving.  Quite literally, the Temple tithe was income tax.   The rich man of our story most likely also made gifts and offerings over and above his tithe - clothing for the priests and the poor, incense, money.  And then there were the required sacrifices for himself and his household - doves and rams, cakes of purest flour, jars of extra extra virgin olive oil, and so on.   A Law abiding Jew would have done all of these things.   

So it isn’t like he just popped a check in the offering plate once a month.  But what is being demanded of him now is that he give more.  That he give up everything he holds precious to follow Jesus.   And that was going to be too hard.  So he walked away, grieving.  

This is isn’t the only time Jesus has said that people need to give up everything they care about in order to follow him.  He said, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).  And even, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)   

Yet, we know from the stories of Jesus’ life that he didn’t hate people with money.  In many ways he depended upon them.  The women who followed him, for the most part, had independent incomes and were able to buy food and so on.  He had friends who owned houses and who put him and his disciples up for the night and fed them all.  Joseph of Arimathea was very rich, and he donated his own tomb to be Jesus’ resting place after the crucifixion.  So if Jesus didn’t hate rich people, what is he really asking of us here?     

You know, most of us are rich people.  I know, we don’t feel rich.  When we think “rich” we look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg and the Kardashians and folks like that - and Joe Camel here.   But we, most of us, are rich.  We have enough to eat.  We have a place to live.  We have transportation that gets us where we need to go.  We have families, friends, jobs, hobbies - things that are important to us.  We dedicate our lives to causes that are meaningful to us - Animal Shelters, Cancer funds, children’s programs, feeding programs, literacy programs, prison ministry, social justice work of all sorts.   We do things to help benefit those who are not as well off as we are - and that is pretty much the definition of rich.    What if suddenly we walked away from our parents, grandparents, spouses, children, grandchildren, and walked off our jobs and sold our houses and cars and gave all the money to the poor?  How would we serve Jesus then?  How could we support the church and its ministries?  How could we help the homeless and feed the hungry, if we ourselves became homeless and hungry?   

We couldn’t.  Period.  So what do we do?  How do we, as rich folks, follow Jesus?  Because he 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 while there are all kinds of rationalizations about camels and needles - some scholars say Jesus really meant it was hard (but not impossible) for a camel to get through this one very narrow gateway into the city of Jerusalem, thus rich people could get into heaven if they were really really good - I believe he meant exactly what he said.  It is easier for a camel to go through the literal eye of a needle than for those who are attached to their lives and their stuff to be part of the kingdom of heaven.   If you look at all those other things he said, they all boil down to this - if any person or any thing is more important to you than following Jesus is, then you cannot live in the kingdom of heaven.   

First, I guess, it’s important to consider that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven he was not usually talking about in the sky by and by after we die heaven that we usually think of.  He was talking about living on earth as it is in heaven.  Living here, in the world, as if we were sitting at God’s feet with all the citizens of heaven.  Caring for and loving one another - friends and strangers and even enemies.  Reconciling with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  Because I’m pretty sure that in heaven, folks who lived as enemies on earth are no longer filled with the hatred and anger that drove them before.  Living like that here, on earth, in our daily lives, that is living in God’s kingdom.  And it’s really hard to live in God’s kingdom if we are attached to stuff and people more strongly than we are attached to God.

For example:  A customer service rep was helping a customer activate a new phone for a family member.  In the background he could hear much screaming and carrying on by another family member who thought they should get the new phone, and kept threatening to break it so no one could have it.  That person is not living in the kingdom of God.  In the kingdom of God, if one person receives a blessing, her friends and family rejoice for her.   In the kingdom of God, we are grateful for what we have, and we want to share the blessings we have received with others.   

It’s hard to give up our attachment to stuff.   Even if we really want to live simple, uncluttered lives, dedicated to Christ - there’s always that really cool thing, that new piece of tech, that upgrade to our game, that shiny sparkly new something wonderful, that book, that piece of music, that new kitchen gadget, that new power tool  . . . and let’s face it, that new sparkly thing is much sexier than putting the money in the collection plate at church.  Cause we like stuff, and we can see stuff, and use it, or eat it, or wear it.  It’s hard to see where the money in the plate goes.   

The money in the plate keeps the lights on, so we can see each other in here.  It pays all the boring, unsexy, bills and expenses that you have at home - water and gas, property tax, and insurance.  It pays salaries and buys the day to day necessities that come with running an office.  Those are ongoing, all the time, month to month, regular boring expenses that never go away - like you pay at home.  The money in the plate also supports missionaries overseas, church camps in our Region, help agencies right here in Selma, and so much more.   The money in the plate keeps this little part of Christ’s family doing his work in the world.   The money in the plate helps us bring the kingdom of God to earth.    

What would happen if we all behaved like the rich man in the story?  Not the going away grieving cause he couldn’t give up his life part - but the tithing and gifting part?    Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote a song that speaks to that question.  My brothers and sisters, please stand and sing with me “Giving God, We Pause and Wonder.” 

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Hymn Giving God, We Pause and Wonder
Tune:  “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Lyrics: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Songs of Grace:  New Hymns for God and Neighbor 2009
Used with permission
 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

You love US?


Psalm 8 Common English Bible (CEB) 


Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven!
From the mouths of nursing babies
    you have laid a strong foundation
    because of your foes,
    in order to stop vengeful enemies.
When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
        what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
    crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
        all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
        the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!


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Today is World Communion Sunday, and here, at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma, California, we think that’s kind of a big deal.  So today we are doing things a little differently than usual.  We had a processional, carrying in the bread and cup and Bible, to remind ourselves of the importance of Word and the Table.  We are singing songs from all around the world, even in languages we don’t know, to show our relationship with the church where ever it exists.    We have declared today Bring a Friend Sunday, and invited friends and relatives, neighbors and co-workers, to join us for worship.  Today we are celebrating God’s love for humanity.  

What are human beings that you think about them?  
What are human beings that you pay attention to them?  

The Psalmist has a point.  I mean, really?  What are we to the creator of everything?    When we look at the sky, at the planets and stars, at the snow covered mountains, at the immensity of the seas, at the perfection of the tiny atom, when we look at all of the strange and beautiful creatures that God created, we have to wonder why we should even matter?   

We matter because God made us in God’s own image.  Every one of us, every human, is a reflection of God, a child of God.  In the eyes of God, no one, no person, is more important or more beloved than any other.  We may have trouble with that concept because of the way the world sees things, but in God’s eyes, we are all beloved.   In the human realm it is easy to see that some believe themselves to be more important than others.   It is easy to see that some are held to be of greater or lesser worth than others.  But that’s the human world, not God’s world.  In God’s world there are no races or classes or genders - no Gentile or Jew, no slave or free, no man or woman - but only human beings, frail and fallible, but oh so dearly loved.    God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to teach us how to be reconciled with God, how to return God’s love for us, and how to share that love with all of our brothers and sisters.   And because the human world fears and hates that which it does not understand, Jesus died at the hands of men who feared the loss of their own power.    Because Jesus was human like us, his suffering and death on the cross, his sacrifice, became the foundation upon which his Church was built.  

But before he died, he instituted a practice - a sacrament, if you will - sharing a meal with his beloved disciples, and said, “as often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me”.   In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we take those instructions from Jesus very seriously and we share this meal every time we come together for worship.  And we share it with everyone present, just as Jesus did on that last night.  Even with the one who would betray him, who might have been considered unworthy.   Because you see, we don’t believe anyone is unworthy of God’s love. 

Our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was founded around the belief that the Lord’s Table should be open to all who come to share this meal of love.    In about 1808, Thomas Campbell, a Presbyterian minister, was carrying the Good News into small communities on the Western frontier of the US (Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky) where there were no established churches.  He came into these settlements to preach and marry folks and perform baptisms for the children of the folks he had just married (There were no churches on the frontier, remember? Often it had been years since they last saw a preacher.)  But one thing he could not do was offer communion to those who were not Presbyterian in good standing, and could prove their belief in and understanding of the Apostles Creed.   If you were in that frontier community but you were a Baptist or a Methodist or some other sort of Christian, you were not allowed to come to the Table.  That upset him, and so, even though it was against the rules, he began to serve everyone who came.   When the Presbytery who had sent him into the frontier heard this, of course, they kicked him out - suspended his credentials.  Which didn’t stop him, of course.  He started a church where the Table was open, and no creed was required as a test of faith.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, his son Alexander had completed seminary and, with his mother and siblings, was preparing to join his father in the US, when Communion Sunday came around.  Alexander was easily able to prove his belief in and understanding of the Creed and he was given the token that would allow him to receive Communion in the Presbyterian Church.  But there was a man there, who was not able to prove he deserved the privilege of coming to the Table, and Alexander had a problem with that.  So he gave the man his token.  Arriving in the US, he discovered that he and his father had come to similar conclusions about the Table and creeds, and together they founded a movement, a church, in which no one is required to prove they believed the right stuff in order to come to the Lord’s Table.  “No creed but Christ,” they said, and we still hold to that.   Today we proclaim that, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.  All are welcome, and all means ALL. 

Another difference between Disciples and many other traditions is that no ordained minister is required to preside at the table.   Ordained ministers in the early days of our church were usually itinerant, and might not be there every Sunday.  But we do share Communion every Sunday, whether or not an ordained person is present, so the elders of congregations regularly presided at the table.  That practice varies from congregation to congregation - in some the Elders preside, in others it’s the pastor.   Each congregation does this in the way they prefer.  It is, therefore, well known that you might be a Disciple if whenever you visit a different Disciples congregation you learn a new way to do communion.  In this congregation most weeks the Elders preside and the Deacons serve, although this week things will be a little different.   Today, because we have three stations, where the bread and cup will be available, each representing another part of the world, I will do the words of institution and prayer and serve the bread and cup at the front Table, and the Elders will serve at the other two stations.   The Deacons will help direct you to one station or another, to Africa or Mexico or China, depending on where you sitting.  You will take a piece of the bread that is offered, dip it in the cup, and then eat.  If you cannot come forward, someone will bring it to you, so don’t worry.  No one will be left out of the Lord’s Supper.   Because everyone deserves to participate in this remembrance of God’s love for us.  

Just as we welcome everyone to the Table every Sunday, so too we welcome everyone to worship whom God has made in God’s image, which is all of us.   In some congregations and traditions there are rules about who can participate in various aspects of the life of the church.  But that’s not the case here.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here.  You are worthy.  You are loved.

There are those who say that coming to this Table weekly is too often, that it becomes routine and loses importance.  But really, how often is too often to experience God’s love?   This Table is a way that we remember, every single time that we come together, that we are loved.  This Table is a way that we remember humanity is so important to God that he sent his son to show us the way to him.  This Table is a symbol of God’s “I love you,” just as wedding and engagement and promise rings are symbols of human love for one another.    

The Psalmist asks “who are we, that you should care?”  And God says, you are my children, my beloved, whom I love so much that I sent you my son.   And here, at this Table, we remember that, every week.  Every week, we experience God’s love through the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

My brothers and sisters, please stand and join in singing the words the Psalmist gave us, “How Majestic is your Name!” 

Hymn How Majestic is Your Name Hymnal 63

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Carers


James 2:1-10    Common English Bible (CEB)

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 
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Have I mentioned that I really like James?   He spoke to individuals, rather than congregations.  He said, “this is how you should live, as a person and as a Christ follower,” whereas Paul spoke primarily to congregations, telling folks how to be church together.  In this passage James is asking the listener to pretend for a moment that they are the greeter.   If you make a big fuss over the person who drove up in a Mercedes and has all the stuff, and you put them in the very best seat, but you tell the homeless lady that she has to sit in the narthex where no one will be bothered by her odor, then according to James you have sinned.  You have shown favoritism based in socio-economic status, or class, which in his time was pretty much the main distinction between people.  There were nations, but you couldn’t necessarily tell someone’s nation by looking at them.  You could, however, determine class pretty easily - certain types and colors of clothing were restricted to the upper classes, for example.  Slaves wore particular items of clothing that free persons did not.   In the first century, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, race as a distinction between persons didn’t exist.  Your skin color really didn’t matter.  Class and gender, on the other hand, did.  So when James spoke of favoritism, he spoke in terms of wealthy versus poor.  However, as much fun as it always is to say bad things about rich people, I’m not going to do that today.  I’m not going to talk about the rich and the poor today.  

In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we have a strong Anti-racism/Pro-reconciliation imperative.  All ordained ministers are required to take anti-racism training periodically - in this region where we live it’s every year.  Today and next week we take a collection that benefits our Reconciliation Ministries, which helps pay for our anti-racism trainers to be trained, and for literature to help us all learn how to love one another better.   And it’s kind of funny in a “how did God manage this?” kind of way, that I accidentally skipped this reading at the beginning of the month, where it appears in the lectionary, and had to fit it in here - today - on the day when we look closely at our Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation emphasis, because how much better could this passage fit the day?  Yay, God!  

James said, My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory.. . You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 

A well dressed African American woman walked into a high end boutique and asked to see a purse that was in a locked case.  The salesclerk told her it was much too expensive for her and wouldn’t take it out of the case, but did suggest she look at other, cheaper purses.  Even though she asked to see the purse several times, the sales clerk was quite insistent on steering her to much less expensive items.   Oprah Winfrey finally left the shop, without the purse.    The owner of the boutique later said it had nothing to do with Oprah’s race . . . .   

But this happens to Persons of Color all the time.  If Oprah had been with a well dressed White friend, I suspect the purse would have come out of the case with no hesitation.   Because somehow having a White person along makes that Person of Color “acceptable” for the moment.   I can tell you from my own experience, from 25 years of marriage to a Navajo, that there was a huge difference in how he was treated when he was alone and when I was with him.  We even sometimes would go into a place separately, so that I could watch and see what happened and learn what White privilege looks like.   In restaurants, small shops, big box stores, even government agencies like the DMV . . .  it didn’t matter what type of place we entered, there was always a difference in the way we were treated.   Store security would follow him around, but not me, and not us when we went into the place as a couple.  He was always asked for his ID when using a credit card.  I rarely was.  Clerks and such would often speak to me when he was the one with the issue, assuming he didn’t understand English.  And have I told you the church story?   When we visited a church in another city one Sunday everyone was happy to welcome us, asked us to stay for coffee, and invite us to come back.  When he went back by himself a few months later none of that happened.   They turned their backs on him.  It was like he was invisible.  

I get catalogs in the mail.  I imagine some of you do, too. This company sends them weekly, I think.  If you are a White person going through your catalog and you can find yourself, but you can’t find your friend from First Friendship Baptist Church or the Korean Church or the Haitian Church or the Truk Island, Samoan, Philipino, Native American or  Hispanic Church - that is privilege in action.  In this particular catalog there is one model who might maybe be Hispanic.

If you are White you may never have noticed, but it’s there. It’s insidious, because, if you are White you don’t notice it unless you are specifically looking for it.   I look for it.  But I only look for it because I spent 25 years married to a Person of Color.  And I still don’t always see it.  But I promise you, a Person of Color notices.   If you are White, you benefit from the fact that the color of your skin is considered the norm in this country.  If you go to buy flesh colored bandaids, no problem.  But until 2015, a person of color could not find bandaids to match her skin tone.   Even now, they’re not easy to find.  Bandaids are a small thing, but they are symptomatic of privilege.  Privilege does not mean your life is easy just because you are White.  But it does mean it could be a lot harder.  

Privilege isn’t something we can do much of anything about, besides simply recognizing it exists as a fact of life in this country.  Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.   Racism, on the other hand, is something we can change.   

Racism is an evil that afflicts our nation and many others.   Racism is a choice we make to treat other people differently based on the color of their skin.  That clerk in the expensive purse store may have said she wasn’t judging Oprah on her race, but she was.  The store security officers who followed Ton’Ee around the store, but not me, were making a judgement about who was likely to be a thief based solely on skin color.  I benefited from White privilege.  Ton’Ee dealt with racism.  The people in that church - totally racist.  And that’s the one that hurts most of all.  Because - they’ll know we are Christians by our love??  

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 

When you show favoritism, you are committing a sin.  And what is racism but favoritism?   A particularly terrible, potentially deadly sort of favoritism.   Racism is a sin that strikes at the very heart of the love commandment - and the love commandment is what all the law depends on.  For remember, when Jesus was asked “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Mt. 22:36-40)    Breaking this one commandment then, is as if we are breaking all the commandments.  

It is important to understand that not all White people are racist - but that all White people do benefit from privilege.  It is also important to understand that racism can be insidious.  We may not even realize that what we are seeing, hearing, even thinking or saying, is racist.  We can open our eyes to see racism where we maybe didn’t notice it before.  We can use our privilege to point out racism when we do see it.   And by our example we can teach others what it really means to love our neighbors - all of our neighbors, regardless of skin color, ethnicity or national origin.   

Maybe we, as individuals, can’t do much to change the systemic racism that is deeply rooted in our society, but we can, as individuals, change our own behaviors and beliefs.  We can come to understand that maybe things we have believed are true about other people based on their race or country of origin, aren’t.  And we can work at changing the beliefs of others.  And as each person is changed, as each person comes to love their neighbor as they love themselves, racism and all the other isms, can be eradicated.

My brothers and sisters, if we would live in God’s beloved community, in God’s kingdom on earth, then we must indeed, love one another as God loves us, as we love ourselves.  When we leave this place today, let us go out filled with the knowledge of God’s greatness, so that God’s love can overflow from our hearts in the hearts and souls of all we encounter, today and all days. 


Sunday, September 23, 2018

Pray-ers


James 5:13-20 Common English Bible (CEB)


13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. 14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.

17 Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. 18 He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

19 My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, 20 recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

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Pray-ers.   People who pray.  That would include pretty much everyone here.   Even the littlest ones who were sitting up here a few minutes ago say their bedtime prayers and say prayers at mealtimes.   All of us pray.   We might pray a prayer that we memorized - like the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer - or we might pray from the heart or we might have a book of prayers that we use.  Praying seems easy for some and more difficult for others.   But all of us pray.  All of us are pray-ers.  

I have to confess that this particular message was hard for me.  I wrote in fits and starts.  I couldn’t seem to get in the groove of writing about praying and being pray-ers.  And maybe that’s because prayer itself was so difficult for me to get a handle on.   I grew up in a tradition where all the prayers I ever heard were memorized or pre-written for a particular occasion and read out of a book.   I had no idea how to just talk to God, so when people in 12 Step groups started telling me that I needed to pray, I was pretty much lost.  Oh, I knew how to ask for help. I knew how to say, “God, get me out of this one and I swear I’ll never do it again!”  But I didn’t really have any idea how to talk to God, or if there was some way that was especially appropriate.   I was happy to learn the Serenity Prayer, and some other written down prayers that can be found in 12 Step literature, and I pretty much stuck with those prayers.  Because they covered everything I needed to cover, sort of.   Eventually I came to realize that it’s ok to talk to God as if God was simply another person, and my prayers became conversations.  I told God what was going on, and God listened.  And then I would try to get quiet enough to listen for God’s response.  Sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t.  And sometimes the answer doesn’t come while I am quiet, but through something another person says, or a billboard on the highway, or even a song on the radio.   For a while, that was all I needed. Personal prayer - me and God in conversation.  And then I was called to the ministry.  And if I ever had any doubt that God has a sense of humor, that call was enough to prove it.   I was going to have to get up and talk in front of people, and maybe even worse than that, I was going to have to get up and pray in front of people!  

In my seminary class “Worship and Church Music” we got lots of books full of prayers to use, and we learned how to write prayers according to a formula that had been set probably over 1,000 years ago.   ACTS.  Adoration.  Confession.  Thanksgiving.  Supplication.  I had books full of prayers other people had written to use, and I had a pattern to follow for writing my own prayers.   Which was great, until I started working in a Disciples retirement community.  And the people in the hospital unit wanted me to pray with them, without a book.  Without time to write something.  It was time to panic.

Because, you see, I had exactly zero confidence in my ability to pray for and with other people.   In class and in study groups I always let someone else pray, because they were just so much better at it than I was.  And then, there I was, in the hospital unit, needing to pray out loud.  They were always happy I prayed, but I would go away feeling inadequate, until one day I was holding a woman’s hand, trying to think of words to pray, and looked outside to see the sun glittering on the snow, and a tree branch, and a bright red cardinal on the branch, and suddenly words came.  Not my words, but words the Holy Spirit gave me.  That’s the day I learned that I can do this.  I can pray out loud for other people.  Mind you, I still relied on written prayers most of the time.  I struggled to write new pastoral prayers every week for well over 10 years.  Slowly I gained confidence that if I just opened my heart the Spirit would come and give me the words I needed.  And sometimes it works, and sometimes, not so much.  Praying in this way is not one of my particular gifts or strengths, and I really admire people for whom it is.  We are blessed, because there are quite a few in this congregation who always seem to have the right words when it comes time to pray.  

But even if, like me, you aren’t especially gifted at praying out loud, all of us here are pray-ers.   James says, if you are suffering, pray.

And James said, if you are sick, let the elders pray over you and anoint you with oil.  Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick.  A note of caution here, because some people read that to mean if you have faith you will be healed no matter what your disease, and that if you are not healed it is because you lack faith.   One of my seminary classmates came in one day, devastated because his pastor had been fired.  She had lupus, and when it wasn’t cured by prayer the elders of the church decided she lacked faith, and fired her.    James said, the prayer of a righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve, and this is true - Elijah’s prayers brought on a drought and ended that drought, but not everyone is an Elijah.  He was most certainly not an ordinary person.  He was one of the great prophets, who raised people from the dead, and fed many with just a little food.   

James said, “Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”   Confession and prayer - healing the soul in order that the body might be healed.   This is the kind of healing Jesus did.  In Matthew, Chapter 9, “People brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Be encouraged, my child, your sins are forgiven.”  Some legal experts said among themselves, “This man is insulting God.”  But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you fill your minds with evil things?  Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?  But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“Get up, take your cot, and go home.” The man got up and went home.”  

Confessing our sins to another person is not something we do easily.   It’s one thing for me to stand up here and confess on behalf of all of us, to say, as part of the pastoral prayer, “We confess, Lord, that we don’t always speak and act as you would have us do.  We don’t always love one another as you love us.  We beg your forgiveness for these sins, and ask your blessing that we may go out and do as you would have us do.”  It’s a whole different thing to say to another person, “These are my sins.”   Yet we know, for Jesus has told us very clearly, that our God will forgive our sins.  All we need to to is ask.  And when our souls are cleansed of sin, when our hearts are emptied of anger and jealousy, resentment and greed, then there healing.  Then there is room for God’s love to fill our hearts, and overflow onto others, bringing healing to them as well.  

When we join together in prayer, we can literally change the world.  When we, as faithful children of God, stand together to pray for the world’s healing, it will happen.    When we, as pray-ers, gather together in one mind, desiring nothing more than that God’s love pour out to heal every heart, then the world will change.  And we will know God’s kingdom on earth, even as it is in heaven.  

James says if you are happy, sing!  Martin Luther is reputed to have said that singing is praying twice.  So let us stand and pray and sing together, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”







Sunday, September 16, 2018

Peacemakers


James 3:13-18   Common English Bible   
13 Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14 However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic.16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.17 What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18 Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.


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On Wednesday a man shot and killed 5 others and himself in Bakersfield.  When I read the first article, it kind of looked like there was a personal issue involved, but the police weren’t for sure just yet.  Later,  I learned that Javier and Petra were about to finalize their divorce, just getting all the details about the children and such ironed out, when they went to the trucking company where Javier worked.  Javier shot a co-worker and he shot Petra, then he chased another guy at the trucking company and shot him, and then he went to someone else’s house, where he shot and killed a man and his daughter.  Then he hijacked a car, letting the woman driver and her child get out en route to a parking lot where he shot himself.  As it turns out, Javier thought his wife Petra was having an affair with one of his co-workers.  No idea what the other three people had to do with that, unless he suspected all three of those men of being with his wife,  but that’s the story so far as I know it.

I am sorry for the people who lost their lives, and for their families, and especially for the children of Javier and Petra.  I am sorry for Javier, whose heart was filled with jealousy and bitterness, which drove him to these terrible acts.  But the thing that struck me hardest in the whole story was a quote from the Kern County Sheriff.   “Six people lost their lives in a very short amount of time,” Sheriff Youngblood said. “This is the new normal.”  

This should not be any kind of normal!

James says, “if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, . . . this is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.”   Clearly, jealousy was at work in Javier’s heart. 

We know a lot about the jealousy and ambition and selfishness that causes people to treat one another badly.   We see it in places of employment, where co-workers stab each other in the back to get a raise or promotion.  We see it in families, especially around funerals, when siblings fight bitterly over who gets their mother’s dishes or jewelry or dad’s car.  We see it in corporations, where the highest ranking officers give themselves bonuses even as they lay off people who can barely afford to pay rent so that they themselves can make even more profit and reap even larger bonuses.   We see it in organizations that are founded  to work toward preventing some from achieving what the people in that organization already have.  And in case that last reference seems too obscure, I’m talking about organizations like the one my brother joined in college in the 1960s - SPONGE, the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything.   We see it in individuals who, not knowing any other way to cope, deal with their jealousy and bitterness and anger by taking a gun and killing 6 people, or taking a car and running it into a crowd of protesters  . . .

I’m not saying a word about guns and who should have them, or what kind or any of that.  Because the point in this passage is not the weapon. The point is how is it that people go straight to violence?  How is it that we are not teaching them that guns or fists or knives or drone strikes or boots on the ground are not the preferred first response?  How is it that the followers of the Prince of Peace do not or maybe even cannot teach the kind of wisdom that brings peace?

What is that wisdom?  According to James, “it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.   

You know, preachers get frustrated sometimes.  It seems as if we say the same things over and over, in as many different ways as we can think to say them, hoping that somebody is going to get it.  And not just preachers.  I sit in 12 Step meetings, hearing and saying the same things week after week, year after year, and still there are some who simply don’t get it, who continue to return to the streets, who keep going back to jail, who eventually die because they simply cannot believe it’s as simple as we say it is.  School teachers and counselors, social workers and mediators, all know this frustration.  But every so often, there is that encounter in the grocery store, where a person you remember as being a real problem comes up and says,  Thank you. You may not remember, but you said this thing that one time, and it changed my life.   

Jeff Gill is a friend and colleague, pastor of a Disciples congregation in Ohio, Boy Scout leader, and mediator for the court system working with juveniles.   This week a woman came up and said to him, “You probably don’t remember us, but 8 years ago you mediated for me and my daughter in middle school. She didn’t cooperate much, and ended up in detention the next week. But she never stopped thinking about what you said, we kept talking about what you suggested, and after four trips to detention, she got ahold of herself, graduated high school, and is in college doing great. I thought you’d like to know.””   And he was grateful to hear that.   Kinda wishing it had happened faster - I mean, she did go back to Detention four more times - but still, eventually she heard what he said.  

It is hard to hear the quiet words of wisdom over the loud clamor of the world.   It is hard to do the peaceful thing to achieve justice when the world insists that might makes right.  

I watched the movie Black Panther this week.  If you like action films, this is awesome!  Stan Lee’s in it!  Car chases, aerial combat, giant rhinoceroses!  Cool technology!  But the story was important.  I will not tell the story, because you might not have seen the movie.  But there were three options available to the nation of Wakanda.  They could continue to hide away, protecting themselves from the dangers of the outside world, while watching so much suffering in the world and knowing that they had the wherewithal to end it.  Or they could take their advanced technology, kill all the oppressors and re-make the world in their image - thus becoming the oppressor.  Or they could share their wealth, knowledge, and technology in order to improve the lives of the poor and oppressed everywhere, even though that would taking a huge risk, exposing themselves to a world filled with greedy, violent people who would seek to take it all away from them by any means possible.  Hard choices.

As Christians, we also have hard choices.  We can keep our faith to ourselves, watching the world suffer, when we have the answers to ease the pain and hunger we see all around us.  We can allow the world to continue to loudly proclaim that Might is Right, that violence is the answer, and that we must get everything we can from everyone we can, because there simply isn’t enough to go around.   Or we can risk ridicule and anger from others when we say what we know to be true - that in God’s kingdom there is always enough.  That there is always more to share, if we can turn away from greed.  That there is always a peaceful solution, when we renounce violence and seek to find God’s wisdom for a way forward.  That justice, real justice, is achievable through a desire for healing, not through anger and vengefulness.  That oppression can be ended when the hearts of the oppressors are turned from fear and greed to love and a giving spirit.  That God’s kingdom exists, here and now, when we choose to live in it.   Because it is our choices that will make the difference, between love and hate, peace and violence, justice and vengeance, the way of the world and the wisdom of God.   

When we turn to wisdom, we are the peacemakers.  For as James said, “Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.”   We can be the peacemakers, if we seek God’s wisdom and do what God calls us to do in the world, rejecting the world’s loud clamor and embracing that which "is pure, and peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.”   

My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place today, let us choose God’s wisdom as our guide. Let us make the choice to turn from violence and seek the better solution, to put away our anger and seek healing, to put aside the soul death that comes from sin and embrace the joy of obedience to God’s will.  Let us live in the love filled order of God’s kingdom, and not in the angry disorder of the world.   Let us carry the peace of Christ out into the world.