Week in the Word: Letting Go of What Has a Hold On You

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, June 24,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro


“Letting Go of What Has a Hold On You”

Mark 1:12-13

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

   God will help it when the morning dawns.

6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;

   see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

10 “Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

   I am exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah


Would you pray with me?

Still-speaking God whom we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, nor just in our moments of laughter and places of comfort, but also in the times that stretch us to the limit and the moments we are called out of our convenient patterns, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

The story is told about a miner.  He had planned initially to stay near his family farm, to marry his high school sweetheart, and to begin a simple happy life.  Then he heard a gold rush was on. He left it all, forgetting his sweetheart and his friends, ready and insistent miner with goldon leaving his home, his family, and all he knew at the chance of becoming wealthy and having all of the world’s best possession.   He poured himself fully into the search for gold, sacrificing everything, and doing so in a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog way that left no room for friends and no time to enjoy the little moments of joy that punctuate our lives if we look for them. He finally did strike gold, and  was so overjoyed. He took his gold and carried his bag of nuggets with him everywhere, believing he was walking on his way to start his life he had dreamed of. These gold nuggets were his most precious possession. And he dreamed of all the wonderful things they would purchase for him, counting all the people and things he had left behind as worth it to find his treasure.

Yet on his way to cash it all on and build his life finally with his new found wealth, the miner died unexpectedly.  He was rushed off to heaven, still clinging to his precious golden nuggets. When he arrived at heaven’s gate, an angel greeting him, insisting he lay the gold aside before he entered.  The man was indignant. Did that angel not know all he had sacrificed to earn this gold? And now he had to lay it aside? The angel was puzzled, gate-of-heavenand asked him why he wanted to carry asphalt into heaven anyway? The man was aghast and held the gold out in front of the angel’s face. “This isn’t asphalt,” he explained, “Just look.  It’s pure gold.” To which the angel replied, laughing, “Exactly,” and pointed through the door of heaven to its streets , shining bright and glistening . He said, “and here in heaven all we use gold for is to pave our streets. It is just asphalt here, only worth being stepped on.” And in that moment, the miner looked down, sad, heartbroken at all the things he laid aside for a treasure he could never keep.

This parable of sorts is a good lead in to our message today.

As you may recall we have been going through a series called “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”, focused on how we can connect with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said would well up within believers like a fountain of living waters that wells up to eternal life.   We’ve explored how through times of challenge and change, hard work and trial, it is easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted when we have to rely solely on our own power. I think all of us have experienced this personally, and I would wager we’ve all seen it happen in our families, our communities, and here at our church at Hanks Chapel.  Each week we have looked at different ways it is important to connect with the Spirit, and different practices that help with this: first looking at meditation and communion, then different kinds of prayer, and finally ways to look and listen for the Spirit’s still speaking voice in our life so we can discern God’s will better.

This parable I shared illustrates one of the less comfortable ways we are called to make room for the Spirit in our life, one that to be honest I had to fight the impulse to not talk about, because for me at least it pushes me out of my comfort zone a little: practices of letting go.  In this parable, this man’s desire for wealth – to make it big, with his life full of money and stuff – lead him to miss some of the greatest joys in life. And his clinging to those gold nuggets threaten to keep him from making it through the pearly gates.

Though the parable might be a little over the top, it makes a tough but uncomfortable point: there are tons of things in our life we can cling to which become distractions, keeping us from connecting with what matters most – not just the pursuit of money and things, but also our busy-ness, also other people’s opinions of us.

Any thoughts about things which people can cling to that can cause them to miss what matters, and not connect with God & God’s best for them?

In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus take radical steps at letting go his hold on potential distractions he could cling to.  When the Spirit comes upon him, Jesus pulls out of the noise and busyness of life, leaves aside all his wealth and stuff, to simply be alone with God in the wilderness.  He leaves the comfort of home and family. Though the Gospel of christ+in+the+wildernessMark here doesn’t mention Jesus going without food, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus also goes for these days without the comfort of food.  While doing this, Jesus confronts his own heart and the heart of life itself, God, in new ways. Mark uniquely of the Gospels mentions Jesus among the wild beasts, with angels visiting him. There in the desert wilderness, cut off from the distractions of life, Jesus not only confronting his deepest temptations and ours, but he also connects with the Spirit in a deeper way he could not have without having laid aside every possible distraction, glimpsing God’s presence in the wonder of nature representing by the wild beasts and in seeing glimpses of the usually unseen glory of heaven, through the presence of the angels.   Jesus models to us an important, if often uncomfortable, aspect of connecting with the Spirit in a way: to connect with the Spirit, we have to also sometimes lay aside comfort and distraction. This process of letting go is important to hearing the Spirit.

Jesus’ example points to some practices that Christians have found helpful in learning to let go and hear and see the Spirit more fully.   He shows what happens when we do it: both those great distractions and temptations that lie within us become visible, as happens for Jesus when the Tempter shows up in his time in the wilderness, while also ways in which God is present and at work in places we never suspected become present to us – like seeing God in nature, through the wild animals, or getting glimpses of how God is working behind the scenes of our life.

I wonder, are there any practices you find that help you let go the noise and distractions of life, and let go things that you might be tempted to hold onto, which could keep you from connecting with God and God’s purposes?

Some of the practices Jesus’ example points to here in Mark are:

Taking regular time of solitude and silence.  Jesus leaves the crowds, the busyness, of life to be alone with God.  Last week I talked about how we have to find a way to silence the solitudenoise of the world to really hear God.   We can do that sometimes in the midst of our busy days, in the midst of worry and trial. But often stepping back from it, having quiet time alone, just you and God, is needed. Even in those moments, noise and temptation will pop up, as happened for Jesus, but these will not be the noise and temptation of the world, but the noise and temptation flowing from within your own heart.  And when, in that time of solitude and silence, these pop up, you can notice them, name them before God, and ask God’s help in laying them aside so you can focus one-on-one with your Creator.

Related to this is taking regular time for sabbath.   Silence and solitude – sometimes called “quiet time” – is something we aim toward a little of every day or every few days.  Sabbath is a bigger concept, one which comes right out of the Creation story and the Ten Commandments. In the story of Creation in Genesis, God works hard six days making all sabbath-genesisthat is, but takes the seventh and doesn’t work.  God simply spends time enjoying being together with God’s creation. The Ten Commandments encouraged the people of Israel to do return the favor – and regularly set one day in seven to not focus their attention on all the work to be done, all the worries, and all the tasks, but one just spending time with God, focused on God’s presence, enjoying God, enjoying God’s creation, and enjoying the people that matter to them.   In our nonstop lives, where we even get emails about work on our phones when we’ve clocked out, this principle is so important – of setting aside time regularly to not be doing, doing, doing, but simply focused on connecting with God, with creation, and the people that matter.

In my own life, I’ve tended to set regular times during the week and a few times a year to do this, but not a whole day every week.   Right now, though, since I am working two jobs – 40+ hours at the hospice, and as much as a I can here with Hanks Chapel – I am trying to intentionally set time I am not working at either the church or the hospice each week: as close to 24 hours I can, where I am focused on connecting with God, spending time in nature, spending time with the people who count to me.  Whether a literal 24 hours a day or not, without blocking off that time to connect one on one with your Creator, with your own self caring for your own health, with nature, and with the people whom you love, it can become easy to lose your way.

Since the other Gospels tell us while in the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t have food to eat, it is important to focus on fasting.  In fasting, we give up some comfort that could distract us from focusing on God or God’s call in order to spend more focused time one on one with fastingGod or helping serve others.  Usually in the Bible this is food, which makes sense in a world without supermarkets, fast food, and microwave ovens in which most of your day could be gathering, cooking, preparing, food.   Cutting out a few meals, or a day’s worth of meals, really freed up a lot of time and energy to focus on prayer, meditation, Bible study, and even doing things God called you to do to help others.  And in Scriptures, people are reminded that they can also share that food with people in need.

Going without food can still be a good practice, whether that is going without a meal or two and spending that time you would be eating praying or helping others and giving what would go to that meal to a needy cause; or foregoing a comfort food like meat, coffee, chocolate.   I also have known people who fasted doing the SNAP challenge – only eating what the food they could purchase while on government assistance, to understand the experience of those without. Such kinds of fasting can remind us that our ultimate source of strength and nourishment is God.  It can also remind us of what others are going through who have less than us.

But there are other sources of comfort which can be more distracting today – TV, the internet, driving a car rather than walking or biking, the list goes on.   Putting aside an unnecessary comfort for a little while, especially one that distracts you from paying attention to God and helping others can help free space in your life to connect better with God, have more compassion for and time to help others.

A final practice that is worth mentioning is the practice of simplicity.  Simplicity is actually a key practice taught in the New Testament. We see it in the Sermon on the Mount, but probably first mentioned in Luke 3 when John the Baptist is asked by someone what repentance looks like.  He says, if you have two coats and only need one, fasting simplicitygive your other coat away to someone who has none. Simplicity is the practice of looking at your life for what unnecessary stuff you have that you don’t need. All of us have a tendency in our society to accumulate – and it is easy to get too much in some way: so many clothes, so many books, so many cars, or technology, you name it.   And the more we have, the more time we have to spend fixing it up, keeping it up, and often the less apt we are to share. For instance, if we have a big house, but it is so full of stuff we don’t ever use, we might finding ourselves filling a whole room with our extra stuff, a room which we could if we cleared out some things and give them to folks who really needed them, we could use to host a missionary, a person we know with health problems who needs a place to stay, or a foreign exchange student.   Having more than we need can distract us from God’s presence and hold us back from helping others. One early Christian preacher, a man named Basil, put it well: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard [you are not eating] belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”  Those are tough words, and I am not great at practicing their challenge myself, but they are the challenge of the call to simplicity. They also can be hard to figure out how to apply. Is worrying about getting the newest and best car failing to practice simplicity? Or is insisting to work long hours to keep up and running a vehicle held barely together, nearly by duct tape and prayer, failing to practice simplicity because it distracts you from time you could help others and seek God’s face? The call to simplicity isn’t easy to figure out sometimes, but

The heart of all these practices is learning to do what Psalm 46 invites us to do – to trust it doesn’t depend on us, doesn’t depend on all our hard work, on all our stuff we accumulate, doesn’t depend on our fighting our striving.  Rather we can trust that even in if the world shakes, God holds it and us. We can be still and simply know God is, and since God is, we are safe and secure in God’s hands. Ultimately it is not up to us.

All of these spiritual practices open us up to, in different ways, to resting in the Spirit, being empowered and led by the Spirit in new ways.  I challenge you to take one of these practices to focus on in this way this coming week. And let us all find space and time to be still before God, resting in God’s care and goodness.  


Let us pray.

You call us to love you with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength.

But so often we are worried and distracted by many things.

We forget your love and your call to love,

and we begin to think it is about us—

about our image, about doing it right,

about being the best, about getting what we want.

We forget to look to you, and even when we look, our vision is clouded.

Clear the chaos within us, O God,

And help us to embrace those practices and choices which can help us clear away this noise

that we may focus on you

and seek you out with our whole hearts.

Amen and Amen.


Immigration and the Christian Calling (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


I want to share a message by Rev. Isaac Villegas of Chapel Hill Mennonite Church, as he explores the Biblical texts related to the struggles around immigration and the experience of displaced people in our country.  I hope it both blesses and challenges you.

Week 1: Sanctuary E-Course from NC Council of Churches on Vimeo.

Matthew 25 and Immigration (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


I wanted to share this message with you as our Week in the Word this week, where Alexia Salvatierra discusses the call of Matthew 25 and how it impacts current issues facing churches, immigrants, refugees, and other displaced people.

I hope it challenges you, as it challenges me, to consider how I deal with these issues in my own life and work.

Also, please let me know any important messages given by people of faith in the south-land, or which address issues of faith and justice affecting our south-land, which might be worth me sharing at our Week in the Word.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Border Crossing Saints (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


ice-raidSome few weeks ago I heard news that ICE agents were rounding up a large group of our neighbors without papers just a county or two over.  This news sent definite ripples in the church I attend, where we have a number of members who are refugees and immigrants, some of whom either are undocumented or  have those close to them who are undocumented.   As I reflect on the difficult situations being faced by such immigrants and displaced people in our country with our tightened restrictions and increased deportations becoming the policy in America, I realize how very much in many people’s minds, these are a pack of “sinners”.

In fact we see this in our rhetoric about immigration, don’t we?  While on the campaign trail, our current president described undocumented immigrants this way: as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”.   The impression is that these folks are necessarily immoral.   For many pushing for a wall on our southern border and mass deportation, the logic appears to be: crossing the border without papers is against the law.   That’s necessarily bad.  Immoral.  It is like someone breaking into our house.   This means they are all in league with thieves, murderers, the worst of society who would break into your home.


If, like me, you know personally folks who are immigrants who came here without proper papers, you know this is not close to who they are at all.

Similar concerns come up with displaced people in our country, even who are here illegally.   Though we should be concerned about hatred arising against undocumented immigrants, the fact is that it is easy for distrust and loathing of one group of immigrants to trickle down toward others.

Here, in my home state of North Carolina, in a recent meeting by a conservative group concerned about immigration and refugees, a number of speakers began to paint all Muslims as if they are members of terror cells.   A few speakers even went so far as to ask why we can’t just kill all the Muslims in our area.  This conclusion was leapt toward, even though Muslims are not any more likely to become violent terrorists than average Christians are to become Klansmen or members of armed Christian terrorist militias like we saw break out with violence in the 1990s in the Oklahoma City bombing and the violence at the Branch Davidian compound.  Most Muslims, like most Christians, are law-abiding, respectful, compassionate people.


This extreme example is not reflective of all people who are uncomfortable with looser approaches to immigration, but it shows the slippery slope this approach of fear and distrust can bring.   We paint a whole group of people as if they are evil, without looking at how they engage the world around them.

richar rohr

In his book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount Richard Rohr reminds us that, ultimately, Jesus developed a reputation for supporting and advocating those groups in his day known as “sinners”, welcoming them into table fellowship as equals with those society considered holy, acceptable, and good and through baptism announcing people’s acceptance by God into community is as available as water.   This approach to those ostracized as “sinner” in Jesus’ name got him the name “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).    As Rohr continues to explore this, he makes the point that the system in place in Jesus’ day so defined sin and holiness that whole classes of people, for economic and class reasons, could never fulfill holiness requirements enough to not be called “sinner”.   Jesus’ life and ministry was  aimed at disrupting approaches to holiness that categorize people as sinner for reasons of class, life situation, or qualities other than their heart.

Ultimately, that alone ought to lead us to question society’s willingness to be so quick to list a whole class of people – immigrants – as necessarily sinners.

bible_study_groupBut I think it is also important to bear in mind the Bible’s rich history of border-crossing saints.  These folks did cross legal barriers of their day in some way and that is part of why they are remembered not as sinners but as saints, bearers of the Sacred, in our Scriptures.

Among the most central figures who are such border-crossing saints are the patriarchs  – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – to whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to as forefathers in their faith.  Each of these repeatedly are described in Genesis as crossing the borders from the lands of which they once were a part to enter new ones.  In fact, the founding story of their people, which is the foundation of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim spiritual visions of faith, is that of Abraham hearing the voice of God calling him to leave his homeland of Ur, to travel across various national boundaries as a nomad, into a new land God would find him.  There is no talk in these stories of getting travel visas, passports, or green cards for Abraham and his family.

In fact, repeatedly Genesis pictures conflict by the locals asking how he and his family have right to live in this land which was historically someone else’s.    This holds true for his descendants Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons.   In fact in an experience that carries deep echoes today in the experience of many an undocumented migrant or refugee, multiple times Abraham and his heirs in Genesis are depicted as hiding their identity and that of their families for safety.

Ultimately in the Genesis narrative about the patriarchs, those who receive and welcome the wandering migrant followers of this dream of land as welcome guests are those who are blessed.  Those who do not welcome them experience judgment and curses – from the small judgment of illness and struggle by some local rulers who mistreat Abraham and Sarai, to the many plagues that afflict the Pharoah and people of Egypt who forget the importance of welcoming the refugee people of Israel which leads to the Exodus and Passover story, to the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which, in the Biblical story, has nothing to do with sexual ethics and everything to do with how nations at war respond to those who arrive without papers at their doors.

It is these migrant saints – traveling without papers across national boundaries – who are the founding figures of three faiths.

This theme continues in the story of our faiths.  The people of Israel in their wilderness wanderings continue to cross national borders, with at times rulers objecting.  Those who are hospitable to this wandering band experience some share of their blessing and those who are not experience judgment.

Perhaps most amazing in such examples is Rahab of Jericho.   She becomes the patron saint of the Sanctuary movement through the ages.  When the people of Israel in Jericho’s rahab-immigrantwalls arrive without legal permission from Jericho not to nonthreateningly find work or safety there as many displaced people do in our land, but to actually plot the overthrow of the city, she harbors them.  Her home and place of business as a sex worker becomes perhaps the first sanctuary, as she lies to protect the lives of those she has welcomed.   Ultimately she is saved from the fall of Jericho, becoming a part of the wandering people of blessing herself, even becoming ancestor to King David and Jesus of Nazareth, key figures in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths.

Her example is one that inspires Quaker and Congregationalist Christians on both sides of underground-railroad-immigrationthe Mason-Dixon lines to organize safe houses in which were harbored the fleeing runaway slaves heading north to lands where they would not be treated as property.  These slaves did not get documents legalizing their move across states.  Even the attempt would have brought them back into the slavery they sought to flee or worse!       Her example also inspired the small number of Christians like Corrie Ten Boon who hid Jews, gypsies, gay people, and people with disabilities when the NAZI government in Germany sought to gather them up into concentration camps.     This example seems to also have inspired the largely Muslim leaders of the Turkish government in the same period to shield people from NAZI death camps, as is recounted in the book Last Train to Istanbul.

In the story pf Jonah, Jonah is turned by God into an undocumented displaced person for, certainly, the sea monster who vomits him up onto Ninevah’s land did not get a passport, green card, or legal status for Jonah before swallowing him from the sea.   In that role, again, Jonah could be received as he thought he would – as a threat, a foreigner to be wiped out, by Ninevah’s citizens.  The Ninevites receive him instead as the face of God and his words as God’s message.  His example is later followed by the early apostles and missionaries of the Christian movement like Paul, Timothy, and Silas; and later missionaries like St. Patrick and St. Francis who travel across national boundaries often without clear documentation.

Of course the ultimate example of the migrant saints is the holy family itself.   The Gospel of Matthew pictures Joseph and Mary carrying the baby Jesus across political lines into Egypt when King Herod seeks the slaughter of young children.   Clearly, they did not ask Herod’s permission to flee death.   For Christians especially this ought to be important, for we view Jesus not just as a rabbi or prophet among many as Jews and Muslims do, but as the Incarnation of God, making the God of Christian tradition necessarily a displaced person, a border-crossing God.

These many examples suggest that, far from it being that displaced people are necessarily “sinners”, instead those we encounter among us who are displaced people need to be received by us as the face of God.

As Jesus is remembered to have said in Matthew 25, in words that are mirrored in the later words of the prophet Muhammad in the Muslim Qu’ran*:

secondcoming31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g]you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Ultimately, in the displaced people who come to live among us, documented or not, we are called to see the face of God.  They are neither more sinful nor more righteous than we are.   But all three faith traditions that look to the Biblical story as their base, including my own Christianity, suggests ultimately as individuals, as communities, as a nation, we have to answer to God for how we treat those immigrants and refugees as if how we treated them if how we treated God.

May we answer this call.

Your progressive redneck preacher,



*(Note the parallel in the Qu’ran: “Allah the Exalted will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me. He will say: O my Lord, how can I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine was sick and you did not visit him, and had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food but you did not feed me. He will say: My Lord, how can I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him, and had you fed him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for drink but you did not provide for Me. He will say: My Lord, how can I give You when You are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for a drink but you did not provide for him, and had you given it to him you would have found Me with him.”


Choosing the Gospel Over Nationalism (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!


stephen-barnwell-empire-of-america-moneyIn a previous post, I shared about how both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to live up fully to the call of Scripture to welcome the immigrant, refugee, or displaced person as if in them they welcome Christ.  And so we must really be willing to take on a critical stance not only to those of whatever political parties and viewpoints oppose us (in my case, not just criticizing political conservatives), but let our faith and values critique the political and social groups that feel like our tribe.   For Christians, this means letting the Gospel of Christ, not political allegiance, be our standard.  It means seeing our ultimate allegiance not to our class, race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or even nation but first and foremost to the reality Jesus points to when he says in Mark 1:14, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   Ultimately we must learn to see the Kingdom of God as the place of our truest citizenship, its values pointing toward another and deeper reality.

I think as we face into a new kind of political reality in America in a populist nationalism which says “America first”, this call of the Gospel takes on more and more significance.  After all, isn’t the call of “America first” at the heart of calls to shut down the borders, to deport immigrants and refugees, and to restrict free trade?   We have a belief that ultimately our tribe is or ought to be the best (hence “make America great again”), believing that this being great can not happen for us if other people, other nations, other communities, also are great.

empire_us_aAn overcharged negativity bias and scarcity mindset lies at the heart of this rising nationalism. This nationalism rests on a belief that there isn’t enough for everyone in God’s good earth. So we must hoard our stuff and our opportunities from those we deem too different like a child on the playground clinging tightly to all the toys saying “mine”.   This impulse ultimately is what leads people to not build longer tables but instead higher walls .
Being Gospel people, Jesus following people, as the Christian faith calls those who identity with it to be, necessarily flies in the face of this nationalistic approach.

In a way, this is a bold and surprising thought for some.  After all, don’t our nationalists in America right now have wide support from the religious world?  Aren’t big named preachers endorsing this approach as sent by God to restore America to being a light on a hillside?

Though there is religion and theology being brought to bear by big named preachers, largely from white churches, like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson for instance, in support of this rising nationalism in our country, ultimately the Gospel itself stands against any attempt to use theology to prop up empire and nation.

In their book The Last Week on the final week of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain that, just as we have nationalist theologies which prop up our American system claiming it is endorsed by God, so in Jesus’ day there was a theology used to prop up the Roman empire’s claims supporting imperial expansion, including its oppression of other people &nations including Jesus’ own.  Notice:


“According to this [Roman imperial] theology, the emperor was not simply the rule of Rome, but the Son of God.  It began with the greatest of emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE.  His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia.  Inscriptions refer to him as ‘son of God,’ ‘lord’ and ‘savior’, one who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.  His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus emperor during the time of Jesus’ public activity” (The Last Week,  Borg and Crossan, 2-3).

When this Roman imperial theology is laid out in such clear terms, how clearly the story of Jesus in the Gospels acts as a foil to what Rome claimed for the emperor: Jesus, like Augustus, is announced as Son of God, Savior, Lord, and bringer of peace on earth.   Jesus, too, is said to be born of a virgin mother and God.   Jesus, too, is said to likewise rise again from death and ascend to God’s side in heaven.

Multicultural Jesus 1

Whether you view all the miraculous elements of the Gospel story as literally true or not (and Christians are divided on that question), what is clear is that the way the Gospels tell the story of Jesus, based on the preaching of the early church, presents Jesus as a counter to Caesar.   Confessing Jesus is Lord as Romans 10 challenges us to do is not just about personally accepting some kind of salvation in your soul or mine but is also about saying Caesar is not.   Ultimately Jesus and the way he paves for us to follow in his teachings and example are being presented as central to true peace.

And we are being called in his words to repent and believe the Kingdom is at hand, even while active in the midst of other kinds of communities, to change the patterns of our lives and relating so that we enter into and live as members of a new kind of community, the Kingdom of God.

Borg and Crossan explain this call and reality like this,

“’Passion’ means ‘consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment’… The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel.  It was the first passion for God’s distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate’s punitive justice.  Before Jesus, after Jesus, and, for Christians, archetypically in Jesus, those who live for nonviolent justice die all too often from violent injustice” – Borg and Crossan, The Last Week

To answer the call of the Gospel to repent and believe in this kind of Kingdom is to choose to put central in our lives a whole different pattern for living.

empire america paxWhat was the way of living embodied and modeled by the Caesars & their imperial theology?  Strong over weak, controlling and crushing them through domination systems.  As Roman historian Tacitus puts it, ““to plunder, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and they call it peace”.

What is the way of living Jesus embodied?   The type of lifestyle described in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount: of seeking to be a peacemaker who doesn’t return evil for evil, violence  for violence, but turns the other cheek.  This is not just rolling over and accepting abuse and injustice, but a choice to resist these systems of oppression like Rome built, and as continue in their own ways in every culture (even America today!)

As the late Walter Wink wrote in his  the Powers That Be,

“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. W e are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. The correct translation would be the one still preserved in the earliest renditions of this saying found in the New Testament epistles: “Do not repay evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). The Scholars Version of Matt. 5:39a is superb: “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil…

“The examples that follow confirm this reading. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39b). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.


“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

“Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can

“By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”


“Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants. Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging, or worse. But the point has been made. The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands.

“In that world of honor and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”

“How different this is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simply clobber us again! How often that interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises, “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.” (taken from http://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf)

common-working-people-2Choosing to live out this calling to live this other way – a way that chooses peacemaking over violence, that chooses servanthood and sharing of power and possessions over dominating other people, that chooses simplicity rather than pouring our resources into markets that oppress and exploit the disenfranchised – is the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  It is a way to transform our world and our communities.   Ultimately, as I noted the Rev. Dr. Jill Edens as highlighting in her preaching on this Sermon of Jesus, it is not possible as a solitary individual but becomes possible when we chose to work together creatively to choose an alternative way in community.  Wherever we enter into and foster such community, that Kingdom of God Jesus preached about is breaking out.

Such radical living re-shapes us and re-shapes our communities.  As we choose to embrace it, we join great company.  As John Mabry notes,

mandelaquote“Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil(Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ” — see John R. Mabry, Crisis & Communion: The Remythologization of the Eucharist – Past, Present, and Future (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005), 129.

The call to repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand, is a call to live out this courage.  The call to live as citizens of the Kingdom, not with first allegiance to nation, race, tribe, class, sexuality, is a call to pursue justice for all and reject every idol that makes evil possible.

Ultimately it is a call that dethrones this rising tide of nationalism that excludes and oppresses immigrants, refugees, and all who don’t fit our image of “good Americans”.   It is a call we must courageously and willingly take up.

Please, feel free to share how you have embraced this call yourself.  And let’s continue on this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Week in the Word: Can You Hear Me Now?

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 17,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.



Luke 6:12-16
12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your offering 2bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.


Let us pray.  Still-speaking God, whose voice we find not just in the pages of Holy Scripture, but also throughout our lives — open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

As you may remember, we are continuing a series, “Drinking Deep the Waters of Life”, focused on exploring how we can stay rooted in the life and presence of God the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promises is like living waters that can help give us strength and vitality living waterto face life’s struggles and changes head on.  Each week we are looking at a different way we can connect with God’s Spirit to find God’s peace, strength, wisdom, direction, and power to face life’s struggles and call. Our first week we looked at meditation and communion as ways to connect with the Spirit; and last week we looked at the power of prayer to connect us with the Spirit in our daily life.

Drew and Erica have offered to do a skit for us illustrating another side to connecting with the Spirit every day, which our Scriptures point toward.


Petitioner: “Our Father which art in heaven……..”

God: “Yes?

Petitioner: Don’t interrupt me. I’m praying.

God: But you called me.

Petitioner: Called you? I didn’t call you. I’m praying. “Our Father which art in heaven…….

God: There, you did it again.

Petitioner: Did what?

God: Called me. You said, “Our Father which are in heaven.” Here I am….what’s on your mind?

Petitioner: But I didn’t mean anything by it. I was, you know, just saying my prayers for the day. I always say the Lord’s Prayer. It makes me feel good, kind of like getting a duty done.

God: All right. Go on.

Petitioner: “Hallowed be thy name……”

God: Hold it. What do you mean by that?

Petitioner: By what?

God: By “hallowed be thy name?”

Petitioner: It means…it means…Good grief, I don’t know what it means. How should I know? It’s just a part of the prayer. By the way, what does it mean?

God: It means honoured, holy, wonderful.

Petitioner: Hey, that makes sense. I never thought about what “hallowed” meant before… “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

God: Do you really mean that?

Petitioner: Sure, why not?

God: What are you doing about it?

Petitioner: Doing? Nothing, I guess. I just think it would be kind of neat if you got control of everything down here like you have up there.

God: Have I got control of you?

Petitioner: Well, I go to church.

God: That isn’t what I asked you. What about your bad temper? You’ve really got a problem there, you know. And then there’s the way you spend your money, all on yourself. And what about the kind of books you read?

Petitioner: Stop picking on me! I’m just as good as some of the rest of those people at church.

God: Excuse me. I thought you were praying for my will to be done. If that is to happen, it will have to start with the ones who are praying for it. Like you, for example.

Petitioner: Oh, all right. I guess I do have some hang-ups. Now that you mention it, I probably could name some others.

God: So could I.

Petitioner: I haven’t thought about it very much until now, but I really would like to cut out some of those things. I would like to, you know, be really free.

God: Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ll work together, you and I. Some victories can be truly won. I’m proud of you.

Petitioner: Look, Lord, I need to finish up here. This is taking a lot longer than it usually does…”Give us this day our daily bread.”

God: You need to cut out the bread. You’ve got to watch the carbs!

Petitioner: Hey, wait a minute! What is this, “Criticise me day?” Here I was doing my religious duty, and all of a sudden you break in and remind me of all my hang-ups.

God: Praying is a dangerous thing. You could wind up changed by it, you know. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you. You called me, and here I am. It’s too late to stop now. Keep praying, I’m interested in the next part of your prayer…..(pause). Well, go on.

Petitioner: I’m scared to.

God: Scared? Of what?

Petitioner: I know what you’ll say.

God: Try me and see.

Petitioner: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

God: What about Alice?

Petitioner: See? I knew it! I knew you would bring her up! Why, Lord, she’s told lies about me, spread stories about my family. She never paid back the debt she owes me. I’ve sworn to get even with her.

God: What about your prayer?

Petitioner: I didn’t mean it.

God: Well at least you are honest. But it’s not much fun carrying that load of bitterness around inside, is it?

Petitioner: No. But, I’ll feel better as soon as I get even. Boy, have I got some plans for that neighbour. She’ll wish she had never moved into this neighbourhood.

God: You won’t feel any better. You’ll feel worse. Revenge isn’t sweet. Think of how unhappy you already are. But I can change all that.

Petitioner: You can? How?

God: Forgive Alice . Then I’ll forgive you. Then the hate and sin will be Alice’s problem and not yours. You will have settled your heart.

Petitioner: Oh, you’re right. You always are. And more than I want to revenge Alice, I want to be right with You….(pause)…(sigh)…All right. I forgive her. Help her to find the right road in life, Lord. She’s bound to be awfully miserable, now that I think about it. Anybody who goes around doing the things she does to others has to be out of it. Some way, somehow, show her the right way. There now!

God: Wonderful! How do you feel?

Petitioner: Hmmmmm. Well, not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I feel pretty great! You know, I don’t think I’ll have to go to bed tonight uptight for the first time since I can remember. Maybe I won’t be so tired from now on because I’m not getting enough rest.

God: You’re not through with your prayer. Go on.

Petitioner: Oh, all right. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

God: Good! Good! I’ll do that. Just don’t put yourself in a place where you will be tempted, that’s your part.

Petitioner: What do you mean by that?

God: Don’t turn on the TV when you know the laundry needs to be done and the house needs to be picked up. Also, about the time you spend coffeeing with your friends, if you can’t influence the conversation to positive things, perhaps you should re-think the value of those friendships.

Another thing, your neighbours and friends shouldn’t be your standard for “keeping up”. And please don’t use me for an escape hatch.

Petitioner: I don’t understand the last part.

God: Sure you do. You’ve done it a lot of times. You get caught in a bad situation. You get into trouble and then you come running to me. “Lord, help me out of this mess and I promise you I’ll never do it again.” You remember some of those bargains you tried to make with me?

Petitioner: Yes, and I am ashamed, Lord. Really I am.

God: Which bargains are you remembering?

Petitioner: Well, there was the night that Cliff was gone and the children and I were home alone. The wind was blowing so hard I thought the roof would go any minute and the tornado warnings were out. I remember praying, “Oh, God, if you would spare us, I’ll never skip my devotions again.”

God: The tornado was ten seconds away from landing on your roof when you called me. I protected you, but you didn’t keep your promise, did you?

Petitioner: I’m sorry Lord, really I am. Up until now I thought that if I just prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, then I could do what I liked. I didn’t expect anything to happen like it did.

God: Go ahead and finish your prayer.

Petitioner: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever”….Amen.

God: Do you know what would bring me glory? You know what would really make me happy?

Petitioner: No, but I’d like to know. I want to know how to please you. I can see what a mess I’ve made of my life. And I can see how great it would be to really be one of your followers.

God: You just answered the question.

Petitioner: I did?

God: Yes. The thing that would bring me glory is to have people like you truly love me. And I see that happening between us. Now that some of these old sins are exposed and out of the way, there is no limit to what we can do together.

Petitioner: Lord, let’s see what we can make of me, OK?

God: Yes, let’s see.


We may laugh at the interchange in the skit, but it illustrates the fact that we often think of connecting with God as a one-way street: us speaking to God, without expecting God can speak to or guide our daily lives.   In the United Church of Christ, we like to say “God is still speaking”. Our Scriptures and the skit remind us that God is speaking all the time in our lives, yet often we aren’t listening or tuned in, so it is like one of those old cell phone commercials, with God having to us again and again “Can you hear me now?  Can you hear me now?”

In our Gospel reading, before Jesus picks those who will be his core group of twelve jesus resurrection appearance 1disciples he will mentor individually, preparing to be sent out to share his Gospel message with the whole world, Jesus doesn’t know right away who to pick, but he first has to spend time seeking God’s face. In fact Jesus prays all night long, listening for God’s answer about what choice he should make.  Though Jesus is the Son of God, as a human being, like any of us, he has to engage in practices that help him connect with God’s Spirit, so he can know his Father’s next steps for him. This is not the only time Jesus does this. The night before he is killed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane, praying if there is any way that cup could be taken from him without having to drink it, that it happen.  He is seeking for God to show him for sure if he has to continue down the path that leads him to be crucified can you hear me nowfor you and me, hoping to discern God’s will.

Romans 12 suggests that, though not as perfectly as Jesus did, we too can learn to tune into God’s voice in our lives, so that at times we can answer God’s “Can you hear me now?” with “Yes, I hear you”.

Can you think of any times a person might really need to seek God’s will about a decision or situation in their lives?   How about a group of people — like a family, a church, a community?

Learning to hear God’s still-speaking voice in our lives and in our family, church, or community is called “discernment”.  Today I want to explore some practices of discernment that can help us connect with the wisdom the Spirit has to offer us in the choices we face individually and also as families, a church, and as a community.

Before I turn to specific practices, I want to point out some things Romans 12 shows us about discerning God’s will.

First, discernment begins by putting away the messages or noise of the world.  This is a noise of worldpart of what Romans 12 means by saying we need to no longer be conformed to the patterns of this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds.  The constant barrage of messages about who we need to be, how we must look or act or appear to be acceptable, can drown out our connection with who we really are in our hearts, and what God is saying there.

Secondly, discernment is connected with learning to really see yourself and your life from God’s perspective.  Romans 12 tells us we need to look at ourselves “with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith” given to us.   Ultimately having a real sense of our own gifts and limits as individuals, as families, as communities, as a church, can help us discern God’s will.  We are each made differently by God and Psalm 139 tells us we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. God broke the mold with you — and with me — and how we are made points to what God is calling us to do. Not just that but Our self acceptance 1life story — whether from day one, or even this day and this week — naturally points us in certain directions, if we can pay attention to how God has been working in our life up to now.  What God calls you or me to do isn’t something that goes violently against who we are at heart or how our life has already been unfolding, but will flow naturally from who we are made to be and how God has led us so far, even if it leads us to a very different place in life than we’ve been yet. God’s call flowing out of who we are when we are seen through God’s eyes is why two different people, two different families, or two different churches, can each feel led by God to do very different things, and yet both be hearing from God clearly.  God has shaped them both in different ways, and they both can reflect God’s light and love differently.

Finally, discerning God’s will is not just an individual, all on your lonesome, journey, but something that best happens in community, with others’ help. This is part of why Romans tells us to think about our gifts, other’s gifts, and how they fit together.  Ultimately, usually, if God is saying something to us personally, God will also echo that message through the insights of others who care about us among our church family and close prayerful friends.

With that backdrop, I want to introduce a couple of spiritual practices people find helpful in discerning what God is speaking in their lives.


The first is meditation and listening prayer.   I have already described these two practices already, so I won’t go into much detail.  But they involve putting away the noise and worries of the day on the one hand, and looking and listening for God to speak on the other.

The next practice originates from the Jesuits, a Catholic monastic order, and is called the daily examen.  Jesuit monks believe Christ is present in our lives, constantly guiding and speaking, if we will just pay attention.  So twice a day — usually at mid-day, and then, before bed, they pause for around 15-20 minutes, quiet their hearts and minds, and just review the day so far.  They look for occasions where they see they felt God’s presence examenand blessings; and also pay attention to when they felt truly alive and themselves, truly close to God; and then moments where they didn’t feel fully themselves, or truly close to God.  Even if you don’t follow their exact approach, by simply reviewing your day and paying attention to where you feel close to or far away from God, you can begin to get a sense of where God is moving in your life, and join God there. When we join God where we see God already working and moving, often we find God opening up new ways ahead of us to keep walking beside God and shutting off old ways behind us, leading us right into God’s will.

A similar practice to the daily examen is journaling.  Every day we can write down where we see God’s presence, where we feel close to or far from God, and either what lessons God is giving us or where we think God might be leading us.   Just as with examen, if you focus on where God is at work each time you journal, you can get a fuller sense of where God is guiding you.

Another key practice is seeking godly counsel.  It is easy to mix up our own dreams, all saints 2wishes, fears, or anxieties up with God’s guidance.  Sometimes other people, if they will hear us out, pray for us, and either ask probing questions or share how they feel led as they pray, can help us discern God’s will.

This is something the Quakers have made an art form of.  Quaker meetings set up clearness committees, where people with practice listening for God, join together to help someone with a difficult decision — should I take this job or that, go to this school or that, stay in, go to the next level in, or leave this relationship — and use their insights and wisdom to help others search out God’s will, never through giving advice, but through consistently asking probing questions to point people toward how they are experiencing God in their own lives.

Though we aren’t set up to have such committees on hand here at Hanks Chapel, all of us can have people whose faith and wisdom we respect, whom we reach out to for their prayer, questions, advice, and input as we face choices together.  And as families, as a church, and as communities, we can practice not having just one person or one tiny group make all the decisions, but instead hearing what all of us feel God is saying to us together, listening to the multitude of counsel within us.

This coming week I would like to challenge you to think about an area you individually or as a family, or we together as a church, are facing discernment about, and use one of these practices of discernment to seek the Spirit’s will more fully.  Even if you don’t have a specific question or choice, one of these practices can help you more fully see where God is at work in your life.

Face It, We Worship a Refugee & Immigrant God. (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!



jesus-refugeeI recently shared about the many texts which speak to the experience of displaced people, immigrants, migrants, and the many who face threat due to some federal actions going on here in America.   These actions are not just being taken in America alone, but similar moves to exclude and put up barriers to displaced people are going on throughout the Western world, as people respond in fear to the movements of refugees fleeing for their lives.

For those of us who claim to be people of faith, particularly people of the Book – which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim to be – this is deeply ironic.  In a real and profound way refusing to welcome displaced people with open arms is to forgot our own founding story.

great cloud of saints behind preacherDeuteronomy 26 puts it well when it instructs believers to pray the following prayer:

“5 … “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”

Here the story at the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, which lay at the foundation of both the Christian New Testament and also the Muslim faith as well, is laid bare:

The faith we have is borne of the experience of being migrant, refugee, displaced people.  Our ancestors in faith – Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, their descendants, the exiles from Judah under Assyria, Bablyon, and Persia – all experienced being displaced.  In fact one way to read the story of Exodus is a story not just about abram and saraislavery but about God’s feelings about how we treat those so displaced.   The descendants of Abraham find themselves in famine, so they flee across national boundaries to Egypt, through the work of their far-seeing son Joseph. Egypt treats these immigrants well, and so they prosper.  Then, a ruler who forgets Joseph and his family, forget that what makes a nation great is how it treats its marginalized people, arises.   He decides instead to oppress and mistreat these displaced people.

Ultimately this leads to disaster, as plague upon plague befall Egypt because of its choice.

The way Exodus is written, when read literally, is that God makes a choice to act and send plagues upon Egypt as if they are curses.  This poetically makes clear that God is not impartial when it comes to responding to the question of who is right – the wealthy, landed, long-term dwellers of a land comfortable in their property and status or the displaced people struggling on the margins, whose human rights lay in threat.  No, God takes sides, always siding with the poor, oppressed, marginalized.

This is clearly stated in multiple texts of the Hebrew Scriptures:

Moses-parting-red-sea“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.” – Psalm 10:14


“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,

is God in his holy dwelling.

God sets the lonely in families,

he leads out the prisoners with singing;

but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land” – Psalm 68:5-6


“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.” – Jeremiah 7:5-6


“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”—Jeremiah 22:3

8-1_tabernacle-entranceAgain and again, God is described as the one who takes sides, siding with the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten – with those with the least power and weight to throw around in a community.  And particularly with the oppressed.

In fact in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is even at times depicted as a migrant God’s self.  God is the God of the wandering Aramean, and God for much of early Hebrew history is depicted as traveling in a pitched tent, the tabernacle which contained the symbols of God’s presence, with the people.  In fact when King David suggests to God that he build a great house for God to live in, God says that was never God’s idea and God was content to live as the people, as a migrant.

And early in his childhood, Jesus, too, is depicted as a refugee for child.  In Matthew’s Gospel, upon his birth, Jesus faces King Herod threatening all the boys born around Jesus’ age with death so his parents, like the early refugees of his ancestors during famine, Jesus’ parents bring him across national lines to hide for their lives in Egypt.  With Herod wanting his life, you can bet that Jesus, Joseph, and Mary didn’t seek papers from the government that sought Jesus’ life to make it legal before entering Egypt.  The One Christians like myself see as the embodiment of God, God as men with women & men to dwell, begins his earthly life as an illegal immigrant.

Though Islam does not view Jesus as God in the flesh in the way Christians do, it views his example as emblematic since he is viewed as a great prophet.  Also, their faith bursts forth among a highly nomadic people whose nation-crossing migrations mirrors that of the wandering Abraham and Sarah, whom they also look to as their spiritual ancestor.

All three traditions point toward a God that sides with such oppressed and displaced people.

take side with justiceYet, one need not take literally the language of God striking Egypt with plagues to see a powerful message in it.   After all, when Deuteronomy talks about warnings for the freed people of Israel of woes lying ahead for them like Egypt faced if they follow its example of mistreating the marginalized, displaced, and powerless among them it does so in a way that makes it sound like cause and effect.  If they oppress, naturally woe will fall upon them.

Removed from thought of curses from above, a real truth is spoken of here: As much as we want to divide our future from that of those around us, we are inevitably linked.  My fate as an individual cannot be divided from the welfare of those around me, particularly the seemingly powerless.  The fate of our nation cannot be divided from that of the most powerless in our midst, nor the welfare of nations around us.

This is what great leaders like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu spoke about, when they wrote

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”


“My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons. . .  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

desmond-tutuUltimately to treat migrant people, displaced people, folks fleeing threats to their lives, well is not just selfless but also in our self-interest.  For when others discover fullness of life, feel secure, and can thrive, we all will thrive.  And to mistreat others, to push them out, only builds up feelings of alienation, mistrust, resentment, which can come back to haunt us when potential allies and friends in those communities we oppress no longer view us as one to support but enemies.

This too is what Jesus taught, when he warned us in Luke 6,

““Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)

and in Matthew 7,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

Ultimately, if we choose to pour out hatred, violence, mistrust, and mistreatment upon the least of these in our midst, we will find such negativity coming back to haunt us in ways we can only begin to imagine.  Likewise, if we choose to sow caring, understanding, acceptance, and love in the lives of those most at risk, we ultimately will find it strengthening not just them but our own communities, families, and lives.

We forget this lesson at our own peril.   May we embrace the call at the heart of these three great faiths, and choose to embrace the displaced people and the struggling in our midst.

Your progressive redneck preacher,