Profiles in Resistance: Stories of Quaker Resistance

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-nxcbj-9015c9

This month we continue our series of “Profiles in Resistance”, exploring stories of people of faith standing up against injustice.   At times the news of oppressive policies in government that hurt the poor, the disenfranchised, and minorities can cause us to balk.   But our various faith traditions here in the south-land are full of examples of those who have faced just such injustice square in the eye before, speaking truth to power, and successfully fighting to change the status quo.

In this month’s podcast, we interview Chuck Fager, Quaker activist and author, about his own experience working against injustice with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actions in Selma as well as his work through the Quaker House of Fayetteville.   He also highlights examples of people from Quaker history who have modeled the commitment to standing for justice and peace, resisting injustice in their day, suggesting some perspectives they can give in our contemporary work for justice in the south and small town America.

One of Chuck’s current passions is the Snow Camp Outdoor Drama, which shares just such stories of faithful resistance in a family oriented outdoor setting, just a drive outside of the Triangle. Since his interview the Outdoor Drama has encountered some financial struggles.  To support the Snow Camp Historical Drama Society, go online to snowcampoutdoortheatre.com and click on the Donate link. Contributions are tax-deductible and can be made online or by mail to Snow Camp Historical Drama Society, P.O. Box 535, Snow Camp, NC 27349.  Also, you can find information at the same website about upcoming shows.

Click here to access this month’s podcast.

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Week in the Word: Building our life on the Blueprint of Christ

This is the message I preached on Sunday, April 15, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   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.   

 

Building our Life on the Blueprint of Christ

building-home-construction2

Philippians 1:27-2:11, Common English Bible

27 Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel. 28 That way, you won’t be afraid of anything your enemies do. Your faithfulness and courage are a sign of their coming destruction and your salvation, which is from God. 29 God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. 30 You are having the same struggle that you saw me face and now hear that I’m still facing.

2 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,

       he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

7 But he emptied himself

       by taking the form of a slave

       and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,

8         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

       even death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God highly honored him

       and gave him a name above all names,

10     so that at the name of Jesus everyone

       in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow

11         and every tongue confess that

           Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Still-speaking Christ whom the grave could not silence , we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Scriptures.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

It can be so frustrating to get your directions wrong!

U-Turns are often the best way to move life forward.I remember when I lived in Los Angeles. Just shortly after settling into town, my friend John called me up and asked me to ride with him out of town, sort of as his wing-man on a second date with a lady who had brought her friend along too.  Well, this was just a few years before GPS became a big deal. John gave me the map and told me “read me the directions to Bakersfield”. Did I mention I’d only lived in LA a month? I misheard John, mixing Bakersfield and Baker up on our map, and gave him directions to there instead.  Though those towns may sound alot alike, they aren’t. Not at all– it is like mixing up Hendersonville, near the NC mountains, with Henderson, a town just over an hour from here.

Well, needless to say we got horribly lost — passing through a desert and multiple counties before John realized I had taken them the wrong way, grabbed the map out of my hands, and turned us around.   His kind and understanding date stayed with her friends until we got there, hours late, and, despite this mixup, they ended up dating for around a year after this goofy start to their relationship. Later on, John and I both laughed about this day many times — but I’ll tell you what, John was not laughing at first, when, en route to his date, he realized how badly I goofed those directions, and thought his promising date would bail.

Similarly I remember some years ago, right after marrying my late wife, putting together some furniture in a hurry — only to see it end up looking like some abstract art, all out of shape, barely able to stand up.  This time, she is the one who died laughing: at me. When I looked more carefully at the directions, I realized I made one tiny error that threw everything off, and had to take things apart and start again from scratch.

Knowing and understanding the directions we need to follow make such a difference.  In a way, in today’s Scripture reading, Paul is giving us a roadmap, a blueprint, a set of instructions not on how to get to Bakersfield or Hendersonville, nor on how to build a piece of furniture, but instead on how to build a life that will hold up through life’s storms.  These instructions point the way forward not just for us as individuals but especially for how we shape our life together, whether as a community, as a family, at the workplace, or especially as a church.

How does Paul suggest we build our lives?  Paul points to the example of Jesus as our blueprint for building a life.  We are called to follow in his steps, to ask what he would do mapin our shoes.   Jesus’ example leads to a particular kind of life, one that stands out clearly from what often passes for good living in the eyes of the world around us.  In the original Greek Paul writes, what is translated in our Bibles “live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel,” has the sense of “live together as citizens” of Christ’s Gospel.  Later on in Philippians, Paul tells us that for those in the church of Philippi and, by extension, for each of us who have been touched by Christ’s Gospel, our primary identity cannot be as citizens of the city and land we are living in, but rather our citizenship is to be in heaven. We are called as individuals to have a different kind of life, one that stands out in our world and community. And as Erica’s story of new life reminded us as a church we are to stand out too.

When Jesus came he proclaimed to a land conquered by the Roman empire another kingdom altogether, “the kingdom of heaven has come near, repent and believe”.  Christ taught people to pray to God “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. To live under this roadmap — as citizens of Christ’s kingdom — we can’t just blindly go along with the values around us then, that are trumpeted out by our communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces, or blasted across the media in our movies, TV shows, music, and social media posts.  We are to live lives that focus on God’s peaceable kingdomkingdom coming here, in our lives, as it already exists in heaven: on us making the little plot of earth we find ourselves in, where we have a say, into a place that resembles what life looks like when heaven breaks out among us: healing what is broken, welcoming in those who’ve felt outcast or alone or forgotten, helping all people and really all of life itself touched by our little circle of life be healed, whole, and well — with all they need for full and thriving lives.   Jesus’ teaching and example in the Gospels show us how to be those through whom heaven breaks out in our hurting world. This is the path to a full and thriving life as God intends for us individually — and to be the church God is calling us to be.

To Paul and the Philippians, this contrast with the ways of the world would have been stark.  Philippi, where the church Paul is writing to is located, is itself also a colony, an outpost of another land.  The Roman government built colonies in which citizens of Rome were planted as pilgrims, having all the rights and responsibilities they would have in Rome, and keeping all the Roman customs.   Though miles from Rome and surrounded by towns and people of other cultures and backgrounds who did things very differently, a colony like Philippi would be like a piece of Rome breaking out right there, showing everyone around them what Rome was about.

Like Paul, his church, and you & me who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the way of life for the Roman citizens and their colony is also founded on a message that was Multicultural Jesus 1called a Gospel, or victory message.  But rather than proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God come to earth to save, as Paul does here, the message of victory the Roman empire embraced which Paul is contrasting with Christ’s Gospel, was the message that Caesar was the son of god, prince of peace, and savior of the world.   In their mind Caesar embodied the way to peace, to a full life, to a thriving world.

What was Caesar’s way?  (Pull out T-shirt that says “winning”).  It was winning at any cost. Roman historian Tacitus famously described Caesar’s way by saying “They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”  Caesar’s approach was to crush those he disagreed with, to destroy them, in a dog eat dog way, driving out those who were too different or who didn’t fit into his image of a good life. It was coming to power by fighting for the top position, without thought of who would get hurt.  In fact this is the idea behind the claim Caesar was son of god and savior. The Romans believed that power and might made right. Whoever fought their way onto the top of the pile, by whatever means necessary, cleary had the spark of the divinity within them, like a god. To drive yourself to the top, and to give no thought to the poor, the outcast, the hurting along the way, especially those who were servants and slaves, was the way to live life under the blueprint of Rome. And their way was also peace by the sword — slaughtering all who stood in the way of their plans.  

EthiopicFootwashing

Jesus’ leadership is not characterized by oppressing, using, or marginalizing anyone but by the symbol of foot-washing: self-giving service to the least of these.

I wonder, if we payed attention to the messages that bombard us each day in our society,  what Gospel other than the words of Jesus would we see them calling us to embrace? what blueprint would they point to on how to build a life?  How much would it be like what Paul is encouraging the Philippians to reject — and embrace?

The model Paul points to is different.  Rather than becoming like a god through seizing power at any costs, Christ already is the Son of God from eternity past.  He doesn’t push to climb to the top, without worrying about who gets crushed underfoot. No, instead he already has no higher he can go.  Jesus chooses to put aside the need for recognition and for power to look to where the needs of others are all around them. He chooses to lower himself and take on the space of the lowest, most ordinary person.  He is born to humble working class folks, whom the Gospels tell us struggle to get by so much that they have to give the offerings the Law of Moses allows only for the poorest of the poor when they go to worship at the Temple.  He spends his life not in trying to climb any ladders of material success or worldly power at all but by rolling up his sleeves, getting dirty serving others — caring for and reaching out to those his world had deemed forgotten, lost, last, and least as if they are just as important as the wealthy and well recognized.  In the Gospels he gets a reputation of “Friend of sinners” for hanging out with those his society has deemed to “low class” to be desirable. He even becomes like the servant or slave — when on Maundy Thursday Jesus washes people’s feet, a job no self-respecting Roman citizen would ever do because it was reserved always for the lowliest of servants, or even the slaves who had few rights if any at all in Roman society and thus whom no one worries about humiliating.   Ultimately Jesus is even willing to die on the cross — a death reserved for traitors and for disobedient rebel slaves so others might, through his death, experience true and lasting forgiveness and life. Jesus is willing to serve and put the needs of others, their feelings and concerns, beyond his own comfort, so that he can see them become whole, free, and thrive.

What does it look like when these are the values we live out, when we build our lives, our families, our communities, our workplaces, our church on these values?

You will have to decide this answer for yourself but this much is true: It means giving up quote-the-kingdom-of-god-is-not-a-matter-of-getting-individuals-to-heaven-but-of-transforming-walter-rauschenbusch-73-24-39the need to have your opinion, your perspective, always win out — but being willing to listen to others’ needs and concerns, being willing to work together and be in harmony with people very different than yourself, to help make sure the needs of others, those truly hurting and in need,are met.  Where your gifts and passions meet the needs of the hurting and overlooked around you, so often that is where your calling from Christ lies.

Christ’s way  means not focusing on your status, title, or what you are called but simply showing up and giving care, support, friendship, to those who need it around you.

It means being willing to get out of our comfort zones, even suffer, for what is right — as Jesus did, and as Paul did, and as I know some of you have, for faith in Jesus Christ and his call.

This way was beautifully pictured by a poem Mother Teresa kept up on the wall in her mission, which said

“People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
“If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
“If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
“If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
“What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
“If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
“The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
“Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
“You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.”

This, friends, is what a life built on the blueprint of Christ looks like. This is what life together as families, communities, as a church that stands out by bringing to others who need it the healing presence of heaven looks like.

May we live out these words, making them true for ourselves now and always.  Amen & Amen.

Spring is Christ

As we enjoy the greening of springtime all about us, I am reminded of the words of Muslim mystic and poet Rumi.

May they help you pause and see the presence of the cosmic Christ all around you in the beauty of trees, flowers, flowing stream.

Micah

 

Four seasons

Spring is Christ
Everyone has eaten and fallen asleep.
The house is empty.

We walk out to the garden to let the apple
meet the peach, to carry messages
between rose and jasmine.

spring 8

Spring is Christ,
raising martyred plants from their shrouds.

A leaf trembles. I tremble
in the wind-beauty like silk from Turkestan.
The censer fans into flame.

24 The Trinity

This wind is the Holy Spirit.
The trees are Mary.
Watch how husband and wife play subtle games
with their hands. Strings of cloudy pearls
are thrown across the lovers,
as is the marriage custom.

We talk about this and that. There is no rest
except on these branching moments.

spring 5

Week in the Word: Embracing New Life in the Midst of Trials

This is the message I preached on Sunday, April 8, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   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.   

 

 

letter writingPhilippians 1:1-26, New International Version

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

O Still-speaking God, whose Word echoes not just through the pages of holy Scripture but also in every corner of our lives and world, in the bright and beautiful places of our lives where we are happy to be found out, in the dark corners of sorrow and pain we hide when hurting, in every open field and through every locked door, even in the prison cell or death bed, both in the places of our heart of peace and sorrow. Still-speaking Christ whom the grave could not silence , we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Scriptures.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts by acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Embracing New Life Discovered in the Midst of Our Trials

who am i 2“Who am I? They often tell me / I stepped from my cell’s confinement / Calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / Like a Squire from his country house.
“Who am I? They often tell me / I used to speak to my warders / Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
“Who am I? They also tell me / I bore the days of misfortune / Equably, smilingly, proudly, / like one accustomed to win.
“Am I then really that which other men tell of? / Or am I only what I myself know of myself? / Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, / Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, / Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, / Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, / Tossing in expectations of great events, / Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, / Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, / Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
“Who am I? This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? / Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling? /
Or is something within me still like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. / Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”

 

These stirring words of prayer were written by German pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer near who am i 5the end of World War II.   Bonhoeffer had been a faithful minister, preaching and teaching the Gospel in trying times — when his government was swept up in a tide of oppression.  While under the influence of Hitler and the NAZI party, they had begun to oppress, mistreat, and even kill those they viewed as too different to fit the NAZI vision of German purity — Jews, gypsies, people with disabilities, gay people, the elderly and infirmed, and all who questioned their iron grip on German society.

Bonhoeffer led the movement called the “Confessing Church”, which refused to compromise on the Gospel’s call to stand against oppression and injustice.  Though Bonhoeffer tried to do his work without getting in the limelight, quietly and without causing waves, eventually the powers that be in Berlin heard of his work and decided to silence him.  Just months after Bonhoeffer’s love of his life, a young Maria, said “yes” to his proposal of marriage, Bonhoeffer was thrown into a jail for political prisoners. Ultimately Bonhoeffer is executed in a concentration camp, after months of attempting to convince the German authorities he was no threat, they still decided his message, the Gospel that Christ came to set the captives free and so stands against all injustice, was exactly as threatening as it has always been and still is now to all who, like the NAZI regime who killed him, hold onto power and strength through the oppression of the least, the last, and the lost.

Bonhoeffer’s words were written in the midst of his time of painful waiting, when he prayed wondering “Why?  Why is it I could be faithful to God and face imprisonment? Why is it that I would finally meet the love of my life and, only then, before we could even marry, face the threat of death?   How could God’s answer to a lifetime of faithfully standing up against injustice and oppression, standing up for the Good News of Christ and standing for the oppressed, the forgotten, the marginalized, be only my death at the hands of the very powers I fought against?”

Though I doubt any of us could argue we’ve had as tragic a fate as Bonhoeffer, I do think all of us can on some level relate to his pain.   Each of us have faced situations of trial, loss, and pain that lead us to question “Why?”, that have led us to wonder what purpose such loss and suffering might serve, and what our way forward can be.

For some of us this has come through the illness or even death of one we love, through our being touched by illness and pain, through the loss of a job, through the unravelling of relationships, the foreclosure of a home, or through any number of means.

Communities and churches face trials too which shake us, making us wonder where God is.
In our Scripture reading, the apostle Paul writes in just such a time of trial in his life. paul chained Paul is in custody for his faith and ministry. Like Bonhoeffer after him, Paul’s bold preaching has caught up with him.  He stands accused of being a threat to the powers that be in the government of his day, the Roman empire, for his work as minister.  Like Bonhoeffer, Paul has the threat of execution hanging over his head for his preaching has been called out as treason, a threat to the rule of Nero Caesar.   Like Bonhoeffer later does, Paul appeals.

Under Roman law, as a citizen, Paul can appeal to the highest authority in the land – Nero Caesar himself, seated on the throne in Rome. Philippians is written by Paul while awaiting his trial.    Because of this appeal, Paul is not in a jail proper as he writes. No he is slowly, ploddingly, moving city to city from Jerusalem where he was arrested near the Temple according to the book of Acts, to the capital of the empire, Rome itself.   While moving, rather than being locked up in a jail cell like Bonhoeffer, Paul is chained to members of the Praetorian Guard, who each take turns moving with Paul as he travels through the cities they pass through, staying with him on house arrest once he arrives at Rome to wait for his trial.

As Paul writes today’s Scripture, he sits waiting, uncertain which way his future will go, in a situation which could fill anyone with fear — with his very life at stake — in a situation that comes not because he has failed to follow Christ’s footsteps but precisely because he was faithful and that faithfulness left those in power, whose power came at the expense of the least, the last, and the lost, feeling threatened by his unflinching proclaiming of God’s word.

Paul’s churches also are in turmoil.  People are understandably shaken up by his arrest.  Should they support Paul, they wondered, this man whom they loved and who helped fiery furnace danielthem discover Christ for themselves, who even helped them found their churches?  Is he a faithful person of God like Jesus, like the prophet Jeremiah, like the prophet Daniel, all of whom were arrested because those who use, abuse, and mistreat those in their care felt threatened when God’s word was spoken faithfully by them – or is he a crook, a criminal, a threat like Rome says, to be ignored and avoided?  

If Paul is a crook, a criminal, a threat, they asked,  is anything he ever said worth following, even this message of Jesus our churches were based on?   Even if Paul is being faithful like Christ and the prophets before him, without Paul here, what can be our way forward?   

His imprisonment led some to stand strong, full of faith and courage, even though they knew they, too, might be next facing threat of death.  It led others to turn in on themselves, descending into fights and feuds, with this or that leader saying they are the ones to follow, so some of his churches began to split apart.   No doubt it led some to slink into the shadows, shrugging off the faith that had awoken in them, counting faith itself as a fraud.

As I mentioned, today’s Scripture reading is aimed at the church Paul helped start in Philippi, one of the first churches founded in what we would now call Europe.  Unlike some of the churches that Paul helped start, the church in Philippi, though not untouched by these fears and tensions surrounding Paul’s arrest, has kept the faith. prison They have stayed true to each other and to God’s call, even supporting Paul with money, visits, food-trains, while he is chained by Rome, though he is at a distance and his support comes at great personal cost to themselves.  And yet Paul knows how easy it is for the trials they are facing now to shake their resolve, so much that they too fall into the very same downward spiral he has witnessed in these other churches.

In our Scripture reading today we see Paul’s response to the trials he is facing and his churches are facing.  What he says teaches us volumes as we face trials and transitions in our own lives, in our families, our communities, and our churches.

Before I turn to what I see in these Scriptures, do any of you have any lessons that stand out to you about our times of trouble from Paul’s words?

First, I want you to notice with me that we are not promised to know the answer to the “why?” of our suffering or even what its end result will be in the circles of this world.

griefI can’t speak for you, but often I am like the Psalmist in Psalm 13 who, in the face of trial cries out “how long, oh Lord, will you hide away?” — So often I question where God is, question why what is happening is happening, question God’s fairness and justice, question how I will ever get through.  Sometimes I do this questioning for events that are truly tragic but, to be honest, often I do so for things far less traumatic than what Paul and the Philippians are facing.

Such questioning is human and nothing to feel guilty about. After all, even Jesus cries out “if there be any way this cup can be taken from me…” and cries out in his suffering on the cross the words of Psalm 22, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” — questioning, wondering, seeking something else than the pain he must face.  

Yet Paul makes it clear that he doesn’t have certainty about either the why of his arrest, or its final outcome.  He says he hopes and prays that he will be released and able to resume his work with the church in Phillipi and other places God calls him, but yet he knows he might die and in his death go to his reward with Christ in glory.

Similarly he doesn’t know all the reasons people are fighting for power, arguing, in his churches.  Some must be selfish, self-seeking, prideful. Some may just see a need and step forward to fill it and that cause some waves that make others uncomfortable. It breaks his heart to see the fighting and heartache it brings, but he knows ultimately he has to put that church and those people into God’s hands, trusting God can bring good out of their situation.

Sometimes to see where Christ is at work in our times of trial and suffering, we have to do like Paul and give up our need to know why, give up our need to wait to know how things will work out in the midst of our trials before continuing on the path Christ opens for us, and we must work to trust our situation into God’s care.

We know from history what Paul could not know then; how the end of his time as a prisoner of the state will come about.  Just a Bonhoeffer’s praying, trusting, writing, and appealing ultimately ended up in his death, so most evidence from the records of the early church suggest Paul’s plea of not guilty was not accepted by the emperor, NeroCaesar-crossing-the-rubicon Caesar.   The emperor decides Paul – and the Christian faith he espouses – are in fact a threat to the empire and a threat to him personally. After all it proclaims that Caesar is not as he says he is “the son of God, the prince of peace, the savior of the world” but instead Jesus alone is.  Nero Caesar not only has Paul beheaded but eventually goes one step further and begins the first widespread persecution of Christians, blaming them for any number of disasters, violent plots, and other concerns occurring in Rome. Nero is historically remembered for responding to his encounter with Christians by tie-ing them to posts and lighting them on fire alive to keep his luxurious evening parties well lit.

Paul doesn’t see this, isn’t told this will happen, but the way in which Paul’s arrest ends shows us yet another reason we need to give up our drive to have to know how things will work out in times of trial and transition before acting with faith and courage: there saints-martyrs-heroes-1is no promise that if we are faithful things will work out as we want.  We often think what makes our faithfulness to what God calls us meaningful is knowing what the outcome will be, but instead like Jesus, like John the Baptist, like Francis of Assisi, like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, like Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters, like Gandhi and Thich Hacht Nahn, and people of truth throughout the ages, we are called to speak and act in truth faithfully, even when we see no response coming down the pipe that is what we would like. We are to trust in One bigger than ourselves, truer than our failures and more unceasing than the resistance of the powers of injustice to our work of setting right the world — trusting that One whom we know as the risen and Living Christ, He who is able to break open every locked door, able to bring life from death, new beginnings from seemingly hopeless ends. And like each of these people of faith and courage, whether we live to see the fruit of our work of faithfully sowing seeds with our own eyes, we can trust that such fruit will be born and seen by others through the same power that raised Christ from the dead.

So sometimes it is difficult to know the reason why we suffer while in the midst of the trial or if our journey will end up with the destination we have in mind.  Sometimes we find our reasons after the dust settles and we are on the other side of our struggles. Sometimes we can’t know, this side of heaven. Sometimes the end of our faithful work will bear fruit we can see in our lives here and now.  Sometimes it will merely start ripples like you see spreading across a lake when you skip rocks, ripples which will only become visible as they spread, getting larger and larger, years after we are out of the picture.

oil on waterBut fixing his eyes on Jesus and his example, Paul is able to see a vision for how we not only can survive these trials that shake our lives and stretch our souls, but in the midst of them see Christ in new ways, ways that shape us more into the likeness of our Savior.    Despite the fact we cannot always know why or what the outcome will be, if we are open to God in the present moment, looking and listening for the risen Christ in our suffering and trials, we can see places where God is at work through our suffering.

This is what Paul does in our reading.  He points toward how, even though arrested, he is able to do even more work of sharing the Good News of Christ.   Now the Roman government is moving him from city to city, en route to Rome, giving him a chance to preach the Gospel to new cities, towns, and people all on their dime.   Now the Roman soldiers who are chained with him are stuck listening to him pray, read Scripture, talk about his faith, so that some are even coming to believe. In fact, though Paul does not know this now, there is some evidence that a part of why Caesar later feels threatened by Paul’s preaching and that of the church is how many of the Roman guards chained to Paul end up becoming believers in Christ and spreading his message of setting the captives free among Caesar’s own household and army, who are tasked instead by Caesar with keeping people down and in their place.

guest-houseEven the arguing Paul has seen in the churches he led has places in it where God is at work — out of their fighting and arguing, some who never took up leadership, never spoke out, never rolled up their sleeves to share their faith or help keep the church going, finally are stepping up and stepping forward.

I think Paul would challenge us, when we face trials in our own lives — illness, relationships unravelling, changes with work or health, you name it — and when we face trials in our church or community — to not just ask “what is going wrong?  What is painful?” but also to look for where Christ is present and at work, because even in our painful moments Christ is present, leading, guiding, working. Where do you see Christ at work in these tough situations you and others are facing?

Paul also invites us to pay attention to the lessons that our still-speaking God can teach us through our times of trial.

You know, Jesus’ suffering and death not only brought pain to Jesus and grief to his followers, but seen in light of the resurrection that followed, his suffering and death also reveals God’s love to us and to all people.  After Jesus’ resurrection, it was often not his appearing among people, passing through locked doors and performing miracles that proved he was alive to those who saw him, but rather often it was people seeing his wounds in his side and nail prints in his hands from his crucifixion.   According to Paul God can likewise use our wounds, our struggles, our trials to reveal to us how to live as Christ. He points to what such suffering can teach us by praying for the church at Philippi and, by extension each of us, “this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”.  Our experience of trial, if we will pay attention to what God is saying and doing in the midst of it, can teach us to live as people of deeper love, care, and compassion.

How does this work?  In my own life, I can only point to my most recent times of great suffering: when I had to care for my late wife Katharine as she, in her 30s, slowly died from a painful neurological condition that took her far too young; and in when I cared for my mother as she died from cancer.  I still could not tell you “why” both suffered and died as they did, but I know this: because I also looked for and listened to God in those days, when I sit with someone going through illness, caring for a sick loved one, or going through griefs and losses of all kinds, I learned lessons that allow me to now sympathize more, listen with more compassion, and be more of a help to them on their journey.

Whatever you and I are facing, we are called to look for the living Christ there.  As we listen to Christ’s still-speaking voice, we can know even if we do not know the answers why or how our struggle will turn out, we can know we are not alone. Christ walks with us.  We can know, too, Christ will give us gifts of compassion, love, and a deeper walk with Christ as we walk this journey with him. Amen and Amen.

What Does it Mean to Believe “in the Resurrection of the Body and the Life of the Age to Come?”

A few years ago, I began to struggle with joining in churches while they recited the jesus resurrection appearance 7creeds of the church.  This experience was made easier by the fact that in the United Church of Christ where I serve, we choose simpler, more modern confession at baptisms, at confirmation like the UCC Statement of Faith, listed here, and at other points where a confession of faith is needed, or sometimes joining in the confession of our cousins in the north, the Uniting Church of Canada, which says,

“We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.”

Yet still at some other churches I am asked to join in such bold confessions as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which ask me to say things like “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.

Multicultural Jesus 1Can I be honest, here?

Even though I don’t deny these words are true, I wince a bit, or at least used to do so.

Working as a chaplain, seeing body and body fall to illness, and especially in hospice where so often I bless the bodies of those who have prayed for physical restoration and healing in this world as they accept it will not come this side of death, there is something about saying I believe in a resurrection of those same bodies which makes me flinch.  I am so full of questions about what it means, and the more I sit with the dying and grieving, the less I have answers and more I struggle with question.

In truth, I don’t know.  I don’t know what happens beyond the veil.  Though I sense deeply, in my spirit, each time I say ancient words of blessing from my Book of Worship over those on the brink of dying that they do in fact usher into a new life beyond the veil, I do not have words for this experience.  Are they in some literal place called heaven?  Are they ushered into a new world similar but different than my own?  Do they live on in new bodies, reincarnated, into another leg of some spiritual pilgrimage I cannot conceive?   Are they given some kind of body, literally or figuratively, in some new world beyond my ability to imagine?  That last seems truest to my own experience and the Christian story, but if so in what way is that a body at all?   If that body before me, over which I prayed, lays empty of life, spirit, and that blazing light of personhood which bears the image of God upon death which I have witnessed as I sat with this dear one hearing them weave their stories of their life together into a precious blanket of truth before me, in what way is this new life they enter, if they do enter a new life after death as I believe, resurrection of the body?

And, to be honest, I struggle too, over the Easter stories.   For they sound so much like what the bereaving I help describe.  They sit bereft at the death of one they love, having witnessed their long and painful death and burial.  They are without hope.  And they look up — in any number of places and ways –and there before them is the one they’ve mourned, whole and well.  At times these experiences seem barely material but often they feel their hand on their cheek or shoulder, hear their voice in their ears.  They are certain that whatever happened to their bodies, these precious ones still live on, in a deep profound way, in a new way in God’s world.

chaplain 1Though I know based on my own faith that it is more than this, those Easter stories sound so like this common occurrence among the grieving — one I, too, have experienced myself not a few times — that it is hard to wrap my mind around what exactly happened that Easter morning, and how it differs from what I see others experience every day.  Clearly, since all who have such experiences — including me — attest them to be true, walking away certain that something surely lies beyond the pain and loss of death, and the disciples’ witness is seeing  Jesus alive beyond  and victorious over death.   Like many, I too have felt the touch of a Risen and Living Lord, though my mind doesn’t seem able to fully grasp or explain what this resurrection means.  These experiences attest to the fact Christ lives and is risen, and is still present to us today.

So some days I feel guilty, my mouth dry and tongue heavy, when asked to recite those words of the creed.  Or I did until I heard these words of Peter Rollins, who writes,
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think… I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

As Father Marcus Borg says in his The Last Week, “the passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God,…” making present “for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by …. God …”, and as such the resurrection of Jesus,  is the announcement that the ultimate reality is not death and oppression, injustice and disease, but a power to change us, our world, and our communities, beyond pain.

My own trepidation is our usual fear: that what God calls us to focus our attention upon is what we cannot know, cannot understand this side of heaven.  Yet, as Borg and Collins remind us, ultimately the challenge we are called to embrace or reject is what God makes clear to us, what we do understand without questioning or denying.

injusticeFor me this means the real question I am asked “do you believe in the resurrection of the body?” is this:  I am confronted with as I ask myself how to live into the Easter miracle today, and every day I face, is not what I believe happened to Jesus’ earthly body, nor exactly in what form resurrection is made known to those whose bodies I have seen expire, but whether I choose to trust that the pain, anguish, and injustice before us each day is God’s final word.

Theologians and mystics and saints can theorize and argue, question and try to pin down, this mystery that is beyond me: how exactly resurrection of the body worked for Jesus and will work for you and me in our deaths.  I don’t have to let such questions keep me from answering the call to be faithful to Christ’s resurrection and our own.

Whatever our questions about the in’s and out’s of the afterlife, which Scripture itself says “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard”, we can say “yes” to the question “do you believe in the resurrection.  When you and I believe in resurrection power, we take God’s hand and work toward justice.  When we live into Easter, we choose to join in the same liberating work Jesus announced in the start of his ministry, when he said

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” — Luke 4:1-19

How have you experienced and lived out this reality today?  This week?  This month?

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Song of the Season: In the Garden

Perhaps my favorite hymn of Holy Week is this old standard, “In the Garden”.  I don’t remember the context, but remember hearing it with my grandmother once and being drawn in by the imagery and feeling as a little boy.

Later I learned it is about Easter — that moment in the Gospel of John in which Mary Magdalene is bereft at seeing Jesus’ body gone, thinking she could not even say farewell to this dear man who had done so much to help her find life.   Then, she turns to see whom she mistakes to be a humble gardener.  He speaks her name, her true name, and she knows Jesus lives.

It also paints a picture of how Jesus continues to live, moving through the garden of our life, welcoming us to daily walk and talk with him as our Living Savior and Friend.  This is truly meaningful to me as my daily prayer practice is to meditate and pray as I hike and walk in the woods behind my home.

I hope hearing this song today invites you to experience the joy of the resurrection in new ways.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

From Shame to Service

To celebrate the powerful message of Eastertide, the days following Easter Sunday, I want to share a message I preached some years ago while pastoring a Progressive Christian Alliance congregation in Eastern North Carolina.   I think its message speaks to the heart of the Easter message for today.

I will share some more resurrection themed writings in the next few weeks, to help us remember that the season of Easter is not just one Sunday but a whole season.  I view this as a good reminder that we do not celebrate today the simple resuscitation of a man’s body (like happens when someone does CPR on one whose heart has stopped beating) but rather the gift of resurrection, which is so much more: new life breaking out in the midst of loss and death.  This is something that is an ongoing reality available for people of faith in so many ways beyond mere physical restoration of life.  What’s more, it is available here before our physical deaths in the way this sermon reminds us, while also promising us that even beyond the veil of death, new life is available in the next world.

Blessings on you all.

have a happy Easter!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

From Shame To Service

griefIn the midst of our fallings and failings, we can be so overcome by shame we don’t know how to move forward. We can feel trapped, stuck, and powerless. Like a shadow falling overhead before a storm, all light and hope can begin to be eclipsed by our heartache, guilt, and shame.

Just such a moment happened to a young business named Bill Wilson. A real go getter, an up and coming star in the business world, Bill had a dirty little secret: to get through his day he had to turn again and again to the bottle. It began to wreck his home life and his marriage. Then the hold the bottle had on him cost him his job. Broken, not knowing where to turn, head hung in shame Bill admitted himself into a sanitorium, hoping beyond all hope for change. Yet what broke him beyond even his addiction was the life-wrenching shame. He was a drunk. He was a failure. He saw no hope, no goodness in his life.

Just such a moment came in the life of a young preacher named Troy. A married father of 2, this rising star in the preaching world had hidden for years his dark secret: he was gay, and no amount of prayer or sacrifice could take away his attraction to men. Like all well-kept secrets, this came out and he lost it all. His wife left him, taking the kids away. He was kicked out of the church, defrocked.

Jobless, with his marriage shattered and children cut off from him, Troy began a nose-dive of doubt, loneliness, shame, and self-hatred. One day, as life hit rock bottom, Troy took a knife, slit his wrists in the tub, and waited to die.

Though I can’t relate with these two men’s exact journey I know what it is to wake up, feeling you are powerless to move forward. Feeling that you have failed too much to move forward, and having the shame of all the ways I feel I am wrong fall over me like a dark winter chill.

Have any of you had such moments in your life you would be willing to share about?

Tonight we will be joining one final disciple in their encounter with the risen Jesus and the new life he makes possible. This disciple, Simon, has hit rock bottom, not knowing where to turn.

This is in John 21. Lets turn there together. We will start in verse 1 and go on to verse 19.

Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. This is how it happened: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus[a] ), Nathanael from Cana in

Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”

They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they

caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t

realize it was Jesus.

5 Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”

They answered him, “No.”

6 He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.

9 When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?”

They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of

John, do you love me?”

Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.

After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

Let’s pray.

Living Jesus, who promises us that you will never leave us and forsake us, whom we know is so present that if we turn over a rock we can find you there, and if we split a log, there you are, open our eyes. Help us to see your presence. Help us to hear your voice. Amen.

Does anything stand out to you about either how Peter experiences new life, or how the risen Christ responds to Peter’s moment of crash and burn?

There are a few things I want to focus in on: First, that Peter was immobilized by shame and guilt. Second, that Jesus confronts directly Peter’s failure and feelings. Finally, Jesus invites Peter to replace his shame with a life for others.

jesus resurrection appearance 2First, we see that Peter was immobilized by shame and guilt. We can see this because Peter has returned to fishing. If you go back and read Matthew 4, you will find out that when Peter was called by Jesus he was a fisherman. That is the old life, the old job Peter left when he answered Jesus’ call to fish for people.

What is amazing about this is that Peter knew Jesus was risen. John tells us that Jesus already had showed up to all the disciples, proved that he was risen, and commissioned them to go out and do the work Jesus did.

Peter’s response? He hung his head low. He sighed. He said “well, good for you Jesus. Glad you’re back. I bet the rest of you folks can do that just fine. Me? Let me do what I know how. Let me go fishing.”

At first glance, this may seem strange. But if you can think about what it is like for you when you are filled with shame, wracked by guilt, and failure you can see why he did this. When we are wracked with guilt and shame, we become stuck in the past. We are unable to image a better future or, if we can, cannot imagine ourselves in it. We begin to see ourselves as unable to do good, unable to make a difference. What we have done, and what it makes us look at ourselves as gets us stuck. When we are stuck and cannot go forward, we turn back. We go back to what had been comfortable before our failure.

Peter was wracked with guilt, shame, and failure. Peter had left fishing, his comfort zone and all he knew before Jesus, to embark on an adventure of following Jesus. To Peter’s perspective, that mission had failed when Jesus died. But it was more than the mission that failed. Peter had failed.

Peter had promised Jesus he would not leave his side, hat he would fight and die before letting the authorities. When Peter raised his sword to try and defend Jesus, he failed to chop off the head of the man coming for Jesus and only lopped of his ear – which Jesus promptly healed as if nothing had happened. When it was clear no amount of fighting could keep Jesus free, Peter ran for his life and hid. It wasn’t Peter, who the other disciples had treated like a spokesman and leader, who had the courage to stand by Jesus’ side, it was the women followers. Peter had shook in fear, hiding and afraid.

Then, just like Jesus had predicted, when Peter was approached he denied Jesus, saying he never knew the man – not just once but three times.

Peter was broken. He knew he was no hero. He knew he didn’t have the strength to lead like people expected him to do. He knew when the going got tough, he ran like hell.

So Peter, even after seeing Jesus risen, is so full of shame he can’t bring himself to move forward into the bright future his new life in Christ makes possible. He slinked away in the shadows, into that comfort zone that was the last place he remembered feeling safe before his failure – just as many of you have when you were immobilized by failure and shame.

templeofGod_000This immobilization shows what shame and guilt are. Peter is struggling with both. Guilt is simply feeling bad that you have done something wrong. It hurts awful, but actually can be a positive thing. When I stub my toe I learn not to kick against a brick wall. When I feel guilt I learn which actions are wrong, and that pain helps me change by giving up bad action.

Shame on the other hand is immobilizing. While guilt is about what you have done, when you & I feel shame that feeling is about who you are. You no longer feel the remorse that you hurt a friend, you begin to say “I’m a horrible person who can’t keep a friendship. I don’t deserve support”. When you feel the guilt of having lied or cheated, you commit to be truthful and honest, not being pushed into closets again. But when this becomes shame you begin to say “I am lying good-for-nothing. No-one would like me if they knew me, and I can never do the right thing”. Guilt can bring remorse, and with remorse you can change your life for the better. Shame causes people to shut down and regress.

It is not Peter’s guilt that keeps him from moving forward – if anything his guilt makes him wish he could. It is his heart-wrenching shame. His hatred of who he is for denying Jesus.

It is shame that drives Peter back to fishing, making him unable to say “I will change, and become a person of courage, no longer hiding in fear by the fireside”, and keeps him from going sent as Jesus said he should. That same shame was what immobilized Bill Wilson when he knew he must deal with his alcoholism, and that was almost fatal to Troy Perry when he decided he was too filthy as a gay man to be worth living.

How does Jesus respond?

Jesus responds by directly confronting Peter’s failure head on. He does it by doing two things.

First Jesus brings Peter into a situation mirroring moments of Peter’s life with Jesus – where Peter gets a miraculous catch of feet as he did at his call to follow Jesus; and where Jesus makes a meal for the disciples like Jesus did on the night Judas betrayed Jesus & Peter abandoned him. And then Jesus asks Peter three times in that moment, does he love Jesus? These three questions are a chance for Peter to experience saying “Yes” to Jesus as many times as Peter had said no to him, when Jesus denied him at

Jesus’ trial. The risen Jesus confronts Peter’s failure head-on.

So often when we experience shame in our lives, instead of confronting it head-on, we try to hide from it. We may run from it by jumping into new work at our job, in a hobby, or even in the church. We may run from it by jumping into a new relationship, or into bed with someone. We might run from it by diving into a bottle or lighting a joint. Pushing down the shame, hiding from the shame only makes it worse, more immobilizing.

In our relationships with others – whether in our families, or in the church – we do the same thing. We see others slinking away from feeling shame about actions. We say nothing – why bring up the past? Instead of speaking directly to what is happening, we let it go. And people who are hurting slip through the cracks.

Yet Jesus directly confronts what is happening, and to borrow a phrase from Rev. Terry McGuire, Jesus initiates grace. He directly speaks to what has happened, but in a way that affirms to Peter that there is a future for him, that Jesus has place for him in his life, and that Peter can choose a path where the past doesn’t define him. Jesus directly invites Peter to embrace their relationship again.

bill wIn a real this is very similar to what Bill Wilson and Troy Perry experience. While in the hospital Bill Wilson cries out to God saying “God, if there is a God, show yourself!” and Bill Wilson has an experience of seeing blinding light and hearing the words “You are free now”. That moment is a turning point for Bill Wilson where he is able to let go of the past because he knows his relationship with his Higher Power, with life, and the future isn’t defined by his failings. He is not defined by them either. Likewise, when Troy Perry reaches near death, he has the experience of hearing what he feels is the voice of God telling him that God loves him, just as he is, and that God wants him to share with others who, like him, have heard God detested them that God loves them too. For both of them this experience gives them the sense that life is worth living, that they are not disposable, and that there is a future for them. They experience the risen Jesus confronting their shame and guilt initiating grace.

This allows them to learn the lesson of guilt and change the direction of their lives.  You may not have had a visionary experience. In fact I hope you haven’t – a visionary experience is something God usually gives us only after God has tried to quietly speak, guide, influence us and we were too distracted by life’s busyness, too caught up in our own pain and angst, to listen. I challenge you to not wait for that, but instead take time to confront your feelings of guilt and of shame.

Take them to God. Look and listen for God’s response. I believe as you look and listen you will see Jesus reaffirming his relationship with you, letting you know that your failures do not define you, and carving out a bright future with you. As you experience this I think you will find that these broken places in your life that can create shame, when you open up them up to God can become the places where God’s presence shines through. As you let go of the shame, you will find God giving you the power to move forward, at times accepting what you felt was too broken to embrace and other times empowered to change course where mistakes have been made.

How can we as a church help people learn to reach out to God & others instead of letting shame consume them?

Finally after Jesus reassures him that their relationship continues, Jesus invites people to begin his journey forward by focusing on others. He invites them to get outside of themselves.

Jesus does this in a number of ways. First by inviting Peter to share his love for Jesus, Jesus calls Peter to focus on making amends in his relationship with Jesus. Making amends to others we have hurt can be a powerful way to mend our broken relationships and heal the pain of guilt. Shame however immobilizes us so all we do is beat up ourselves, as Peter has been doing to himself.

Next Jesus invites Peter to demonstrate a change by serving others – feed my sheep.

This call to make do something outside of yourself is part of what both Bill Wilson and Troy Perry are led to do in the face of their shame. Bill Wilson begins a process of making amends that later becomes a step in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, because it helps him use his mistakes to learn how to become a healthier person instead of immobilizing him with shame. Then he finds when he helps others work through their problems with addiction, it helps him maintain his sobriety. For Bill this helps him move past shame to a new future, and gives birth the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

troy perryTroy Perry’s experience where the living Jesus told him he was loved was linked with the call to tell others, particularly gay people who were grossly mistreated in his day, that they are loved. In helping others discover that they are loved, in helping work with them to find a place, Troy Perry begins to discover his own self-worth and replace his shame with being gay with a sense he is loved, loveable, and worth respect. His work to follow Jesus’ call births the gay-affirming Christian movement, and to his decision to choose service over shame our church ultimately owes its existence.

This movement the living Jesus invited Peter, Bill Wilson, and Troy Perry to – which we are invited to – is beautiful expressed by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, when he prays: “For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others. The experience of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them. For it awakens the unconditional Yes to life.” (The Source of Life).

Jesus is standing in the midst of our shame, guilt, and brokenness. Jesus is calling us to open ourselves up, to share our unspeakable shame and pain with God, so that we can find those broken places becoming cracks through which God’s light can shine into our darkness. As we do so, we are challenged to reach out to God, to own our mistakes, and seek to turn our focus from how much we have failed to how we can be people healing the breaches for ourselves and others. We are invited out of ourselves, like Peter, into lives of service.

In closing, I want to ask you to listen to a song by Jewel entitled “Hands”. As you do so, I want you to talk to God about whatever shame or guilt is holding you back. Invite God into it. Open yourselves during this time of quiet prayer to God’s presence in the midst of it, and let God embrace you. Look for how you can move outside of yourself toward God and others, and maybe even let your experiences of seeming failure be transformed into a time of service.

After the end of the sermon, I want to invite you take part in a responsive reading as a prayer before communion.

 

Responsive Reading

Preacher: Jesus stands among us, in the midst of our heartache, shame and grief, calling out your name saying, “do you love me more than these?”

Congregation: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Preacher: Jesus calls out, “Feed my lambs.”

(pause)

Preacher: Jesus calls out, “do you love me?”

Congregation: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Preacher: Jesus calls to you, “Take care of my sheep.”

(pause)

Preacher: Jesus calls your name, asking, “do you love me?”

Congregation: “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Preacher: Jesus calls to you, saying “Feed my sheep. I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. But now, my love for others will lead you where you don’t want to go. But do not fear. I am with you always even to the end of the ages”