Henderson Community Church

...Deep Roots, Abundant Promise...

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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

Extending Christ’s Welcome

John 9

My favorite fast food restaurant by far is Taco Bell and my favorite item is the Crunchwrap Supreme. When you consider the fact that all this crunchy goodness is offered up in a meal for $5 and includes a Diet Pepsi, it’s a wonder I don’t eat Taco Bell every day for lunch! Now as much as I enjoy dining at Taco Bell, I’m not immune to poor customer service derailing my appetite. A couple years back I was in search of a quick meal and stopped off at the nearest Taco Bell to place an order. It was about 6:30 in the evening, and as I walked into the restaurant I noticed the lobby was devoid of customers. I looked at the menu—trying to decided what else I was going to order with my Crunchwrap—then I moved closer to the counter ready to place my order. I waited, and waited, and waited.

There was no one at the counter, nor was anyone heading towards me. There were some employees working the drive-thru and food prep, but none came over. One or two glanced in my direction, but no one offered a word of “we’ll be with you shortly,” or “just a minute,” or anything. I remember saying, “Hello? Is anyone going to help me?” After what seemed like an eternity waiting, I left rather dejected; disappointed that I would not get my Crunchwrap and frustrated that I had basically been ignored. I shoved my way through the front doors and angrily strode across the parking lot to the Burger King next door. I think I got their 4 for 4 deal or something like that—whatever it was it didn’t impress me because I was disappointed over not getting my Crunchwrap and frustrated by the lack of customer service I received when I entered the Taco Bell restaurant.

Obviously, this one bad experience at Taco Bell, like my bad experiences at Home Depot, haven’t stopped me from frequenting both businesses. Last Monday I was in Home Depot yet again buying a 2 x 4 x 12 to strengthen my fence, and last Sunday I was at Taco Bell buying a Crunchwrap meal.  But, more often than not, good customer service, or good hospitality, is crucial if a business is going to attract and retain customers. In fact, more and more, customers are avoiding business that fail to provide good customer service or good hospitality,[1] and that trend is not unique to the business world.

Last week I was reading the book, Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, written by an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Alan Johnson, reflecting on his experiences working at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Boulder, CO. For many years, Johnson taught the principle of hospitality to UCC churches across the nation. After his retirement, he took a part time job at a bread store and decided to write a book comparing customer service to what we call hospitality in the church world. Johnson was acutely aware that one of the biggest reasons churches have been struggling is that they have failed to adequately welcome and include people.

In his book, Johnson writes that a business dedicated to good customer service will focus on six important aspects. First is the staff, making sure employees and team members are positive and enthusiastic, unified and trusting in the mission of the business. Second is a focus on guests, after all, businesses must have customers to do business with. Third is the community. A business must recognize their role in the broader community and look for ways to give back and support the community. Fourth, the business must have good suppliers, so they have good product to sell. Fifth is investors, and this is where self-investment is so important. Johnson says that “self-investment is the first step to getting investors to invest!”[2] Finally, there is the setting. The business must appear well-kept and clean. Johnson says customer service is an essential element of the mission of the business, which in the case of the bread company, is to sell bread. Good customer service helps accomplish that mission.

I’m thinking about customer service or hospitality today because of the story we read from the book of John about the blind man who was healed. In the story the Pharisees were mad at Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath, who they then tried to kick out of the synagogue along with his family because they wouldn’t condemn Jesus. The synagogue in ancient Israel was comparable to church today, it was where people gathered to worship and learn about God. The Pharisees were essentially the church leadership, the folks who had control.  They wanted things done a certain way, and would threaten anyone who broke the mold, even when that included Jesus healing a blind man, hardly what we would call welcoming or hospitable.

What I find interesting is that three times the lack of hospitality is made clear.  First in verse 22, the blind man’s parents were afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue, as it had apparently already happened to others. Then in verse 34, the Pharisees kick the newly healed man out because he didn’t say the right things, and finally, in verse 35, Jesus hears that the man had indeed been kicked out of the synagogue.  These Pharisees were not a welcoming bunch! Remember the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld. Don’t do things our way and it’s “no soup for you!” Is it any wonder the man left the synagogue for good and became a follower of Jesus?

It reminds me of what can often happen in churches. For years, churches across America have operated with the same rigidity as the Pharisees and then are surprised when folks leave their church and don’t return. Is it any wonder? Statistics tell us that 60% of young people will quit church, and less that 20% of Americans attend church any given weekend.[3] Any business with the most basic level of foresight would realize these are troubling numbers that must be addressed. Like a business, a church can’t stay in business if it keeps turning away potential customers.

This is where Johnson’s six rules of hospitality or customer service apply to the church. Just as the staff and employees of a business must be unified in their focus, we as members of this church must be unified in our purpose, trusting our leadership, focusing on providing the best hospitality possible. Second, we must focus squarely on our guests. Our job as a church is to create disciples of Jesus, but we can’t create disciples if we don’t have any people. That means we’ve got to pay close attention to the guests who come through our door, and we’ve got to consider what we need to do to reach more potential “customers” who live in our community. Which brings us to Johnson’s third point, that we must engage and care for our community. Meeting the people of the neighborhood, discerning the needs that are present, and providing for the community are all part of what it means to practice good hospitality and good customer service.[4]

The fourth aspect of good customer service is strengthening our relationships with our suppliers. Now we don’t have a supplier in the traditional sense of the word, but I would propose that our denomination is in some sense our supplier. The United Church of Christ is here to help and support us in our mission. As mentioned, this book comes from a UCC pastor who attended a church in our area. It only makes sense that we strengthen our relationships with entities seeking to support and supply us.  The fifth aspect of hospitality is self-investment. Johnson says this is about having “skin in the game.” He says that “self-investment is the first step to getting investors to invest.”[5] We can’t expect outsiders to come invest in our endeavor if we are not ourselves faithfully committed.  And this is something I believe in deeply, which is why I invest nearly 10% of my compensation back into the mission of this church.

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The final point Johnson makes is the setting. How does the place look? Johnson says that “the environment in which our religious activities happen can inhibit or augment the spiritual encounters that (take place). Because our environment affects our experiences, we do well to pay attention to how the place looks.”[6]  One author says it more bluntly, churches need to “clean out the cat litter box.”[7] Perhaps you’ve seen the Febreeze commercials where they illustrate the ways we can go “noseblind” to the smells in our own house.  I have a cat and a litterbox. Someone who comes to my house probably smells both, though I no longer notice. It’s the same way in churches, we become oblivious to how things really look.  An inviting, welcoming space goes a long way in proclaiming our hospitality.

Ultimately, we’re in the business of reaching people. With homes being built 5 minutes to our east, and 5 minutes to our west, there will be over 600 new families who will be looking for new connections, new community, and new places to worship. We can be the welcoming, inclusive place of faith they are looking for—but it will take effort and intentionality on our part. A willingness to surrender control and the faith to let go of our fears of the unknown—to be the church God is calling us to be. Our purpose for existing as a church is to share the good news of God’s love with all people, and we can best do that by living out God’s welcoming hospitality with others.

Each one of us are here because we were welcomed and accepted into this church, whether it be 90 years ago, 9 years ago, 9 months ago, or even 9 days ago. We are here because we found this to be a welcoming and hospitable place. We are living testament of the power of hospitality, of what can happen when a church welcomes and accepts new people. Our call as followers of Jesus is to extend the same welcome we received with others.  We demonstrate our faith in who God is by how we welcome one another. May our attitude and our actions be a powerful testimony of God’s grace and love and welcome.

 

[1] http://www.superoffice.com/blog/customer-experience-statistics/

[2] Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press: 2009), 71.

[3] Thom Schults and Joani Schultz, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore (Loveland: Group Publishing, 2013), 15.

[4] Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 70.

[5] Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 71.

[6] Alan Johnson, Encounters and the Counter (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009), 75.

[7] Gary L. McIntosh, Beyond the First Visit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 7.

aith in who God is by how we welcome one another. May our attitude and our actions be a powerful testimony of God’s grace and love and welcome.

Come and See

John 4:4-52

Over the past few months, I’ve spent several days going to Home Depot to purchase items to repair my fence, such as 2 x 4’s, screws, and fence pickets. Between energetic dogs and windy weather, my fence, which is about 20 years old and previously not well maintained, has been requiring a lot of my attention. Yet for all the time I’ve spent at Home Depot, I hate going there. It’s not that I dislike home repair or home improvement stores as a whole, I just despise Home Depot because it seems like each time I go, I spend at least half the time wandering the aisles, looking endlessly for the few items I actually need.

For instance, last Monday I went there to buy a fence post reinforcement, as I have several posts which are leaning and quite wobbly. I first started in the hardware section and walked through each aisle to no avail, then I went over to the lumber section, thinking perhaps what I needed was by the fence lumber. Next I went to the fencing section, seeing several sorts of fencing options, but still not what I needed. Defeated, I wandered to the front of the store and flagged down an associate after seeing a few pass me by. I  explained what I needed and showed her a picture on my phone from the Home Depot website—assuring me this product was in stock. The associate pulled out some electronic gizmo and searched to no avail. She couldn’t find it. Finally, she found another associate, asked him where this item was, and he led us to the item in question.

Of course, when I checked out, the cashier asked me, “Did you find you needed today?” What am I really supposed to say to that!? I’m not a fan of big box stores.

In contrast, there is Ace Hardware. As soon as I walk in the door someone audibly welcomes me, then someone else asks if I need help finding something. Then, if I turn down the initial offer, each time I encounter another associate, I am offered assistance yet again. I like going to Ace because it is, like their ads say, “the helpful place.” I like Ace so much I often tell people to go there for their own home improvement needs. I’m constantly telling my wife and her friends, “just go get it at Ace.” When was the last time you told a friend or neighbor about a positive customer service experience, whether it be great food or service at a restaurant, a car mechanic who went the extra mile to get your car fixed on time and on budget, or a sales associate who spent extra time to make sure you got the best deal or the exact product you wanted?

In the business world, this is what’s called a personal referral. It’s the most effective, productive way to build a business.[1] Despite the billions of dollars spent on advertising, referral selling is far and away the most effective sales strategy. People who are personally referred to a business are far more likely to buy a product or service, with some suggesting the sales rate is at least 50% and sometimes as high as 70-90%. Considering that the costs of personal referrals are microscopic in comparison to the price of a full-fledged media advertising campaign, smart businesses do everything they can to maximize personal referrals or word-of-mouth advertising.

Now you might wonder, why am I talking so much about business this morning? The Church is most certainly not a business, at least in the most basic understanding of the word. Churches do not engage in commerce to make money. Churches exist, I believe, to change lives and create followers of Jesus—something we call “discipleship.”  Church isn’t about making money or producing  goods, and while lots of money in the bank or a lot of people in the building might be the sign of a healthy business, it’s not always true of a church. Yet while there are many differences between businesses and church, there are similarities. After all, both businesses and churches are trying reach people with a message. Churches do well to consider how some basic business principles might be applicable in the church world; for instance, the power of the personal referral.

This morning in our long, long reading from the book of John, we read the story of the woman at the well, the woman Jesus encounters during his trip through Samaria; this unknown woman who Jesus seemed to know actually quite well. After engaging in a lengthy conversation with Jesus about her personal relationship history and her own religious beliefs, the woman abruptly leaves after the disciples interrupt. She returns to her own city and tells the people about Jesus saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I had ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

There are three things that stand out to me from this woman’s testimony. One is that she simply told her friends and neighbors that she had an experience or encounter with Jesus that left a lasting impact on her, it changed her; he “told me everything I had ever done.” The second thing she did is she implied that this guy she met, Jesus, was somebody special. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” she said. She didn’t know who or exactly what he was, but she knew he was someone special. The third thing she did, and this is the most important, is she told her friends to come see for themselves; “Come and see” she said.

In the church world, we sometimes use the big, scary word known as “evangelism” to talk about sharing the story of Jesus with others. What often comes to mind is knocking on some stranger’s door, handing out religious pamphlets to strangers on the street, or asking a friend or acquaintance about the destiny of their soul after they die. These are all big, scary tasks—and I speak from experience, having done all of these things on multiple occasions in the past. While for the most extroverted among us these might be ho-hum and run-of-the mill, for the rest of us, even the thought of walking up to a stranger’s door and awaiting an answer sends chills up and down our spine! Thankfully, evangelism is easier and simpler than this!

I want us to think about “evangelism” or sharing the story of Jesus as simply being like a personal referral or word-of-mouth advertising. Most of us would have no problem telling a friend or neighbor about an amazing customer service experience we had at a local business, or an incredibly good meal we ate at a dining establishment, or a business that just had a “wow” factor and was clearly a special place to be. This is simply what the woman did—and this is really all we need to do too! Again, the three things she did, she told how her experience with Jesus changed her, she shared how he was special, and she invited others to come and see for themselves.

For us, word-of-mouth advertising for the church might be telling a friend about a great experience you had at this church, how the people are kind and welcoming, making you feel valued and appreciated each time you’re here, and how you’re so often challenged and inspired by the music and messages. It might be telling a neighbor how special this place is, how much we do for the community, how long we’ve been here, and how many people we impact whether it be through our food bank, our scouting ministry, or our other various community outreach endeavors such as our coat drive we’re engaging in this very week. And it might be simply inviting someone to come and see this place for themselves. Whether it’s one of these, or all three like the woman at the well, telling others about our church can be quite easy.

Beyond all the religious and spiritual reasons why we should do this, the most practical reason for doing so is that is just plain works! Experts say that 80%[2] to 90% of people come to church because they were personally invited.[3] And more so, about 66% of people say that a personal invitation would be effective in getting them to come to church,[4] yet unfortunately among regular church goers, only 21% of people have recently invited someone to church.[5] This is where we’ve got to think a little like a business; for like a business, an average church loses 10% of its participants a year.[6] Therefore a church of our size has to bring in 12 new people a year just to maintain status quo.[7] And, being that a healthy church averages 7% growth per year,[8] we need to add at least 17 people per year. The good news is that our growth percentage over the last three years is about 35%, or about 12% each year—so we’re already doing a great job.

As we get closer to Easter Sunday, a time a lot of people are going to be looking for a place to go to church, how about engaging in some word-of-mouth advertising of our own, in just three easy steps. First, tell people about a good experience you’ve had at this church. Second, tell people what makes this church special. And Third, tell people that they should come see it for themselves. That’s it! Experts tell us that your personal referral is at least 20 x’s more effective[9] than any other form of advertising! And we’re going to provide some tools in the coming weeks to make it easier, such as social media posts you can share and invitation cards to give to others. The other thing I’d like to do this morning, and this is a bit unorthodox, is I’d like to ask you to make a personal referral this morning. Business experts say that the biggest mistake of salespeople is not specifically asking for referrals. Two weeks ago we welcomed new members who shared why HCC is special to them, and we heard long term member share the same. We know this church is special, we know people have great experiences here, wouldn’t we then want others to benefit just as we have? Let’s invite them to come and see. Sharing your faith need not be complicated or intimidating, sometimes it’s as easy as saying, “come and see.”

 

[1] https://www.jillkonrath.com/sales-blog/bid/142049/5-Steps-to-Better-Referral-Selling

[2] http://www.churchmarketingsucks.com/2005/04/youre-invited-bringing-people-to-church/

[3] http://www.avalonchurch.net/ritchies-blog/2015/5/18/the-power-of-the-personal-invitation

[4] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/july/power-of-invitation-our-god-pursues-lost-and-so-should-we.html

[5] http://lifewayresearch.com/2014/01/02/study-churchgoers-believe-in-sharing-faith-most-never-do/

[6] Gary L. McIntosh & Charles Arn, What Every Pastor Should Know (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 39.

[7] David Francis & Michael Kelley, One Hundred: Charting a Course Past 100 in Sunday School (Nashkville: Lifeway, 2016), 20.

[8] David Francis & Michael Kelley, One Hundred: Charting a Course Past 100 in Sunday School (Nashville: Lifeway, 2016), 52.

[9] Gary L. McIntosh & Charles Arn, What Every Pastor Should Know (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 40.

 

God’s love shines into our darkness

John 3:1-17

If you’ve been attending Henderson Community Church for some time and listening to my messages, you’ve probably recognized that I appreciate the stories of the Bible and I especially appreciate the different methods the writers use to craft those stories. Sometimes, to illustrate these biblical stories, I compare them to movies or TV shows. As you’ve also probably realized—we seem to have different tastes in entertainment. It seems like every time I reference a movie as an illustration, I get back a bunch of blank stares. So, I finally came up with a way to ensure that at least some of you have seen the movie I reference; hence our outing yesterday afternoon to go see the movie The Shack! Seeing The Shack wasn’t entirely for the purposes of this message, we are beginning a study group meetings Wednesdays at 7 pm based off the book to which all are welcome (study guides may be purchased online), but going to see the movie did provide a convenient way for me to use the movie as an illustration for a sermon.

theShackStudyGuide

For those who have not seen the movie or read the book, The Shack is a story set in the American Northwest about a man named Mackenzie, a married father of three, called “Mack” by his family and friends. Four years prior to the main events of the story, Mack takes his three children on a camping trip to a lake. Two of his children are out in a canoe when it flips and one nearly drowns. Mack is able to save his son, but unintentionally leaves his youngest daughter Missy alone at their campsite. After Mack returns, she is nowhere to be found. The police are called, and the family discovers that Missy has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer. The police find an abandoned shack in the woods with her bloodied clothing, but her body is never found. After this tragedy Mack sinks into what he calls “The Great Sadness.”

One winter day, Mack receives a note in his mailbox from “Papa,” saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. Mack is puzzled by the note—he has had no relationship with his abusive father since he left home at age 13. He suspects that the note may be from God, whom his wife refers to as “Papa.” Mack’s family leaves to visit relatives and he goes alone to the shack, unsure of what he will find. Initially upon arrival he finds nothing, but as he is leaving, the shack and its surroundings are transformed from snow and cold into a lush garden scene. He enters the shack and encounters the three persons of the Trinity, with God embodied as an African American woman who calls herself Elousia and Papa; Jesus Christ as a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. From there the story centers on Mack’s conversations with these three as he is forced to grapple with the deep pain and sadness in his life over the loss of his daughter, ultimately finding healing from his pain.

At the end of his visit, Mack goes on a hike with Papa, who shows him where Missy’s body was left in a cave. After spending the weekend at the shack, Mack leaves for home and is nearly killed in an automobile accident. After his recovery, he realizes that he did not in fact spend the weekend at the shack, but that his accident occurred on the same day that he arrived at the shack.  But thanks to his experience, Mack is able to begin the healing process and reconcile with his family.

The Shack is a powerful story about the hurt and pain and sadness many of us face in our lives and how that darkness often envelops us, nearly suffocating us from living the full life God has for us. I think it is a wonderful illustration for the Bible story we read today about Jesus and Nicodemus, a story many of us are familiar with and a story which contains perhaps the most well-known Bible verse, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It’s a verse many of us know and love.

The story also contains an odd-phrase perhaps many of us have heard, that of being “born again” or “born from above” in some translations. Beginning in the 1960’s some Christians began referring to themselves as “born-again,” referencing their encounter and experience with Jesus as a spiritual re-birth of sorts. As the years went by, more and more Christians began labeling themselves similarly—and demanding that all others do the same—or else not be considered “true” Christians.  Ironically, a passage which specifically says God does not condemn, was instead used to condemn wide swatches of Christians.

But this passage is so much more than that. One of the reasons I like utilizing books and movies to illustrate the Bible is that the more I learn about and understand the Bible, the more I see the artistry and skill of the biblical authors to tell a story in much the same way modern story tellers do. The book of John, was written by a guy named John to tell the story of Jesus. It wasn’t meant to be a play-by-play account of his life, it was meant to tell who Jesus was and what made him so incredible. And one of the key themes John uses in his book to tell his story is that of darkness and light. John 1 says

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

It’s not by accident that here in chapter 3 we have the story of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—and Jesus then tries to explain to Nicodemus how God’s light has come into the world, yet many choose to reject that light and stay in the midst of their own darkness. And this is the point I want to make today; verses 16-19 read:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

For too long these verses, in which Jesus explicitly says God does not judge or condemn, have been used to judge or condemn people—when that’s not at all what’s happening in this story.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness and Jesus shines some light into that darkness, offering him a way out—but in offering that way out Jesus cautions Nicodemus that in stepping into the light he will be changed forever—almost as if he had been re-born.

It’s much the same as the story of The Shack, how into Mack’s deep darkness, God shines a light and offers Mack a way out. Having accepted the invitation, Mack joins God at that cabin and experiences a re-birth of sorts, a new life of wholeness and healing, and his life is never the same. God does not condemn Mack for his darkness and despair, God seeks to shine light into Mack’s darkness and rescue him from it. This is what God does—God sees the deep darkness and burdens many of us carry and seeks to save us from it.  Literally, Jesus seeks to bring us healing and wholeness in the midst of our darkness and suffering.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have some measure of darkness within us, darkness we carry around, darkness we hide in. Maybe it’s some deep grief or pain like Mack, maybe it’s some shame or regret, maybe it’s some guilt or mistake, maybe it’s some insecurity or self-doubt, maybe it’s something we want to keep hidden—whatever it is, it’s killing us—killing our joy, killing our spirit, killing our liveliness, taking from us the fullness of life that God intends for us. And we know that, we know, deep down, that its hurting us, even killing us, we don’t need God to judge us, we know deep down in our hearts that the darkness is eating away at our souls—but maybe we don’t know what to do differently, maybe we don’t know how to change it, maybe we’re scared to change it.

And this is where God says, “I didn’t send Jesus into the world to rub your guilt in your face, I didn’t send Jesus into the world to tell you you’re a horrible person, I sent Jesus into the world because I love you, because I want to rescue you from your darkness, because I want to bring wholeness and healing to the parts of your life that are broken and hurting and in darkness.” I as your pastor want to be clear that depression, anxiety, and mental illness are not a sin. For too long and in too many churches, depression and mental illness has been treated as such. For those suffering from depression or mental illness, God shining light into our darkness might be a guiding light that leads us to our doctor or medical professional.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy. Whether its dealing with our own hurt and pain or admitting our need for professional help, starring deep into the abyss of our own hearts and souls, honestly examining our own hurt, and pain, and sinful mistakes can be a terrifying thing, much as Mack experiences in The Shack—but in the end, wow is it worth it!  The life afterward is a life unimaginable, a life we might call out of this world, a life of the eternal, it’s almost as if we’ve been reborn. God loves the world in this way, that he sent us Jesus to shine light into our darkness, so that our darkness might not overtake us, and that we might experience, healing, wholeness, renewal, even new-life through him.

The truth of the good news of Jesus is this. God loves us deeply and beyond our wildest imagination. God sent Jesus to shine light into our deepest darkness, in order that we might see the healing and wholeness available in him, and walking in that light, we will find life beyond our wildest imagination.

Why Church Membership Matters

Matthew 4:1-11 & Ephesians 2:19-22

Church membership identifies people as followers of Jesus Christ  and as those who belong to the historic and worldwide community known as the Christian Church. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the people who had been closely related to him  during his earthly ministry–the disciples and a number of other followers–began to meet together.  At Pentecost these people began to preach publicly about the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus  and to invite others to join them in the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel.  Small communities of believers began to form, meeting together in homes for worship, fellowship, and sharing in the sacramental meal of communion. People who responded to the preaching of the gospel and wanted to join those of “the Way” denounced their old way of life and submitted to baptism as the rite of initiation into the new age of the reign of God and into the church, the community living in anticipation and hope of the reign.

These early communities of Christians  felt compelled to share the good news of what had happened in their lives.  People from these communities began to travel as missionaries of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is the earliest and best known of these missionaries who gathered new communities of believers who themselves formed new communities of faith. Our presence here today continues the legacy and practice of those thousands of years ago. And we carry on the legacy of faith in this church, begun by our charter members, some 112 years ago. Here at HCC, people become members in 1 of 3 ways: by baptism and confirmation as a child, profession of faith in Jesus, or transfer of membership from another church.

Some might wonder “What does it mean to belong to a church?” Belonging means deciding, giving, and receiving. It means participating in worship, joining in fellowship, and supporting God’s mission with our time, talent, and pledge of money and resources. Membership has four dimensions: faith, meaning, fellowship, and practice. Faith is about our relationship to God. We are challenged to a discipline of prayer and personal devotion.  Meaning is about our relationship to ourselves. We remember that we are children of God and our life has purpose and direction. We make mistakes, are offered forgiveness,  and keep trying.  Fellowship is about our relationship to others. We belong to an extended family and listen to and learn from one another. Practice is about our shared responsibility for the world. We believe Christians are to work and pray diligently for God’s love and peace, joining in God’s mission in the world.

Church is where faith becomes real and concrete. Here we stand before God, offering praise and honor.  Here we struggle to learn, to grow, and to deepen our understanding.  Here we experience a community of faith, love, and support. Here we are challenged and encouraged to act on our faith through service. And here, we are committed to each other, through something we call “covenant.” Covenant means an ‘agreement, commitment, or promise.’ Covenants should not be undertaken lightly nor should they be easily broken. In a church system such as ours, where there is no external bishop or denominational head telling us what to do, where we make our own decisions together, based on God’s guidance, it is imperative that we honor the commitment we have made to one another resisting the temptations to do otherwise.

The temptations we face in church are similar to the temptations Jesus faced long ago. As was shared with the children, Jesus faced the temptation to be selfish, to be a show-off, and to be bossy. In church, we can be tempted to be selfish. To worry about our own needs first, or to advance our own agenda without remembering God calls us to put others first. In church, we can be tempted to be a show-off, lauding ourselves as great people or trying to assert our own spiritual superiority. Without remembering that God gives grace to the humble. In church, we can be tempted to be bossy,  which can perhaps be the greatest temptation in a church with our type of governing structure.

Our church practices a form of church governance known as congregationalism, meaning we decide things collaboratively, based on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. When persons seek to assert their own authority over the collaborative will of the church and the congregationally appointed leadership of the pastor, problems can arise. We must remember that Jesus said those who seek to be a leader must first be a servant.  When we join a church in membership, we make a commitment to each other and to the church—something we call a covenant—to resist these temptations and remember that we’re all in this together.

Think of it this way. Imagine we’re a bunch of school kids playing a game of football or basketball. Someone brings the ball, others might bring some boundary markers, another might have the hoop, and so on. If the kid who brought the ball gets mad and takes their ball home, the game is over.We can’t succeed as a church without the commitment of each of us to resist temptations and without the promise to work out our differences when they arrive. That’s why we covenant or commit to one another and to this church.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:19-22: “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” We’re all in this together. We’re committed to one another and to this church. That’s why church membership matters,

Jesus and the genre of fantasy

Matthew 17:1-9

Have you ever found yourself watching a movie that had already started, perhaps after changing the channel, or coming over to a friend’s house, without knowing anything about the movie—oblivious to what was happening, what kind of movie it was, or who were the important players? I’m reminded of a time when I was in college and my buddies where watching the movie Signs, the 2002 American science fiction thriller starring Mel Gibson.  I came into the dorm room right at the most dramatic part of the movie, where the alien is trying to poison the son with a deadly toxin. Having not seen the beginning of the movie—nor understanding whatsoever who was what or what was happening—I said to my roommate who was watching at the time, “Is the alien trying to heal the boy?” He wanted to smack me right then and there.

If you’ve ever seen Signs, you know that the alien is most certainly not trying to heal the boy and was in fact trying to kill the boy, but because of an asthma attack, the boy is unable to breathe in the toxic vapors and is saved from death.  Having also seen the entire movie, you probably realized that the movie was about far more than just aliens seeking to invade earth—rather it was about the deeper meaning and significance of the little things in life that are often too easily dismissed as irrelevant. I guess you could say it’s about keeping the faith. And one review I read online recently suggested the role of faith and religion in the movie has actually been overlooked, for the reviewer suggests that the extraterrestrial beings are actually demons and therefore the battle is not against otherworldly aliens but actually against the forces of evil which seek to destroy us; Reddy’s guilt from the tragic accident, Graham’s grief and sadness from losing his wife, Graham’s loss of purpose after abandoning being a pastor, and so on.[1] Instead, the film seeks to show through seemingly random events that God exists and life does have a purpose. Bo’s habit of leaving water everywhere (water that the reviewer suggests is “holy water”), brother Merrill’s bat which is readily accessible, Graham’s memory of being told by his wife to “see” and to tell Merrill to “swing away.”

Signs is a science fiction or perhaps fantasy movie—and a common tactic of science fiction or fantasy movies is to utilize the fantastical story to convey a complicated or controversial idea. For instance, the Star Trek franchise “used social commentary filtered through the lens of science fiction to protest inequality, war, and racism. It did so while airing during both the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights Movement.”[2] The genre of science fiction or fantasy provides a vehicle by which to convey a challenging or controversial message which might otherwise be ignored or misunderstood. The genre of science fiction or fantasy utilizes three key elements to keep the viewer or the reader engaged; fear or curiosity, sustained suspense, and fantastical universe. First, there is a fear or curiosity pervading the story. In Signs, the fear or curiosity is obvious, it is the aliens. The viewer wonders, what are they? Why are they here? Do they mean us any harm? The building suspense is also quite obvious, we as the movie watchers are in the same passive role as the characters, watching the news reports, seeing the crop circles, and hearing the rumors—the story is carried along. Third, there is the fantastical universe—and any world in which there are extraterrestrial beings walking around in plain sight, whether alien or demon—I would classify such a world as fantastical.

The more one understands the genre or category of a book or movie, the more one appreciates the artistry and storytelling within. In that same way, if one does not understand the genre or category of a book or movie, one can be completely confused—much as I was upon first seeing the ending of the movie Signs without knowing what I was watching. This same thing can happen to us when reading the Bible. We can often be confused by what we are reading because we don’t understand the genre or category of the type of writing which we are reading. Often the Bible is understood much in the same way we read a newspaper—as a play by play account of events that happened, recorded much like a journalist or reporter retells the details of an event that took place. The problem is that this isn’t how the Bible—and especially the gospels, or the stories or Jesus—where written. For instance, the story from which we read today comes from the book of Matthew, which was written most scholars think some 50 to 60 years after the time of Jesus.[3] Matthew wasn’t providing a play-by-play of the events of Jesus life, he was telling the story of who Jesus was, and he utilized different genres or styles of writing to convey the story. Even, as one commentator suggests,[4] the genre of science fiction or fantasy like in the movie Signs.

Again, there are three key parts of a science fiction or fantasy story; fear or curiosity, maintaining of suspense, and a fantastical universe. All three of these elements are found within our Transfiguration story today. The fear and curiosity is the most obvious, Peter and the disciples are in wonder at the sight of Jesus being transformed and at the appearance of Moses and Elijah, wondering if they should build special memorials for them. The fear is on display when they fall to the ground at the sound of the voice of God.  Then there is the maintaining of suspense of the story. In chapter 16 Jesus had just told the disciples that he would die and rise again, but they doubted. What better way is there to convince the disciples then to appear with two people who were both presumed dead? Finally, there is the fantastical universe. Any world in which dead people are seen alive and the voice of God is heard from heaven is a world I would comfortably classify as fantastical.

Perhaps at this point you might be saying to yourself, “what exactly are you saying here, Loren?” You might be wondering, “Are you saying this didn’t really happen?” or “This story isn’t literally true?” What I’m saying, is that isn’t the point Matthew was trying to make. Much as we didn’t wonder “I wonder if water really burns aliens?” “would aliens really make crop circles?” or “when will the aliens come for us,” when watching Signs, we’ve missed the point of the story if we get stuck in wondering what exactly happened up on that mountain. Matthew was using a story, of which we can debate its historical factuality, to convey a much deeper truth about the person, work, and words of Jesus, and why we the reader, should follow him in discipleship.[5]

First, the transfiguration story tells a deeper truth about who Jesus is, namely, that he was not just another exceptional human being, prophet, or great teacher and example for all, but the decisive representation of the divine, the source and judge of life.[6] The story also explains why, these “untutored, down-to-earth men and women who left everything and followed…because, for all his obvious humanity, something radiated from him that spoke of ineffable and eternal truth.”[7] This powerful story explains that Jesus is more than just a mere mortal and that there is something to him which is irresistible. Matthew’s point is that in Jesus, we see God embodied in human flesh, and therefore someone to whom we must give our allegiance.

The second truth Matthew wanted to convey was what he was doing, the mission of Jesus. Despite the incomprehensibility of his character, despite the greatness of his person, Jesus did not live simply to be worshipped, Jesus was here for a greater purpose—a life of self-denial and service to others, so powerfully described at the end of chapter 16—that same purpose to which he was calling his disciples to follow. We the reader are included in that invitation, not simply to worship Jesus and stay on the mountain, but to follow him back down the mountain, healing the sick, caring for the needy, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  Not only is Jesus someone worth paying attention to, Jesus is the one we must follow.

The third truth we see is that we must listen and obey Jesus. And I think this is the hardest one. Perhaps there was some unwillingness in the minds of the disciples or those to whom Matthew first wrote. Yeah, Jesus was clearly someone special, and by that nature he was someone worth following and paying attention to, but listening to and obeying his words—well that’s a whole other story! The disciples are told by God, lest there be any doubt what really matters, “Listen to him!” There are many in our world who appreciate Jesus, people who seem him as a significant figure in human history in the likes of the Buddha, or Muhammed, or Abraham, yet do not care to listen to and obey his teachings. There are many in our world who are willing to follow after him, even declare themselves a Christian, yet do not care to listen to and obey his words. But we are being invited not simply to recognize Jesus’ singularity, nor simply follow his allure, but to listen to and obey his words—which is the hardest commitment of all.

Because let’s face it, Jesus said some hard words, which are even harder to follow.

Jesus said to love our enemies as well as our neighbors.

Jesus said to forgive those who have desperately wronged us.

Jesus told us to give our financial resources to those in need.

Jesus told us to care for the sick.

Jesus told us to humble ourselves.

Jesus told us to serve others before ourselves.

These are all very hard things to do, but they are ultimately worth doing in the end.  And I think that’s the biggest point that Matthew wanted us to understand. At least three times in Matthew’s story, Jesus is predicting his death and resurrection, three times he was telling the disciples to prepare themselves for the event as well. This interlude was I think a way for them and us to understand that following Jesus is worth it in the end. And I think that’s the biggest message for us to take with us as we begin our journey through the season of Lent, as we prepare ourselves for the crucifixion of Jesus, as we commit ourselves to following in the way of the cross. It’s worth it in the end. The way which we are invited to follow is long and narrow and along the way there are often tests and trials, but it is the way that leads us to life beyond description and meaning beyond even our wildest imagination. This is the way we are invited to follow. As we enter this season of Lent, let us take up our cross and follow.

 

[1] Stephen M. Klugewicz, “Aliens . . . or Demons? Reinterpreting ‘Signs,’” <http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/10/aliens-demons-m-night-shyamalan-signs.html> (accessed February 24, 2017).

[2] Rod T. Faulkner, “Why Progressive Science Fiction & Fantasy Is A Powerful Protest Statement Against Injustice,”

<https://medium.com/@RodFaulkner/why-progressive-science-fiction-fantasy-is-a-powerful-protest-statement-against-injustice-eed6dd485812#.qf60e2opu> (accessed February 24, 2017).

[3] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder and Dennis E. Smith, “A Jewish-Christian Gospel: the Gospel of Matthew,” in Chalice Introduction to the New Testament, ed. Dennis E. Smith (St. Louis, Chalice Press: 2004), 152.

[4] Kim, H C. (Heerak Christian). 2007. “Placing Matthew 17:1-13 in the genre of the fantastic.” Communio Viatorum 49, no. 1: 19-30. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2017).

[5] Penner, James A. 1995. “Revelation and Discipleship in Matthew’s Transfiguration Account.” Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 606: 201-210. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2017).

[6] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective: Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 456.

[7] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective: Matthew 17:1-9” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 454.

Only love drives out hate

Matthew 5:38-48

When I was a child, my family moved from New York City to Littleton, CO  where my grandparents lived. The six of us moved in with them into their very modest sized home. My “bedroom,” and I use the term very loosely, was basically a closet with a sheet draped across the opening, barely big enough to fit a kid-sized mattress. My dad got a job working hospital security, similar to what he had done as a bi-vocational pastor in NYC, and my mom as a teacher at a small Christian school in Thornton, just across the highway from the old North Valley Mall at what was then Mountain States Baptist Church.  My sisters and I attended elementary school downstairs and my mom taught the high-schoolers upstairs.

Experts say change is hard on children, and I think this was certainly true of my sisters and me. Our world had turned upside down, losing the familiarity of home, school, friends, and even family as we moved 3,000 miles across the country. We still joke to this day about selling our toys at the garage sale in New York City to raise funds to pay for our move.  With all this change, we had a hard time adjusting to our new surroundings—especially school—where children can often be the worst at ostracizing someone new or different or unsure of themselves. It certainly didn’t help that the school was in disarray, I had three different teachers my 4th grade year and the church closed down the school after that year. The situation was ripe for bullying, and my sisters and I were prime targets.

One situation stands out in particular for me. Out at recess on a small playground, I was riding on the merry-go-round, when for whatever reason—most likely simply because they were bullies—a group of kids decided they didn’t want me on there anymore, and demanded I get off immediately. I refuse. Being that they were bullies, they weren’t satisfied with that response. They began spinning the merry-go-round faster and faster, hoping I would tire out of the spinning and leave. I staid seated. Undeterred, they chose a more aggressive approach, trying to physically pull me off. Again, this is where I wonder where the teachers were, but alas. I tightened my grip, the merry-go-round began spinning, and they began to pull. I held on for dear life as my body was being yanked and pulled, my head spinning as the merry-go-round continued to circle, until my strength eventually elapsed. As I was pulled off, I somehow fell underneath onto my stomach, and the bolts underneath the platform ground into my back as the structure came to a stop.

I got up, dusted myself off, and when recess ended, finished the school day. When we got home I told my mom what had happened, she looked and saw what looked like giant claw marks running the length of my back. She was understandably horrified, and immediately called a school administrator. To my memory no punishment really came about for the kids who had been my tormentors—and my mom was really in no position of power to demand anything different. She was a school employee who needed the job—causing a ruckus wouldn’t have done her or her family much good. That year of school does not bring back fond memories.

Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power, which distinguishes bullying from conflict.  Children and young adults exploit their physical or social advantages to bully others less privileged. Bullying doesn’t end with adolescence, as adults often practice bullying, most often in the workplace, in an attempt to minimize or delegitimize another person or co-worker. Bullying, is ultimately about de-humanizing another person, it is an attempt to marginalize, demote, and diminish another human being as unworthy of ethical treatment or behavior, essentially treating them as less than human.

Throughout history, there has been two basic responses to bullying—fight or flight. To battle back against the abuser or to run and flee. Countless parents have told their child to either fight back and teach the bully a lesson, or just run away when a bully comes near. I doubt any parent has ever told their child to just stand there and take a beating—yet oddly enough, this is exactly what Jesus seems to be telling us in this text from Matthew today. Do not resist an evil person, turn the other cheek if someone strikes you, give away your shirt if someone takes your coat, walk two miles if someone forces you to walk one, love and pray for your enemies. A simple reading of these texts seems to tell us that we’re supposed to just stand there with an affectionate smile, praying for the bully as they pummel us into the ground. Countless women have been counseled to stay in abusive relationships and “turn the other cheek” as if that was the godly thing to do. It isn’t.

Jesus spoke these words to people who were constantly being bullied—bullied by the Romans, bullied by the religious and legal elite, bullied by the rich. Jesus was not, as has so often been taught, telling them just to stand there and take the abuse again and again. Scholars suggest that based on the original Greek,[1] a better translation would be “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”[2]  Not only does this make a lot more sense, it also fits with the instruction found repeatedly in the New Testament to “not repay evil for evil.”[3] Jesus was trying to teach his followers a different alternative from fight or flight, what scholar Walter Wink calls “The Third Way,” that of non-violent resistance.

As I explained briefly in the children’s sermon, in ancient times, a superior would backhand slap their inferior to “put them in their place. By turning their cheek, the one being slapped would expose their left cheek for a closed fist punch. This wasn’t about accepting punishment so much as asserting one’s equality. Only equals fought with closed fists—turning the cheek forced the abuser to stop and for a moment consider the humanity of the person being abused. It was the same with the tunic and the cloak. In ancient times, a tunic was used as collateral for a loan, but by Jewish law had to be returned to the borrower at night so they could sleep warmly. Yet in the time of Jesus, the poor and destitute were often derived of even that basic right. Jesus said, fine, if they want your tunic, give them all your clothes and stand their naked. In ancient times, looking upon someone naked was considered shameful and thoroughly embarrassing. The final example of going the extra mile was in regard to the Roman soldiers, which often conscripted ordinary people to carry their heavy loads. One example of this is in the book of Mark where Simon of Cyrene is ordered to carry the cross of Jesus. There was however a military code that limited the forced labor to one mile, or else the Roman solder could face penalties. Jesus imagined a situation in which a Roman soldier comes up to a person, demands them carry their load for a mile, yet the citizen does not stop so the Roman soldier is forced to beg back the heavy load.

These actions would be about making the abuser uncomfortable with their actions, putting the soldier or creditor in situations which would be embarrassing or discomforting—which is why it is essential that love be at the root of the action. Actions which embarrass or discomfort, when done out of anger and hate, become the same dehumanizing bullying, accomplishing nothing. Jesus knew that anger would only produce more anger, hatred more hatred, and violence more violence. As Dr. King once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Jesus knew that only actions which were undergirded in love would be able to soften the heart of a bully. Only when we treat people with dignity and respect, treating them as equally as children of God and human beings loved by God, can we expect to elicit the same in return.

Political polarization is a huge problem in our nation right now, and I think it stems from the fact that we are all responding out of anger and sometimes downright hatred, slinging accusations at another rather than seeking to respond in love and concern, especially since the candidacy and election of our President. Burns, zings, “mike drops,” sharing our favorite angry political rants on social media… Folks on the Left throw out angry words such as “racist,” “homophobic,” and “xenophobe” in response to people with different perspectives on refugees, gay rights, and immigration, and folks on the Right sling back angry accusations that the Left hates whites, tramples on traditional family values, and does not care about the safety of our nation.  And we wonder why our country is so politically divided.  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” Dr. King wisely said.

How can find a middle ground? Jesus shows us the third way—love.  When we act out of love and concern for our “enemies,” we can recognize and validate our own feelings without feeling like ours are being insulted or diminished. A conversation grounded in love about divisive issues might sound something like this: “How can we keep our country safe from terrorism and still help those themselves fleeing violence?” or “As someone who would do whatever I could to provide for my family, I understand why people would come here by any means necessary to make money for their family, and I also understand the concerns of those whose jobs feel threatened by cheaper labor” or maybe “I don’t understand how you could love someone of the same sex in that way, but I know what a blessing marriage has been to my life, so I guess it makes sense why they would want the same thing for themselves.” It’s about love, love for the citizen and the refugee, for the resident and the immigrant, for the gay person and the straight person, for the liberal and the conservative. And if we’re not sure we can respond in this way, this is where prayer comes in. Because praying for someone else will most likely change our own heart,[1] creating a more loving, compassionate perspective toward each and every human being in our world.

This is the way Jesus asks us to follow, to continue to strive after being a better person, not to perfection as is commonly translated, but to completion—to be the person God has created us to be,[2] and responding in love and kindness where others seek to sow anger and discord.  Following this third way may not always be easy, but it is the way that leads to love and life.

 

[1] Walter Wink, “Jesus’ Third Way” from The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, Walter Wink, 1998.

[2] Funk, Robert Walter, and Roy W. Hoover. The five Gospels: the search for the authentic words of Jesus: new translation and commentary. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 145.

[3] Romans 12:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, 1 Peter 3:9.

[4] Melissa Bane Sevier, “Praying for Enemies,” <https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies/> (accessed February 17, 2017).

[5] David Lose, “Epiphany 7A: Telos,” DavidLose.net <http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-7-a-telos/> (accessed February 16, 2017).

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