Sermons

How Wide is Our Welcome?

Who is “in”? Who is “out”? Who gets to decide?

Here is the story of two men who thought they knew the answer to that question, only to be shown by God another way.

It reminds me of another story, about the 2 preachers who decided to go on their annual bear hunting trip, up in the northern woods. They got all their gear together, chartered a little single engine airplane that touched down in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, they unloaded and the pilot said, “I’ll meet you right here in a week,” and took off. Amazingly they did manage to bag a great big huge bear, and a week later, the pilot arrived and saw the thing and said, “You can’t put that bear on this plane.” And the preacher said, “Well, last year the pilot let us put it on the plane.” But the pilot objected, “If you put that bear on the plane, we’ll never get off the ground.” And the other preacher said, “But, last year the pilot let us put it on the plane.” So, the pilot, not wanting to be outdone, thought “if he can do it, I can do it.” So they put the gear and the bear and the preachers in the plane, and they took off. Sure enough, the plane was too heavy, and crashed into the trees. The bear went one way and the preachers another and one woke up and said to the other, “Where are we?” And the second preacher said, “I dunno, looks like about 20 feet from where we landed last year.”

Which only goes to prove that if we only do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.

And certainly that is true in the story about Peter and Cornelius.

It starts in the beautiful port city of Caesarea, built by Herod the Great; the center of the Roman government in Palestine. In this city lived a centurion named Cornelius. A centurion was the equivalent of a noncommissioned officer in today’s army. Luke tells us that this man and his entire family were devout and God-fearing. He gave generously to the poor and was a person of prayer… Still a Roman. Still a part of the hated Empire holding its fist against Palestine. You don’t get to be a centurion without paying your dues and taking your orders from the Empire. Still a gentile dog, in the eyes of the Jews, even if he was a trained dog… I guess you can never tell a book by its cover, can you? Somehow, he had come to faith in God. Somehow, in spite of his name and his heritage and his profession, his background and his ethnicity, he had come to depend upon and serve the God of the Jews. How surprising. How unexpected. How unusual. It makes you wonder how that happened. We’re not told. It still happens – people come to faith out of the most unanticipated ways.

So one day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, while offering up his daily prayers, Cornelius had a vision. An angel of God came to him and called him by his name.
“Cornelius,” the angel said, “God has been paying attention to you. Now here are your new orders: Send some people down to a town called Joppa, and bring back a man named Simon, who is also known as Peter. Dismissed.” “Yes sir.”

Now the problem with that order is that Cornelius would have noted that Simon was a Jewish name. A Jew coming to a Gentile home would have been unthinkable, entirely illegal for the Jews. Can this really be right? Did God pop a cork? Did God forget the rule suddenly about keeping the circles of people apart?… But, Cornelius was a good soldier who knew how to take orders, and he did exactly what the angel said.

Meanwhile, while that is happening, back in Joppa, there is Peter. Peter is on the roof of the house, probably under his little gazebo, maybe stretched out on his hammock in the shade, and he is also praying. Its noon, and Peter’s prayers are distracted because he’s hungry. (I love Peter – he’s so human.) Downstairs, the meal is being prepared, and the aroma of delicious smells and flavors are wafting up… and suddenly Peter has a vision. In this vision there is no angel, but instead he sees a picnic cloth coming down out of heaven with all kinds of weird animals, lizards and birds on it. It comes down, in the vision, right in front of Peter, and God says, “Go ahead Peter, have a little snack before lunch.” But Peter’s a good Jew – he knows the dietary restrictions found in Leviticus 11. He knows that all Jews are only allowed to eat kosher or clean food. And he knows that that means only meat from animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves. But here on this picnic cloth are pork chops and hot dogs, lobster, turtle soup and lizard burgers. “No, no no,” Peter says. “Never have, never will.” You can’t make me. Bad food. Bad.”

“Now, Peter. I’m changing up the rules. All that food you thought was bad – it’s good. It’s all good, Peter. Try a little lobster.”

“Are you kidding? You’re kidding, right God? All this stuff is out of bounds. It’s not ok; hasn’t been for 400 years. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.”

“Well, Peter, what was out, is in now. So get used to it. And strap on your seat belt, because the rule also applies to people. Even the Gentiles are in with me. I know it blows your mind, but I’m the One who gets to decide.”

Poof. Peter wakes up and the picnic cloth disappears, along with the hot dogs and lizard burgers. But he can’t get that out of his head. Kosher hot dogs? Kosher Gentiles? Who’s “in”? Who’s “out”? Who gets to decide? Peter thought he knew the answer to that question, only to be shown by God another way. Dramatic, huh?

Well, the rest of the story is that the three guys Cornelius sent arrive at just about that time, ask for Peter, and tells him that Cornelius want to hear him preach. That’s enough of an invitation for any preacher. The Spirit says, “Go with these Gentile guys, they’re ok.” But by now it’s getting a little late, and Caesarea is about 30 miles away, so Peter says… (now get this): “Why don’t you guys come in and stay the night?” Wow. And they did.

The next morning they get up. By now the news has gotten around the neighborhood, and 6 brothers offer to go with Peter to Caesarea. (I imagine they thought of themselves as bodyguards, or something.) The 10 of them arrive at Cornelius’s house where Peter found a congregation all sort of sitting on the front row, waiting for a sermon. He starts by reminding them that what he was doing by just being there, was unthinkable and illegal, but not in God’s eyes. And the sermon for the day was about the wide welcome of God. How God had shown him a new way. The way of the wide circle. That, in fact this is the way of Jesus, he said, who preached and taught the way of love for all people. “I was there,” he said, “and I saw it myself.”

Everyone, no matter who they are, or where they’re from, or what their circumstances are in life, their sexual preference, their creed, color or religion are all loved by God. Loved as precious children. All of us deserving of grace; all made in God’s image; all at the table of God’s beloved community.

Peter had suddenly realized that those whom society thrusts to the margins have a place of value in the eyes of God. As we bless those whom society rejects, we become blessings to ourselves. As we change ourselves, we change the world.

Do we still believe that? How wide is our welcome?

It’s not a peripheral question. It’s at the heart of who we are and what we do. Our Mission Statement declares it. You know, in November, we’re going to spend some time during Spiritual Formation looking at that. Asking some questions, like:
What does it mean for us to be inclusive?
How do we welcome people of different races, different ethnicities?
How do we welcome people of different gender identities or sexual orientations?
How do we welcome people of different abilities, ages, economic status?
How do we welcome people of different faith traditions, theologies, life situations?
And what does unwelcome look like in each of those cases?
That will be interesting. I’m looking forward to that.

I’m looking forward to it because this is a congregation that gets it; that had it long before other congregations knew it could be got. And you’ve been working at it for a long time.

Carol Wise, a former pastor here, and now Executive Director for the Brethren and Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests wrote A Ritual with Salt to describe the welcoming community, in which she passes out salt to the congregation to remind them of the call to the open table of God’s grace. And I want to use that ritual as we close this sermon, so I’ll ask the ushers to come forward and pass the salt. Each person may have a piece as I read these words from Carol:

“Salt – this mighty symbol of life and vitality. Salt is the only rock that we eat. Salt preserves and protects against decay. We die from a lack of it. Interestingly, when we hunger, we crave food. When we thirst, we crave water. But even when dying from a salt deficiency, at no time will we experience a craving for it. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for dying institutions to embrace the salty ones in their midst.”

“Salt – a blessing, a necessity, a holy substance, a tasty gift. No wonder Jesus spoke of it. It is only fitting.”

“Today we celebrate the salt that we call the welcoming community.”

“ As a people called to justice, hospitality, love and healing, we offer to the world the possibility of life, a protection against decay, an enhanced experience of flavor, health and vitality. We speak grace, acceptance and the love of God into the pain and rejection experienced in our culture.”

“I invite us to consider the saltiness of those who have gone before us and cleared the path… the ones who have taught us the meaning of courage, who embodied integrity, who ruptured the death-dealing silence, who call us yet today to be bold, brave and bodaciously honest. Their virtue continues to be a blessing to us all.”

“I bring the saltiness of people of faith whose hunger and thirst for righteousness has called them to remain within their faith traditions, and by their presence, insist that the church be faithful to God’s call to hospitality and justice. Their hopefulness is a blessing to us all.”

Amen.

Table Recognition

They were on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Cleopas (who hasn’t been mentioned before now) and his unnamed companion. These folks are not part of the twelve. Where did they come from? Just part of the crowd that followed Jesus and too insignificant to even tell us about…I guess. Two obscure followers of Jesus heading to Emmaus because their teacher is dead. Two people walking away from the place of their greatest disappointment.

And that is when Jesus joins them on their journey. Isn’t it amazing who Jesus visits? The women, the unnamed, those in hiding. Jesus asks them why they are so glum and they say, “We had hoped he was the one.” I think that this the saddest sentence in all of scripture. “We had hoped he was the one.” So raw, so vulnerable, so honest. They felt deceived, duped, afraid. Betrayed by their own beliefs. Mocked by their own faith. They are walking away. Leaving it all behind. We have all felt that way sometime in our journey of faith. Perhaps you are feeling it right now. But that is exactly when Jesus shows up…on the 20 mile journey of walking away from their greatest disappointment.

Only they don’t recognize Jesus. He is the last person they expect to see. Ever had that happen to you. Perhaps you are walking down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee and someone calls your name. You look at them but you can’t make sense of who they are. Turns out it was one of your best friends from high school. For these two obscure disciples, on the most discouraging journey of their lives it would be like running into someone they last saw in a casket standing in line ahead of them at the bank. It just doesn’t compute.

And so Jesus walks with them on this journey of the dark night of the soul. They talk scripture and he interprets for them. And still they do not recognize him. When they arrive in Emmaus it appears that Jesus will keep on walking so they beg him to come and eat with them.

They sit down at the table. It is the first time they have really looked each other in the eyes. The stranger they have been walking with who is now sitting with them, picks up the bread, blesses it and breaks it and then shares it with them……just like they have seen Jesus do a hundred times. It wasn’t until they sat down with him at the table that they recognized it was Jesus. The women who had been to the tomb told them Jesus was alive and looking for them but that didn’t do it. It was something about the table.

My youngest son Brett is a pastry chef. He has one topic of conversation he enjoys….. food. Some days when he calls me on the phone I never speak. The moment I pick up the phone he begins educating me. I learn about why he thinks his yeast starter is doing so well even in a desert environment; why a quartz countertop is better in your kitchen than granite; how to grow tomatoes without watering them; why I shouldn’t buy the peanut butter I like best.

When I visit him in his home he takes my hand and walks me over to the refrigerator where he pulls out the produce he bought at the local farmer’s market. He holds up a radish and says lovingly, “Isn’t it beautiful?” When he cooks he wants me to sit on the stool at the island so we can be together while he makes my food. If I get out my phone or if my eyes ever stray from what he is doing, he gets frustrated. “Mom, I just want you to pay attention to this wonderful process.”

When we are together our time revolves around food. If we decide we are going to go out for dinner we first spend at least a half hour debating which restaurant and looking over the online menus. He is the pickiest person I know when it comes to choosing a restaurant and I know some picky people. When we finally sit down to eat, he does all the ordering. He orders several dishes, which we will share because he wants to try everything.

I have eaten meals with other people who appreciate food. When the food arrives at the table they take a moment to take it in. Sometimes they make a movement with their hands to bring the aromas closer to the nose so they can savor the experience.

My son, for whom food is the main topic, eats his food like he just got off a deserted island and he hasn’t had real food in years. This person who has lovingly picked just the right radish, used just the right knife, on just the right cutting board in a laborious process of food preparation eats his food with a ravenous zest. His hunger and his delight are obvious. He takes his fork and starts eating right off the common plate. Juice runs down his chin as his smile of appreciation forces his lips apart. He doesn’t neatly cut everything into equal shares. No. Like him, he wants you to grab your fork and jump in to this act of communion.

I believe that when I get dementia or if my son was ever in a bad accident and had to have his whole face reconstructed I would still recognize him in the sharing of a meal. The way he eats, the sounds he makes, the conversation he wants to have are all so identifiable.

Because meals are intimate things. Things that aren’t so obvious in other social settings are obvious when you eat together. Cleopas and his companion were preoccupied with their own losses and so they didn’t realize they didn’t have to be until they sat down to eat with this stranger they met on the road. The New Testament is rife with stories of Jesus eating with people….with Pharisees, with tax collectors, with women, with his disciples, with multitudes. Eating together mattered to Jesus. The values of how you eat together mattered. Sharing mattered to Jesus. Everyone at the table together communing with each other mattered to Jesus.

Meals, at the time of Jesus and now, are places of social inclusion and social exclusion. Jesus widened the table. He told people over and over again that the rule of table fellowship should be one of inclusion and never exclusion. He spread a tablecloth on a hillside; encouraged people to take the seat of least importance; ate a meal with his betrayer; was hosted by a tax collector; told a parable about inviting the lost, the last and the least to the king’s banquet. I image that one thing these meals all had in common was that they began with Jesus taking the bread and giving thanks, and then breaking it and giving it to them. It was his tell.

So as he sat down to eat with Cleopas and his unnamed partner Jesus did just that. He picked up the bread, looked them in the eye, blessed the bread, broke it and handed it to them and they remembered what it is they had learned from Jesus. They remembered the wide table, the sharing, the humility, the sacrifice, and the love. They saw Jesus and all that he had taught them in that moment and with new eyes.

The hunger they felt only moments ago was gone and these two downtrodden, disappointed and honest disciples were overjoyed. They couldn’t stop babbling on about what they had just experienced in the symbols of bread and wine…in the recognition of Jesus in the breaking of the bread….in this exact moment of communing at the table.

They were so moved they jumped up from the table and went right back to Jersualem….in the dark. They couldn’t wait another second. They had to tell everyone what they had just seen and experienced. They returned to the place of their greatest disappointment but they went back renewed, restored, feisty and committed…. ready to encounter the living God around every corner. Amen.

5 Smooth Stones

We all love stories of a victorious underdog. It is why when I meet people for the first time and I introduce myself as Susan Boyer they usually think of Susan Boyle. I’m guessing you know of whom I speak. Susan Boyle is the mousy woman with Asperger Syndrome who defied all odds to win a national talent show and was rewarded with a recording career. Her first album became the United Kingdom’s best-selling debut album of all time.

The first time I meet people they often say, “Did you say Susan Boyle?” This confusion with our names happens so often that this summer when I was cleaning up my office I came upon my stack of memorabilia in which people have written my name as Susan Boyle: on a wedding bulletin; in a newspaper article; on a citation I received. I used to keep them because it made me laugh. But I decided there was no reason to keep them. I will be able to amass another stack without trying. Why this confusion with Susan Boyle? Because everyone knows and celebrates the stories of the little guy or gal who wins.

It is the same with our movie viewing. We like movies like McFarland, USA about a disgraced football coach who creates a cross-country team of strong runners with little hope in their future…and then leads them to a state championship. Or what about Erin Brockovich, the story of an unemployed single mother, who goes on to take on a massive corporation that contaminated the groundwater of a whole community and wins a huge settlement for the victims? Or what about Hunger Games, the story of a teenage girl with no power, forced by the empire to kill other people with no power for the entertainment of the elite? She becomes the symbol of revolution and leads her people to victory. If you haven’t seen any of those three movies, think of just about any sports movie you have ever seen: Sandlot, A League of Their Own, Hoosiers, Karate Kid, Rocky. I could go on. We love our movies about successful underdogs. They make us feel good.

Why is that? I think it is because all of us see ourselves as the underdog. When we watch Erin Brockovich we don’t identify with the corporation. When we watch Hunger Games we don’t picture ourselves as the elite. It is why we love the story of David and Goliath. It is a fan favorite. We all know it. It is in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books. It is the story of Goliath, the big, beefy giant who, up to this point, wins at everything, and David, the youngest boy in a family of shepherds from the obscure town of Bethlehem. It has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.

When we see this story in our mind’s eye we identify with the little guy. We identify with David. I have never once imagined myself as Goliath. How about you?

That is fascinating if you think about it because while we resonate with David we spend much of our lives trying to become Goliath. “David took down Goliath with five smooth stones,” we say with admiration while we amass our weapons on the side. We are impressed that David refused Saul’s armor and the latest technology of weapons while we purchase the latest security gadgetry available to us for our cars and homes. Even David, the little shepherd boy who slew the giant, became Goliath in the end. As soon as he had a chance he became the big guy and he used his advantage to wield power against anyone in his way. But that is a story for another day. The point is that we admire the young shepherd boy David at the same time we strive to become Goliath.

As you heard from my children’s story today, I picked up these five smooth stones in Israel this summer. We went to the Elah Valley, a wide, open valley with hills on both sides. It isn’t a popular tourist spot, which surprised me. There wasn’t even a turn out available in which we could park our car. As we drove around the valley looking for a way to park and get out, I imagined the epic battle that took place there between Goliath and David.

Goliath was a Philistine. The Philistines were Israel’s most dangerous enemies. Among the Philistines Goliath was their fiercest warrior. He was huge and he was strong and he was experienced in hand-to-hand combat, as well as distance battles with spears. He wore armor to make sure that he was not injured by his opponent. He was the alpha-male.

David, on the other hand, was just an insignificant boy. He wasn’t on anyone’s radar. He had zero experience with war. He didn’t know how to use a spear. But he had bravado….not on his own behalf but on God’s behalf. It makes me think of when my son, Matt, was just a boy. We raised him in the church. In fact, with two parents being ministers he went to church almost daily. We told him the stories of the Bible and we told him about the power of God. One day he learned that there were children in the world who were dying for lack of food. He was incredulous. With God’s help Matt said he would take care of this problem. That was David. He believed in the power of God.

David was only in the Elah Valley on that fateful day because his three older brothers had gone off to fight with King Saul. His father, Jesse, asked David to leave the sheep and take food to his brothers and check on their welfare. When David arrived at Saul’s encampment he heard Goliath taunting Saul’s army “Are you mice or are you men? Send me your best warrior and fight me, you chickens!” Goliath is offering the ancient code of single combat, avoiding the slaughter of many. “Mano y mano,” he yells, which makes Saul’s men scurry for their tents.

Goliath has been uttering these same words for forty days now….twice a day. But on day forty-one David hears it for the first time and says, “How dare that uncircumcised Philistine mock the very armies of the living God.” King Saul heard of the young shepherd boy who had just showed up. He sent for David and David walked right up to Saul and said, “Don’t worry, King. I will go and fight Goliath for you.” I’m guessing this was quite a comic relief for these warriors who had been camped there for quite some time….tired of Goliath’s taunting but not eager to take him on and lose.

King Saul said to David, “Thank you but no thank you. You are a boy and Goliath is a warrior.” David was undaunted. “I have spent my life caring for sheep. When a lion or a bear grabbed one of the lambs I chased it down, killed it and took the lamb right out of its mouth. I have killed both lions and bears and this uncircumcised Philistine is just another lion to me. How dare he ridicule the armies of the Living God. God will not be mocked.”

“Go ahead, then” said Saul, “and may the Living God protect you.” Saul ordered his men to bring his very own armor and put it on David. David was touched by the gesture of wearing the king’s armor but he couldn’t even walk in it. David trusted God….but not that much. He knew that if we went to fight Goliath in that armor he was a sitting duck. So he took off all the protective gear. David believed that he already had everything he needed. He knew himself. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses. He calculated the strengths and weaknesses of Goliath. He knew he didn’t need to match Goliath’s weaponry to defeat the giant.

Instead David went down to the riverbed in the valley and chose five smooth stones. He put them in his little shepherd’s pouch and got out his sling. Then he approached Goliath. The giant was not amused. “Really? You sent a boy to fight me with sticks. This is no contest.” David didn’t engage in Goliath’s verbal battle. Instead, he ran straight at Goliath, took out a stone from his pouch while he was running, put it into his sling and let it fly. It struck Goliath on the forehead and Goliath fell face down to his death. David had only used one stone out of the five he had so carefully collected. David, the little guy, took out the giant with one smooth stone, knowledge of the gifts he brought to the battle, some bravado, some bravery and a trust in God.

This summer…when we couldn’t find a place to park in the Elah Valley, Bob Mullins simply pulled our vehicle to the side of the road, put on the hazard lights and the rest of us hopped out. We climbed over the guardrail and down to the dry riverbed. I got my five smooth stones in the same place that David, a teenage boy about to take on a giant, would have chosen his stones. As I walked back to the car I thought about what giants I needed to take down in my own life and about a young boy who was so sure of the power of the Living God that he did something that seemed absolutely foolish to everyone around him. I put these stones in my suitcase and I brought them back to the United States. They sit on the counter in my bathroom where I get ready every morning. They are a reminder…. not of my trip but of who I need to be in the world.

Every morning when I see those five smooth stones I remember to channel my inner Susan Boyle. She didn’t have the looks or the connections to bag a singing career. But she did have everything she needed. She had the gifts, the courage and the trust that God was present in her life.

The story of David and Goliath is a hard story for a pacifist to preach about but I believe there is a larger truth in this story than battle and weaponry. Always take time with Bible stories to go deeper than the surface. From this story we are reminded that we have been given the gifts and the tools we need. They aren’t the ones that the world values. They aren’t the ones we expect will be able to slay the giant….and yet they do.

I wonder what amazing things we could do in this world if we gave up our quest to become Goliath, knowing that Goliath’s power is just an illusion. What would happen if we accepted the invitation of the Living God to simply bring ourselves, our abilities, our courage and our faithfulness? Imagine what happen to the giants of the world if every day we brought what we have and used it for the good of others? Personally, I don’t think the Goliaths of this world would stand a chance against us. That is what I am reminded of every morning when I look at these five smooth stones. Amen.

The Beloved Community

This summer we, the La Verne Church of the Brethren, took another step towards our strategic envisioning goals. We hired Amanda Bennett to be our Social Media Coordinator. One of the first things she did after getting that job was to post the letter we wrote to our representatives, calling for a just immigration policy. Forty-five Facebook users shared it and it had around 4,000 views. That is good stuff. Amanda works at helping Instagram and Facebook users see who we are as a congregation. Towards that end she asked several staff members to send her a selfie and answer some questions. One of her questions was about how we staff members see this church.

Then at the end of August, Amanda posted a photo of me and what I said about this church. This is what I wrote:
The La Verne Church of the Brethren is the real deal. This congregation is seeking the mind of Christ with its body, soul, mind and spirit. We welcome all with genuine love; we are happiest when the community connection is honored; we use our minds in seeking to follow Christ; and we show up to feed the homeless, march for immigrant rights, stand up for our sisters and brothers who are marginalized and help rebuild communities after natural disasters. This is the church I looked for my whole life and I am deeply grateful God led me here.

I mean every word of that statement and I’ve been saying it for years, but when I saw it posted on Facebook I thought of my Facebook friends who are members of churches I served before I came here. Being Brethren and always wanting to be polite, I thought to myself, “What do the churches I have been part of in my past think about that last statement: “La Verne Church of the Brethren is the church I looked for my whole life”?

It made me do some more soul searching about why I think this church is different than other churches I have experienced. It isn’t because this church is perfect. We are far from perfect and if you are here because you think we are perfect, I want to be absolutely upfront with you. There will come a time when we will disappoint you. However, we are real here. I know that when I get up to preach you expect me to bring myself….not some agreed on doctrine that makes everyone comfortable. In fact, you demand me to be real. I can’t tell you what a gift that is. It is one of the gifts we give each other.

I also don’t claim this church as the church I’ve been looking for my whole life because we all agree. This is a church where, most of the time, we know how to disagree about what matters. We don’t fight about the color of the carpet. No, we debate the big stuff — what is happening in our world and who we want to be as a body of Christ meeting in this place, at this time.

Also, this church isn’t different because it has all the answers. If you are looking for that church, we aren’t it. This is a church of lifelong learners. When Loren Bowman, one of our saints, was preparing to die he invited me over to work on his memorial service. He wanted me to know what he didn’t want me to say. He didn’t want me to say that Loren thought any specific thing on any specific topic. He said, “I have lived my life keeping my mind open. I have changed my mind several times.” This is a church that keeps its mind and its heart open. We try to limit our sacred cows so that we can find new light in new times, following Christ wherever he leads us. That means that we can be comfortable to just sit in our questions sometimes, trusting that as we continue to seek the mind of God we will find clarity. It gives this place a dynamic and active spirituality because we worship and serve a dynamic God who is not left behind by a changing world.

This is a church where faith blends with action. I’ve been in those churches where we talk about what is happening in the world and shake our heads and think, “Thank God I know what’s right and I live here in this little bubble of goodness.” It isn’t like that here. If you want to help families and children impacted by natural disasters, this church is involved with that in a couple different ways. If you want to help feed the homeless, you can do that right from our church kitchen. If you want to work on your privilege so you can be a good ally, you can do that here. If you want to visit people being detained by ICE we can hook you up. If you want to help someone displaced by violence, there are ways. If you want to develop relationships with your neighbors of other faiths, we can aid you in that process. Because we know that loving God and loving your neighbor is intimately intertwined. As I John says, “You cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you hate your neighbor, who you have seen.”

Now I am guessing that some of you think I am doing a commercial for the La Verne Church of the Brethren. Heaven forbid. The Brethren do not like to talk about themselves and would hate to be called braggarts. I hope that isn’t what I’m doing. But I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the Beloved Community, especially in relationship to this congregation.

The Beloved Community is a term that was first coined in the early 20th century by the philosopher/theologian, Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Royce’s vision rested in the idea of a community working for a lost cause…not a hopeless cause. For Royce a lost cause was one that evokes our highest hopes and our deepest moral commitments and probably won’t be fulfilled in our lifetime.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, latched on to Royce’s concept and filled it with the meaning and example of his own life. King worked tirelessly for the creation of a beloved community in which prejudice and bigotry would be replaced with inclusion for all peoples. He didn’t live to see the fruit of his own labor.

I think this church works for lost causes every day. But I do feel there is something I need to challenge you today, on this Back to Fall Sunday. The Beloved Community can’t exist if you don’t invest yourself in it.

My husband, Bryan, was a very reserved, introvert. He came to church every Sunday but he timed it so he usually arrived during the Call to Worship and left during the benediction. I remember one Sunday when I was giving him a hard time about leaving before the postlude. He said, “I don’t walk out to my car alone, Susan. There is a whole group of us who are dashing to our cars at the same time. We wave at each other every Sunday.”

We can’t be the Beloved Community if we come for the good music and the challenging messages and then sprint for our cars. The Beloved Community requires our involvement. It is like exercise. We now we need to exercise. We know we feel better when we do it. But it requires a commitment. So does the Beloved Community. And it isn’t just about working for justice. It is about eating brunch together, dancing, laughing, building greens for Advent, participating in Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, learning to know the people with whom you share this sanctuary. It is about meeting each other so that when we need each other we know each other. It is about knowing each other at a depth that allows us to trust each other enough that we can be real with each other. That doesn’t happen without some effort on your part.

Friends, today is the day. Imagine yourself staying after church and walking over to the Fellowship Hall. Imagine going through the line to get brunch and then getting to know the people with whom you are sharing this meal. Then a video presentation of an upcoming dance calls us to stop our conversations and listen to all the opportunities that are coming our way. Imagine yourself choosing at least one of those possible events in which to participate. Today is the day. We need to be in real relationship in order to create the beloved community of lost causes. We need to all jump into the vase if we are going to create a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower. Amen.

Location, Location, Location

Have you ever imagined a place in your mind’s eye and then when you actually got to see the place, you suddenly understood it for the first time. I felt that way when I saw where I was born. I felt that way again this summer when visiting Israel. Stories in the Bible I have read and visualized suddenly came into focus for the first time. I felt like I had to start over and read every Bible story again.

I couldn’t believe how small Israel was. From north to south it is 263 miles. It is like driving across Utah. It felt like there was only so much room and everything bumped up against each other, geographically and religiously and chronologically. We would visit a Christian holy site on top of a Jewish holy site, surrounded by Muslim holy sites. Time seemed to be layered on itself. For example in Capernaum we saw a Franciscan church built on stilts over the archeological site of a fifth century octagonal church, built on the fourth century house church built on top of what is believed to be the home of Peter from the first century. I felt like I was constantly needing to find my footing again…to understand my location in its geographical setting.

“Location, location, location,” real estate agents have said this for years. When I moved here from Indiana I couldn’t believe that just the piece of land my home was built on in California was worth more than the large house and land combined that I had just sold in North Manchester. Location matters.

And that is especially true in the story from the Gospel of Mark that Gail read today. It takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is no longer a bustling city in Israel. It is an archeological site at the base of Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights. It was originally a cult center named Paneas because it had a spring gushing out of a cave, named for the Greek god Pan. Pan was the god of the wild and a friend of the nymphs. He was connected with sexuality and fertility. You have seen likenesses of Pan. He had the hindquarters and horns of a goat and is usually portrayed as ornery. At one time the water from the spring that poured forth from the cave in Paneas was the source of the Jordan River. Now the water only trickles out of the bedrock below the cave leaving a tranquil marsh below.

During the Roman period it was the capital of Golan. In 20 BC it was annexed to the Kingdom of Herod the Great. In 3 BC, Philip, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, made it is his administrative capital and it became known as Caesarea Philippi. Yup, he named it after himself. Philip made a lot of improvements to the city and put his own likeness on a coin in 29 AD, which was considered idolatrous to the Jewish population that lived there.

It was during the time of Philip’s reign that Jesus and his disciples headed to Caesarea Philippi. The location of this story matters. This story marks the turn from Jesus teaching and preaching in Galilee to a steady and relentless march towards Jerusalem.

As Jesus and his disciples are making their way to Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks them a question, “Who do people say that I am?” “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets” were their answers. Then Jesus turns his question to them, “Okay. Who do you saw that I am?” Then Peter, the one who always had to jump in said, “You are the Messiah.” Up until this point none of the disciples have named Jesus as the Messiah. The identity of Jesus has been an ongoing question. We have known because the Gospel of Mark opens with these words: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But the disciples haven’t been told that news. You would think Jesus would smile at Peter and say, “Bless you, my son.” But Jesus shuts down the conversation. He orders them not to tell anyone. He asked them to name him and when one of them did he silenced them.

Was it because they were about to enter Caesarea Philippi and he knew his life would be in jeopardy there if they named him the Messiah? Was it because his time had not yet come for him to be crucified and he didn’t want to tempt the fates? Or was it because Jesus knew that Peter had no idea what he was talking about? Could it be that Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah and Peter’s idea of the Messiah were very different?

When they arrive in Caesarea Philippi Jesus begins to explain what must happen to the Son of Man. Jesus said, “He will suffer. He will be rejected by all of his religious leaders. Then he will be killed and after three days he will rise again.” Jesus didn’t just say this quietly to his disciples. He said it openly. He said it in Caesarea Philippi, for God’s sake. He said it where the god Pan is celebrated. He says it in the middle of the Empire. Location matters.

Now you and I, we have heard about the crucifixion of Jesus so many times. We have been bombarded with images of it our whole lives. We have been de-sensitized to its impact. We don’t realize that this was the most shocking thing Jesus ever told his disciples. Why do you think they dropped everything they were doing to follow him? Not to watch Jesus be crucified by the Romans, that’s for sure. They wanted to be free from their Roman overlords. They thought Jesus was the one to lead them out of oppression. Jesus was the greatest hope of that dream they had ever met. He always spoke out against the Empire. He seemed undaunted and unafraid. Crowds were growing around them. This could truly be the revolution and they were on the frontlines. But then Jesus flipped the whole thing on its head by telling them he would suffer, be rejected and then killed. He just dropped it on them there in Caesarea Philippi like it was the most logical thing he could say.
Peter, with a bit of cocky mansplainer in him, took Jesus aside to tell him he was doing this wrong. He rebuked Jesus, we are told. Earlier in Mark Jesus had been the rebuker. He had rebuked the demons and the storm. In other words he had silenced them. Now Peter acts as if he is the patron and not the disciple. He takes Jesus aside like a naughty child to explain things to him. Peter tries to silence Jesus…right here in one of the hubs of the Empire.

“Jesus,” Peter explains, “people want a Messiah who heals our illnesses, gives us prosperity, frees us from the oppressors of this world, guarantees our security and leads us onto victory. It sounds like you are offering vulnerability, suffering and loss. That isn’t why we are following you. You need to stop talking like that.”

Jesus doesn’t say, “Wow, Peter, thanks for setting me straight.” He responds sharply to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Where else have you heard about Satan in the story of Jesus’ life? That is right, at the temptation in the wilderness. The use of Satan here is to let us know that Peter has spoken words of temptation to Jesus. It is tempting to think that the Son of Man might not have to suffer, be rejected and die. But Jesus responds to Peter like he does at the temptation in the wilderness. “You cannot guide, protect or possess me, Satan. I refuse to be tempted.”

Then with a look of determination in his eye, in the city of Caesarea Philippi with the spring of the god Pan in the background, Jesus moves the narrative from one about the identity of Jesus to the identity of a disciple. We are no longer thinking about who Jesus is. Jesus refocuses us on what is required in order to truly be his disciple. The location changed from Jesus to his followers and it happens with the watchful eye of the Empire in the background.

Refusing to be silenced, Jesus calls the whole crowd over to him and says, “If you want to follow me than you have to deny yourselves. You have to pick up the cross of suffering and death and follow after me because that is exactly where I am heading. I’m going to show you with my very own life that if you want to save your life you have to give it up. It is in giving your life away that you will save your life. Let me be completely truthful with you right now, you can’t buy what I am offering you.

He says all of this in Caesarea Philippi. Location matters. Read the New Testament again and you will find example after example of God upending our expectation of location. God shows up where we least expect it…a stable… among a hungry crowd with only a few fish and loaves of bread….over and over again God shows up in unexpected locations…and never more poignantly than in the death and crucifixion of Jesus.

Here in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and all that location has in store for him. He crushes the disciples and crowds expectations that he is just the next revolutionary hero. Instead, he offers them something they never expected. He says, “I need you to know that he Son of Man meets you in your moments of vulnerability and suffering. The Son of Man will be with you when life falls apart. You will see God where you least expect to see God. I offer you, not the God you want, but the God you need. For life isn’t something you go out and earn or buy or win. Life is like love. It can only be given away and when you give it away you find out you have more love and more life. This is the key to the Kingdom of God and I offer it to you here in the Kingdom of the empire. Choose this day which keys you want.” Amen.

Unmasking Privilidge

I have a question for you this morning: “Was Jesus able to learn?”

You might answer that Jesus was raised by human parents who taught him to walk and talk….who took him to the synagogue to learn the Torah. Of course, Jesus was able to learn. But I’m talking about a bigger question. Do you understand Jesus as someone who while he was preaching and teaching had all the answers and did everything right. Or was Jesus also learning as he progressed through his ministry? Do you think that Jesus’ mind and heart broadened as he taught and healed?

In his preaching, Jesus often spoke out against the privileged of the Roman Empire. After all, he was part of a colonized people who were treated with prejudice. But I also think it is important for us to remember that Jesus grew up with privilege as a Jewish male living in a Jewish culture…a Jewish culture, which in that time and context, men ranked above women and the Gentile was despised. We have a couple images in which Jesus gave time and credit to women as worthy members of the faith. But as a Jewish male living in his Jewish culture did he have to learn to give time and credit to the Gentile? The Gentiles, you know, were anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Just the idea of calling them Gentiles, of lumping everyone who isn’t in your culture into one pot, is a statement of privilege….there is “us” and then everyone who isn’t “us”. I want you to think about that privilege that Jesus lived in while we look at our scripture for today…. the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

This scripture has always been a difficult one for me….and all of Christendom for that matter. We expect to run into difficult texts in the Hebrew Bible because it is filled with such honest stories but Jesus is our example. What do we do with a New Testament story in which Jesus appears to voice racism against another? In case you didn’t catch what happened in the story that Zandra read let me run through it again. Jesus has been preaching and teaching around the Sea of Galilee. Then the Pharisees and the scribes came from Jerusalem to confront him. They wanted to know how he could allow his followers not to wash their hands before they ate. Jesus pointed out that these religious leaders were hypocrites and then he turned to the crowd he was teaching and said, “It isn’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.” In other words it isn’t how you eat that matters, it is how you speak.

And then he got up and left. I wonder what was going on for him. I imagine he felt like had to get away for a while. He had been sent to help his people know, love and follow the living God. All the religious leaders did was quote scripture and focus on the laws of purity. Jesus headed up to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, cities that are now found in Lebanon. At the time of Jesus they were Gentile territories. Jesus was getting away from his people and the demands of his ministry for a rest.

As Jesus and his disciples were walking in that area a Canaanite woman came out and started shouting at them and when I say shouting, I mean shouting. She said, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus responded with silence because silence is sometimes the easiest way to tell somebody no. Think about what you do when a person comes up to you on a street corner with a hand out asking for money. Do you stop and engage them or do you walk on in silence? Silence is the way we often tell someone no.

But the woman was not taking silence for an answer. She had a daughter in need of help. She kept on shouting until the disciples became nervous at the attention she was drawing. Just like they had just told him to send the multitude on the hillside away because they were hungry, they said to Jesus, “Send her away.”

Jesus broke his silence. “I was sent for the lost sheep of Israel.” It isn’t really clear to whom he was talking. Maybe he was telling himself that she wasn’t one of his. He had come for the Jews. She wasn’t one of his people and he wasn’t responsible for her.

But the woman was undeterred. She came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” Jesus said, “It isn’t fair to take the food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. You see why this is such a difficult scripture. Some people try to explain it away saying that Jesus was just testing the woman. But even if you go that direction, what a terrible test. He called a frightened mother a dog and told her that she and her child were not worthy of his time and his gifts.

The woman doesn’t stand up and walk away humiliated. She schools Jesus. She says, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat some of the scraps that fall off their master’s table.” She got to him. The desperate mother taught Jesus a thing or two.

Jesus, whose genealogy includes the Canaanite women Rahab and Ruth, finds his understanding of God’s love for all broadened by a Canaanite woman. This one who was part of a colonized people found out his still had some privilege and that was challenged. He steps up, listens and changes. He said, “Woman, you have great faith! Let it be done as you wish.” Her daughter was healed instantly.

At the end of July this year I attended an intensive workshop in North Hollywood called “Unmasking Whiteness.” It was an intensive for white people lead by white anti-racists. I went because when Zandra Wagoner was on the Peace and Justice Commission she shared that she had gone to this same workshop a couple years ago and that it was very helpful. Perhaps you remember that the Peace and Justice Commission was assigned a goal from our strategic envisioning process and that was to help us as a congregation work on our cultural learning. We have been trying to figure out a way to enter into that goal. We have had two members of the faculty and staff of the University of La Verne come and work with a small group here at the church. We have taken some of what they brought us and used it at the Leadership Retreat and in an adult Sunday School class.

When the Peace and Justice Commission learned of the “Unmasking Whiteness” workshop they hoped that perhaps we could send a person each year. It took me two attempts to get into the workshop because they only do it once a year and it fills up fast.

I admit I didn’t go with an unbridled enthusiasm. I went knowing that I have privilege of which I am aware and of which I am unaware. I went carrying with me guilt and shame for the behavior of other white folks and for those times I know I have gotten it wrong. I went afraid that this intensive would be built on the model that first they needed to tear me down so they could rebuild me into an enlightened person. I went willingly and yet with great trepidation. It is hard to unmask your own privilege, guilt and shame in front of others. In fact, as I was working on this sermon I called my son Matt. I said, “I’m so tense about my sermon for Sunday. I’m talking about unmasking privilege and I’m afraid I will just prove how unaware of my own privilege I am.” He didn’t comfort me. He said, “Well of course you will.”

For four intense days, with grace and invitation, the leadership moved us through a process of awakening and also of dealing with our own guilt and shame so we could become the strong white anti-racists we are called to be. Some of you have questioned how we possibly could have made any progress without people of color leading the workshop. I wondered that myself but what I found was leadership who had done their work and were inviting us to do our work and no one of color had to do the additional labor of helping white folks get it together all while being the ones oppressed. I also realized that had their been people of color in the room, I would have been afraid to speak up for fear of getting it wrong again. Instead, with as much grace as possible, leadership worked with us and enlightened us and freed us to do the important work of anti-racism as white people living in a white dominant culture. White people need to do their work for us to become a nation of freedom and justice for all. White people need to do their work for the church to become a place where justice will flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We need to do the work of dismantling prejudice and privilege. Now everyone in this room, no matter what race you are has privilege. We all live in the empire. We are citizens of the colonizer in the world today. We live in Rome. There are also other forms of privilege that are carried in this room. It might be around gender or sexual orientation or economics or level of education. We all carry some kind of privilege and we all have work to do. It is just that some of us have more work than others.

Our privilege is a hard to see and therefore it can be hard to admit it exists. I have known for years that white people and people of color require different hair care products. But I had never thought about how the free shampoo and conditioner given out in every hotel room only works for my race. Here at church we invite you to collect that free shampoo and conditioner and save it for the House of Ruth. But now I realize it only benefits their white clients. I carry so much privilege that I never see or notice because it is the water in which I swim. It means I have to become a conscious person. I have to work on educating myself on privilege.

As I said last week the myth of our country is that we have an equal playing field and everyone has the opportunity to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It isn’t true. We have so much built-in institutional racism and privilege in our country that the playing field is so far from even it is beyond tragic. Privilege and prejudice are our problems and it touches everything in our lives.

I have been processing my experience now for about a month and how we got to be who we are as a country. It seems to me that the starting question here for us is “Can we as people of privilege learn?” and “What will make us willing to learn?”

Jesus was a member of the colonized people. He experienced prejudice every day. He also found it hard to see his own privilege. It was the water in which he swam. He could see the privilege and exclusion forced on his people by the Empire. He could see the privilege and exclusion that existed within his cultural circle and had declared that it was an anathema to the Divine Community. But he had not yet seen how the whole of his culture was based on the exclusion of those not in his cultural circle.

That is until he met a Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. She pierced through his privilege and helped him see where he had once been blind. Despite his privilege, Jesus was able to understand what he had done and how he had behaved. Jesus, the one God sent us to follow, changed his heart and what came out of his mouth. He gave us a model. It was after he met the Canaanite woman that Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats. The parable starts with these words, “When the Son of Man gathers all the nations he will separate them…the sheep and the goats.” All the nations. The sheep are the ones who have dismantled their privilege. The goats are those who walk on in silence. Those are the sheep and the goats from all the nations. After the resurrection when Jesus comes to see his disciples he tells them to go out into all the world, preaching and teaching. Jesus gave up his privilege and broadened his world view. He ceased to exclude. He followed the way of compassion and inclusion. He loved as God loves.

There is no privilege in the Divine Community…only the call to love as God loves. If we truly want to continue the work of Jesus…peacefully, simply and together we need to confront the privilege we carry and begin to dismantle it. Will you join me as we work on ourselves…. and continue the work of Jesus? Amen.

When God Closes a Door…

When God closes a door, God opens a window. You already know that isn’t in the Bible because the sermon series we are in is called, No, that isn’t in the Bible and you are all smart people. But we have all heard this phrase. Since we have established where it doesn’t come from, do you know where it comes from? Let me test your knowledge. I will give you four options:

1. Helen Keller, American author and political activist who was born blind and deaf. She is depicted in the play The Miracle Worker.
2. Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish born inventor who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone.
3. Oscar Hammerstein the American theater producer and director best known for his collaborative work with Richard Rogers.
4. All of the above.

If you said all of the above, you are right. Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” Alexander Graham Bell kept God out of his saying, “When one door closes, another opens.” Hammerstein inserted a version of the saying into the Sound of Music, when Maria quotes the Reverend Mother. That is the quote at the top of your bulletin.

“When God closes a door, God opens a window” isn’t a quote from the Bible but the bigger question for me is: Is the bigger idea that God always provides a way, found in the Bible? I think that depends on who you are, what side of the wall you are standing on and how you read the Bible.

The phrase, “When God closes a door, God opens a window” made me think of the story of Jericho and Joshua, as told in the Hebrew Bible. You know the story because you have heard the song, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” The story goes like this:
When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and came into the Promised Land they had a new leader. Moses had to stay behind and Joshua was given the mantle of leader. The first thing that happened when they entered Canaan was they stopped getting manna to eat. Now they had to find their own food and God said, “I am giving the city of Jericho into your hands. March around it once for six days in a row, with seven priests carrying the shofar and leading the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day you will march around it seven times with seven priests blowing on the trumpets. When you finish the seventh circle the seven priests shall make one long blast on the shofars and everyone shall shout at once and the wall around Jericho will simply fall down flat. They were to then destroy every living thing in the city…every man, woman, child, sheep, oxen, camel, etc…..except the prostitute Rahab and her family. They could take all the silver, gold, bronze and iron for the treasury of the house of the Lord.

God closes a door. No more manna. This band of nomads, tired of wandering around in the wilderness is told that God may have taken away their free food but God is going to blast down the walls of this city and give them this lush valley for their own. Talk about giving them a window. God providing a way where there is no way.

The story of Joshua and Jericho is rich with symbolism. All the sevens in this story point to this being a liturgical tale. The fact that seven priests are each carrying a shofar makes it obvious that this is a worship event. In this instance, the long blast of the horn speaks of war….worship of God that leads to a battle and destruction.

This summer I got to make an amazing trip to Israel and Jordan. I have wanted to make this trip my whole adult life. I had rules, though. I wanted to go with a small group, not on a tour bus. I wanted to go with people whose minds were open to engaging what we learned; and I wanted to go with someone like Bob Mullins, a near-eastern archeologist with a profound heart of faith. All of my criteria were met.

We went to Jericho after we had already had a chance to look at it from the Jordan side. We had stood on Mount Nebo, the spot where supposedly Moses looked over and saw the Promised Land from a distance. It was hard to imagine from on top of that mountain that the desolate area in the distance was a Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey. Granted it was the heat of summer and not the coolness of spring but it looked dry and foreboding.

When we arrived in Jericho, the City of Palm Trees, it was well over 100 degrees. Jericho is the oldest inhabited city in the world, probably since 9,000 BC. It is also the lowest city on earth at around 850 feet below sea level. When we opened the doors of the van it was like a furnace blast. It was hard to imagine the Israelites wanting to capture this city. But the amazing feature of Jericho is that it has several springs. The one right beside the archeological dig in Jericho is called Elisha’s Spring.

We explored the archeological area, devoid of any trees or any shade. Of course, archeologists have been curious about any walls on the site based on the story we heard Terry read this morning. They have found remnants of three walls dating back as far as around 8500 to 9000 BC, but none of them correspond with the time of Joshua. So what do we do with this war story that looks like it didn’t happen the way it is written about?

Rachel Held Evans in her new book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again, writes:
Our war stories tells us where we come from, what we value, who we fear, and what we hate…(War stories) employ exaggerated rhetoric, ranging from a little hyperbole and creative license to shameless propaganda… Ancient Israel was no different. By the time many of the Bible’s war stories were written down, several generations had passed, and Israel had evolved from a scrappy band of nomads…to a nation that could hold its own. Scripture embraces that underdog status in order to credit Israel’s success and to remind a new generation that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7)

If we understand the story of the walls tumbling down in Jericho as a war story told with absolute hyperbole we learn some things. We learn what the biblical writers valued….a God who was actively on their side. It is the story of the underdog winning against the wall that kept them out…winning with the help of their God. A God who would open a window when the door was closed.

If you take this story literally, which it turns out there is no proof to be able to do so, then you bang up against some tough questions. Why would God let the Israelites kill every man, woman, child, sheep, ox, camel inside the walls? What made the Israelites think they could come into an already occupied land and just start capturing cities? Jericho is only the first in a long series of destroyed cities, according to the Book of Joshua. If you take these stories as literal than you have to ask yourselves a question about God-sponsored genocide. The message you receive from this story depends on what side of the wall you live.

Allen Dwight Callahan in his book, The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, writes:
African Americans found the Bible to be both healing balm and poison book. They could not lay claim to the balm without braving the poison…The antidote to hostile texts of the Bible was more Bible, homeopathically administered to counteract the toxins of the text.

The African American slaves had a choice of what side of this wall they wanted to focus. They could see themselves on the inside of the wall, destroyed by a people that believed God allowed them to take what did not belong to them. Or they could see themselves as the Israelites entering the Promised Land and following a God who makes a way out of no way. They chose the latter and created the song, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”…with hopes that the walls would come a tumbling down.

As a white woman living in a white dominant culture it seems completely wrong for me to read this scripture through the lens of the underdog. I know that one of the myths we have been told in America for generations is that our country has an equal playing field. If you just work hard enough you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. But it is a myth, told by people who came in and took over a land that didn’t belong to them.

As Rachel Held Evans writes:
…the words of Scripture have been recalibrated and remixed through the centuries to comfort, challenge, and enlighten all kinds of communities of faith. In other words, Bible stories don’t have to mean just one thing. Despite what you may have heard from a pastor or Sunday School teacher along the way, faithful engagement with Scripture isn’t about uncovering a singular moralistic point to every text…”Turn it and turn it,” the ancient rabbis said of Scripture, comparing it to a precious gem, “for everything is in it.”

The way we turn the gem determines what we see. On which side of the wall we identify as our side determines how we interpret this scripture. You might see “When God closes a door, God opens a window.” You might be looking from inside the wall and say, “If something can go wrong, something will go wrong.” Or you might look at this story with the absolute hyperbole that drips off of it and say simply, “God stands with me, no matter where I stand.” Or you might turn the gem and see something completely different. That is the power of story. That is the power of the biblical narrative. Let it speak to you. Amen.

Living Parables

A couple of years ago, in a sermon I preached in this sanctuary, I told you the story of my son, Matt, taking, what was then, the longest train in the world across the Sahara Desert during Ramadan. The Mauritania Railway consists of one railway that is 437 miles long and links the iron ore mining center in the country with their port.  When my son told me he and his friends planned on this mode of transportation I got on the Internet to see what I could find out about it.  Mauritanians use this railway as a free mode of transportation.  When the train stops they climb to the top of the iron ore cars, drop down inside the cars and ride across the desert.  The article I read said, “This is not the way tourists get around in Mauritania.”  I told my son what I had read.  He said, “You just made me want to do it even more.”  You might remember that the story ended with the car they were on being disconnected from the train and left in the middle of the Sahara Desert…..and they had drunk all their water.  It is quite a story but whether you were here that Sunday or not you know that the story has a decent resolution because my son Matt is still alive.

 

Today I want to tell you another part of the story. When my son, Matt, and his friends arrived in Mauritania at the port to ride the train, Matt said he finally understood what the longest train in the world looked like.  He said there were train cars for as far as the eye could see.  They chose one and scampered up to the top and then dropped down into the bucket of the car….these pale, white young adults from the United States.  When they got inside the train car they found they were sharing it with five other people….citizens of Mauritania who spoke French and Arabic.  My son and his friends knew a bit of French. None of them knew Arabic.  One person in Matt’s group had brought along goggles and turbans for everyone.  My son declined to put on the goggles. He said he thought to himself, “There is no way I am putting on those silly goggles.”  Then the train began to move and it got faster and faster and the sand blew all over the car.  He couldn’t put on the goggles fast enough. He said to me later, “I have sand in my very bones now.”

 

It happened to be Ramadan when my son and his friends were traveling in a Muslim country.  Devote Muslims pray five times a day.  During Ramadan, Muslims go without food and water during the day.  When it was time to pray, the Muslims in their car would stand, go to the corner of the car where they had placed a stone and since they couldn’t bathe, they would touch the stone to symbolically wash themselves. Then they would turn in the direction of Mecca, kneel, bow and say their prayers.  Matt and his group just watched.  After the third time that happened, one of the young men approached Matt’s group very angry and said something in French.  Matt made out the words “pray” and “death.”  He figured there was a way those words could be in the same sentence without being a threat but he knew the young man was frustrated with them and Matt was a guest in their country.

 

So Matt stood up and looked the man in the eye and said in faltering French, “I do not know how to pray as you do.  Will you teach me?”  Immediately the young man softened. Very carefully he taught Matt the fine art of prayer…how to pray the Salah – (Su – lah).  How to touch the stone and symbolically wash. How to face Mecca.  How to kneel.  He taught Matt the words to say in Arabic.  When Matt would get them wrong he would make him start over.

 

After prayer the other Mauritanians in the car settled down to break their Ramadan fast and enjoy their Iftar.  First they spread out a cloth in the middle of the train car.  Then, inside this iron ore car, off to one side, they started a small fire.  They brought out a teapot, filled it with water and began to make tea.  When it was brewed they poured some for Matt and his friends.  In response Matt’s group got out some of the food they had brought with them.  They laid out some canned tuna and some bread.  The young men brought out food they had brought.  They placed it on a cloth in between all of them and they sat down together for a Ramadan potluck.  The beloved community can be created anywhere…even inside the iron ore cars of the longest train in the world traveling across the Sahara desert during Ramadan between people who speak different languages and pray differently.

 

I told that story this year at Song and Story Fest.  I heard back that one man said to his family afterward, “Susan’s stories are filled with these once in a lifetime experiences.  How can she have so many of them?”  The truth is all of our lives have dozens and dozens of once in a lifetime experiences and ordinary every day experiences.  The key is noticing and finding meaning in them.  For stories carry a power far beyond themselves.

 

The theme this year at our denominational Annual Conference in Cincinnati was “Living Parables.”  The theme is chosen by the conference moderator.  This year’s moderator was Rockford Illinois pastor, Samuel Sarpiya.  Samuel was born in Nigeria.  He is co-founder of the Center for Non-Violence and Conflict Transformation in Rockford.  In the past he has been a community organizer and a church planter.  He is currently working on a doctorate.  He is a faithful man with a deeply engaging spirit and what appears to be limitless energy.

 

Samuel believes that Jesus taught in parables so that we could continually find ourselves hearing those stories in new contexts and seeing ourselves as different characters in the parables at different times in our lives.  By teaching in parables Jesus kept the word of God alive and transformative.  Samuel believes that the way Jesus taught was a call to engage the world so that we can become living parables ourselves.  Which I think is another way of saying we want to continue the work of Jesus in our day and age, with our once in a lifetime experiences and our common, everyday experiences.  The evening worships at conference were built around different parables in the New Testament so that we might find ourselves in those stories and hear the call to God afresh in our individual contexts.

 

As someone who loves to write and tell stories, I find the parables of Jesus not only engaging and alive and transformative….but absolutely dangerous.  What does it look like to be the parent on the road running out to welcome back the prodigal?  What does it mean to be the Samaritan on the road, caring for the beaten victim who carries deep resentment towards you and your kind?

 

Today, Eric read you a one sentence parable of Jesus.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  That is the extent of the parable.  It feels a bit like a throwaway parable.  What does it mean?

 

My other son, Brett, loves to bake bread more than just about anything else in the whole world.  I remember a time he called me on the phone.  The conversation went like this:

I answered the phone with, “Hello?”

He said, “Hi, Mom.  I called because I need you to just listen to me while I geek out about yeast.”

Then for fifteen minutes he talked non-stop about where yeast comes from and every place you can find yeast.

Then he said, “I gotta’ run.  I love you, Mom.” He hung up.

In that fifteen-minute phone call I said, “Hello?” and that was it.

 

Obviously my son loves yeast.  When he comes to visit me he flies with his own yeast starter in his bag and is always stopped by TSA to have him explain why he travels with yeast.  The woman in the parable must have loved yeast as much as Brett because she mixed yeast in three measures of flour.  Three measures of flour would have been over a bushel of flour….a lot of flour…way more than she needed to bake loaves just for her family…more like she wanted to feed her whole village.  Besides, in Jesus’ world, yeast was considered a contaminant and represented the destructive nature of sin.  And yet, Jesus uses a story of yeast infecting enough flour to feed the whole village as a parable to describe the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

 

I love Jesus.  I would have loved to have been nearby to watch the reaction of his listeners when he compared yeast to the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said such evocative and provocative things…a Samaritan who is the hero; a father who hitches up his tunic and runs out on the road to welcome back the bad child; a tax collector who goes home justified and a Pharisee who doesn’t.

 

…and yeast that represents the Kingdom of God because it has a way of infiltrating the whole system and taking over the host.  The Kingdom of God should be like that – spreading beyond our wildest imaginations…far more pervasive than we can possibly imagine…hard to see but spreading like wildfire.  David Lose uses these words to describe the parable of the yeast:

Be careful. People who have been infected by the gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged, and sharing their faith with the people around them.

 

Our denominational moderator called us this year to be living parables.  He described a living parable as a heavenly story with an earthly meaning.  In some ways that sounds lovely and easy but if we take on these parables we become the gospel alive in the world.  It is a dangerous calling.  It will infect your whole life.  You might find yourself welcoming back the prodigal; taking in the very person that holds prejudice against you; selling all you have to buy a field with the promise of treasure; letting the Kingdom of God infiltrate your whole life…..or eating a Ramadan potluck inside an iron ore train car with people who pray differently than you do.  Dangerous and so, so beautiful and sacred and wondrous!  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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.