Week in the Word: Be the Church — A United and Uniting People

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This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 14th,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in lifes journeyAlamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Sermon: “Be the Church:”.  “Be the Church:  A United and Uniting People”.

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 15:1-29

Both our Isaiah reading and our Acts reading tell us of scattered and divided peoples becoming one.  In Isaiah, we see the words of Deutero- or Second-Isaiah, an anonymous return from exiledisciple of the original prophet Isaiah who prophesied after his death and after the exile of the Jewish people by Babylon.   They see how their nation was destroyed, their royal palace flattened, and even their holy temple snuffed out. They see so many of its members become exiles and refugees from their homeland.  Speaking from such a point of exile themself, this un-named prophet is inspired through their relationship with God  to see their situation from a different point of view: now they have the opportunity to become friends, allies, and partners with those with whom they are in exile, tearing down the walls between them, so that they can come to understand the truth and light of God, just as the people of Israel and Judah have.  They imagine a time when this time of being scattered refugees will end and all their people who are scattered will be able to be prophet isaiahunited again. This vision includes a home where even those not yet part of God’s covenant will be welcomed into God’s family, so even those who have been their persecutors will be gathered in and even those now scattered to the most distant islands not yet even listed in any map, shall be welcomed home.   This vision probably is a part of what of what Jesus had in mind when, as a rabbi schooled in the words of the Biblical prophets, he said he had other sheep who were not of his fold of the disciples then with him, who must be brought in, and when he prayed of all these scattered ones that they all could be one as he and his Father were one, the very prayer which we in the United Church of Christ look to as our inspiration for our calling to be a united and uniting people.

In Acts, we see the church in its infancy struggling to live out Isaiah and Jesus’ hefty vision of the family of God’s people being a united and uniting people.  We see the messiness and beauty that comes when they try to be ones who tear down barriers of division so that very different people with different perspectives can be welcomed and treating fairly.   In striving to extravagantly welcome all people as the Spirit showed communion of the saints 3them and us we must, the early church had grown and changed.  No longer was it a tiny group of Jews going to temple in Palestine, no different from those around them but in their shared faith in Jesus.  Now the church began for the first time to resemble what archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “the rainbow people of God”.  There are observant Jews who are committed to the way of Jesus.  There are people who have never stepped foot in a synagogue, who have no clue how to keep kosher, and who more closely resemble in dress, speech, and music the people of their own lands, which include places as varied as Asia Minor, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Ethiopia.   This movement towards extravagant welcome began for these early believers as it had for Second Isaiah, by tragedy and struggle.  The church in rainbow people of god.jpgPalestine went under attack by the powers that be for the ways it was counter-cultural and, in its words and actions, called into question the patterns of oppression in its day.   So Christians scattered, spreading the way of Jesus with them, being the church wherever they went through their actions, welcoming into their communities their neighbors and friends, many of whom looked and spoke and acted differently than them.

When we join these early believers in Acts, this fledgling movement is threatening to come apart at the seams.  Some long-time Christians who can date their faith in Christ to Pentecost itself, are worried about all these new folks joining up and calling themselves Christian. These new believers are people of cultures, races, and backgrounds very different than their own. As they join the faith, they are changing it, shaping it to reflect the needs and backgrounds of  their communities and cultures.   These new Christians and their churches don’t sing, prayer, worship, dress, or act like these original believers who can trace their faith to the days of Jesus.   I can almost hear them sneering and muttering to each other, What is the church becoming? Among these new believers, some still keep some connections to the old time religion of the first Christians. Others are new believers in communities that have never seen Palestine, with no connections to the Jewish culture in which Christianity began.  Some among them are happy to share their faith with these culturally Jewish believers, living and let live, accepting that some need the older more traditional ways of worshipping God; and others begin to feel they are the superior ones.  “We aren’t hung up on their rules, stuck in the past, and are really open to the Spirit”,

In Acts 15, we find representatives of all these different groups of people coming communion of the saintstogether and, with great effort, finding a way to lay their differences aside, find common ground together in their shared faith in Christ, and discover how to work together without having to lay aside the essential truths about who any of them are.  As a more modern voice of faith, the late James Baldwin, has said ““We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The decision they come to makes room for the continued welcome of churches and Christians that are reflective of and relevant to new cultures and times who thus barely resemble church as it once was, while also respecting the needs of long-time believers who value time-proven traditions.  The path they forge allows them all to walk arm in arm with other churches and Christians that understand Christ and worship God differently than they do.   It takes work, it takes listening carefully to all sides, it takes not assuming any one person or group has all the answers, it takes being open to the still-communion of the saints 2speaking voice of the Spirit, to get to this point.   To me, ultimately the way the decision is made, by listening to and valuing the many divergent and sometimes disagreeing voices in the church, is a living out of a principle Hindu faith leader and civil rights advocate Mahatma Gandhi once called “the many-sidedness of truth”.  Rather than truth being one sided, like the top of a table, Gandhi suggests that it is many-sided like a diamond.  To truly grasp the full truth of a situation involves looking at each possible facet, from every possible side or angle.   What Gandhi meant is that God speaks most clearly through us listening to the multitude of perspectives as fully as we can and looking for the truth that unites them all.  As Baldwin’s quote suggests, such listening ought never involve compromising on justice and fair treatment for anyone, especially a marginalized or oppressed person,  but it does involve making space for all people to also be treated with such respect, even those you deeply disagree with, so walls can be torn down and reconciliation come.

In this gathering of leaders at Jerusalem, those gathered  do just that. Ultimately they are stronger together through finding a way to make room for their differences, room to be reconciled to each other, and room to move together as one family in faith, expressed in many different ways.

In our own tradition in the United Church of Christ, finding a 150px-United_Church_of_Christ_emblem.svgunity that reconciles us into one family in Christ without erasing our differences is the foundation of who we are as a denomination.   Our denomination was formed when a number of very different denominations with very diverse ways of worshiping and believing chose to lay aside their differences which could divide them in order to  be reconciled with each other. Stepping out in faith, these pioneers in faith chose to live together out of this unity their shared relationship with Christ brought.

Here in the South working to be a united and uniting church meant in the early days being counter-cultural by resisting the pressure for racial segregation by having historically racially divided churches cross racial lines to gather together for worship, training, and mutual support in our denominational gatherings, even when crossing such lines to stand as one brought threat and harassment.

This call to be tear down barriers, to seek reconciliation, and to embrace both what draws us together in common and also the beauty in our differences, without ann atwater and cp elliscompromising the call to do justice, was beautifully pictured in the life of one United Church of Christ lay-woman, Annie Atwater of Durham.  She was an active member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ in Durham and her faith led her to speak up against unfair treatment of poor members in her community in general and the inhumane treatment of people of color under segregation.

As is depicted beautifully in the recent film The Best of Enemies, ultimately this fight against segregation forced Annie to have to work side by side alongside the then head of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, C. P. Ellis.  As you can imagine, this outspoken activist for racial equity and this then leader of a racist hate group initially butt heads throughout the debate about the future of Durham schools.  Eventually, though, since she never gave up on this relationship, her persistent Christian life of relating to Eliis and others with both what the Gospel of John calls truth and grace,  both truth-telling and compassion erodes Ellis’s prejudices, and he concludes she and the families of color she represents deserve fair and equal treatment, being children of God like he is.  He renounces white supremacy and racism, abandoning the Klan, and joining her in her fight for civil rights for all and tearing down of barriers to racial reconciliation.  When many in the white community in Durham abandon C. P. Ellis for embracing reconciliation, the black community of Durham, including members of her United Church of Christ church, gather around him to give him aid and help him find his way.

I have to admit I hear echoes of this story whenever I hear how many of you here at Life’s Journey have, in the midst of some harassment and name-calling, chosen to stand side by side with members of our community of other races than yourself, as have some of you who have stood with the NAACP though you yourself are white, with people of other sexualities as some of you who are straight have by standing beside the LGBT community, and with people of other faiths as many of you have by standing beside groups like Burlington Misjad when they faced religious discrimination. We need to continue this work as a church.

Yet to be people who are united and uniting people we must not only continue in such areas of strength but also face into the fact that our community around us  remains still deeply divided into haves and have-not’s, too often with much of the money and power in the hands of people of one race, one gender, one background.  We must ask how we as a church together can work to tear down these barriers, working both for equal and fair treatment for all and a reconciling of all as one in our community.

We must also face into the painful truth that Dr. Martin Luther King named when he famously said 10 or 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; and confess not much has changed since.  We must look around our worship service and ask what we have done or have failed to do in order to make our church a place where people of all backgrounds come and experience reconciliation rather than division, a tearing down of walls rather than a building of them up.  We must face into how much we might be still a segregated space and ask God’s help in learning our part in making our church become more and more  a place where God’s kin-dom comes here on earth as in heaven by embracing reconciliation and diversity rather than what just goes along with the tide of the culture around us that further splinters and divides.

I close with words of Martin Luther King from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in which he expresses the heart and vision we need to be committed to being people of reconciliation.  He writes, ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All … are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…”   May we embrace this call to be ones who tear down walls of division, being people of reconciliation here in our church, and throughout our community & world.  Amen & Amen.

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Week in the Word — Be The Church: People of Extravagant Welcome

lifes journeyThis is the message I preached on Sunday, July 7th,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Sermon “Be the Church:”.  “Be the Church: People of Extravagant Welcome”.  Pastor Micah.

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Acts 8:26-40, New Living Translation.

26 As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”

30 Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.

32 The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. And as a lamb is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.  33 He was humiliated and received no justice.  Who can speak of his descendants?   For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” 35 So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus.

36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?”38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.

Friends, These are the words of God for all of God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

Does anything stand out to you in either our Micah or our Acts reading today?

breakbreadIn Take This Bread, Sara Miles tells how her experience of extravagant welcome changed her life.  Growing up, Sara was raised in a home harsh and critical to all things religious, yet she spent her life hungry and searching, a longing she channeled into good things — into her working in kitchens preparing and serving food,  her traveling to Central America organizing the fight for social justice there,  her working as a reporter in war-torn parts of the world, her finding and marrying the woman she loves,  her raising a daughter together with her wife. Yet in all that goodness, her hunger and longing remained, a yearning for something more.  One day after becoming a mother, on a whim, she walked into a church that practiced “open communion,” the practice of saying at the communion Table that whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome there, without question. Sara was welcomed to take of the bread and the cup, even though it was her first time strolling into the church and even though she had a big chip on her shoulder towards religious people.  She was welcomed even though she wasn’t sure what —  if anything  — she believed.  She was welcomed even though she was what some would some folks would call a leftie pink-knick.  She was welcomed even though she was a lesbian.  Though most churches said “you are not welcome here” to people like her, this one said “come, just as you are”.  So she came.  She took the bread.  She drank the cup.   She shared the Lord.  And she kept coming, taking, drinking, sharing.  And it changed her life.

No, she didn’t quit being a writer.  She didn’t quit being a lesbian, or an activist, or a wife, or a mother, or a chef. Rather, at Christ’s table, she discovered that she was made by One who knows her name, One who loved her just as she is.  Sara discovered that if people had a problem with who she was, their real problem was not with her, but with the God who made her.  She discovered how to be all of who she is in a way that reflects God’s love and compassion to the world.  And each time she returned to the table, she found herself welcomed there, just as she was.  Before she knew it, her eyes were opened mother with baby in lead sunsetby her welcome at this table to truly see those around her, including the hungry and hurting in her community.  She began to use what she learned through her years as an activist to organize people in her community to start a feeding ministry where all such hungry and hurting would be welcome, and where no one need walk away hungry or empty handed.  Her one feeding program grew.  As it grew, it inspired another to start, and then another after that, and then still more, creating ripples all through her community.

Such a change in her life, which flowed into such change in her community, all began with that one church being a place where the table was always open to anyone and everyone, a place where there was always room for one more at the family table, a place where whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s Journey, you are welcome.

Today’s reading from Acts tells a similar story of expansive welcome and radical hospitality.  Phillip is drawn by the still-speaking voice of the Spirit out of the comfort of eunuch 3his home and his neighborhood, to a road running out of town, through the desert.  He is drawn there to befriend someone who is not only a stranger to him, but a foreigner to his country.   And though this man from distant Ethiopia is wealthy and in a position of power, this Ethiopian is also a kind of outcast.   Luke tells us this man is returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to try and worship, headed now back to his home county.   Likely he was returning heavy hurted.

Most likely, instead of being welcomed there, this Ethiopian man discovered there that his money, power, and prestige didn’t count for beans.  Likely, after journeying countless miles to be a part of God’s people in worship at the temple, upon arriving there, this man heard instead your kind of people aren’t welcome here.   After all, folks would have told him, the Bible clearly says in Leviticus 21 and Deuteronomy 23 that eunuchs cannot enter the temple and be welcomed in worship.  You can almost hear them as they tell him, it’s nothing personal against you It’s in the Bible, after all. God says, I believe it, that settles it, right?  You are too different. Your skin is too dark.  You don’t fit into our nice categories of male and female, man or woman.   You, man of Ethiopia. Go back where you came from!”

St-Philip and the eunuchNo doubt, he was heavy hearted and feeling rejected, as Phillip came up to him.  Likely this is why he was reading so intently from  the book of Isaiah in our Bibles.  There are just a few chapters distance between the text in Isaiah 53 the man of Ethiopia was reading aloud when Phillip arrived and the slightly later text of Isaiah 56 that promises, despite the prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, ““Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will never let me be part of God’s people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’ For this is what the Lord says: I will bless those eunuchs … who choose to do what pleases me and commit their lives to me.  I will give them—within the walls of my house— a memorial and a name far greater than sons and daughters could give.  For the name I give them is an everlasting one.  It will never disappear!”   Likely the man from Ethiopia had seen or heard this promise in Isaiah and wondered, when will this hope become true for me?  When will I no longer be on the outside looking in?  When will I finally be welcomed, just as I am, within the walls of God’s house?  You can see why this passage about the suffering servant stopped him in his tracks.  This servant was someone he could relate with: one who was rejected as he has been rejected, one who suffered as he has suffered, but all in order to make room for others  to be welcomed into God’s tent as God’s own family.

eunuchWhen Phillip arrived, the words Phillip shared with him connected directly with this man’s burning questions.  He discovered in Christ one who welcomed him, just as he is, fully as God’s child.  He discovered for himself what Paul later would proclaim to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. And when this man asks to be welcomed into Christ by baptism, just as Sara did not encounter a long list of requirements to join Christ at his table, but was told “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, so Philip said the same about the waters of baptism when asked: nothing prevents you.

This story illustrates powerfully that, to truly be the church, we have to be a people where there are no entrance requirements at the door.  Rather, we must say as a church what is written at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When asked, what prevents me from being welcomed through baptism or the Lord’s table? we must learn to say nothing prevents you.

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Yet, as a few of you reminded me this week, such a calling is not just a calling to a welcome in the church but in the wider world, both by moving out of your comfortable bubble and standing in solidarity with people different than you right where they are, and by working to have our communities and our world be places none are excluded, and where every voice matters.  I was reminded of the way we’ve already been living this out as a church first by Mike Lynch, inviting me to join him in standing in solidarity with a new LGBT+ caucus beginning in our community to speak up for fair treatment of LGBT+ people and their families.  What a gift, as a straight man, to be welcomed by our church to go where they are, hear their stories, and join them in calling for a more welcoming world! I was reminded as well by Alice, who reached out to me about her love for how we as a church  have stood side by side, as allies with the local Muslim community, speaking up for their right to be treated fairly, and even helping them find a building for worship.

Friends and family in Christ, we already are striving at Life’s Journey be a welcoming church and to build a more welcoming community.  Let’s continue in this work and grow in it.  Let’s continue to live so whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome at this table, in this church, in our community, and in God’s world.  Amen and Amen.

 

Week in the Word — Be The Church: We Belong to Christ

This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 2nd,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Scripture readingPsalm 8; Acts 1:1-11

Sermon  “Be the Church: We Belong to Christ”

I am grateful and excited to be beginning a journey together with you as your pastor. I know not only can I contribute to our ministry here in Burlington, but each of you great cloud of saints behind preacheralready have been living lives of grace, compassion, justice, and peacemaking from which I can learn a lot and many of you are already rolling up your sleeves to make a difference. As I prayed about what direction to begin with in our journey together it felt important to spend some time considering who we are as a church and where we are called to go. So, today we begin a series entitled “Be The Church”, from the book of Acts. Each week we will look at one aspect of what is involved with being a vibrant church that is presented in the book of Acts.  In addition to exploring these “Be the Church” values from Acts on Sundays, I want to invite those of you who can to join me Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM for our sermon-shaping Bible study where we will be exploring the Scriptures and the values we will be looking in our upcoming sermon each week.  Today, as it is Ascension Sunday, we begin with the Ascension account in Acts 1, starting in verse 1.  Please feel free to read along in your Bibles, or to close your eyes and listen in your seat, imagining yourself as one present on that first Ascension Day, paying attention to what words or images connect with you. However you best hear Holy Scripture, let’s listen to it together.

Acts 1:1-11, New Living Translation

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. 3 During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.

christs ascension4 Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. 5 John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

7 He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

9 After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

These are the words of God, for all God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words, and in this story?

pulse.jpgAs I read this passage, it brings to mind a conversation I had around the time of the Pulse shooting in Florida a few years ago.  Wanting to help us understand why that shooting felt so shocking and traumatic for him, a friend told me and some other friends about his first experience going to a gay bar.  His first visit to such a bar was when there were still few places gay and lesbian people could be open about who they were.  Walking into that bar for the first time, seeing gay men and lesbians openly being who they were, without fear, was like a breath of fresh air for him.  He said to himself “these are my people,” “I can be myself here,” “I belong.” He found a safe space there, where he could be himself without fear.

In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle, also tells a story of such longing to belong.  Boyle tells of his church’s ministry, HomeBoy Industries.  HomeBoy Industries helps young people get out of the gang life and begin to live full and rewarding lives in their community.  Many of these young men and women helped by HomeBoy Industries

first became involved with gangs out of this same hunger and thirst for belonging.  Many of them grow up rootless, in poverty, not always knowing or being connected with both of their parents.   The gang pulls them in, offering them a sense of dignity, worth, connection, and a place in which to belong.  Yet that sense of belonging is contingent on what they can do for the gang. Failing to do what the gang asks to or crossing a rival gang can have life-wrecking consequences, and even sometimes cost someone their life.  Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart tells story after story of people who discover another sense of belonging, a sense of their own value that is not bound up in what they contribute or fail to contribute , but in how God looks at them for who they are intrinsically, as God’s very own children. Such a longing for a place to be yourself, a place to belong, is not limited to people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender nor to those caught up in gangs.   We all have this same longing, to belong, to be accepted, just as we are.

At first glance, it may not be obvious what such talk of belonging has to do with the story of the Ascension.   Yet, when you hear this story in the light of the larger context of Scripture, it becomes clear its message is that, through Christ, you and I – and all creation — belong.

In the Gospel of Luke which precedes and acts as a kind of prequel to our book of Acts, Luke tells how the Holy Spirit comes to a simple unmarried girl who is engaged to a poor man who works with his hands, and invites her to let God take up residence within her – becoming flesh of her flesh, bone of pregnant motherher bone, in her womb.    Mary says “yes” to this invitation. How much more closely can God be with you than this?  When God then appears as that vulnerable child growing in her own body, Mary responds through praying the Magnificat, announcing that God will overturn the oppressor and the tyrant, lifting up those the world has counted out as too small and too weak.   Mary knew God had cast God’s lot with us – with simple ordinary people; with the last, the lost, and the least.  We belong.  We belong now. We belong forever.  In the baby she bears, God takes on a human life of flesh and skin and bones, of growth and of questioning, of friendship and of betrayal, of joy and of sorrow, of hunger and of thirst, of celebration and of sacrifice, of death and of burial, becoming as the prophet Isaiah promised, our Immanuel, our God-with-us.

In his resurrection accounts in both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, Luke goes out of his way to make clear God being with us and for us did not end at the cross.  It is not over, but continues today.  God is still with us. You and I still belong. Luke presents Jesus being raised fully to new life, both body and soul, after his crucifixion. When Jesus appears among people after Easter Day, Luke tells us they see and handle Jesus’s scars.   Jesus eats bread and fish with them, demonstrating he is not a ghost or a hallucination.   Luke eastercontinues here in Acts by telling us how Jesus is taken up into heaven by God fully, body and soul. Whether you read Luke’s accounts literally or metaphorically, his point is clear: God was not just play-acting in Jesus.  Flesh and blood, joy and sorrow, longing and contentment, every very human aspect of our lives God shared in by being born of Mary, were not just some masks God put on and God then placed aside when done.   In Jesus, God cast God’s lot in with us forever and always, making clear we belong to God, so God stands with us and stands with the least and the lost and the last, against any power that seeks to silence and oppress.

God’s casting God’s lot with us is like a woman choosing to become a mother as Mary does.  When this happens, she chooses to make room in herself for another life—one that actually grows in her, in her womb, as flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone.   And – mothers, correct me if I am wrong — that child does not just impact her only the nine months of her pregnancy, or only the fleeting moments she first holds her baby in her arms.   In a real way, whenever a woman chooses like Mary of Nazareth did to become a friend-with-jesus-clearmother, she chooses to throw her lot in with her growing child’s.  No longer is her life simply hers alone.  Forever after her fate is now tied up with the fate of her child’s, so your future is bound up in your child’s.  This is part of why the verses that follow here in Acts make clear that, even though Jesus has already died and risen, Mary continues to be impacted by giving birth to and raising Jesus.  Though he is physically gone after our reading, Mary still joins Jesus’ other disciples in praying and preparing for Pentecost, finding her future wrapped up in her son’s.

My late mother used to express this truth to me by saying – “It doesn’t matter how big you get, how far you move away, how many degrees and letters you get behind your name, whether you become rich or poor,  single or married with armloads of children, I will always be here for you.  You will always be my child and I will always be your momma.

The Ascension shows us that by choosing to come as one of us, God likewise cast God’s lot with us.  Now, always, and forever, God’s future is bound up with ours.  God says to us it doesn’t matter how big or small you feel, how far life takes you away, what good or bad labels the world puts by your name, whether you are rich or poor, single or married with a ton of kids, you will always be by my precious Beloved; and I will always be with you as Savior and Guide.

And it is not just us, but all things belong through Christ. Ephesians 1:4 tells us that, through the Ascension, Christ is now always with us, so we always belong, saying, “And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.” Rather than Ascension Day meaning ascensionJesus is far away from us, somewhere out there, beyond the furthest star, it means instead that Jesus Christ is actually closer than we can imagine, closer than he could be in his earthly life – filling all of life, all of creation, with his Christ presence, so that no matter where life takes us, Christ is already there, ready to help, ready to love, ready to be in our corner.

This truth, the truth that all belongs in Christ, was beautifully captured by St. Patrick of Ireland when he prayed, “Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”  Christ’s ascension means Christ is at the center of all things: all people, all our lives, each of our moments, any situation we face.

We belong to Christ. Wherever life takes us, if our eyes are spiritually opened, we can see Christ there already with us – waiting for us or going ahead of us, ready to help, ready to lead, ready to challenge, ready to comfort, ready to care, and ready to guide. Our calling, Christ says, is to be a witness.  What is a witness?  A witness is one who truly sees, seeing Christ as present through the Spirit wherever we go, in whomever we meet, in every aspect of our lives.  We are to live out of this seeing, living changed lives.  Our words and deeds are to bear witness to the risen Ascended Christ, pointing to his presence in all, to the fact that you and I, and all things, belong; so we and others may more fully awaken to the Christ presence all around us, in our lives and in our world.

Having our eyes open to how the ascended Christ fills all things with his presence so that all belongs brings good news.  No matter where your life takes you, no matter what trials or failures, joys or successes, you face, you are never alone, never forsaken, and always have One in whom you belong.

Yet being such a witness is also a challenge.  Having our eyes open to the fact Christ is now present in and with all, and that all belong in Christ, forces us to ask – if Christ is already present wherever I go, how can I just walk by comfortably, unmoved at the sight of people struggling in poverty in my community?  If Christ is present already in the person being persecuted for the color of their skin or the person they love, how I can honor Christ’s presence if I’m not speaking up for our need to treat them with respect?  If Christ is in each person, how can I look away when refugee children die from inhumane treatment in ICE holding cells, or look away  from the other children suffering from domestic violence right now in our neighborhoods?  If Christ is present in all of nature and all living things, how can I shrug off polluting our earth, and not live as if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof?

Ascension Day is the promise that God has cast God’s lot with us and is still doing so. Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will come as we wait, pray, and witness is the promise God will continue to cast God’s lot with us, and with  all people and all creation, working in them and us, in all who will embrace being such witnesses, and working in us and them to continue Christ’s healing work in our world.

You belong. We belong.  It all belongs.  May we live as such witnesses of this,  today and all our days.  Amen and Amen.

 

Daily Devotional: (Repost) Living Authentically, Living Holy, Living Whole

Recently my wife passed.  To be gentle with myself and give myself time to get back in the swing of editing and choosing what I share from my spiritual journal, I am sharing some oldies but goodies from the devotional.  This one focuses on something my dear wife had to learn to do not just for herself but for others in her work as a pastor, a youth advocate working with bullied/abused youth, and also a queer woman with disabilities: how to find wholeness, live authentically, and discover or build (when not already present) supportive community.

I hope it helps you find wholeness.

Micah

Daily Devotional: Living Authentically, Living Holy, Living Whole

candle under bushelLuke 8:16-25

This reading includes three different stories.

The first is Jesus’ warning about not hiding a light under a bushel. As I first began to read this parable of Jesus, I jump immediately to the version of it I am used to hearing. That one, found in the Gospel of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, says that we must remember we are light and our lights are supposed to shine.   Matthew remembers Jesus’ words as a call to live out fully and visibly the difference Jesus calls us to be. Dare to be different, dare to demonstrate through your actions in visible ways the difference Christ has made in your unseen heart.

I am a bit surprised to see that Luke interprets this story differently. Luke remembers Jesus moving from this example into an explanation that what is done in secret will be displayed visibly for all. This is a call to integrity, to having your unseen life match your public life.

I think about how we can try to present as if we are “better” in the eyes of the world and the community at large than we are. We can try to appear more together, more skilled, more virtuous, more forthright, than others.   I also think of stories like Caitlyn Jenner’s recent coming out as a transgender person. This fact of Jenner’s experience was something kept secret while she was known to the world as “Bruce”, yet it eventually had to come out as a part of her journey to wholeness.   At times we can think that hiding our past, our gifts, our weaknesses, or (as in this case) our true gender identity or sexuality can cause us to look better and get by. Ultimately such secrets can eat us up from the inside out.

I have been learning the last few years while serving more as a chaplain than a pastor, that there is a power in vulnerability about one’s own weaknesses, fears, insecurities.   When we are willing to be open about those parts of who we are and allow others to do the same, there is a way in which our willingness to be vulnerable can build a bridge across which true connection can happen.   Yet to do this we first must be willing to be vulnerable to ourselves and before God.  In truth, a part of why hiding parts of ourselves to others is so attractive is that often we don’t want to face ourselves in all of our complicated, messy journey.

Here is where the other two stories of this reading – of Jesus identifying our new family, and of the storm – tie together for me today.

We fear facing ourselves in all of the messiness and complexity that we are because we fear rejection and loss, and because we fear our lives from abandoning the comfortable patterns we are used to. We fear true honesty with ourselves and others, let alone God, will cause our lives to tail spin out of control.

In truth, at times people do face rejection for their honesty. I know many LGBT folks I’ve ministered to as a pastor and a chaplain who could tell how initially important family members and friends were confused, upset, or even rejecting.   I know of folks who, when they face the reality of addiction and begin to make amends, experience others as not open to this new stage of sobriety in their lives.

jesus and new familyYet living a lie can rob life from our days, stealing our authenticity.   It can cause us to deep down have a despair in knowing the relationships around us are ones that are founded not on others truly accepting us as we are, in all our messy glory, but based on facades. And opening up allows us to connect with those that will accept us in ways that go so much deeper.

So Jesus reminds us that even if we lose some in our circle of connection – family and friends – God provides a wider network of community. Those who follow the path Jesus is laying out find themselves being re-integrated into a community of belonging based on this deeper honesty and truthfulness.

When I talk to LGBT people who come out, this is the truth they share. There are some who reject them, but they find others with whom their already existing connection becomes truer and stronger. They also find new friendships and new “family of choice” emerging out of those who find this from-the-heart honesty and vulnerability life-giving and meaningful.

new familySimilarly in the lives of people living out the honesty sobriety requires there is a new camaraderie that bursts forth among other former addicts who find such honesty is the key to saving their own lives from disaster.

At the heart of such acceptance is a sense that they matter, just as they are. Even though not all coming out or seeking sobriety in such a way would put this feeling in religious terms I believe it has at its heart God whispering to us in our souls the Good News that we are perfectly imperfect, accepted by God in all our messiness and confusion as beloved, beautiful, and worthy. We are children of God in whom God is well-pleased whatever our difference, our vulnerability, our failings, our brokenness, our past, our hidden secrets. They are not secret to God. And opening up about them to others allows us to be true to God about them, inviting deeper vulnerability to God.

This is why we need not fear the storms in our lives such honesty may unleash.   The Living Christ walks with us, riding alongside us on the boat of our souls. When those waves whip up, as they inevitably will whenever we try to change the patterns of our lives to the better, the living Christ can speak the words of peace which may or may not end the storm but will allow us, if we embrace them, to get through the storm to the other side more whole than before.

May you experience that living presence more fully from the depth of your soul, as you and I both walk together into a life of more authenticity and peace. Amen.

Daily Devotional: Tear Down That Wall

Due to my wife’s recent passing, I’m being gentle with myself.  Due to that, I’m posting some oldies but goodies from previous posts on our site.  This is a sermon I’ve shared before.  My wife who passed lived her life tearing down walls.  This sermon focuses on just that.

Hope it helps you find your way this day.

Micah

A Week in the Word: Tear Down This Wall

first christian uccThis week I am sharing for the “Week in the Word” a message I gave Sunday July 19th at First Christian United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC.  First Christian is a beautiful congregation with some very loving souls.  Apparently while he was attending UNC Andy Griffith worked there with the youth and the music programs.  I was blessed to meet one of his former students among the many genuine people at worship.

Here is an audio recording of the message for those who prefer that:

I hope the words of my message at First Christian UCC this Sunday inspire and challenge you.

Your progressive redneck preacher

Micah

kat and mich

Ephesians 2:11-22

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

berlin-1“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.  So spoke then-American president Ronald Reagan as he stood before the Berlin wall, a barrier of concrete and wire separating not just East and West Germany but symbolically dividing the world between two ideologies locked in a Cold War

The author of those words of course was not the President – it almost never is – but instead one of his speech writers.  This writer of the conversation that inspired him to write these words.

After having had German officials asking him not to reference the wall, so that the people could become used to it, he asked friends of his in then-divided Berlin, “Is it true? Have you gotten used to the wall?”

His friends glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, a soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”

berlin09-1That call “tear down this wall!” calling for the dividing wall separating East and West to come down became prophetic.  I still remember sitting spell-bound in a class-room with other kids my age watching as our teacher wheeled in a TV so we could see the many hands taking that wall down brick by brick.  I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing then but I do now– one new people united out of the two. The end of a decades-long Cold War.

Our Scripture reading suggests to us that speech writers’ message became prophetic not so much due to the genius of the speech writer but more because of how it reflected the words of the original peacemaker, Jesus.   Christ is the original one who came preaching to those who are far off and those who are near, proclaiming the walls of division must certainly fall.  In every division we build up to keep others out, to push away those who are different, Christ joins us standing in our midst saying “tear down that wall”.

We still live in a world too divided by walls of fear and misunderstanding.

Just last month, our nation was rocked by witnessing the outcome of building such walls as the news mother_emanual_10was filled with footage of a historically black church in Charleston being shot up by a young white man whose heart was full of hate.  Before that, we saw footage again and again of young people assaulted because of the color of their skin, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York, to within walking distance of the home I once lived in on the Bladen-Robeson County line of North Carolina.

Yet we don’t just build walls that separate us by skin color in this country, do we?   Just a little after the new year, the town I live in was shaken by the death of three young people who devoted themselves to serving the least of these in their community through public service.  These three were killed in cold blood because someone feared their Muslim faith, even though it was that faith which inspired their selfless service.  The gun-shots which killed them were one man’s way to erect a wall to keep people like them out.   Even when our recent Supreme Court ruling tore down walls of division by opening up more equal rights for LGBT people, how shockingly quickly did we see some in our communities began to try to raise walls again with the same worn rhetoric of hate and politics of exclusion!

Even in our own families, painful walls of division can raise their ugly head.  Working as a hospice chaplain, one of the most heart-wrenching things I see is how far too often families come into the chaplain 1hospice torn asunder.  They have not talked to each other for years over events now long forgotten and are scrambling to set things right with the one of them now passing.  Often as a chaplain I am able to help them bridge across this divide, but far more often than I’d wish it is too little, too late.  Illness strikes without giving time to set things right on this side of the veil.

It can look as if division, hatred, violence, are the final word in our world.  In the face of such heartache, Christ appears saying “tear down those walls!’

Multicultural Jesus 1Even in the midst of so much heartache, peace is possible.  In fact Ephesians tells us Christ himself is already our peace, already making now into one new humanity such torn asunder groups by knocking down the walls that divide on the cross.  From God’s side, all that is needed for peace, whether with God or with each other, is already accomplished.  Christ says “tear down these walls” inviting us to be a part of his work.

The starting place in answering “tear down these walls” is realizing that God has already torn down every wall separating you and me from God.   You may have heard over the years that those like you are too different, have no place in God’s family.  Like the Ephesians once did you may feel like a stranger and outsider, exiled from God’s love.

troy perryA man named Troy felt like this.  He felt like an exile, cut off from Christ.  Disowned by his family for who he was, kicked out by the church, Troy decided God must have rejected him too.  Full of despair, he took razors and tried to slit his own wrists. All went black.  When we woke he was on a hospital bed and shocked to be alive beyond all hope.  He opened his eyes with these words echoing in his heart:  “I made you. I love you.  I’ve never rejected you.  Show others the same”.  This experience both saved his life and launched his ministry.  Knowing God loved him despite all who said otherwise, the Rev. Troy Perry became one of the first openly gay ministers in the United States in a day and age when you could be thrown in jail for being gay.  His ministry helped birth the gay-affirming Christian movement which we see at work in our Open & Affirming churches in UCC.  Not only has it helped many LGBT people find faith, but helped inspire the movement for LGBT civil rights behind the recent Supreme Court decision.

What a difference Troy knowing Christ said “tear down this wall made!  What Troy learned in that experience is true for us.  God says to each of us – “I made you.  I love you.  I’ve never rejected you.  Show others the same”.

Answering Christ’s call begins with believing this to be true for you.  Yet this last phrase – “Showing others the same” is part and parcel of the second way we live out this text.

We must learn to live out this grace we are given by being ones who says “yes” to Christ’s call “tear down this wall”.  After the Charleston shooting, a friend from one of our historically black UCC churches put it well.  “You know, folks are scared,” she said.  “After Charleston, when we see some young white man walk into the church, people are going to be on alert.  Instead of opening their arms in welcome people’s first thought will be ‘What is he doing here?  Is he up to no good?  Are we safe?’  And what’s sad is that isn’t what we need right now.  That’s what people like that shooter wanted.  What we need is to all stand together”.  She hit the nail on the head of what tearing down that wall is about, didn’t she?  It is so easy to huddle in fear only with those like us – white folks with white folks, people of color with people of color; straight folks with straight folks, gay folks with gay folks, … you name it … rather than to reach out across the aisle in love.

martin luther kingThe late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it well “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Learning to practice this is not easy, but it is the only way to God’s future for us.

“Tearing down that wall” might mean many things.

In our communities it might mean looking again at how we do education, policing, and other community practices.  How is racial bias coloring what we are doing?  How can we change that?

As churches, “tearing down that wall” can mean beginning to own up to our part in creating division.  Dr. King used to say Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Not much has changed in America these long decades.  We must ask: Are there things as a church we’ve done which helped create divisions over race, over sexuality, over class?  Are there ways we can be more inclusive in our welcome, can partner more across the divides that exist?

“Tearing down that wall” might mean personally looking to ways you might be treating others in ways that push out those you feel are “different”.  This might mean reaching out to build relationships and hear the stories of those who you are avoiding.

“Tearing down that wall” might mean, too, simply being willing to not give up on that person in your life you are tempted to throw in the towel regarding. It might involve being willing to reach out one more time to seek to make amends or to seek to extend grace.  It might mean being willing to say you’re sorry, or to not give up when that one you need to hear “I’m sorry from” aren’t yet willing to.

desmond-tutuAt the heart of the outlook we need to live out is what Desmond Tutu described when he wrote in No Future without Forgiveness that the reconciling lifestyle says “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.  We belong in a bundle of life… A person I a person through other persons.  It is not ‘I think therefore I am’ [but] rather I am … because I belong.  I participate.  I share.”

May we learn to extend this mercy, this grace, this belonging to all people.  May we learn to live out the lives of reconciliation Christ calls us to today, and always.  Amen.

Daily Devotional: Reaching Out While Preserving the Hard Call to Be Transformed

sermon on the mount laura jamesMatthew 8:18-27

I’ve always been struck by what a bad evangelist Jesus is in this text, if evangelism means what I have always heard it presented as: as some sort of ad campaign for Jesus & Christianity, promoting it in a way that will make it popular with the masses or at least accessible and easy to choose to take part in.   Both liberals or progressives like me and conservative Christians like folks in the churches in which I grew up and was baptized all talk about evangelism, often in this way. In conservative churches it is talk of “winning souls” and “spreading the kingdom”. In progressive or liberal churches we talk about “widening the welcome”, “embracing the outcast”, and “removing barriers”.

Sometimes this can mean the sort of beautiful radical welcome Jesus offers throughout his ministry, when he sets down at the table of fellowship both with the well-to-do religious or city leader and the outcast poor, including even sex workers and con artists. It can be like Jesus not waited for people looking for things of the spirit to come to us but going to where they are and reaching out in love, as Jesus does to the Samaritan woman at the watering hole and the many people with illness or disability whom have been ostracized by the community outside the city limits.

But such a focus can also lead toward reducing the very challenging teachings of Jesus down to their least common denominator: heaven when we die, God loves everybody, be good people.   Jesus didn’t get killed for telling people about love, about heaven, or to be good. Many other Jewish preachers said the same without having Rome become fearful of them and attempting to stamp out their teaching with ruthlessness.

Jesus’ teachings radically cut to the heart of our own preconceived ideas about life and how it works. He challenges our expected notions of fairness by painting images of a radical all-inclusive grace of God in his parables which upsets our notions of the well-to-do and acceptable or the gone to far and beyond help, of the hierarchies of power and vulnerability, of the victim and the perpetrator, … well of how our world and lives work.   His example upsets the power structures of his day by living out radical inclusive love in a way that ignores how society has set up its systems of power and demonstrates how another way, which levels unfair patterns of wealth, power, and privilege can happen. He questions the beautiful and pious practice of religion which can become a money-making scheme for the few but is empty and destructive when removed from compassion for actual people.

What Jesus is seeking is not converts but rather transformation — to transform our world starting with the community we live into places in which swords are beaten into plowshares, into a place living out the peaceful vision of healing and reconciliation, equality and inclusion, which the prophets of old dreamed and spoke concerning. For this to happen he does not simply need people joining a movement like one joins a club, signing their name on the dotted line and doing little else. He does not need either people who voice admiration for him with their lips as either a good teacher or as God in the flesh, thinking such voicing of faith in Him gives them a get into heaven free ticket, yet who do nothing at all else with this claim of having faith in Him. No Jesus needs people willing to be transformed, from the inside out, into people who live out these values of a new and different world built on justice, compassion, care for all at every stage of life, and of transforming communities and the earth into places that are life-giving for all people and all living things. And transforming are hearts is no easy task.

So Jesus meets the eager folks saying they want to follow him not with a “good job” or a “welcome home”, not with a big hug like one gets when they come up to the altar with “Just As I am” or an “all are welcome here” like we say in my beloved progressive churches. No, he begins by saying troubling, vexing things which speak right to what this path of following Jesus and transformation will mean they have to give up.   He says things that sound at first like actually setting up obstacles to being welcomed. Of course, I think it is more that he describes what following him *actually* entails.

I am reminded here of the great quote by C. S. Lewis on conversion in his classic book Mere Christianity:

“Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor– that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.

“Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen…”

Lack of gender inclusivity aside (for this predicament he describes is not reserved to only male-identified folks but people of all genders), Lewis hits the nail on the head.   Jesus begins by describing the barriers that exist to following Him not because He is saying we should not as liberals do practice radical welcome or as conservatives do point people toward the path of salvation for their souls but because he is showing what we are radically welcomed into and what salvation for our souls entails. We are welcomed into a path of transformation that is painful, hard, and (though life-giving) entails a sort of death, a dying to our selfishness, our complacency, our indifference, our prejudices, and all the things that keep us from living as those making this earth as it is in heaven and from loving God, ourselves, others, & God’s good earth as Jesus modeled.

To me Jesus’ approach reminds me so much of other spiritual teachers in history who focused on transformation.   Particularly Jesus’ approach reminds me of the example of Christian mystics we know of as the desert mothers & fathers, as well the Buddhist mystics we know as Zen masters.

Both groups would have eager folks show up seeking deep meaningful spirituality but end up first being given hard, paradoxical challenges which could seem to be presenting barriers to the spiritual life but, later, they would find to be the very things that caused them to discover what barriers in their heart they needed with God’s help to remove before they could undergo the transformation which makes spiritual growth possible.

Jesus’ example shows us we need to make sure to remember that spiritual life involves dying to old patterns of thinking and acting in order to be transformed into new patterns. This dying and being raised to new life is the constant pattern of the spiritual life not just in Christianity but in all true spiritual paths.

To be true to this pattern Jesus is giving we need to be open to those voices in our life that question our assumptions, challenge our patterns of life, and push us uncomfortably to look at things we are overlooking. We also need to, yes, continue to practice radical welcome and radically reaching out but not do so in a way that we remove the scandal of the Gospel, for its scandalous nature is like the scandalous statements Zen and monastic teachers used to wake us up to where our hearts have become lax, complacent, or where we simply are not conscious of our barriers to growth.   Jesus again and again demonstrates in the Gospels that we can lovingly reach out without compromising this call to transformation.

For me a part of how I do this is to be honest about my own short-comings and areas in which I see barriers in myself. Admitting I have not arrived but, like everyone else, am on a journey while openly talking about the areas I falter allows dialogue with others about their struggles in ways that disarm their defensiveness (and my own) while opening up awareness to their areas where change or growth is needed.

Another approach I use is to take time to listen to my own questions and challenges in my heart. So often we fear our questions, push them down, and act as if they threaten our own faith. Yet in the Gospels it is often questions Jesus uses to push people out of complacency into real growth. Your vexing questions about your faith and life can be the voice of the still-speaking God calling you to deeper awareness. For an example of someone doing this, check out my wife Katharine’s blog http://www.questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/   In that blog she is openly exploring her doubts and questions about faith & life as a spiritual practice.

What are ways you are learning to open up to voices of others or within yourself that can challenge your preconceived notions? How are you learning to balance radical welcome, pro-active outreach, and also remaining faithful to the Gospel’s scandalous call for transformation?

I look forward to hearing what helps you on your journey.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Quit Worrying about What Is in Others’ Eyes

log in eyeMatthew 7:1-12

“Get the log out of your own eye first” is the phrase that stands out to me as I hear Jesus’ words of challenge this morning.

I have fresh in my mind a few conversations in which someone really is off-putting to me.   As someone with a love for justice and commitment to fair treatment of people, at times when I talk to this person, I flinch.  I think “what will they find offensive again?”  I think “Lord, are they just looking for trouble?”

I blush to admit this, because honestly in our liberal circles in Chapel Hill in which I find myself having this feeling I get the impression admitting such a feeling is taboo.   “We are all good people”, I think we like to say to ourselves, “tolerant and understanding”.  But I think many of us react like this at times in our hearts and are haunted by such feelings. I think too not being willing to openly admit them gives such feelings quite a hold on us they do not deserve.

The word of Jesus cuts through my heart like a knife.  I am reminded by his words that the reaction I am having is one of log in eye 2saying “get the speck out of your eye” instead of pausing to look if there are logs in my own.  And there are.   In honesty, I know there are more times than I want to admit as a white, straight, cisgender man with a lot of education that on a gut level I react out of the prejudices I have been taught by our culture since a little boy.  I know there are times I’ve seen people based on the color of their skin and their outfit, based on what to me appears flamboyant behavior, based on any number of factors, and had a flashing thought of judgment.   I know this is true for every one else too.   When I catch this, I try to “slow” down, to say “where is that thought coming from?”, push aside the messages from our culture haunting my mind, and begin to approach whomever I had this reaction to based on who they truly are instead of what I’ve been indoctrinated by society to see them as.  When I do this, wow! What rewarding experiences happen.

I know from such experiences my own wish for some folks to not analyze everyone’s messaging, communication, and expressions with a fine tooth comb is in fact another defense, an unconscious desire to not have to do the hard work of facing into my own prejudices, to weigh how much I am truly being the compassionate person I wish to be and how much I am blindly living out a cultural script founded on lies.   And sometimes I simply just don’t want to do it.

log in eye criticismThis text reminds me that, yes, it is possible another person is just being sensitive, just looking for a fight – God knows, there have been times in my life I have been just like that, without knowing it!   But my job is not to correct them.  My job is to get my own life, my own attitude, my own thinking right.   I need to be willing to consider I might be wrong.

Both they and me need to step away from the need to change or judge others, but simply to face into our own deep truths of who we are versus who the world says we are.  And in that deep place I believe I will find I am loved by God as God’s precious child, whom God loves, and in whom God is well pleased not for what I have done right or wrong but simply for being God’s own.  I think too I will find that to be true for those that push my buttons and get me tied up in knots.  I think I will find it true for every person.

Let us never lose sight of this fact, and let that lens not our tiredness nor our prejudice color our thinking.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah