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.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Speakers


Scripture James 3:1-12  (CEB)

My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!

11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.

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Those of you who are in the Lectionary Study on Sunday mornings may have noticed that I am not preaching from the assigned lectionary text for today.  My apologies.  When I selected the scriptures for this month I somehow managed to skip a week, which I didn’t notice until we were talking about the October 7th scripture selection a couple of weeks ago - which was identical to the one I had selected for September 30.  I realized later that I had skipped a week in September somehow, so rather than redo the entire month, the reading that would normally have been today will be on September 30.  The rest of you probably haven’t noticed, unless you study the lectionary readings at home on Sunday mornings?  Yes?  No?  No?  Ok.

Today’s reading from James is a cautionary tale, about the evil that comes out of our mouths.  The tongue - untamable. A small flame of fire, a world of evil at work within us . . . . set on fire by the flames of hell.. . a restless evil, full of deadly poison.   Reading this passage it becomes easier to understand why some monks and nuns take a vow of silence.  If you are trying to avoid sin, best not to use that which James says “contaminates our whole lives.

Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.”  Now, when we modern folks think of cursing, we tend to think of those words that are not acceptable in polite society.  You know the ones.  The ones that lead folks to respond with comments like, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”  And indeed, we should try to always use only those words that everyone around us finds acceptable and inoffensive, and not the expletives that we tend to associate with bad behavior.  But when James spoke of cursing, it wasn’t that sort of language that he was speaking of.  He was speaking of actual curses - one person wishing evil upon another.   Saying, “Damn you to hell” was not just bad language.  It was a big deal, because the people of the first century believed that words had that kind of power.  “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest you,” may be a joke to us, but it was serious business then.  The victim of such a curse would go out immediately to find someone to break the curse.  And whereas we might say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”  (I will come back to that later), for the people James was speaking to, words had real power.  Blessings and curses were serious business.  Blessings and curses should not, indeed, come out of the same mouth.  

Jesus also spoke to the importance of words.  How can you speak good things while you are evil? What fills the heart comes out of the mouth.  (Matthew 12:34)    And certainly, what comes out of our mouths is a reflection of what we are thinking.   I attend a discussion group once a month where we talk about the issues we have in interpersonal relations and relationships.  At our meeting this week, the leader of our group said she was making a concerted effort to curb her tongue.  It had been brought to her attention that people often find her a bit abrasive and intimidating.  She does not suffer fools lightly, and tends to be a bit sarcastic, saying what she thinks without reflection or considering how it might be heard.  So, she said, she was focusing on taking a beat, on not reacting with her first thought, but responding after taking a moment to reflect.  She said she also needed to watch her face, because even if she managed to bite her tongue, her facial expressions tended to give her away.   And she said, “It’s hard!  Throughout the evening we were entertained by watching her bite her tongue whenever a question or comment triggered a reaction, but she really did pretty well overall.    I confess, I have the same problem, and it really is hard to watch my tongue and facial expression sometimes.   

And I would just like to take a moment to point out that it isn’t just the spoken word that can be problematic - but also the written.  In James’ time not all that many people could write, so it wouldn’t have been a consideration for most.  Today, most can read and write, so we need to expand our understanding of “tongue” a bit.  Just as we might need to watch our tongue in spoken response, so too our reaction to a comment on social media need not be sent as soon as it’s typed, especially if we are reacting out of anger or hurt feelings.  Just as one, in writing a letter responding to something that upsets us, should hold on to that letter for 24 hours to consider our response, we should also do the same electronically.  Remember, that on social media there are no tones of voice or facial expressions to help us judge what the person meant  - and emojis do not do a good enough job reflecting one’s mood or intention, so don’t even go there.  

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”   The intention of this children’s rhyme was to persuade the victims of name calling to remain calm and non-reactive, not to retaliate in kind, but to be a good Christian child.  According to Wikipedia, it is reported to have first been published in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Today, although we do hope people will respond lovingly to evil words, we understand that words might break a person.  September is Suicide Prevention Month.   Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2016 CDC)  Although, according to the CDC, bullying has not been proven to have a direct link to suicide, statistics do show that any engagement in bullying - as either perpetrator or victim - does increase the chances of suicide-related behavior in teens and young adults.   Reporting incidents of bullying - verbal or physical - is important, not just so that the bully can be “punished” but so that both bully and victim can get the help they need.   Teaching our children and youth about right speaking is a huge responsibility, and that responsibility lies with the parents, the schools and the church - all of us working together.  

Right speaking.  It’s one of those love things - loving our neighbor includes watching our tongues, speaking blessing only and not curse.  And we can’t just teach it.  We have to do it.    We can’t do that whole “Do as I say, not as I do” thing.  The Number 1 reason people don’t come to church?   That’s it, in a nutshell.  Hypocrisy!  Christians say one thing and do another!  They preach love and then talk trash about each in the parking lot.  They preach love, then reject this group or that one.   We cannot afford to do this!  We cannot say one thing and do another.   We must practice what we preach.  We must do and say the same things.  Not just so that people will come to church.  Not just so that our children will live longer, mentally and emotionally healthier lives.  But because it is the right thing, the loving thing, the Christian thing to do.

Yes, we will make mistakes.  We will mis-speak.  We will be tired or hungry or have just had it up to there, and we will say something hurtful, and even maybe untrue.   James knew that, and so he said, “We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.  This is why I am glad we talk about growing in our faith, and not being grown. 

One of my favorite expressions in 12 Step meetings has to do with growing in this way.   We can’t think our way into right acting, but we can act our way into right thinking.  I can spend all day long thinking I can control my tongue and only say nice, loving things to people, but I will continue to say the wrong things until I am diligently working at not saying them.  And eventually, having worked at it constantly for some period of time, by biting my tongue and avoiding the oh-so-obvious eye-roll, the reactions that are normal today will not be my first thought.  By working at not saying the sarcastic, possibly hurtful thing, eventually, I will start thinking differently, and that will not be my first response.  As I continue to practice right speaking, I will make fewer mistakes.  I will become more mature in living my faith.    

In last week’s passage we heard James say, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.”  And this is what we must do if we would be the kind of speakers that attract others to our faith, the kind of speakers who show the world what it truly means to be a Christian - speakers who take the time to consider the right response, the loving response.  Speakers whose words reflect only and always the love of Christ.  Speakers who have clearly given their lives to God.  

Sisters and brothers, would you stand and join me in asking God to accept our lives, our words, and our will, singing hymn #609, “Take my life.”  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Doers



Scripture James 1:17-27      (CEB)

17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.

22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

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Fred Craddock was an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), professor of Preaching and New Testament, pastor of Cherry Log Christian Church in Northern Georgia, and founder of the Craddock Center, a not for profit serving Appalachia.  He was a well known, story telling kind of preacher. And when I say he was a well known preacher, I mean that when you went to General Assembly, come Sunday morning the church that had the largest attendance was the one where Fred Craddock was preaching - standing room only, usually.  If he happened to be preaching at one of the Assembly worships, everybody showed up to hear him!  I studied his preaching in seminary.  I listened to his preaching in person when I could.  I read his sermons when I couldn’t hear them in person - I have books!  And I was especially blessed in 2004 to take a short class from him in Claremont titled, “After all these years, why am I still nervous?”  He was a short, round, mostly bald old guy by the time I first saw him, but when that man stood in the pulpit, he was a giant.  He is someone I strive to emulate.   So when I read in a commentary on today’s reading that Fred Craddock had said if he had it to do over, he would preach more about God, I started to re-think what I had planned to do with this particular passage from James.  

Not that I don’t preach about God.  Because I do.  But maybe, just maybe, God doesn’t always get top billing in the stories I tell.   And that could be a problem.  Because it’s all about God - all of the stories and all of the suggestions and all of  directions that we get from scripture - all of the struggles we have trying to figure out just what each passage means for us in our lives, in the world today - it’s all about God.    But maybe I don’t say that clearly enough.  

I read the Daily Devotional from the United Church of Christ every morning. In today’s devotion, Pastor John A. Nelson, Pastor of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts, seemed to be angry about James’ instruction to the Church to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”   He told a story about going to the US Consulate in Guatemala to assist an indigenous pastor in applying for a visa to attend the National Council of Churches Assembly.  The consulate official was disrespectful toward the pastor, accusing him of being an Indian with a chip on his shoulder, even though the pastor stood quietly, submitted all the proper paperwork without complaint, and spoke respectfully throughout the entire process.  Pastor Nelson admitted to being enraged by the official’s attitude, while the Guatemalan pastor modeled James’ instructions. While  I can certainly agree with Pastor Nelson that sometimes righteous anger has a proper place, but I believe what James was telling his congregation was not “don’t ever get angry,” but rather, don’t fly off the handle before you fully understand what the other person is saying.  Listen to them, open your ears and your heart to their point of view before reacting with anger - or worse, rage - because that is not loving.  That is not acting in accordance with God’s righteousness.  


This month I will be preaching sort of a series that describes who Christians are - Doers, Talkers, Peacemakers, Pray-ers, and Carers.  I titled this message “Doers” because I am always especially drawn to that one portion of this reading that says, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.  They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.  But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.”    I chose this particular picture because it is about Fresno - it comes from the Chevron Doers ad that even someone like me, who doesn’t watch much television, has seen dozens of times - and because it is about doers we can relate to.   This guy doesn’t just talk about agriculture - he’s a farmer, a doer, out in the fields getting his hands dirty, doing the work that brings broccoli to my dinner table.  

There are a lot of doers in this congregation - individuals and groups who focus much of their energy on serving our community in one way or another.  Raising money for scholarships.  Feeding the hungry.  Caring for abandoned animals.  Reminding us of the folks who no one pays attention to - like the patients in the Selma Convalescent Hospital - so we can pay attention to them.  Joining with other volunteers to clean up the city.  Serving the church as elders and deacons.  Signing up to do Children’s Time, or to greet people at the door on Sunday mornings.  This congregation is filled with people who, as soon as they hear of a need, are off and running to take care of that need.  Does a college student need a ride to class?  We’re on it!   Does a shut in need meals?  Consider it done.  We do these things not because we are expected to as members of the church, but because these are ways we can re-pay God for all the love and blessings we receive.   We do these things out of gratitude because gratitude is more than just a feeling. Gratitude is an action word.    Gratitude is something we do, as thanks for what we have received from God.

Responding immediately to a need that has been expressed to us is one of the ways we are doers.  Millie was one of my seminary classmates.  I wish I had a picture to show you.  She was in her 70s, a native of Detroit.  a little tiny lady, way shorter than I am, she always wore her hair in long black ringlets, and although she was one of the oldest students, she had way more energy than any of the rest of us.  Whenever the Gospel Choir sang in chapel, as soon as we finished our song Millie would start jumping up and down shouting Praise Jesus! and many other words of praise.    So - you know how most of the time, when you ask someone to pray for you, they will say, of course, and then wander off to pray for you later on?  If they remember.   Not Millie.  She was not one of those who  would listen and then forget, but put it into practice in her life. The first time I asked her to pray for me, Millie grabbed me around the neck, dragged my head down next to hers, and start praying loud and proud in the middle of where ever we happened to be.  It was a bit of a shock, but it was just what I needed.  Millie taught me how God wants us to respond to a request for prayer.  Millie was a doer of the word, not a hearer only.  And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason Millie was one of the best loved members of our seminary community, was because she reflected God’s love on everyone. 

If we would be doers in every way, we will put God first in our lives.  We will seek God’s will in our decision making.  We will respond immediately when a neighbor needs our help, our prayers, our support.  We will reach out from this place to care for the widows and orphans in their difficulty - and not specifically widows and orphans, but their modern day counterparts - single mothers and fathers, who are hard put to care for the children in their care, whose income may not stretch to pay rent and buy food and school supplies and all of the other things that a family requires.  We will keep the world from contaminating us by following these directions we have received from James - avoid lashing out in anger, cleanse our hearts of wickedness, speak and act with humility, act immediately when we are presented with need, practice gratitude for all of God’s blessings, and love our neighbors, no matter who they may be, whether or not we agree with them.      

When we leave this place today, let us go out determined to live our lives in God, so that we may show everyone that Christians are doers of the word, not just people who talk about God. 



Sunday, August 26, 2018

Standing our Ground


Scripture Ephesians 6:10-20     (CEB)


10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. 11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. 16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. 19 As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. 20 I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.
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I don’t know about you, but when I think of armor I tend to think of the knights of the middle ages - that whole full body suit made of iron that required a Percheron to carry into battle, the kind they wore for jousting and such.  But that wasn’t invented until about the 14th century.  It is not what the Roman soldiers of the first century would have worn.  Their armor was pretty much what Paul describes - a belt, a breastplate, shoes, a helmet, and a shield.  They carried a short sword and a javelin.  Their armor was to protect them from the enemies of the Empire - who was pretty much everyone they had conquered or hoped to conquer.  They were most likely to come up against people who used similar arms, or other distance weapons such as bows and arrows,  and slingshots.  Their method of fighting is still renowned - they would gather in square, shields forming a wall of protection against those slingshots, arrows and spears, working as a team.  This was greatly successful against armies who focused more on individual battle than team work - obviously, as they conquered most of the known world.  

But God’s empire is not like the Roman Empire.  And a different kind of empire requires a different kind of armor.  Paul used imagery the people of his churches, in the Roman Empire, would understand, but named the parts in such a way that it was clear this armor was different.  It wasn’t intended to repel physical weapons, but spiritual ones.  It wasn’t intended to be used by soldiers to conquer the world for an earthly emperor, but to conquer evil on behalf of our heavenly Lord.  The sword wasn’t intended to be used to defeat and enslave humans, but to defeat sin and liberate humanity.   We can be pretty sure that Paul was not talking about a literal sword, because we remember from Matthew 26, that when Jesus was arrested, “one of those with him put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  And Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Rather, Paul was telling the people of Ephesus that they needed to stand their ground, to be faithful to the truth they had been taught about Jesus and about God, and resist the temptation to just be like everyone else they knew.  It was a hard time to be a Christian.  They were persecuted.  They were harassed and tormented by their neighbors and suppressed by the authorities.  There were no equal rights in the first century Roman Empire.  There were no protections for religious minorities as we have today - and Christians were definitely a religious minority in that time and place.  It would have been so much easier for them to just go back to the way they used to be.  And Paul knew that.

Yesterday, at the Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life Block Party, while talking to a young woman about preaching I said something like, “We use the same scriptures over and over that have always been used, but each time I use any given passage I have a different message because the world has changed since last time I preached it.”   And I imagined that the preacher in the next booth was thinking,  “What is she saying?  The message never changes!”   And I say to you, my brothers and sisters, he is right.   The message is always the same - but the way we preach that message has to change with the situation in which we are living.   It’s been said that every preacher really only has one sermon.  And I believe that is probably true.  My message is the love commandment - that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  But each time I preach, even though I am pretty much preaching this one thing every single Sunday, it is important to acknowledge what is going on in the world around us.  It is important to see the changes that affect our lives.  It is important to look at where evil is attacking from - because while evil never changes, it’s weapons do.

But you know,  the message does change a bit from time to time.  As the centuries pass, the understanding of what is and is not love, and who is and isn’t acceptable in God’s eyes, changes.  And so the message changes. There was a time when ministers  preached that slavery was perfectly acceptable because Paul spoke of how owners should treat their slaves.  There was a time when preachers would rail against the idea of a woman standing in a pulpit because Paul said women should not teach men.  (OK, that one still gets preached, but not as much as it used to be.)  There are still topics that are hotly contested - who can be saved, who can be in leadership in the churches, whether the Bible needs to be taken literally (and if so, which translation must be used) - and I pray that if we ever come to a point of agreement on any of those things, that our agreement will all on the side of love, the side of acceptance, the side of inclusion.  There is a reason this congregation believes that All means ALL  . . . 

Today we know that, as sad as it may be, we cannot always trust the people standing in these pulpits.  It is not just a Catholic problem.  It is universal.  It exists in every denomination and every religion.  Too often, when people are given authority and trust just because they happen to have a certain title, the temptation to abuse that trust and that authority will be overwhelming.  And so we, too, who are the leaders, must put on our armor, and stand our ground and resist the evil that tempts us.

And so our armor changes. Instead of looking like a Roman soldier, we may look more like Iron Man.   Iron Man is actually a pretty good example - an arms manufacturer who decided to change his life and fight for justice instead of striving for more power and wealth.  His armor had to stand up against those who opposed him, even within his own company, who wanted him to return to the way he had been before - before he had his change of heart.  They wanted him to stop standing firm for the right, so what did he do?  He joined with others like him, to defend the defenseless and to fight evil in every form.  He could not stand alone - but neither could the Roman soldier - neither could the Christians in Ephesus.  They had to lock shields with one another and stand their ground in community against the temptations of their world.

So do we.  That’s why we come together here, in community.  Because even though we can be Christian alone, we cannot stand our ground alone as well as we can in community.  Without others to lock shields with, without others to watch our back, and hold us up when we are weak, we will fall back into the way we used to be.  Like - I lost 30 pounds and stopped being careful about diet and exercise and gained it all back.  And now I don’t want to face my doctor.   The same thing happens with any change we make for the good.  Without others to help us stand our ground, we will give in to evil, we will give in to the temptations that surround us daily - on TV and in the movies and on the internet and Messenger and Snapchat and Instagram and Tumblr and all the others - the temptation to be perfect (even though we know we can’t be), the temptation to somehow acquire all things we think everyone else has, the temptation to judge others because so many others are talking trash about them, the temptation to give in to anger and hate - all of these things are right there, right outside the door. . .

But with a community to support and love us,  we can become the people that God wants us to be.  When we put on the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness,  when we take up the shield of faith and lock shields with our sisters and brothers, when we are wearing the helmet of salvation, then we can put on our shoes and carry the sword of the Good News of our Lord and God.  
When we go from this place, let us go fully armored, as part of this community of faith, as  part of the whole body of Christ.  When we find temptation, and we will, let us stand our ground, with the strength of God surrounding us, with his holy name protecting us.  For there is strength in the name of the Lord.

My brothers and sisters, please stand and sing with me “There is Strength in the Name of the Lord.”

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Getting high on God


Scripture Ephesians 5:15-20  (CEB)


15 So be careful to live your life wisely, not foolishly. 16 Take advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times. 17 Because of this, don’t be ignorant, but understand the Lord’s will. 18 Don’t get drunk on wine, which produces depravity. Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: 19 speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; 20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;

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You know, I  think, that I select the scripture reading and sermon title and the hymn that follows the sermon two in advance.   And sometimes I find something that works for the art then, and sometimes it waits until the week I will be preaching.  This week when I plugged in the words “Getting high on God” and found lots of pics of Rostafarians and hippies smoking giant joints, I realized that my title could perhaps be misunderstood.  After all, Google has no way of knowing that I titled it this way because my focus is on verses 18 and 19, “be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: 19 speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts.”    

This congregation is filled with musical talents.  I mean, most  Disciples congregations do music pretty well.  It’s been said that when members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) get together we do two things really well - food and music.  But this congregation in particular is filled with musically gifted people, so when we  have special music, it really is special.  We have the Raisin Tooters and the Pentecost Band, an exceptional choir, and visiting performers who are professionals in their fields.  And every week we have greatly talented musicians moving us with their skill on organ and piano.   When we worship every Sunday, our combined voices soar to God like incense on the breeze.  And I don’t know about you, but every time we sing certain songs, my heart is so filled that joy runs down my cheeks in the shape of tears.   

Not everyone is a wonderful singer.  I have been in congregations where people actually cringe when the choir stands to sing because of that one person who sings lustily and off key every time.  And they all turn to each other and say, “God only requires that we make a joyful noise.  And she certainly is joyful when she sings.”   

All of creation makes joyful noise to our God.  Birds sing their hearts out for the sheer joy of singing.  And some sound so lovely - the melodic songs of the lark and the nightingale, the sweet coo of the dove, even the twitter of sparrows can make us smile.   There are others, however, like the crow and the jay, who voices are not as pleasing to our ears, but whose full throated song rises joyfully to please God.

Paul says, . . . “be careful to live your life wisely, not foolishly.  Take advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times.  And indeed, these are evil times.  That, however, can be said of pretty much all times throughout history.  Every time has its own particular evils that rise to gain our attention.   Paul knew that, because he had studied the history of his own people - the stories we call the Old Testament.  War and famine, enslavement and oppression have plagued humanity from forever.  As Paul’s congregations looked around at all of that, and the persecution they faced, it would have been easy for them to fall prey to depression and apathy.  “There’s nothing we can do, so we may as well just give up.”  We are in the same boat in many ways.  It seems like there is so much going on in the world that is hard to accept.  So much hunger.  So much anger.  It would be easy to give up trying to make a difference.  It would be easy to give in to feelings of despair.   But Paul says “Because of this, don’t be ignorant, but understand the Lord’s will.  And the Lord’s will is that we transform the world into God’s kingdom on earth, a place where love and mercy are paramount, and justice flows like a river.

How do we do that?  How do we transform ourselves, and the world?  Paul says, be grateful.  always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When we look for the good in every thing, when we become grateful for all the things that come into our lives, we are transformed.  It is easy to be like Eeyore, finding the negative in situations. Eeyore says,  “Poor me.  My tail has fallen off.”  But if Eeyore were to say, “Happy me!  I have friends who help me find my tail and put it back on” he would be a totally different person.  Likewise, we must seek the good in situations.  There will be terrible things that happen, and sometimes there is no good to be found in those situations.  But mostly, there is.  And seeking what is positive instead of embracing the negative will change our entire outlook.  

That is the difference between Psalm 137 and so many of the others.  Psalm 137 says: 

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion. . . 
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land? . . .
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
  Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

The people in exile in Babylon were angry and unhappy, and that is totally understandable.  But if they were to transform their world, they would need to transform their attitude.  Instead of this song, they would sing psalm 100:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Paul says to the people of Ephesus, sing!  Even in the midst of evil, even in the midst of oppression, even in the midst of terrible persecution. Sing!   speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts.   

Paul says to us, be filled with the Spirit! Give thanks and praise to God all the time, even in terrible situations.  Maybe you know Pastor Joe Alvarez, of the Iglesia Antioquia (Church of Antioch), the Spanish congregation at Valley Life Community Church.  He never enters a room or situation without proclaiming loudly, “Praise the living God!  Even when he is terrible pain.  Even when things are not going well in his personal life.  Even when we are facing difficulties in our city.  Always, Pastor Joe will say “Praise the living God!”   And I admire him for that.    I can’t do that out loud, like he does.  I’m quieter than that. Even when I am feeling very Spirit filled, I am quieter than that.  But it’s the feeling, and the sharing of that gratitude and praise that is important.  

Paul says Sing!  
In the midst of a divided nation, sing.  
In the midst of anger over every single thing, sing!  
In the midst of fear about the future, sing!  
Let the Spirit fill your heart!   
Make a joyful noise.  
Lift up your heart and soul and all of your being! 
It is totally counter intuitive.  It makes no sense whatsoever.  But it is what we are called to do.  Give thanks to God for every thing, in Jesus name.  Speak to each other in the words of psalms, in songs and hymns.  Sing!
Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Embracing the New



Scripture   Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Common English Bible (CEB)    


25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil. 28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.
29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.
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Last week we talked about forsaking the old ways, asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and transgressions, and looking to live life differently.  Today’s reading is specifically about how to be better people - how to embrace the new life in Christ that we have been given. 

Paul’s instructions in this passage seem to be pretty much no-brainer.  Be truthful.  Be angry without sinning.  Don’t steal.  Watch what you say.   We got this, right?   Maybe.  Maybe not.  

I get the “Still Speaking” daily devotional from the United Church of Christ which is based in the lectionary reading for the day. Today’s was written about this particular reading and the writer’s perspective was rather different, and very timely.    Rev. Quinn Caldwell addressed the first two verses of today’s reading, saying, “Paul did not do a good job of anticipating the Internet. Like, I'm not blaming him or anything, but let's just be honest that he really failed to see Facebook coming. All his advice is given to people who are looking each other in the eye. What would he say about how to engage on Facebook, or Twitter, where you can easily be in electronic relationship with thousands upon thousands of people you will never meet in person? "Speak the truth"—OK, that's pretty clear, I guess, maybe. But "speak the truth in love"? What does love look like in the middle of a Twitter flame war or Facebook showdown? Is it always patient, kind, understanding—or is it sometimes a smackdown? 

He has a pretty good point.  I mean, some people have a hard time speaking the truth with love in person, but when they get online . . . and it doesn’t even have to be about anything big, or political, or religious. I posted a picture of a cat sitting beneath my hummingbird feeder, which I thought was cute.  Almost immediately people began attacking me, with great anger, because I was using red hummingbird food.  I was not aware of any problems with red hummingbird food prior to that moment, and OK, I understand they had a concern they wanted to express.  But I think “speaking truth in love” would sound less like, “You horrible person!  That red food is killing the hummingbirds!” and more like, “Studies suggest that red dye in hummingbird food may cause liver problems.  You can make your own, healthier hummingbird food of sugar and water.”   Both of these statements are true, well, except for the horrible person part, but verily I say to you, my brothers and sisters, my reaction to the latter is way more reasoned than my reaction to the former.   Remember when we used to tell our children “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”?  That works on Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media.  And in person.  Speak as you would be spoken to.  Speak truth in love.  

There are those who would say it is always wrong to be angry.  But Paul seems to feel differently.  “Be angry without sinning,” he says.  “Don’t let the sun set on your anger.  Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.”  Rev. Caldwell disagreed, in part, noting that  “anyone who's ever been engaged in a heated conversation online [or in person] knows that sometimes sleeping on it is a way better strategy than responding immediately.”   One of the techniques I was taught for dealing with anger is to write a letter to the person I am angry with and not mail it, for at least 24 hours.  Often I would discover that I wasn’t nearly as angry in the morning light as I had been in the moment.  I would usually be able to tear up my letter, and address whatever the issue was more calmly and reasonably than if I had spoken out at the time.  
“Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work”.  Paul said that they should then use their income to help others.  And they should.  But I know that getting a job doesn’t necessarily end the stealing.  I have known people to “help” their church by donating office supplies “liberated” from their place of employment, or providing pirated software for the church computer, or by thinking copyright laws don’t apply to church music.  Don’t do those things.  All of those things are stealing, and no part of the Christian life. 

Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth.  OK, that sounds pretty clear.  Watch your language!  An admonition that I need to remember more often than I want to admit.  However, is that what it really means?  Because the next sentence is “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.  We are back to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”, I think. 

What Paul is really addressing here is conflict resolution.  You see, there were some significant conflicts in the churches in Ephesus.  Every church has some conflict, and most of that conflict even from the very beginning of Christianity has been between “We have always done it this way,” and “Let’s do this new thing!”  Do people have to be circumcised (the old way) or not (the new way.)  Do we have to follow the dietary restrictions (the old way) or not (the new way.)  Do we want pews (the old way) or chairs we can use in different configurations (the new way).  Sometimes conflicts are over personalities - Apollos versus Paul.  Sometimes the conflicts were over how to interpret what Paul had taught.  Regardless of what the conflict was about, Paul was trying to teach folks how to deal with conflict, saying “Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. 

Chances are pretty good that we here at First Christian Church in Selma are going to engage in some difficult discussions in the not too distant future.  This week many of the people who you have elected to leadership positions will be meeting with a representative of the Board of Church Extension in Indianapolis to talk about our financial situation - which is not good - and possible choices for our future as a church.  Then we will start talking about those possibilities - all of us together.  And when we start talking about those things, we need to do so with open minds and hearts.  We will need to take into our hearts these words from Paul - who knew a thing or two about dealing with conflict.  Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 
Embracing the new life in Christ that we have been blessed with means changing the way we think about things, and the way we respond to things.  We start thinking about what is best for all people, not just what benefits me, or us right here.  We start reaching out to make life better for all people, not just for our own folks.  We ask ourselves how we can best serve all of Selma instead of how we can best serve First Christian.  Jesus did not tell us to just love some people.  He told us to love our neighbors, and then he told us the neighbor was the Samaritan, the enemy, the person we would never normally allow into our homes.   

Paul told the folks in Ephesus, and us, “…imitate God, like dearly loved children.  Live your life with love, following the example of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us.  When we go from this place today, let us do as Paul directs.  Let us follow the example of Christ, loving others and giving ourselves for others, as Jesus gave himself for us.  Let us embrace a new life, a new way of being.   Let every day be a new day in Christ, a new day in love, a day to embrace the new way of living.  

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Forsaking the Old Ways


Scripture  Psalm 51:1-12     (NRSV)

1  Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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According to my Bible, this is the psalm David wrote after the prophet Nathan came to him with the story of the ewe lamb the rich man had stolen from the poor man - a parable he told so that David would understand the severity of his crime against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and also against God.  David suddenly understood what he had done as something other than just self-indulgence, but as actions that were not only against the Law, but greatly offensive to God.  His lust, his abuse of the privilege he held as king, his murder of an innocent man so that he could claim Uriah’s wife for himself, all of these sins were abhorrent to God and, quite frankly, to us, the readers of these stories.   We hear it said that David was greatly loved by God, and we wonder, because we know how sinful David was.  We know this story!  As well as many others told in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles.  How, we wonder, could such a flawed person continue to be God’s beloved? 

This psalm goes a long way toward explaining that.  Yes, he sinned.  He sinned egregiously against God, against Uriah and Bathsheba, and against the Laws of his people, the Laws God gave to Moses.  He was guilty of more than just unethical abuse of power.  He committed rape, adultery, and murder, and he forced others to participate in his sin, because he was, after all the king, and his orders and “invitations” could not be refused.  Perhaps he didn’t think about the severity of what he was embarking on when he told his men to go, get Bathsheba and bring her to him so he could enjoy an afternoon’s dalliance with a lovely woman.  But when he did finally realize the evil of that one, selfish action, he repented.  And then he cried out:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse from me my sin.  
For I know my transgressions,  and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,  and done what is evil in your sight,

Coming before God to proclaim his sins and ask forgiveness, David was forgiven.  David remained greatly beloved of God, a man after God’s own heart.  And so it is for all of us.  

David said, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.  And this we still believe, for we know humans are inherently prone to error.  We have to work at doing what is right, and avoiding the wrong.  I grew up believing that my sinfulness was so deeply a part of who I was that there was no chance of heaven.  Even as a small child, confessing to the terrible sin of talking back to my mother, I knew that I was going to spend thousands of years being punished in Purgatory before I would ever know the joy of being in God’s presence.  It is, perhaps, no wonder that I left that church, rejecting God and God’s people.  It is probably not surprising that I chose to do whatever I felt like, since it really didn’t matter whether I was good or bad.  I believed I was going to Hell no matter what I did, and that was that.   It wasn’t until I was taught about a loving, caring and (especially) forgiving God in a 12 Step program that I started to believe that I too, like David, was a beloved child of God.   I had already made a decision to change my life, to give up the drugs and alcohol and other unacceptable behaviors.  But once I had God in my life - even before I returned to church - I was able to give up so much more than just the behaviors.  Once I was able to turn to God, I was able to give up the resentments, the anger, the things that drove me to that life I had been living.  I was able to forsake my old ways.  I was able to confess my transgressions and ask God to forgive me.

Giving up the old ways isn’t a small thing. It’s not simply a decision that one makes one day, and then it’s done.
It’s a process.
Not a once and done thing, but a daily struggle that becomes a daily part of life, snd soon, not a struggle at all.
But the decision to make that change is more than merely something that feels like a good idea at the time. 
It’s like an explosion in which suddenly your soul is freed from the claws of the way it’s always been - of bad decisions and guilt and giving up because you will never get it right, or be good enough. . . 
It’s that moment of epiphany when you become aware that you are free,
Like this dove exploding from its cage.

Many here will have grown up in the church, and never left, and never indulged in the sorts of unacceptable behavior that David did, or that I did.  Many here came to their baptism with a pretty clean heart to begin with.  For others, there may be (or have been) something that is (or was) a struggle.  There may be feelings of guilt or pain, resentment or simmering anger, of inadequacy, of worthlessness.   We may even feel guilty for feeling these things!  For all of us, I suspect, there are aspects of ourselves we would like to improve or change, in order to be more acceptable to God.  And so we read further in the psalm, to share David’s greatest desire, 

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; 
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,  and put a new and right spirit within me.

How do we do this?   How do we make the changes that will accept that clean heart, and right spirit?  About 600 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, wrote a series of Spiritual Exercises.  The very first of those exercises is called the Particular Examination of Conscience to be Made Every Day.  In this exercise one focuses on a particular sin or defect and makes note throughout the day of how well that feeling or behavior was avoided, or not.  The object is not to say “Oh, look how bad I am.”  Rather, this practice enables us to say to ourselves “Look at my improvement!”   It is the same thing we do when we change the way we eat, or add particular exercises to our lives, or any other major lifestyle change, if we want to be successful at that new thing.  When Leah started running, she didn’t berate herself because she could only run a short distance.  She measured today against yesterday, and celebrated every improvement.   When she doesn’t do as well as she would like, she makes the determination to do better tomorrow.  When I do this daily Spiritual exercise, I can look at it and see what I did well, and what I need to work on.  So, today I did not indulge in yelling at other drivers even one time.  Yay!  Today I only ate one cupcake, not all of them.  Yay!  Today I remembered to tell my friend how special she is to me.  And if I didn’t do very well today, there is always tomorrow.

It is a given that we will sin.  That we will make mistakes.  That we will trespass against others in one way or another.  We are human, and prone to error.  But, just as David was forgiven, and remained God’s beloved child, so too are we forgiven.  When we forsake our old ways, ask God’s forgiveness, and go forward with a willing spirit to make the changes that are necessary each day, God will create in us a clean heart, a new heart.   A heart that is dedicated to loving God, and teaching others the Good News of God’s love, compassion and especially, God’s forgiveness - the Good News that we have learned from God’s beloved son, our brother, Jesus the Christ.