Sunday, April 29, 2012

Connected 1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3:16-24 CEB 16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God.22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. 

 Today is Earth Stewardship Sunday. The other day someone asked me, “What’s the difference between Earth Day and Earth Stewardship Sunday?” Frankly, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that on my official Disciples worship planning calendar last Sunday was called Earth Day and this Sunday is called Earth Stewardship Sunday. Perhaps it’s that Earth Day is always April 22 so the fourth Sunday of April was simply chosen as the day we officially celebrate it in our worship services and this year Earth Day just happened to fall on a Sunday. Or perhaps it’s this way so preachers get to talk about the glories of God’s creation two weeks in a row. Either way, as Guillermo said in an email this week, “YAY! Green again!!”

 I’m always happy when I have to chance to bring out the Tree of Life wall hanging. I especially love the Celtic style tree of life, drawn with one unbroken line, a line with no beginning and no end through which everything connected to everything else. It is so perfectly representative of the way the world truly is. It’s perfectly representative of the way God is - God has always existed and will always exist, with no beginning and no end, and is the thing by which every thing and every creature in the universe is connected to each other. In the book of Job God reminds Job just exactly where all the good stuff Job had accumulated in his life came from, saying “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In [God's] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:7-10)

 That unbroken line connecting everything to everything is also perfectly representative of the way the love of God is supposed to work. God loves us, we love God, and because we love God and God loves us we love all of God’s creatures in the same way as we love God and ourselves. Everyone loving and being loved. Everyone caring for and about each other. All problems solved, all injustice cured, all oppression ended, endangered animals saved from extinction, rain forests returned to their intended glory. No more hunger, no more dying, no more fighting, no more crying. Kum ba yah.

 That’s the way the love of God is supposed to work. That’s what the kingdom looks like. We all know that just isn’t the way it is.

 John reminds us here that loving means more than just expressing a feeling. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.  This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.”

 Jesus laid his life down for us, we lay ours down for our brothers and sisters. God provided great bounty for us, we share that great bounty with our brothers and sisters. We all know just how fruitful the earth is. If you don’t know, just plant some zucchini seeds. Before long you will have enough zucchini to feed the neighborhood. For some reason zucchini seem to be especially prolific and there’s really only so much you can do with squash. You will want to share this bounty with everyone you know. So, before long you’ll be bringing bags full of zucchini to church on Sunday mornings hoping people will want to take them home. You’ll be begging all your friends and neighbors to take some. People will start hiding when they see you carrying a bag. Seriously.

 Unfortunately, not every place overproduces the way our backyards do. We know that parts of the world over-produce while other regions produce very little because of drought or war or some kind of plague affecting food crops. Even here in this country we know that many people, many children, go to bed hungry every night while others throw away enough leftover food to feed a family. Grocery stores toss out produce that’s just a bit past the “best by” date. During the depression, citrus farmers piled up their produce and burned all that fruit because they couldn’t sell it. Today farmers are paid not to grow certain crops. And yet, food banks around the country have closed because they simply can’t get the donations they need to continue feeding the hungry. This is not good stewardship of the earth. This is not the way God’s love is supposed to work.

 It’s hard to reconcile over production and under nourishment going on in the same country at the same time, especially in a country that so many claim is a Christian country. If we were a Christian country in truth, a country governed by the rule of God’s love we wouldn’t have so many of our own citizens suffering from hunger and homelessness. “17 ... if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” It’s equally hard for me to understand how some of our leaders think it’s a good idea to cut medical benefits, food stamps and educational assistance for the poor while untaxed corporations are making truly obscene profits and the extremely wealthy pay income tax at a lower percentage rate than the people who work for them. I don’t object to profit. I applaud anyone who manages through hard work and dedication to improve their way of living. I just think it is more loving, more just to tax a corporation or a billionaire than to let children go hungry or die for lack of medical care.

 When it comes to care of the earth, we humans have created a lot of environmental problems. Deserts are growing, water supplies are dwindling, crazy weather is everywhere. Much of this has to do with climate change, which is surely not entirely attributable to human action, but we do have to claim a part in it. Many of those same leaders are opposed to regulations that help stop air and water pollution, or protect endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, or keep our food supply safe, or really any kind of restrictive environmental laws, because those restrictions cut into profit. These leaders claim to believe that we can continue to abuse the earth as we will, and that the earth will heal itself. To them I would speak these words Ezekiel spoke to the leaders of Israel, 18 Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet? (Ezekiel 34:18) These laws, these regulations protecting and cleaning up our environment, are part of good stewardship of the earth.

 This week one of those leaders was taken to task by the Roman Catholic Church, who said that the policies he promoted were not in keeping with his faith or with the teachings of the Church. He replied that he believed in God’s preferential option for the poor. He just didn’t believe it had anything to do with the way government works. This is one of the people who claims we live in a Christian country. He seems to believe that good stewardship means caring about money and people with money more than caring about the least of our brothers and sisters or the earth we live upon.

 Caring for the earth and all its creatures.

 Loving our brothers and sisters. 

These are the same thing.

 We cannot separate one from the other.

 These are part of the tree of life and the single unbroken line that connects them all is God, creator and sustainer of life. We cannot separate any part from any other part, because God cares about them all. Make no mistake, everything that exists belongs to God, not to us. Remember that bit from Job?

 If we are to love God as God loves us, each of us will find a way to use our gifts and talents to care for God’s earth and God’s people. First, we will pray for guidance to see how we can best serve. And then we may find our place in actively working to clean up an empty lot, signing petitions, donating money to causes, campaigning for or against particular laws, letting our political representatives know how we feel. At the very least we should spend time researching the positions of politicians before elections, to make sure that each of us votes for the persons who best represent our positions and our beliefs. Those positions and beliefs will be different for each of us, but we have to keep in mind that, if we understand all of life as interconnected through God, then we will also understand that we cannot separate our religious beliefs and our political action.

 Our God is an awesome God. The same God who separated the earth from the water, hung the lights in the sky, created all the creatures and breathed life into A’dam, that same God gave the earth and everything in it into the care of humanity. That same God spoke to us through Jesus Christ and continues to speak to us today in so many ways. If you would hear God, then go look at what God has done. Go outside and look north at the mountains. Look at the flowers right outside the door. Look at the child sitting near you. If you would hear God, feel the warmth of the sun flowing over you. Taste the cool of the water. God’s voice can be heard in everything that has been created - every creature, every star, every planet, every speck of dust, every breath of wind. God speaks to us through each of these, when we open our hearts to hear.

 Let us go out from this place to love the world, in word and action and prayer. Let us go out giving thanks and praise to our Creator, the God of the fertile fields.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

What's Behind Door Number 3?

This message is a lead-in to the congregational retreat and pot luck lunch we're having right after the Lord's Supper today.

John 12:12-16 Common English Bible (CEB)
 12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted,
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
   Blessings on the king of Israel!”
 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
 15 Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion. 
      Look! Your king is coming, 
         sitting on a donkey’s colt.
 16 His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

Contestants on Let’s Make a Deal get to make choices - to gamble if you will. They have to decide which of two choices is better and they have NO CLUE what one of those choices is. They know what they have in their hand right that minute, maybe a computer or a beautiful necklace. Do they want to trade it for some unknown item behind one of the three doors on the stage? They might win a fabulous vacation or a New Car! or they might get a bucket of smelly dead fish. There’s no way to be sure. The contestant is dancing from one foot to the other. The audience is yelling out advice. The host is asking for a decision right now. Taking a deep breath, the contestant shouts out her choice. The host says, “Let’s see what’s behind Door Number Three!” and the door slowly opens on the prize. The contestant stands there, hands clasped, eyes wide, heart beating like a wild thing . . .

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what lay ahead. Jesus had told them, but they really didn’t understand. They were expecting a glorious victory of the kind King David used to deliver! Rome cowed and defeated. Oppressors brought low. Liberation from the oppressors. They saw all the palm branches and they just knew that this is what it’s going to be like from now on. Their rabbi is being lauded as the Messiah! To be completely fair, Jesus had told them about things to come that were so far outside of their realm of understanding that it would have been a huge surprise if they did get it. The Son of Man would leave them for a time, but would return. A new kingdom would be established. The temple would be destroyed and restored in three days. Temple worship would be purified and returned to the way it used to be. They heard these things but they heard them according to the way the world was at that time, the way the world had always been. They had no idea that Jesus was talking about something completely new and different than the way they had always experienced the world. They saw the miracles he performed - driving out evil spirits, restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, health to the leper, providing food for multitudes - and they thought that these God-given powers would be used to transform the social political structure of the land.

Today they celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that the prophets wrote about. They are planning a meal, a passover meal to celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, expecting that this meal will also be a celebration of the very bright future they believe is ahead. But we know that in the next seven days their world will be turned upside down. They will find themselves lost and alone and frightened, hanging on to each other for dear life, not quite sure what just happened, asking each other, “How did we get to this place? Everything was going so well . . . .”

We are also looking ahead, with equal parts fear and hope. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but sometimes I look around and I only see who’s missing. I miss the saints and pillars of our congregation who have passed on. And while I know that this is a good thing for them, I’m not so sure about what it means for us. There are these things that we always used to do and now . . . who’s going to do them? Or are we even going to continue doing those things? On those days I wonder, “How did we get to this place? Everything was going so well . . .” Then I look around again and I see new faces, young faces, hope-filled faces, the faces of leaders, the faces of the future. I hear children laughing and crying and running around the sanctuary, and I take delight in all those sounds.

Today we will share a meal and engage in conversation about our dreams and making those dreams become reality. In this week that began with celebration, moved to deep despair and fear and ended with the resurrection, we look toward the future, poised to make choices that will determine who we are going forward, just as the disciples did. It feels almost as if we are standing on that stage, dancing from foot to foot, heart beating like a wild thing, wondering to ourselves, “What’s behind door number three?,” with the audience shouting out suggestions and Wayne Brady asking us to make a decision. Soon we will choose one of those doors, we will determine how we will serve God, how we will employ our tongues and talents going forward into the future. For now, let us sing.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Forgiveness is the Main Event

Common English Bible (CEB)
 31 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

Jeremiah spoke these words to the people as together they struggled with the consequences of Israel’s disobedience to the law of God. The consequence was this - the overthrow and loss of their nation, the destruction of the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects carried off to Babylon, along with the priests, the nobles and all the other leaders - anyone who those who were left behind might rally behind. The situation was not good. All they could see was a future in exile. All they could see was what they had lost. Jeremiah didn’t make it easy for them. He didn’t let them off the hook. He laid the blame for all of these things right at their feet for their disobedience. Then, he brought them the words of hope God had given him. He told them about the new covenant God would make with the people of Israel in time to come.

I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord;
If only. If only that was truly the case. If only we all acted as if God’s instructions were engraved on every heart from birth onwards. If only we all knew God in that way, and lived as if we knew that each and every other person also had God in their hearts. If only there was no need to teach our children to know God because they would see only loving obedience in all the people around them.

If you follow political news at all you are probably aware of the battles raging right now over women’s health, care for the poor, who gets the right to vote and other critically important issues. I find it especially disturbing that Christianity is being used as a reason for divesting women and minorities of their hard won rights. If you follow the national news right now you will probably have seen stories on the young man in Florida who was executed on a residential Florida street for the crime of walking while being black. The outrage over his killing, however, isn’t just because the shooting appears to have been racially motivated, although that is certainly reason for outrage. The outcry is because the admitted shooter, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, was not arrested or even taken in for questioning, and he was allowed to keep his gun. The admitted shooter told 911 that he thought the young man walking home from the mini-mart with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea looked threatening because he was black and wearing a hoodie. He then told them he was following the young man and was told by the 911 operator not to do that. A few minutes later, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old honor student visiting his father for the weekend, lay dead. George Zimmerman claimed self defense.
TV personality Geraldo said that parents of young men of color should tell their sons not to ever wear a hoodie - that wearing a hoodie is what got Trayvon shot. Really? That’s right up there with claiming that short skirts and tight blue jeans cause rape. Today to protest that mind set, preachers all over the country are wearing hoodies. At the Ecumenical Advocacy event in DC a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea were placed on the communion table, and that too is happening in congregations across our land. Meanwhile, Black preachers are speaking out from their own life experience.
Dr. Preston T. Adams, III, Pastor of Amazing Grace CC (DOC)) in Indianapolis said: “As we ponder and respond to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I'd also like us to consider the following: In my hometown of Chicago, 60 people were shot over the past weekend. Many of them were kids and several died including a child under age 8. Where is the national outrage for this? In the city I call home now (Indianapolis), a 16 year old allegedly shot 5 other teens in a gang related incident downtown using a .40 caliber weapon. Where is the outrage over this? I agree that we should be outraged over the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, but it can't stop there”.

Dr. Jack Sullivan, Regional Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Pennsylvania said: “Twice in my adult life, while out engaging in ministry and service, and breaking no laws, I was stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers for no reason other than the color of my skin. One wonders where I would be today had I made a movement considered by those officers as suspicious. While the vast majority of officers and guards are fair and practice restraint, clearly many are misguided by racist stereotypes. Racial profiling is a clear and present societal danger that must be stopped.”

Racism, racial profiling, the hatred of the other caused by fear are all part of this tragedy. But I think that we need to consider that this is much more than a racial issue. It’s a human issue, a societal issue. The idea that any person can be killed by any other person because that other thinks they look threatening - the fact that there are laws supporting that - is just wrong. It frightens me that an independent group has offered a $10,000 reward for information on whereabouts of the shooter, whose family says is in hiding for fear of retribution. Because the law in Florida covering what constitutes self defense is so loose, I can easily imagine someone finding and shooting George Zimmerman in retribution, then claiming he looked threatening.
I am reminded of the shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Do you remember that one? On October 2, 2006, a shooting occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County. Charles Roberts took hostages and shot ten girls aged 6–13, killing five of them, before committing turning the gun on himself in the schoolhouse. It was a horrific, brutal, terrifying event.

And yet - On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man." Another Amish father noted, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God." A member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

An Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts' widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

It would be wrong to think that the Amish parents weren’t angry about what happened. I’m sure they were. It’s just that forgiveness and reconciliation are important parts of their faith. They did what they believe Jesus would want them to do: to forgive those who injured them and to offer comfort to others who were also hurt by the events of the day. It seems to me that the families of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania acted as if they do have God’s law written on their hearts.

And if Charles Roberts had lived to go to trial, I expect that the parents of the murdered girls would have done the same thing that Erricka Bridgeford did just a few days ago. She argued against the death penalty for her brother’s slayer, saying that justice for the 2007 murder of her brother won’t come by lethal injection. “It’s not justice to me to have another dead body in place of my brother’s dead body,” she said.

Some outside the Amish community were critical of this quick forgiveness, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Really? I can’t find the place where it is written that there must be remorse before forgiveness can happen. Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven times, but doesn’t say anything about first find making sure the other is properly repentant before forgiving him. Forgiveness doesn’t really have anything to do with the person who sinned, rather, it is all about the person who is sinned against. Reconciliation is not about forgetting the past, rather it is about choosing to walk into the future together regardless of what has happened in the past.

Jeremiah gave the people comfort and hope when he told them that God was going to start over again with Israel, forming a new covenant to replace the one they had broken so many times in their history. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

For God, forgiveness is the main event. God’s greatest desire and delight is to see us all reconcile ourselves with God. It is in this reconciliation that the world becomes new. That is what Easter is about. With the death of Jesus, sin is buried. With his resurrection, we are reborn, we are made new, we are changed, we have the law written on our hearts in the new covenant. This is what we celebrate every Sunday at the Lord’s Table; reconciliation between all of humanity and God.
We come together at the Table in remembrance of the life and death and resurrection of the Christ. We come together at the Table to share the love of God. We come together at the Table to offer ourselves to God’s service. We come to share the Lord.

Title of this message taken from a sermon by Gage Church, pastor of Congregational UCC in Ogden, UT