Ready to dig deeper into this faith journey? Ready to start finding ways to articulate and better understand who God is? Join us for CONSTRUCTIVE THEOLOGY!
Many of us have worked hard to deconstruct the harmful ideas we were taught about ourselves and God. This class creates the space for doing the difficult work of constructing a new theological foundation grounded in God’s love for all people. The course will involve study, discussion, guided prayer, artwork, videos, and even a retreat. Participants will be expected to do reading between classes and work toward the creation of a final project.
Join us on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month beginning January 19 at 7pm. The last class will be on May 17.
Location: Stonewall Community Center, 1160 N. High St.
Executive Director University Area Enrichment Association (UAEA), Columbus OH
UAEA Description: UAEA exists to bring together the diverse people and resources of the University Area in ways that directly improve the quality of life for residents of this neighborhood. We engage, educate, equip and build community leadership through the University District Freedom School, our 8-week summer literacy program for K-12 scholars, and our school year after school program. Our Freedom School program has shown demonstrated literacy gains for our scholars. We work with a great number of community partners and a wide network of supporters. Our location in the middle of the University Area, at Summit UMC, continues to help us serve the diverse community and helps foster a tremendous pipeline to young talented leaders. This year, our greatest focus is to establish the right leadership and standard operations for success both in our Freedom School and after school program.
Position Description: The UAEA seeks a paid Executive Director (ED). The position is part time (roughly 20–25 hours per week) with the possibility of becoming full time. The ED is responsible for: managing the overall operations of the organization; ensuring the organization’s endeavors align with its mission statement and are executed effectively; partnering effectively with the UAEA board, staff, contracted employees, and community partners to ensure the safety of all scholars in our programs; partnering effectively with the UAEA board, staff and contracted employees to ensure compliance with all federal grants; creating sustainable revenue streams through fundraising and working closely with the UAEA Board of Directors to do all of the above.
Skills and Experience
- Successful candidates will have:
o A demonstrated record of community empowerment and social justice; achievement and leadership; meeting deadlines and seeing tasks to completion; and project management skills
o Excellent oral and written communication
- Role requires collaboration and the ability to work closely with a team
- A significant part of the position will be ensuring the organization’s compliance with federal grants
- Successful candidates should be able to be attentive to the details, while also seeing the bigger picture about innovative ways to move the organization toward more sustainability
Salary: TBD (based on qualifications)
- Application Materials: If interested, please send a cover letter and resume to Robert Caldwell, UAEA Board Member, at Robert.Caldwell@theuaea.org. The cover letter should be one page or less, and it should explain why you would like to take on this role and why you think you would do well in the role. Please include three references with your resume.
- Application Deadlines
o Resume/cover letter—send in by close of business on 11/6/15
o Interview(s) with the Board (if applicable)—11/15/15
o Desired date of hire—12/1/15
o Desired start date—12/7/15
Wrestling with God Genesis 32:22-32
Given by Meghan Link on Sunday, September 27, 2015
Our scripture reading today is from the book of Genesis 32:22-32. This is the story of Jacob, who has been on the run ever since he wronged his brother, on the night before he will face his brother again for the first time in 20 years.
Genesis 32:22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”27 And he said to him, “What is your name?”And he said, “Jacob.”28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh.
We’re continuing this week in a series of re-reading the Old Testament as the story of God’s love for all people, and though the story we read about Jacob wrestling with God may not seem very loving, I hope that by the time I’m done, you’ll love this story as much as I do. To understand this scene that we read from Jacobs story, we have to go back to the beginning. And since we don’t have time to read most of the book of Genesis, I’ll give you the short version.
Jacob had a twin brother, and the two of them struggled from the time they were in the womb together. In fact, Jacob was born grabbing onto the heel of his older brother, which is why they named him Jacob which means heel-grabber, but was also a word that meant deceiver or trickster. His brother Esau was a hunter, a hairy strong man who made his Father Isaac really proud. Jacob was not so hairy, and preferred to stay at home with his mother, and usually found a way to get what he wanted through manipulation. The two grow up into men and it comes time for their father Isaac to pass on his blessing which would go to the oldest son. This blessing includes a special role in the covenant which Isaac’s father Abraham, who we talked about last week, had made with God, where God said he would make out of Abraham a great nation that is a blessing to the entire world.
So Isaac tells Esau, the older brother and the rightful heir, to go hunting, so that when he comes back and a meal is prepared, Isaac can bless him and pass everything on to him. But after Esau leaves, Jacob and his mother create a plan to trick Isaac who is blind into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. And their plan works, Jacob receives Esau’s blessing, and when Esau returns, he and his father discover what has been done and they weep for how they have been tricked, and Esau decides that he will kill Jacob once their father has passed away.
His parents, not wanting Jacob to die, send him away and on the night after he leaves he has a dream. Yahweh comes to him to speak to him, not only confirming actually that the promise given to Abraham is now given to Jacob and all that entails, but also saying “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”We have to stop and appreciate this part of Jacob’s story, because this shows us that before Jacob has really had the time or the space to repent for his actions, and really to communicate with God in any way, Jacob already has God’s promise that someday he will be able to return and be reconciled to his family again. God is already at work within him, and within his situation. Even while the wounds are still fresh, Jacob is not alone. And when Jacob wakes up, he is amazed at what he saw and heard in the dream and he makes a vow that I think is the real beginning of his faith journey and his desire for reconciliation to his family, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then Yahweh shall be my God…”
After this brief moment of calm and reassurance, Jacob continues to go through cycles of struggle to deceit, back to some relative peace before struggle begins again. He is always struggling with something. ] He falls in love with his Uncle’s daughter Rachel and finds work with him, but gets tricked into marrying her sister Leah as well which begins another terrible family conflict. Tensions rise because of how successful Jacob is at working for his Uncle, so that his Uncle tries to prevent him from leaving, and when Jacob does leave, he manages to take off with most of his Uncle’s wealth and herds, which now basically makes him a successful man, but has the internal cost of how he manipulated his way there.
Jacob, goes through a lot, being deceived as well as being the deceiver, and in this cycle of constantly struggling against something, he probably often felt like he was fending for himself in a world that was totally against him. He probably did not feel much like God’s promise was with him in his experiences. He had worked up the skills to be able to take care of himself, twist things around in his favor and come out on top no matter what.
And so though we might think that at this point where he is leaving his Uncle’s with enough stuff to start a household of his own, that he could potentially finally have his life together, we can tell that instead there was a deep internal struggle happening in him because of all that he has done, and all that he has been through, and this nagging question of where God was in everything. So, while he could have gone off to yet another new place and simply settled down with his wealth and started over again, instead Jacob remembers God’s promise, and he decides that what he really wants to do next, is to head for home, and to find out whether or not reconciliation can actually happen there.
This is the Jacob who is traveling home to face Esau. A weird mixture of a proud, successful, and self-reliant man, and a repentant man hoping in God’s promises. Along the way, he decides to send out a few messengers, to test the waters of how his brother will take this return, and the response he gets is that his brother is coming to meet him…with 400 men. His worst fears become a very possible reality. If his brother still wants to kill him, he will easily destroy everything Jacob has gained, and the promise that God made to him will have failed completely. Jacob doesn’t have the ability to defend himself against an attack, but he still makes a few efforts, going back to depending on himself as he has always done in the midst of a conflict. He sends ahead his flocks as gifts for his brother, literally giving up all the wealth he has earned in exchange for a chance at making peace, and he divides his people into different camps so that if Esau does attack, some of his group might get away and survive. Probably feeling as if everything has been lost once again, finally, Jacob decides that he is going to spend the night alone.
This was a dark night for Jacob, the kind of sleepless night where he might have been pacing, or lying awake in the silence, or speaking to God, asking questions like, “Why, God did I come so far, just to fall? If this was the right thing for me to do, why am I going to be attacked? Why, God did you promise me peace, and yet leave my life nothing but turmoil? Why am I always getting myself through these things just to come up against more and more obstacles on the other side?” Jacob honestly didn’t know if God was going to protect him or not, or if God was even paying attention to him after all he had been through. I think its possible he hoped for the best because he had the promise, but deep down he was probably just tired of all the running away and the manipulating and the struggling he had been through, and was preparing himself for another fight in the morning.
I wonder, because I like to let these stories play out in my head like a movie, how the wrestling we read about today would have began. Did Jacob see the man coming? Did he know that it was no ordinary man in the beginning? Did he think it was Esau? We don’t know, because the story doesn't tell us.
What I imagine is Jacob being completely blindsided. Sitting alone under the stars, in the midst of what was already a night of grief, out of no where, something hits him like a wall, and he is pinned down, wrestling, locked in yet another battle he didn't see coming. And to his credit, the self-reliant Jacob fights back hard. Despite at some point having his hip knocked out of it’s socket, Jacob puts up a fight that lasts all night until daybreak.
That means there were hours of wrestling in the darkness until the man finally asks to be let go, and at this point or perhaps before, Jacob understands that he is not wrestling some random stranger on the road and he is not wrestling his brother either, but he is actually wrestling with God. The struggle and the grief that was happening in his heart and mind had become a real, tangible, sweat and bruises battle with God-self in Jacob’s hands. And in a surge of what I imagine was him releasing all of his frustration with the illegitimacy of the promise he stole from his brother, and the fact that God’s promises to him did not seem to be working out, and probably some anger that this God also had the nerve to come and physically kick him when he was already down, Jacob demands that God really and truly bless him, once and for all, right there, in person, or he would not let go.
I imagine in that moment, a kind of softened expression must have come across God’s face looking at Jacob. Already knowing the answer, the Creator simply asks him, “What is your name?”And exhausted and hurting, his reply is, “Jacob”, deceiver, liar, manipulator, heel grabber, thief. My name is Jacob. And God says, “Now your name is Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”I think there was a long silence. This does not immediately feel like the blessing Jacob asked for. This is not another promise of peace or anything like the promise of a nation which was given to Abraham. But slowly, slowly it sinks in. Jacob, with all his shortcomings and wrong doings, now has a new name. And his identity will no longer be this reminder of how he has been a manipulator and deceiver, but how he has come through his struggle, met God, grown, and been transformed.
You see, Jacob was never holding God there with him in this fight, God was simply waiting for Jacob to come to a realization. Like a mother who quietly holds her child while they pound her with their fists and scream at her in anger, I imagine that God held Jacob while he came to understand that Yahweh had always known about his struggles and had been with him, just as was promised. When Jacob finally does respond, he asks for God’s name, but he already knew who was blessing him. The God that had come to him in the dream, who had promised him peace, was now and always had been present with him. Because of his struggles, Jacob had grown.
When we look to the Old Testament, I think we often look for good examples to look up to, but Jacob’s story does not give us that. He’s human, he’s got a rocky past and a broken heart, he’s not perfect, but God doesn’t expect him to be. It’s because of these imperfections and struggles that Jacob experiences and grapples with God and comes to find his faith. Not only that, but while all this was happening to Jacob, God had been at work in Esau’s heart as well. In the next chapter of the story, the one now called Israel limps to meet his brother Esau. And instead of the slaughter he had imagined, there is actually a tearful reunion of forgiveness between the brothers.
In a turn of the story Jacob never would have expected, the battle he needed to brace himself to work through was not with Esau, but with himself and with God. God had been working through everything that happened to him to prepare a way to bring him home again in peace. In spite of the fact that Jacob didn’t have it together at any point, God was at work. Jacob had not come through this wrestling unscathed or unchanged, or as the hero, but because of the Creator working in and around him, he and his family did find peace, and that is the story of his new name. This name of wrestling which would become not just his name, but the name of the people of Israel who would come after him, and who would strive with Yahweh for years to come, and the people through whom Jesus would come to once again blur the line between God and man. This broken person, and the messiness of his life, and his struggle to believe in God’s promises, is what God chose, and still chooses, to work in and through.
We like to say often that we know we are broken. That “nobody’s perfect.”And yet, I think by and large we still have trouble really coming to terms with what that means for us in relationship to one another. We still often simply expect people to live up to different ideas of perfection and the standards that we have for what people should be, and we can see the harmful effects of that at work in our world.
We can see it in the rainbow flags of the LGBT community who have to proudly proclaim that they too are humans who deserve equal rights and opportunities whether or not others understand or approve of their sexuality and identity.
We can see it in the experience of women and girls who struggle with the enormous societal pressure to be virginal, and the judgement against them when they are not that restricts their access to birth control and programs that prepare and enable them to make their own choices about their bodies and future.
We can see it in the tears of African American mothers who worry about their sons, and wonder whether the way they act or dress or simply look is going to get them hurt, or killed, or prevent them from having a job in the future, because they don’t meet the criteria to be respected by many.
We can see it in the tens of thousands of suicides each year that are the result people’s feeling the enormous stigma around mental health, and the embarrassment around needing help because you just can’t deal with depression and anxiety on your own.
We can see it on the boats of refugees, who just for trying to leave a broken country behind and find a safe place for their children, are being treated like invaders and prisoners, because their religion and ethnicity is foreign and threatening, not enough like ours,.
We can see it in the face of the poor, as people look down on them and decide that they are lazy, drug-addicts, expecting handouts, when really it is all too easy to fall behind in this world and there is so much work that still must be done by those who have the power to lift them up out of poverty.
We see it in prisons cells, filled with people who rather than being healed, rehabilitated, and encouraged, end up living endless days of the same brokenness, because they are not treated as if they could be and are better that what brought them there, and so they leave worse than when they came in.
We see it in the way that our country and our religion is divided into left and right, and how both sides demonize each other, not seeking to reunite through love and reconciliation, but pushing one another further and further away, shutting down and silencing those we don’t agree with, rather than approaching them with love in the face of how impossible our universe is to understand and how easily we all fail to see the whole picture.
These are only a few examples of how our lack of compassion for the real brokenness that is in all of us can be dangerous in the world, and of how when we see other humans truly wrestling and struggling with the worst, and the most messy moments of life, we can be quick to judge each other for not being perfect and forget that God’s response is grace and growth, in and through the struggles, not abandonment, and not condemnation
I don’t know how many of you know this, but a couple months ago I got my first tattoo. People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons: from taking a dare to artwork and beauty, but for some, and for me, sometimes they are an outward mark that represents a struggle we have been through. After being told I wasn’t a Christian because of my beliefs and feeling alone and confused for a long time, and through having to ask God “Why am I going through this when it doesn’t seem like any of it is going to work out?”I have come to find peace with the things that have happened to me and to be thankful for how they shaped me even though they put me through many dark nights and hopeless wrestling.
So I chose to have words from a hymn, “Bind my wandering heart to thee,”tattooed on my ankle. And sure, it hurt, but not as much as my heart had hurt when I was in the thick of that situation. It felt right to make visible that healing of internal scars and the wholeness I had found, by marking on my skin what was already a part of my soul.
Jacob’s mark, the broken hip, is a symbol of how his imperfection had transformed him in coming to know God. We are all marked by what we’ve been through in all kinds of ways. Sometimes by physical scars like Jacob, sometimes by our name and what we are called. Others of us have marked ourselves by chopping our hair off or dying it pink, by wearing a t-shirt, or a piece of jewelry, by embodying a commitment to help others, by the dirt on our knees and callouses on our hands, by every part of our identity, we carry with us the marks of our transformation by and through the struggles of our lives. In God’s eyes, what defines us is not our imperfections, but the wrestling that has brought us through hopeless times into peace and reconciliation.
We all have our experiences of struggle, but God did not leave us through any of it. Yahweh is the God of Jacob and Israel, before and after and during this wrestling and blessing process, God was always with Jacob, responding through presence, and grace, not abandoning him but making promises to him, not rejecting him for falling short but telling him that he was still never alone. If God does not abandon and reject us, then we cannot abandon and reject each other. We as humans are all together broken and our best shot at reconciliation with each other comes from our faith in God’s promise to each person that they can be seen through their struggle to the other side.
God has been showing us as Yahweh showed Israel that God is with us and for us. In the midst of our shortcomings the Breath of Life has breathed into our struggle a desire for peace and the things we need to eventually heal. Israel’s life continued to have highs and lows, struggles and sadness, but his faith was forever changed by this night he spent wrestling with God.
My hope for you is that as you look back at your life and at your marks, you may know how you have grown, and that during every step of the journey God was right beside you, making a way for you, and working in the midst of your darkest night. And that if you can vulnerable enough to see that work happening within you, that your eyes might be opened to how the same thing is happening in the lives of each and every person around you, because of God’s deep love for all people, so that rather than judgement and division, we might be able to become a part of God’s transformative work in the world and the lives around us. Amen.
God... Present with Us
Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:1-7
Given by Rev. April S Blaine on Sunday, September 20, 2015
So, today we continue our journey through the story of God’s love for the people and we do so with a story that is very, near and dear to my heart.
Last week we began with the story of creation and the fact that we were made in the miage of God – as partners in creation – and that we were made for community, authentic, real, trusting relationships in community –
And then the story continues – there is some brokenness and loss that happens both between humanity and God and humanity and each other.
There’s a whole story about a flood – and a promise at the end – that this God will forever more choose to relate to us in a different kind of way. Our mess and our brokenness remain, but no matter what happens – God will choose to stay with us – to remain present.
And then shortly after begins the story of Abraham. This becomes kind of the cornerstone of everything else in the Bible. Abraham was living in the predictable urban world of Sumer. A land where it was believed that life was a circle. The future would never look different than the present. What was – had always been – and would always be – And a land where the gods existed up here and dictated what happened with the human pawns below. There was no relationship – there was no partnership that happened – no power or agency.
But Abraham broke the mold – for in the midst of this land of predictability – he heard the voice of God – calling to him, relating to him, and calling him OUT of Sumer. Out of the urban city – and into the wilderness. To a land that God would give him. To a future that would look different than the past. And so Abraham and Sarah left – they listened to God – they left the world where nothing new would ever come – and they held onto the hope that life would bring something entirely new.
But it didn’t work out exactly how it planned. There were people in the land that God was going to give them. So they take a detour to Egypt. And they are promised a child. In fact, promised that Abraham would be the father of a new nation. That so as there were stars in the sky would be his descendents. But with this hope and this promise that they have received is a whole lot of waiting and waiting and waiting.
Years, decades, pass. Where is the child?
And then we arrive at the story of today. Abraham and Sarah are elderly – very old – past the years of childbearing – and these visitors come to see them.
As would be the custom, they welcomed them in and made for them a generous and great feast. Or, should we say, Sarah made it – Abraham just barked out the orders.
And it soon becomes clear that these are no ordinary visitors – they have come to bring the word of good news –. Where is she? They inquire. In the tent – says Abraham. And they begin to tell him -
We’ll be back in a year – and when we are back – Sarah will be with child.
Sarah overhears them -
And under her breath – Sarah laughs.
Ha! Now that I’m old? I would finally receive this pleasure?
I think there is a lot going on here underneath this laugh.
I’m not sure it was just about the preposterous idea that an old lady might become pregnant.
I might be reaching a bit – adding a bit of creative license to the story here – but I’d venture to say that this laugh of hers - under her breath – was likely laced and layered with the years of pain and grief and unanswered prayers.
Now? After all these years? Now? God has chosen to show up? Isn’t that great?
God has not seen it fit to grant me this desire of my heart in the last 60+ years – why, oh why, would today be any different?
You and I know what it is to have such a laugh about the hardness that life brings us sometimes. All of us have those things that we've been battling with, dealing with for years upon years, hurts that are long buried in our spirits and souls but every now and then get reopened…
I was talking to someone this week about the struggles that they have had with their daughter-in-law. We talked about the years and years of hurt, of rejection and the ways in which she tries to laugh it off, to use humor to dismiss the pain that still comes – with each new slight and dismissal.
On Tuesday night after our Bible study was done at Stonewall, Steven and I had the chance to sit with someone who was incredibly down on his luck. The hardness of life – years in prison, rejection by those who see him as a second class citizen, and the ending of a relationship with the woman he loved – the pain was raw and real. But “I’ll be alright” - no really, “I’ll be alright.”
Whether we try to laugh it off, use sarcasm, say its alright when its not, or even try to deflect our problems and pain onto others – so we don’t have to look inside and admit what is going on.
We know that behind Sarah’s laughter is the same thing behind much of our fronts that we put up – pain, grief, sorrow, and the need to heal.
Those of you who have spent any length of time with me probably knew a bit about this particular story – because this is the story associated with my most favorite Christian icon – it hangs in my office and of course – I could not pass up the opportunity to share it with each of you again today.
Andrei Rublev painted this icon in 14th Century Russia, during a time of incredible grief, violence and turmoil in Russia. During a time where people were experiencing great pain, sorrow, and grief – during a time where they wondered where God was and what the future might still hold.
And the story of today was the basis of this Icon. The story itself suggests that it is the Lord with two angelic attendants, but Rublev imagines that these three visitors were in fact, the members of the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – come to not only deliver the good news to Sarah and Abraham of the upcoming birth of Isaac, but to sit and be present with them – in the midst of their waiting – in the midst of their pain and their suffering.
They could have sent a messenger – they could have simply given a vision – a voice from the clouds - or even a word of comfort through another person.
But this God – who has promised to walk with us through all of our brokenness and struggle and suffering – has come to just be with Abraham and Sarah. This God comes to their home. To their dwelling place – to their tent – to dine and to be present.
The scene depicts the trinity at a table – which for the story would have been appropriate – because they were about to eat with Abraham and Sarah – and the icon is designed to be viewed from this vantage point where you can see that there is room at the table for others
A seat for Sarah or Abraham – or as Rublev intended – a seat for us…
Sarah’s laughter – under her breath – her years of hurt and pain are noted by the visitors – for the Lord says – Why did Sarah laugh?
I think this might have been the moment where she realizes that something bigger is going on with this visit – that this visitor is no ordinary visitor – she denies the laughter out of fear – but I think she knows that she has been seen.
Her grief and pain are seen – recognized – named – out loud – by these visitors by this God who has come to be present.
It is obvious that the visit left an impression on Sarah. For when the time finally comes to pass that Isaac is born – the name that she chooses is “laughter.” A direct reference to this encounter. When God showed up in her home – to be present with her – in the midst of the pain and grief and cynical laughter – and to share with her a message of hope and renewal.
A reminder, each time she looked at her son, of the presence of God – the real presence of God with her – in the midst of her grief and struggle.
I don’t know about the things that you are battling in your own life – the things that weigh on you at night and keep you from sleeping – the things that have been there for years or the hurts that are more recent. Life brings us so many disappointments – so many hurts – both from each other and the ones we inflict on ourselves – and seasons and times of heaviness and grief that we carry with us.
And the unfortunate thing is that from the beginning – God doesn’t promise us that it will be taken away – that we won’t suffer - that it won’t be hard. Or that we won’t have to wait – and wait – for the things that we long for – for the things we might never fully see.
But in this story – in nearly every story from this book – God promises that we won’t be alone. That God will see us – our cynical laughs, our attempts to say we’re alright – and that somehow – there will still be hope.
Hope for healing.
Hope for restoration.
And the hope that the future might look different from the presence.
So, may you be reminded that the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow is still with you – present with you – in the place where you are now – and is seeking to help you see that hope remains.
Made for Community
Given by Rev. April S Blaine on September 13, 2015
Six years ago, I had the extraordinary privilege of spending nearly 3 weeks in South India, as a part of a cross-cultural learning experience with my seminary. I had done a fair amount of traveling in my days before that in plenty of countries where the culture and language exposed me to incredible new things.
But nothing fully prepared me for how different life was in South India.
Certainly the brightly colored loud and noisy crowded streets and cities were a part of it. And the food, the remarkably delicious, but spicy food that is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But the biggest difference I found in India was people related to one another and understood their place and connection in the world in a way that was completely different than everything I had known.
After the third day there, I began to realize that everyone was calling me sister. Even though I would introduce myself as April, no one was calling me that. I thought that maybe they couldn’t remember my name, but then I would listen to them address each other. Aunt, Uncle, brother, mother, father, sister – no one used names for one another either.
I began to ask and inquire about this from Thomas Thandaraj, our beloved guide. And he said – oh yes, names are not as important here as they are in the US.
Your identity as an individual was certainly important, but who you were – first and foremost had to do with how you related to others. And you would be reminded of that in every interaction. You are not just April, you are my sister. You are not just an individual. You are connected to me and to all of us.
In the first chapter of Genesis, we hear this glorious story of the symphony of God – a symphony of words being spoken and all the creation comes into being. Let there be light. Let there be stars. Let there be trees producing fruit. Animals in the sea and sky. And Let us make humans in our own image. And all of it was good.
In the second chapter of Genesis, the story begins quite differently. God, it seems, is playing around in the mud. And God notices that there is no one to till the ground, to work alongside God in this creative work and so And while playing around in the mud, God fashions a human – and then God breathes into the human the ruha – the spirit of life – the breath – and the man became alive.
As creation continues, there are plants and animals – and this man, who has the spirit of God living in him is right there with God creating names and caring for what has been made. But then God seems to look at the creation and realizes that something just isn’t quite right. The created man has an intimate relationship with God, they are partners in the work. The created man has meaningful work to do – a purpose for existence – but God says – there is no suitable companion. And so God creates a woman – out of the rib of the man. For, God says – it is not good for the man to be alone. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh – these two equals – suitable companions form the first community – and they were naked and unashamed.
Last weekend, my cousin was released from prison after spending 18 months behind bars. He had managed to receive an early release because he had attended a 4 month boot camp, a military style intense disciplinary training period intended to test him physically, mentally, and emotionally. The day he was released, my uncle, his father, picked him up, and then they drove together for four and a half hours to our family reunion at my parents home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This is a gathering we’ve been having for nearly 20 years every Labor Day weekend – where my dad’s side of the family – the 4 brothers and all their children, grandchildren would gather at the lake for food, skiing, swimming, boating, a little bit of rowdiness, and some meaningful time of fellowship.
My cousin had been coming to this gathering every year since he was 8 years old. But for the past four years, he has been absent.
And I watched him over the weekend as he began to re-enter the family. As he was welcomed back into community. As he embraced the arms of his brothers and his grandparents. As he was reconnected to relationships that had been burned and hurt and broken both during the dark season that led to his arrest and the lonely season of his departure.
I watched as my two sons latched onto him – something bound to happen if you are willing to ride a tube and a waverunner with a 5 and 7 year old. And to proclaim each night, we want cousin Drew to read us a story!
I watched the healing begin – and a young man whose discipline and order had been restored – find his soul and heart and lifeblood again. Find that he mattered – that he had something to contribute – that he was beloved.
As we all could say – welcome, cousin, son, brother. Welcome home.
We are made for community. It’s hardwired in our DNA. From the first moments of our created being – our individual identities were bound together with our connection to each other. When we enter the world, we literally do so from the labor and body and physical womb of another human being. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh – we are connected to one another – dependent on one another. Made for community.
Genesis 2 speaks to that connectedness that we were made for but it also gives us this picture of what the community actually looks like. Adam and Eve, who really aren’t mentioned by name – but instead are appropriately referred to in this scripture as the human and the woman – and then later – the husband and the wife. At the end of the story – when these two are together – it says – that they are Naked and they are unashamed.
It wasn’t a sexual or sensual thing. This wasn’t an exhibitionist kind of naked and ashamed. The Hebrew word is also translated – they were bare – there wasn’t anything held back. Nothing but their raw, true selves.
To be vulnerable before one another – and to not be ashamed. This was what the first community was like.
Our story as humans begins with our connectedness to each other and our need for real community – the kind of community where our relationships that go to the core of who we are and what we are really dealing with. Where we are not holding anything back – but we are honest and bare before each other.
That’s the part where we start to get a little bit uncomfortable – Amen. Because we are willing to acknowledge that we need each other – that connection with others is good. That being isolated is not good. We want to be in the presence of others – in the company of others – but we aren’t so sure about this whole – being laid bare before one another – because the last thing we want is for others to see me cry, or fail, or falter. I don’t want you to see all of me – for if you did – I certainly would not feel Unashamed.
We aren’t so sure about this biblical sense of community that we were created for. We’d much rather create our own communities – on Facebook or Instagram where we can control and manufacture an image of ourselves that reveals none of our shortcomings or failures – that lets our “community” know that “I got this.”
With all of them incredible technology at our fingertips – too few of us have places and communities of real connection and relationship that we were created for. Where we can be naked and unashamed.
I have to admit that I am the proud daughter of a very independent mother – a woman who taught me that I could do anything I ever set my mind to – except pee standing up and I could probably practice enough to get that down as well. I am the queen of “I got this.” But I got to tell you – this Wednesday when I heard Bishop Palmer speak at our clergy renewal gathering – he asked us – “how’s that working out for you?”
The truth is – I need community. I need vulnerable spaces. I need reminders that the only way I am the best, whole, healthy April Suzanne Blaine when I remember that I am first a sister, a cousin, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a child of God… and when I can find true spaces to connect with others in relationship and to let down my guard, to lay it bare – to stop pretending that I have it together and allow myself to be vulnerable – And unashamed.
We often try to avoid them – but Whether we like it or not, the vulnerable spaces come – they came 14 years ago this week, when the twin towers fell and we wondered what the future held for our nation. They came just 3 months ago, when we saw the footage of our brothers and sisters in bible study and then shot in Charleston, SC because of the color of our skin.
Sometimes the vulnerable places come in seasons of challenge, transition, and newness in our life. The arrival of a new baby, the first semester of college, the job that we thought we were prepared for but is way harder than we imagined, a new romantic relationship, or the first experience of real failure, the grief and loss of a loved one, or an 18 month prison sentence. Something opens up in us and we realize – that we need one another.
that we aren’t just individuals in the world – somehow - we are community. We are brothers. We are sisters.
We don’t really prefer these spaces – most of us don’t allow ourselves to let our guard down until we absolutely have to. But when we can step into these vulnerable spaces – we are often more able to build real communities, honest relationships, and live with one another in the way that we were created for.
So, I wonder where you may need the reminder of your connectedness in the world – your status as brother, sister, cousin, aunt, or father.
And I wonder where God has been nudging you to let down your guard. To say and speak the thing you have been too afraid to say – to ask the question you haven’t been able to speak – or to be honest about the real struggle that is going on in your heart and spirit.
To be vulnerable with another human being in community and to be unashamed.
To admit that - “I don’t have this” – that I need my brothers and sisters - and I could use some help.
Where is the Spirit – who made us and breathed the breath of life for us – but also gave us suitable companions for the journey – inviting you to live into your created-ness?
Summit on 16th is pleased to announce that our 7-week course
Homosexuality and the Bible: Re-Reading the Story of God's Love for All People
will now be offered at 2 community locations this fall!
1ST & 3RD TUESDAYS - 7PM - @ the Stonewall Community Center - 1160 N. High - Starts September 15th
(Meets September 15, October 6, 20, November 3 & 17, December 1 & 15)
(This class will be led by Rev. April Blaine, Lead Pastor at Summit on 16th, an open and affirming church)
THURSDAYS - 7:30PM - @ the OSU Student Life Muticultural Center - Starts September 17th
(This class is specifically for OSU Students, Faculty and Staff. It will be led by Rev. April Blaine and MTSO Grad Student, Kenya Cummings, self-described as black, queer, and called to preach!)
In the wake of this year’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Summit on 16th United Methodist Church will be hosting a class on homosexuality and the bible in partnership with the Stonewall Community Center and the OSU Student Life Multicultural Center. This seven-week class will focus on the passages of Scripture typically used to condemn the LGBT community, seeking to develop a fuller understanding of what these Scriptures really say.
“Too many people believe that the only way to talk about the bible and homosexuality is to speak of condemnation and judgment. We want to change the nature of the conversation by equipping the community with resources and tools for reading Scripture that look at the context, the history, and the whole story of God’s love for the world, “ says Rev. April Blaine of Summit on 16th UMC.
Summit on 16th UMC has been offering the class for years within their church building. Members who have taken the class have found it to be tremendously healing and educational. Rev. Blaine felt it was time to take the conversations beyond the walls of the building and out into the community.
Thanks to the support of Summit on 16th, the OSU Student Life Multicultural Center, and the Stonewall Community Center, there is NO COST for taking the class.
FOR MORE INFORMATION about the class or to be added to the mailing list, please feel free to E-mail Pastor April
My short career as a basketball player began in the 5th grade. I was a strong 5 foot 4 inches and weighed a hefty 80 lbs. To say that I was awkward on the court was perhaps a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately for my team, my underwhelming skills as a player were not so different from the skills of my fellow teammates. As a result, in our 2 seasons of playing together, we won only 1 game. And In my two years of playing, I managed to score one basket.
So, no one in my family was surprised when I moved to junior high school and decided that perhaps basketball wasn’t really for me. And my teachers who were probably tired of hearing me run my loud mouth in class – suggested that perhaps my propensity for high volume speaking might be best utilized on the sidelines – as a cheerleader.
And so began my career as a cheerleader, first at Eureka Springs Jr High and then Eureka Springs High School.
In truth, cheerleading turned out to be a great activity for me. It built some confidence in a season of my life where I didn’t have a lot of extra of that to go around. I built some friendships with people and created a great support network. And I grew as a leader, serving as co-captain and captain in the years to come.
And as a side benefit, I learned a lot about the sport of basketball. I learned the intricacies of the game, the positions and how they worked together.
I reveled in the beauty of a game played nearly flawlessly and agonized in the pain of watching a victory slip out of your hands in the final seconds.
I really grew to love and appreciate the sport, much more than I had when I was playing.
But in all of those six years, no matter how invested I was in the game, no matter how much my heart would beat fast as we would see that last shot go in the air with 3 seconds left in the game, to send us into overtime…
I was still on the sidelines.
By definition, to be a cheerleader is to be ON THE SIDELINES. I had a role to play, but it was still a role as a spectator. I wasn’t really IN THE GAME.
Today is Palm Sunday in the church. A crucial day in the story of Jesus’ life. The story detailing the events of the day is found in all four gospels. For three years, he has been teaching and traveling and sharing the word and story of God’s kingdom come near to Earth.
But this moment – is Jesus at his heyday. The message has gotten out. From the feeding of the 5,000 to the healing of the leper, to most recently the raising of Lazarus from the dead. People have heard about Jesus. The mood is heightened because this is the Passover festival week. So, people have been traveling from far and near and the word is out – Jesus is the next big thing and people are coming out of the woodwork to see him.
The night before, a banquet was held in Jesus’ honor at Mary and Martha’s house – a kind of Pep Rally you might say. Lazarus is there – a walking living breathing example of the incredible work of Jesus’ ministry. And everyone wants to see Jesus.
And the next morning, the events of Palm Sunday unfold. And I think I used to imagine the scene kind of spontaneously – as if Jesus just walked into the city and people randomly saw him and started shouting Hosanna! They just happened to have some palms nearby so they started waving them – that there was this event that kind of just happened.
But the reality is that the whole scene – the dinner at Martha and Mary’s the procession into Jerusalem, was probably carefully organized.
There were probably some gals and some dudes with clipboards –
There were probably some people with lists and flyers who were organizing folks behind the scenes.
There were probably people on that Saturday evening gathering Palm Branches and organizing the route of the procession and telling people what to do and where to be.
There were probably even folks strategically placed along the route – people to start the chanting and the cheering – cheerleaders you might say – who began the cries of “Hosanna.”
When it happened, Palm Sunday was an event – a parade, a spectacle, inviting the crowd to shout and cheer and revel in the moment.
It was probably something to experience.
But I have to wonder about the folks in the crowd, about the people hyping things up, passing out palm branches, and starting cheers. I have to wonder about these people on the sidelines.
Who were they? What is it that they knew or thought they knew about Jesus?
A parade like this one on Palm Sunday would not have been out of the ordinary in such a day. In fact, when leaders returned from military conquests, they would ride in on their horses, championing their trophies of war – and there would be a spectacle like this in the streets. And people would wave palm branches. It’s a public sign of recognition and celebration of a national, political leader. Someone who you are willing to follow into battle.
Did they organize this parade, this spectacle because they saw Jesus as their new political leader? The one who would rescue them from the clutches of the Roman empire? The one who would lead them into battle and free them from oppression?
And if so, where were they the next day? Or even better – 4 days later when he was sentenced to death?
The thing about the sidelines is that it is relatively safe. When you aren’t in the thick of it yourself, when you aren’t the one taking risks and putting yourself out there and fighting and struggling for something – when you are instead, the observer… it’s easy to get caught up in the hype, or be overly critical, and at the end of the day – it is easy to WALK AWAY. Because there isn’t as much at stake.
My hunch is that most of the people who waved the branches on Palm Sunday had a great time, they shouted the hosannas, they enjoyed the moment, and then they WENT HOME. They went home the same person that they were before they had come that day.
I always kind of wondered why Jesus went along with the whole Palm Sunday thing. At this point, he seems to know what is coming. And he doesn’t seem like the parade kind of guy – he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who enjoyed having tons of adoring fans or achieving celebrity status…
But Jesus does have a knack of trying to turn just about any moment into an opportunity to teach – to make a powerful statement and strong message about who God is and what he has come here to do.
Perhaps he knew exactly what these parade organizers had planned, but he has a little surprise twist for them that they hadn’t prepared for.
For as the palm branches begin, he decides to get on a donkey.
In other versions, he secures the donkey in advance, but in this story – he does it “mid-processional.”
It’s almost as if he’s hoping that some people on the sidelines will see through the noise, the spectacle and will understand something different about the life that he is inviting them to.
As if he is saying – I am not your war champion. I am not here preparing for a military conquest.
The kingdom that I bring is indeed about justice, but it will come through a very different way of living.
That perhaps some people in the crowd, some of the cheerleaders, might realize the symbol of what is happening in their midst and choose to come off of the sidelines – and onto the pathway with him. To follow him – not toward military victory, but toward the risk-taking, humbling, love-sharing, feet washing life of compassion, grace, justice, and service.
It’s no wonder that the Scriptures tell us that even the disciples didn’t understand this at the time. And it’s no wonder that Jesus says – “Don’t be afraid – for your king comes humble – riding on a donkey.”
Don’t be afraid to follow me.
Don’t be afraid to walk with me.
Don’t be afraid to step off the sidelines.
To not just be cheering hosannas, but to step onto the path and take another step forward to follow me in faithfulness.
Like many of you music feeds my soul and is an encouragement to me on the journey.
And I want to leave you with some of the lyrics of one of my favorite U2 songs… it’s called “Walk On.”
And if the darkness is to keep us apart And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off And if your glass heart should crack Before the second you turn back Oh no, be strong
Oh, oh, walk on, walk on What you got, they can't steal it No, they can't even feel it Walk on, walk on
You're packin' a suitcase for a place, none of us has been A place that has to be believed, to be seen You could have flown away, a singin' bird in an open cage Who will only fly, only fly for freedom
Oh, oh, walk on, walk on What you got, you can't deny it Can't sell it or buy it Walk on, walk on
To walk onto the path that Jesus calls us toward looks different for each one of us. And the truth is – we always are standing somewhat on the sidelines of the next choice we know we need to make. The next step that we know we are being called to. There is always a moment where we decide that we will keep moving one step forward.
And there are always things that are holding us back. Keeping us on the sidelines.
As you think about what those are for you – what is keeping you as a spectator, seeing the path before you where you know you are called to go – but remaining on the sidelines unchanged.
What is holding you back?
Name it. And nail it to the cross.
There were two men who found themselves on the edge of the city that day. The first was a leper. He assumed his usual place on the outskirts of the city gate. It was going to be another hot day by the time the afternoon arrived, so he positioned himself strategically next to the last olive tree in the neighboring garden… just enough so the shade would lean in his direction during the hottest hours of the afternoon.
Every day was the same. To sit and to wait. Sometimes it would be his sister or his cousin, who would come with that look on their faces – a mixture of embarrassment and sadness and fear. And they would toss him some kind of food. On a lucky day – also some kind of comfort – a blanket or a new shirt.
But most days, he would sit and wait for the kindness of a stranger – someone who had come from the market and would toss something his way.
Years had gone by this way. It started with the first lesions on his arms. His mother, as advanced as her eyesight was, had known what it was and preparations were made immediately to move out of the house – to leave the only family he had known and to live on the streets, on the edge of the city. Away went his normal clothes, replaced by the tattered uniform of a leper. At first, he could still go and gather food for himself in some of the fields, but as the disease spread to his hands, his feet, his face, as his hands began to curl together and his nose began to collapse – the work of gathering food became nearly impossible.
It had been years since he had seen many of his family, most were too ashamed to come near – and even longer since he had felt the warmth of an embrace, or even the touch of a hand. And in case anyone might come too close or too near, he would have to yell – “Unclean! Unclean!” Outcast and alone. This was his life.
And so he would sit on the edge of the city and he would watch the people come in and out of the city walls.
Most people walked by as if he was not there. When they did look, their looks were filled with disdain, and fear, and judgment.
The second man was a local merchant.
He passed by these gates nearly every week. He was a man of means, for he wore clothes of linen, in fine bright colors. His sandals were sturdy and new and he walked slowly, standing tall and upright, as if each step were taken with thoughtful intention and great dignity.
It was clear that the people in the town knew who he was, for when they came near they would bow their heads in acknowledgement and respect.
Unlike the others, this man did not pass by the leper without looking at him.
He never spoke, but his eyes would look across the road.
And as he gazed upon the leper,
In the merchants eyes was a great sadness, a heaviness, as if he carried in his tall upright shoulders a great burden that no one could see.
And as he passed the leper and met his gaze - he would nod his head.
An acknowledgement even that he also knew something of pain.
Some of us wear our pain and suffering on the outside. But some of us bury it far below – far beneath the surface where no one can see it.
That morning outside the city, both men could hear the hubbub in the air – the people were buzzing about – for the teacher, the prophet, the rabbi – Jesus of Nazareth was headed this way. Both had heard of him and of course, had heard the stories – the stories of lives changed, the stories of forgiveness granted, and most important – the stories of miraculous healing.
The first man felt an excitement – maybe, just maybe – this man – this Jesus could help him. Could heal him even.
It was a desperate long shot – but what did he have to lose?
He knew that Jesus would have to pass by the place where he was in order to enter the city. And so he waited, until he saw him coming – and then he threw himself into the street, literally blocking Jesus’ path and begged him. Please, help me. Sir, if only you will make me CLEAN.
Even though he had asked, he hadn’t really expected this response.
To touch a leper is to become unclean yourself. To risk getting leprosy yourself.
To be cast out of the city yourself for the fear that you would spread it to others.
Jesus would have to present himself to the priest to be declared clean himself.
Without hesitation, this man, this teacher, this prophet – this Jesus – reached out his hand.
And he TOUCHED him.
He touched him. For the first time in years, someone had touched him.
And he said simply. “I will. Be clean”
It happened in an instant, but the shock of what was happening seemed to move the scene in slow motion.
But he had touched him and the lesions had gone away. The curvature of his hands had lightened – his nose returned to its normal form.
Go – directly to the priest he had said. And be declared clean. Make your offering of thanks.
“Your cleansed and obedient life will bear witness to what you have done.”
And he does. With joy, he goes immediately.
The merchant had gathered along with others in the crowd to see what was happening – to see this great miracle that was happening before his eyes.
The man – who he passed by each week at the city gates – the leper was clean. The lesions were gone, the stories were true. This Jesus – was a healer indeed.
And for a moment, just a moment, he wanted to cry out – to fall himself on the ground and say – Jesus – heal me as well. Heal the hurt and the pain and the anger and the fear.
Heal me as well.
Heal my broken heart, my anxiety and my lack of confidence – heal me of the ways I cannot love and the ways I cannot forgive.
Heal me as well.
But the crowds surrounded Jesus – and the moment passed.
There were others crying out for Jesus’ attention – and Jesus soon stole away to be alone himself with God.
And the man, well dressed as always, returned to his village walking tall and dignified, carrying the weight of the world.
I have always really loved this story for a number of reasons. I love the ways that Jesus crosses these incredibly rigid cultural boundaries that were firmly in place at the time. I love that he touches this man and is willing to make himself unclean in the process. I love that he does it in front of everyone. And uses the words, “I am willing.”
It’s a beautiful story of compassion and healing. A reminder to us of the abundance and availability and limitlessness of God’s grace and love for all people.
And yet – when I read this story, I’ve also had trouble finding myself in the story.
I’m not really the leper.
I don’t know the great pain of isolation, or physical suffering that leaves me helpless and dependent on others.
I don’t know the experience of judgment and rejection from so many others.
And I’m definitely not Jesus.
I may be a pastor, but my default mode isn’t to go to the places where the poorest of the poor live. To reach out and touch them. To try and heal them.
The truth is – in the story – I am the observer.
The tall dignified man or woman who watches the scene and wonders whether Jesus can also heal the wounds that are less visible.
Because while we do not wish for people to know. All of us know something of pain and struggle and hurt.
All of us carry that within us – but not where others can see.
And as an observer, I cannot help but ask myself the question – what can I learn from this man – who knelt before Jesus in desperation saying “Please, heal me.” If you are willing.
A man who is willing to acknowledge the hurt and the pain and the struggle
To be vulnerable – and to seek the God who can begin the process of healing.
A process that he is powerless to begin on his own.
The man who was healed of leprosy wasn’t healed overnight – everything in his life – the pain and suffering of years, wasn’t instantly gone.
When he came, utterly vulnerable and exposed – knowing that Jesus was his only hope. That’s when the healing began.
Today we are going to have a special time of anointing. Anointing has long been a practice of healing. A physical reminder that we can bring our pain and struggle before God and find that God’s presence is with us – working to heal the pain within.
So, I invite you to come forward to share what it is that you would like prayer for and to receive the anointing presence and healing of the Holy Spirit.
Whether your pain and struggle are things that are easily visible on the outside or whether you carry them deep within – in a place where no one can see.
We invite you to come.
Right where you are.
Ready to dig deeper into this faith journey? Ready to start finding ways to articulate and better understand who God is?
Some people hear the world “theology” and immediately find themselves intimidated. That work is obviously for the trained professionals, those people who have been to seminary… not for “someone like me.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The work of theology is simply FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING.
The work of theology is about weaving together words and understanding with the stories of our lives, finding ways to engage the big questions of who God is and who we are with the everyday moments of our lives. It is difficult to grow in our faith without engaging in the work of theology. And engaging in the work of theology, when done authentically, should challenge us to dive more deeply into our lives of faith.
Developing a strong theological foundation is key to our life of faith, but it is difficult work. This month, Pastor April will begin this course, which will involve study, discussion, guided prayer, artwork, videos, and even a retreat. Participants will be expected to do reading between classes and work toward the creation of a final project.
Class begins on Tuesday, March 24th at 7pm.
All abilities and levels are welcome.
One of the images of God that was always sitting on the walls of my Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas was this calm serene Jesus. He’s looking off to heavens – pondering something super important – and in truth it’s a kind of innoculous – non-threatening picture of a peaceful Jesus.
Another image that I saw in Sunday School was this one – Jesus the good shepherd. Again – Jesus looks so calm and serene. He is holding a baby lamb for crying out loud. The sheep are following him and everything is so peaceful and beautiful.
So – I remember how jarring it was the first time I heard this story in John 2 – because THIS – this was not an image of Jesus that I had heard before. This Jesus is mad. When he walks into the temple and sees the dealers of cattle, sheep, and pigeons… when he sees the money changers – our text tells us that he made a whip out of cords. That means that he actually took some rope and tied it together to create not just a little whip – but a huge whip – large enough to drive out all the people, all the cattle, all the sheep – everything. I mean – whatever he was doing with that whip – it was enough to scare the living daylights out of everyone present.
And then the people with their money – tables turned – money scattering everywhere.
Where or where has our peaceful, docile Jesus gone? The lamb holding gentle innocuous Jesus –
The disciples remembered the words of Scripture – Zeal for your house will consume me.
The language suggests that they were observing a person who was consumed with his anger about what he was seeing.
His act is so incredibly disruptive that it likely would have meant, during one of the most busy feast times of the year at the temple, that the sacrifices and the worship would have had to cease for the day.
What do we do with this Jesus who is consumed by his anger and is wielding a whip and knocking over tables? Blocking people from coming and worshipping God?
This story is told in ALL 4 gospels. Every author thinks this story was an important part of the story, but only John includes such a lengthy account. And only John places this story at the VERY beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
As followers of Jesus – what can we learn?
One of the things that I love to do year round is look at the trees. And not just look at them but whenever possible to look from the base of the trees up to their branches. We have a giant tree in our front yard – and I particularly enjoy standing at the base looking up – and of course as the seasons change – the things that I see looking up change – bare in winter – but soon the slightest buds, then the first leaves, until the whole tree is filled with green leaves, and then again in the fall the slightest change of color in the leaves until they turn – mostly yellow on this tree and the cycle begins again. It’s a healthy robust – alive tree -
But the truth of the matter is – what I see on the surface of this tree has its source – in the roots. What we see on the outside of the tree is made possible because of the depths of the root system – that dig deep into the earth below – securing it into the ground and working every day to bring the water and the nutrients needed to sustain life.
We don’t usually see them but
Without the roots – the tree would falter – the life would go out.
The roots are key.
Everything we see in Jesus’ life – from the kind, calm serene moments, to the gentle holding a lamb moments to the tearing up the temple with a giant whip moments – are all the fruit of a person whose roots were deeply and firmly planted in a particular place and time and most importantly – firmly planted in the heart of God.
Jesus' whole life bore witness to the power of God in the world.
His life with God is what gave him life and breath – it is what directed his ministry and guided his steps along the way.
The roots RAN DEEP.
So his anger and his response in this moment wasn’t just a momentary blow up.
He wasn’t just blowing off steam.
This action in the temple at the start of the ministry of Jesus had everything to do with the very heart of God and to live and act in ways that might reveal that heart to the world.
Now before he came to Jerusalem – in the story just before this – John tells the story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana. And at this wedding – the wine runs out.
The host is notably mortified, but Jesus steps in – and turns the water into wine.
It is the first sign of his ministry and it is an extraordinary story of grace and glory - We get to see a picture of the abundant life that Jesus offers.
But in this next story – our story for today – the scene changes dramatically. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. As a faithful Jew, he is celebrating the Passover. He is coming to the temple to participate in worship – to join with others for this feast day
that was a remembrance of the day when God – passed over their homes and saved their children from death and led them to be liberated from bondage in Egypt. They told the story of their freedom from oppression. They ate and dined together – and even in the midst of occupation – they reminded each other of their real identity.
So, when Jesus comes into the temple,
what he finds here – are the money-changers and the people selling the animals. This was business as usual.
Money needed to be exchanged because the money itself had a picture of the Roman Emperor – Caesar – and this was forbidden by Jewish law.
And the animals were necessary as well – people were traveling from a long distance – they hadn’t brought the animals with them - they needed to purchase them in order to make their offering.
So – all of this was what would have been in the temple during any Passover feast.
And while there was certainly a high likelihood that people were taking advantage of folks by this system.
This story of Jesus’ anger seems to be not just about the abuse of the system – but about the entire system itself.
The new life he offers – the water to wine – abundant life – is available to all –
Jesus' anger is about the systems that have been put in place - systems that stand in direct opposition to the abundant new life that God is offering.
And it comes out of the deep roots of the heart of God – the heart that longs for this abundant life to be available to all people.
When I see this righteous anger, part of the reason it makes me uncomfortable is that it forces me to come to grips with the reality of how often my own anger is not so righteous.
There was a moment this Christmas – it was Monday before Christmas Eve and I had planned my schedule down to the hour. I had just enough time to do what I needed to do and I had planned to start my Monday with a good night’s sleep and some restful time of prayer.
Until of course – one of my children woke up early from a bad night’s dream. And completely wrecked my plans.
Now – in truth – 6am is often not the time that all of us – except Lynne Reid – are at our best – and this was particularly true for me.
But – something about this early morning wakeup set me into a place of rage.
I got up. I stomped into the kitchen. I’m sure I had a scowl on my face through most of it – and started unloading the dishwasher. Which probably wasn’t a good idea because as I unloaded each dish – I was getting madder and madder that I was awake – and I was banging the dishes louder and louder and louder.
Until of course – my husband woke up from the noise and ver politely came in to see what was going on – and then innocently suggested to my son that he go back to sleep. Being so caught up in my anger – I thought he was talking to me – and I gave him – let’s just say – an EARFUL.
About how I couldn’t possibly go to sleep – because now I was mad and my day was ruined and I was exhausted and on and on it went.
Not my most beautiful moment. But I was consumed with anger – I could feel it pulsing through my body and I felt a bit out of control.
My anger in that moment revealed a very troubling reality in my life at the moment. In a season where I had told myself that I was trusting in God – where I had sought to be growing in faithfulness, my anger revealed that my roots were still VERY shallow in a particular area of my life. I was still relying most heavily on my own plans – my own agenda – my own power - to bring me peace and assurance.
And so the only response that morning – after I finally stopped banging around the dishes – was to sit before God – AGAIN – and ask where I needed to experience conversion – where the change in me – in my heart and spirit – needed to result in some deeper roots – in God’s grace and God’s love and in the life that God had called me to. One of justice and mercy and lived without fear.
This Lent – we are talking about what it means to experience conversion.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life whose roots are rather shallow – many of these people have good intentions – they want to be people in the world that are helpful – making a difference – sometimes – they even get involved in the church – or in a movement for change – sometimes like a flash in the pan - but inevitably – they fizzle out. The fervor and passion just doesn’t run deep enough – it grew out of a temporary emotion or a reaction of feeling guilty or obligated or a personal desire to feel useful or important.
And in rare moments – I’ve met people or learned about people whose roots go WAY deeper. Who have walked through life – learning and listening – paying attention to the ways that God is teaching them – and each step of the way planting themselves more firmly in this abundant life that God seems to be offering through Jesus Christ. These people are the kind of people who pay attention to their own emotions, especially their anger and learn from them. They are self-aware enough to know that they don’t have it all together and that they don’t always know what the perfect right answer is. But they seek to listen and learn – to hear where the spirit of God is moving and then with boldness – to RESPOND.
When I meet a person like this – I’m always amazed at the ways that their life has made an IMPACT on the world – changing things for the better – often turning over a few tables, ruffling some feathers, and speaking truth when they are called to do so. The depth of their roots has meant that they have been opened – truly opened to what God is calling them to do.
The road has usually not been easy -
But it isn’t about them. Or about the show.
Because the roots are planted in who God is and what God is doing in the world.
So, I don’t know about you – but that’s the kind of person that I want to be. Every day – sinking my roots just a bit deeper into the soil of who Jesus is. Putting myself in places that force me to look at my shallow roots and grow in depth – so that I am open and ready to be about the work that God is doing in the world. And unafraid to go where I myself might come face to face with the powers that be.
So, I wonder today where you know you need to take a step forward –
Where you know you need to take a look at yourself – starting perhaps with your anger – to have some honest conversation about the state of your own root system. And the ways that God is inviting you to grow.
I wonder where you know you need to do some things that will stretch you. That will force you to step out of what is comfortable and encourage you to really grow – to look beyond your own life and struggle and take a step forward.
And I wonder where those of you who have already been stretched and grown – who have found places of tremendous stretching – need to claim the work that God has done in you – and to – with courage – step into the temples – and speak – without fear of what will happen – for the God of abundant life – will go with you.
Where friends – do your roots need to GROW deeper?
What is the one step you MUST take today –
It’s clear that Jesus’ action in the temple – wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He wasn’t just an outraged man who lost his temper that day. This moment in the temple marked the beginning of a ministry and a movement that time and time again represented a direct threat to the systems that were in place. Everywhere he went – Jesus – proclaimed the kingdom of God – and spoke and acted out against anything and anyone that would stand in the way of the abundant life that God really wanted for all people. He organized people – he built a group of followers – he gave them instructions to continue the work even when he was gone!
And as a result – he was killed on a cross. Executed – as a political threat to the empire.
Nice guys holding lambs – usually don’t end up being tortured to death for fear.
But – the movement that Jesus was building – as he said in his words in today’s Scripture could not so easily be destroyed. Proof? You want proof that my authority is from God?
Destroy this temple and it will rise – yet again.
And Jesus makes this crazy, audacious claim – that when you and I are grounded in the same spirit – rooted in who God is and in the life God wants for the world – that we will be able to do EVEN greater things.
That our lives as well can challenge and stand up to and dismantle the systems that keep God’s kingdom from being fully revealed.
But friends – we are ALL going to need some deep roots to do that work.
May it be so. That we would plant and ground ourselves more fully – in that deep and abiding presence. Trusting in the movement of the Spirit to guide us in this work.
Every morning I have a pretty similar ritual. After I wake up and let the dog out, I make breakfast – 2 eggs over easy and a bowl of oatmeal, get the kids ready, take a shower and get myself dressed and ready to go out the door. The getting dressed part is last for good reason.
Because the first goal is to make it out the door with no one in tears and the second is to do so with no physical evidence of the morning’s events on my outer clothing.
But of course, as you know, sometimes despite my best efforts, things just don’t always go as smoothly as I’d like them to.
Packed Lunches spill on my shoes as we’re trying to walk out the door, the dog decides to get sick on my purse, or I manage to turn on the sink sprayer too hard and drench myself with water.
And even if I manage to make it out the door unscathed - my luck is not always better once I’ve left the house.
A few weeks ago, somehow somewhere in the course of the day, I managed to spill something all over myself.
One day it was my tea over the course of my shirt. Another my yogurt all over my shirt and coat. And yet another – the dreaded half melted chocolate all over your pants.
At staff meeting that week, I had made the gross error in judgment to pack my leftover buffalo wings for lunch. And despite my effort to cover myself in paper towels, it was only 5 minutes into the meeting before I dropped the drumstick slathered with barbecue sauce right down my lap and watched it roll down the entire front of my shirt knocking the paper towels to the ground as it gathered up momentum.
And so I had an enormous barbecue stain smeared down the front of my bright blue shirt – and a day packed with meetings – with no room for a change of clothes.
And I laughed it off.
But ugh. My first thought – was that “I have to wear this the REST OF THE DAY.”
There is this part of us – this thing we call our EGO.
All of us have it.
Sigmund Freud said the Ego is the part of us that mediates between our raw desires and the reality of the world – It’s the part of us that organizes our thoughts, makes sense of the world, discerns the things that are best for us, and decides the ultimate identity that we want to present to the world.
Our ego is constantly judging – whether we are making the right or wrong decision, whether we are measuring up against others, and so the ego also works to help us project the best possible version of ourselves.
One of the primary interests of the Ego is self-preservation.
We want to protect our own interests. We want to ensure we have what we need and want.
We want to protect ourselves and so we construct these images of ourselves that we choose to share with the world – often they can change depending on the setting where we are.
To preserve our feeling of safety and security – to keep us from being too vulnerable.
And in many ways this part of who we are is really important.
It’s our ego that helps us to make good decisions –
That helps us to not just eat desserts all day but also eat some vegetables.
It’s the ego that gives us that nudge to get up and go to work or school even when we aren’t really feeling like it.
And it’s our ego that often becomes aware of our own behavior and when we have crossed a line with other people – so that we can make an effort to mend our ways.
And at the same time…
it’s our ego that can help us to justify our actions in the interest of self-preservation.
And it is our ego, that at the expense of our own growth – will seek to remain the same, to stay in the comfortable, and to protect the status quo.
And it is our ego that puts up this false sense of who we are – protecting us from being vulnerable about our faults and our failures and our brokenness,
It is our ego that will do everything possible to not walk around with a giant barbecue stain on the front of our shirt – lest the image that we have projected to the world be tainted by the reality of our careless, broken, and not put together selves.
Far before the days of Sigmund Freud, it seems that Jesus knew a lot about this ego about this part of our humanity that works very hard to hide the part of us that is broken and to maintain some illusion of control.
At the start of our text today, Jesus’ disciples are being approached by the Greeks who are in town for the Passover. They have heard the stories of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, they might have even been present during the Palm Sunday procession - and they want in on the action. They want to see Jesus.
Seems like a pretty reasonable request.
Which is why his response to their question might seem kind of strange.
Because Jesus response seems to go in another direction entirely –
The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
It’s an interesting choice of words – glorified.
The term glory is often used to describe great moments of victory and accomplishment or astonishing moments of beauty - the great accomplishments of Olympic athletes or the glorious sunrise we saw – or in Bruce Springsteen’s words – the glory days of high school when life was all about us and our own needs.
But Jesus seems to mean something else entirely.
For the glory of the Son of Man will come through falling to the ground, losing life, serving, letting go and being an obedient follower.
This is glory.
The line that seems to stand out -
Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
And the word for life here in Greek is “psychos” – the root of our word for psyche, and psychology.
It seems that Jesus is not just talking about what it means to be a physical martyr.
But the radical and costly and difficult step of laying down a part of our ego – in obedience to a call that is beyond ourselves.
To stop expending the energy and effort to lift up our false self and image to the world and instead – and to be unafraid to just be who we actually are – barbecue stains and all.
In the middle of staff meeting that day, I received a call on my cell phone. There was an emergency with Eugene at school and I needed to leave IMMEDIATELY. And so, with a quick word to the staff I closed my computer, grabbed my keys and rushed to the school.
I arrived at the school and found, indeed, a pretty difficult situation that required my constant attention and patience and presence for the next hour until everyone was calm and safe and things were returning to normal.
It was only when I walked out of the school and into the parking lot and looked down that I realized that I still had this enormous barbecue stain all down the front of my shirt.
In the course of the events, I had totally forgotten about it.
And I had to smile and laugh at myself. Because it hadn’t mattered one bit.
We work really really hard to make sure that people don’t see our stains.
That people don’t see that we don’t have it all together. I work hard at it.
I come here as your preacher on Sundays and I dress nice – I don’t preach with a giant barbecue stain on my shirt because I want you to see me at my best. I’m not going to stand here in the fullness of my mess. That’s not what I want you to see.
The song we are about to sing is a favorite – it is called “Crooked Deep Down” –
The starting lyrics could be a theme song for me – and maybe for you.
“My life looks good I do confess. You can ask anyone. But just don’t ask my real good friends cause they will lie to you. Or worse – they’ll tell the truth.
Cause there are things you would not believe that travel into my mind. I swear I try and capture them – Always set em free.
Seems bad things comfort me.
Good Lord – I’m crooked deep down. Everyone is crooked deep down.”
The truth is – I’m as broken as you are. And not just because I spill barbecue sauce on myself or yell at my kids when I lose my temper or snub the homeless man on the street who asks me for money.
My brokenness and struggle go way deeper than that…
But the thing I’m learning the more time I spend following this Jesus guy – is that he isn’t concerned with that.
It’s not an impediment to my ability to be obedient. My brokenness and sin and mess and stain are not the things that are keeping me from following with faithfulness. The unfortunate thing I’m learning is that Most days, the thing that keeps me from following most faithfully - It’s my ego. This part of me that wants to appear a certain way – this part of me that wants to preserve my own self-interest and control the environment around me – this is the biggest thing that keeps me from really trusting and being obedient – really being a servant.
And if my trip to the school that day taught me anything – it is that I will indeed be most able to be used when that kernel of wheat can fall to the ground and die.
Because it is then – and probably only then – that I will be able to serve in a way that God intended.
I had a quite annoying opportunity to practice that in worship here just a week later.
Jason Leighton, our intern, began his sermon about liberation and moving into the places of newness and uncomfortability and asked us to join him in taking off his shoes
And I have to confess that there was some, let’s say internal dialogue going on when he made that request.
A part of me that was saying –
I’m not going to take off my shoes.
I mean, you can take your shoes off but I’m not going to.
And then as the sermon progressed, another conversation began because now I was feeling self conscious that I hadn’t taken my shoes off.
What does it say if the pastor of the church is literally digging her heels in and refusing to be vulnerable?
What kind of message am I sending when people see that I’m refusing?
And why am I worried about taking them off in the first place?
The dialogue went round and round a few times until I finally said,
Just get over yourself and take the dang shoes off.
We’ve been talking about really BIG ideas these past 2 months -
epiphanies, racism, and God’s ideal community.
But the truth is – and we know this – those big ideas will remain simply big ideas – unless we are willing to take a hard look in the mirror. To examine ourselves – including our barbecue stains – to ask us why we are so worried to take our dang shoes off.
And to entertain the possibility that perhaps – God’s greatest work will begin when the radical change we hope to see in the world begins in our own hearts – when we find we are open to experience CONVERSION.
I know the word CONVERSION has been co-opted sometimes by groups who think they have the one and only way of thinking and that you need to sign on to their rigid ways of thinking and become a CONVERT.
But Jesus seems to mean this word in a very different way.
To be converted.– is to change your mind. To open up your psyche – to expose your ego to the kind of inner reflection that might help you let go – of your self-interest, of your need to control, and of your great fear that others will see your failures and your brokenness.
And TO EXPERIENCE THE KIND OF CONVERSION– to make yourself more fully available to be OBEDIENT.
At the end of our story today -
The crowd is still confused and Jesus closes his words and tells them –
Walk in the light while the light is with you. Whoever walks in the dark doesn’t know where they are going. But walk in the light, so that you will become children of the light.”
May we walk in the light – unafraid to look deeply at the people we really are – and allow others in our lives to do the same.
BARBECUE STAINS AND ALL.
Knowing that the God of grace and mercy – who sees all that we are – looks at us with only grace and mercy.
And may we as we walk in the light have the courage to lay down our ego –
That we might indeed be a children of the light.
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When I was 7 years old, my family relocated from Little Rock, AR to Eureka Springs, AR – a small tourist town in the northwest part of the state – where I would spend the rest of my childhood and where my parents still live today.
I will never forget my first day in the third grade.
I was so nervous. Would I fit in? Would anyone play with me? And most importantly – would I find a friend?
The teacher did her best on the first day of school to introduce me as the new girl in the class and asked Becky Bird to show me around. And so she did. She introduced me to her other friends – Tricia and Jolene.
They were heavily involved in some kind of conversation on the playground that looked very intense because they had hidden inside one of the boxes that was underneath the climbing platform. And they told Becky to come on inside and I stood on the outside and asked if I could come in as well. Becky looked with a long look on her face – and deferred to Jolene, who very emphatically responded.
You are not one of the blood sisters. And since you are not one of the blood sisters – you are NOT allowed to come inside.
I still remember how my 7 year old body almost began to cave in. How my shoulders slumped down and how I felt as if I wanted to curl into a ball and hide away for ever?
That’s what it feels like when we find ourselves rejected, told that we don’t belong or measure up – that we aren’t part of the tribe and we can’t possibly ever be.
So, our story today tells us of the beginning of Abraham’s journey. He is still known as Abram at this time – and he sets out on this journey.
We’ve actually alluded to this story multiple times in the previous weeks – because it is such a key moment in the history of God’s people. In a time where people viewed the nature of life as a circle, as if everything was just repeating itself over and over again. That nothing new was happening.
It was in such a time, where Abraham set off – listening to a God who was taking him somewhere new. A God of surprises, a God who was relating to him, and a God who promised to show him where to go.
Now, there’s a few things I want us to know about the time period of Abraham that will be helpful to unpacking this stories.
The days when Abraham was living were days of great violence.
And much of what was driving this great violence were the interactions between tribes.
And tribes would battle over resource, access to land, accumulation of wealth – whatever the perceived disparity. And each tribe had a god or goddess who was associated with their tribe – so when they would fight – it would be whose God is better? Yours or mine?
So when you won – you would be sure and take all of their stuff. Why? Because you couldn’t run the risk that if you left some stuff behind – a few stragglers with enough resources – they might rebuild and then come and take you down.
Tribes weren’t just about bloodline – they were about safety. The world was dangerous and people without a tribe were extremely vulnerable to being enslaved and exploited. So people within tribes were always seeking to accumulate more power and partnerships and economic influence for their own tribe. They were doing this because it was life or death. It was kill or be killed. The fable that Monty shared with us this morning – was a fable about the ways this cycle goes round and round – at one point – one is on top and is violently treating another, but in the course of time – the tides have turned and the oppressor is now the victim. Around and around we seem to go.
For thousands of years – this was the nature of the world.
The tribe would go to great lengths to preserve its life and status and power. Whatever was necessary – at times, fear and intimidation, at times exclusion, and at times, hospitality – especially to strangers – because you never know what kind of war your might start by making someone mad.
It was all part of an elaborate system – one that sought above all things to take the blessings you had been given and to preserve them – for you and your people.
This was how you survived.
This was the world that Abraham knew.
So Abraham sets out – listens to God and God promises.
“I will make of you a great nation.”
The word here is equivalent to tribe.
I will make you a great new tribe.
Sweet. Abraham is thinking.
God goes on.
And I will bless you.
This is likely a reference to material possession.
NICE! Not only am I going to have a new tribe, but my tribe is going to have lots of stuff.
“I will make your name great.” (respected.)
I’ve got the name notoriety and the resources to go with it.
And You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you and cure him that curses you.
(This saying seems to suggest that God will punish those who seek to stand in the way of Abraham)
And all the families of the earth,
Will be blessed because of you.
Wait, Hold up.
What was that last part?
All the families of the earth?
What about the ones I’m going to take down because my new tribe is so awesome?
All the families of the earth?
How is that going to work?
How is my new tribe going to be the best if I’m spending all my time – blessing everybody else?
God was calling Abraham out of the place where he had lived to build a new tribe.
A tribe unlike any other tribe.
A tribe whose purpose it was to BLESS all the world.
In the midst of a world of tribal violence – through Abraham – God is seeking to teach us a NEW WAY TO LIVE.
A few weeks ago, I asked our Tuesday evening bible study the question – what does it feel like to receive a blessing from someone – and people told powerful stories – moments when they experienced unconditional love, moments when they were encouraged by the testimony or story of another, moments when they were serving someone else and found that they were the one that was blessed.
And in all these moments – they talked about the experience as a moment where they felt encouraged, where they felt empowered – like they were able to do things that they might not have been able to do before – that they could stand up a bit taller – because they were a part of something bigger than themselves and there were people in their corner, standing with them.
After college, I joined Teach for America and was a high school science teacher in North Carolina for four years. My first year was a hard one. I was 21 years old, I barely looked older than the students and I had never done this before. Many, many days – I came home discouraged wondering if I could keep going.
And then there was Aletha Hudson, a Southern-Baptist, gospel singing, African-American English teacher who took me under her wing.
She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Every morning – she would walk by my room and say, April, “Do you feel his power today?”
No, Aletha, I don’t.
And she would come and she would pray with me. She would encourage me.
(And she would invite me to her bible study – which is a whole other story)
But as she left each day – she would say. God is with you April. I believe in you. You have the power – to do this thing.
And each day – more and more I began to believe her – that perhaps – I could stand a bit taller -
We are still a tribal people.
And tribes can draw their lines in lots of different ways.
There are the obvious lines that divide based on the nation you live in, or the nation you are from, your age, gender, race, or ethnicity. Even your college football affiliation.
Sometimes our tribal lines get drawn because of where we are from.
Or in our shared experiences.
Or in our shared theology and outlook on the world.
We all belong to many different tribes.
And we love the feeling of what it’s like to be a part of a tribe.
We feel a sense of belonging. A sense of connection.
Because we are included. We matter.
We feel like “these are my people.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. With finding community and a sense of belonging. With people who we share some things in common.
But the truth is, tribes tend to be driven by their own self-interest.
We want what is best for our own people. And we often believe that our interests are of the highest importance. That they supercede the interests of others.
It’s part of the reason why news stories affect us so much more when they happen to people who we associate with our own tribe.
We are much more upset about Americans being killed in a plane crash than we are if it is predominantly people from a culture we know very little about.
It’s part of how we are wired.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in an Ohio Student Association training and we were talking about the violence happening in our black neighborhoods and the ridiculously high rates of incarceration – and this 18 yr old African American high school student – just stood up and she just began to cry out – “I do not understand. HOW can my white brothers and sisters NOT SEE THIS? How can so many people be so blind?”
Molly Shack – our brilliant organizer shared with her that 75% of white people in America have no black friends. They have no people that they are close to –
And so – there is a blindness. Because it doesn’t affect their tribe. It doesn’t impact them or their interests or the people they care most about.
There is a tendency for tribes to have enormous blind spots – we must remain aware.
And yet –
From the beginning of our story as God’s people. God has declared that our tribe, our church, our calling – is to be a people whose purpose is to bless other people.
People who are different than us. People who don’t look like us. Talk like us. People with a different culture. People who are black. People who are white. People who are poor, rich, uneducated, or Pulitzer prize winners.
Ours is a call to be a BLESSING to all the families of the world.
It’s hard to be in battle with someone – when you are so busy trying to bless them.
I mean – how would it change the way we interact with people who we don’t understand – people who don’t understand us – people who quite frankly – make us angry – or who we think we are better than –
How would it change things if the first question I was asking was – how can I be a blessing to this person?
How can I help this person to stand taller?
How can I help this person to find courage and purpose and meaning?
How can I help this person so that when I leave – they feel more encouraged than before we began talking?
That is who the people of God were always called to be.
This is how we are to be known.
Those children of Abraham. Those followers of God – man, they are just going around finding ways to bless people.
Finding ways to leave people more encouraged and uplifted and empowered.
They are the ones asking us = “Do you feel his power?”
A tribe whose purpose it is to be a blessing.
a blessing to all the world.
It’s always been our call.
One of my favorite things when reading a great book or watching a well made movie is when the story takes a turn that I didn’t expect. Just at the moment when I think the story is headed in this way, out of no where comes a dramatic turn – that changes everything.
Some of the best stories – stories that we remember – stories that impact us are the ones that defied prediction and surprised us all.
It’s not that exciting when the #1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament makes it to the final four – but when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth are playing – the story becomes so much more interesting.
We love the story of the underdog – or the story of those who staged a great and unexpected comeback – like when a powerhouse athlete like George Forman comes back late in his career to become the oldest heavyweight champion, or– for example – when THE Ohio State University wins the National Championship with their third string quarterback and with a defense that most doubted could measure up.
The power of the story comes in the surprise ending – the one that no one (outside the state of Ohio) saw coming.
As we’ve been talking about the last two weeks, the Jewish people – as they began to tell stories about who they were and who God was – they were breaking away from a worldview that had been entrenched for thousands of years – that the nature of life was going nowhere - that it was a circle – things just kept repeating themselves.
And they began to tell stories of a God that was doing something NEW. A God that was taking them somewhere. A God of surprises – a God of new things. Where the end of the story was not necessarily what you expect.
The bible is filled with stories with an unexpected and surprising turn.
The youngest boy in the family is the one chosen to be the future king and who, with only a handful of stones is able to beat the great giant Goliath, the young Jewish girl is chosen to be the Queen and at the precise moment when it seems that genocide is coming, she is in a position to sway the king and save her people, and of course – the Jewish boy from Nazareth, born of humble beginnings – who begins preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God, the accessibility of God, and a whole new way to live – who, for his words and actions, is killed on a cross but then rises again.
Ours is a story filled with surprise after surprise. Which makes sense – because – this is the story of a God who is doing new things.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the earliest stories in our tradition, when these new epiphanies were first forming and shaping the consciousness of a people – first giving them the language that they needed to understand this new kind of God.
It would make sense that the stories told around the campfires – would be stories with familiar elements – that people had heard before – but stories filled with new surprises – twists and turns that change everything and highlight the different place and direction where things were going.
The power of those first Jewish storytellers around those campfires was in the surprise ending – the one that no one expected – but everyone remembered.
The story of the flood was probably among one of the earlier stories told around those campfires. As people were beginning to shape their identity and make sense of this God of new things.
Last week we talked about how nearly every culture had a story of how the world began – something to explain the origin of humanity – but nearly every culture living in the age of Sumer – also had a flood story. A story that explained some of the devastating natural phenomenon that had taken place in a region that was frequently flooded. And a story that acknowledged and addressed the nature of corruption, evil, and violence in the world. And how the Gods responded to it.
The Sumerian flood myth itself might sound rather familiar to you.
After creation, the gods see the corruption of humans and have decided to send a flood to destroy mankind. The God Enki - warns Ziusudra, the ruler of Shuruppak, one of the great cities, to build a large boat. The terrible storm rages for 7 days until all of the earth is covered and then the Sun God appears, Ziusudra protrates himself and sacrifices an ox and a sheep. And after more deference to more of the Gods, Ziusudra is taken up, given the Breath Eternal and joins the Gods.
The Sumerian flood story, like many of the other flood stories of the time reflected the prevailing worldview – that at any moment of time, you could expect the gods to take vengeance on humanity – through an act of destruction. It was part of the circle that kept repeating itself. Periodic punishment for our wrongdoing when the gods became angry. So the goal would be to try not to do anything that would anger the Gods. For The curse of their anger could come at any time.
The early Jewish stories also reflect the acknowledgement and understanding that sin and wrongdoing was both displeasing to God and created a kind of curse – where humans became separated from their relationship with God.
We see this in the Adam and Eve story –
Where what happens?
And the words of God are –
cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. 18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; 19 by the sweat of your face you will eat bread— until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”
And then in Cain and Abel –
And then we come to the flood.
And the story seems eerily similar to the story of the Sumerian Flood Myth –
What did you hear that is similar?
What did you hear that was different?
But the Genesis flood story has an ending unlike any other flood story at the time. It has a surprise ending - Because at the end of this story - a rainbow fills the sky. And God promises the unthinkable - to never flood the earth again in this way.
Read - 8:21
The Lord smelled the pleasing scent, and the Lord thought to himself, I will not curse the fertile land anymore because of human beings since the ideas of the human mind are evil from their youth. I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done. - Did you hear those words? Even though humanity is evil since their first thought. I will not destroy them.
Nothing about the nature of humanity changed. What has changed is how God will relate.
8:21 - it is the end of the reign of the curse. Curse will no longer be the decisive divine relationship to the earth. Where every violent action from humanity demands an equally violent response from God.
What God replaces the curse with is PROMISE.
PROMISE and COVENANT will be the primary means by which God will relate to humanity.
God makes the choice to stick with us - despite our wickedness.
And God makes a covenant – a one-sided covenant – to show us another way to live.
And so as graphic and destructive as the Noah's ark story is – the surprise ending – tells us that it's ACTUALLY a story about how God isn't like that. It's a story about how God will be different. That Violence and destruction will not be the way of this God.
The story is about the curse being over.
The curse is over – we stand instead on the promise of a second chance.
It is amazing to me how many people within the Christian community and beyond – have not REALLY heard this message. They have not really experienced the Epiphany – the new revelation, the new insight – the aha moment – that tells them – that they are not cursed.
That God is not ANGRY.
And that God is not interested in bringing about destruction and pain in their lives as a punishment.
People often talk about the Old Testament God as being the angry one – meting out punishment and judgment and wrath in heartless ways.
But the Jewish community who wrote these stories in the context when they did seemed to be trying to tell a very different story. Trying to use the same stories they had heard – but with a different ending – ours is a God who doesn’t behave that way – ours is a God who knows all of the wrong that we do – and responds with the promise to still remain with us.
Through it all – and to teach us another way to live.
A way of living that isn’t dependent on our own ability to get it right.
But rests in the promises of God.
So I wonder where you need to hear most – the epiphany – that God is not angry.
That God is not keeping score – but instead is standing with us – pointing us to the rainbows and the second chances – and a new way to live that leaves the cycles of violence and destruction behind.
And I wonder -
How we can be a people who stop perpetuating a curse?
And instead start living into our promise?
This weekend is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday – we will remember it tomorrow.
A man who committed himself to the ways of nonviolence – that we would not repay violence with violence – that there was in fact, another way to live.
I think perhaps, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the epiphany that the early Jewish communities were trying to tell.
I think in fact, that he experienced the forgiveness and grace that was his from God – and insodoing – was able to stand on the promises and extend that grace to all those around him.
The curse has long been over. God is not angry. And we stand on the promise that God is with us. Extending grace. And teaching us a new way to live. May we be able to listen today.
Do you ever wish you knew more about what the Bible has to sayabout human sexuality?
Do you want to know more about the history behind how the Bible was written and the context for what it says?
Are you an LGBT person or ally looking for a supportive community of faith with an affirming message?
Do you want to be able to understand harsh parts of the Bible and learn how to defend God's love for all people?
Then you might enjoy... Homosexuality and the Bible! Thursdays @ 7:30pm Beginning January 29th with a feast of “Abominations” found in the book of Leviticus.
This 6 week small group led by Meghan Link will explore the Bible's "clobber verses" to talk about what the Bible does and does not say about sexuality. This class is open to all. Come for an open and honest discussion about Scripture where we will go through each of the passages typically used to condemn homosexuality and try to develop a fuller understanding of what these Scriptures really say. Prepare to be challenged and encouraged by the ways that God’s word makes space for all people! January 29, 2015 - A Feast of Abominations (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Luke 10:25-37)
February 5, 2015 - The Law and the Promise. (Galatians 3:23-29, 5:13-23, 6:15)
February 12, 2015 - The Gift of Sexuality (Romans 1:26-27, Paslm 139:1-18)
February 19, 2015 - Ethics and Just Relationships (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 16:14)
February 26, 2015 - Sodom's sin (Genesis 19:1-29)
March 5, 2015 - Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20, Matthew 5:43-48)
When was the last moment when someone saw you? I don’t mean saw you as in – Oh, there you are – but saw you – saw in you the beauty and potential and worth and possibility –
When was the last time someone saw something in you that you didn't really know was there?
And their seeing something in you seemed to help you see that it was possible for that thing to be birthed in your life.
When was the last time someone saw you?
I wonder how Mary would have answered that question before the day that the angel came to visit her.
We don’t know much about her. We know she was about 13 years old. 13 years old. Living in Nazareth, a small, poor, working class town. She probably did not come from a family of money. Her life was a simple one.
And in this day and age – women lived their lives in the background. They stayed in the home. They tended to their own affairs.
News about their futures was decided by the men in their family.
They were along for the ride.
So, Mary’s experience on that fateful evening – of an angel who not only saw her but spoke directly TO her – it would have been an entirely unusual and extraordinary thing.
Greetings, favored one.
First of all, angels don’t speak to women. And Favored one?
That was a greeting for the rich, for the privileged, for the remarkable and accomplished.
She was just an ordinary girl from Nazareth.
No wonder she was confused and wondered what kind of greeting this was.
the angel goes on – greetings favored one, don’t be afraid – for God is going to do a new thing in you.
In you, Mary.
An ordinary, 13 year old girl.
You will conceive and give birth to a son, you are to call him jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the most high.
Now, normally news about Mary’s future – about her role as a wife and a mother – it would be directed to her father or her future husband.
Never directly to her.
But the angel comes to bring this news DIRECTLY to Mary.
The Son of the Living God will come into the world.
By the Power of the Spirit. It will be God working in and through you.
The holy one will be called the son of God.
Nothing is impossible with God.
You, Mary, are going to bring the Son of God into the world.
There are these mixed emotions that happen when someone really sees you.
When they name some things about you. When they tell you – that maybe you are more blessed than you realized. When they challenge you to see yourself as more. When they tell you that out of your life can come extraordinary possibility and promise.
The emotions are mixed.
It is affirming to be noticed and to be told that we are favored and blessed.
But it is also uncomfortable – it is unnerving. Who me?
Are you sure you have the right person?
And what if what you say is true?
What does that mean for me?
How must my life be different?
What must I face and come to grips with?
I will never forget the week in seminary where two very important women SAW me.
It was the fall of my 2nd year of seminary and while still firmly committed to the idea that I was not going to get ordained as an elder, lead a church or preach, I had become more open to the idea that perhaps God was inviting me down a path that I hadn’t anticipated.
I was taking two classes that fall – a church leadership class with a retired bishop, Bishop Craig. And a history class with Dr. Diane Lobody.
And that week, I received two grades back on two papers I had written.
The first was from Bishop Craig and it was a – well, let’s just say – a not so great mark.
There was a lot of red on the page and she asked me to stay afterward to talk about it.
I was not feeling so good about where this was going to go.
She handed me the paper back and she said – I’m going to ask you to rewrite this paper.
I asked you to do theological reflection about the church where you are serving and how God is working in and through your ministry and frankly, you didn’t do what I asked.
And so I want you to go back to your desk, and I want you to pray, and listen and rewrite – and tell me how it is that God is actually working in and through these moments.
Then she said this, “You know, I could have just given you the grade and left it at that. But, April, I see something in you. I see possibility and promise. And I think God is trying to work in your life in a way that you aren’t paying attention to.
And I don’t want you to miss it.”
So go back and listen. And come back.
The next day, my history professor was preparing to pass back our first papers of the semester. She prefaced this passing back of the papers with a long speech about how terrible the large majority of the papers had been. How they were not at all what had been assigned, how we had missed the point, and I quote, how we were all a bunch of “knuckleheads.”
I braced myself for the worst.
And then I received my paper back.
It also had red all over it, but it wasn’t the red I was expecting.
A+ it said at the top.
And the note on the final page read something like this (Disclaimer: I don't have the original paper, so this is more what I heard as opposed to what was written) – Ms. Blaine, this is a remarkable paper and shows an ability to articulate and communicate that will carry you far in your ministry as a leader in our conference. Do not miss the gift that God is given you and be sure you are brave and courageous enough to use it in the world.
I remember walking outside of the school, and sitting for over an hour outside on a bench overlooking the pond that day.
Because when someone has seen you – really seen you, when someone has called forth something out of you – out of the depths of who you are –
There are a lot of mixed feelings.
I think the people who saw me crying that day assumed that like them, I had failed the paper as well.
And I let them think what they needed to think.
But that week – from the words of my two professors – I had been seen and I knew that I couldn’t hide anymore. And that my life would never be the same.
The words that Mary is reported as responding to the Angel are
Let it be to me as you have said.
But I wonder what she was feeling inside as she spoke those words.
The mixture of emotions at the God of the universe having seen her and called her – to be more than she thought she could be.
To do this thing – to follow this call.
To say yes to the unexpected journey where she would never again be the same.
Was to acknowledge that what the angel saw in her – what God saw in her - as crazy as it sounds – that something about it was true.
Let it be to me as you have said.
May what you said be true in my life. May it be true.
I think that Mary’s story so often get’s romanticized and made into this kind of otherworldly experience. Where we lift Mary up as this Holy Saint that is nothing like us.
But I think actually – we are seriously missing the point of this story.
If God chose a 13 year old girl from a small town, from a poor family, who hasn’t done anything remarkable to make herself stand out in the world – if God saw in Mary the ability to bring the Son of God into the world –
Then what does God see in you?
Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas and it is a time where we are waiting with expectation, with hope for Jesus to come into the world. Advent literally means arrival. And so we remember the first arrival of Jesus into the world.
And how the first arrival of Jesus, the incarnate God, came into the world by calling forth the best parts of the humanity of a young woman on the fringes of a small town in the middle of nowhere.
But the heart of Advent today isn’t just to remember the story – it is also the firm belief in the Christian tradition that Jesus is still arriving into the world all the time,
The heart of Advent is the belief that we are all Mary.
Mary wasn’t the extraordinary person we know her to be today before this encounter. But she did say – Let it Be – Let me live into the possibility that you have for me.
So this Advent and Christmas I wonder about two things.
Where has God seen you? Where is God seeking to arrive in your own life – to bring forth the best parts of who you are – so that the light of God might come into the world? Where have others seen it in you and you have been yet to speak the words –
Let it be to me as you have said. Yes. I am willing.
And I also wonder this season – where you need to be like this angel – speaking a word of encouragement and hope – seeing another person with all of their gifts and graces and speaking to them a word from God about what you see in them – about the possibilities and about what God is doing?
Who do you need to see this season through the eyes of God to offer them that same word of hope?
Because – the truth is –
We are all ordinary people through whom – extraordinary things are possible.
This is how God came into the world and this is STILL how God is coming into the world.
So – Let it Be – to Us – As God has spoken.
So, we got a little ambitious today and we read 2 scriptures.
These two stories – have some pretty remarkable things to teach us – and so we’re going to dive in quickly and summarize a couple things in each story – that I think drive at the heart of what we’ve been trying to do at Summit – this month – talk about how we grow in our giving. Are you ready?
Story number one.
Esther – what was Esther’s ethnic and religious background?
She was Jewish.
And who is she married to?
King Xerxes. The King of Persia and the Persian Empire
So, the Jewish people living in Persia were under the rule of the Empire. Their rights were extremely limited.
And many people hoped to completely eliminate the Jews entirely. Including Haman – one of the king’s most trusted advisors.
Now, because of this tension – Esther doesn’t tell the king that she is Jewish. She knows its too risky – in fact, the whole reason she became queen in the first place is because he didn’t like that his first queen had a mind of her own and refused to do what he said.
So, Esther had been quiet about her background.
But now things are different. Haman has convinced the king to issue a decree that the Jews are to be annihilated on a particular day. It is essentially an order for genocide.
And so Mordecai – Esther’s cousin has come to find her – and to ask her – what?
To try to do what she can – to stop what is impending…
But what is her initial response?
She is worried.
Because she knows that if she approaches the king –she could be killed.
Her initial focus – understandably is on all the limitations.
I can’t do anything – the king hasn’t called me to see him for 30 days.
What she is being asked to do is simply too big –
She couldn’t possibly do it.
In our second story –
From the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples have had a long day. The plan had been to go to a deserted place where they could rest and reconnect. The disciples have just returned from going out into the community to share the good news with others – and they have a lot to tell Jesus. And they are also deeply grieved, all of them, from the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded.
They needed some time away. So Jesus tells them – come with me and let’s go rest a while.
But those darn people. The crowds of people – with their needs and their longing to be with Jesus – they follow them.
And Jesus sees them – and even though he is tired and he is grieved, he has compassion for them. And so he teaches them – for most of the day. Until the hour was late. And they were hungry.
The disciples come to Jesus – look it’s late Jesus – these people need to go somewhere else – and eat. We need to wrap this up and send them home.
But Jesus looks back at them and says what?
You give them something to eat.
You do it.
And what do they say?
We can’t because – it would cost way more than we could ever purchase. There are too many people. It’s too big.
Their initial focus is – on their limitations.
This task is too big. We don’t have what it takes.
We struggle with this too. What are you wrestling with now – where it is easy to focus more on your limitations?
Researchers have discovered some interesting things about the skill sets and neurological abilities of some of the most highly successful people, people who are able to motivate others and make change happen, people who are able, in a sense, to accomplish what seems to be impossible.
And each one of these people has the ability in difficult situations to do something called Re-Appraisal. They have the consistent ability when things get difficult and dicey – when faced with a challenge or impossible situation – these people have the ability to re-frame the situation – to look at it from a new perspective. To stop focusing on the limitations and instead – focus on the possibilities.
And what they discovered –
Is that the most dynamic leaders – ones who are truly effective at this skill – have the ability to not only do it for themselves – but also help those around them – to do the same.
Both of these stories have dynamic leaders who help move the focus from limitations to possibilities.
Who is that person in the story of Esther?
Her cousin Mordecai –
Mordecai responds to the queen with one of the most famous quotes from this book of the Bible.
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”
Mordecai shifts her focus – to what is possible – that she could be a part of something remarkable – saving her very people.
And when Esther can reframe her story and see it through this lens – it becomes clear what she must do.
In the second story – not surprisingly, that person is Jesus!
What is the question that he asks the disciples to help them see something new?
“What do you have?”
And then he takes what they have – the 5 loaves and the 2 fish – and he thanks God – and he starts handing it out.
And when the disciples can reframe their story – when they can see this not as a burden but an opportunity – what do they spend their time doing at the end?
Picking up 12 baskets of leftovers…
This month, we’ve been talking about growing in our giving. How it is that God is calling us to take another step forward in sharing the resources that we have…
The first week we expanded our idea of what those resources include –
And last week – we talked about the importance of our ability to have trust – that fundamentally – to get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus on the water – it takes practice – we have to take that step –
So the final question for this week – is what is holding you back? What is keeping you in the boat? What is it that God is calling you to do and you are focused on your limitations?
So, I want to invite you to think about that thing in your life that perhaps God is inviting you to – the place where you are being called to be more generous with yourself, your resources of money or stuff, your time, your relationship – where you are invited to trust –
And in your paper – I want you to write down the limitations that seem to be keeping you from taking a step forward…
Then I want you to rip up the paper into strips – and on the other side of those –
Write down – what you DO HAVE.
What things do you bring?
Write them down.
During our offering today – we are going to collect the baskets full. The resources that you bring – as a reminder of the abundance – of what we DO HAVE – to face the impossible – and to be faithful to the call.
(Sermon began with the children’s book, “Incredible Ned”)
In Genesis Chapter 1, at the very start of our story, after God has created the light and has given shape to the earth and as placed stars in the sky and birds in the air, fish in the water, and animals upon the land.
God says – Let US make humankind in our own image.
In the image of God –
And so God creates humans. Male and female.
In the image of the living God.
An intentional act.
A purposeful moment.
A great work of art –
Made with love and generosity and made with
God’s image irrevocably woven into our DNA.
And God says – it IS GOOD.
The author of Psalm 139 seems to understand this –
That God was involved in our very creation – knitting us together in our mother’s womb.
Forming our inmost parts. Knowing us fully.
The psalmist says – it’s too wonderful for me to fully fathom.
We are a beloved creation of God.
We are made with intention and care.
We are not an accident.
Every last bit of us.
Our doublejointed arms, our super frizzy hair,
Our skin pigmentation, our sexual orientation… even our enormous feet.
Our weird fascination with elephants or our deep love of dark chocolate.
All a part of the plan.
Made with intention and love and care and thoughtfulness.
It’s how our story begins.
It’s the fundamental part of our identity that shapes who we are.
We are beloved. WE are blessed.
We are called God’s children.
And God says – it is GOOD.
There are few things more central to the story.
But let’s be honest.
Most days –
We don’t believe it.
We struggle to claim our belovedness.
When we look in the mirror,
We struggle to be comfortable in our own skin.
We aren’t so sure we like this person that God has made with such care and intention.
Whether it has to be with us being different from others, or the same as others.
Or whether it has to do with the shape of our bodies, the things that we can or can’t do.
Or how quickly our minds process and understand and think and reason.
Whatever our complaints -
Whatever the reasons –
When we look in the mirror,
we’ve all got a laundry list of things we’d change about ourselves. Things we wish we didn’t do – or things we wish were different – or the same as others.
Ways that we stack ourselves up against others and declare ourselves unworthy.
We struggle to believe in this alleged BELOVEDNESS.
WE struggle to SEE IT IN OURSELVES.
AND WE CERTAINLY struggle to SEE IT IN OTHERS.
I think this is what I love so much about the story of Incredible Ned.
He has been created different. He is unique, but most of the people in the story struggle to celebrate the unique ways that Ned was created.
And initially Ned feels not beloved, but rejected. Because he was made differently. Because he isn’t the same as others.
It is only the art teacher who begins to see this difference not as a problem but as simply a beautiful way that he was created – something that needs to be channeled certainly – but something that is good. Something worth celebrating.
In a sense – the art teacher – is a different kind of mirror –she allows Ned and his teachers to seem him in a new light and she helps Ned to claim and live into the beautiful and remarkable child he was made to be. To see not how bad he is, but how good he is.
Friends, the very heart of our relationship with God – is God’s desire over and over again – to show us a different kind of mirror.
To help us to know and remember what is true about us.
What is indeed the heart of our story.
In the waters of our baptism, we find such a mirror. Because in these waters, we are reminded that from the very beginning – we’ve been claimed as beloved. It wasn’t because we did anything to deserve it.
But because we were created in the image of God.
And God has declared us a work of art.
As I’ve been reflecting on the deep seeded tensions around our world. Tensions that are tearing apart communities and nations – tensions that are rooted in our inability to cope with the differences we see in one another.
It seems that to claim our belovedness and to declare the belovedness of all others might actually be a radical and audacious claim – but one that perhaps might be our only hope of transformation and a way forward.
This month, we’ve talked about our relationship with God and the ways we are called to take another step forward, but I simply cannot let this month go by without being sure that we have said – that one of God’s deepest desire as you grow in your relationship – would be that you could everyday claim your belovedness and everyday live more as if it were true – for you – and for others.
And so – in these waters –
we will baptize Steven and Ethan,
and as we declare their belovedness
may this moment be a different kind of mirror for each of you – reminding you of the truth that has always been true.
I want to begin our time together with one of my son's children's books - Pete the Cat & his Magic Sunglasses - by Kimberly and James Dean.
This month we are continuing our discipleship journey – thinking about how we can grow in our faith – and this month – we are talking about how we can grow in our relationship with God.
All of Scripture is important in your relationship with God – and as your pastor – I am certainly supposed to encourage you to read Scripture –– but if I’m honest – I have a very soft spot for the Psalms. Because when it comes to learning about what it means to pray – to really seek God in our lives. I haven’t found anything in Scripture that has helped me to see what this looks like more than this particular book.
One of the things that's so beautiful about the Psalms is their ability to speak about the human experience exactly as it's happening in the moment.
The Psalms themselves are poetry, but they are also prayers. They are songs that speak of praise and joy but they are also often raw poems of sadness and lament and devastation and fear.
This psalm in particular is one that speaks of sorrow and depression of the ups and downs of life of the places of great despair, wondering where is God in the midst of this?
The psalmist, who was likely King David, is having an experience that many of us have had before. He finds himself feeling terribly sad, distressed, and lonely. And he knows that he shouldn’t be feeling this way. He remembers all the good moments in the past when he felt joyful. When he knew God was there. And yet – he feels far from God in that moment. The poetic metaphor of the deep calling to the deep – as the waves crash over him… brings to mind the kind of violent and successive showers of rain – one coming after the other – and the kind of moments where we feel we are just being beaten and beaten – one thing after the other – and we don’t know what to do.
This is the place where his prayer emerges – from this place of a drooping spirit – longing more than anything – for God to move and for joy and hope to return again.
We’ve all been there.
And I don’t know about you – but for many of us – for me particularly –
This is where I really learned to pray.
In the place of desperation and despair – where I realized how very much I needed God.
In the depths of experiences of failure and loneliness – I cried out to God.
Where are you? Will this go on forever? Please – help me to find hope again. And what I wanted in those moments was a quick answer. I wanted a solution to the problem I was facing. I wanted God to fix the thing that was hurting so deeply inside me. I wanted it to go away.
I wanted the magic blue sunglasses.
Where all of sudden – things could look different.
It took me a long time to learn that prayer and a rich relationship with God was
less about changing my external circumstances and much, much more about transforming my internal spirit.
It took me a long time to move beyond my prayers of desperation and panic
And begin to
listen and learn, find wisdom and clarity – and to unfortunately to discover that I did not have it all figured out – and that the very things I so desperately wanted – were not the things that I actually needed.
It has taken time and is still taking time to
allow my own heart to be changed so that I could begin to see the world the way God does – and walk differently because of it.
What I love about Pete’s lesson in this story is that he recognizes that in his place of sadness, he doesn’t need a pair of magic blue sunglasses – it’s not his external circumstances that need to change - it’s him who must be different. And the change of his heart and the change of his perspective - means that he can see the world differently – and because he can see the world differently. He can WALK in the world differently as well.
So this is the place where it starts to get kind of personal.
And when I say personal – I mean for me as well – but let’s be honest -
What does your relationship with God actually look like? Is there much of one? Is there an occasional desperate prayer to God for help when you are in a moment of need? Are there ongoing conversations? How much time do you spend talking? And how much time do you spend listening?
Is your prayer time just a time to try and make yourself feel better about things? Or are you ACTUALLY interested in being a totally different person? About learning to see the world the way God does?
If we are indeed GROWING in our Relationship with God – then it ought to mean that it is US that is changing.
So, I don’t know what your prayer life currently looks like – but I want to issue you a challenge this month…
To set aside a moment for prayer EVERY DAY.
Now if this is something new to you – decide on an amount of time – and a place.
It might be 5 minutes – it might be 30 minutes.
And I invite you to speak to God – as the psalmist speaks to God. Say what is on your heart. Maybe it’s thanks – maybe its frustration – maybe its anger – or calm.
If you aren’t sure how to start. Just start with this Psalm 42. And read it outloud.
AS if the words are coming from you.
Maybe you are a writer and you might write your own psalm. Or an artist and you might draw out what you are feeling. Or maybe you will just speak it outloud.
And then - I invite you to LISTEN. Not just in the still moment of the time you’ve set aside. But all the rest of the day.
For how God will speak to you. Perhaps in moments you didn’t expect.
And my prayer for all of you – is that you would find – not magic – but that you would find yourself being changed. That you would find yourself able to see more clearly through that frustrating situation or that you would find yourself experiencing Gods presence in your loneliness.
This month, may we be a people who are speaking honestly with God about what is really going on – in hopes that as we walk more closely with God – we would be able to SEE the ways that God’s grace is already at work in our lives – and when we do – that we could more faithfully follow.