Henderson Community Church

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Jesus doesn’t like leftovers

Matthew 9:35-38

A few weeks back, I ran a 20k race around Turquoise Lake in Leadville, Colorado. I ran the race with my dad who is training for the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile race that begin and ends in Leadville. I’ve been up to Leadville quite a few times over the years, and it’s quite a neat town for those who’ve never been—there’s quite a bit of history and some great human-interest stories such as Molly Brown, Baby Doe and Horace Tabor, and Doc Holliday. And, readily visible to anyone driving into Leadville are all the old mining operations that dot the landscape, all over it seems, and they have become as much a part of the dramatic mountain scenery as the mountains themselves. Much of what remains is amber hills of piled up mine waste, known as tailings, which are the leftover materials from the process of separating the valuable minerals from the ore. In and around Leadville, these tailings or leftovers, were piled up and left.

As the years passed, it became apparent that these tailings were not harmless piles of rock and dirt but were actually harming the nearby water and soil as water runoff drained the leftover heavy metals remaining into the nearby soil and water, leading to some pretty devastating environmental effects. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, the Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the area, eventually leading to the designation as Superfund clean-up site.[1] A big part of the clean-up efforts meant addressing these piles of mine tailings. With these tailings piles the source of so many environmental hazards, one would think residents would have been enthusiastic about seeing these piles disappear for good. True to most things in life, it wasn’t quite that simple.

To some long-time Leadville residents and state preservationists, the tailings piles are a valuable part of a distinct local history, a symbol of the great gold and silver booms of the past. Considered part of the scenery and intrinsic to the historical appeal of Leadville, many wanted to leave the tailings piles as is. So, in 1997, under pressure from media, as well as from citizens, preservationists and state representatives, incredulous EPA authorities agreed to leave several remaining tailings piles in place in the Leadville Mining District.[2] Perhaps it was because of my recent trip to Leadville a few weeks ago and my experience of seeing these tailings piles first hand—we ran over a little pile during the 20k—that these tailings came to mind as a read this story from Matthew this past week.  The story gives an overview of Jesus’ outreach efforts. He traveled across the country, speaking in cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues—their religious centers, and healing the people who were sick. We read that each time he saw the crowds of people, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Those words, “harassed and helpless” really stood out to me, so I dug a little deeper to learn a little more.

Harassed and helpless

To harass someone means to hassle, to bully, or to trouble. Sometimes we say we’re being “beat-up” by life. We don’t necessarily mean that we are being physically beat-up, just that with all the harassment, we feel abused. When we read the word helpless, we think of someone who is hurt and unable to help themselves—literally, they are without help. But in the Greek language in which this was originally written, the word had a deeper meaning; it implied someone who was thrown aside or cast away. Think if you will of the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember, there was a Jewish man who was attacked, robbed, beat-up, and left for dead. He was, in short, harassed and helpless. In other words, the helplessness doesn’t simply describe a handicap or impediment of the person—but more so describes the fact that a person has been hurt and impeded by another.

Imagine if you will, that you are up in Leadville for a weekend get-away this summer. Perhaps you’re biking on the mineral belt bike trail that circumferences the town. Traveling roughly 11 miles and at elevations of about 10,000 feet above sea level, you stop often to catch your breath and the enjoy the views. There are certainly some spectacular views to be seen around Leadville; Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, Turquoise Lake, and of course—the many piles of tailings around the town. If you’re like me, you’re quite intrigued by the piles as you notice the old wooden structures around them and wonder what the scene must have looked like one hundred years ago. Like the many other tourists and residents, perhaps you see these piles as a neat historical feature worth preserving. There are other ways to view these piles however. Some see them as environmental hazards, and think about massive environmental impact caused by the initial mining efforts and now by these leftovers.

When Jesus traveled around, seeing the crowds of people, he saw people who had been “used and abused,” people who have been bullied, beat-up, then cast aside by the ruling elite and their system of governance. As one commentator states, these aren’t just people who were wandering around looking for a leader, or people following the wrong religion or an errant philosophy of life. They were people who were being harassed and jerked about. That is to say, someone, some system, some way of life was oppressing them and then casting them aside.[3] These were people who were being treated like inanimate objects, like resources from which those in power extracted from them everything they could, then discarded them like a pile of tailings.

Sick to his stomach

Jesus saw this happening all over, in towns and in villages and it bothered him. And really, it did more than bother him, it made him sick to his stomach—or at least that’s the best way to describe it in modern terms. These days, when we talk about our emotions, we talk about our heart—like something touched our heart or broke our heart. In the time of Jesus, people talked about their emotions as residing in their guts. So, when it says that Jesus had compassion on them, it wasn’t as if he was saying, “oh, that’s too bad,” or “gosh those people seem to be having a tough time;” it might be more accurate to say Jesus had a visceral reaction to their suffering.[4] It affected Jesus to the point that he said to his disciples, “hey, we’ve got to do something, there are so many people who need help.” And, in chapter 10, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on a mission trip of sorts to the various communities in the region.

But here’s the thing, Jesus wasn’t simply sending out his disciples to go put band-aids on people, he was telling his disciples to proclaim a different way of living, God’s way of living, which challenged those who caused the suffering of others and brought hope to those who were suffering. Simply put, it’s not enough to clean-up piles of mine tailings—at some point we might want to ask why are we allowing to take place a process which creates such a toxic stew in environmentally sensitive areas in the first place. In the same way, Jesus was saying, “I’m not content just putting band-aids on people, I want to stop what’s hurting them in the first place.”

California Gulch years ago via https://coyotegulch.blog/category/superfund/standard-mine/

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, like some of the people of Leadville, we like piles of tailings, we like that there are people worse off than us. No, we wouldn’t admit that—but like the people of Leadville can look out onto piles of mine tailings and be reminded of their history, we can look out onto people struggling and be reminded of how we’ve done better in life than them—that we’ve been more successful, worked harder, whatever we like to tell ourselves. And like the town of Leadville will always have EPA clean-up going on so long as there are piles of tailings, we’ll always have people to help as long as there are people worse off than us. It feels good to help other people. And helping other people is good. But at some point, don’t we have to stop putting band aids on people and figure out what’s hurting them in the first place?

People, not objects

The thing is, we all have this tendency to treat people as objects from which we can extract resources to advance ourselves and our own agenda. And worse, we often set up structures and systems to streamline the process.[5] Jesus said, “enough!”  People are people; not objects to be used and abused, cast aside when they no longer have any value to the persons at the top. And this is the message Jesus told his disciples to share, the message of the Kingdom of God, good news, that God loves and values all people equally, and that God’s way of doing things does not allow for people to be used and cast aside like a pile of mine tailings—nor does God’s way of doing things allow for such a system to exist in the first place.  We’re all valuable to God—let’s live like that and treat others accordingly!

Jesus is sending us too!

In some Bibles, the heading over chapter 10 says, “the twelve Apostles.” Others say, “Jesus sends out the twelve,” or something similar. The meaning is basically the same, because the word “Apostle” literally means “sent out.” And just as Jesus sent out his 12 disciples, so too does Jesus send us out as disciples into our villages and communities, to look with compassion upon the people who are hurting and help them—yet we must not stop there—we must also ask, “Why are these people hurting? Who is hurting them? And what can we do to stop people from being hurt?” For in God’s kingdom, the good news that Jesus wanted to disciples to share with everyone, that God loves and values all people, there are no leftovers, no tailings, no unwanted remnants—and it’s our job as followers of Jesus spread that good news with all people.

 

[1] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.topics&id=0801478#Why

[2] Katie Redding, “EPA proposes new clean-up plan for Leadville,” TheColoradoIndependent <http://www.coloradoindependent.com/34677/epa-proposes-new-clean-up-plan-for-leadville> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[3] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[4] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[5] Wm. Paul Young and Brad Robinson, The Shack Study Guide (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2016), 66.

More than just a Jesus fan…

I wonder if there is a spot that has a special place in your heart? Perhaps it the house you grew up in, the small town where you are from, a favorite camping or hiking spot, or somewhere a significant event in your life occurred, such as an engagement. It would be a place where just coming back to that spot brings back memories, stirs your emotions, and takes you back to a certain time or place.  Or it could be a place that as soon as you get there, you have this warm, comfortable feeling of being “home.” This may sound odd to some of you, but being that I am a city boy, I’d have to say that the place that feels most like “home” and brings back memories is the intersection of 80th and Sheridan. Yes, I will confess it’s a bit strange to me too that those intersecting streets and the surrounding area seem meaningful to me, but it’s true. Whenever I drive through that part of town—and especially on the rare occasion on stop at the King Soopers—it brings back a rush of memories and emotions.

From my high school years until very recently, my family lived just south of 80th Avenue on Lamar St. As a teenager, I went to church near Pomona high school. I remember going with my friends to pick out a movie to watch at the Blockbuster Video on Wadsworth; the place always had an odd smell. Many a summer evening I ran around Lake Arbor with my dog Toby. Countless times Corinna and I had dinner at the Taco Bell. And Corinna and I lived in a small townhome near the railroad tracks for four years. But beyond just memories, being there stirs my emotions. When my wife and I lived there, we were both students, living off low-paying jobs, navigating the challenges of work and school, and dreaming of a better life in the far-off future. While I now live in a far bigger suburban home and drive a better car, in many ways I still feel like the young man scraping by, trying to build a better life for himself and his family. If you asked me what was my hometown, I would point to that certain area on a map. What or where is that place for you?

In our reading from the book of Matthew today, Jesus and the disciples find themselves at just such a place. In the book of Matthew, mountains are an important setting. Matthew wasn’t simply describing the scenery but highlighting important parts of the story by “elevating” them throughout.[1] The disciples had meaningful experiences on mountains in Matthew’s story, such as the Feeding of the 5,000, the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, and this event which is commonly called “The Great Commission.” Based on their past experiences, the disciples should have known something significant was going to take place when Jesus told them to “meet me on the mountain.” Important things happened on mountains. And if anything, hiking up to the top of the mountain, the disciples would have had a rush of memories and feelings flooding back to them, just as I have whenever I’m back in my old neighborhood.

Some commentators think that was the whole point of Jesus having them meet him on a mountain was so that the disciples would be reminded of the important events and teachings of Jesus that took place on a mountain; especially the Sermon on the Mount, which are uniquely connected.[2] In verse 20, the end of the book of Matthew, and the last instruction Jesus gives, he tells his disciples to teach people  everything he had taught them. What exactly had he taught them? Well, think back to that other important event that happened on a mountain, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus gave some of his most memorable—and perhaps most important teachings. On that mountain, the disciples were told about the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. On that mountain, they were told to be salt and light, advised against certain wrongful actions, implored to love their enemies and help the needy, taught how to pray (“Our Father…”), given spiritual advice, and told to look out for bad leaders. It was the most significant section of teaching in the entire book of Matthew, and when Jesus was having the disciples meet him on a mountain for one last piece of advice, he wanted the memories of the Sermon the Mount to be resonating in their hearts and minds.

Not only did Jesus want the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount to be resonating in the disciples’ minds as they made their way up the mountain, but Matthew also wanted them to be resonating in our minds as we read this passage ourselves.  As I mentioned earlier, this section of scripture, especially verses 19-20, are commonly referred to as “The Great Commission.” Countless sermons have been preached about “going to tell other people about Jesus.” When I was in Bible college, I heard message after message imploring me to “go, go, go” with the pastor  sounding more like a cheerleader imploring his team on to victory. And in many ways, that’s a silly yet in other ways appropriate example; for when being a Christian is simply going and telling others about Jesus, the goal of Christianity is basically about trying to build the biggest fan base and going to church is like going to a sporting event to root for your favorite team.

A couple weeks back, I went with a friend to a Rockies game. At the stadium, people were all decked out in Rockies attire, wearing hats and jerseys, waving flags and big foam fingers. And, being that the Rockies are pretty good this year, there was a large, engaged crowd. Doesn’t it seem like this is what Christianity has become? Like, “hey, we’ve got the best team, come root for Jesus.” And along with being a fan, we can get our Team Jesus memorabilia!  Shirts, hats, bumper-stickers, and so on! We can regularly gather together to cheer for our favorite team with the entertainment value equivalent to an actual sporting event. Being a fan of Jesus is essentially no different than being a fan of the Rockies. “Hey, our Team Jesus is off to a great start this year! You should come cheer him on with us. We’ve got the best fan experiences and the best entertainment—you can even get some free Team Jesus swag just for coming!”

I’m reminded of a book by author Kyle Idleman titled, Not a Fan.  He says, the Dictionary defines a fan as “an enthusiastic admirer.” Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires sacrifice. Fans may be fine with repeating a prayer, attending church on the weekend, and slapping a Jesus fish on their bumpers, but is that really what Jesus wants? Was Jesus simply telling the disciples to go recruit more fans so we can have the biggest team? Is that all that being a follower of Jesus is about? Building a bigger fan base?

Here’s the thing. In our Bibles, we see the word, “go,” and it’s written in a way that it’s the most important thing. “Go, go, go” I heard many a times in Bible college—and you wonder where I get the idea that following Jesus is like rooting for your favorite team! A more accurate translation of this passage would be, “while you are on your way,” or “why you are doing what you’re always doing,” teach people what I have taught you. And what had Jesus taught? Those wonderful words from the Sermon on the Mount.

While we live our normal, day to day lives; buying groceries, going to the doctor, dropping the kids off at school, or whatever you do most days—while you do it—encourage the people around you to live like Jesus taught. Teach people to be a positive light in the midst of negativity, to help the needy, to love their enemies, and to avoid the things which ultimately harm them. Basically, while we live our lives like Jesus, we’re supposed to help others do the same. Being a Christian is less about wearing the jersey, rooting for the team, and attending all the home games—and more about encouraging people to care about those who are poor, reminding them to show love to people different from them, and to be a positive light in the midst of so much negativity. And in doing so, people will want become Christians themselves!

So to me, I’m far less concerned about numbers and crowd size than others. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see our church grow just like any church wants to grow, but numbers aren’t necessarily a sign of true commitments. The world of sports has become obsessed with numbers to the point that there is a statistic for nearly any action that happens on the field of play—yet still it seems impossible to quantify the true character and commitment of a player. In the same way, attending church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than being in a garage makes one a car. This isn’t about fandom, this is about following the life and teachings of Jesus and helping others do the same.

So, while you are on your way, while you are about your normal business, while you are doing what you already do, teach people to be a positive light in the midst of negativity, encourage them help the needy and love their enemies, and advise them to avoid the things which ultimately harm them. And, as you continue to model a different way of living, people will become attracted to your way of living and you can tell them, “I live this way because I follow Jesus, and I’m part of a group that gets together and supports one another in our journey together. Why don’t you join us—I bet you’d like it.” It’s not about adding more fans, it’s about teaching others to become committed followers of Jesus through doing what we already do. While we are on our way, doing what we already do, let’s live like Jesus and help others do the same.

 

[1] Volschenk, Gert. “Review article: The mountain motif in the plot of Matthew” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies [Online], Volume 66 Number 1 (3 September 2010)

[2] L. Mark Davis, “Galilean Rendezvous,” http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

Jesus and Mental Illness

John 14:15-21

In churches like ours across America today, many are lifting up mental health in their communities by participating in what’s known as Mental Health Sunday in our affiliation of churches. Highlighted on the third Sunday in May, Mental Health Sunday is a way for churches to begin or to continue to provide education and support to its people around mental health challenges.

Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are disorders of the brain.  These illnesses are medical conditions that result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life when left untreated. Anyone can have a mental illness.  One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year.  One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder.  About one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder. Most mental illnesses are treatable.  Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan, which may include medication, psychosocial treatments, and other support services.

Mental illness can disrupt a person’s ability to work, care for himself/herself, and carry on relationships.  It affects every aspect of life. However, because mental illness may not be immediately visible to others, the person can be negatively judged as being weak, lazy or uncooperative.   This lack of understanding can lead to the stigma of people with mental illness.  Friends and family members feel the impact of mental illness experienced by their loved one.  Those feelings can be varied, and family members, friends and caregivers need to be supported in the midst of their experiences.  Some might feel protective of their loved one.  Others may feel embarrassed by the social stigma associated with mental health challenges.  Still others may feel angry.  All may feel helpless to provide support and encouragement.  This range of feelings is common, and friends and family members may feel all of these at different points and should be encouraged to seek professional counseling as needed.

People who live and struggle with mental illness need community support and continuity of care to move towards recovery.[1] Yet, churches have consistently done a BAD job at this. Some commonly held beliefs are that mental illnesses are a result of personal weakness, lack of faith, poor upbringing, or simply the result of sinfulness. These misperceptions distract from the fact that mental illnesses are brain disorders and require medical treatment[2] and if anything, discourage people from getting the treatment they need from medical professionals. Yet these misconceptions continue to persist.

Recently I was listening to a message from a local pastor talking about “defeating depression.” The pastor listed four ways to get depressed. Wear yourself out, shut people out, focus on the negative, and forget about God. While these might make for good bullet points in a sermon, they are both inappropriate and irresponsible to proclaim to any group of people among which there are likely several who are actually suffering from depression and mental illness. Depression is not discouragement; depression is not about being defeated. To equate depression with feeling bummed out or sad diminishes the real and serious suffering of a person who is in need of more than just a pep talk.

People who are suffering from depression have difficulty sleeping or find themselves sleepy and sleep too much. People suffering from depression have trouble being social and going out with friends even though they know they should. People suffering from depression find themselves suffering from overwhelming and uncontrollable negative thoughts. And yes, people suffering from depression struggle with their faith and relationship with God. Being worn out, shutting people out, focusing on the negative, and forgetting about God are not causes of depression—they are symptoms of depression—and suggesting that these are causes reinforces the false and dangerous misconception that depression is a result of personal failings only pushes a person struggling with depression into a deeper hole and discourages them from getting the treatment they truly need. For a church or Christian leader to suggest that mental illness is a result of sin or some character flaw completely misses the message of Jesus.

In John chapter 14, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What then are the commandments of Jesus? I’m reminded of what Jesus said just a few verses prior in chapter 13.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” To love one another is the ethical imperative, to obey Jesus is to love. One commentator says that if the command is to love God, and if God is love, then to love God means loving all and leaving no one out. [3] Telling people they are the cause of their own mental illness is not loving. Discouraging people from getting professional help is not loving. Treating people as if they are bad or sinful because they are depressed is not loving. Such thinking leaves people out. This isn’t what Jesus intended.

Jesus showed us the way to embrace those who are marginalized by society and advocate with and for them. Think about the people with whom Jesus spent time; prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, people all on the outskirts of mainstream society, people considered sinful and bad. Yet Jesus loved them and included them, and in so doing, Jesus also showed us that every person has value and worth and deserves love, dignity and respect. Think about the people in the Bible who were said to be possessed by an evil spirit, people today we might say were suffering from a mental illness. Jesus looked upon them with care and concern, seeking to bring them healing and wholeness. Jesus did not blame them for their suffering, he did not shame them, he did not suggest what they could have done differently—Jesus simply healed them and showed them love. This is what we must also do.

It’s very likely that we all have someone in our life who is suffering from mental illness. Perhaps it’s someone grieving the death of their loved one, someone who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, or someone affected by the experience of their family member. Our commandment as followers of Jesus is through our love and inclusion of one another and especially these struggling to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses and their families.

I also want to say to those among us who are personally struggling with mental illness or depression that you are not alone and that you are loved. God is with you, and we are with you. In this same passage in John, Jesus comforts his disciples by telling them that once he left, they would be given a Comforter, a Counselor, an Advocate—what we now call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. You are not left orphaned, you are not alone Jesus said. Though the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us, comforting us, fighting for us, loving us. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are all alone, God is there to remind us we are never alone. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are worthless or no good, God is there to remind us what we are precious in God’s sight. And when our depression or mental illness tells us we are sinful or bad, God is there to tell us God loves us and thinks highly of us. When the evil spirits of mental illness attack our body and mind, God is there to defend us, support us, and comfort us.

Finally, I also want to say, not only are you not alone if you are personally struggling with mental illness or depression because God is with us, but I also want to say that you are not alone because mental illness is something I have struggled with through the years. And if I, as a pastor, as someone who has been considered worthy of pastoral leadership by two different denominations, as someone who has eight years of ministry training in higher education can struggle with mental illness, mental illness is not a sign of sin or some other personal failing.

I am not a trained counselor or psychologist, but if you or anyone you know ever need someone to talk to about your own or someone else’s struggle with mental illness, I would be glad to sit and talk with you and help you or your loved one find the care they need. Because, I believe truly, with all my heart, that God loves us deeply, more than we can ever imagine, and the best way we can show our love for God is to love one another equally and unconditionally.

 

[1] “Introduction to Mental Health Congregational Toolkit,” UCC Mental Health Network, <http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/ucc-mental-health-network_2919.html>

[2] UCC Mental Health Network, <http://moredomainsforless.com/wideningthewelcome/MHNbrochure.pdf>

[3] Larry D. Bouchard, “John 14:15-21: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 494.

God never stops building

Years ago, I was a student at Baptist Bible College, a small college in Springfield, MO. For those not familiar, Springfield is a small city in the southwest portion of Missouri on the Ozark Plateau; a lush, green part of the country with gentle rolling hills. Living in Colorado, after each school break ended, I would begin the 770 mile car trip which took me across eastern Colorado, the entire state of Kansas on Interstate 70, and then due south toward Springfield eventually ending up on Highway 13 for the last leg of the journey. The trip took about 11-12 hours, depending on how fast I drove. And driving across Kansas made it feel all the more long!

With apologies to the folks in here from Kansas, I know there are some sight-seeing spots along the way, such as the High Plains Museum in Goodland, the Castle Rock in Quinter, and the Historic Fort Hays in Hays but they were never enough to distract me from my ultimate destination. Not even Russell, where my grandfather was born or the Garden of Eden in Lucas could get me to stop. It was get through the state as quickly as possible! By the time I crossed the Kansas River and got into Missouri, I was weary eyed and struggling to make it the last couple hundred miles or so to Springfield. As drove those last miles, I watched the day turn to evening and the sun slowly set behind the dark green forests. Driving through the country past little towns, I’d see things that always caught my eye, each and every trip.

For instance, somewhere standing above the trees I’d always see a smokestack with a flame of fire burning at the top. I always wondered what it was connected to and what it was doing there. Another sight was the Osceola Cheese factory. I love cheese, but after 11 hours on the road, I never wanted to stop to try theirs. Finally, there was the Highway 13 Church of Christ, or more specifically, the building where the Highway 13 Church of Christ met. There was a sign out front of the building that said, “Church of Christ meets here.” Yeah, it confused me too—that’s why I remember it to this day. Apparently, in the Churches of Christ tradition—and yes, there is a difference between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ—there is a common practice of putting on the sign in front of the building that the (such and such) “Church of Christ meets here” in a distinct attempt to distinguish the building from the actual church.

Now perhaps that confuses you even more than hearing there’s a difference between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ! For, when most people talk about going to church, what they mean is that they will be going inside some kind of edifice or building.  The word “church” actually has Scottish roots,[1] and came from a saying meaning “house of the Lord” or “God’s house,” referring to an actual building. One of our sister churches down in Denver is actually called, the Kirk of Bonnie Brae, founded in 1947 in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood of Denver. Bonnie Brae is Scottish for “beautiful hill,” therefore it is literally, the “church of the beautiful hill.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that in the New Testament, when we read the word “church,” the true definition of the word is something different. When biblical writers wrote about the “church,” they weren’t talking about an edifice or building or structure—they were talking about a group of people assembled together to worship Jesus.  The word is ekklesia, meaning “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting.”[2] So if I may add to your confusion, if we wanted to be truly accurate, we might say that this structure we meet in is the church building, but we the people gathered together are the true Henderson Community Church; meaning, this building could be no more, and as long as there are some of us gathering together to worship God, the Henderson Community Church would still exist.

I talked about cornerstones with the children already. A cornerstone was literally and symbolically important in ancient times. For practical purposes, the cornerstone was the stone set at the corner of two intersecting walls, prepared and chosen for its exact 90˚ angle, and the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right corner was basic not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its stability and longevity.[3] The laying of the cornerstone was also important and symbolic, much as today there is great fan-fare around “breaking ground” for construction of a new building. In the section of scripture we read today from 1 Peter, we are told that we are “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house…through Jesus…a chosen and precious cornerstone.”

The Biblical writer, using the metaphor of construction, was trying to make a point. The people were being gathered together and built up into a spiritual entity with Jesus as their foundation or cornerstone. The author was trying to distinguish the actually wood and stone structure from the people gathered together. In other words, the church wasn’t the building, it was the people—and we, you and I, we are the church, we are Henderson Community Church, not this building in which we meet. Just as this church continued to exist when the first building was torn down and this building constructed, this church will continue to exist long after this current building, so long as there are people like you and me gathering together to worship. In short, we don’t need the building to be a church, we just need one another.
We are then “Living Stones,” human building blocks which God is trying to fashion into something great, greater even then what Jesus did when he was alive. That’s after all what Jesus said in John 14; that “the one who believes in me will also do greater works than these.” We are like human Legos that God is trying to put together into something great. I loved to play with Legos when I was a kid. I had all my various Legos in a box that I would dump onto the floor and start constructing. Though all the pieces were intermingled, I’d always start with the same one—this flat green square. About 6 inches by 6 inches, it was the “cornerstone” if you will, everything I set was in reference to this piece, it was the first step in construction of my creation. Now, if you know anything about Legos, you know that due to their interlocking peg design, they are meant to stack one on top of another. If I’d have tried to use something else for the foundation or cornerstone, it wouldn’t have worked. Say if I started trying to build walls on a pillow, or a linoleum floor, or wooden table—it might have held—but not as long or as strong. Just as in building Legos, we’ve got to have a good foundation. And here, as a gathered group of people here to worship, our foundation has got to be Jesus. Everything we do, everything we’re about, must be about following Jesus and helping others do the same.

There is a difference between humans and Lego building blocks! I’d say it’s quite apparent. Legos are little plastic lifeless blocks whereas human beings are living, breathing, thinking entities. If I want to stack on Lego block on top of another, I simply grab it and put it in its place. I don’t have to worry about it fighting back, resisting, or running away—I think that only happens in the cartoon Lego movies. Human beings are different. We can think and act for ourselves and God doesn’t simply pick us up and put us where we should be. We must allow ourselves to be built into the thing God wants us to be. We, as Henderson Community Church, have to allow God to construct us into the church God wants us to be. We are living stones, living Lego blocks which God wants to join together to create something great. Because truthfully, God is never done building. Let me say that again. God is never done building. Maybe one more time. God is never done building.  I think the biggest problems with churches today, and I mean the assembled group of people, not the structures they meet in, is that churches act like God is done building. What they were constructed into by God 20-30-50- even 100 years ago was something great, but God wants to do something greater. God is never done building, remember that. God is like the kid who is never satisfied with his Lego creation. He’s always knocking it down, tearing it apart, trying to make something bigger and better.

via brickmodeldesign.com

Honestly, how many kids do you see who have their Lego creations proudly on display in their room? I know I certainly didn’t! Mine would last maybe a day. It’s adults who have Lego creations on display. Did you know you can go online and buy a Lego creation of your favorite sports stadium, say Coors Field or the old Mile High? I’d love to buy one of Yankee Stadium to proudly display in my office. Yet what would the 10-year old Loren do? He’d take it down, tear it apart, and try to build something better. This is what God tries to do. And I emphasize the word “try.” God comes to us and says, “hey, I’ve got these new pieces that I want to add to the puzzle to create something even better. Yes, it may require taking some things down and pulling some pieces apart, but it’s going to be bigger, better, and incorporate more pieces.” What do we do? We say, no thanks God, I’m happy with one I got. I’d rather look at that little display on the shelf than see what better creation you could make out of it. It’s a shame really.

We are living stones, living Lego blocks if you will, that God is trying to create into something new. It’s our choice whether we let ourselves be built into the new creation God is trying to make. It’s our choice whether we let Jesus be our foundation or cornerstone. My prayer is that we would set ourselves on the foundation of Jesus—that we would base everything we do on following Jesus and helping others to follow him too—and that we would allow ourselves as living stones to be created into something new and beautiful for God. We, you and me, we are the church, not this building, not this edifice, are Henderson Community Church.

 

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=ekklesia

[2] http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/ekklesia.html

[3] Joel B. Green, “1 Peter 2:2-10: Exegetical Perspective,” 463.

Jesus & Politics

This past Thursday, our President signed an Executive Order giving churches broader flexibility in regard to speaking out about political candidates. Called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” the order asks the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation known as the Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and non-profits, restricting them from speaking out on behalf of specific political candidates, something previously prohibited by the IRS; though such political speech was prohibited, it was rarely, if ever, enforced. In only one instance has a church lost its tax exempt status due to overt campaigning against a political candidate. As for the President’s actions Thursday, it appears as if the order was largely ceremonial, offering no real substantive change from the current laws of the land.[1]

Truthfully, this is a relief to me, and to most pastors. Nearly 90% of Evangelical leaders don’t think pastors should endorse from the pulpit, according to a recent survey.[2] The thought of actively promoting or denigrating specific candidates for political office just doesn’t feel right. Already during campaign season we are endlessly bombarded by political advertising on television, online, in our mailboxes, or anywhere else a candidate can advertise. The thought of churches becoming clearinghouses for political contributions in favor of specific candidates just seems antithetical to what we’re supposed to be about. Our country is politicized enough as it is, we don’t need churches to become political entities. Imagine if I started preaching out in favor of specific Republican candidates—Democrats and Independents would feel unwanted and unwelcome. So much for extending God’s love and welcome to all people!

I’ve been at churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum. I’ve been at one church where a church leader preached a message about the importance of electing the right candidate so that candidate could elect conservative Supreme Court Justices. I’ve been at another church where during joys and concerns, a congregant expressed as a praise that a local sporting goods store would no longer be stocking a certain type of rifle, which elicited a mild applause from the congregation.  In both instances, I personally felt a bit uncomfortable as I wondered about the people in the church who might feel differently and whether they would feel unwelcome.  Christianity isn’t just for Republicans, it isn’t only for Democrats, it’s for all people, no matter one’s political persuasion, and one of the best things about our church and affiliation with the United Church of Christ is that we are a church where we can be united, not divided, by our faith.

Yet while I’m relieved our church won’t have to be speaking out for or against political candidates any time soon, church shouldn’t be a place that is devoid of politics altogether. The Bible has much to say about how we treat one another and how we live together in community, both of which are at the foundation of our system of governance in the United States. Throughout the Old Testament and New, there are countless scriptures which speak to the importance of being a good neighbor, caring for the poor and needy, taking care of the sick, protecting the young and vulnerable among us, and principles of good leadership. The Bible is a guide to living our entire lives, including how we live our political lives. So, while churches cannot specifically encourage or discourage its congregants to vote for specific candidates, churches can and should encourage its people to consider how they can live out the values of their faith in all areas of their life, including the voting booth.

In our reading from John today, Jesus talks about being the gate that protects the sheep, and later in the chapter, tells that he is also the “Good Shepherd.”  This speech we read from Jesus is a portion of a long argument Jesus is having with the religious leaders of Jerusalem.  Can you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man after sticking mud on his eyes? Those religious leaders were upset with the way Jesus was doing things and Jesus accused them of being spiritually blind. Even worse, here in chapter 10, Jesus questions their leadership qualifications, implying that they were illegitimate and unrecognized, nothing more than thieves and robbers looking to harm the people! While there was no such thing as the Johnson Amendment or the IRS back in the time of Jesus, there was the Roman government who authorized the religious rulers, and the price Jesus paid for speaking out against these political candidates wasn’t just threats or fines, it was his very life.

Yet while Jesus speaks out strongly against the religious rulers, he was much kinder in his treatment of the “sheep,” or the commoners of the land. In our time, I’ve heard the word “sheep” used derisively as an insult against someone who is perceived to be a blind follower, someone who goes along with the status quo without questioning things. Jesus seemed far more respectful in his metaphor, he implies that the sheep are intelligent, aware, and brave—they won’t just follow anybody. In fact, Jesus said that understanding and appreciating the sheep was a good characteristic of a shepherd, and ultimately, of a leader. For, though we may not recognize it as such, in the time of Jesus a shepherd was a symbol for leadership.[3]

Jesus was making a bold statement regarding the qualities of these religious leaders. First, he implied that they are thieves and robbers who have come to power illegitimately. Then he said that thieves and robbers only come to steal and kill and destroy. These are powerful people to which Jesus is talking, and he’s telling them, and everyone listening, that these religious leaders are going to steal from them and take their resources. Jesus said that these religious leaders are going to kill or more accurately, to sacrifice the good of the people to help themselves. And Jesus said that ultimately, these religious leaders are going to destroy the people! Very strong words indeed. And truthfully, this is what was happening. The religious leaders had aligned themselves with the ruling Roman authorities so as to maintain their own standing—but in so doing had sold out the common people through higher taxes, oppressive policies, and unfair treatment, all the while enriching themselves.

He contrasts this style of leadership to the kind of guidance he is offering, whereby people find protection, sustenance, and ultimately, abundant life. He said “whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest.” Other Bibles translate this as “abundant life.” Whether we call it full life or abundant life, it sounds pretty wonderful. If you were to stop and think for a moment about a time in which you could describe your life as being “full” or “abundant,” I wonder what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a memory of a gathering with family and friends for a birthday or celebration. Maybe it’s a time you were able to do something whether through your job or through volunteering where you were able to make a lasting difference in someone’s life. It could be that just the presence of the person sitting next to you for all those years tells you that you’ve had a full and abundant life.  This is the kind of life Jesus offers, one in which we find meaning, community, and relationship[4]—and these are the same values we must seek to extend to others through our own individual actions and through the actions of our church.

Truthfully, we see the terrible leadership of the religious leaders in Jesus time on display in our own. And, here I believe, following the way of Jesus sometimes means refusing to support leaders which utilize their positions of power to enrich themselves and their family by taking resources from those who need it most. Just as in the time of Jesus, we should not sacrifice the poor and vulnerable among us so as to enrich a few. Ultimately, such selfish, self-centered actions of leadership will destroy a community or a nation, just as Jerusalem itself was ultimately destroyed. The way of Jesus means demanding of our leaders a more just and biblical approach in caring for the people of our communities.

And while following the way of Jesus means holding our leaders to a higher standard, it also means, I believe, working to bring to all people that abundant life of which Jesus spoke; meaningful work, supportive community, and nourishing relationships. Christians and their leaders should be about helping people find good jobs that pay enough for people to support their families, we should be about helping friends and neighbors come together and form true and lasting cooperation with one another, and we should be about helping people create and sustain deep and meaningful relationships by supporting couples, strengthening families, and caring for our seniors. This is the abundant life of which Jesus spoke!

Following the way of Jesus doesn’t automatically make one a Republican or a Democrat, but it should make us all care about politics, about how we treat one another in a society and the expectation we place on our leadership. We should hold leaders accountable to act in our best interest and to sacrifice of themselves to advance the common good, in order that we might live full and complete lives. No matter Amendments or Executive Orders, we as followers of Jesus should strive to live our lives in accordance with the ways he taught, and the examples we see throughout the scriptures. Jesus has come the each and every person might have life—and life in abundance! Let us be about sharing the abundance of Jesus with all people.

 

[1] Camila Demonoske, “On Religious Liberty, Trump’s Executive Order Doesn’t Match Rhetoric,” NPR.org <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/04/526853555/in-name-of-religious-liberty-trump-targets-a-rarely-enforced-irs-provision> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[2] “Pastors Shouldn’t Endorse Politicians,” NAE.net <https://www.nae.net/pastors-shouldnt-endorse-politicians/> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[3] Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 445.

[4] Molly T. Marshall, “Theological Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 446.

Connecting in Christ

All across America, churches are struggling with how to reach young people. Statistics tells us that more than ever, younger generations are abandoning Christianity and organized religion as a whole.  In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing young people back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show.[1] They want community, they want connection, and they want authenticity.View More: http://amylorraynephotography.pass.us/henderson

Experts say that the first factor that will engage younger generations at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.[2] Young people need to experience the life-changing love of God through other people.[3] And it’s not that young people just want to spend time with a bunch of people their own age. Another author says that having older fellow congregants matters because young Christians will be the first ones to admit that they’re looking for guides through adulthood.[4] They want to learn how to pray and read the Bible; to enjoy fellowship and be part of community.[5]

But it’s not just any older person, they tend to be looking for older adults that are living their intentions. They want people who are sincere and authentic in their faith. Experts say that religion has survived through the years because it provides people with community, with friends—with support.[6] The key to advancing Christ’s church and our church here in Henderson isn’t through flashy lights or loud music, it’s by helping people make connections through personal relationships.

cropped-Henderson-0014-min1.jpg

Another interesting tidbit is that 67 percent of young people prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.”[7] While certainly the trend is to build churches that look more like a shopping center than a place of worship and to avoid any overtly religious wording, research is actually telling us young people appreciate the religious practices others are so apt to abandon. One author says:

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.[8]

Community, connection, and authenticity; three simple yet profound things that can’t be imitated. Three things also we see in our reading from Luke today.

Walking on View More: http://amylorraynephotography.pass.us/hendersonthe road to Emmaus, after his resurrection, Jesus encounters some people talking about the events that had recently taken place in Jerusalem. Jesus approached, and unrecognized to them, asked them what they were discussing. They told him about his own crucifixion and death, and how the women had found his tomb empty. Hearing this, Jesus thought it was silly they didn’t understand, so he explained why everything had happened. When they neared the village, they invited Jesus to stay with them because it was getting late, so Jesus did. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they realized it was Jesus.  Immediately Jesus vanished from their sight. When they realized what had happened, they ran to tell others about meeting Jesus on the road and how he had been revealed to them in the breading of bread.

In their encounter with Jesus, these people from Emmaus found community; “stay with us” they said. In their encounter with Jesus, they found connection; “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us,” they said. And in their encounter with Jesus, they found authenticity; Jesus sat with them at the table, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In sharing a communal meal, these people experienced the risen Christ. We don’t just practice communion because it’s tradition, we don’t just do it out of habit, we do it because we believe in taking bread and sharing it with one another we experience Jesus again ourselves.

Truthfully, young people are looking for what we have; a community of people with which to engage, folks of different ages and experiences with which to connect, and authentic faith practices in which to participate.  We each know this deep down because we each have experienced it, just as those from Emmaus did with Jesus long ago.

 

[1] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[2] “5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church,” Barna.com

<https://www.barna.com/research/5-reasons-millennials-stay-connected-to-church/> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[3] Nancy Flory, “How Does the Church Reach Millennials?” Stream.org <https://stream.org/how-does-the-church-reach-millennials-hint-its-not-flashing-lights-and-rock-band-worship/> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[4] “The Unexpected Things Millennials Want in Church,” RelevantMagazine.com <http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/unexpected-things-millennials-want-church> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 64.

[6] Tom Gjelten, “Why Religion Is More Durable Than We Thought In Modern Society,” NPR.org < http://www.npr.org/2017/04/28/525895389/why-religion-is-more-durable-than-we-thought-in-modern-society?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170428> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[7] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[8] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

Creation Care

Genesis 2:4-15

We are the off-spring of the Industrial Revolution. A few hundred years ago, our ancestors decreed that the earth and all therein were “resources” to be used for profit based on technical advances in labor, production, and science. This revolution did many things—some good, some bad—but it fundamentally transformed how we understood the earth. Our world became an object to be managed or mined. Over the decades, humans moved to cities away from the land, severing both spiritual and physical connections humans had known through most of history. People became estranged from the land. Generations ago, no one would have wondered about the connection between God and the earth. In a pre-industrial world, Creator and creation were part of the same theological ecosystem. For the better part of the last two centuries, however, most of us have forgotten the earthly perspectives of the Bible. Except farmers. They remember.[1]

I recently was reading a book called Grounded: Finding God in the World, in which the author shared a story about meeting a farmer. The author, Diana Butler Bass, shared her encounter with this man as she was writing the book. Upon telling him of her project, she asked him if religion played any role in his farming. He said, he wasn’t a religious person, despite being raised Episcopalian. She asked him if he considered himself secular, to which he replied, “Well, no.” He said, “there’s no such thing as a secular farmer. The seasons are spiritual. The soil is spiritual. Farmers are a spiritual lot…The earth speaks to me,” he said. “The soil, spirit, and us, it is all of a piece. We can know that, or we can ignore it. But it is real.”[2]

This interconnectedness to the earth is something humans have inherently understood for centuries, and only in the last 200 years or so has humanity  understoodd itself as separate from what Christians call God’s creation. To this point, I am reminded of the story of the creation in the book of Genesis. The Bible tells that God formed man from the dust of the ground. The name “Adam” comes from the word “adamah” meaning “dirt, dust, earth, or ground.” In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, the writer tells that all are from dust, and to dust all shall return.[3] While modern science would dispute the notion that humans are literally dirt, these early biblical writers weren’t writing a science textbook but rather trying to express a theological truth; human beings are interconnected to God’s creation.

If I may pause here and reflect briefly on the tension that has existed over the years between religion and science. Battles are still being fought between scientific discovery and the accuracy of scripture. Often it seems we are forced to pick sides between godless evolutionism and unscientific creationism. Thankfully, there is a middle ground. The Bible was never meant to be a science textbook. Nor is the Bible and science inherently at odds. Science tells us how; the Bible tells us why. Science can tell us how things happen, but cannot explain why they happened. In the story of creation, or truthfully, stories of creation, in their pre-scientific culture, biblical writers explained why God created the world and called it good.

Beyond the seeming dichotomy between the Bible and science regarding how the world came to exist, we are often forced into another false dichotomy when it comes to caring for God’s creation. Again, environmentalists are often labeled as secular tree-huggers who worship Mother Nature, whereas Christians are often assumed to not care about the environment. Here again, I believe the Bible shows us a middle way, a call to take care of the creation God has given us.[4] The ancient story of Adam and Eve teach us that “Creation care is at the very core of our Christian walk.”[5]

You remember the story of Adam and Eve, right? God creates Adam, puts him in the garden of Eden to serve it and keep it, tells him what he can and cannot eat (remember the one tree he can’t eat), has him name all the animals, then creates a partner for him called woman named Eve. As the story goes, Eve was in the garden one day when the serpent came and tempted her to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. She takes and eats, then gives to Adam to eat as well. Sure enough, God finds out and isn’t happy. God punishes the serpent, Adam and Eve, and kicks them all out of the garden. And so, we are told, begins humanity’s life on earth. From this ancient story of Adam and Eve there are three things I think we can learn; the principle of stewardship, the principle of contentment, and the principle of consequences.

First is the principle of stewardship.  Adam was told by God to till and keep the garden, to manage and maintain it. Adam was told to be a steward, or a caretaker, of God’s creation. After all, as the Psalmist writes, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[6] The earth and its resources were not his to do with as he pleased, rather they were God’s resources he was to care for. My wife and I still own a condo in Springfield, Missouri. Being as we live some 800 miles away, we pay a management company, or a property steward you might say, to manage and care for the property.  Imagine if one day they decided to start raiding the property for resources, as we often saw after the recession; taking the appliances, stripping the copper, even taking the light fixtures. I think we would all agree they weren’t being good stewards, they were rather acting as owners of something that wasn’t truthfully theirs.

Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, we have confused stewardship with ownership. We have assumed the earth is ours and we have the right to do with it as we please.  Biblically speaking, the earth is the Lord’s and we are stewards of God’s creation. Stewardship doesn’t see every majestic mountain as a potential site for strip-mining operations. Nor does it view forests as board feet of marketable lumber. Nor does it asses open space as a lucrative site for housing development…For us, whatever we “own” is really entrusted to us by God, borrowed and used for a time, after which we must let go one way or another.[7] Like Adam and Eve, we are just stewards of God’s creation.

The second thing we can learn from the story of Adam and Eve is the principle of contentment. Remember that Adam and Eve were told they could eat of any fruit in the garden except the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Of course, what did they do? Eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil! One could say Adam and Eve got in trouble for “over eating.” Over eating is something many of us are familiar with. Yet, when we are constantly bombarded with advertising and images of delicious, alluring food, it’s hard to resist. It’s why experts tell us not to go shopping on an empty stomach. Even if we’re not at the grocery store, we’re still likely to spend more.[8]  Being hungry (or discontent) amps up our desire to acquire. It’s no wonder we’re told in the Bible that godliness with contentment is a great thing.[9] So much of our consuming is driven by a discontented desire for more, an emptiness we are trying to fill. We spend thinking these items will appease the yearning in our soul. Truthfully, our “over-eating” fails us in two ways, it doesn’t fill the hunger in our soul and it leads to a reckless consuming of God’s creation, the same creation we are told to care for. Just like Adam and Eve, we need to remember the principle of contentment.

The third thing we can learn from the story of Adam and Eve is the principle of consequences, something Adam and Even found out firsthand.  Adam and Eve tried to hide or run away from the consequences of their actions. There is no such thing as running “away” or throwing anything “away” in God’s creation. What goes around, whether it is a physical pollutant or spiritual one, ultimately comes around.[10] I’m reminded of this truth each time I’m driving east from my home in Thornton and look east on the horizon. Scanning south to north I see the buildings of the Anschutz medical campus, the white peaks of DIA’s main concourse, and the growing man-made mountain of trash on Tower Road. While we may say we are throwing something “away,” we’re really just moving it from one place to another.  Our actions of endless consumption have consequences we cannot easily run away from. If you’ve ever seen an abandoned strip mine, a clear-cut forest, or polluted river you know nothing is truly “thrown away.” Just like Adam and Eve, we need to remember that actions have consequences.

For the first one hundred years of our existence, Henderson was an agrarian community. People who lived here managed and cared for the land as farmers and ranchers—stewards of God’s creation.  Farmers understand the principles of stewardship, contentment, and consequences perhaps more than anyone. We of Henderson Community Church are at our roots, people of the land, caretakers of God’s creation. What better people than us to teach others from this ancient story of Adam and Eve the principle of stewardship, the principle of contentment, and the principle of consequences. We know that our scriptures compel us to act on our faith in reverence, love, and respect for all of God’s creation, for that’s what we of Henderson Community Church have been doing for over a hundred years.

via mynewplace.com

In recent years, as our community has changed from agrarian to a bedroom community of young families—we have the opportunity to teach people the importance of caring for and connecting with God’s creation just as the people of this church have done over the years. Our recycling bins, our compost pile, our community garden, and our soon-to-be-installed LED lighting are example of the creation care legacy of our church ancestors.  As we move into the future, what are other ways we can continue that legacy? What are ways we can show the community the importance of caring for God’s creation? And what are things we can do increase our creation care? Solar panels? More efficient heaters? Engaging the community in creation care? From the scriptures and from our ancestors in this church, we know that creation care is important, let us be content with what we have been given, honoring and protecting God’s creation.

 

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 35.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 35.

[3] Ecclesiastes 3:20

[4] Calvin B. DeWitt, “Reading the Bible through a Green Lens,” in The Green Bible ed. Michael G. Maudlin and Marlene Baer (San Francisco: Harper One, 2007), I-25.

[5] J. Matthew Sleeth, ‘Introduction: The Power of a Green God,” in The Green Bible ed. Michael G. Maudlin and Marlene Baer (San Francisco: Harper One, 2007), I-20.

[6] Psalm 24:1

[7] Brian McLaren, “Why I am Green,” in The Green Bible (San Francisco: Harper One, 2007), I-48.

[8] Kate Ashford, “Shopping Hungry? You’ll Spend More,” Forbes.com <https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateashford/2015/02/25/shopping-hungry/#261ed7419dd0> (accessed April 21, 2017).

[9] 1 Timothy 6:6

[10] Ellen Bernstein, “Creation Theology: A Jewish Perspective,” in The Green Bible ed. Michael G. Maudlin and Marlene Baer (San Francisco: Harper One, 2007), I-55.

Jesus is the truth

John 18:19-40 & John 20:1-18

Every year Oxford Dictionaries selects a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest. In November of 2016, After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was “post-truth” – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ This word word was chosen because while the concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, Oxford Dictionaries had seen a spike in frequency last year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.[1]

Perhaps the best example of the “post-truth” phenomenon has been the rapid rise and spread of so-called “fake news.” Fake news, according to one fact-checking organization, refers to made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.[2] The most prominent “fake news” stories of 2016 were that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop in D.C., that Democrats wanted to impose Sharia law in Florida, and that thousands of people at a Donald Trump rally shouted “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back.” All three of these stories were completely untrue, yet that didn’t stop these stories from being given wide-spread attention and from being shared millions of times across different social media platforms.

Of course, in our “post-truth” world, even this definition fails to encompass the widening usage of the term, as politicians have taken to branding news stories or news organizations they don’t like or agree with as “fake news.” Ignoring the facts has long been a staple of political speech. Every day, politicians overstate some statistic, distort their opponents’ positions, or simply tell out-and-out whoppers. Surrogates and pundits spread the spin.[3] But when we have political pundits speaking about “alternative facts,” news media organizations are right to say, “alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods.”[4] This “post-truth,” “post-factual” world in which we now apparently live influenced TIME magazine to ask on the cover of their March 23 edition the question, “Is Truth Dead?” Perhaps we should first ask the question, what is truth?

What is truth? This is the same question ruler Pontius Pilate wondered when he was questioning Jesus, the man brought before him by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem. They did not have the power to have Jesus crucified on their own accord, they needed the authority of the governing Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the prefect over the Roman province of Judea, and served under the Emperor Tiberius from 26-36 AD. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were not thrilled with having to take the step of hauling Jesus before Pilate to justify their desire for capital punishment, they were locked in a struggle for power with the Roman authorities but consented that they needed Pilate’s permission to have Jesus killed.[5] So Jesus was handed over to Pilate for questioning, in hopes that Pilate would see he was a criminal worthy of punishment. It’s in this questioning where Pilate asks the famous question, “what is truth?”

To face the punishment of Rome, Jesus must have committed a crime against the state, such as treason or insurrection. For this reason, Pilate asks Jesus in John 18, “Are you the King of the Jews?” To claim kingship would have been a direct statement of insurrection against the empire of Rome and immediately punishable by death. Jesus responded that his “kingdom was not of this world.” And Pilate then asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then asked him, “What is the truth?”

“What is the truth?” It is a question human beings have been asking for hundreds of years—even right up to this present day. And the truth is something humans have been struggling to come to terms with for just as long. Yet when we hear so much about “fake news” running amok, when we are said to live in a “post-truth” society, it’s hard not to wonder “what is truth?” and perhaps even more so, like TIME magazine wonder, “Is truth dead?”

It should not surprise us that empire and ruling authorities have an uncomfortable relationship with truth. It’s the reason why politicians are so apt to bend and finagle with the truth—the truth challenges and questions the foundations on which power is structured. Truth is often like termites eating away at the integrity of a structure. Just like termites, left unchecked, can turn structural wooden beams into piles of saw dust waiting to collapse.  Truth often works in this same way, eating away at the falsehoods and lies that support the immoral and ungodly foundations of empire. It’s the reason why totalitarian rulers work so hard to suppress the truth and stomp out any dissent. It’s why rulers must propose alternative facts. It’s why, like Pilate, rulers begin to even wonder, what is the truth?

First of all, we are here today because we know what, or rather who the truth is. In the first chapter of the book of John we are told that Jesus came from the Father, “full of grace and truth” and in turn “grace and truth” come though Jesus.[6] We are told in in John 14:6 that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Then Jesus tells Pilate in chapter 18, “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”[7] Jesus is the truth—for the essential belief of Christianity is that in Jesus we see God embodied in human life. Jesus shows us the heart of God.[8] We know what the truth is. Jesus is the truth.

Truth is not dead. American poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant once said that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” On the day we remember as Good Friday, truth was crushed to earth in the person of Jesus, by the hands of the Roman soldiers, through the instrumentation of crucifixion, at the bidding of religious authorities. Yet on this day we remember as Easter Sunday, we celebrate that truth has risen again. Truth, in the person of Jesus, was crushed to earth, yet truth, in the person of Jesus, rose again! Truth is not dead, truth is alive! Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we will never, ever live in a post-truth world. Truth will always exist, whether we choose to accept it or not.

And this fact that truth is not dead, that truth still indeed exists, should inspire and encourage us to work and live on behalf of the truth. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who quoted those words of William Cullen Bryan in his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech.

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”… With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children all over this nation – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We are Free At Last.”

King’s words remind me of Jesus’ from John 8. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[9] That’s what truth does. That’s what Jesus does. King believed the truth that all people are created equally in the image of God—and that truth could not be suppressed forever. Truth is not dead, truth rises again, truth wins in the end.  Yet, while truth is not dead and truth is risen again, our work on behalf of the truth must never end. There are still many lies masquerading as truth, there are still many authorities seeking to hide the depravity of their true nature, there are many “alternative facts” we choose to believe.

This post-truth world wants us to believe that we are not good enough, we are not smart enough, and that we don’t have enough. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising telling us if we did this certain work-out, if we read this book, and if we bought this gadget, we’d be okay. This post-truth world wants us to believe that we’re the only people that matter—our little homogenous community and family. Forget the people who don’t look like us, act like us, or believe like us—we don’t need to worry about them, only ourselves. This post-truth world wants us to believe we need not worry about how the way we live impacts our neighbors, our world, or God’s creation—it’s all about us. In this post-truth world, we can comfort ourselves with “alternative facts,” but there is another word for “alternative facts;” they are called lies. And as Jesus so powerfully demonstrated many years ago, truth will always overcome lies. We don’t know how long it will take, whether 3 days like Jesus, 3 weeks, 3 years, or for King and the Civil Rights struggle, 13 years, truth always wins.

On this resurrection Sunday, let us not only celebrate the resurrection of the person of Jesus, but let us also celebrate the fact that truth also rose again that day, and that truth can never be defeated, truth will always rise again. Let us also work to align ourselves with the truth, to ignore the lies which seek to distract us from the truth, and to work to overcome those persons and institutions which seek to hide the truth from us.  In many ways, the struggle for truth is still ongoing, there are many more Pontius Pilates of the world seeking to dilute and destroy the truth. Let us, on this resurrection Sunday, align our hearts and minds with the person of Jesus, trusting in God’s Spirit, that we will be guided into all truth.[10]

 

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[2] Angie Drobnic Holan, “2016 Lie of the Year: Fake news,” Politifact.com <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/13/2016-lie-year-fake-news/> (accessed April 14, 2017).

[3] Angie Drobnic Holan, “2016 Lie of the Year: Fake news,” Politifact.com <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/13/2016-lie-year-fake-news/> (accessed April 14, 2017).

[4] Chuck Todd, Interview with Kellyanne Conway, Meet the Press, NBC, January 22, 2016.

[5] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective: John 18:1-19:42” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 299.

[6] John 1:14

[7] John 18:37

[8][8] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 80-81.

[9] John 8:32

[10] John 16:13

Jesus stirs things up

Matthew 21:1-11

This past Thursday, Sherry and I were working in the church office at about 11:30 in the morning when all of a sudden, we heard a loud noise, and the entire building shook. Just about the time we got our bearings back from being rattled, it came again. My head was feeling dizzy as the whole earth seemed to be moving beneath my feet.  After three powerful shakes, I looked outside and saw these giant trucks out on Oakland Street with construction workers. Sherry popped up and said they were vibrator trucks doing some seismic graphing to search for oil. I ran out the door to see what was happening just as the powerful vibrations shook again. Outside of the constructs of the building, the shaking didn’t seem quite so disorienting, but it was still quite an odd feeling. As the powerful vibrator trucks slowly headed north on Oakland Street, the effects of their vibrations lessened, but it took me a few minutes to wrap my head around what was happening and to overcome the disorientation of having the earth shake beneath my feet!

For a city boy like me, I’d never seen such as thing as this. For those unfamiliar like me, seismic graphing involves using big trucks weighing up to 30 tons, that drop heavy, metal vibrator plates from their undercarriages to thump and shake the ground.  These trucks send acoustic energy or vibrations down into the ground which is then reflected back to the surface and recorded by geophones or very sensitive seismic microphones in other vehicles.  Once the data is collected, geoscientists use powerful computers to filter and analyze the data, and use that information to decide where to drill for oil or natural gas. Thursday, I got to see this process up close as the trucks creeped along Oakland Street, dropping their vibrator plates every few hundred feet and causing the ground to stir! I must say it was quite a disorienting experience! The loud boom and the harsh shaking that occurred each time the vibrator plate dropped was really quite unsettling. At first I wondered whether there had been explosion outside, or whether a helicopter was hovering close overhead, or perhaps a really loud tornado siren was rattling the building. And of course, I realized it was like a real-life earth quake. Have you ever been in an earthquake?

In the fall of 2010, I was down in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a seminary class. As my classmates and I were sitting in a lecture on the book of Revelation, the building suddenly shook! Almost a perfect illustration to go along with that book of the Bible! Since the campus is near the airport, the initial thought was that it was just a plane flying too-low to the ground that had caused the rumble. But a quick check on news outlets revealed it had indeed been an actual earthquake. Oddly enough, the professor was the only one in the room who didn’t really notice the shaking. Us students, sitting at desks and seeing the projector screen swing behind her, noticed immediately. If I remember correctly, the earthquake measured a 5 or 6 on the Richter scale, so it was a decent shake! Being that we were talking about the book of Revelation, an earthquake happening was a bit eerie. Anyone else have any earthquake stories?

In our reading from Matthew, the people of Jerusalem experienced a bit of an earthquake themselves. No, not a literal earthquake, but after Jesus’ dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, after all the cheering crowds, after the cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which literally means “save us,” or “help us,” the people of Jerusalem where quite shook up, at least so writes Matthew in verse 10. “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘who is this?’” The word in the original language means to “shake, to agitate, to tremble, or to put in commotion.” It’s a form of Greek word “seismos,” from which we get the English word “seismic,” referring to the movement of the earth’s crust. Much like I was disoriented and confused from the loud boom and the dramatic shaking when the vibrator truck dropped its vibrator plate, so to were the residents of Jerusalem when Jesus came into the city.

Perhaps I should point out that there were two different groups of people in and around the city of Jerusalem that day, there were the normal residents, and then there were travelers, in town for the religious festival of Passover. By some estimates, a city of around 40,000 people had quadrupled in size due to out-of-town travelers in for the occasion.[1] In preparation of the crowds, the Roman authorities had brought in extra security to keep a handle on any rabble-rousers looking to make trouble. To the citizens of Jerusalem—with all these visitors and out-of-towners, it was the Roman authorities who they looked to for peace and security—therefore it would have been quite unsettling to their ears to hear the cries of all these visitors telling Jesus to save them.  So, there was a sharp contrast between the citizens of Jerusalem whose peaceful life was secured by the Roman Empire, and the visitors from out of town who seemingly wanted to be saved from these same Romans and their allies in Jerusalem. Is it a wonder why the people of Jerusalem felt like an earthquake was happening!?

In many ways, this “stir” Jesus created previews the earthquakes that would happen at his crucifixion and then again at the empty tomb the morning of his resurrection.[2] But, as one commentator said, “When the Messiah comes, it is an earthshaking event.”[3] I guess we could say that Jesus “shakes things up.” After all, he came to Jerusalem seeking to shake up the status quo in which the wealthy residents of Jerusalem were collaborating with the foreign Roman rulers to exploit the poor people outside of the city. He came to Jerusalem seeking to shake up the notion that the religious authorities had exclusive access to God. And he came to Jerusalem to shake up the idea that God cared more about outward appearances than what’s within a person’s heart. Just as those seismic trucks that rolled down the street last Thursday weren’t just rattling the earth just because, Jesus knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.

I think this is a core principle of who God is and what God does—God shakes things up. In the Bible, earthquakes were a sign of God’s presence.[4] Too often I think we see shake ups in life as unplanned problems rather than part of the process. Last Thursday, after a few disorienting shakes, I went outside and walked down the street looking for who was the cause of all that shaking. I talked to a guy who I assumed to be the project manager, or something of that sort. He pulled out a map he had of the entire area, it showed all the different parcels of land, who owned what, and in what areas they were looking. While all this shaking seemed quite discombobulating to me, to him it was just all part of the process. His company was looking for oil and this seismic shaking was just a necessary step to find it. I guess you could say, it’s all about perspective. To me, on the outside, this shaking was startling and abnormal—to him, knowing what was happening and trusting the process—it was completely normal. When things started shaking that day in Jerusalem, when things started getting stirred up, Jesus wasn’t alarmed. He trusted God in the process and he saw things from a different perspective—God’s perspective.

Trusting the process and having the right perspective, I think it really all boils down to that. Truthfully, if you’ve been at this church for some time it may at times feel like a 30-ton vibrator truck had rolled up, lowered its vibrator plates, and sent shockwaves into our ground.  Perhaps it’s been disorienting and unsettling as the ground seems to shake beneath your feet. If, like me last Thursday, you’ve felt like running out in order to escape and figure out what’s going on, let me, as your project manager, I might say, give two pieces of advice this morning. First, consider your perspective.  And second, trust the process.

 

I’m reminded of the story of “The Farmer’s Fortune” …

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Perhaps,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Perhaps,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Perhaps,” said the farmer…

There are always multiple perspectives to be had when things happen. When’s the last time we tried to see things from God’s perspective?

 

Secondly, we need to trust the process.

via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVLPS10UuWo

In the sports world, the Philadelphia 76’ers of the National Basketball Association has recently become known for their own version of “trust the process.” A few years back the 76’ers hired Sam Hinkie to be their General Manager. Recognizing the team didn’t have enough quality players on the roster to win, and recognizing the best way to acquire talented players was through the amateur draft each year, Hinkie decided to purposely make the team as bad as possible in an effort to lose games, knowing that the worst teams in the league had the best chance at getting the best players available in the amateur draft. Hinkie hopes that with enough losing, the team would be able to draft a good enough player to ultimately help them win. Unfortunately, Hinkie was never able to see his plan come to fruition as the team pushed him out, frustrated with the losing. But, oddly enough, this past year, one player who was a recent draft pick, began to excel and demonstrate his talent, helping the team win. Unexpectedly, as this player, Joel Embiid, was leading the team to a victory, the fans started chanting “trust the process.” After drafting another top player in the most recent draft, it appears that “process” of Sam Hinkie was right all along and team ownership should have done better to “trust the process.”

I’m reminded of the words of the apostle Paul to the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”[5]

This morning I would ask us to consider our perspectives and trust the process—what may feel like an earthquake is really just a sign of God working in our lives and working in our church.

 

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-4.

[2] Audrey West, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 21:1-11” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 157.

[3] Audrey West, 157.

[4] Audrey West, 157.

[5] Philippians 1:6 ESV

Do you believe?

Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

Recently I was watching the show “Abandoned” on the cable TV channel Viceland, in which skateboarder Rick McCrank explores abandoned places with the people who love them long after the lights have gone out. Different episodes explore various abandoned locales across the continent such as abandoned malls, decaying towns, and the deteriorating remnants of Route 66. One of the most intriguing episodes to me was on Detroit and the rundown, neglected, and abandoned parts of the city. Detroit’s blight has become infamous world-wide, leading to what has become a minor tourist industry of ruins photography, as people come from near and far to view the remnants of what was once a bustling city.

Whether it be Michigan Central Station, the Packard Automotive Plant, the Eastown Theatre or the many decaying schools, factories, churches, and houses that litter the Detroit landscape, the city is seemingly more famous for what is dead and gone than what life that remains. One can easily get sucked into a vortex of what some call “ruin porn,” staring endlessly at photographs of the many decrepit and decaying buildings that dot the landscape. Searching “Detroit Blight” on the internet will provide an endless stream of rotted houses, abandoned factories, and empty city blocks.  What was once the center of American industry and manufacturing is now the postcard of demise. Looking at these haunting images that portray such death and decay it’s hard to believe life is ever again possible for Detroit.

I want us to hold in our mind these haunting images of the death and demise of Detroit as we consider this morning two tales of death—that of Ezekiel’s dry bones and of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Most of us know the story of Lazarus. He was a friend of Jesus and was sick. His family sent word to Jesus to come help. Jesus delayed in coming to the point that when he finally arrived, Lazarus had been dead for days.  Undeterred by Lazarus’ state or the ambiguous faith of Mary and Martha, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The story from Ezekiel is another story of death. In the ancient Near East, when armies battled, the victor would leave the victims of the defeated army exposed on the battlefield to succumb to the ravishes of nature and beast. As nature ran its course, the dead bodies would decay becoming a pile of dry bones, free of an flesh, sinews, or bone barrow. For the losers, it was a powerful reminder of death and defeat. Dry bones were then symbolic with death and defeat, much as the decaying factories of Detroit have become synonymous with the decline and demise of American manufacturing.

Despite all this doom and gloom, despite all the death and demise, we know how the stories of Ezekiel and Lazarus end. Lazarus is raised from the death and Ezekiel speaks the words of God to these dry bones and they are re-enfleshed and re-enlivened by the breath of God. The show “Abandoned” tells a similar story, highlighting signs of new-life and re-birth amongst the seemingly endless decay. In the episode about Detroit, the show highlights Detroit residents working hard to bring life to their city by residents turning empty residential neighborhoods into urban farms, volunteers cleaning up local blight, and local entrepreneurs creating sustainable businesses. In fact, each episode of “Abandoned” tells a similar story of life creeping out of what was once thought dead and gone. Though unwittingly perhaps, the show highlights a spirit or breath of life that takes what was once dead and brings life. I’d like to say that that spirit of life is that which we call God.

In the Bible, especially the first half which we call the Old Testament, the breath of life is understood as a wind, or breath, or spirit that emanates from God.[1] In the Creation story in Genesis, the spirit, or wind, or breath of God was said to be hovering over the waters of the earth before God brought forth life.[2] In the original language, the word is “ruach” meaning “wind, breath, or spirit” and is understood to come from God and is recognized to have creative activity and active power. Again, remember in Genesis, it is said that God breathed into Adam the breath of life and Adam became a living being.[3] Here also, Ezekiel is told to tell the breath of God to enliven these lifeless beings, so that they may live. In the book of John, Jesus breathes out the words, “Lazarus, come out” and all of the sudden a dead man comes out alive, stumbling over his graveclothes. The breath of God, the wind of God, the spirit of God is creative, it is powerful, and it is life-giving.

by Trevor Olfert

Without the breath of God, creation is just an abyss of swirling waters, without the wind of God, the bones and sinews and flesh are just dead, dry bones, without the spirit of God, Lazarus is just a dead guy beginning the decomposition process, and without the ruach of God, the breath or wind or spirit of God, we are just as Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “empty white tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”[4]  There is no life without the breath of God, without the spirit of God. Without the power and the presence of God we are simply a dying, decrepit, destitute entity no better than the ruins of Detroit. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what we look like. We could have the biggest building, the best technology, the brightest rooms, the nicest furniture—the best of everything—but if the power and presence of God is not in our midst, it will not matter. We will be but lifeless bones. So, in the mode of Ezekiel, seeking to speak the word of God, I have three questions for us to consider this morning.

First, are we willing to open ourselves up to the living breath of God’s spirit and the resurrection that will come about? Resurrection implies new life, new life implies change, change implies doing things differently than how we’ve done them before. As we come closer and closer to the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, these stories from the Bible today invite us to consider the possibility of resurrection in our own lives and in our church where we may be deeply in need of God’s presence and the newness of existence.[5] Are we willing to allow God’s spirit to work in us and through us and change us?

The second question I’d like us to consider is do we believe this is possible? Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[6] Henderson Church, I ask you this, do you believe? And if you do believe, are you will to do what it requires to move from just saying what you believe to giving your whole selves and our whole lives and our whole church over to transformation and to the new life God brings? [7] Too often, in fact, Christians say we do believe, but we live as if we do not, something one author has called “functional atheism.”[8] It’s one thing to say we are Christians, to profess to be believers in the resurrection, to assent to the transformative power of God—but then act as if we don’t really believe in what we have just said. So church, do we believe?

The third question I’d like to ask us to think about this morning, is can we envision our bones with new flesh and blood, re-enlivened by God? Ezekiel 37 offers a ridiculous hope. After all, to think that there is hope after the bones have been picked clean is like thinking that someone who had been buried for nearly four days could be resuscitated (John 11:17).[9] Pretty far-fetched. Perhaps also as far-fetched as thinking that a church that has experienced years and years of decline and degradation could experience new life, new energy, and new enthusiasm. But I believe in the power of God, I can see what’s possible if we choose to allow God’s power and God’s presence fill and enliven our hearts and our space. To hope is to act in accordance with what you say, not just saying you believe, but living in the expectation that it will.

Breath Of God by Deborah Brown Maher

But please hear this, ultimately the choice is up to us. We’re reminded in 1 Thessalonians to not quench or suppress God’s spirit.[10] Are we willing to open ourselves up so that God’s breath might enliven us, so that God’s wind will blow through us, so that God’s spirit might empower us? And if we do, if we really do, God can and will blow the doors off this place. Really, the choice is up to us. Are we willing to open ourselves up to the living breath of God’s spirit and the resurrection that will come about? Do we believe this is possible? And are we will to act in the hope that this will happen?

I stand before you this morning in the mode of Ezekiel, asking each to consider for themselves this very question…do you believe?

 

 

[1] http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Spirit_of_God/spirit_of_god.html

[2] Genesis 1:2

[3] Genesis 2:7

[4] Matthew 23:27

[5] Veronice Miles, “Pastoral Perspective: John 11:1-45” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 140 .

[6] John 11:25

[7] Kathryn Matthews, “Hope Against All Hope,

”http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds_hope_against_all_hope?utm_campaign=ws_mar24_17&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (accessed March 30, 2017).

[8] Jane Vennard, A Praying Congregation (

[9] Corrine Carvalho, “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14,” <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1820> (accessed March 31, 2017).

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:19

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