Sunday, January 22, 2017

United in Christ

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I know how much you all love learning new music.  Especially new music in languages you don’t happen to speak.  We’ll be singing a hymn later that was originally written in Spanish.  Now what usually happens when a song is written in one language and then translated into another is either the translation is good but the words don’t match the notes very well so it’s hard to sing, or the translation is off a bit but it’s easier to sing.  I realize it’s a given that no translation is totally accurate, but I’ve read some musical translations that are so far off the original meaning of the song that we might as well be singing a different hymn altogether.  That’s not the case with today’s hymn.  “We are united in Jesus” is about as close to “We are one in Christ” as you can get and fits the notes.   You all will be invited to sing it in English or Spanish, or once in each language, as you prefer.  And yes, I know I did this to you last week too, but I’ve had unity on my mind a lot lately and somehow unity through the language of hymns just feels right to me.  At least this week there’s no Swahili.  

Have you ever noticed how, when you have something on your mind, everything seems to be about that?  It’s one of those eternal truths, right up there with the fact that a sore finger will bang into everything nearby.   It seems as if the entire world is conspiring to remind you about the sore finger, or in my case, unity.  I read a daily meditation from a 12 Step Program and yesterday morning’s meditation was titled, “Unity and Uniformity.”  I’d like to share parts of it with you.  

Unity is not uniformity.  Unity springs from the fact that we have unity of purpose.…  Even so, we often find that while we strive to fulfill the same purpose, our means and methods may be radically different.  We can’t impose our ideas of unity on others or confuse unity with uniformity.  In fact, a big attraction of [our] program is the absence of uniformity.  Unity springs from our common purpose, not from standards imposed on the group by a few well-meaning members.  A group that has the unity which springs from the loving hearts of its members allows each [person] to carry the message in his or her own unique way. . . We need unity to help show [others] that this way of life works.”  (Just for Today.  pg. 21  ©1991-2017 by Narcotics Anonymous World Services, Inc., Van Nuys, CA) 

And, of course, as a nation we are currently experiencing pretty significant division.  I was so saddened by reports of violence at the demonstrations on Inauguration Day, while lifted up by the peace and unity displayed in the Women’s Marches all over the country yesterday.  In the first case it was loudly declared that the violence came from groups who were not part of the individual organized protests - one of the violent groups even stated on Twitter that its anger was not directed only at President Trump, and that it would also have demonstrated had Hillary Clinton won the election last November.   In the case of the Women’s March, the organizers were primarily leaders of religious organizations and not-for-profits whose purpose is to help the poor and disenfranchised, victims of racism and religion-based hate, women, the LGBT community, Native people, immigrants, etc.,  whose aim is to peacefully protect the rights and freedoms of those groups, working within the framework of the law and the Constitution.  I am proud that so many of my friends and colleagues made their presence and intentions known, as one unified body with singleness of purpose.   May we all soon remember that we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all persons.

The church in Corinth was having a problem with unity.  They were divided and arguing over which leader was better, who preached the Word better, who baptized the most people, who they owed their personal allegiance to.  And Paul said, “Really?  Did you forget already that you are all one?  That you are all followers of Jesus, and only Jesus?  I am just a person, just as Apollos and Cephas are just people.  But Jesus is the Christ, the one in whose name you are baptized.  He is the only one who matters.  The cross is what matters.”

I think we forget that, sometimes.  I think we get so worried about the details that we forget what’s important.  I think there’s a good reason for that old saying, “The devil is in the details,” because it’s always the details, the minutia of a given situation, that we get tangled up in and argue over.  I mean, churches have been known to split over the color of the sanctuary carpet!   Or over who gets to be an Elder.  Or over how to administer a community center that has grown out of the ministries of the congregation.  And all that has what, exactly, to do with the Gospel?    It’s one thing to disagree on the matters that fall under the heading of “church business.”  It is another to let those disagreements keep us from being church.  

Our purpose as church is to heal the world.  Our purpose is to do what Jesus and his disciples did - feed the hungry, comfort the prisoner, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, heal the sick, and get justice for those who have no one to stand up for them.  Our purpose as church is to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness for all the world - and that All Means All.  Everything we do as church needs to aim us at that purpose.   Everything we do as church needs to tell the whole world that this way of life, this cross remembering, Jesus following, God loving,  Spirit trusting way of life works. 

As we go forward into a New Year, with new board members, new elders, new deacons, new team leaders, looking toward a new building, and yes, singing new music, let us go forward united in Christ.  Let us go forward without fear, for we know that God is always with us.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Does That Mean?

John 1:29-42 (NRSV)

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).


I like pretty much everything about the TV show “Bones.”  I mean, what’s not to like?  A love story between a brilliant and gorgeous yet socially inept scientist and a handsome, brash FBI agent,  an entire lab full of geeks and tech nerds, science stuff, murders being solved . . . it has everything.  Except, at the very end, when they run the name of the production company, there’s a voice-over of some kid asking “What does that mean?” in the most annoyingly whiney voice ever.  Really annoying, you know?  But when I read this passage that whiney kid’s voice flashed through my mind, and I knew where I had to go with this today.

So, a bit about language and word histories.  Did you notice how John gave translations for some of the words and assumed his listeners would know what he meant by others?   He wrote this Gospel in Koine Greek, which was the Greek used by ordinary folks on the street, not the classical Greek of the great scholars and philosophers.  Although his writing is lyrical and beautiful, his grasp of Greek wasn’t as good as the other Gospel writers, especially Luke, who from his writing was clearly a very well educated man.  (I only say that because when I was studying Koine Greek, the translation part of our final exams were always from John,  because our professor, Dr. Marvin Meyer, said John’s writing was at a level we were more likely to get right than the others.  Like translating something written by a junior higher instead of a grad student.  And in case you are wondering, if I work really hard at it I might be able to translate a couple of lines, but I mostly took Greek so I could avoid Psych.  And cause I really like Marv Meyer.)    At the time this Gospel was written, most of the world could speak Greek.   It was written some 20 or 30 years after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and kicked the Jews out of Jerusalem, (some 60 - 80 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus). Many had already gone to other lands centuries earlier, during and after the Babylonian captivity, so by John’s time even the Jews spoke Greek more commonly than any other language.  So John had to tell his audience, generally considered to be Jews in exile, what the Hebrew and Aramaic words he used meant. 

So, some definitions to help out going forward:
Rabbi - Hebrew for teacher.  Now we use that term pretty specifically for an ordained person who is the leader of a congregation, like minister or priest in the Christian world.  But at that time the title belonged to anyone who taught, and Jesus was definitely a teacher.

Messiah -  a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.”   It sounds and looks a bit like the Hebrew word for “savior” so the two were often confused in early translations.  Among other people named messiah in the Bible are Saul and David, both anointed by Samuel at God’s direction, and Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who overthrew the Babylonians, returned the exiled Judeans to Jerusalem, and even helped pay to re-build the Temple.

Christ -  the Greek word meaning “anointed.”  It is not a name, but a title.  So to say Jesus Christ is to say Jesus Anointed.  Jesus the Christ is Jesus the Anointed [One].

Cephas - means Rock in Aramaic, which was the common language spoken in Palestine at the time of Jesus (and today).  Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic in their day to day lives, and Hebrew in religious situations - for prayers and worship, in study of the Torah, visits to the Temple, and so on.

And the big one . . . Disciple.  “a person who believes in the ideas of a leader, esp. a religious or political one, and tries to live according to those ideas: For example, Jesse Jackson was a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  (Cambridge University Academic Dictionary)  

Now that we have all that language stuff out of the way, what did John mean?  When John the Baptizer said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  What did he want his disciples to understand?  What are we to understand?   

First, we are to remember that this was written long after the death, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  John the Evangelist himself was not present to hear John the Baptizer speak.  No other Gospel writer reports this particular encounter along the road.  And, oddly enough, John doesn’t report on the baptism as the other Gospel writers do.  Instead, he has John the Baptizer describe it from his perspective, as the one performing the baptism, who heard God’s voice speaking.  But we know from our reading of this Gospel that John had a particular theological view that is not as easy to spot in the other Gospels, of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for a sin-sick world.  More than a mere rabbi, more even than a prophet, Jesus was the Word made flesh, sacrificed on the altar of of greed, fear, and lust for power.  In the other Gospels John’s personal interaction with Jesus is restricted to the baptism.  Here, however, John calls attention to Jesus, points him out as God’s own son come to live among us.  John calls out that this is the Lamb of God, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and thus change lives.  John testifies as to whom Jesus is, and points the way to others recognizing him as the Christ, the Son of God, living among us that our lives might be changed, our souls healed, our sins washed clean.   John the Baptizer was so persuasive in his description that two of his own disciples left him and went to follow Jesus instead.

There’s another word that has often confused me.  I like words, and I like to try to figure out where the come from.  So - Christian.   I know where Christ comes from. That’s anointed, and we use it almost interchangeably with Jesus.  But the -ian part is what confuses me.  Is it simply someone who follows that particular philosophy, like a Marxian?  Or is it someone who lives in that Anointed One, like a Philadelphian?  You see, I like the Philadelphian model of Christian.  Living in Christ, not living like Christ.  
I read a story about a young woman who received a WWJD bracelet and wore it, but wasn’t really comfortable about it.  One of her teachers tried to explain what it meant, and that we have Scripture to help guide us in terms of what Jesus would do in various situations, and she assured him she knew that part.  Her problem was that she was fully human, whereas Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  She said, “It’s not fair to assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God!”  And I see her point. I mean, if we pay close attention to all the “turn the other cheek” and “walk a further mile” and “give up your coat as well” and “forgive seventy times seven times” instructions, how do we get from there to overturning the money changer’s tables and cleansing the Temple courtyard?   That’s a question that deserves a great deal of thought and prayer.  

But what if we were to live in Christ?  Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun and mystic, reformer and author, whose writings were so profound and important that she was named a Doctor of the Church, wrote in a letter to her Carmelite sisters,   

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; 
no hands but yours; no feet but yours. 
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. 
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.
(Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. p 263. Westminster John Knox Press 2010)  

No need to try to be just like him, or make the sorts of decisions he would make.  As that young lady with the bracelet pointed out, we are not him.  We can’t possibly know what he would decide for sure.  But we do know how to do good. We know how to be compassionate.  We know how to help the poor.  We know how to stand up for the oppressed.  We know how to be a blessing.  We know how to touch the sick with healing hands.  We know how to do the work of the church in the world.   We know how to speak kindly to others, to reach out to help those in pain, to pray for those whom we don’t know any other way to help.  

Those two disciples who left John to follow Jesus had no idea what lay ahead for them.  Three years of walking from Judah to Galilee and back again, tired and hungry much of the time, dusty most all of the time, confused more often than not.  But they stuck, they stayed, they were there for the end, and for the new beginning of the resurrection.  They changed through knowing Jesus, and by teaching his ways, they changed others.   Let us do the same.  Just as John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, so let us too commit to leave behind our old ways and do a new thing.  Let us walk forward without fear into a future where all we know for sure is that God is with us.   Let us go forward to follow Jesus, to be like him, to live in him, today and every day.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Walking Hand in Hand

Isaiah 41:4b-10, 13   NRSV

I, the Lord, am first,
    and will be with the last.
5 The coastlands have seen and are afraid,
    the ends of the earth tremble;
    they have drawn near and come.

6 Each one helps the other,
    saying to one another, “Take courage!”
7 The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved.

8 But you, Israel, my servant,
    Jacob, whom I have chosen,
    the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
    and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand
13 For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you.”

You may or may not know that the scripture readings and titles of these messages are set long before the week they will be written.  Dee Anne, our office administrator, asks me for the scripture reading, sermon title and hymn of commitment for the coming month about a week before the end of the previous month so she can publish them in our church newsletter.  In this case, because Christmas and my vacation were at the end of the month, I had to figure all this out right at the beginning of December.  So if I ever knew what I would be preaching about on any given week, I may have forgotten unless I made some notes to myself about that particular passage.   That was not the case this week.  In fact, when I was looking for images that portrayed Walking Hand in Hand, and finding only sort of sugary boy/girl walking together pics, I was getting discouraged.  Then I thought of the Sistine Chapel, and that magnificent ceiling fresco, where God is reaching out to Adam, but not quite touching him . . . and then I found this picture of God reaching out to Adam, who is holding an adorable kitten!   Leah agreed that it was the perfect picture, even though at the time neither of us had any idea what it might have to do with the scripture reading.  But, kitten!  And so the game continues . . . 

I took a week’s vacation, as most of you know, during the week between Christmas and the New Year.  I activated the vacation response for my email, and I even stayed mostly off of Facebook during that week, because I knew Facebook would drag me into mind sets I didn’t want to deal with while I was entertaining houseguests and resting and reflecting and preparing myself spiritually and emotionally for the season to come.   When I returned to the office and Facebook I discovered, much to my dismay, that many people on my friends list were talking about how to show their displeasure over the election by doing something protest-like on Inauguration Day.  Some are going to refrain from spending money all day, while admitting that this is more likely to hurt small businesses than anyone else.  Some are going to a variety of protests and demonstrations.  The Interfaith group in Fresno will be gathering at the corners of a park to hold up signs naming things they hope President-elect Trump will consider important during his term.   My Spiritual Director will be gathering with a group of like minded folks for a time of centering prayer.  (To be honest with you, I won’t be watching the inauguration either, but then I haven’t watched any inauguration in decades.  I do have basic cable, but my TV isn’t even connected to the cable box.  I know, crazy, right?)   Some are even sporting t-shirts and signs that say “Not my president.”   And I get it, that they are angry and afraid for their futures.  But all I can think is, “Really?  Do you remember when you were complaining about the folks who were behaving this way after President Obama was elected?  Remember when you asked them to respect the office if they couldn’t respect the man?  Can you please practice what you used to preach?” 

It is often the same, sadly, between Christians.  We hear this group say, “Well, those folks over there aren’t really Christian,” while those folks over there are saying the same thing about the first group.   It’s sad, that a religion based in the teachings of one who came to explain how all of God’s children are precious and loved, who came to show us how to reach out even to the leper, the weak, the disrespected and disenfranchised, should somehow become increasingly exclusionary.  In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we don’t have to agree on everything, not on what the pastor is preaching, not even on how to do communion, but we do have to get along.  We do have to be willing to work together.  And we manage it.  Not easily, but we do manage it.

That’s one of the things I find most amazing and wonderful about the city of Selma, California.  In other places the idea that all the different variations of Christian thought can come together to work as a team is a dream.  Ministerial Associations in many other areas tend to be boys clubs of the fundamental and evangelical persuasion, with women and mainline pastors allowed a seat at the table grudgingly, if at all.  Here, however, everyone is truly welcome to be part of the work, to be part of the leadership, to be included in community church events.  We disagree, some of us, over some pretty fundamental theological points, and yet we have no problem working together in Christ’s name.  Selma is a microhabitat where that very rare thing known as Christian Unity exists and even thrives.

Isaiah said:  6 Each one helps the other, saying to one another, “Take courage!”
7 The artisan encourages the goldsmith,
    and the one who smooths with the hammer encourages the one who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, “It is good”;   

Among the many emails I get every day is a reflection on scripture from the United Church of Christ.   Yesterday that reflection was titled “Liberals dancing to Ted Nugent.”  I know, right?  That seems a bit, like, never gonna happen.   I read further.  

"The wolf will romp with the lamb,  the leopard sleep with the kid." - Isaiah 11:6
The leopard's claws exist so she can tear flesh efficiently. Remove her hunger and who is she? 
A vegetarian leopard is like a sophisticated liberal who loves Ted Nugent.  God wants coastal progressives to dance down the aisle of a heartland Walmart singing "Cat Scratch Fever" with anti-choice evangelicals who think global warming is a hoax.”  (Matt Fitzgerald, StillSpeaking Daily Devotional, United Church of Christ, January 7, 2017)

Whoa. Think about that for a moment.  Can you be part of that dance and still be you?  Can you be a vegetarian leopard?   Can I live without prejudice and without fear of the other?  I grew up in a household where racial, religious, and ethnic slurs were common.  I had to go out and make friends among those groups of people that my father used to disparage to learn that they are all just people like me, with the same kinds of prejudices and fears of the other, oftentimes even fear, or at least suspicion, of me.  I have learned much from those others - mostly about me, and my fears, and prejudices.  

We stand at the edge of a new year, a new political reality, a new future filled with possibilities.   Regardless of our individual stance on any given topic, we know for sure that we stand there along with people who disagree with us profoundly.  To some the way ahead looks like a precipice with an unknown distance to fall.  To others it looks like a walk in the park.  To some an adventure.  To others an obstacle course of untold difficulty.  But we are all standing on the edge of that future together.  We are all about to take a step forward into the unknown.   Just before we step forward, let us remember  . . .
God said, do not fear, for I am with you,
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand
13 For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
    I will help you.”

Do not fear, the other, the future, the possibilities, for God is with us. God will help us.  And this image, which was simply adorable when I first saw it, becomes the image for going forward.  As we reach out toward each new thing, and each new person, let us see that thing, that person, as Adam holding an adorable kitten.  How can you not want to reach out to the other, when you know they have such adorableness in them.  For disagreement, even on fundamental topics, is not evil, and those who disagree with us are not evil.  They are simply people with different opinions.  Let us be the vegetarian leopard.  Let us be the hand reaching toward the new life, new possibilities, new opportunities represented by Adam’s kitten.  Let us be the ones who see the beauty in even those with whom we disagree, and let us dance together into the future.

God said, “Do not fear, I will help you.”   Let us remember that, today and on Inauguration Day and all year long, as we deal with whatever comes our way, good and not so good, encouraging and frightening.  Let us remember . . . and let us hold out our hands for everyone to hold, so that we might walk with Jesus.