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.

Week in the Word — Be The Church: One at Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

lifes journeyThis is the message I preached on Sunday, June 16th,  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: Disciples who are One at Baptism and the  Table.”

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Genesis 18:1-8

The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2 He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.

3 “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4 Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5 And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”

6 So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7 Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8 When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.

 

We continue our series, “Be the Church” today, exploring values of a vibrant church taken from the book of Acts..  I will be reading Acts 2:37-47 from the New Living Translation, and invite you to read along in the translation of your choice, or to listen quietly in your seat, imagining yourself as those first hearing these words.

Acts 2:37-47

37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away — all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”

41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

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

Does anything stand out to any of you either from our Genesis or our Acts reading?

Though we are studying Acts, today I’m drawn first to our Genesis reading. In our Genesis reading, God appears to the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians trinity russiaalike, our father Abraham.  In our Tuesday sermon shaping group, several of us noted with surprise how God neither appears in power and in glory, nor as a single solitary person, to Abraham. Instead, long before the names Father, Son, and Spirit were used in prayer, God appears as three persons all at once, who seem to be strangers passing by Abraham’s tent in the extreme heat of the day in the Arabian desert.  Knowing anyone traveling under such a sweltering desert sun would need shelter, Abraham is moved with compassion and offers these three hospitality.  Jim Bissett pointed out in our sermon-shaping group the historical context: that in this situation whether or not you offer or receive hospitality would have been a life or death question.  Someone traveling in that extreme desert heat could easily die without an offer of the kind of shade, water, or shelter Abraham offers these seeming strangers.  Abraham and Sarah not only welcome them out of the heat of the sun into the shade of their campsite, they also wash their feet, and give them each food and drink from their own table.  Moved by Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, God speaks as these three persons who are somehow also one, announcing to these two their promise that, though they are past child-bearing years and have begun to give up any hope of children themselves, God will yet grant Abraham and Sarah a child and, through this son, the whole world would be blessed.

This story was so important to early Christians that one of the earliest pieces of Christian art is based on this story.   (pass out copy of art) In this painting, the Trinity is pictured as these three who came to Abraham, now gathered around a table of welcome.  The artists holy-trinity-icon-461make clear this story is not only about Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming strangers but just as much about how these three persons who are together the One God are the true host, welcoming Abraham and Sarah and offering them gifts beyond words. This painting is meant to show the Trinity as not just hosts to Abraham and Sarah — but also to all who walk this pilgrim path through the circles of our world. As Abraham and Sarah did, this Triune God welcomes all people out of the blazing heat or freezing cold of their days to find rest under the shelter of their tent at a place at the Triune God’s table, where there is always more than enough to eat and drink, and where all are welcomed as one family.

When we celebrate God as Trinity as we do this Sunday, and as we do whenever we sing our Doxology, we are joining these early Christians in celebrating how, at heart, God is not some lonely judge sitting on a distant throne far removed from our lives dispensing heartless rules and cold judgments; and celebrating how our lives, at heart, are neither merely blind chance nor blind obedience to dogmas or rules.  At heart, God is instead a perfect community which all are invited to join, an embrace of compassion extended to all, a dance of lovingkindness that has existed long before anything was ever made and which will continue long after the world as we know it now winds down and passes away, a love that always makes room for more at the table of mercy. It is love, the love shared by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, that birthed us and our world into being; it is that same love as it is extended to you and to me that gives us the strength to embrace all our joys and challenges with hope; and it is to such love we all long to return, for that love is our heart’s true home.

Yet, though this love is the dance at the center of the universe and our lives, it is something with which we each can lose step and fall out of rhythm. Our Acts reading points us to what we can do to get back in touch with this love of the Creator, The Christ, the-trinity-kelly-latimoreand the Spirit.  Struck to the heart by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, facing the many ways they have fallen out of step with this love which moves lives forward to their deepest fulfillment, people ask what to do to get back to this connection and this rhythm for their lives.  Peter points them toward a change of mind and thinking – which is maybe a better translation of the Greek word metanoia than the word “repentance” in our Bibles, with all it often conveys today – followed by baptism.   This change of mind ushers people into God’s renewal of  their lives, reconnecting them with the love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  Peter goes on to say this promise of renewal is not just for those being baptized by Peter that day but for all who come after them, following in their steps, each and every one of them– even all outside these walls, even those the world had given up on and judged too lost, too last, and too least, no exceptions.

As Annette and Jim both pointed out in our sermon shaping group, too often we think of what Peter describes as a one and done deal — wih is thinking, you’ve said a prayer, been baptized, or come to the altar, and that’s it— you are saved! — when instead changing our hearts and minds is an ongoing process, one which we see the church in Acts constantly needing to go through, each time they get it wrong by trying to put up “you are not welcome here” signs.

Those who accept Peter’s invitation continue being transformed again and again through dinner-table-lconnecting with the love of the Trinity which is at the center of their lives.  They do so through taking part in specific actions that help keep them connected with , grounded in, and growing in God’s all-inclusive love: they listen to the apostles’ teaching, they embrace fellowship or solidarity with each other despite differences, they share meals and resources together including the Lord’s supper, and they pray together.  As a few in our Tuesday night group pointed out, the rest of Acts make it clear that, like most of us, even as he preaches these words,  Peter himself  even doesn’t completely get them. Throughout Acts, Peter again and again has to return to these sources of connection and renewal to begin again whenever he loses sight of God’s love for all.

These activities that Luke highlights are what theologians call means of grace – a 50 cent phrase for practices that help us remind ourselves who we are and whose we are, and help us find our place again back in that dance of creation, that movement of love, that embrace of kindness, that is our own true home.   If even Peter and the apostles need to reconnect with this flow of love, so must we.   Just like these first believers did, we need to consider what practical acts we can put in place in our individual lives  and our lives together to slow down our busy lives, quiet the noise around and within us, to return home into the rhythm and dance of the love of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.

When we are baptised or confirmed — which I remember some of you recently saw happen to your grandchildren! — we remind ourselves how God said over Jesus at his Baptism-of-Christ (1)own baptism “this is my child whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”, while the Spirit came over Jesus like a mother dove enfolding her chicks under her wings.  We are trusting the promise that God the Trinity enfolds us too in this same embrace of love — each and every one of us — announcing through Christ we too are God’s own children whom  God loves, in whom God is well pleased.

When we pray and listen to Scripture, which is where we find the apostle’s teaching today,  together, we quiet the noise of our world and our worries.  We remind ourselves who we are from God’s perspective.  As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting” love.

When we take the Lord’s supper together, we remind ourselves at that table that we are not intended to be alone.  We are made to bear the image of the God we know as Trinity, desmond-tutua God who is not some lonely hermit in the sky but a community of love, open to all.  At Christ’s table we are reminded we can only discover who we are as bearers of that image when we stand together in friendship and in solitary with others, especially those very different from us. As  Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa during the end of apartheid, reminds us, “… the essence of being human” is “that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.”

As a number of people pointed out in our sermon shaping group, as beautiful as such a vision of openness and community is, it is also messy.  Being open to others is not always easy.  Standing in solidarity with others, sharing our lives, our resources, our finances, with them, is both risky and sometimes costly.  Like Jesus, you and I can be hurt, can be forsaken, when we go down that route.  I bet if I asked around this room, many of you would have stories aplenty to share about just this painful truth.

What’s more, unlike Jesus and the Trinity, you and I will fall short and make mistakes — we will fight, we will argue, and we will have conflict in our attempts to be this kind of forgive 2community. You can take that to the bank!  God’s Table of mercy reminds us there is always forgiveness from God bigger than our failings.   None of us can fall too far or do too much to return home to love of the Trinity. God’s love and mercy allows each and every one of us to begin again. No matter what.  That is good news!

Yet these ever open arms of welcome by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are not only good news but also a challenge.  For, to embody this love together, to move in step with it, we also have to make space for all, even for others who have failed us, even those who have us caused us harm and betrayed us, being ready to begin again with them too, welcoming them back to us as God in Christ has welcomed us back again and again.   No wonder we need to be connected with the Triune God’s love, mercy,  and transforming grace!

Ultimately, slowing down from the busyness of our lives like this to connect or re-connect to God and each other through these means of grace opens us up more fully to life itself.   Our challenge, as we explore how to “be the church” together, is to explore how we can do this together, how we can discover ourselves as one at baptism and table, as one with God and each other, and one with all God’s creation and all people, through these means of grace.   May we embrace this love, this welcome, this full and fulfilling life together today and all our days.  Amen and Amen.

 

Daily Devotional: Beyond Mere Appearances

coffee-prayer-scriptureLuke 7:36-50

The stark contrasts of this story stand out to me.

On the one hand we have the good, Bible-believing religious folk who host this meal Jesus is at.   They not only try to do good deeds and be honest people, but also to avoid every appearance of evil. They keep the standards of propriety that are prevalent in their day.

Then Jesus, who too says he is one who honors the Bible and its God.   Yet at their meal he allows every rule of propriety to be broken. The woman whom all around him claim they know is a woman of ill repute.  She lays down before Jesus, using oil and her own tears, to wash his feet. Washing feet is an odd ceremony. On the one hand, it is the hospitality usually afforded by a host to his or her guest in the ancient world. As such it can be a standard hospitality – but usually extended by host to guest, not by random stranger barging into the meal (again breaking propriety) to guest.

Yet the way it is done has a sensual quality we overlook. That she uses her hair, and tears would have drawn connotations for the crowd. In Jesus’ day washing feet can also, in another context, be a euphemism.   This is why my many scholars think when Ruth greets Boaz in secret and uncovers his feet it is a description of a sexual encounter.   This is not a sexual encounter between Jesus and this woman whose reputation proceeded her, but with that reputation this scene would have had all those connotations to the audience.   How obscene it looked to them!

mary magdalene washing jesus feetYet Jesus is far less concerned about the outward appearance of the situation. Jesus can see into the hearts of those gathered. He knows this woman who is throwing herself at his feet is not making a sexual advance, as these good Bible-believing religious folks jump to the conclusion of assuming. He sees her heartbreak, and longing for forgiveness. Probably, yes, from God but also to be able to forgive herself and let go the guilt and shame she carries not just in the community’s eyes but in her own.

And so Jesus breaks with another religious convention – and both corrects his hosts (How rude! Doesn’t he know they are footing the bill!) and proclaims the woman forgiven.   This proclamation of forgiveness is his most shocking act of all. After all, we read this text and immediately see Jesus as the Christ, who in our belief as Christians is God-as-man-with-men-and-women-dwell. To the crowd, he is a good Bible preacher. A man like you or me, whom they are still evaluating.

Who does he think he is to proclaim this woman forgiven? Surely, if she went to the temple and made the appropriate sacrifices, perhaps than a priest could proclaim her penalty paid. But without having paid any penalty to the religious authorities, this preacher man can have the presumption to claim to speak for God.

I think the Gospel of Luke wants us to walk away with the message that Jesus is God in the flesh, Savior of the world, and most Christians believe this, and for us this explains Jesus’ actions. However I think there is something to be learned if we keep entertain the lesson Jesus’ interactions would teach us if we act as if that knowledge was not yet known, since Jesus’ Divine identity & mission are not fully revealed during his ministry according to all the Synoptic Gospels. In fact, Jesus is described in the Synoptic Gospels as repeatedly squashing proclamation of him as Savior, Son of God, through most of his ministry.   So I think there is a way to understand Jesus’ boundary-breaking proclamation to her that she is forgiven in a way that goes in line with him as a human, which we can imitate

jesus hugsYou see Jesus knows and proclaims the mind of God. The Gospel message is that God through Christ is forgiving the whole world.   The reason God comes as flesh and blood, as a human being like you or me, is to reveal that God is busy with the business of extending forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and liberation to all people.

Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that God is not holding our sins against us, like some great burden from above about to fall upon us. No, God is waiting ready to forgive. Already before Jesus came with the Gospel message, the prophet Isaiah promised that if people come truly broken-hearted for their sins, committed to changing the pattern of their lives, and cry out to God, God will wash away the filth of their sins so they may have cloth as clean as white linen sheets.

So if Jesus sees the woman truly penitent he can proclaim, as a man, “you are forgiven”, based on the sure and certain promises of God.   And so can we. When we are broken hearted over sin, crying out for forgiveness, truly desiring change, we can know in that moment God forgives us. When we see others do the same, we can remind them – you are forgiven. For God promises. And you don’t have to go to the temple first, or the church, and make some offering to make it happen.   It is already there, free and available to you by faith. Any amends you make is to live out the change occurring in your heart, not to earn what God gives as a free gift.

To me this challenges our need to keep up the appearance of religiosity and acceptability.   The religious folks who host Jesus’ dinner have that, and it covers up their own areas they are holding back from God. After all, how do they know this woman is of ill repute? Unless they have had inappropriate relations with her themselves, a sin, or engaged in gossip, yet another sin. They are not as bad as some commentators make them out to be, but they are certainly not as sinless as they would like Jesus to think. Their propriety keeps them from seeing their own need like this woman to cry out for forgiveness and seek change in areas of their lives it easy to deceive themselves and others into thinking aren’t so bad.

And what’s more, they fail to be able to exercise the compassion Jesus does – to see this woman not as some label of sinner, woman of ill repute, bad person but instead God’s child, their sister, one like them who is imperfect and in need of mercy but who can also be a person of great blessing and potential.

Jesus sees this and extends mercy – both to her, by accepting her cry for forgiveness and reminding her of the promise that it is given as soon as she asks; and to them, by calling them out of their propriety into true relationship with God and others.

This I think is the challenging thing that God is calling you and me toward. May we embrace this day and all our days.

A Week in the Word: Mary, Mirrors, and Dead Weight

I’m continuing in my “Week in the Word” feature to highlight messages I gave in a series on our new life in Christ following Easter, 2013, at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville where I was serving.

I hope it blesses you this week!

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

micah spring hat

New Life In Christ, Part 2: Mirrors and Dead Weight

Risen Jesus speaks to MaryHappy Easter! He is Risen! Though often we fail to recognize it, is still Easter.  In the Christian year, Easter is not just one Sunday but continues for 40 days until Ascension Sunday, ultimately climaxing in the celebration of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Can anyone remember what we talked about last week?

As you may recall we are talking about the new life Jesus’ resurrection makes possible for you and for me. We mentioned that we would each week until Pentecost look at a different time one of Jesus’ followers encountering Jesus risen from the dead offering new life to help see what is possible for us with the new life we have in Christ.

Today I want to look at the story of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John 20, verses 11-18.

John 20

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

African version of Jesus with Mary in GardenWhat are some things Mary’s experience of Jesus taught her about the new life Jesus is offering her?

First of all, Mary Magdalene’s story suggests that new life in Christ shows us that God already loves us and already believes in us.

Mary’s back story helps us The description in Luke 8.2 of Mary as one from whom seven spirits had been sent out suggests Mary had some sort of mental illness when she met Jesus, since that was a common description for what we call schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder in Jesus’ day. Such illnesses rarely just happen.

Usually someone is deeply hurt to get in such a place. Likely Mary Magdalene had experienced years of abuse, mistreatment, heartache and rejection before she became mentally ill. Likely she experienced even more after she got the title “Mary with the seven spirits” – crazy Mary! – from those around her. Yet Jesus was different. When Jesus met her he had not judged her. He loved her for who she was. He had shown her a compassion she had never seen. He had treated her as a child of God,

dear, loved, accepted just as she was. When she met Jesus somehow she was changed. The Bible doesn’t explain how that mental illness no longer wrecked Mary’s life, only that Jesus healed it. I wonder if it was less a miracle in the form of hands being set right and more a miracle of the quality of his love. His love was so deep, so true, so healing, that Mary could not but experience and begin to be healed. Around Jesus Mary was no longer crazy Mary but loved Mary, embraced Mary, respected Mary.

AII80457Experiencing this healing power of love is a part of what your new life in Christ, when you embrace it, can do for you.

James Allison, one of my favorite theologians pictures the difference between the love our new life in Christ gives us and the love the world has taught us to expect in our old life in the following dialogues.

First, here is one picturing our Old life–

False god: I want to love you, but I can’t love you as you are, because you are sinful and objectively disordered.

Self: Well, what then must I do to be loved?

False god: You must become someone different.

Self: I’m up for it, show me how.

False god: Love isn’t something that can be earned, it just is.

Self: Well then how do I become the sort of person who can be loved?

False god: If I were you I would start somewhere else.

Self: That’s a great help. How do I start somewhere else?

False god: You can’t, because even starting off for somewhere else starts from you, and you can’t be loved.

Self: Well if I can’t start off from somewhere else, and I can’t start off from where I am, what can I do?

False god: Give up on the love thing; just obey and be paralysed.

The new life Jesus offers, which Mary has already experienced, is so very different.

Notice is Allison’s dialogue about the New life Christ makes possible –

Unambivalently loving God: I love you.

Self: but I’m full of [garbage] how can you love me?

Unambivalently loving God: I love you.

Self: but you can’t love me, I’m part of all this muck.

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: how can it be me that you love when I’ve been involved in bad relationships, dark rooms, machinations against other people?

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: But …

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: But …

Unambivalently loving God: it’s you that I love.

Self: OK then, so are you just going to leave me in the [garbage pile of a life]?

Unambivalently loving God: Because I love you, you are relaxing into my love and you will find yourself becoming loveable, indeed becoming someone that you will scarcely recognise.

Self: Hadn’t I better do something to get all ready for this becoming loveable?

Unambivalently loving God: Only if you haven’t yet got it that it’s I who do the work and you who get to shine. Because I love you, you are relaxing into being loved and will find yourself doing loveable things because you are loved.

Self: I think I could go along with this.

The power of God’s love heals Mary … and in your new life in Christ, a powerful love is available that when you embrace it is healing for you.

middle eastern mary magdaleneYet this new life does more. There are suggestions within the Gospel that Jesus not only loved and accepted Mary, but also drew her in as one of his own students, teaching her the Gospel and the Scriptures. Outside the Bible early Christian writings tell stories of Mary Magdalene sitting at Jesus’ feet as a student of a rabbi, learning to teach the Bible for herself. Early Christians later call Mary Magdalene an apostle just like Peter, James, and John. Not only did Jesus love her with an unconditional love that helped her accept herself and heal from whatever abuse she had faced but Jesus also believed in her. When others looked at Mary Magdalene they saw a failure, a broken woman, a crazy person. When Jesus looked at her he saw potential. He saw a woman who could be counted on.

He saw someone whom God had a plan for. A woman who can be counted on.

God believes in Mary when no one else does. God believes in you. Turn to someone and say “God believes in you more than you believe in yourself”. Turn to someone else and say “With God all things are possible for you”. This is a part of what new life in Christ is about.

Not only does this speak to us about our broken pasts. But also as a church we say our mission is to welcome all people, without prejudice, into finding their place in God’s family. What can we do to let the Mary Magdalene’s of our community find their place in God’s family, despite everything the world says about them?

Secondly, I think its important to notice that she is shown that seeming ends and broken places can be places we experience this new beginning.

mary magdalene kinda native american lookingMary Magdalene already had a lot of broken places in her life, as we just discussed. And now Jesus, the first one to believe in Mary, the first to show her unconditional love, had been taken from her – beaten, left for dead. To Mary it must have looked like an end, another broken place in our life. To Mary this new life in Christ must have looked like a dead end all of the sudden. Yet in encountering the risen Jesus Mary finds out things are not always what they appear.

Early mystics used to say that God allowed broken places in our life not to harm us but so they might become windows through which the light of God shines through. Now coming to the tomb Mary doesn’t see signs of death but is surrounded by signs of new life: She sees angels like the ones who appeared to the prophet Daniel proclaiming a new day was dawning. She sees Jesus alive again – appearing like a gardener who brings life out of dead ground. That Jesus is like a gardener is important because Adam was created as a gardener. This is a sign of God has begun making all things new.

What looked like the ultimate brokenness is not an end but a new beginning. Through the resurrection life Jesus gives Mary, her broken place has become a window through which God’s light shines through.

What is your broken place? The fact that you have been born again to living hope means that if you open yourselves to the light of God in this dark place, the brokenness you feel need not be your end but can become a window through which God’s light shines into your life and, through you, to others.

As you invite the new life Christ makes possible into that broken place it can become a window, a place in your life God’s light shines.

black mary magdaleneFinally a part of entering new life is to quit clinging to the old. Jesus hints at this when Mary so glad to see him greets him with his old name – Rabboni, or teacher– and grabs on to him, literally clings to him so as to not let go. Mary in some way wants to hang on to how she had come to know Jesus and who it had made her be.

On the one hand, who can blame her? Jesus had loved her like no-one else. In a land where she was known only as crazy Mary, in a world where women were to be seen not heard, Jesus had taken Mary on as his student, breaking all the rules to teach her Scripture, and to equip her just as much as the men in his life to be able to teach the disciples.

Mary saw Jesus and hoped this meant she could cling to him, and keep to the life she knew. Jesus says – no, you cannot cling to me. You cannot cling to how you have known me – as teacher – or how you have known yourself – as student. You certainly can’t cling to the names the world gave you of crazy, of useless, of worthless. Instead you must let me go ahead of you, prepare a place for you, and then you must follow me into a role of life, a place of life you could not expect.

It is easy for us to do as Mary and try to cling to our past, or dig our heels into our present. Even though the new life is available to us, we can refuse to embrace all its benefits when we do this. We can cling on to the way of relating to God we always have had. We can cling to those old patterns of life that are destructive. We can live in the past, reliving over and over again our abuse, our heartache, our pain. We can continue to stay hooked on the bottle or the pill. We can even cling by clinging on to a picture of Jesus or a way of worshipping or serving God we have come to be comfortable with,

forgetting that Jesus always goes ahead of us, preparing a place for us, calling us to follow him out of our comfort zones to something new.

What are you clinging to, instead of letting it go so you can see Jesus go ahead, prepare a place for you, and call you out of the comfortable into the new?

I have placed two things in this room I want you to engage with as we close.

First in the corner I have placed a big cardboard window. Take a moment as we end and go to the window and write down a broken place in your life right now. As you do so invite the life of Christ into it, so it can become a window through which you see God. Take time to ask and look for God each time you face that brokenness, so God can show you how it is becoming a window.

Also I have placed strips of paper on the table beside them. I want to challenge you as we conclude, to think of what things you have been clinging on to which have kept you from fully entering into the new life God has for you or, if you have entered it, what comfort zones you are clinging to that keep you from fully being God’s light and love to others.

Take time to figure out what it is. Write them down on the slip. And then pray a prayer giving that to God. When you feel you have – whether this week, next month, or next year, come back here and lay that strip on the altar to God.

Tuning into the Sacred Song: Our Week in the Living Word

breath prayerOne of the spiritual practices I journal on is the practice of breath prayer. Breath prayer is a type of Christian prayer practice in which one uses the words of Scripture as a way of wakening a mindfulness to God, to yourself, to your world, and your life. Through meditation on your breath, and on the words of Scripture you push away the distractions and come to carve out a sabbath space, a place of rest in your busyness of life where you can more fully experience yourself and also God as present in, with, under, and through you.

Here are some marvelous websites offering an introduction to the practice of breath prayer:

http://tenwaystopray.com/home/breath-sophrony/practice/

http://www.soulshepherding.org/2011/12/breath-prayers-with-jesus/

http://www.thefellowship.info/Pray/Prayer-Practices/Breath-Prayer/

My own practice, since I think our spiritual life is deeper when grounded in community, is to select a verse from one of the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of weekly readings of Scriptures used in churches of all varieties of denominations to guide the preaching and worship planning for each week. This grounds my practice of breath prayer in a spiritual life wider than my own concerns: first to the wider spiritual life of the church where I worship, which uses the lectionary, and most importantly to the spiritual pilgrimage the Christian community throughout the world is going through each week.

bible_study_groupObviously the verse I share for breath prayer this week on my blog is from many weeks ago, so not in step with the specific week you read it today. I’d invite you to not just read the journal thoughts I’ve written but also to use this verse for your own week of prayer, joining me and joining the wider Christian community into a journey of deeper spirituality.

To help us on this journey, before I share my own journal of thoughts flowing from breath prayer I’d like to share the thoughts of Father Richard Rohr, whose spiritual reflections have deepened my own walk of faith.

From The Naked Now:

woman_praying1“The traditional and most universal word to describe a different access to truth was simply ‘to pray about something.’  But that lovely word ‘prayer’” has been so deadened by pious use and misuse that we now have to describe this different mental attitude with new words.  I am going to introduce a different word here, so you can perceive prayer in a fresh way, and perhaps appreciate what we mean by contemplation.  The word is ‘resonance.’  Prayer is actually setting out a tuning fork.  All you can really do in the spiritual life is get tuned to receive the always present message.  Once you are tuned, you will receive, and it has nothing to do with worthiness or the group you belong to, but only inner resonance and a capacity for mutuality. (Matthew 7:7-11)  The Sender is absolutely and always present and broadcasting; the only change is with the receiver station.

“Prayer is indeed the way to make contact with God/Ultimate Reality, but it is not an attempt to change God’s mind about us or about events.  Such attempts are what the secularists make fun of – and rightly so.  It is primarily about changing our mind so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within us.  The small mind cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were.  The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels.  Like will know like.

“Without prayer, the best you can do is know by comparison, calculation, and from the limited viewpoint of ‘you.’  Prayer, as very traditionally understood, knows reality in a totally different way.  Instead of presenting a guarded self to the moment, true prayer stops defending or promoting its ideas and feelings, lets go of any antagonistic attitudes or fears, and waits for, expects, and receives guidance from Another.  It offers itself ‘nakedly’ to the now, so that your inner and aroused lover can meet the Lover.  Now you surely see why you have to allow some major surgery in your own heart, mind, and eyes to even pray at all. (see Matthew 5:23-26)  Prayer is about changing you, not about changing God.

images-of-jesus-praying-to-godx“Most simply put, as we’ve seen, prayer is something that happens to you, (Romans 8:26-27), much more than anything you privately do.  It is an allowing of the Big Self more than an assertion of the small self.  Eventually you will find yourself preferring to say, ‘Prayer happened, and was there’ more than ‘I prayed today.’  All you know is that you are being led, being guided, being loved, being used, being prayed through – and you are no longer in the driver’s seat.  God stops being an object of attention like any other object in the world, and becomes at some level your own ‘I am.’  You start knowing through, with, and in Somebody Else.  Your little ‘I Am’ becomes ‘We Are.’  Please trust me on this.  It might be the most important thing I am saying …”

May these words inspire you into deeper openness to God as you join me in experiencing the living Word who is Christ present in the depths in, with, under, and through all of our lives.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

redneckpreacher

I picked Psalm 138:8 from the lectionary for my breath prayer mindfulness meditation this week — “The LORD will fulfill God’s purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands”.

Day One.

hanging-by-a-threadFeelings of distress and concern about things out of control, people in my life in pain that I cannot help, and uncertainty about the future rise to the surface with these words.   I am drawn to the words “will fulfill God’s purpose” and “do not forsake the work of your hands”. I see people in my life whom I know are the work of God’s hands that I love immensely, yet whose bodies betray them. Their health hangs in the balance, like Jonathan Edward’s proverbial spider on a thread. Their health struggles stem from how their body was formed. I hurt to see them hurt, and I cannot but wonder at times: has God in fact begun forsaking the work of God’s hands? Will God let them fulfill their purpose? On better days it is clear: if God is love, as I have experienced God to be, than surely God’s love for them is not less than my own. It must be deeper and wider.   Yet it is hard to trust isn’t it? Hard to accept that others whom you love have their fates hanging in another’s hands? That is the life of faith, the only way forward: to trust, to cling to the promise and embrace the all-surrounding presence of love even in the moments of fear and darkness.

Also these lines connect with my own feelings of inadequacy and fear of being a failure. I’ve tried my best to try to serve God, to answer what I believe was God’s call on my life, yet often it has not worked out in the way I’d hoped or dreamed. When this happens, it is so easy to wonder if you are forsaken. And even the best of us, knowing in our heads it is not true and God will bring all things to the good if we continue to trust, struggle. Despite knowing these things, we still feel that insecurity and pain, having seen how fickle human love and friendship can be. Thank God that God’s love is without limit, a sea with no bottom, a grace without end.

Day 2.

FriendshiphelenkellerAs I enter into meditation, I feel the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of many of the new opportunities in front of me. My fear of failure floats to the surface, as well as my deep helplessness about health crises a number in my family are facing. The line “steadfast love” grabs me, like a friend holding me close when I might otherwise fall. I notice my own fear. I fear that someone who promises to be there for me might let me down, a fear borne of hard experience. I hear the promise God has given of a love that is not shaken. I hear this is a commitment to me borne of love which will not be forgotten and dropped. I have to admit to have not known much love like this in my life, although there are some people who have truly lived out this faithful love. This love remains, ever faithful and true, as regular as sunshine in the morning or golden and crimson leaves falling in a southern autumn. I thank God for the reminder of this love, and for the glimpses of it I have seen in relationships that are dear to me.

Day 3

Beginning my meditation, I felt the many worries about things I have to get done at this transition in my life rise to the surface, making felt the many things I fear I cannot accomplish, and the oh so much that is simply out of my hands yet affects me and those I hold dear. I hear the words “the LORD will” and it resonates with my spirit. I am reminded that as much as I fear my own failure or my own inability to handle x, y, or z, I know that ultimately it is all in the Creator’s hands and God is able to navigate through these uncertain waters. Though I feel that I do not know where resources will come from for certain needs, I know that God is the one who brings water from the rocks and manna from the desert floor. I know that though, like Israel, I might need to cry out my feelings of anxiety, fear, hope, and despair, God is steadfast and will not forsake me. I pray for God’s hands to hold me up when my heart is trembling, feet unsteady. I pray for the ability to see this promise even when I do not fully see its outcome. I pray the same for you, too.

Day 4.

love wendell berryWhat stands out to me is the phrase “your love … endures forever”. I’m watching alot of things I felt were permanent in my life pass, including losing some folks who have been fixtures of my life.   I think there is a part of me in times like this one which feels the question “what is lasting?” almost palpably. People pass, and drift apart — from each other, from me, me from them.   So many things change and fade.   In times of transition my heart looks for what is steady to lean on. My meditation allowed my feelings of anxiety, loss, grief, to come to the surface. Yet it also reminded me that God is ever, always, reaching out arms of love to us. There is not a time that God is not near us, closer than the air that we breathe and the blood in our veins, God’s touch more intimate than the sun’s warmth on our face or the breeze in our hair. We are never alone, though times we feel it, alone in God’s presence and alone in a crowded room of family and friends, as much as alone on our porches, coffee in hand. This love is steady, constant as summer rain or spring breeze.

Day 5.

As I begin my time of meditation, feelings rise to the surface like oil upon water. My soul is soaked by feelings of oil on waterworthlessness. When I struggle with things I cannot control and feel out of my depth these show up, rising to the surface.   As I meditate, I feel these feelings rising through the silence, feelings rooted in my not yet finding work, rooted in my feelings of helplessness dealing with family health issues, rooted in my difficulty knowing how to help some people close to me with relationship problems.   Yet as I meditate on these words, I am reminded by them that I — and all of these situations — are in the Maker’s hands. I am reminded God’s word to me is always, ever, love and faithfulness. I am reminded the future and the present are not all up to me. I am reminded that God’s love is deeper than my own not just for myself but for those I hold dear.

I hear a voice whisper, “let go”. Letting go and trusting is never easy for me, but deep in my soul I whisper “I’ll try”. I hope as you struggle with whatever lies before you, you are able to rest in the knowledge you are held by the arms of love, the embrace of Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit for you.   Remember you are embraced and not alone.

Day 6.

hurricane in southMy uncertainties and fears about the future spun like a storm cloud around me as I began to meditate upon these words.   I realized as I did so that sometimes the thought of God having a purpose or a plan for me is tarnished by my experience of others with their plans for me, their ulterior motives, which ended up souring good relationships, leaving me feeling manipulated.   At times when I am fearful or uncertain, thinking in terms of God’s plans for me can get lumped together with these relationships which went sour.   Yet as I continued to meditate, these words rolled over me, each one being like the next part of a warm winter coat sliding over my arm, elbow, shoulder, until I felt covered enough for any blistering breeze.   I began to sense a nearness of love, and notice the words “steadfast love … endures forever.” I hear in that phrase the promise of not being forsaken. I was reminded God’s plans have no ulterior motives. They all are aimed at me being loved, as I am.   I was reminded that this is a promise not to be manipulated by another, but that I will never be forsaken. God’s plans for me are not contingent on me fitting another’s box, but wholly and completely a part of me being truly who I am. After all who I am is the work of God’s hands that God will not forsake. That is a word of encouragement and of peace in difficult times.

Day 7.

BroodySpirit3So often we experience love as fickle, knowing first hand the inconstancy of others and life.   Sometimes this inconstancy is so palpable. I feel it right now, like an ache in my bones, as I see people I care for struggle and am helpless in the face of their struggles to change them. While I face this helplessness, my old fears not only rear their heads but are strengthened by the heartache of actual loss, grief from friends who passed far too young, far too unexpectedly. During my meditations on this passage today, the words “will”, “steadfast”, “endure”, and “forever” stand out to me.   They are like the whisper of the Almighty in my ear, the sheltering wings of the mothering Holy Spirit about me, the promise “I will be with you always” of Christ upon ascension hill.   It is easy as we watch Christ alight on wings to glory to believe those words, and easy as the Almighty parts the sea to believe in his deliverance, and so easy when the mother Spirit falls like fire from heavens in divided tongues over our head to trust Her embrace.   Yet those promises only are meaningful when we wonder at Christ’s tarrying, when we wander through a desert time unsure of fresh water springs, when our experience of Spirit is groans and sighs beyond solace and beyond words.   My meditation reminds me that God’s love will never falter, never turn. God remains ever, always near at hand, even though not always visible or palpable. I am reminded that allowing fear of what may come, and regret of what has passed, to brighten my horizon with orangey hue of twilight haze will keep me from seeing the sparkling beauty of what is in this moment.   There is joy, love, beauty, and friendship alive, here, in this moment and in this place. There are friends new and old alive and at hand, and those who’ve passed are also alive and present in the Spirit with Christ, their love not ending.   There is love, romance, friendship, family, all near at hand too.   I hear the voice of the Spirit calling me in my meditations to embrace the joy of the moment, even when that joy comes in sorrow or struggle, and to trust in the embracing love of God for me and all whom I love.

Discovering a Life Transformed into Prayer: Our Week in the Psalms

8-1_tabernacle-entranceThis week our reflections come from the Psalms.   The Psalms are not just intended to be read. They are the prayers and songs of worship of Israel and, by extension, also of the church.   They were the prayers and hymns Jesus and the early Christians prayed, and which unite Jewish and Christian people of faith across the ages.  To rightly understand the Psalms we need to find ways to make them our own prayers.   Some people do this through praying them as their own words to God. Some do it through journaling, as I have done here, thoughts these psalms bring to mind. Some use breath prayer, a type of centering prayer which uses words of the Psalms as its focal point.

The power of the psalms is that they are not just heavenly minded, but very earthy. They remind us that the children of Abram worship a God willing to stoop down and be concerned about a small people caught in slavery and oppression.   For Christians they are a special reminder that we experience God as one who actually redeems us by entering into our lives. In Jesus we see God entering into the depth of human existence to show us God is available not just in heaven but in every nook and cranny of our own lives.

Ieveryday-life-21n his classic book The Source of Life Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann talks about the vision of life such a way of experiencing God brings about:

“God’s Spirit which makes us live does not merely free the soul from its miscarried love. It also liberates the body from its tensions and its poisons. The new spirituality comprehends the whole of life, not just the religious sides that used to be called ‘the life of faith’ or ‘prayer life’. The whole of life as it is lived is seized by God’s vital power and is lived ‘before God’, because it lives ‘out of God’.   What we call prayer in a one-sided way includes rejoicing and complaint before God, and lays before Go the life we live and suffer. Faith isn’t something special, cut off from everything else; it is the trust in life which finds utterance in all the ways in which we express life. This being so, we can also see this new spirituality as a new lifestyle…”

This call to discover all of life as the realm of the holy is the call of the Psalms. As you crack open your Bibles with me, I invite you to let the Psalms not just be dead words on the page but be words you come to experience and live out through lived practices of prayer. And let the earthiness of their words invite you to let your here and now life in this word become your prayer not just in your words but in your actions, relationships, your work, your friendships, your family life, and your relationship with those in your community.

What a difference a life fully lived in this earth can bring!

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

micah pic

Psalm 97

burning_bushThis psalm was pretty terrifying to me as a little child, where it was a regular song of worship in my parent’s church which was a part of the Adventist “Church of God” tradition. Growing up in a church where sermons about Jesus as soon-coming King to judge the worlds often involved rich imagery of mountains melting in Jesus’ anger, seeing these images of mountains melting at God’s coming caused my heart to quake.   Reading them now, I know the Psalmist was not thinking of Jesus either in a first or a second coming. Instead the Psalmist probably had in mind when God appeared like fire over the mountain to the shepherd Moses. God did this first in a burning bush that was not consumed when God called Moses to preach, and later atop Sinai when God appeared in a pillar of flame to carve a covenant with the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What a different image is evoked from this Psalm with that background!

What I get from this Psalm today is not terrifying but humbling. God is more real, more permanent than the mountains upon which we meet God, whether they are the mountains of Sinai or Appalachia. God’s light is brighter than the sunlight which is but a dim morning mist by comparison. God’s presence is nearer than the air I breathe, closer than the blood pumping within my veins. These words remind me what is real. They invite me to imagine the idols of the world melting with the mountains beneath the shining brightness of the Lord, not because God is angry but because idols are exactly those things we cling to as permanent and solid when they are not.   All in our world will one day melt and fade, unless it is gathered up into eternal life by the resurrection God. On their own, they melt and fade to less than dust.

carolina sunriseI believe that God chooses to sweep up each person and creature that has lived upon God’s earth, and in God’s skies, into this new eternal resurrection life regardless of whether they appear good and beautiful in the world’s eyes. In that resurrection we will not need to fear losing ourselves each other, or the gifts of life, but instead seeing us and them transformed and gloried. But on our own and on their own, it is not so. Resurrection is a pure gift. And such a gift is from God, not from us.

Because of this, leaning on any earthly thing, earthly relationship, earthly philosophy, earthly religion, or earthly pursuit is leaning on sinking sand because as this Psalm reminds us without God they are sinking sand. They will let us down. When they fail us, as friends, jobs, family, and our own ingenuity will do, we naturally become angry. But when we feel that pain and anger we need to stop and hear its message. The heartache whispers truth to us. That pain and anger we feel in those moments is but a reminder. It whispers to us the fact that these things are not intended to be the solid foundation upon which we live. Not even Christianity and the church (or your religion, if you are not Christian) can do this. All of these are limited. Only God, as you find God in relationship with you, is so solid, real, and alive to ever and always be able to carry the load. And the amazing thing is this: when you learn to lean on God for your all and all, not fading contingent creations, it frees you to embrace all of those created things that will fail you if you treat them as a firm foundation. You can embrace the gifts they give while accepting their limits and vulnerabilities because you know each of them, like you, are flawed, limited, and in need of grace and strength from something greater than themselves to reach the goal. So by handing back whatever it is you’ve put in God’s place as an idol to God, you are freed to receive it back as a precious gift again you can get more joy out of.

Psalm 102.

gods handsGod is the source of the foundations of the earth. Science tells us the foundations of the earth are more than just the ground beneath our feet but also the gravity that holds it in place, the sunlight that flows from the sun it circles, and the binding forces that holds its atoms together. These elements make the solid ground on which we stand possible. But the Psalmist says they are less permanent than God. Again we are called by the Psalmist to embrace the impermanence and fading nature of those things on which we want to bank our hopes and which we feel cannot be shaken.

It is hard to accept that things that ought, in every human sense, to be steady as granite instead are as flimsy as Mica which sheds from the side of the mountain at a finger’s touch shiny and thin like paper. I fight this word whenever I am reminded it. It is easier to imagine that the things I see about me, the people I know, and my own will power can be solid ground. They can in fact sometimes be something to lean on, but without the abiding presence of the One who makes space for all things within the all-embracing Spirit, we would not have them. And whereas they will fail you, Psalm 102 reminds us that God will not.

mica flakingAlso there is a language here of God relating to us with hospitality and generosity. God’s laying foundations is also about God making space and time for creatures like you and me whom God can welcome as children and friends to grow, thrive, choose, create, and be.   We often fail to recognize that God’s creation of you and me, and our world, is in fact an act of hospitality and generosity. God makes room in God’s self for others, room for you and me, in such a way we are free to love, to turn our backs, to cooperate with God, to fight against God.

Ultimately early Christians looked at the purpose of such hospitality and generosity as being so that God was making room and space for all of us within the love relationship God had always enjoyed as Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit. In some mysterious way God made what is so you and I might join in that unending dance they ever share in, that embrace of love that is eternal, in the life of God itself.   It’s a great mystery, but also a reminder that even when we feel neglected, abandoned, forgotten, we are not so by God.   It also includes a challenge for us to strive to embody that divine hospitality and generosity in our life and our life together.

BlackbeardPsalm 105 invites us to search and seek for our God. This is an unusual image for the spiritual life. It I almost as if the Psalmist has suggested God has hidden God’s self in this worldlike the pirate treasure I grew up hearing tales of being buried in the sands along Carolina beach. This image for the spiritual life reminds me of the early Christian saying, attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “I am the all. Split a log, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me. ” When God is not evident to us, it is not that God is not there. God is after all the life force animating all things, the love that binds us together, the ground of our being, the source of our strength and comfort. There is no place that one could truly be hid from this reality. However we allow stress, worry, the busyness of life, our pain, messages of despair from the world around us to cloud our vision so we shut the eyes of our heart. God is always, ever, hiding in plain sight. Searching and seeking for our God in the way this Psalm talks about us doing in the treasurespiritual life is about slowing down from the busyness, so we awaken ourselves to this present moment. In this moment, in this place, God is present. All the grace that is needed for me to move forward that next step I must move is already here. For me prayer and meditation – whether that is meditation in silence, on Scripture, with nature, or even on the events of my day — all give me space to open up to that of God which is already present. For all of us, whatever spiritual practices we claim as our tools for this treasure hunt, this spiritual journey is a daily seeking, without which we lose sight of God as God is already present, embracing us and each moment

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Psalm 107:33-35, 41-43.

break_chainHear the promise. God in our past has moved rivers, shook nations, to set free the oppressed, and deliver the poor and needy ones.   We see this not just in the history of Israel but also the fall of apartheid, and the Civil rights movement in our day.   The promise is God is still the same, still on the side of the oppressed, the poor, and the needy.   When you feel abandoned, this verse is a challenge to remember how God has already worked deliverance in your life. What rivers has God moved, what things has God shaken, for your freedom to come to you?

This Psalm is also a call to embrace the promise God is still doing that for you.   I think it also is a challenge. When as a society we face situations like Ferguson, like faced in the Middle East today, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, like homophobia and homophobia, who are the oppressed?   And where is God at work for them? Too often we take these promises just personally, forgetting this word of promise and challenge is to us a society. The promise is if we are either those oppressed, or those at work against oppression, that just as God moved in freeing a nation of slaves from the greatest empire in the world, Egypt; just as God worked to free people of color from Jim Crow and apartheid, so God is at work in hands, voices, and even tweets to set those oppressed free today. And though the night might be long, the tears of the present fall like sheets of summer rain, God will bring liberation as sure as the morning sun will rise again.   Yet it is also a word of challenge. There is a wrong side to history — the side of oppressing others. We are called by this verse to weigh our souls to discover in what ways we prop up systems of oppression out of our own desire for our convenience, or even our own laziness and apathy. Not a one is wholly guilty, nor a one wholly innocent of this failing.   Yet as we learn to look for and listen for God in our histories personally of liberation from oppression and also those of our community at large, we can learn to lift our eyes and see where God is at work to join God there.

quote-there-is-a-loftier-ambition-than-merely-to-stand-high-in-the-world-it-is-to-stoop-down-and-lift-henry-van-dyke-54813Psalm 113:4-7 introduces me to a whole new name for God: God the stooper. I was always told growing up, “don’t stoop, don’t slouch”. Yet our God is the stooper. We are invited here to envision God high and lifted up, seeing the grand scheme of history and creation like a man on a tower seeing the great landscape, like a woman in a plane looking down and seeing the whole nation at one glance. Yet we are told God is not content to sit, high and lifted up, exalted over us. No, God is a stooper, stooping down to us. God leans down reaching into our brokenness and our pain, in order to lift us up. This is true for every one of us. God became one of us, bearing our pain, guilt, and sorrow to raise us up to share in God’s life, goodness, friendship, and life eternal. This message is for all of us, but it has special significance for how God raises up the oppressed: the slave people of Egypt, under Egyptian imperial thumb; oppressed slaves in America a few generations ago; the people of color in South Africa under apartheid. The Holy Spirit comes down into the shared experience of heartache as the heart’s cry to deliver and is the voice and the cry of liberation and peace.   Thank God that we serve a stooper!   Thank God that God hears our heart cries!

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Mother_and_Child_by_senseibushidoPsalm 116:14-17 is an interesting prayer to pray “I am you servant and the child of your handmaid”.   For some of us it is easy to see our earthly mother as a handmaid of the Lord than others. Some of us experienced our earthly mother as the one in our life who expressed faith, spirituality, values, and taught us the way of Christ. For others, our mother may have been absent, inconstant, or abusive, so to speak of her as one who served and represents Christ is hard to do. For someone like that, this prayer can be hard. It can be hard to see Christ in someone who is absent, inconstant, or abusive.   For many of us, such a prayer is complicated because we can see both in our earthly mothers.   This prayer of Scripture invites us to meditate both on how our mothers did and did not live out this image of “handmaid” of the Lord.

Another complication of this image is that in our culture I think “handmaid” implies a place of quiet service, where one is seen and not heard. For me, some of the most powerful lessons my mother taught me about what it means to follow Christ were where she was not the quiet, soft-spoken person who simply accepted life. I think of when she returned to graduate school and sought her dream of working with special needs children. In times like this she discovered in God her own strength and power, and lived boldly in faith & cnew image of motherhoodonfidence.   It is important to remember that handmaidens of the Lord include not just quiet women but also Deborah who led the armies of Israel into battle, Rahab the harlot who helped shelter the spies of Israel, Tamar who used her worldly wisdom to prove publicly the injustice she endured so justice might be served, Ruth & Esther who used their wisdom and beauty to outwit the patriarchy of the day to help their family and their people be saved from disaster, and Judith who was a mighty warrior of God.   In history hand-maidens of the Lord included Sojourner Truth prophet of abolition of slavery and women’s equality who boldly proclaimed in a world that said “women be silent” that God could turn the world right side up by the hand of a woman and “ain’t I a woman?” Handmaidens of the Lord include women like Joan of Arc who led the armies of her people to freedom and women like Corrie Ten Boon who sheltered Jews who were hated and hunted by the NAZIs. Being a hand-maiden of the Lord is to be a woman who is a co-creator, fellow worker with God in helping set right the world in the ways it is broken.

tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecAnother meaning to me of this prayer “I am a child of your handmaid” is a reference to Jesus. Mary says to Gabriel to let it be as he has said, for she will be God’s servant or handmaid.   In that “yes” Jesus is able to be born of Spirit into this world.   This prayer is a reminder, as Sojourner Truth is remembered for saying, of the power of one woman to turn the world aright for choosing to let her unique power as a woman to be a co-creator with God foster new life to enter our world, new life that changes the course of all of human life, and all of creation.   It also is a reminder to us that our Savior, Jesus, was born, burped, fed, raised, and taught by a woman. Whenever Jesus prayed this prayer, He too was taking time to recognize the mother who raised Him, just as we recognize our own mothers and all women of faith who have shaped us when we pray these words. Jesus acknowledged as we can His own humanity, weakness, and frailty. Jesus has been there, where we are, and identifies.

mother with baby in lead sunsetI think a way to hear “I am a child of your handmaid” is also to hear it in a different way. Galatians calls the community of faith “Jerusalem above, our mother”. There is a sense in which praying this prayer is to recognize one’s self as a child of this spiritual mother.   We can think of the women of faith who modeled for us the life of Christ, taught us the words of Christ, and challenged us prophetically on our short-sightedness. We can hear their voices, whether they are living on this earth or have risen beyond this veil of tears into the glory prepared for them after death already. We can remember their examples and lessons.

Of course, as Augustine once said, “the church is a whore but she is our mother”. Recognizing ourselves as children of handmaiden church means recognizing the ways the church has nurtured us, loved us, taught us, modeled for us right but it is also, as with our earthly mothers, learning from the ways it has failed. As a mother may fail to love perfectly, so the community of faith often loves imperfectly. Sadly I have sat many a long hour hearing the stories of people who are Christian, as well as from other faiths, sharing how they experienced abuse at the hands of the church, how they experienced being belittled and pushed out at times for their sexuality, ostracized at times for their education, and mocked at times for not fitting the picture that their faith stereotyped as beautiful and good.   I too have experienced the heartache from times when the community of faith is not the parent it should be. From this experience we can learn how we can better mother and father others in their faith. We can learn the lesson of laying prejudice, unfair expectations, legalism, judgmentalism, and whatever caused us heartache at the altar of God to be given up so that we may truly model love.

eskimo-mother-and-child-john-keatonA final helpful meaning for me of this prayer “I am a child of your handmaid” is to recognize God the Holy Spirit as a mother figure for us. In Scripture, the Holy Spirit is repeatedly likened to a mother. In Genesis, the Holy Spirit is depicted as brooding over the waters of creation and chaos as a mother bird brooding over her nest of eggs as she waits for them to hatch. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is feminine, and in the Psalms again and again maternal language is used for the way the Spirit relates to us — taking us under Her wings, like a mother hen her chicks. In the Gospels the Spirit comes upon Jesus hovering over him like a mother dove brooding over her babies. And throughout the Bible, labor pains are an image for the work the Holy Spirit does within us and all living things, as the Spirit attempts to transform our pain, our sinful paths, our social failings, into places new life and healing is borne.

Seeing the Holy Spirit as our mother and the mother of all living has for me been a helpful way to pray this prayer. It allows me to embrace all the positive models of motherhood and womanhood I encounter as symbols for the ultimate love, care, and strength expressed in all living things by the Holy Spirit while also acknowledging the many ways each motherly figure I have known has failed to perfectly live out that love.  The motherly love and care I do know through these mothering figures is a work of the Holy Spirit in my life through them. Even when no human mothering figure is present, I can experience God mothering me in the embracing arms of God the Holy Spriit. I can hope through the Spirit that all of us can learn more fully to express the Spirit’s love for all people, for ourselves, and all of creation, as we learn to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in the world.

How do you experience and know God through this prayer to God as a child of the Lord’s handmaid? Who has been the handmaiden of the Lord in your life?

sunrise freedomPsalm 124 is a reminder that all deliverance, liberation, freedom, and fullness of life is a gift of the Creator God. Our Creator is our Liberator, our life-giver, our guide in life.   We are challenged to not just accept our deliverance from addiction, affliction, oppression by others, or mistreatment. We are challenged not to simply enjoy the gifts of a full life, of meaning, of hope, of inspiration. We are challenged not to just relax with friends and family. We are challenged also to take time to thank God for each of these gifts each day. How have you experienced God as your liberator? As your giver of life, even in the fact of certain death? I invite to you add a comment sharing your experience.

 

Christ Existing in Religionless Community: Our Week in the New Testament

body-of-christ.independencemochurch    This week’s readings from the New Testament continue our emphasis upon how a living faith helps us connect with this worldly life, helping us recommit to this life, as a “yes” to God’s earth. Because of this theme, I’d like to share some further reflections of Deitrich Bonhoeffer which connect with the texts from the New Testament this week.
One theme of these readings is Christ’s suffering and death, and what it teaches us about our life as believers.
Bonhoeffer’s words on being the body of Christ connect with these readings:
“The church is a piece of the world; forsaken, godless, beneath the curse: vain, evil world– and that to the highest degree because she misuses the name of God, because in her God is made into a plaything, an idol. Indeed, she is an eternally forsaken and anti-Christian piece of the world in that she proudly removes herself from her solidarity with the evil world and lauds her own self. And yet: the church is a piece of qualified world, qualified through God’s revealing, gracious Word, which she is obliged to deliver to the world which God has occupied and which he will never more set free. The church is the presence of God in the world. Really in the world, really the presence of God…
“[Yet] the collective experience of the church really is ‘Christ existing in community.’ How they all become one and yet all remain themselves, how they all remain in God and yet each is separate from God, how they are all in each other, and yet exist for themselves, how each has God entirely and alone in the merciful dual loneliness of seeing and serving truth and love, and yet is never lonely but always really lives only in the community — these as things it is no longer given us to imagine. We walk in faith…”
unity_in_the_body_of_christ1  This call for the church to be Christ existing in community is something Bonhoeffer modeled by refusing to bow to Hitler’s call for German churches to abandon the Gospel of Christ to teach the hatred and nationalism of NAZI doctrine. He practiced this message by organizing an intentional community to train ministers who stood against Hitler. Ultimately, he continued to stand against Hitler, as he was thrown in prison in part for these same beliefs.
His experience in prison led him to add to this vision of Christ present in community a sense of Christ’s presence in community extending beyond the institutional church, which by and large failed to stand up in his day against Hitler, just as it has often failed to stand up against injustice before, since, and many times in our own day.
Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers From Prison, writes on Christ being present in a “religion-less Christianity” lived out in a this-worldly, everyday existence:
“During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man – in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense…
everyday-life-21    “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?” (p. 369-370)
In light of the events of the last few weeks — from Robin William’s suicide, to the crises in the Middle East, to the situation in Ferguson, this call both to be Christ existing in community as well as as to have our faith deepened our everyday life and not just other-worldly religiosity.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Micah

micah pic
Multicultural Jesus 1    This reflection is inspired by a great sermon I heard at United Church of Chapel Hill on Matthew 15:21-28, the story of Jesus & the Canaanite woman. ‘What God assumes, God heals,’ quoted the preacher, to explain how Jesus could have shared the stereotypes and prejudices of his contemporaries. That quote was of a church father, explaining that God took on all of our humanity in Jesus, so that from the inside out God could begin to work to transform us. That God as a human being with women and men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel, could have this experience teaches us a lot. It shows us that this the existence of prejudice or of narrow minded perspective itself many not be a sin.

We, like Jesus, may simply be restating what we have always heard without yet having any other frame of reference to consider. Yet, like Jesus, God brings people into our lives like this Canaanite woman who call us out of stereotypes and prejudices to see people for who they are. In that moment we must choose to listen to God’s voice in them or to cling to our prejudice. Clinging to prejudice at this point is a choice, not just living out what you have never had a chance to reconsider. It means choosing to cover your ears and eyes to that of God in another. Then the human condition of ignorance we all, like Jesus did, innocently share in both in greater or lesser degrees, ceases to be innocent ignorance. It becomes the willful sin of bigotry.

Jesus’ holiness is not that he never is shortsighted. He clearly is at the beginning of this story. Jesus’ holiness is not that he never has limited vision, for he begins his encounter with the Canaanite woman with just such a limited view. Jesus’ holiness is instead that when he’s confronted by a need to change, he does so. The rest of the Gospel of Matthew shows Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman as a pivot, a turning point, that changes the whole direction of his ministry. No longer is it only to the people of Israel, but to all who need God’s love. Jesus is willing to change, to evolve even, when he encounters God’s truth in the voice of others. Jesus’ example gives me hope that even with my own short-sightedness, I can choose a path of holiness not by being perfect, but by being open to change. Also, Jesus’ example gives all of us hope that good people can fail to see, and have God open their eyes. It also demonstrates our need to ever remain open to God using others to challenge our stereotypes. ‪

judas betraying jesusMy devotional encourage me to read Matthew 27:1-10, the account of Judas’ suicide.

Some things I note: 1. Judas was repentant. He returns the silver he is given for betraying Jesus.  Judas tries to make amends. It appears like his inability to make amends is in large part what “pushes Judas over the edge”.

Judas attempting to make amends.

Judas attempting to make amends.

2. The description of Judas as having a spirit controlling him during his selling over of Jesus and subsequent suicide very likely is an ancient description not for being controlled by evil, but for having a mental illness or neurological condition that clouded his judgment. That Jesus continues to treat him with love up through his last interaction with Judas is suggestive of Jesus’ understanding of Judas’ sickness.  If this is accurate it means Judas was acting out of illness, not evil.

3. Judas is one of the earliest examples of people of faith stigmatizing a person with mental illness. Early in Christian history, there was Christian literature that described Judas’ journey as tragic but necessary, with Judas’ role as just as important as the other apostles. By the middle ages, compassion for Judas disappeared and he became a symbol for evil. I’d suggest this stigmatization of Judas is
not from Jesus.   Jesus is constantly reaching out to people who, like Judas, have mental and neurological illnesses and stand-up-to-stigma1loving them no different than others. It seems Jesus knew what Judas struggled with when Jesus called Judas. Mary Magdalene also seems to have had a mental illness. Our stigmatization of people with mental illness, including Judas, is not Christian because it goes against the example of Jesus. Even Judas’ death, often portrayed as Judas getting his just desserts, is not an act of divine justice as some want to portray it. It is his illness becoming fatal. Sadly, some mental illnesses become fatal to the person with them without (and even with) appropriate treatment, and cause harm to others. I don’t think Jesus is condemning Judas for his illness, but has hope that as he passed beyond the veil even Judas heard the words Jesus spoke in the last moments to the thief on the cross — “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise”. I trust that for all who die from mental illness, and pray for a day we have more compassion as believers both for those who live with and those who die from mental illness. Jesus exercised that compassion every day of his ministry, and if we call ourselves Christian we should strive to have the compassion Jesus showed.

jesus in prisonMatthew 27:11-23. What stands out to me in this story is that in the case of Jesus and Barabbas, what is most important to Pilate and the people is not who is guilty or innocent, or about what justice would look like. It is about political expediency and what will appease the greasy wheels crying out. This is sad, but it is too often true. I think the story of Jesus’ trial and execution ought to not just be a beautiful account of the depths of God’s love for us, but also to call us to question whether justice is truly being done in our day. Too often I think we look away at injustice, choosing the path of expediency, even though it leaves victims in its wake.

 

Matthew 27:24-31. What our Savior goes through here demonstrates that physical abuse is not the only type of abuse we should concern ourselves with. Rome does not just kill Jesus. They also humiliate Jesus, dressing him in royal robes, publicly mocking him, …I can’t help but think of how the Klan would lynch people of color, not just killing them but mocking them and making a spectacle of it. I think of the story I heard a Freedom Rider share of being beaten and mocked by police officers. They did not just beat him, they treated him at points like a child and at others worse than a vagrant animal. I think of what Matthew Shepherd and Brandon Teena went through. I also think of the young man who recently was killed just before going to college. Its not just our violence, our blood-lust, our willingness to take life. We also need to confront our willingness to dehumanize, to bully others. Those are forms of emotional abuse and terror. Its not just among killers. I’ve talked to so any women and men in relationships where their intimate partner emotionally abused and bullied them. This is never justified in the Christian life. Our Savior endured this not only to help deliver us, but also to show us that this is unacceptable. Also so we would not have to. Friend, God intends more for you than to be a victim. Do not let other people turn you into their punching bags. Let’s stand up against all forms of abuse, terror, bullying, and hate crimes.

Matthew 27:45-54 has given me goosebumps since I first read it as a teenager. It still does today. Hearing Jesus cry out the prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And knowing that in some mysterious way all of who you and I are, and all of who God is, are meeting in those moments of darkness, fear, shadows, & loss! When I first read it I was overwhelmed, thinking “How far God was willing to go to love me and have me as God’s child!” Now, having faced moments of darkness it speaks another word. This moment shows me that in our darkest hours, God is present. It is when we feel the most abandoned that God stands nearest.
gods callingRomans 11 — what always stands out to me in this text is how Paul says that “God’s gifts and call are irrevocable”.

We want to put a loophole in those words, don’t we? Sometimes those called do. I can think distinctly of many a time I thought “Lord, let me go” when my calling as a minister was something I just wanted to hang up like a used coat and forget. And even more so at times that call to be there for someone in crisis, when their stress or pain led them to react in hurtful ways to my love and care! Yet God’s gift and call are irrevocable.

We not only do this to ourselves, but we also do this for others, too. Someone fails and we want to say “well I guess they weren’t really…” whatever, Christian, a good parent, a real pastor, …

I remember when Ray Boltz came out as gay and all the evangelical friends I had flipping a lid about it. “I guess he was a fake”, they said, as if being different than their standard meant he couldn’t love God, or be used by God. I went through the same rejection when I left the denomination that first ordained me over how they treated (and still treat) gay people. I had so many once friends and mentors respond as if  it changed who I was.  The message I heard from them was “well I guess you aren’t a Christian now, and never were a minister”. I remember believing it, on a level, and thinking my walk on this journey was over, and the loving people of Heartland MCC reminding me of this verse through the words of their dear pastor and their own actions. I try to remember it now whenever I become discouraged. I hope if you are struggling over if your call from God has been cancelled, you remember: on God’s side, the welcome and invitation never ends. I hope too if you see someone struggle, fail, or not fit your image, that you don’t trash them or judge them, but continue to encourage and support them to listen to that voice of truth in their life that you and I know is the Holy Spirit.