Sunday, August 13, 2017

Go Out and Tell Somebody!

Scripture Romans 10:5-15     (NRSV) 

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
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A Message From General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens: 
Sisters and brothers, my heart breaks at the violence this weekend in Charlottesville – the loss of life, the dishonoring of children of God, the vile insults hurled and the wounds of history reopened.  I pray for the family of the woman who died. I pray in praise of the peaceful demonstrators. We cannot take backward steps fueled by hatred. We cannot be silent when the humanity of black persons is being assaulted and terrorized.  

The commandment in 1 John 4:20 calls us to account:  "Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

And so let us love one another as we love God. With such love, we are compelled to stand for justice, and walk in peace.

Yesterday I attended the Appreciation Luncheon that Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life put on for Pastor Seth Pankratz, who is moving back to Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  At my table were several other local pastors, and one of them asked, “Have you preached on what’s going on in the news?” referring to the situation with North Korea.  We discussed the wisdom China had shown in their response, and we all agreed that this situation is truly terrifying, but that we hadn’t yet said anything from the pulpit except to lift up prayers for peace.  We began to talk about the news from just that morning, the violent clashes at the White Supremacist Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We knew, by that time, that a State of Emergency had been declared, which most often means martial law, with curfews imposed and the National Guard patrolling the streets.  We agreed that such displays of hatred are antithetical to the gospel message, but then the “Roasting and Toasting” part of the program began so we abandoned our conversation. 

Theologian Karl Barth said that we should always preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  I usually don’t.  Not because I don’t think it’s important to respond to what’s going on in the world, but because it is much too easy to think that my own prejudices and opinions are in perfect alignment with the gospel.  I try not to get all “preachy” at you about those things, mostly because I tend to believe that if I say, “Love one another means love everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, nationality, etc,  etc., etc.” then I have as good as said, “Hey y’all.  Racism is bad.  Heterosexism is bad. Misogyny is bad. Hating anyone is bad.”  And so on, and so on. I think by using this generalization I have let you know that none of these things align with the commandment to love one another as we love ourselves.  The thing is, I haven’t named those things out loud. I have only hinted at them.  You see, I assume you all can read your Bibles and come to the right conclusion.  Which is wrong headed of me, because lots of people read their Bibles and come to entirely different conclusions than I do!  

My brother read 2 Thessalonians 3:8, “We didn’t eat anyone’s food without paying for it.  Instead we worked night and day with effort and hard work so that we would not impose on you.” and decided that it meant there shouldn’t be anything like welfare or food stamps.  (Not true, in case you were wondering.). Growing up I was taught that some people are black because they are descended from Ham, and that every bad thing that happened to them was punishment for Ham uncovering Noah’s nakedness while he was drunk.  Paul’s letter to Philemon and portions of his other letters were seen as justification for slavery.  And I don’t have to tell you that there are many Christians who believe that women shouldn’t have any position of authority, in the church or outside of it, because Paul said so.   Or how our LGBTQ sisters and brothers are rejected, assaulted and even killed because of those “clobber passages” that so many of our Christian sisters and brothers like to quote.

And it’s easy for me to say, “Well, if they believe that it’s ok to hate then they aren’t really Christian.”  But that’s totally judgmental and I’m not sure it’s an accurate statement.  Because . . . 

In 1986 a family moved from Denver, Colorado to White City, Florida.  Mom, Dad, a son who was going to be on the high school football team and a cute daughter.  When they first moved in two doors down from me I went to their house and took a gift of some bread and salt to welcome them to the neighborhood. They were nice people.  They happened to be black.  A couple of nights later my next door neighbor also dropped by to let them know how welcome they were.  He and his friends were wearing their best white robes and carrying a large wooden cross, some gasoline and matches.  Now, you need to know that my neighbor and his family were faithful members of the Southern Baptist Church around the corner. Their kids went to Christian school.  They both taught Sunday School and always contributed generously to the food pantry downtown.  They would have been terribly upset to hear that I didn’t think much of their brand of Christianity.  Because they were good people - except for that one thing. Except for that racism thing.  And I figured that they would have to work that out with God eventually, just as I and everyone else will have to work out our sins with God eventually.  

The thing is, though, that one thing, that racism thing, and that xenophobic thing, and that anti-Semetic thing that were so evident yesterday aren’t just sins that hurt the person who is guilty of the sin.  They aren’t like gluttony or sloth or lust.  These sins and all of the other hate-type sins, hurt and even kill other people.  Heather Heyer, a 32 year old paralegal, died yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, because someone was so filled with hate that he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors on purpose, to kill somebody.   And there’s a good chance that the driver of that car, like so many of the Klansmen and other White Supremacists present at that rally yesterday, and like my neighbor in Florida, was Christian.   Too many of these are Christians for whom the love commandments - the love one another and love your neighbor and love your enemy commandments - lose something in translation when they are faced with someone whose skin is a different color, or speaks a different language, or follows a different religion.

The Jesus I believe in loves all persons.  The God who sent Jesus to save us, to heal us, loves all persons.  Like in that children’s song . . . 
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  
Jesus loves the little children of the world.  
We are all of us little children, to God.  But not everyone believes in a God of love.  There are those - many - who believe in a judgmental God, an angry God, in that Old Testament God who demanded the deaths of every living being in the cities of Canaan when Joshua brought the exiles into that land.  

 … how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” 

My brothers and sisters, I titled this sermon “Go out and Tell Someone” weeks ago, and the plan, my plan, was to speak about evangelism, to encourage you to go out and speak to your friends and your neighbors about Jesus, about Church.  About this congregation, and the good we do in our community, and about worshipping God in community.  I wanted to send you out to speak to your friends who are not believers, or who are believers who have slipped away and now feel isolated.  And I wanted you to bring them back. I wanted you to bring them home to Jesus.   And then Charlottesville happened.     

I still want you to go out and tell somebody, but I want you to tell them about the love of God for all persons.  ALL persons!  You know - All means ALL!?  And I want you to talk frankly about racism when you see it.   And I want you to speak out against hate, when you hear it.  Because hate isn’t one of those sins that just affects the sinner.  It affects everyone.  Everyone!  I want you to go out in love, to speak with your friends and your neighbors and your enemies, about the love of God.   

But how are we supposed to love our enemies, Pastor?  How are we supposed to love people who hate us?  That’s way hard.  Yes.  Yes, it is.  But here is what I was taught, and what we teach everyone who comes into 12 Step programs.  I might dislike someone.  I might distrust them. I might even hate them. (And if I do, I really need to work on that!)  But regardless of how I feel about them, when they are in need, I am there for them.  When they are in pain, I am there for them.  When they don’t know where to turn in their distress and difficulty, I am there for them.  Whether I like them or not.  Even if they had hurt me in the past.  That’s love.  That’s what God requires of me.  

How can they call on someone in whom they had not believed?”  They can’t.  So we have to teach them.  We have to speak our truth, the truth of God’s love and care for all persons.  Even the haters.  

The Good News - and there is Good News, even today - is that God does, in fact, love everyone.  And that you, each of you, are beautiful in God’s eyes, and you become even more beautiful when you speak God’s love.  For “how beautiful are the feet [and every other part!] of those who bring the good news.   

I would invite you now to come forward, if you are ready to be baptized, or if you are seeking a church home, and want to be part of Christ’s family here at First Christian Church, this family created in love, who believe in our hearts that God loves all persons. 

And then, my sisters and brothers, go out and tell someone that they are beautiful, and beloved, and a child of God.  Go out and tell them to leave behind their hatred, and fear, and anger, and come in to the light of God’s love.  Go out singing of God’s love - for we have a story to tell the nations - a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.  Let us sing.


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A word about the artwork - This is a depiction of the Barmen Declaration Banner.  The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934  was a document (written mostly by Karl Barth) and adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany who opposed the German Christian movement. In the view of the delegates to the Synod that met in the city of Barmen in May, 1934, the German Christians had corrupted church government by making it subservient to the state and had introduced Nazi ideology into the German Protestant churches that contradicted the Christian gospel.


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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wrestling Pros(e)

Genesis 32:22-31        (NRSV)

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel [which means “Face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
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Jacob.  Arguably one of the most important characters in the Bible, the person through whom God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Father of the 12 Tribes of Israel.    But not one of my favorite people at all.  He seemed to be a bit of a wuss, really.  And he was devious.  His mother talked him into cheating his slightly older twin brother Esau out of their father’s blessing.  Then he ran away because he was afraid of his brother.  He worked for Laban for 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved, Rachel, only to discover on his wedding night that Laban had substituted her older sister, Leah, for his expected bride.  OK.  So he worked another 7 years to earn Rachel.   When he wanted to go home, Laban agreed to give him all the spotted or striped goats as his wages, then removed all those from the flocks and sent them away with his sons.  So Jacob made sure to breed the remaining flocks in such a way as to produce lots of striped or spotted kids.  After 6 years of this, his flocks had increased greatly, so that they actually were stronger and more numerous than Laban’s.  This was upsetting Laban’s sons, so he left secretly with his wives and his flocks while Laban was away shearing sheep.   There was eventually a confrontation, in which God intervened, so Jacob and his wives and children and flocks were allowed to go on their way.  When he came close to the land of his father, where his brother was now the head of the family, he began to worry that Esau just might be holding a grudge.  So he sent an apology in advance, and bribes, and divided his people and his flocks in two so that, if things went poorly for him when he encountered Esau, at least half of them could escape.  Although he kept both wives and concubines and all 11 children with him, and I imagine they would have been killed or enslaved if things went really poorly, so I’m not sure who would have benefited from the escape of half the flocks.   

The night before he anticipated encountering Esau he sent his family ahead, across the fording place over the river, while he stayed behind, perhaps to pray.  Because one thing Jacob was very faithful about - dedication to his God.  While in a foreign land, he prayed to his God, the God of Abraham.  He had taught his wives to love God, and they were quick to give God praise when they were blessed with children.  Even in a time when most gods people believed in were pretty local in nature, ruling over one land or city or even one aspect of life or nature,  Jacob understood that his God was the God of his entire people, and not limited to any particular place.  So he often turned to God to ask for guidance.

On this night, when Jacob was alone and waiting for the morning’s confrontation, a man came and they wrestled.   As far as I know, this is the first recorded wrestling match, taking place some 1,100 years before the first Greek Olympics.    I like wrestling.   I became a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling when I was dating Jimmy Chekowski, the star of our high school wrestling team.   Last year, when the Selma High School girl’s wrestling team was recognized for their excellence at a City Council meeting I was amazed and delighted to learn that girl’s wrestling is a recognized sport.  And even more excited to learn that our girls are acknowledged champions in that sport!  Wrestling requires strength, skill, and determination.  And, in the case of professional wrestling, acting skill.   I was introduced to professional wrestling in the 1970s, and watched in amazement as such luminaries as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Jake the Snake, Hulk Hogan, and Andre the Giant entered the ring, representing the forces of Good or Evil.  At first I was shocked!  This was not beautiful, like the wrestling I was used to.  It was violent!  It all looked so real!  Eventually I learned that these matches are pretty carefully choreographed, and each move is carefully planned, like the staged fights in movies, so that the participants are usually only injured by accident.   That wasn’t the case with Jacob. 

In Jacob’s case, there were no rules.  No care was taken to make sure no one was injured.  Jacob was by no means stronger than his opponent, but he was stubborn enough to refuse to give up, even after his hip was dislocated.  He prevailed in his struggle, and was given the name “Israel” which means “The one who strives with God,” because his struggle that night was way more than just two guys wrestling.    

Jacob was about to face something he had run away from over 20 years earlier.  His history was that of a man who acquiesced to whatever someone else demanded of him - his mother, his father-in-law, his wives.  But now he was going to have to face his brother.  And he was really not good at confrontation.  But God said, “Go home,” and going home meant facing his fears.  Jacob wrestled with his fears that night.  Torn between what he wanted to do and what God wanted him to do, he spent that night wrestling.   And although he prevailed, in that he didn’t give up until he learned the name of the person he contended with, the one who truly prevailed was God, because Jacob went on to face his fear - the brother he had wronged so long ago.  

We all wrestle with God at one time or another.  When things go wrong, we might blame God.   While preparing for a funeral some 10 years back, I spent time with the son of the woman we were burying.  He had stopped coming to church several years earlier, when his teenaged son was killed by a drunk driver.  He hadn’t been able to forgive God for letting it happen.  He was still wrestling with his son’s death last year, when we placed a boutonniere for his son on an empty chair at his daughter’s wedding.   I don’t know how long his wrestling match with God will take, but I know he is still engaged in the process.  And that’s a good thing, that he is still engaged ion the struggle, that he hasn’t give up.  We struggle with God whenever we see ugliness, or encounter hatred, or face cruelty and inhumanity.  How can God let that happen?  How can racism still exist, when we all know that the only actual difference between the races is literally skin deep?   How can God allow one person to murder another because of gender or orientation or ethnicity?  How can God allow parents to abuse their children?  How can anyone be permitted to deliberately injure a helpless kitten or puppy?  We find ourselves wrestling with the commandment to “Love One Another” when that other seems to be manifestly unlovable.   

And like Jacob, we find ourselves wrestling with God when the thing that we know we are supposed to do is really hard to do.  Almost everyone I know who has been called to the ministry tried to fight the call.  Most of us spend some time wondering if we are doing the right thing.  It happens with teachers, police, public defenders, social workers - everyone who has embraced a calling that is about helping others.   I’m pretty sure it happens in lots of occupations and vocations.  We love the work, but there are days in each of our lives when we have to wonder if we made the right choice.  That’s why we take vacations, and sabbaticals and go on retreats.  I imagine there are even days when parents have the same struggle.  I’m pretty sure that the day my mother turned her back on two toddlers for just a minute while she was baking bread may have been one of those  “And I thought having children was a good idea, why?” moments. 

It’s a good thing when we wrestle with God, and when we wrestle with our faith, and when we wrestle with our own character traits that maybe are less than lovable.   Look at Jacob.  He was not the best human who ever lived.  He had some serious character flaws and weaknesses.   But he also had good traits, chief among them his faith that God was with him no matter what.  He fought with God - in his case, physically! - and survived. More than survived.  He was rewarded greatly.  Through him, God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  Jacob, Israel, became the actual father of the Twelve Tribes.  Even though he was worried and imperfect.  Just like us.  


My brothers and sisters, the Good News today is twofold.  First, God is always with us, especially when we are wrestling with God, with our faith, and with ourselves.  Second, you are loved, just the way you are.   Go out from this place knowing that.   No matter who you are, you are loved, and God is with you.  Amen.