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God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle

From June 23 to July 10, the eyes of the world were on the unfolding story of the twelve boys and their soccer coach stranded inside a flooded cave network in Thailand. A rescue team, made up of 90 divers from around the world, was created to find the boys and their coach inside the complex network. It took them ten days to locate them and another eight days to figure out a daring rescue. Once they got them all out they still had to rescue the medic and get the last divers out. Once out they all had to go into isolation for seven days. The whole soccer team made it out alive. One diver lost his life. One of the people helping to coordinate the mission said it was such a complicated and risky rescue that it was akin to getting these thirteen people safely down off of Mt. Everest.

We watched with eyes glued because this was something that couldn’t be accomplished without all hands on deck and everything going absolutely right. On the day that the last people were rescued, I was working on my sermon for today based on the saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. I thought to myself, “Oh really?” These boys and their coach definitely couldn’t handle this situation on their own.

As I shared a couple weeks ago, I am doing a different kind of sermon series this summer. Instead of introducing you to things in the Bible you may never have heard before, I am making sure you know what isn’t in your Bible. After worship the Sunday I introduced this series, someone teasingly said at the door, “I would rather hear what is in the Bible.” Me too. But I do think it is important that you know what many, many people will quote to you as being in the Bible and not only isn’t in there but is often bad theology….and bad theology harms.

If you have lost a loved one or been critically ill or had financial problems or had a child stuck in a complex network of caves for 18 days, you have probably had a very well meaning friend say to you, “You know that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I do have to say that almost all of the sayings that get attributed to the Bible but aren’t in it, come out of peoples’ good intentions. People don’t know what to say and so they say something trite that someone has said to them.

So if the Bible message isn’t, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” then what does it say to those who are suffering and those who are trying to comfort those who are suffering? Look no further than the Book of Job to find an example. Job is a very ancient allegoric writing that combats the idea that God is a cosmic Santa Claus, giving blessings to those who are good and punishing those who are sinful.

In the Book of Job, Job loses all of his children, all his wealth, and his health is destroyed but only to the point of deep suffering – not death. It is like the author of Job contemplates just how hyperbolic he can be to get across his point. The result is a Job that is covered in boils, sitting in an ash heap, with nothing left but some well-intentioned friends.

These friends visit Job in his misery and instead of comforting him in his suffering they try to make sense of why all of these bad things have happened. They haven’t been where Job is but they have all kinds of advice. We always want a reason for tragic things that happen, otherwise the world doesn’t make sense. “Surely,” they say to Job, “This must be punishment for all your sins. Just repent.” “No,” Job says, “I didn’t do anything.” “If you didn’t do anything, then why is this happening to you? There has to be a reason.” At one point they even encourage Job to curse God and die.

Job’s responses to his friends are some of my favorite verses of scripture in the Bible. Michael already read them to you. They went something like this:
Miserable comforters are you all.
Have your windy words no limit?
What makes you keep on talking?
I could talk at you if we switched places.
I could shake my head at you.
I think I could do a better job than you have done.
But what I needed most was your friendship and comfort…
And you couldn’t give me that.

When we come into people’s hospital rooms or visit them to hold their hand after a child dies we want to make something better that can’t be made better. So we blurt out something like, “God must have needed another flower in her garden” or “God’s ways are not our ways” or “Remember that God won’t give you more than you can handle”.

Obviously, Job had way more than he could handle. Mary watched her son be crucified. Think about the Apostle Paul who was jailed, beaten and shipwrecked. Think about those twelve boys and their coach watching the floodwaters creep up. Think about children in cages at our border. Think about citizens in Syria, being bombed by their own government. Things are constantly happening that are way more than people can handle.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle” is another way of trying to create God in our image. If you are a parent you know that you gave your children chores to do that matched their abilities, attention span and endurance. You didn’t have your five year old take the trash barrels out to the curb. You had them set the table. So we assume that God has the same way of dishing out things to us that we are capable of handling.

But if you play this saying out, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” it makes it sound like God looks down from on high and says, “Susan can handle having a spouse die of a massive heart attack in front of her.” “Shirlee is strong enough to lose a child.” “Mary Kay can handle having cancer…twice.” “Two year olds can handle being ripped from their mother’s arms.” I’m sorry but I don’t know this God.

If you play this saying out, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” it sounds like you are supposed to be proud of the level of your suffering. “Obviously, God thinks I can handle a lot.” I don’t think God rewards our strength by sending us a high level of hardship.

This is what I do believe. Life is wonderful and precious and life is hard and will have times of deep suffering. It simply is the way it is. All of us here have had wonderful moments of sheer joy and all of us here have experienced despair. All of us here have experienced triumph and all of us will have had moments of defeat. We want to make sense of how that works and since we give God the credit for everything that happens, we give God the credit for our suffering. But God doesn’t look down on us and decide that we need to be tougher so God will make us suffer by taking our child, or our parent, or our partner away from us. Life and death, first breaths and last breaths will happen to all of us.

Suffering is one of the realities of life. It is also a profound teacher. Hemingway wrote in his book A Farewell to Arms, “People bring so much courage to this world….the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I do believe that suffering has the potential to bring with it a wisdom that can only be born in those broken places. Job understood what comforting truly should look like only because of his deep suffering and his friends’ inadequate responses.

Rachel Naomi Remen, an author and doctor of integrative medicine, writes:
“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal.” I am sure that the twelve boys and their coach have a deeper understanding and gratitude for the ordinary things of life. They have a new wisdom about their own resilience and the goodness of others. These things will help them heal from the trauma they have experienced.

Still with all of that being said, none of us wants to suffer or wishes it upon anyone else, no matter how much wisdom they might gain from the process. If Job and I could share anything with you today it would be this….don’t try to make sense of other peoples’ suffering. Just go to them and sit quiet in the room. Thomas Merton wrote, “…there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to the question.”

After losing her brother, Patricia McKernon Runkle wrote this poem called, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”:
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.

Enter barefoot
this darkened chapel

hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow

its gray stone walls
and floor.

You, congregation
of one

are here to listen
not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,

let the candles
speak.

Friends, life is our teacher. We get in trouble when we look for easy things to say in hard situations. Your words are not your greatest comfort to others. Presence and love are what we need from each other. Stick those trite sayings of bad theology in your back pocket and when you pass a trashcan, throw them away. Bring yourself. I promise you, it will be enough. Amen.

“ITRITB – Snake Handling”

Good morning beloved of God. It is a delight for me to be in the pulpit today, and to preach a sermon based on last summer’s theme: “Is That Really In the Bible?” We have actually gone on this summer to “No, That Really Isn’t In the Bible,” so I’m a year behind. But no matter, someday I’ll catch up.

Take the reading for today – the whole bit about snake handling: “…they will pick up snakes with their hands, and drink deadly poison; it will not hurt them.” Is that really in the bible? No. Thank you very much.

Well, I suppose you want more of a sermon than that. It’s true though, it’s not really in the bible. It was added later. That whole section after verse 8 is not in the oldest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts. Doesn’t it make you curious about the fruit loop who added that section? And why? And what kind of a day were they having?

Nevertheless, there are whole groups of people who not only consider it to be authoritative, but who put their whole claim to Christianity in snake handling as the only true sign of real faith. Did you know that? Often found in America’s south, they have managed to blow this text way out of proportion, and make it a major mark of the Christian life.
Honest to Pete, of all of the verses in the New Testament, they had to choose this one. They certainly have managed to major in minors here. And so, there are a number of regular snake-handling services in some of these churches. And of course many of these snake-handlers have been killed by playing with poisonous snakes.
Consider this very recent news story: “A ‘serpent-handling’ West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event….
“Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. ‘He laid it on the ground,’ Vanover said in the interview, ‘and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.’ Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died….
“Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he was carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. ‘Anybody can do it that believes it,’ Wolford said. This is a sign to show people that God has the power.’
Wolford said he watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.”
Come on. In his sermon a couple of weeks ago, John Ginrich said, “when you come to church, be sure to bring your brain along.”
We don’t need more gullible church leaders dying from snake bites to prove their faith. We don’t need more superstition as a substitute for vital, effective and relevant spirituality. We don’t need more harmful religion that masquerades as the real deal.
Our own Brethren movement has had a whole long history of resistance to this kind of stuff: the religion of ignorance and intolerance, the religion of violence and corruption, greed and abuse. Hurtful religion wherever it occurs as a substitute for authentic faith.
It leads me to say that, God knows, some of us have been victims of abuse in the name of faith. Whatever the motivation, wherever harassment or humiliation is used in the name of God, and results in psychological trauma, that’s abuse. Wherever fear of hell and judgment of God are used to control a child or anyone else, that’s abuse. Wherever beatings, confinement and neglect are used in a religious, or any other context, it is abuse. Any act by words or deeds that shame or diminish the dignity of a person is spiritual abuse.
It often takes a lifetime, if ever, to recover from the sort of harm that wears the name of God and is done in the name of Jesus Christ. The wounds are deep.
And I consider our church to be a refuge for any who might have come from such a place. In the name of Jesus, we receive your anger;
We stand with you as you claim your status as a loved child of God;
We offer a place where the welcome is wide and the love is real;
In the name of Jesus, we embrace you as family as we remind each other that the loving God seeks your healing and wellness, and that this can be a place of trust and protection.
We don’t need more harmful religion that masquerades as the genuine article, whether they come from snake-handling ministers, controlling and obsessive parents, so called religious experts in the news or politicians who use scripture to back up their intolerance and bigotry. We’ve had enough of all of that.
You might be interested in one study by Phil Zukerman, which showed that “the least religious societies tend to be the most peaceful, prosperous and equitable, where people tend to flourish, while decreasing both desperation and economic gluttony.” The study found that:
1. Religion promotes tribalism. It divides people rather than uniting them.
2. Religion endorses some of the very worst human impulses: a sense of superiority, racism, misogyny and war making.
3. Religion practices self deception and ignores practical and scientific truths (like telling people that poisonous snakes can’t hurt them.)
4. Religion redirects morality to arbitrary religious rules. So parents, for example, forced to choose between righteousness and love, kick queer teens out into the street, or moral pundits see no problem endorsing laws that would force women into illegal and dangerous abortions, or laws that divide immigrant families while ignoring the rule of law, sending these same families back into places where their very lives are threatened.
5. Religion seeks and wields power and wealth for the purpose of self-perpetuation, even when it harms society at large.
I agree with all of that. But the thing is, so did Jesus. Right? He’s the one who said it first. The bible says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love…consider others better than yourselves…let the children come to me, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…do not judge…welcome the sojourner and the alien…love God and love one another – the rest is all commentary.
The ancient prophet Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” That’s good.
He wasn’t the only one who protested against counterfeit, superstitious and harmful religion. Mingling truth with error. The snake handling religion of his day. The outward form of empty religion. Acts of devotion that are self-glorifying; the claim to be religious without the stuff of faith; religion which uses the sacred texts for the purpose of exploitation, domination and an excuse for xenophobia, racism, sexism, unquestioned patriotism and violence. Time after time in history the church has become, itself, a spoke in the wheel of injustice.
That’s not the church I’m looking for. That’s not the church we intend to be. What do we stand for? Find our Vision Statement in the bulletin. Let’s read it together:
We create a Christian community, called by Christ to be inclusive, caring and peace-minded.
We affirm that people of any race, ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, economic status, faith tradition, or life situation are welcome in our congregation.
We believe in compassionate service, stewardship of creation, respect for diversity and nonviolent reconciliation for differences among all people, nations and faith traditions.
We claim no creed but the New Testament, as exemplified by the life of Christ. We strive to follow the way of Jesus.
Through these efforts, we seek to grow ever closer to the mind and heart of God.

We can’t afford to major in the minors. We have too much to do as the people of God to mess around with handling snakes. Especially these days. There are matters of justice, acts of kindness and service to a broken world, ministries of humble care for those who are enslaved to the systemic evils of the Empire.
And that’s all I know about snake handling.

When You Come to Church, Be Sure To Bring Along Your Brain

About nine months ago, Hurricane Maria descended upon Puerto Rico and devastated the Island. Over 4600 people died, and there are parts of the island still without electricity, good drinking water and adequate food. Why did this happen? Well, there are various scientific explanations for this type of weather, but for many good religious people, the following question remains. Why did God allow this to happen? The answer, for a good many Christians is, well, it’s difficult to understand, but everything that happens, fits into God’s universal plan. You just have to accept that “on faith.”

Less than a year ago, Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas where a Bible study was taking place. He killed 26 church members and wounded 20 more. How can this happen? In a church, during Bible study? Again, there are many psychological and sociological reasons, but for many religious people, the question remains: Where is God in all of this? Some have said: “Well, everything happens for a reason. We just don’t understand it yet. We’ll understand it when we get to heaven.”

This week we read in the LA Times that 68.5 million people, worldwide, have been forced from their homes because of violence, persecution and poverty. That’s one person out of 110 of the world’s population that has been subjected to situations that have become so bad in their home countries that they seek to immigrate into a less dangerous country. When we look at the pictures and hear the agony of families being torn apart at our southern borders, we sometimes think: “Why doesn’t God do something about these people? God is all-powerful, and yet no relief from misery is forthcoming.”

These three clusters of events, and their inadequate explanations, form a short list of terrible occurrences that take place on a regular basis. Trying to understand them gives many good Christians an experience of “cognitive dissonance.” On the one hand, we have been told that God is omnipotent, all-powerful and that God is in control of the universe. On the other hand, we may have serious doubts that God is actually “in control” of the universe. How do we put those two ideas together? When we face such dilemmas, we often resort to well-worn clichés that give us some comfort, and superficial answers to our questions. For example – “God needs another angel” when a child dies. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” in spite of the fact that our suicide rate is increasing. Or “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” implying God has favored me, instead of some other unlucky sap. “It’s in the Bible,” say many good Christians as they condemn our gay friends and families. “The Bible says that only Christians will go to heaven, sorry about, that Jews and Muslims.”

So what do we do about using or accepting these clichés as explanations, or as well-intentioned words of consolation that are empty and not satisfying? One possible answer is that we have to use our brains to think through the assumptions and implications of our religious beliefs. John B. Cobb, Jr., whom some of you know, and who was and is my mentor, wrote a book a few years back entitled “Becoming a Thinking Christian.” A Thinking Christian. His thesis is that if we have any hope of church renewal, we have to think about our beliefs rather than accept sloppy clichés. In a sense, he says, we all have to become “theologians.” A theologian is a person who reflects on his or her religious ideas. We all do that to some extent, now and then. Yes, we are all theologians.

Obviously, Cobb doesn’t think that we should all become professional theologians, thank goodness, but every one of us should use our minds to cogitate about our beliefs. It is not only that we become more aware of the sources and implications of our beliefs, but because our beliefs inform our actions. He certainly does not want us just to “naval-gaze theologically,” but to think through our beliefs so that we can act in ways that are consistent with the message of Jesus.

The scripture for the morning comes from Matthew, in which the story is told of Jesus being questioned by a group of Pharisees. They ask him: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer is that we must love God with our hearts, our souls, and our minds. Our minds. Use your mind to love God’ he says. Of course, he goes on to point out that we also need to love our neighbor as ourselves. But our thinking informs the way we act – the way we love our neighbor.

If we love God with our minds, it is my belief that we would discover and articulate the convictions that shape our lives. We would become more conscious of what our beliefs are. It would involve an effort to define the assumptions that lie behind many of the clichés that we use to make ourselves or others feel good about really difficult situations. The main assumption that stands out to me is the following: God is in control of the universe, God is omnipotent – all powerful. God is in charge of everything. That is what we are supposed to believe, say most Christians. However, as we look at our present situation ecologically, politically, and economically, can we really believe that God is in control? Why would I believe in a god who allows or causes the destruction of people, animals, and lands through “so-called acts of God,” if God could do something about it? Why would I believe in a God who ignores the killing of 26 people during a Bible study? Why would I believe in a God who allows genocides to occur? Sorry…I can’t. Those who believe in the omnipotence of God have difficulty in explaining the fact that if God could stop evil, why doesn’t God do that? No wonder we have “cognitive dissonance.”

If I reject the idea that God controls everything, that places a larger responsibility on human beings for the fate of the earth and its inhabitants. Humans are largely responsible for what happens through our own decision-making and actions. At some level we all believe that we experience some freedom of choice. We make decisions that have implications. But freedom is a heavy burden. Advocating for the “common good” is not easy. We cannot control natural disasters, but we can increase our understanding of how we add to the severity of some of these events. We cannot prevent all angry and depressed people from attempting mass murders, but we can advocate for more gun control and better preventative mental health care. We cannot control the politics of dictators who attempt to wipe out a whole group of people, usually of a different religion, but we can put pressure on our politicians to influence those leaders, and to improve our own policies, as well.

It may seem to you that I am saying that God doesn’t have anything to do with what is going on in the world. It’s true that I don’t think God coercively breaks into the normal functioning of our lives with a miracle or two to impress or scare us with God’s power. On the contrary, I believe that God is constantly giving us hints about how we are to use our decision-making ability. I think that God is involved in every event and thought that we have. But God’s power is persuasive, not coercive. God lures us to increase harmony and to work for the common good through our minds, our dreams, our friends, our reading, our meditation, our prayers, our worship, our serious discussions, our service to our neighbor. If we are reflective and open, we can discern these God-given nudges.

A word of caution. This morning I’ve chosen to emphasize loving God with our minds. However, the scripture mentions that Jesus names two other ways of loving God, through our hearts and our souls. Our rational deliberations, important as they are, are not sufficient by themselves. My mind is but one of the three aspects of loving God. My understanding is that our hearts involve our emotions, and maybe a mystical experience, as well. For me, the music experience here on a normal Sunday morning fits into this category. What about the soul? I’m not so sure about explaining this one, but for me, loving God with my soul means loving God with my whole being, my identity, my true self. Perhaps you can help me understand that one.

If loving God with our minds involves becoming a “theologian,” that is, a person who tries to discover and articulate one’s beliefs, some cognitive effort is needed. Obviously, discussion with friends or even family in an atmosphere of sharing and mutual acceptance, is a place to start. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in various contexts. But we might risk that, if we don’t assume that we have all the answers, but that we truly believe that we can learn from each other. Perhaps a CONNECT group might provide a context for discussion of our beliefs and our doubts. Reading books or periodicals that challenge us might also be a possibility. There are many ways to broaden and expand our thinking about our beliefs.

Love God with your mind. Become a more aware theologian. Become a Thinking Christian. Amen

Benediction -So, when you come to church, don’t forget to bring along your brain, but also your heart and your soul. Perhaps that will lead to loving your neighbor, as well.

John Gingrich, June 24, La Verne Church of the Brethren

God Helps Those Who Can’t Help Themselves

For the last several years I have done a sermon series over the summer called, “Is that Really in the Bible?” I have so much fun introducing you to the stories in your Bibles you never knew existed. I have found over the years that the Bible has some wild stories in it. In fact, next week Pastor Tom is going to introduce you to a scripture in the Bible you probably haven’t read before that I think will amaze you. I have loved introducing you to Bel and the Dragon, Ehud, Tobit and so many more.

But this summer I decided to turn my sermon series on its head because the opposite happens to me all the time. On a regular basis people quote sayings from the Bible that simply aren’t in it. For example:
• Give a person a fish and she will eat for a day. Teach her to fish and she will eat for a lifetime.
• God won’t give you more than you can handle.
• Love the sinner, hate the sin.
• God works in mysterious ways.
• Everything happens for a reason. (Please never say this to anyone who has just lost a loved one. It is brutal to hear.)
• God helps those who help themselves.

We are going to take a look at that last one today because 80% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes directly out of the Bible. Ever had someone say to you when you are discouraged, “You know, the Bible says that God helps those who help themselves”? The truth is that Benjamin Franklin put that one in his book Poor Richard’s Almanac. He is quoting an English politician who got this saying from Aesop’s Fables. The Bible does not say that God helps those who help themselves…in fact, it sounds more like it comes from a billionaire who believes he got where he is today by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps….instead of the fact that he was blessed with all kinds of advantages.

I’ve actually always thought this saying was a bit mean. Can you imagine saying to someone living with mental illness or who is differently-abled or lost her home because of rough financial times or just had her children taken from her at the border, “Come on. Get up and go deal with life. You know that the Bible tells us that ‘God helps those who help themselves’”?

The reason so many people believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible is because we are always working to remake God in our own image. We raise our children on this Protestant Work Ethic principle. We say to our kids, “Sure we will help you pay for college but you have to get a job and help pay for college….at least your books. You will thank me some day.” We are teaching our young responsibility and so we think that is the kind of relationship God offers us.

But actually “God helps those who help themselves” runs completely counter to what the Bible tells us about God. To illustrate what I mean let’s look at the scripture for today. It is the well-worn parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, two people who are similar in that they have gone to the temple to pray but otherwise they were very different.

Pharisees were part of a Jewish sect known for their strict observance of the traditional and written law. The Pharisee goes to the temple to pray. We are told that the Pharisee prays standing up and looking up…the traditional way to pray for his time. The Pharisee prays like this: “O thank God I am not like the unrighteous of this world. I’m not a thief or a scoundrel or an adulterer or like that dirty tax-collector over there, working for Rome and extorting from his very own people. I do what you expect of me, O God. I fast and I tithe.” It really wasn’t much of a prayer. It is more like a cover letter for a job. He addresses God but after that all of his sentences begin with the word “I”. Martin Luther writes: “Two things especially make our prayers void and of no effect: confidence of our own righteousness, and our contempt of others…”

The parable juxtaposes the Pharisee’s prayer with the prayer of the tax-collector or publican, the one that the Pharisee found so unrighteous. A publican was one who bid on a contract to collect taxes for the Empire. If he got the contract he paid Rome the amount of tax due and then he sent out his staff of collectors to extort if from the populace. He collected more than he had paid out and kept the difference. The more he extorted the more money he made. As you can easily guess, Publicans were detested by their fellow citizens. Fred Craddock describes the tax-collector as one who is “working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean.

The tax-collector stood off to the side well aware that he was offensive to his fellow worshipers and to God. He kept his head bowed, afraid to look up and he beat his chest. His posture was different and his prayer was simple: “God be merciful for I am a sinner.” The tax-collector does no justification because there is no way to justify his behavior.

We find this story in the Gospel of Luke and we know how Luke felt about the religious elite. It is obvious in this parable that the Pharisee is not the hero here and so we offer up our own prayer when we read this parable: “Thank God, I’m not like that self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisee.” And there we are. We have become the Pharisee.

The truth is that we act like the Pharisee often. We drive past a homeless person living in a tent and think, “Thank God. There but for the grace of God go I.” And then we keep driving. We see an addict on a bench with the shakes and we say a silent prayer, “Thank God I have the moral fortitude not to use drugs.” This parable is an unending trap because we spend much of our lives comparing ourselves to others.

But the real sin of the Pharisee wasn’t that he compared himself, although that was pretty bad. It was that because he spent all of his time comparing himself to the tax-collector he totally forgot God in the equation. He truly thought he was a blessed person because of his own adherence to the Law…of his good, sacrificial work. He smugly thought to himself, “God helps those who help themselves. I am blessed by God because I earned it….I deserve what I have.”

The tax collector, however, comes without any of that confidence. He knows that he has offended God’s law. He comes to the temple to pray out of complete desperation. If he believed that God helps those who help themselves he wouldn’t have shown up at the temple in the first place. In fact, he would have felt completely justified in doing the work he is doing. After all, he is taking care of himself and his family, right?

Jesus ends the parable by telling us that the tax-collector went home “justified” while the Pharisee did not. I don’t think I can fully convey to you just how offensive this parable would have been to Jesus’ listeners. We have been raised with the idea that anytime we hear the word Pharisee we think hypocrite. If you look up the word Pharisee in your dictionaries, “hypocrite” will be listed as one of the definitions. Because of that we lose the punch this story has to offer us.

Craddock writes: “The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not a generous Joe the Bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker…If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax-collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. But in Jesus’ story, what both receive is ‘in spite of”, not “because of”.

The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” has no room for God’s grace and therefore is antithetical to what the New Testament has to tell us about God. Early in my vocation as a pastor, I preached a sermon on the offensiveness of God’s grace and a man in my congregation proved my point. He met me at the door with extreme frustration. How could I say that he didn’t deserve grace? I said, “That is the very definition of grace. It is the unmerited blessing of God.” He said, “I deserve what I have. I am a good person. Why be good if it doesn’t mean anything? Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?”

Grace is so offensive to us good, Protestant Work Ethic people who believe we deserve our blessings. But God is not made in our image and that is the best news I can share with you today. God’s job is not to root for us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. God is not our coach. God is our redeemer. God helps those who cannot help themselves…God loves those who are unlovable…God gives grace to those who don’t deserve it….which in truth is all of us….Pharisee and Publican….soccer mom and hooker….Sunday School teacher and drug dealer. “O God, be merciful to us for we are sinners.” Amen.

Families Belong Together Rally

Families Belong Together

Join members of the La Verne Church of the Brethren and brothers and sisters across the country, this Saturday, June 30th, 2018, as we proclaim that families belong together. The Bible gives us examples, Herod wanted to destroy the baby Jesus, and Joseph and Mary escaped with Jesus to Egypt. God’s message is clear and unambiguous, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Events will be held across the nation, and locally:

Families Belong Together: Freedom for Immigrants
Saturday, June 30th, 2018
11:00 AM
City of Los Angeles City Hall
200 N Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Directions: Meeting at City Hall in Downtown LA for a rally at 11:00 am then marching to the Federal Building

Families Belong Together
Saturday, June 30th, 2018
12:00 PM (Noon)
Memorial Park
840 N Indian Hill Blvd.
Claremont, CA 91711
Directions: Claremont Memorial Park (Rally) 12:00 – 1:00 pm, and march down Indian Hill Blvd. 1:15 – 3:00 pm

Nursery Caregiver

DESCRIPTION:
With an understanding and internalization of the mission of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, the nursery caregiver shall provide supervision and care for children in the church nursery. Additionally, the nursery caregiver is responsible for providing a safe, nurturing and engaging environment in the church nursery for children who are infants through first grade.

QUALIFICATIONS:
Education:
 Some early childhood education classes is desirable

Experience:
 One year experience working with children, toddler through age 6;
 Child development training preferred;
 Current CPR required.

Knowledge & Abilities:
Knowledge of:
1. Infant dynamics;
2. Small child dynamics.

Ability to:
1. Supervise multiple children simultaneously;
2. Possess an obvious enjoyment of working with children;
3. Work cooperatively with church staff and volunteers;
4. Recruit volunteer assistants;
5. Maintain honesty and integrity;
6. Follow the church’s guidelines;
7. Maintain confidentiality.

Essential & Representative Duties: — Duties may include, but are not limited to the following:
1. Have the nursery ready to receive children by 9:00 am each Sunday;
2. Maintain appropriate activities for children under the age of 3 during the Sunday School and Worship times;
3. Serve as a Mandatory Reporter;
4. Arrange the nursery to allow children to have multiple activity choices when they arrive and throughout their stay;
5. Work with the Coordinator of Children’s Ministries and Christian Education Commission to ensure that needed toys and supplies are present;
6. Provide nursery supervision and opportunities during church events and as necessary, may include after Sunday worship, special events, council meetings;
7. Greet parents and follow the sign in and sign out policies of the church;
8. Ensure that children leave the nursery only with an adult who has permission to pick them up;
9. Inform parents and staff of any accidents, unusual events or behavior as necessary;
10. Change diapers and assist with toileting as necessary;
11. Clean up toys and craft activities after children have gone;
12. Be on time.

Working Conditions:
The nursery caregiver maintains frequent contact with parents, volunteers and members of the church community and face potential hazards of overbearing parents and anti-social behavior. Must be able to work in a chaotic environment.

May be required to use personal vehicle to conduct church business. Staff member must be aware of, and follow the Employee Vehicle Usage Policy of the La Verne Church of the Brethren.

Physical Abilities
Ability to bend, squat, lift infants, lift toddlers.

This position description is not meant to be all inclusive of qualifications and responsibilities.

MISSION STATEMENT OF THE LA VERNE CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
The La Verne Church of the Brethren continues the work of Jesus peacefully, simply, together.
WE create a Christian community, called by Christ to be inclusive, caring and peace-minded.
WE affirm that people of any race, ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, economic status, faith tradition, or life situation are welcome in our congregation.
WE believe in compassionate service, stewardship of creation, respect for diversity and nonviolent reconciliation for differences among all people and nations.
WE seek to develop and manage our resources wisely through stewardship of our finances, meaningful and timely communications, proper upkeep and enhancement of our facilities and appropriate and responsible utilization of human resources.
WE claim no creed but the New Testament, as exemplified by the life of Christ.
WE strive to follow the way of Jesus.
WE invite others to join us on this journey.
Through these efforts, we seek to grow ever closer to the mind and heart of God.

LVCOB Employment Application

You are the Interstitium of the Body of Christ!

In March of this year, a study published in the journal of Scientific Reports described a fluid-filled latticework of connective tissue that can be found all over the human body.  It wraps around the entire digestive tract, the lungs and every artery and vein. Just as our skin covers the outside, this tissue wraps around the organs inside our bodies.  The authors of the study refer to it as another organ of the body and if that is true it is the largest organ of the body, providing 20% of our body mass.  It is called the interstitium (inter-STISH-um) but to try and help explain it they call it a “series of spaces” and a “highway of moving fluid”.

 

The idea of an interstitium is not new but previously it was thought of more as a fibrous connective tissue.  Now they see that it is a whole highway of fluid-filled sacs. The reason medical science is just now finding a whole organ in our body is because now they have a way to examine live tissue at a microscopic level while still inside your body.  Previously specimens had to be removed from the body and when that happened the structure changed and the water was lost.

 

They believe that this network, if you will, acts as a shock absorber for other parts of the body.  It also seems to be a way for fluids to enter the lymphatic system, which means it could spread diseases through the body, including helping cancers to metastasize, which researchers have never before understood exactly how that happens.

 

But just as it may explain the spread of disease it could completely change the way we treat cancer and other diseases.  This has the potential for being a paradigm shift on how we understand the human body.

 

Our second scripture reading for today makes me think of the interstitium of the body.  The scripture comes to us in the form of a letter attributed to the Apostle Paul.  It is written to the church at Ephesus and Paul shares that he is in prison being punished by the Empire for acting in faith. He is imploring the local church to live in unity and be in peace with each other.  He reminds them that they are the same body…the body of Christ in the world.

 

Frederick Buechner, one my favorite writers describes it like this:

God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do.

 

God was making a body for Christ and we are that body, my friends. I think if Jesus would have known about the interstitium of the body he would have said something grand, in the same way he said, “You are the salt of the earth” or “You are the light of the world.”  I think he would have said, “You are the interstitium of the body!”  If Paul had known about the interstitium I think he would have written something like:  “The whole body is joined and knitted together by the interstitium which promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love”. Together, collectively, jointly, cooperatively, communally, we form the interstitium of the body of Christ.

 

A woman named Martha Grace Reese, through the help of Lilly Endowment research grants has studied congregational transformation.  She has worked with over 20,000 congregations and is the author of the Unbinding the Gospel Series. In her research she has been able to discover some key practices that help churches transform.  I was most interested in her finding that congregational members have a deep, relational faith in God.

 

We went through some discernment time a couple years ago as a congregation and one of the things that became very clear was how much we need to have deeper relationships with each other in order to grow in our spiritual lives.  Out of that discernment we decided to hire a pastor of Spiritual Formation.  We asked her to help us use our varied gifts to form small group opportunities to encourage spiritual growth – individually and collectively.  We are at the beginning stages of that process with the advent of new Connect! groups within the church.  Some are short term and some are continuing groups.

 

We were clear as a church that in order to grow and develop we need each other. We can’t be the body of Christ without each other.  It is the interstitium that binds us together.  We need that highway of connective fluid.

 

From its beginnings the Church of the Brethren understood this need for community.  The early Brethren believed in cooperative salvation. They said, “We can’t do this alone. We can’t be the body of Christ without each other.”  The early Brethren lived out this truth by what is called free ministry.  They didn’t pay ministers.  They did the work together.  Some were called to preach.  Others were deacons.  Some cleaned up after others.  Others visited the sick.  Plus, they made their decisions together.  As we know this process can be laboriously slow but as the body of Christ we do this work together.  We make our decisions as a community.

 

Ephesians 4 says that we are to live a life worthy of our calling.  We each have different gifts and different callings, which we are to use for building up the Body of Christ.  Each of us need to contribute and participate…as ourselves.  The Body of Christ needs us to bring what we have to bring. There is no competition in this because nobody else is you.  You bring what you are and what you have.  Parker Palmer says:

The deepest vocational question is not, ‘What ought I to do with my life?’  It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I?  What is my nature?’

Ephesians calls us to unity by bringing together our diverse and varied selves…the very stuff of who we are.

 

Sometimes we have a hard time figuring out who we are.  More times than not it is the community that helps us discover ourselves and our gifts and if not discover them, then confirm them.

 

I remember a conversation I had not that long ago with my favorite Sunday School teacher from childhood.  I told her what I learned from her and how much I appreciated her honesty as we discovered scripture together in her class.  She said that she had never thought of herself as someone who could teach but the pastor asked her to do it.  She told him that she wasn’t equipped to be a Sunday School teacher.  He said, “I think you are.  I think you should test that ability and I will help you.”  She told me she not only found out she could do it but she loved doing it and she learned so much herself.  She discovered something she had to offer when it was seen and called out in her.

 

Recently the church board sent Amanda Bennett of our congregation a letter to let her know that we see gifts in her for set-apart ministry.  The Church Board invited her to explore that call.  It didn’t take her even two minutes to say “yes” to the process when she received the letter.  In the case of Amanda the outward call of the community confirmed her inward call.

 

The opposite can happen as well. Testing things out with others can help us define or redefine or even head in a completely different direction.  I think of the show American Idol as a clear example of that truth.  It begins with young people who think that they should move from singing in the shower to recording their own albums. They come before a panel of seasoned pop and country singers and audition.  Some of these young people can sing, some of them need some direction to help them refine a gift and some of them need to find a new dream.  They test their gift with others.

 

We offer each other a place to test our wings and find ourselves.  We offer each other the gift of care and compassion in times of triumph and tragedy. We are called to be in relationship with each other because there is no other way to truly be. Together we become bigger, bolder and more amazing than we could ever be alone.  Together we can reach out beyond ourselves and offer justice and peace and love and challenge to our world.  Together we not only find ourselves, together we are saved.

 

Together we are the institium of the body of Christ. If you are sitting there right now trying wondering if you really are part of the body you need to know how much we need you. If one of us dries up or shuts down the highway is blocked.  If one of us thinks I’m not going to participate and no one will notice, the highway becomes disconnected. We need each other and the world is depending o us to be the interstitium of the body of Christ.  Amen.

Social Media

Position Description

Job Title: Social Media Coordinator Incumbent 
Reports to: Senior Pastor Hours: 10 hours a week

DESCRIPTION:
With an understanding and internalization of the mission of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, the Social Media Coordinator ensures that the message of the church gets out through different social media channels.

QUALIFICATIONS:
Education:
 High School diploma or its equivalent
 Some college course work completed in a related field desirable

Experience:
 Broadband knowledge of social media

Knowledge & Abilities:
1. Brethren beliefs and the La Verne Church of the Brethren;
2. Have specific expertise in the world of social media, for example — Facebook, Instagram, podcasts, website design, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr;
3. Adaptable to new social media;
4. Knowledge of how to tell a story using social media;
5. Excellent verbal and written communication.

Essential & Representative Duties: — Duties may include, but are not limited to the following:
1. Oversee the church’s social media networks;
2. Create, manage and improve content for social media network;
3. Coordinate input from a designated community of contributors (content feeders);
4. Advise church leadership on best practices when using social media;
5. Do staff and volunteer social media training;
6. Create and inform staff of social media policies;
7. Work remotely;
8. Perform other duties as assigned.

Working Conditions:
Recognize the physical, emotional, and spiritual demands of the position and take time to renew, refresh, and regenerate.
This position may also be exposed to miracles, generosity, and experience the love of God reflected others.
This position will require the employee to work with a computer, doing repetitive motion.
Physical Abilities
Performing the duties of this position, employee is required to see, speak, listen, sit, bend, and reach.

This position description is not meant to be all inclusive of qualifications and responsibilities.

MISSION STATEMENT OF THE LA VERNE CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
The La Verne Church of the Brethren continues the work of Jesus peacefully, simply, together.
WE create a Christian community, called by Christ to be inclusive, caring and peace-minded.
WE affirm that people of any race, ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, economic status, faith tradition, or life situation are welcome in our congregation.
WE believe in compassionate service, stewardship of creation, respect for diversity and nonviolent reconciliation for differences among all people and nations.
WE seek to develop and manage our resources wisely through stewardship of our finances, meaningful and timely communications, proper upkeep and enhancement of our facilities and appropriate and responsible utilization of human resources.
WE claim no creed but the New Testament, as exemplified by the life of Christ.
WE strive to follow the way of Jesus.
WE invite others to join us on this journey.
Through these efforts, we seek to grow ever closer to the mind and heart of God.

Job Application: CLICK HERE

Choose Life

You and I make choices every day….big and small…at least we think they are small.  For example, think about that long day you had, when you got home and you just wanted to sit on the couch and recharge.  But it is dinnertime.  The thought of getting up and making a healthy meal is beyond your energy level.  The little dive near you has a deal on some delicious, greasy tacos – three for $3.  You could get in the car and go get them or better yet, you could use your phone app and have Door Dash deliver it to your door.  And who are you hurting?  The tacos are only $3.  I’m hungry just thinking about it.

 

Or how many times have you decided to drive yourself to an event, even though someone offered you a ride.  The independence of having your own car parked right outside is too important.  You might want to leave before they do, after all, and your convenience is important.

 

Choices….our days are filled with them.  We already know what choices are better for our pocket books, our health, for others, for the Earth…but our infractions seem small…and we are so good at justifying our choices.  What does it matter if we use paper plates, just this time?  I prefer to drive myself and it isn’t that far.  It isn’t that big of a deal.  I’m not really hurting anyone.  I deserve those three tacos after the day I had.

 

We make bad choices every day…knowing that they are bad choices…for our health…for the environment….for our descendants.

 

We make choices that necessitate the slaughter of animals; the destruction of the rain forest; the subjugation of poor and minority communities; the diminishing of health.  We make bad choices every day…knowing that they are bad choices…and we do it anyway.

 

Moses, standing at the edge of the Promised Land next to his people is worried about them making bad choices.  They have been through a lot together.  They escaped a brutal dictator.  They wandered for years in the wilderness trying to sustain life on very little. Moses knew his people and he knew who they were when he wasn’t keeping a sharp eye on them. He remembered that when God provided them manna in the desert, they complained.  He remembered that as soon as he went up the mountain to meet with God they had melted down their golden jewelry to build an idol to worship. They had built a golden calf and called it their god.  They worshiped a god of their own making.

Moses knew his people and he knew the choices they would make if given half a chance.  And at this moment, after forty years he was watching the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land.  They were about to cross the river and enter the land they would call “home” and Moses wasn’t going to get to go with them.  Moses wouldn’t be there to tell them “no”.  And so he sings his “swan song” to them trying desperately to influence their future behavior.

 

He says to them: “What I am about to tell you already know.  You carry it in your heart and your mouth.  The right choice lives in your body and yet you often don’t make the right choice even though you know what it is.  Today is a big day.  It is decision day.  As you cross this river you have to ask yourselves who you are going to be in relationship to this land…this gift?  You have a choice to make and I implore you to choose life!  Choose life and what is good over death and what is wrong.  How do you do that?  By obeying God, loving God and serving God.  God, with a capital “G”…not a god, with a little “g”, of your own making.  Make the right choice so that you and those who come after you will live. Today you must decide.  Choose wisely.”

 

William Gould was the founder of Gould Farm, a farm in Massachusetts in which a community of people live by Christian principles and share family life on a farm with people in need.  What he created had its frustrating and difficult moments and not long before his death, Gould gave an evening talk to the community based on Moses’ last words to his people.  He said of Moses’ speech:  “I wonder if there was ever a farewell message from any leader finer than this, the most magnificent summing up of a leader to his people….Choose ye this day between life and death.  The decision is not for the future, it’s not conditioned by circumstances – when this thing or that thing has worked out the way we hoped; the decision can be made now.”

 

I believe that each and every day we stand in this Promised Land of God’s creation it is decision day.  Who are we going to be in relationship to this land…to this gift we have been given?  Moses tells them that their decision should be to choose life by loving, obeying and serving God.  When we make our decisions about our relationship to the gift of this creation I don’t think most of us start by focusing on loving, serving and obeying God.  I think we start somewhere else.

 

We might focus on what others are doing wrong.  For example, I was going to start my sermon today by telling you all the decisions made by our government in the past year that will harm this land.  And I don’t just stop with our governmental leaders.  I notice how much water my neighbor uses watering his lawn and I feel superior.  It is always easier to point to someone else’s bad choices than take responsibility for our own.

 

Now I know that many of you are careful about the choices you make and you are choosing to use Fair Trade products.  You are using less water, installing solar panels, riding your bikes, driving a hybrid or zero-emission car, and striving to use locally grown products….all good things.  But we have to be careful that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that the way we choose life is through our consumption.

 

Let me be clearer about that.  Earth Day was created in 1970 to show support for environmental protection and to educate ourselves about how we can do a better job of caring for the Earth.  But it has been widely co-opted by Corporate America.  Not too long ago Tide put out an advertisement on Earth Day to advertise its new “Coldwater” detergent.  The ad said, “Earth Day.  Every Day. Every Load.”  Jeep put out an advertisement of one of their vehicles driving off the edge of the Earth that said, “If there is no planet, where will you drive?”  The message of Earth Day has been stolen to hawk products that actually might not be that good for the Earth.  Even when we make good choices in what we buy, we have to remember we are still consumers…big time consumers.

 

We can become puffed up and proud of ourselves for the privileged choices we make to save the Earth.  While we are proud of ourselves for refusing the three tacos for $3 deal, an impoverished parent is feeding their children on those tacos and is grateful.  We get to buy locally sourced products.  Does our privilege mean we have chosen life?  No.

 

Now I’m not saying, “Don’t make good choices with your money.”  Please do.  But we can’t worship our consumption.  We are a country that worships a bunch of idols of our own making—greed, hatred, nationalism, domination, self-indulgence, security, rights and consumption.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

 

Correct consumption is not the choice that Moses was talking about when he said, “Choose life”.  Moses wanted the Israelites to see the land they were about to enter as God’s gift, just as we are called to see this Earth as a gift from God. If you stop and notice this pretty planet as created by God as a gift to you, how differently will you treat it? Correct consumption isn’t the beginning, it is simply a by-product of loving, obeying and serving God….for what we are worshipping we are becoming.  We can’t buy our way into choosing life.

 

William Gould of Gould Farm went on to say:

Choose ye this day what ye shall be, what you yourselves shall be.  Have we got to wait till all the world is sound before we are sound?  Till all the world is unselfish before we are unselfish?  Till all the world has peace, before we have peace?  Till all the world has joy before we have joy?

 

Of course we don’t.  Each and every day we live in God’s Promised Land.  Each and every day we have a choice to make.  Who will we worship?  Who will we serve?  Every day is decision day.  Every day is a day to say yes to God. Every day is a day to look around us and say this is God’s holy ground.  Every day is the chance to say, “I am going to take off my shoes and treat this land with respect for it is a beautiful and sacred gift.  I am going to worship, serve and obey God.  I am going to choose life!”  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Rejected Stones and Stumbling

 

There are places, names, and concepts that define us, you might call these touchstones. For me some of these might be: The Sermon on the Mount, an Upside Down Kingdom, The Rejected Stone as the Cornerstone, Mack and the seven baptized, the Wissahickon Creek in Germantown, Volunteer Service, Camp Mack, La Verne Church of the Brethren, BMC, Stonewall, Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell v. Hodges, and the Affordable Care Act. You might find yourself resonating with a few of these items mentioned, others may be unknown to you, and each of us may have a list like this. Jesus had a list like this, but for him, it was filled with places, names, and concepts from the First Testament and his childhood and ministry in that corner of the Roman Empire. Toward the end of his ministry we see the dots being connected, as Jesus defines both Christianity and how it will shape the world henceforth.

 

Our scripture today finds Jesus being pressured by the status quo.  The religious leaders of that time are threatened by Jesus and so they try to force him into a corner.  They want him to comply with the set of religious laws imposed on the faithful. Jesus’ response is to tell his followers a parable within earshot of the religious leaders.  It is a parable meant for the religious leaders more than his followers.

 

In the story Jesus tells of a landowner, who doesn’t live near his vineyard. The landowner sends three different messengers to the tenants of his land to retrieve his share of the produce.  The tenants beat all three messengers and send them away empty-handed. Then, in a foreshadowing his own execution, Jesus tells us that the landowner sends his own son, for surely the workers will listen to him.  But they kill the son.  What a story.  It is most unusual that Jesus, the person who had spent his entire life speaking about loving even one’s enemies might use a parable that ends with someone being murdered in cold blood. We Brethren would strongly condemn such violence, as we do all violence.

 

A very traditional reading of this scripture is that a new order based on Jesus as the savior had been established and that the old world passed away and that this was metaphorical violence. In taking this conservative reading of the parable to its most extreme, this parable has been used as an excuse to perform acts of violence against people who are not Christians, and in some cases used to belittle people who do not have children. It has been used to subjugate lesbian and gay people, even being used as an excuse for killing people who could not produce offspring. However, I think that interpretation misses the whole point.

 

The religious leaders that overheard this parable knew it was pointed at them and they were enraged by its world altering message.  Vineyards in the Bible are often used as metaphors for God’s creation.  The vineyard is God’s.  The tenants were the religious leaders who thought they could take over God’s world.   The messengers sent to the vineyard were God’s faithful, who were sent away empty-handed by their own faith leaders.  And of course, the son of the landowner was Jesus who was rejected by the very people who claimed to speak for God.  The very one the religious leaders tried to force into the corner became the cornerstone of a whole new realm.

 

Jesus was describing the upside down kingdom. I credit Don Kraybill with this idea of the upside down kingdom. Kraybill happened to guest lecture my New Testament class while I was at Goshen College. He writes in his book, of the same name, “The Upside Down Kingdom,” that a student of his, while he was teaching the synoptic gospels years earlier, and on the day of the statement, a passage in Luke in particular, got up and said, “everything seems to be so upside down here!” That is what Jesus requires of us to read this particular passage that those who we often equate at the bottom of the social hierarchy, are actually at the top. This point was emphasized in intense fashion as we continue the parable. Jesus abruptly ends his story of the laborers at the execution of the landowner’s son, and asks those who have questioned him, what they think will happen next. If you had not already heard the message, what do you think you would have said? If we placed this story in a modern day setting, and asked almost anyone off the street today, and did not let the person who heard it know why we were asking, I am sure we would hear the same answer as the crowd gave Jesus.

 

In almost every translation of the Bible, the crowd answers Jesus that the laborers will be put to death for their acts, and the vineyards will be rented out to those who are deserving of it. After all, what would the law of the United States require of these laborers? I have no legal training, but most certainly it would mean a trial, and if those accused of the murder were found guilty in a state that has the death penalty, like our own, they may likely be sentenced to death.

Jesus almost certainly knew how the crowd would answer, but drawing from his own list goes back to Psalm 118, quoting almost entirely, saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

 

Wow, that is tough, even antithetical to a society built on law and order. However, to the society Jesus stated should be built on love in action, including radical forgiveness, this answer would be quite ordinary. To emphasize his point, Jesus stated that anyone who did not understand this, that that same cornerstone would be a stumbling block, even stating, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

 

I thank Susan for asking me to preach this Sunday; I was surprised and humbled that she would ask me. When she did, I was not sure if I actually wanted to preach on this scripture, but something about it spoke to me. I’ve given a brief reflection at this pulpit, but have not preached a full sermon since I was a Ministry Summer Service intern at the Chambersburg Church of the Brethren in 2002. I have been a member of this congregation for almost seven years, and quite simply, I know that you are prepared to walk in the truth that Jesus spoke. As Susan has asked us to do, we all have to read the Bible, and to be prepared to think for ourselves.

 

So what does this passage mean to us both in our own spiritual ancestry, as well as to how we relate to each other today?

 

To our Brethren ancestors, it would have probably meant the same thing as when we read it today, but with varying circumstances. Probably a few of you, at least, have been to Camp Mack in Indiana, and in visiting have stopped by the Camp Mack Murals. These murals were painted in the early 1950s by Medford Neher, and illustrate the history of the Church of the Brethren from 1708 and the drawing of straws from the seven who were baptized in the Eder River up until the 1950s when the Brethren were struggling with how to react to the threat of nuclear war.

 

One thing that strikes me about these murals is the care that Neher took to emphasize the counter-cultural outlook of the Brethren, depicting not only key events in the church, but events that put the church at odds with the prevalent society of the day, including, but not limited to, Benjamin Franklin’s order to have the Continental Army burn down the first Brethren Printing Press operated by Christopher Saur Jr., to John Kline being killed off of his horse for preaching against slavery, the unity of the church during the Civil War, the connection with the Chinese Brethren prior to Communism, the denomination’s inability to effectively activate its peace stance during World War I, and resulting commitment to alternative service and the humanitarian work done during and after World War II.

At the end of the last mural in this series is a depiction of the Love Feast, with multi-generation, multi-ethnic, and different abilities all participating together, centered around Jesus with his hands outstretched. What always strikes me most about this mural is the background of war painted in dark pallets, juxtaposed there are the shadows of two people stabbing each other with knives, almost an eye for an eye, but right next to them in vivid color are two sisters of the faith giving each other the holy kiss. It is a stark depiction of the world as it is enacted and how Jesus calls us to love one another.

 

There would be no way for me to bring these murals here; I do have a link to the Library of Congress scan of the book that holds not the best copies of the murals, should anyone want it. I did wear my traditional Anabaptist coat today, it has no buttons, and a plain cut with no collar. Not only was this a way for the early Brethren to differentiate themselves from the rest of society, but stood as a reminder as to how we are to react in love and forgiveness. Nowadays, most Brethren do not wear the plain dress, like some of our other related denominations like the Old Order Mennonites, and Amish, but we do still practice Love Feast and the baptism, and in so doing remind ourselves to whom we belong. God’s love stands out, and Brethren have stood out for doing what Jesus instructed us to do.

 

In the early years of this country Brethren were called “peculiar” people, and our enthusiasm was known so much, particularly in our singing, that the Mennonites had a sign for the Brethren, a knocked over lamp. If you have never been to an old order meeting, then believe me, the sound that comes from a small group gathered is almost mindboggling, it sinks to your core. People would come from miles around to see the Love Feast, and viewing areas were set up for visitors, these “English,” that wanted to see this peculiar act for themselves. We keep the Love Feast, but also know that we have to act in the world we live in, and the denomination’s gifts to society include, but are in no way limited to, Heifer Project, Brethren Disaster Service, Children’s Disaster Service, the Peace Corps being modeled after Brethren Volunteer Service, and Peace Studies programs at Brethren Colleges and Universities that trained a generation of peacemakers. This is evident in that that Manchester University, a Brethren Affiliated University in rural Indiana, is the only university in the United States to hold permanent observer status with the United Nations, as a Non-Governmental Organization. It is amazing how much can be built, even from a small group, when we are led in God’s love.

 

Now, that is not to say that even though the Brethren have been excluded from society, that this automatically drawn us closer to diversity in our own denomination. In fact, throughout the history of the church were schisms here and there over a host of things. Women were excluded from set apart ministry for too long, the denomination struggles with diversity of ethnicity, and welcoming new members. However, that is what I appreciate about this congregation, in particular, is our constant renewal of what it means to be inclusive and welcoming. As our history collides with our present, we interpret the path forward in the light of God’s love. This can be rocky territory, for example, just the other night at Board meeting we were talking about what it means to be welcoming of veterans while still holding a strong peace stance. But you know what, some of the most committed pacifists are those that have experienced war firsthand.

 

Now, I am also wearing a shirt with a pink triangle under my plain coat. This symbol was used even before the rainbow flag in the earlier days of the queer movement, taken back from the symbol used by the Nazis to identify gay men during the holocaust. Since I knew my religious history when I came out, I very much wanted to know the history of the LGBTQ movement. Little did I know that so much would change over the next few years. I started by reading about the history of Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and Harry Hay. I learned that in studying the history of these people that they too were drawing from a longer history of the queer movement in pre-war Germany that goes back earlier that 1896. Even though the US had helped to liberate the concentration camps after World War Two, still considered lesbian and gay people as security risks, and actively discriminated against us in hiring for government jobs, and the retribution and intolerance these pioneers went up against is incredible to us today. Into this structure, AIDS inserted itself in the 1980s. As a part of leading a small group for Persons with AIDS, I was able to get to know a few of the men in that group, and although they were living in the terminal phase of the disease that had heaped scorn from families, and firing from their jobs, they went right on loving, finding their own family, including many lesbian sisters who risked a lot to take care of Persons living with AIDS in the beginning of the disease when no one else would. They took Jesus’s word seriously, and were living examples of Luke 14:26.

 

So much has taken place over the last few years, in 1995 President Clinton signed Executive Order 12968, adding protections for lesbian and gay people in federal employment or contracting. However, a few short years later, in 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered, which led, in an eleven year process to hate-crimes legislation was passed in 2009. In 2003, the US Supreme Court found, in the Lawrence v Texas case, against the law criminalizing homosexuality in that state, and any thereby any state that still criminalized homosexual acts of love.

 

In 2013 the US Supreme Court in the Obergefell v. Hodges case stated that all states must recognize same sex marriage as they would any other marriage. In 2014 President Obama signed Executive Order 13672, adding protections for gender identity in federal employment or contracting. However, that order was reversed by the current administration. Those years were somewhat dizzying to me, and I think many of earned our honorary legal degrees just for being able to argue constitutional law. None of these things would have happened unless mostly straight people stood up as they did, sharing their own stories of their relationships with LGBTQ sons, daughters, parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers.

While I am grateful beyond imagination for what has happened, there is much work yet to be done. For example, lesbian and gay people can be fired in many states just for listing their spouse as an emergency contact. This does happen and will keep happening until the Employment Non Discrimination Act is passed. I will not get into what the church, and in particular the Brethren denomination has not done, that is the topic for a whole other sermon.

 

I will say, however, that people of faith, and a few Brethren in particular, have been involved in this movement from the start. Instead of taking what came as status quo and the twisted “Bible thumping,” using the Bible to put down LGBTQ people, they took the entirety of Jesus’s teaching to apply the solid basis for a movement based in love, and in particular today’s scripture. In 1977 Martin Rock, founder of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, met with other leaders of the movement and aides to President Carter at the White House. Among other things the 1983 Annual Conference statement reads that Brethren are to advocate the right of LGBTQ individuals “to jobs, housing, and legal justice.” Tonight you will hear some stories from Nancy Wilson about the early days of the Metropolitan Community Church, and that denomination has been resolute in supporting queer justice for a long time. Unearthing this touchstone takes small movements over long periods of time, though, and none of us can do it alone. For example, just the other day the smallest gesture, as I heard a stern warning from son to father after the father made a homophobic comment in the locker room at LA Fitness, turns our attention back towards the love that Jesus intends for us.

 

It is Earth Day, and the diversity of our tasks is not just related to who we are, but it does start there, we are but one part of God’s creation. Lest we forget the last warning from Jesus in our scripture, let us not have others’ lives be our own stumbling blocks. What are your touchstones? Is it Equal Rights and Women’s Equality, Black Lives Matter, Immigration Rights, March for Our Lives Against Gun Violence, Environmental Justice, education, housing, healthcare, or something else yet to be spoken; how can the church and this congregation honor them? Whatever those touchstones are, we will, and to use the expression we may knock a few metaphorical lamps over in the meantime with our exuberance.

 

Jon and I have a quote from Bayard Rustin, a gay, black man who was the key organizer of the Civil Rights March on Washington, on our wall at home, and it is a good reminder to me in how to come to love even those I would consider my adversaries in enacting and fulfilling social justice and inclusivity. When asked about loving your enemies, Bayard said, “Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it–at which point they can become human too.” This speaks directly to our scripture from today: inclusivity means not only including those people with whom we agree with, but also with those we disagree with, but as Bayard stated, in our modern context that does not mean that we will always be embracing them physically, it means that we need to understand the social context and work to upend the power imbalance. If a cornerstone is not balanced correctly, the entire house will fail.

 

Despite what we face currently, and we face a tremendous amount, we can raise the house of inclusivity, laying our touchstones on the cornerstone that Jesus’s life and teachings established, and this is the way in which radical love will come to turn the world upside down. After all, what love we share for each other comes from God, and is never ceasing, and we can never doubt the awesomeness of this love in action to affect change in the world. Amen.