We Survived

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Psalm 105:1-11, 37-45

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,[a]
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

He is the Lord our God;
    his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
    of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
    his sworn promise to Isaac,
10 which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
    to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
11 saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
    as your portion for an inheritance.”

Then he brought Israel[d] out with silver and gold,
    and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
38 Egypt was glad when they departed,
    for dread of them had fallen upon it.
39 He spread a cloud for a covering,
    and fire to give light by night.
40 They asked, and he brought quails,
    and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
    it flowed through the desert like a river.
42 For he remembered his holy promise,
    and Abraham, his servant.

43 So he brought his people out with joy,
    his chosen ones with singing.
44 He gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples,
45 that they might keep his statutes
    and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord!

Many of my friends and relatives who are Jewish tell me that you can accurately sum up most of Jewish history, and explain every Jewish holiday with one simple sentence:

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”

In fact, I found out this week there is a Passover song that has as its chorus:

 They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet

So they chase us to the border

There’s a parting of the water

Tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

 Although it’s certainly irreverent, there is something to this little ditty that might resonate as we consider the Psalm we heard today. It is a reminder that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The history of Judaism has been filled with dire and tragic events that threatened its very survival from the very beginning. Certainly, the odds have always been against this still small group of people. And yet, they have survived. Wars. Starvation. Exile. Genocide. A rhyming cycle of threat and survival.

So it is that faithful Jews continue to recite the history of God’s covenantal faithfulness, in shared rituals, to teach children and reconfirm for adults of every generation after generation after generation. When they gather in the synagogue or at the family dinner table on Shabbat, the liturgy recites the certainty of God’s faithfulness in the past, in the present,  and into the future.

passover-origAt Passover, for example, the family gathers at the table and each person from the youngest to the oldest is given a Haggadah which is studied, read and discussed. The youngest children ask questions about the story and the meal – why those gathered are eating particular foods and reading particular texts in particular ways.

The Passover meal itself is a multi-sensory teaching experience in smells and sights and tastes – the bitter herbs, the salt water, the matzah, the lamb shank – which tell the story of Jewish oppression and deliverance.

1930sArnold EaglePassover is a story-telling event, repeated over and over again, so none of God’s mighty works are ever forgotten.

There is a passage in the Haggadah which reads, “In each and every generation, someone rises to destroy us, but the Holy One who is Blessed rescues us from their hands.”

The Passover ritual and the story it tells makes meaning, but not only of peoples’ suffering. The stories tell the history of God’s blessing which shapes all of Jewish life.

As far as we can tell, Psalm 105 came into being during one of those times of great suffering for the Jewish people.

Psalm 105 came into being during the exile –  a pivotal point in Hebrew scripture.

Everything the people held dear had been destroyed. Civic, religious, and political institutions had been laid to rubble.  Jerusalem was trashed. The temple, gone. The Davidic dynasty had utterly failed.  Some people were carted off to Babylon.  Those who remained in Judea faced starvation and death.

The world, as God’s people had known it, no longer made sense.

All the color had drained from their lives. The landscape surrounding them was bleak.

And it is in this bleak space that faithful people remembered God’s goodness.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people told the story of God’s love and mercy.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people not only told the story, but made the story into poetry.

And they put the poetry to music, which is something we lose in our English translations.

The world as they’d known it had fallen apart, but they remembered. And they sang. Praises to the One who had created them from before the beginning of time.

Praises to the One who had redeemed them throughout history.

Praises to the One who they trusted to lead them out of a bleak present and into a promised future held together by covenant.

I’ve only cried on an airplane twice in my life.  The first time was on the approach to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the summer of 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed that city.new-orleans_050907_1234396

The second time was when our plane landed at the very optimistically named Juba International Airport in South Sudan in January 2015.juba-airport

In both circumstances, I wept because I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was seeing hell on earth.  The only difference is that New Orleans’ hell, although certainly made worse by humans, was largely a result of a natural disaster.

As anyone who knows anything about South Sudan can tell you, the unrelenting hell that has marked the country’s past half-century has been entirely man made.  The suffering in that part of the world is a result of people killing people for reasons as ancient as tribal and religious conflict, as historical as colonialism, and as mercenary as oil revenues.

As a result, the entire population of what once was Sudan, and is now Sudan and South Sudan, has been traumatized.  You can see it from the moment your step off a plane in Juba.  The people of South Sudan are trapped in a nightmare that hasn’t ended, and will not end, until there is peace.

The congregations and pastors that make up Presbyterian Evangelical Church in South Sudan have not been immune from the trauma. In fact, most of the pastors I met in Juba are exiles.  Many were forced out of northern Sudan after the south gained its independence in 2011. As a result of the peace agreement that established South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of Christian and traditional African religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in and return to what the Sudanese government considered their “ancestral homeland.”

The exiles were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed new country with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources.  Many of the pastors I met had led well-established, thriving churches in Khartoum, and are now struggling to make a living by doing church work in South Sudan.  The more well-educated pastors who speak English have been able to get work in the South Sudan government.  The rest are struggling mightily.

The first wave of exiles came to South Sudan in 2011, as I said.  But in late 2013, a civil war broke out in South Sudan and violence has no stopped in any significant way that might allow the country to get back on its feet.  In fact, in the past 9 months, the violence has become even worse.

More pastors and church members – this time coming from within South Sudan — have come to Juba.  Many have lost friends, family, and their churches to the war.  In fact, it is safe to say that nearly every pastor I met from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church is in exile, a stranger in a strange and sometimes dangerous land.

When you talk to these pastors, the trauma in their eyes is the first thing you notice.  They’ve been deeply broken by the death and destruction they’ve witnessed.  Some of the pastors have no option but to live but in the United Nations refugee camps. There are three of these UN camps in Juba, each containing thousands of refugees.  Other pastors are living in cramped quarters with friends and other family members.  One of the pastors I met is living in a 2 room apartment with 20 other people including his wife and 5 children.

131230201820-02-south-sudan-1229-horizontal-large-galleryAlthough the city of Juba is South Sudan’s capital city, there is no infrastructure to speak of, no safe water, no schools or healthcare, few paved roads, and an ever-growing population suffering from rampant disease and malnutrition.  It is a city of politicians and bureaucrats living behind gated walls, and a civilian population that resembles walking wounded. When we visited in 2015, Juba was relatively safe compared to the rest of South Sudan.

Today, the war has come to Juba, and many of the exiled pastors we met have been exiled again out of Juba into neighboring countries.https://harpers.org/archive/2017/07/ghost-nation/

It is easy to forget God’s faithfulness when the worst happens.  The crushing diagnosis.  The deep loss.   Exile from friends or family.  When we are stressed or anxious or afraid or in pain, we can easily lapse into a sort of spiritual amnesia.  In the face of so much sorrow, we forget all that is good and what God has done for us.

We wonder if God has gone off and left us altogether. Or we doubt if God exists at all because it sure doesn’t look like it.  We forget God’s promises, God’s goodness and God’s call to us.  We are lost in waves of grief and panic.  Well-meaning friends may tell us that our problem is we don’t have enough faith or have done something to deserve the hell we’re experiencing.

What continues to amaze me about the people and churches with whom I prayed and worshipped with in South Sudan is that despite all evidence to the contrary, is they believe with their whole hearts that God has not forgotten them.  That God has not abandoned them.DSCN0045

They are confident in God’s faithfulness. They know their story. They know their place in God’s story. They sing their story and they celebrate and praise God as if their lives depend upon it.

Because of course, their lives do depend upon it.

The exiles in South Sudan know what the exiles who sang Psalm 105 know.

Our faith is not what saves us.  Only God saves us.

God saves us not because we are good, but because God is good.

God saves us not because we are powerful, but because God is powerful beyond our comprehension.

And it is in those horrible moments,

In a time when we feel most vulnerable,

that we most fully experience the grace and power of God.

God understands our exhaustion and our fear, and will meet us in that place.

I know all of that is true.  But when I saw the suffering I saw in South Sudan, it made me angry with God.  When I see the brokenness in families and neighborhoods and systems and other situations much closer to home, it makes me angry that God doesn’t do something about it.  So many days, I am not only angry beyond belief, but tired. Tired of seeing the bad guys win.  Tired of seeing the poor get poorer.

In those moments and hours and days when we feel things are falling apart everywhere, brothers and sisters, there is no more urgent need, no more pressing task than for God’s people to remember who we are.

This is a historical moment in which we most need to follow our ancient brothers and sisters in the faith in praising God, in poetry, in song, in art, and in words.

When life feels to be at its worst, Psalm 105 challenges us to dig deep and sing our own song.

Do you remember the wonderful works God has done?

Do you remember God’s miracles?

When God gave us breath and body?

Do you remember when God grafted us into Jesus Christ and into a community of faith in our baptism?

The promises given, the covenant created, over the font of blessing?

Do you remember?

Remember when we found a church in which we were welcomed and loved?

Remember?

The fire that did not destroy us?

The death of a pastor that did not destroy us?

The separations and accusations and grief that did not destroy us?

Remember the cloud of God’s mercy and love that covered us by day,

And the fire of God’s spirit that led us through dark times?

Remember how you survived?

You survived.

Remember?

Do you remember the sweetness of the days in which God brought you out with joy, God’s chosen and cherished ones? Singing. Working. Worshiping. Together.

God remembers.

And when we remember,

we remain astonished by what God has done for us,

And reclaim our holy place in a very old story

Of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac.

Of South Sudan,

Of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Of you and of me.

A story that is still being written.

But, through Jesus Christ, we know the end of the story will be

Love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

When We Are At Our Worst.

A-public-stoning-in-Somalia

Acts 7:55 – 8:1a

55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.1And Saul approved of their killing him.               

Let us begin with prayer:  Lord of creation, we come to you with open hearts and eager ears.  Increase our understanding of your Word and gift us with faith to courageously live into your claim on our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.       

I have always thought the most horrifying text in all of scripture is Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac, a story in which God seems to allow a devoted father to believe for three horrible days that his beloved son must die.  And worst of all, Abraham will be the one to kill his son.

My question for the longest time was this – what kind of God would do that?

Eventually I realized that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not a story about a cruelty of God or even the faithfulness of Abraham.

I think the story says quite the opposite. I think it says violence is not inevitable, and certainly not God’s will.

Violence and vengeance are terrible choices human beings make on our own.

Violence and vengeance break God’s heart.

So much so, that God will provide us a way out, even it comes in the form of a ram in a thicket as it did for Abraham.

God always provides a peaceable solution if we have imagination and courage enough to see it.  And believe in the power of love to cast out our fears.

Imagination and courage have often been in short supply over the course of human history. Too often, humans choose violence.

And when our imagination fails us, and our courage is nowhere to be found, God does what God always does – God redeems our unholy and bloody messes.

We see that truth most clearly on the cross when resurrection ultimately transforms the worst of what humans are capable of.  When we are at our worst, God is at God’s best.

And today we see God’s redemptive work in another pretty horrible story, this time in the Book of Acts and the story of Stephen’s stoning.

At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing good to say about this text.  Stoning is a barbaric and horrible act. If we were present that day while Stephen was being stoned to death, we’d have to avert our eyes.

So there isn’t much to celebrate in this story.

Stephen was a devoted apostle, whose primary responsibility in the early church was to care for vulnerable people who could not care for themselves, like widows and orphans.

All of this good work got Stephen into a boatload of trouble with the religious authorities.  Stephen’s speech during his trial is what sealed the deal.  It’s a long speech that you can read for yourself in Acts 7, but the long and the short of what Stephen said to the religious leaders is that God’s chosen people were rebellious from the start and were still behaving badly.  Stephen recounted Israel’s long history of being stiff-necked and mean. Stephen said they had never met a prophet that didn’t want to push off a cliff or run out of town or crucify.

In other words, Stephen spoke the honest truth, just like Jesus, and experienced a similar result.

Stephen was only the first of many early Jesus followers who met violent ends.  In fact, after Stephen was executed, many of the new Christian/Jews converts fled from Jerusalem and scattered like so many fertile seeds across the landscape of the Roman Empire.

Over time, Christians were no longer the persecuted ones, but became the ones doing the persecuting.  And as history has taught us, horrific violence against individuals, communities, tribes and whole countries has been committed in the name of one god or another has been raging ever since.  Atrocities have been inflicted by people of faith, as well as on them.  The bloody result of religious zealotry looks pretty much the same regardless of which god is being vindicated.

I hate this story about Stephen’s death, but I also think there may be a sliver of light here that looks an awful lot like grace here if you look closely.

He’s standing on the sideline, with his eyes wide open, watching every moment of Stephen’s agony.  Did you notice that guy named Saul?

Saul is there on the scene, helpfully holding the coats of the guys stoning Stephen. Because, you know, stoning a young healthy man like Stephen takes a while.  Better to strip down, because stoning is hard, sweaty work even with a cooperative victim like Stephen.

And of course, Saul heartily approves of this execution.  He loves it.  It could be that Saul even had something to do with making sure this execution would happen.  Saul not only approves of the killing of this one particular troublemaker, but he will go on to ravage followers of Jesus by entering house after house to drag off men and women, committing them to prison or worse.

Saul is every inch the true believer, a real zealot in maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith.  Saul is the most persistent of persecutors and continues to be so until Acts chapter 9 when he will have his life turned upside down by the murdered Christ himself.

After that, Saul is no longer who he was; he becomes the apostle who will no longer measure truth by how closely it’s protected and guarded by religious insiders.  In fact, Paul breaks open the message of Jesus to everyone he can get to listen to him – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.

Despite all the violence he committed against Stephen and others in his past, Paul is finally able to see God’s better way.  Paul finally saw the way out of a pattern of violence. God had been waiting for him discover the peaceful love of Jesus Christ.

So there is light in this story after all.  We see it in the Christ-like forgiveness demonstrated by Stephen and how his words were absorbed through the eyes and ears of Saul.  Perhaps the seeds of Saul’s transformation were sowed right there, in that horrible moment where God took the heartbreak of human violence and transformed it into something life-giving that would open up the gospel beyond what anyone could imagine.

I’ve been looking for that blinding flash of light in South Sudan over the past year.  I know it’s there, but man, is it hard to see.

We didn’t know it at the time, but when my colleagues and I went to South Sudan in January of 2015, we were there during a very brief moment in time when the country was not exactly safe, but secure enough for us to be in Juba with our partners in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, and travel with them to Yei for a retreat at RECONCILE, a ministry and training center for peacemakers.womenmalakal_large

After we left, things really began to fall apart for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. All of the hopefulness we experienced while worshipping and praying and singing and making plans for peace ran up against a steadily increasing pattern of violence and starvation that looks an awful lot like deliberate genocide at this moment in time.

 Just this week, we received a letter from the general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan:

As each of you is aware of what is going on in South Sudan the
situation is going from bad to worse in South Sudan in general.
Famine is a big threat in the whole Nation even within Juba town the
capital city.  Many are dying in their houses.

Insecurity is everywhere and thousands are fleeing to the neighboring countries of Sudan, Ehtiopia, Kenya,Congo, and Uganda.131230201820-02-south-sudan-1229-horizontal-large-gallery

War is everywhere between ethnic groups, tribes by tribes and within
tribes themselves. Killing, looting, raping, and other human rights abuse is common.

Within Juba, those who were brought from others areas are living under severe conditions because of rains and lack of food.

Shelters and others human needs are needed urgently.
Finally, no good thing can come from South Sudanese themselves — we need
the international intervention like sending more troops for civilians’ protection.

We also received these words from another pastor in South Sudan, Thomas Tut:

What we want to hear – someone praying for us.  Not money, food or anything. The Church in South Sudan needs prayers. What we are facing now in our country we have never experienced. The foundations of our nation have shaken and the walls have been broken down. There are no boundaries for the church to protect the believers from hatred, tribalism, rape, killing and many other evil things. I can’t finish the list.01-16-2014Security_SSudan

But God is there and we are hoping through your prayers the morning will come very soon but we don’t know when.

 The people in South Sudan do not know when morning will come.

You and I, from our privileged Western perspective, have no idea when morning will come either.

In fact, the situation in South Sudan is one of those situations we have to admit we can’t fix. We can pray and we can advocate and we can write letters and we can support our PCUSA mission co-workers if the situation is ever stable enough again for them to go back into the country.  But quite simply, the only power that will disrupt the violence in South Sudan is the kind of power that turned Saul into Paul.

But where I see light is in the testimony of my South Sudanese brothers and sisters who continually lift up their strong confidence that God is present with them.  If they can trust that the living Christ is with them, perhaps what I need to do is learn to trust in the same way.IMG_0188

Stephen had his head bashed in with rocks thrown at him by his own people.  He said, “Lord don’t hold this sin against them!” as he died.

Jesus was crucified, his body ripped apart by his own people. He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” as he died.

Through this horrible civil war, the Presbyterian church in South Sudan has been a tireless voice for peace among all people. When we were in South Sudan, we spent 5 days at RECONCILE, a ministry of many faith traditions in South Sudan with this purpose – to bring healing to a country filled with people suffering from PTSD after decades of war and to teach the way of peace-making that can help break the cycle of violence.  Those seeds of peacemaking that were planted by RECONCILE in South Sudan over the past decades cannot be blown away by the current struggle.  Those seeds will take root, down deep, and Saul’s will become Paul’s, and forgiveness will take the place of violence.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe God’s peace will come to South Sudan.

The great preacher, Fred Craddock, once said: “All the way to the cross Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the messiah is, there is no misery,’ to accept a new perspective – ‘where there is misery, there is the messiah.”

That’s the only hope I can offer you. I know it doesn’t sound like much. But it is as close to the truth as I can muster, and it is what I believe:

That God is present in South Sudan, perhaps more present than any of us can imagine. With each unnecessary death in that beautiful and troubled country, God’s heart breaks because we still haven’t seen the ram in the thicket, the blinding light on the Damascus road, the path of peace away from violence. God will keep planting seeds of peace through our prayers and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. The Holy Spirit is persistent in pursuing even those who seem irredeemable, including even those who are causing the suffering. God does not give up hoping for transformation of even the hardest hearts, even if those hard hearts belong to you and me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

For more information about South Sudan, see this recent series of reports from PBS:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/tag/new-country-same-war/

Too True to be Perfect

father knows best

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

When my husband and I bought our first house, we had neighbors that, over the years, we came to refer to as “Paul and Paula Perfect.”

Have you ever had neighbors like this?

Paul and Paula seemed to be the perfect parents, with perfect children, living in a perfect house that I regularly observed as I stood at my kitchen window in my decidedly imperfect house.

Paul and Paula’s yard was perfectly landscaped within an inch of its life where as ours was frequently unkempt. Unkempt is a polite word for disgustedly weedy.

Paul and Paula’s house was perfectly decorated inside and out, while our house was sorely in need of paint and we were still living out of boxes from a cross-country move and sitting on IKEA furniture we’d picked up second hand.

Paula’s makeup and hair and clothes were always – you guessed it – perfect.

In those days, I counted it as victory if I showered before noon and made it to Supercuts every couple months. Paula’s attire was straight out of Ann Taylor. My outfits regularly consisted of stretched out maternity jeans and old sweatshirts permanently stained with baby goo.

If Paul and Paula’s lifestyle was right out of “Father Knows Best,” the Rothenbergs were “Raised by Wolves.”

Or so I imagined while standing at my kitchen window. Gazing at my perfect, perfect neighbors.

Of course, I am exaggerating.

Paul and Paula weren’t out to make me feel bad or invite comparisons.In fact, they were extremely nice people. Our daughter often played with their little boy while Paula and I chatted on her perfect patio.

And that pleasant relationship lasted for a while until the day our daughter accidentally kicked their son in the head while swinging on the Perfect’s swing set.

Yeah. Stitches and everything.

I felt terrible, my daughter felt worse, but after that incident, we didn’t see Paul and Paula very much.  I can’t remember if they moved away first or we moved first, but it was one of those weird neighbor-ish friendships that never was actually a friendship.

I know Paul and Paula were not perfect, of course.Nobody is perfect.

Nobody has it all together. The older I get, the more I understand outward appearances don’t mean very much.

And let’s be honest. My bad attitude about Paul and Paula had more to do with me than with them.

I looked at them then I looked at myself smack dab in the middle of raising a young child in a new city, trying to adjust to serious adulting, and feeling like I was doing a terrible job at pretty much everything.

I projected all my insecurity onto these perfectly nice people.

And that is how we might approach Luke’s description of an early Christian church in our text today.

It seems to be a description of what sounds like a totally perfect church.

This text in Acts 2 comes right after Peter’s Pentecost sermon.People responded to the message of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they responded by repentance and being baptized; but it didn’t end there.Their lives were transformed. Their time was spent praying, praising God, learning, sharing resources, and eating together.

And isn’t it a beautiful picture of church? It’s perfect, really.

It is a church full of miraculous promise with the power of the Holy Spirit birthing a community into being.

It is a community that upends the social structure in favor of one built on study, fellowship, worship and equality flowing from love.

It is a gathering of people who are united as one body, sharing everything, agreeing on everything, in awe of everything.

And it is a congregation that brings in new members not once a year, or once a month, but every single day.

Every time I’ve read this passage, I cringe. I’ve never been in a church that fits this description. Yet, I’ve imagined this Acts 2 church is the way church is supposed to be.  Perfect.

And I’m not the only one.  If you Google Acts 2 Church, you’ll get about 21 million hits. Every denomination and every non-denomination has literally dozens and dozens of congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.”

Dozens of books have been written to tell church leaders how you too can become an Acts 2 church. There are blog posts. Magazine articles. Conferences.All to create a modern version of the ancient Acts 2 church.

And if you look at church history, there have been communities and congregations of “Acts 2” churches emerging again and again.

From the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the 4th century, to monastic communities, to the Catholic Workers Houses of Dorothy Day to Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Mennonite tradition, to people living in intentional Christian communities in Pittsburgh today.There has ever been Spirit-led attempts to live into this Utopian vision laid out in the books of Acts.

And why not? It sounds pretty wonderful. The psalmist may very well have been envisioning an Acts 2 kind of church when writing Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  We read this text from Acts 2, and it sounds like church the way it was always meant to be. A good place with completely committed people, with more than enough to go around and living an abundant life.

Acts 2 sounds exactly like the church Jesus had in mind while he walked on this earth, and exactly like the church we should be. Especially given the miracle of the resurrection we’ve just experienced again on Easter and the excitement of Pentecost that is just a few weeks away.

So what is wrong with us, church? Why are we lurking around here in our stretched out maternity pants and our weedy gardens and our unholy propensity to kick people in the head even when we don’t mean to? At least metaphorically.

It is both curious and reassuring to me, that Luke never mentions this utopian church again outside of these five verses. In chapter 4, there are 3 verses that expand a bit upon the renunciation of private ownership and how everyone in the community shares everything with everyone equally.

Then a church member named Ananias comes along and withholds money from the group after he and his wife sell some property at a huge profit.  When Peter calls him out for being selfish and not following the rules of the community, Ananias drops dead. Then about three hours later, Peter calls out Ananias’ wife about her role in the crime and she drops dead as well.

Yikes. So much for perfection. Not only does the Acts 2 seem too good to be true, but also the penalty for not fulfilling your pledge seems a little steep to me.

After that unfortunate incident, we never hear again about this Utopian Church in the book of Acts. It didn’t last long, as far as we can see. It does not seem to serve as a durable model as the Christian franchise expands into Rome and beyond. Eventually the Christian church builds structures and hierarchies until it fits in quite well with the Roman Empire.

Thankfully, this idealized model of God’s church and church leadership is not the only one we see in scripture. We see all sorts of faith communities in the Bible – from the wandering, murmuring tribes of Israel to the quarreling church in Corinth.

We see Jesus sitting at table and breaking bread with sinners and tax collectors and loose women and despicable Pharisees. We see God plucking up an adolescent shepherd, the runt of the litter, to become Israel’s greatest king ever.

Scripture is full of weedy communities and imperfect people.

All of which tells me that God’s idea of the perfect church is always God’s idea, not ours.

And God will work with imperfect people.  Because the church is not dependent upon the goodness or perfection of the people in it.  The church is dependent upon the goodness and perfection of God. And the church relies not upon own perfect power, but on the perfecting power of God’s spirit.

It could very well be that Luke doesn’t give us portrait of an early Christian community to tell us this is the only way church should be, or to make us feel bad for what the church has become. Or to warn us that if we are not generous givers, we’ll end up like Ananias.

In fact, given the way it appears and disappears in the book, many scholars have concluded that this idealized community never existed at all.

It could be that the writer of Luke is giving us this beautifully crafted portrait to tell us that the reign of Jesus Christ means that anything is possible. That in each imperfect church and in each imperfect human being in the church there is a perfect spark of potential. And that spark is the Holy Spirit.

And with the Holy Spirit, ordinary people can perform wonders, even if they are not always wonderful people!

Ordinary people can capture the awe of living in the Holy Spirit, even if they are not feeling so awesome themselves!

Ordinary people can serve as witnesses to and participate in the incredible goodness of God, even when we feel we are not good enough.

I am in the middle of writing an article for our denominations’ publication, Presbyterians Today.   The topic for the article is about spiritual wounds.  And how people are hurt by the church, yet somehow are able to find their way back to a healthy relationship with a loving God, despite the hurt.

Sometimes that reunion takes years. Sometimes it never happens at all.

As I have been interviewing people for this article, I’ve been struck by an overall theme of their stories. Again and again, people tell me what hurt them most was that rather large gap between what the church said it believed and how it actually behaved.  I have heard story after story of churches and church leaders who purport to be strong in Christian doctrine and practice, yet fail to demonstrate the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed said what hurt them most was the feeling they could not bring their authentic selves into these church spaces. They felt the church wanted them to be perfect, and if they couldn’t be perfect, they were not welcome, or worse, made ashamed for being who they are.

The pattern of life we see in the Acts 2 church is not about being a perfect church, but about being an authentic community.

A community that gathers.

A community that hears the Word and wrestles with it, together.

A community that shares meals.

A community that prays.

A community who seeks to share what they have with the poor.

A community that cares for one another and loves one another and accepts one another.

It is a pattern of life that does not require perfection, but our willingness to participate. Which is what we are called to do in the church.

Participate.

Show up.

Keep imperfectly serving and imperfectly worshiping and imperfectly following Jesus.

Day after day. Week after week. Trusting in God’s promises. Trusting that Jesus is with us. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will sustain us.

Trusting that anything is possible, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At this table, we are welcomed by Jesus,

Accepted for who we are, imperfections and all.

At this table, we are a beloved community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to love one another as brothers and sister, and share in the abundance of God’s grace and love.

At this table, through the power of God’s spirit, we receive a tiny glimpse,an awesome preview, a hope-filled glance

of the community that will finally be, the perfect expression of God’s perfect kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

I Have Seen the Lord!

The final report of the Administrative Commission for the Knoxville United Church given at the meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery on May 4, 2017. 

On July 1, 1877, the Knoxville Presbyterian Church was organized with an enrollment of 15 members. Attorney Aughenbaugh, an elder in the South Side Presbyterian Church, procured the charter. They were now a full-fledged church, “happy but oh, so poor!”

According to historical records, this is how Knoxville United began its life 139 years ago.

On March 19th, 2017, the Knoxville congregation formally dissolved.  Their membership was around 15. And Rev. Kathy Hamilton-Vargo, pastor of the current South Side Presbyterian Church, was the last moderator of the Knoxville session.  And Knoxville church was still happy but oh so poor!

This sounds like a oh so familiar story of church closure. Actually, in this Easter season, the story of Knoxville United is one we should celebrate.

In John’s account of Easter, Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them the things Jesus said.

I’m not sure the disciples believed her.

In the very next verse, they are locked in a room. All the disciples know is Jesus is dead and they may be next.

But Mary testified anyway.

And I am here to testify I have seen the Lord at work in Knoxville.

You may not believe me, frightened disciples.

When we hear the story about another church closing, it reminds us that we may be next.

But I have seen the Lord.

I have seen resurrection in a way nobody would have guessed or have chosen.

But resurrection happened anyway.

Four years ago, the moderator appointed an administrative commission to assist the Knoxville United Church figure out what’s next in their life together. The folks serving on the AC included me, Bill Gracey and Darrell Knopp – both honorably retired, and Ruling Elder Tim Baily from Carnegie.

Knoxville United was running out of money and had only a handful of members to maintain a building designed to hold 1200. To save costs, the members of Knoxville decided to worship on Sundays with Baldwin UP. Rev. Bob Walkup had been serving as a part-time pastor for both Baldwin and Knoxville, so it made sense. The Knoxville church building was listed for sale in 2014.

Let me tell you about Knoxville. The South Side neighborhood is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Last summer, a 6-year old girl was shot and killed while standing on a porch of a house a few doors down from the church building. In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. It sat on the market for almost 3 years.

The Knoxville session was approached by the pastor of a small, non-denominational ministry who were interested in renting the building.  The ministry – Kingdom Life Fellowship — couldn’t afford to buy the building, but felt called to work in Knoxville.

Since then, Kingdom Life has established a daily after school program for children in Knoxville, which includes tutoring in partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening. Police officers from the local station frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids. There is worship and Bible study and community events in the church building nearly every single day.

This past January, with the blessing of the Administrative Commission, the Knoxville session sold the building to Kingdom Life for exactly one dollar.

Thanks to the rental income from Kingdom Life and the faithful giving of the Knoxville members, the final act of the Knoxville session before dissolution was to pay all of its delinquent per capita and reimburse the presbytery for insurance costs.

The Administrative Commission thanks Ayana, Carla, Roy and Dorothy for their support and patience.  We give thanks and praise for Rev. Bob Walkup and Rev. Kathy Hamilton Vargo for their love and care of the Knoxville members.

If you are ever asked to serve on an Administrative Commission to help with the merger or closing of a congregation, I encourage you to say yes. It is holy work and important ministry. I can honestly say the experience of working on this Administrative Commission for Knoxville is the most fulfilling experience I have had in six years of ordained ministry.

I have been witness to the resurrection of vital ministry for the people God so loves in Knoxville.  I have seen the Lord!

Please pray with me:

Holy God, we ask you to bless and protect Kingdom Life Fellowship as they seek to serve your people in Knoxville, and we thank you for the 139 years of faithful ministry of the Knoxville United church. May we follow your Spirit at work in all of our communities as we seek to be faithful to your Gospel and work out your purposes of resurrection and new life.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

 

 

 

 

We Had Hoped…

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Photo by Robert R. Maxwell. “Guys and Dolls” at Herndon High School, April 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Last weekend, I saw my 16 year-old niece perform as Sarah Brown in her high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” She was just incredible in the role, and watching her took me back to my high school days. I also performed in all the high school plays and musicals back in the day. I loved being a theatre geek. In fact, if you had asked me at age 16 about my plans for the future, I would have said I hoped to be a great stage actress.  I had it all planned out – studying at Carnegie Mellon, moving to New York, getting an agent, auditioning, and, of course, winning a Tony award.  At the ripe old age of 16, it never crossed my mind that my future would be very different.  I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon. I did not win a Tony.  When I was sixteen, I had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened was not what I imagined.

If you ask a parent holding their newborn baby for the first time what he or she hopes for their child’s future, they will say they wish for happiness.  Health.  A good job and a loving family.  A new parent can so vividly imagine that tiny baby’s future – first day of school, first driver’s license, first date.  College.  Marriage.  Grandchildren.  In those first glorious moments of a child’s life, everything seems possible.  In those first precious moments, it never crosses a parent’s mind that their son or daughter might become disabled, or drop out of school or be shot by a police officer.  The parent hopes for one thing.  What actually happens is often quite different. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse.

We enter into life’s new things with great hope. A new job. A new relationship. The wedding day. A new home.  Working on an election campaign. Joining in an effort to right a wrong. We move into these stages and times of our lives with great hope. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams. Sometimes, not so much.

In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus calls his 12 disciples, the first thing they do as a group is go to a place where a huge crowd of people have come to hear Jesus. Luke tells us this vast multitude of Jesus fans had shown up to be healed of their diseases and boy, did Jesus come through. Luke says those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And everyone in the huge crowd were trying to touch Jesus, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Lk. 6:12-19). By any measure, it was an auspicious beginning to ministry.

If you asked the newly minted disciples what they thinking that day when they watched Jesus do all of these miraculous works, I imagine they would say they hoped Jesus was really the one they had been waiting for —  the Messiah, God’s chosen — who would overthrow Roman rule and establish a new authority to redeem Israel.

As the days and months passed, the gospels tell us the disciples watched Jesus attract crowds wherever he went, heard him preach and teach, saw him perform miraculous healings, and regularly baffle political and religious officials.

After three years of seeing Jesus in action, doing all these incredible things, the disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill their deep hopes of freedom for the Jewish people. Even when Jesus threw shade on their fantasies, telling them his death at the hands of the authorities was near, it was as if the disciples couldn’t hear a word Jesus said or see the storm clouds gathering.

The disciples had hoped for one thing — a happy conclusion to the Jesus story which had held so much promise at the beginning. What happened never crossed their minds.

So today when we see these two disciples making the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, we see them doing exactly what you and I do when things haven’t worked out quite the way we had hoped.

When things fall apart. When dreams are smashed to bits. When the bottom falls out and we’re in a place we never imagined we’d be and we wonder what the hell went wrong…

The disciples on the Emmaus road are doing exactly what you and I do in such situations. We look back over the events to figure out what we could have done differently.  We do a post mortem to see where we screwed up.  Such analysis is almost always accompanied by a big dose of “if only’s.”

Did somebody make a poor decision?  Did we pick the wrong leadership? Should we have fought back harder? Why did we fall asleep?  Did we not pray enough?  Were we not faithful enough?  What could we have done differently to avoid this terrible disaster? If only we’d known then what we know now…maybe we could have avoided this mess. Maybe Jesus would still be here.

The disciples are so deep into their forensic analysis, they don’t even realize that a stranger has sidled up next to them.  Until he asks them, “What’s up? What are you talking about?”

And this particular stranger is remarkably clueless about the disaster that has just occurred in Jerusalem.  In fact, this stranger seems to be the only person in the tri-state area who hasn’t heard about Jesus’ execution.

So, the disciples tell the stranger everything.  And the stranger listens intently as they walk together.  They tell about the 3 years of ministry and what they hoped would be the glorious outcome of all their hard work.  Then they tell him about what happened to Jesus and how their dreams died with him on the cross.  They tell the stranger about the women’s crazy tale about empty tombs and visions of angels. And they admit to feeling a bit like they were misled by Jesus.

But that’s neither here nor there, they tell the stranger.  None of this was supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this but, there you have it.  We had hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. But he didn’t. Boom, all gone. Jesus. The dream. Their hopes. All of it snuffed out.

But for all their careful analysis, there’s one thought that has not yet crossed the disciples’ minds.

What hasn’t occurred to them is the possibility that — it’s true!

It hasn’t occurred to the disciples that their hope in Jesus was not misplaced or empty.

It hasn’t occurred to the disciples Jesus had, indeed, been the one to redeem Israel.

It never crossed the disciple’s minds that the women’s story about resurrection was not an idle tale but was, in fact, the gospel truth.

It never crossed the disciples’ minds that the suffering and death of Jesus was to be understood not as the ultimate defeat of God’s purpose, but as a necessary pathway to new life.

These texts we read in the Easter season take us beyond the morning of resurrection, into the days following when Jesus shows up to those who loved him best, but seem to understand him least.

And this pattern continues in our own lives, as Jesus keeps showing up in places of dashed hopes, deep disappointment, and cynical disillusionment.  Jesus shows up and is present with us in different ways – often in ways that never cross our minds.  Sometimes we will recognize the work of Jesus in the moment itself, and sometimes only in retrospect.

Since 2013, I have been working with a tiny Presbyterian congregation in the Knoxville neighborhood who worshipped in a very large, old building they could no longer afford to take care of, so the congregation decided to put the building up for sale.

A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to Kingdom Life Fellowship, a small non-denominational church who wanted to establish a new ministry in the area.  Some of you here may know Kingdom Life’s Pastor Frederick White through his work in PIIN.

Although in good condition, the church building in Knoxville is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building.

In other words, the church building was not particularly attractive to potential buyers.

Pastor White and Kingdom Life, however, saw the neighborhood as exactly the place God called them to do ministry. They started an afterschool program for neighborhood children and serve them a hot dinner every night. Once a week, the children’s families are invited to have dinner with their children and other families, and enjoy a time of fellowship. Police officers from the local precinct frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.14572266_10202172878919147_5733077412058210409_n

The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because the folks from the Knoxville United church said, “yes,” to leasing their building to a ministry led by people that don’t look like them or worship like them, who are serving a neighborhood they barely recognize anymore.  And this past January, the session said yes again and sold the building for exactly $1.00 to Kingdom Life.

Let’s not fool ourselves. This is not the way the people of Knoxville United Presbyterian had hoped their story would go. The people of Knoxville United had hoped for something different. It never crossed their minds that the resurrection of their church would look like the Kingdom Life ministry now flourishing on Jucunda Street in Knoxville.

Jesus keeps showing up.WUWcoverFINAL

This morning during the Sunday school hour, we began a book study on “Waking Up White,” by Debby Irving.  Over the next three weeks, we’ll continue to struggle with white privilege, and how it is that after the emancipation and the civil rights movement, and desegregation, and even the election of the nation’s first African American president, we are still – still! – poisoned as a nation by structural racism. And I believe Jesus will show up in our conversations, creating space for us to examine why well-meaning white people like you and I are still so blind to and so ignorant about and so complicit in a system that brutalizes our brothers and sisters of color. Like the disciples on their way to Emmaus, we need to look back, to see how we got to this place. We need to ask Jesus to stay with us as we move through the hard work of bringing justice and working for peace. We need Jesus to open our eyes and to the possibilities we cannot imagine without the Holy Spirit. We need to lean into the risen Christ when our conversations about race feel nearly hopeless, like we can’t make a difference, when our efforts feel wholly inadequate, particularly in this moment of history that feels smaller, meaner, less just and less loving than ever before.

Here’s the truth I have learned through these experiences and others: often it is only when we have run out of our own ideas that we finally make space for Jesus to show up. Jesus interrupts our idle conversations and frantic activity and forces us to admit that we’ve lost our way. We don’t know what we’re doing. We had hoped for something and it’s all come to nothing.

It is like what Jesus says in the Beatitudes – we are blessed when we’ve come to the end of our rope because we make space for the Holy Spirit.

Even when we feed stupid and blind and stumbling.  Even when we are doubtful and fearful and ready to just give it all up.  When we have run out of steam and run out of answers, Jesus falls in step with us. Not to mock us. Not to make us feel bad. Not to tell us we deserve the bad thing that happened. Jesus falls in step with us to listen to our stories. To hold our grief. To remind us of the faithfulness of God from the very beginning of history to our own fractured days.

As she considers this story of the Emmaus Road, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“Jesus seems to prefer working with broken people, with broken dreams, in a broken world.  If someone hands him a whole loaf, he will take it, bless it, break it, and give it away, and he will do the same thing with his own flesh and blood, because that is the way of life God has shown him to show the rest of us: to take what we have been given, whether we like it or not, and to (say thank you) for it, whether it is the sweet, satisfying bread of success or the tear soaked bread of sorrow…so that the broken loaf may bring all of us broken ones together into one body, where we may recognize the broken Lord in our midst.”[1]

Jesus does not give us false hope, but hope grounded in the reality of God’s vision for God’s people, all of us, in communities large and small, families formed and fractured, sinners and saints, blessed and broken,all of us doing our best to work out God’s purpose for our life together in Christ.

No matter what we do or do not do, we cannot lose Jesus. If we ask him to stay with us through the long dark evenings of our lives, he’ll stick like glue.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, 22-23.

 

At Cross Purposes

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Hiland Presbyterian Church, Epiphany 3A

http://hilandchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/22-Jan-2017-Sunday-Sermon-Rev.-Susan-Rothenberger.mp3

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (NIV)

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius,15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I have been spending most of the last week trying to figure out how to talk with you about this text.  It is a text that feels terribly troublesome, but absolutely essential on this day and in our time.

I chose this text from today’s lectionary passages because I thought it might be a message we need this day. Yet, I have been struggling with this text because the easy message won’t do.

If you are anything like me, the easy message is what I want to take away from this text, and tuck in my pocket, and maybe even post up on the inside my kitchen cabinet where we keep the water glasses.

I thought about that because my grandmother had a saying written in magic marker on an index card posted inside her kitchen cabinet where she kept her water glasses.When I was a little girl I saw the index card every time I reached up into that cabinet to get a glass. It was a saying that may have very well been inspired by this 1 Corinthians text:

“It’s so nice to be nice to the nice.”

That was my grandmother.img20130627_0005

When I was a little girl, it seemed to me that being nice was the most important thing about Jesus and the church.

In fact, when I was a little girl in church, it always seemed that what they were trying to teach me in all the Sunday school lessons and youth groups was to be nice.

And sometimes that is really all we want from church and the Bible.

In a world that feels not very nice at all, we want to hear this text from 1 Corinthians as Paul saying:

Can’t we all just get along?

Don’t fight. Be united.

Christians are nice people.

So be nice. Especially in church.

I could tell you Paul is simply asking the church in Corinth to stop the bickering.That would have been an incredibly easy sermon to write.

And maybe that’s the sermon you were hoping to hear on a weekend in which many of us feel like the country has never been more divided and what we need to hear more than anything is a call for all of us to just stop the bickering and…you know…be nice.

But if I preached that kind of sermon, it would be a lie. It would be a lie.

You see, the truth is Paul was a little bit crazy. Or foolish, as Paul would probably put it.

In our text today, and in most of his epistles he wrote to his various churches,Paul is operating at cross purposes with every single thing we know about human nature.

Paul goes far beyond a call to be “nice.”

Paul is asking the church to be transformed in a way that goes against every single thing we know about human history.

Human beings love division.

Human beings love lines and walls and fences.

The truth is, there are divisions among us.

We are deeply, deeply divided.  And it has ever been so.

Today, you are sitting in a church that was made possible 500 years ago by a split in the Christian Church called The Reformation.  It was a split that birthed the Presbyterian church, among others. It was also a split that fueled bloody, horrible holy wars that rocked the European continent for more than a century.reformation_map

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

This morning, you are worshiping in a church that belongs to just one of hundreds of Protestant denominations, not including the many more hundreds of affiliated and non-affiliated Christian churches in the United States.

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

When I traveled to South Sudan two years ago, I learned a hard truth about that war-torn nation. After gaining independence from the Islamic government of Sudan, the Christians in the new nation of South Sudan no longer had to fight their Muslim neighbors.So they turned against one another. Tribe against tribe. Christian against Christian.south-sudan

The new President of the South Sudan Catholic Bishops Council recently said: “We insist that South Sudan…has the highest number of Church goers. The paradox is that all these people go to the Church but then you find majority of whom still go back to kill each other, to fight, and you ask yourself: why do these people go to Church? So, we are praying for this miracle that we get converted truly to God and by that conversion we can be able to forgive, and be able to stay with one another.”http://www.canaafrica.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=828:help-south-sudan-despite-too-much-bureaucracy-scbc-president-appeals-to-international-community-interview-part-2&catid=16:latestnews&Itemid=103&lang=en

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

We live in a majority Christian country which violently revolted against another Christian country in order to become a new nation.

We live in a country which became so divided on the question of slavery that we went to war with one another, north against south, brother against brother, Americans killing other Americans, Christians killing Christians.

We live in a country which, until very recently in our history, insisted that people of color go to a separate school, drink from a separate water fountain, eat at a separate lunch counter and live in a separate neighborhood as far away as possible.

There are divisions. And it has ever been so.

Today, we are still behaving like the proverbial birds of a feather who flock together, preferring to live near people who look like us, think like us, and vote like us.

Some birds move so far off the grid they never have to see a neighbor at all.

Today, our online bubbles allow us to read only the news that fits our own world view.

We can curate our Facebook walls and our Twitter feeds to make sure we only see people who agree with us and think like us. If someone makes us mad, we simply unfriend them.

Today, with very little effort, we can go through an entire day and never, ever come into contact with someone who might challenge our perspective or cause us to change our mind, even a little bit.

In fact, I would venture to guess it’s much harder for us to spend time with people who are different from us than it is to avoid them.Even with all our connective technology, we drift further and further apart.

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so. It is basic human nature.

So here we have Paul’s voice telling us,imploring us,to seek a better higher way.And that is why Paul is a little bit crazy here.

Because Paul is begging the church to live in a way that is completely counter to human nature,but completely consistent with the message of the cross.

Paul is speaking to a culture and church in Corinth that was very divided.Filled with all sorts of different people with vastly different identities.
Greek and Jew. Slave and Free.Male and Female.Insiders and outsiders.Paul or Apollos or Cephas.

All of them living with an identity that insisted it be obeyed above all the others: Caesar and the mighty Roman empire.
Paul understands that the people in the Corinth church are dragging all sorts of baggage and beliefs and identities into the church, yet he is insisting they must abandon all of them. What Paul is begging for is something radical, crazy, foolish even.

He is begging them to remember that in their baptism, they died to every division.

They are no longer:

Greek and Jew

Slave and Free.

Male and Female

Insiders and outsiders.

Paul or Apollos or Cephas.

Presbyterian or Catholic

Republican or Democrat

In their baptism, Paul says, they took on brand new identity in Jesus Christ.And unlike every other powerful identity or preference or prejudice we take on, our baptismal identity doesn’t wash off. We can’t burn our membership card when being the church becomes too difficult.

In our baptism, the Holy Spirit invades our DNA. The Holy Spirit makes our heart beat and our lungs fill with air.  In our baptism, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are new creations, grafted onto Christ.

Paul holds up a vision of Christ’s church in Corinth as an entirely new creation, who live in a new way, as one body who live undivided in the city of God.

Paul is a little bit crazy. And he knows it. He knows the message of the cross is foolishness to those who see the world as dog eat dog and only the strong survive and winning is everything. Paul knows competing identities are powerful things which constantly draw us away from our identity in Christ.And yet, Paul continues to bug these churches, again and again, to remember

Why they are there,

To whom they belong,

And where the real power lies.

When I work with churches as a member of the Commission on Ministry or through the Unglued Church, one of the questions I almost always ask is:  why are you here, in this church?

And no matter what kind of church I’m in — the answers are always like this:

My family has worshipped here for generations.

It was the closest Presbyterian Church to my house and I’ve always been Presbyterian.

I liked the pastor/the preaching

I like the music

I like the children’s ministry.

I like the church’s emphasis on justice or discipleship or mission.

My friends are here.

But dear brothers and sisters, it grieves me to say that not one person of whom I’ve asked this question –and I have asked this question literally dozens and dozens of times.

Not one person has said: I am at this church because Jesus called me.

Not one person said, “This is the place to which God called me for God’s purpose.”

Because that’s really the only answer for why we are here. We don’t choose church. God chooses us to be the church.

That’s the critical difference between what we do here and what we do in every other aspect of our lives.

We choose a political party. We choose a neighborhood in which to live. We choose the kind of music we want to listen to.  When we walk into a grocery store, we have at least 12 different kinds of cornflakes we can buy. When we go into Starbucks we can order any kind of fancy pants coffee drink we want. With extra whipped cream.

This is Christ’s church. We are called by God to be here. That is what we share in common and it is non-negotiable. We are called by God to do this work together.

We are not rooted in the music or traditions or even the pastor, which is something important to remember when you are going through a transition as Hiland is doing right now.

You are rooted in Jesus Christ through your baptism.Your purpose is a CROSS purpose.

Being united in Christ isn’t about being nice.Being united in Christ isn’t about agreeing with everyone.

Being united in Christ means remembering that our highest purpose, our primary identity, the only way we move and live and have our being is in Jesus.

Jesus is our essential. Jesus is our purpose.

Jesus works at all times to gather up the whole world to himself through the power of the Holy Spirt. We as Christ’s church are called to that reconciling work. Knowing, as Paul did, we are working at cross purposes in a world that seeks to divide us.

In Matthew 10, Jesus said,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is very much the same, Paul invites us to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel.

Lose our loyalty to anything and anyone but Jesus Christ.

Lose our need to be right, our need to be strong, our need to be comfortable.

Lose anything and everything that distorts the purpose of being church.

Lose our eloquent wisdom if it obscures the cross of Jesus or empties it of its power.

Lose our fear if it keeps us from proclaiming the Gospel in all its foolishness to people who don’t look or think or live like we do.

A couple of months ago, Carol Roth’s husband, Mark Roth, who was co-chair of Commission on Ministry, put together a very interesting study of the ten-year trends for congregations in our presbytery, and discovered a surprising set of correlations to church growth.

From 2003 to 2013, congregations which grew were equally likely to be small or large, urban or suburban, wealthy or economically challenged, liberal or conservative. What distinguished these churches was their deep investment in mission, as reflected by diversity in their congregations. These growing churches made it a point intentionally to reach out to people unlike themselves and to welcome them into the community of faith. Sounds a lot like Jesus.

The cross purpose of Jesus is to gather all people to Godself.

The cross purpose of Jesus’ visible church is to gather us into communities which are holy spaces, holy enough to contain our differences, our conflicts and our squabbles, trusting as Paul did, that if we remain firmly rooted in Christ, our divisions no longer have the power to destroy us, but will make us more worthy of our calling.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Room for One More

Earns Burger King

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

Luke 23:33-43

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. Which marks the end of the church year, and is the pivot point between ordinary time and Advent.

Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church.The day marking Christ’s reign or kingship was established in the period between World War I and World War II,less than a hundred years ago.

Christianity’s influence, especially in Europe, was being replaced by secularism, nationalism and communism as the primary power brokers.

By invoking the kingship of Jesus, the church hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.

I have no way to prove it, but I am convinced church leaders in 1925 weren’t really much worried about Jesus losing authority. The church was anxious about losing its authority.

Church leaders were worried that they were losing their place of dominance and power in society. And we know how they feel, don’t we? I think we do.

In fact, I suspect Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same anxiety that still exists today when people get upset about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees,” or red cups at Starbucks, or a sales clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

Many Christians today feel anxious because the number of people of other faiths or no faith at all is growing. Even among people who claim to be Christian, church attendance is down.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, everyone went to church.  If you wanted to be considered a “good” person, you showed up to worship pretty much every Sunday. Remember that?

Now, going to church is no longer a measure of goodness.People figure they can be good people without church. And frankly, many people look at the church and don’t see much good in it.Fewer and fewer people outside our walls listen to us.

That can make us defensive. Angry. Or sad. And, I dare say, a little frightened about our future. So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.

What we see in the text from Luke today isn’t anything like a coronation for a human king or even a presidential inauguration. What we see in Luke is exactly the opposite.

We are at Calvary. And Jesus doesn’t look like a powerful king or a president, or even like the pastor of a successful church.

Jesus looks like a beaten up and bleeding man.

 

I once had a spiritual director who encouraged me to look closely at the crucified Jesus as I prayed. She told me to spend time in prayer and imagine myself sitting at the foot of the cross and focus my gaze on Jesus. To remember that Jesus knows and shares in the suffering of the whole world.

When I see this scene in Luke, I want to clean Jesus up, put some clothes on him, and tend to his wounds. I want to knock that sour wine right out of the Roman executioners’ hands.

This text from Luke is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a king taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating scene of a convicted criminal being bullied, tortured and executed by the power of the state.

This is not a coronation of a king, not by a long shot.

What do we see?

Three men hang on three rough wooden crosses.  Two garden variety thieves and one troublesome revolutionary with a sign above his head: “King of the Jews,” which is of course both a mocking joke and the God’s honest truth.

There are the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses. There are a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. Might be family members of the thieves. And probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but show up anyway to see the spectacle.

And of course, there are the soldiers who are just doing their jobs and had long lost any remorse about executing people.  Those are the guys passing the time it takes a condemned man to die on a cross. They gamble to see who gets the dead man’s sandals and look up every once in a while to make sure all is going to plan.

This scene at Calvary has been interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the centuries – in creeds, novels, poems, plays, hymns, spirituals, great choral works, movies, and of course in explicitly religious art and no-so religious art.

But here is an interesting fact to consider.

In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all. At least none that any scholar or archaeologists have been able to dig up.

Despite its centrality to the Christian faith, the crucifixion wasn’t mentioned or celebrated for hundreds of years after Christ.  Like so many of us, the earliest Christians looked away from the brutal scene of Jesus hanging on the cross. For the longest time, they pretended the crucifixion never happened.In fact, one of the earliest images of Jesus’ crucifixion was a piece of graffiti scrawled on an ancient Roman ruin that showed a man looking up at a donkey hanging on a cross.  The inscription underneath it read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” The artist apparently wanted to mock Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified God.picture1

Jesus’ death on a cross was, to put in bluntly, embarrassing for early Christians. How could anyone of faith possibly make sense of God dying in such a horrible way? It was a confusing event – shocking for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and for non-believer, it was proof of how ridiculous this whole Jesus business is.

And truth be told, crucifixion is still embarrassing for us. Because if we spend time pondering Christ on the cross, we realize we do not have a king who will save us from every terrible thing.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus is not going to rescue us from pain.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus will not save us from suffering.

What we see on the cross is Jesus dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.

The first criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?  Save yourself and us!”

This isn’t the first time Jesus has been dared to put up or shut up. Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism. Remember? The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days.

Jesus had been out there long enough to be really hungry, really thirsty and really, really miserable.Then who shows up?

The face of evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that if he’s truly God’s Son there’s no reason Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam.

Put up or shut up, says the devil. If you are the Messiah, this is a no-brainer.

All Jesus has to do is turn rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.

All Jesus has to do is forsake this God who left him to die in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never be this thirsty ever again.

All Jesus has to do is spit in his Father’s face and jump off the roof of the temple and Jesus will never ever have to suffer this kind of misery again.

The criminal hanging next to Jesus is the same voice of temptation.  After all, if Jesus is the king of all creation, rescuing himself and the other two criminals should be a piece of cake. Put up or shut up. Jesus. Save us.

The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene who sees things differently.

Jesus’ disciples are nowhere to be found.

The women still watching are overwhelmed with grief.

The leaders of the political and religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart aleck remarks at Jesus.

The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” like any other day.

The second criminal hears Jesus say something. Maybe nobody else heard it. Maybe nobody else believes it.

Jesus looks out at the people who are killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And in those words, the second criminal hears something like hope.

When the second criminal hears those ridiculous words of forgiveness he sees Jesus for who he is – a king of the best sort.

That criminal is the only one who understands those words as an opening to God for even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him.  Not tomorrow. Not next week, or at some point in the future, but right now.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I think that’s about the most beautiful prayer ever uttered and it happens in the most horrible circumstance we can imagine. And Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Today. Right now.  Not in three days. But now.

Jesus on the cross is not a super hero who will save us from terrible things. Instead on the cross we see a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all terrible things with us, right now.

We see a king of a different kingdom that has nothing to do with power or might or numbers or institutions.We see a king who stands with the marginalized, the meek, the vulnerable, right until the end.

I sometimes feel very defensive about the church to which I have been called to serve. Jesus’ church. I feel sometimes as if I personally have to answer every single criticism of what we get wrong. And to tell you the truth, these are questions I ask myself all the time.

If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why are we dying?

 If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why isn’t God saving us?

Why aren’t our pews filled? Why aren’t we successful?

If God is love, why is following Jesus sometimes so painful?

Look at Jesus on the cross, patiently loving and forgiving the people who are killing him and being killed with him.cross-of-christ-0105

Well.  I don’t know.I don’t know.

Maybe in order to be saved, we need to take Jesus seriously, seriously enough to follow him all the way to the cross.

Maybe in order to be saved, we have to get up there with Jesus.

If you look up at the cross right there, right in front of you in this beautiful sanctuary, you’ll see there’s room there for one more.

Jesus was there, he died and he’s been raised, and now it’s time for us to do the same.To follow him. To die and be raised. Each day as we seek to follow his way.

We need to die, trusting as Jesus did, that God will raise us to new life. Not in the way we would want to be raised, necessarily.  But we will be made new because that is who God is.

We need to die trusting we will be loved and forgiven and saved, not because of who we are, but because that is who Jesus is.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

 The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful, even at the risk of losing our lives.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, in and out of season, trusting in the Spirit to guide us and challenge us.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be obedient to the One who showed us in his weakness what it means to be a fully human child of God.

Jesus was not clamoring for earthly power, but he does call his church to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world.

Jesus leaves behind all the strength and power of his status – as Paul writes, “emptying himself and taking the form of a servant” – in order to redeem those who are weak, vulnerable, and lost.

We are called not to rise up but to get low enough to wash stinky feet.

We are called not to hoard our possessions, but to feed hungry people.

We are called not to stand at a safe distance, but to get involved in messy stuff of life.

We are called not to condemn, but to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We are called not to defend ourselves, but to be vulnerable enough to have our hearts broken by those things that break God’s heart.

We are called to be the church.

The King you and I will be seeking in these coming weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces, but in the dimmest light peeking through the cracks of broken places and broken people.

Maybe even in people like us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.