Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who Are We Kidding? It's Not Someone Else's World, It's Ours


If only we could say we didn’t sin, the Lamb of God wouldn’t be nearly so busy. But we do. It’s been said that a preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But with all of the news of this past week, rarely have I wanted to get rid of that paper, and TV and internet so quickly as events in our world are spiraling.

Paul Raushenbush writes, ‘there’s a sense of despair and disbelief that the world can unravel this fast and anger at our (powerlessness).  But we are not powerless and this is not “happening to us.” We as the human race are doing this to ourselves. These are not natural disasters or “acts of God” – these events are just us, humans, having completely lost our humanity- warring, hurting and killing each other- intentionally or unintentionally, through direct assault or indifference or neglect.” We have forgotten that we belong to one another, we are connected, we are brother and sisters, and that we need each other.

He suggests its time to take back the power- in keeping with today’s reading – it’s time to turn up the light.

We hear in I John- This is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you- God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet keep on walking in the darkness we are lying and not practicing God’s truth.

But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light- we have fellowship with one another and with God, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.

If we say we have not sinned- we make a liar of God and his word is not in us. That’s pretty heavy.

Thanks be to God that we know that in spite of our failings our salvation is assured and our sin removed!

That’s not God’s only concern- Because we are part of God’s community, and what is happening in the world is our concern because it is God’s. And the news is not the sin of some other world, but ours.

 The opening line of the gospel last week spoke of the Word that created all things in the beginning. And then I John shifted the focus to the “Word of life” as the Christian message. This life finds its beginning in the incarnation- Jesus is God in a body. The point of the message is to create “koinonia” often translated as fellowship. But it’s more. My Greek professor in seminary said it is a “Participatory partnership.” The word God speaks is an embodied love. That love and mercy are shown through us- our speech, and action and presence.

That is authentic faith and authentic community. And that means that what happens around us is not some other person’s world, but ours. And we are saved to participate in making known God’s work for the world. That Christ who died for our sins- died not only for our sins, but for the whole world, promising that darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

It’s too late to bring back the innocent lives lost in the Middle East but it’s not too late to get serious about real peace, and to stop the killing that is happening now. And shine the true light.

It’s too late to save the lives of those lost on that disastrous Malaysian Airlines flight- but we can insist that this is unacceptable and not let it be a springboard for further violence and hatred. Shine the true light.

It’s too late to spare the victims of death and destruction in Honduras and around the world who have lost their lives- but it is never too late to advocate for peace and to provide life for those children who long to be whole and not fractured. Shine the true light.

Because if we say we are in a participatory partnership with God, yet walk in darkness, we are lying and not doing the truth. There is a contradiction between saying we are partnered with God and God’s kingdom yet living in ways that contradict that relationship. We’re kidding ourselves. There’s a contradiction between saying we love God but conveying a lack of love by what we say and do. We can say we care, but what do we do to embody that love and participate in that partnership?

It’s hard to know exactly what to do in these times, but we need to continue to insist upon the possibility of peace and light, starting with our own hearts. We can give to the ELCA earmarked for the church in the Holy Land to keep those schools I read about in Bishop Eaton’s letter-open. And we can pray.

You already heard the letter of our Bishop in response to the escalation of conflict and bloodshed in the Middle East. It might seem too big or far away but we can pray for peace and wellbeing for Israelis and Palestinians and to refuse to accept that war is inevitable or hate is natural. We could pray for God to empower us for peace. We can pray that while we are indignant at the loss of life that we not be swept into a rage calling for revenge. And since I’ve said it several times now that we could pray, let’s take a moment and do that… Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We continue to watch with horror at events in the Ukraine. At the beginning of Lent, our Bishop wrote that she “watched with dismay, along with the rest of the world, as tensions rise and peace is jeopardized in Ukraine. Recent dangerous developments in the Crimean region of the country put the lives of many innocent people at risk, and threaten peace and security far beyond that region of the world.” Now we see more.  We could pray for all of those involved -- whether governments, movements or individuals -- to repent of aggression and violence, and turn instead to the way of peace through dialogue. That wisdom, peace and justice to prevail. And pray for those who are grieving losses because of this aggression.  And we can pray for the world’s church leaders including the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches.  So let’s take another moment of silence and pray…Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

This past week Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas Louisiana Synod and others traveled to Texas to the border to learn what’s going on in the surge of unaccompanied minor children. Bishop Rinehart shared that the misinformation about unaccompanied minors is staggering. News of the surge of 60,000 unaccompanied minors since last fall makes people think that border crossings are up. In fact border crossings are down, way down. Border crossings in the 80s and 90s were over 1.5 million. Now only 420,000. So what’s going on?

Violence in Central America is on the rise. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. Jennifer K. Harbury is an attorney in Texas. She’s a first generation Jew, the daughter of a man who came to the US to rebuild a shattered life. Fortunately, her father’s boat was not turned away like the SS St. Louis, when European Jews were seeking asylum in the US. After the Holocaust, the US promised, never again will we turn away asylum seekers. If we send these children home we send them to die.

Harbury housed a refugee from Honduras. At 13, the gangs told this refugee he had to join or be murdered. He refused and they beat him nearly to death. A year later they came back again with the same demand. After refusing they ran him over with a car. His mother gave him $30 and told him to go north. Hitchhiking on trains he made it to Mexico, where he was kidnapped and held for ransom. Escaping, he crossed the river and was picked up by US Border Patrol. He was treated poorly in a harsh detention facility until the local sherriff stepped in. In time he was settled with a foster family, but after a month he was picked up by immigration. Harbury now meets him through a glass window in jail, fighting to bring him home. When the issues are in real live flesh before us- it brings the truth home.

Rhinehart writes, “Look into their eyes. These are not cartels smuggling drugs across the border. These are children seeking asylum. They’ve been battered and mistreated. Who, with a heart, could deny them protection? The Gospels tell us that Jesus was once a refugee, who crossed the border into Egypt fleeing for life under the threat of violence by Herod. Jesus welcomed children into his arms when the disciples wanted to turn them away, saying, “What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” And told stories like the Good Samaritan, in which a victim is shown kindness by a stranger. Fear teaches us the lie of seeing others as enemies. Love in Christ shows the truth and teaches us to embrace strangers, even enemies.

The good news is that churches are partnering through Catholic Charities, Baptist churches, Lutheran Social Services and people who seem to understand the problem better than the mainstream media.

Unaccompanied minors journey a week to 2 1/2 months. Some were mistreated on this trip. Once they present themselves, border patrol has 72 hours to process them. If possible they are repatriated. If not, border patrol gets them into a transitional facility, like the one operated by Lutheran Social Services. Thank God for our church’s response. This surge has overtaxed facilities, but Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is currently helping connect close to 100 generous families every day to programs around the country who are seeking loving placements for the children and youth they serve.

Some people suggest that these children are running drugs. Border patrol told us this is not the case. Drugs are being run by Mexican cartels, not from children seeking asylum from Central America. These children are not running from border patrol. They are running to border patrol and presenting themselves as refugees and asylum-seekers wondering if there room in the inn? I believe so.

This is a challenge now caused by an escalation of violence and poverty in Central America. And hopefully funds will be made available. But what can we do?  We can learn, we can advocate, we can give to Lutheran Disaster Response.

And we can pray- for the children, for their families, for the border patrol, for the communities affected here and in Central America, for our government, and for compassion in our hearts. We could pray that while the throng of children trying to come here is overwhelming that we might be guided by God’s love to see this as a humanitarian concern. That as we have before we have offered a haven to those fleeing darkness and fear and ask God to help us set aside our own fears and bring peace and empower us to live out the gospel.

Let us take a moment now…Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We’re called to tending and mending of relationships. It starts with being honest about damage that’s been done while saying that what has happened does not determine the future. A future that has been blocked by something that has damaged a relationship can be opened up by the word that offers release and a new relationship.

This is what God in Christ offers us- this is the true light for the darkness of our world. This is the word that breaks the pattern.

God knows real people will not always act this way- no matter how truthful the gospel is, we are all capable of kidding ourselves, capable of believing nothing new is possible, so why start. But Jesus didn’t die for us to continuing living the world’s lies. Easter is God’s refusal to leave the world in a lurch. This is the message we hear and can embody- that God promises to reclaim us and everyone else. Our prayers matter, our voices matter, our resources matter.

Let us pray- Lord, empower us to be faithful in embodying your love and your word for the sake of your world. Amen

 
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This week, I am indebted to Bishop Mike Rinehart's reflection upon time at the border, as well as the fine work of Working Preacher and Rev. Dr. Rick Carlson for his translation of "koinonia"

 

 

 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon from "Racism and the Legal System" and Holy Trinity, Lancaster, PA


Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ from my family, myself and my congregation, Holy Spirit, in the city of Reading. I am grateful for your hospitality and Pastor Mentzer’s gracious invitation to preach in this place, especially to be a part of speaking about the racism, and bias, in the legal system while also holding up the call of the gospel.

I serve in a city with a population with 65% Latino ethnicity, as well as a significant African American community, along with Caribbean Africans, and many multi ethnic people. Many kids and families are served by the Doves Nest, our afterschool program for as many as 80 kids three days a week each school year. Crafts, music, fitness, games and food. But most importantly, education. Education, I believe is the key to life.  All our kids fall below the poverty line, and 90% are people of color. Yet I have a hard time using those labels because to me they are just my neighbors.

But I’m not perfect in that, none of us are. Nor are the systems we create, and I sadly see firsthand the effects of racism and bias as I have worked with offenders and victims. There are immediate and broader victims in a society where insecurity runs high. The effect on our kids and families starts long before adulthood and lasts in ways that are profound. The neighborhood is also a vibrant historic district with many young couples moving in and renovating old Victorian houses, and events like garden tours take place. But there can be such a stark contrast between the world some of my neighbors and I live in, and the world many of my neighbors confront as a part of their normal.  

Lately, at the recommendation of the young adults in my house, I’ve been watching the series on Netflix called “Orange is the New Black.” It’s the story of Piper Chapman, a mid-30’s white WASP-y sort from New York whose life goal is to get upscale stores to sell her handmade soaps. But her past catches up and she’s arrested for once being the money runner for her drug cartel girlfriend.

She ends up in prison much to the shock and dismay of her fiancé, Larry. The series is based upon the 2010 memoir of a woman whose life the series chronicles across a 15 month stay in a federal minimum security prison where she discovers 2/3 of the population are African American or Latina, and where the inmates all look at her like someone who truly is befuddled by a world that has become their normal. Some are serving longer sentences for similar or lesser crimes, and their lives keep them stuck behind ever slamming doors.

One of them is a prisoner named Tasha Jefferson. Her nickname is “Taystee.” She becomes eligible for parole. Taystee is bright and funny and works as a prison librarian. On the day of her parole she’s hustled early in the morning out of the prison. The staff give her little time to say goodbye, shouting, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go!” But she gets to the open door and it’s like a dream.

It’s how I imagine the last part of our passage from Isaiah- you walk out of the door first thing in the morning and you’re immediately greeted by all of nature bursting into song, and the trees are clapping, almost grabbing you by the hand to say “Let’s Go!” There’s a whole world of life! She stops, closes her eyes and stretches out her arms and looks up with a smile and a deep joy as it seems like a whole new life really is possible. It’s like resurrection- leaving that prison as the door slams behind you. She’s going to get a job, and settle in and maybe go to school and be something!

But she gets to the apartment a friend arranged, and the friend is gone, and the other tenants don’t want her, and she struggles to find work, much less eat and pay fines and costs. And one by one the doors are slamming-this time in her face. She ends up shoplifting and back in prison. In prison she’s a librarian. Outside, she’s just another black woman with problems. And her consequences are, and always have been, graver than those of white girl, Piper. And it’s kind of predictable because the systems we have put in place to provide for health and welfare and orderly society though intended for good, are in some places, busted.

Those who feel this the most are the ones we call “minorities.” Yet where I live, clearly I am the minority.

Watching the show, I was reminded of my experiences as a young lawyer, like when 23 years ago, as a part time public defender, I was assigned a “simple” case-young man charged with possession of drugs with the intention of delivering to others- but for this young Latino, the circumstances of his arrest still shock me. He was a passenger in a car pulled over by police on a state highway in NW Lancaster County. Pulled over for driving BELOW the speed limit. Driving a little slow at dusk. Nothing else.

The officer testified that the reason he pulled the car over was there had been a bunch of robberies in the area. This slow driving car full of people looked suspicious because- they were Mexicans and “only white people live here. You can’t be too careful.” No traffic citations. They were all ordered out of the car, and since they might be dangerous, he did a pat down of all of them spread-eagled on the car. He found one marijuana joint- in my guy’s pocket. But since we have a war on drugs, he was charged with a higher offense. It took three months to get through the system that got him out of jail.

Don’t drive too fast, or too slow.

Last year, in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, a NY Times columnist who is African American lamented that he used to tell his sons not to run down the street because they might draw suspicion. But Trayvon was walking- “What do I tell my boys now?” Don’t run? Don’t walk?

African American women speak of feeling vulnerable and worried for the men in their lives. Angela Glover Blackwell noted, “I want to be in the world wishing them the best, but I know that if I stand for them, I am not safe.” Speak up? Be quiet?

It’s like so many slamming doors. And for people of non-Caucasian ethnicities and races, even just walking out the door is different.

Too often, our systems perceive them as dangerous, aggressive, people to be watched.

When we reach the point where too fast and too slow are both bad, too loud and too quiet might mean trouble, there is a loss of life. The sin of racism and bias have corrupted the very things we rely upon to provide life for all of us.

This past week a young African American high school student came looking for community service to work off 2 citations. The first was for fighting, and he owns that he made bad choices and wants to move in a different way. The second was for leaving school to attend his court hearing without the right paper. Stopped on the street, when perhaps another might not have been, while attending to what he needed to. And given a new citation for not having the paper. Having talked to him I know he wants to go to college and his favorite artist is Louie Armstrong. And I wonder whether doors will open for him, or slam shut.

So imagine after each set of statistics, another door slams.

Statistically, 1 in 17 white men face the likelihood of imprisonment. For blacks 1 in 3 and Latinos 1-6.

The “War on Drugs” has sentenced many- 2/3 are persons of color according to the Sentencing Project.

While heroin is a drug with white victims and a problem to be solved, crack is a drug violation by blacks and Latinos.  

While 17% of the population are African American youth, 31% of arrested youth are African American and a slightly lower but growing number are Latino.

As troubling as statistics are among males, among women the statistics are just as skewed.

In 2010, of the 500,000 placed young women, 67% were African American or Latina. And often girls are placed for offenses of lower levels than boys, so called Status offenses, such as loitering, curfew violation, disorderly conduct. Young women have fewer rehabilitative resources and are more likely to be re-arrested for running away or truancy, things for whom adults would not even be charged, and with no one asking why they run.

In our education system, 32-40% of suspensions and expulsions, 27% of all law enforcement referrals and 31% of all school based arrests, involve black students. And so, the very education promised to kids evades them. Out of school suspensions under Zero Tolerance policies shunt kids off the path to well-being and into for-pay corporate run Alternative Schools. And later into corporate run prisons- mass incarceration is big money in this country.

For those who needing residential placement for behavioral juvenile offenses, local kids are sent far away rather than treated close by. Not because of risk, but insurance. Place a youth 5 hours from family and the ability of the family to help with any plan, or successfully reintegrate suffers dramatically.

The goal of protecting children has pushed many away, out of schools, and support systems into what is now commonly known as the “School to Prison pipeline.” This pattern fails to provide vocation or real support. With limited mental health assistance and a 50% decline in federal funding of juvenile facilities in the last 10 years, the doors just keep slamming.

But perhaps the most chilling statistic is that of the out of school suspension rate for preschoolers. Yes, preschoolers. Almost half of all out of school suspensions for pre-K and Kindergarten were black students. For infractions as small as wearing the wrong socks. Students of color are suspended or expelled at a rate 3 times higher than their peers.

The later in life costs are profound- 49% of all black men enter the job market with a record and 44% of Latinos. Yet 60% of youth detained are there for offenses not deemed a threat to society.

And while the rates of offending are higher for people of color, so are the rates of victimization. And yet, it often to fails to make the news- with people saying that crimes where they are victims are just “between them.” There is a shockingly disparate treatment of victims, where often it feels that the victim is on trial. Remember we don’t call it the George Zimmerman case, but the Trayvon case. Last year, two blocks from my house, a teenage boy had his throat slit as he was on the way to play basketball at the playground. His death barely made the newspaper, being overwhelmed by some big news about Taylor Swift who’s originally from the Reading area. A 14 year old bled out on the street and died, and it took days for any information about his family or situation to even surface. And initial comments ranged from whether it involved drugs, or the fact he was Latino must mean he was in a gang. A JROTC student with a good academic record on his way to teach kids basketball, murdered by a man who got away was hardly of note. In a place where some people used to call our afterschool program “Future Felons of America.” Victims are victimized.

And often notices of important stages in cases are communicated to victims of color at a substantially lower percentage-from hearing dates, and plea bargains to release dates. There are so many slamming doors- including ones people feel they need to hide behind. How desolate. And if you do get out from behind them- you find- Schools don’t want you, employers don’t either, and you just don’t fit. No wonder the rates for re-offending or self help is so high.

Years ago I was taught not to hammer people so hard with the law they are too tired to hear the gospel. But today maybe we should feel that tiredness others feel. The system is broken in profound places. And I wonder in the year just past the 50th Anniversary of that great “I Have A Dream” speech- if we have a dream as God’s people, where do we find it?

The gospel breaks in to open the doors that racism and bias slam.

Eugene Peterson’s translation of Romans in the Message Bible is masterful. “With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, those who enter into Christ’s “being here for us” no longer have to live under a continuous low lying dark cloud. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing us from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. In Jesus, God personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity- in order to set it right once and for all.”

“The law code, weakened as it always was, by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law has always ended up being used as a Band Aid on sin instead of the deep healing of it…And now what the law asked for but couldn’t deliver is accomplished- as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.” Instead of redoubling our efforts. More prisons and more regulations are not the answer.

Simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in you.

In the face of slamming doors you here at Trinity, have already embraced the Spirit with your mission to Break Down Barriers and Build Community- your commitment to criminal justice system participants, the homeless, and to schools is already established and provides the gospel in the lives of so many. You already stand with our sisters and brothers in the African American community in scholarships, assistance at Crispus Attucks and Arbor Mix and honoring the legacy of Dr. King.  You provide positive outlets through Shop with a Cop, and the Bike repair ministry. Doors are being  opened-Thanks be to God!

But yet… I dare to come to open another door-for you to ponder with the Spirit. To begin to address the effects of zero tolerance and the school to prison pipeline before the doors are all slammed shut for students of color. It’s called Youth Court and is a part of an initiative of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Project PEACE. Youth Court is a student run alternative to the juvenile justice and school disciplinary process. Students are trained by lawyers and professionals to perform all court functions (judge, bailiff, jurors, etc.).  Positive peer pressure helps offenders reflect on their behavior, recognize that actions have consequences, and accept responsibility, and to gain skills to cope with their environment.  Without these resources, and the openness to other ways of interacting, students fall behind, and schools and courts become trapped in a wilderness cycle. Across the state many places have begun and seen the promise fulfilled of another path.

Youth court participation improves life outcomes for these youth and helps educate the next generation of social justice leaders. Participants report its transformative impact in ways they will use the rest of their lives. One student profiled credits his encounter with youth court as being pivotal in changing direction and achieving a 3.9 average.

Offenders get to tell their story to their peers and view youth courts as more fair. They experience restorative justice, and instead of being suspended they stay in school, and are less likely to re-offend.[1]  They become engaged and empowered and many former offenders become leaders. They all gain knowledge and a positive attitude towards the legal system and themselves. They see the value of collaborating to restore community and in being vulnerable to the life and experience of each other.

What a wonderful alternative! For the sake of the gospel I encourage you to support efforts to engage this resource here in Lancaster. It’s not only an opportunity, but I believe it is a moral imperative of the gospel.

 

Just imagine those doors opening! And the cheering and rejoicing as what seemed like hopeless wilderness is reborn. And the best part is that it’s not just wilderness reborn for an offender- but for all of us. We are all in the wilderness in need of restoring our vision and living.  

Where we stop seeing labels and start seeing people, and continue to work as those with the Spirit of Christ we blow open the doors of the kingdom for all God’s children.

And we can cease laboring under systems that fail to bring life. We can stop reaching for Band Aids and start the deep healing process.

And you know, we might have to work harder to pull open some doors than others, but we actually get a great job as God’s people-being door openers.  We get to be God’s door openers- being those who work with and then who cheer on the ones whose wilderness and desolation can end when we work together in Christ.

We get to open the door to resurrection!

Eugene Peterson writes-“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike question, ‘What’s next, Papa?’”

May you embrace that Spirit and keep being God’s door openers!

 




[1] (Urban Institute, 2002; Hamilton Fish, 2008)
Other resources include Pennsylvania Bar Association resources, Tufts University, La Raza, Bill Moyers, ALCU, NAACP. Links to Youth Court can be found through www.pabar.org

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Missing the Blessing


Today as we began worship, I had one of the kids hand out glow sticks, but only to one side of the worship space. I told him to make sure everyone on the one side had glowsticks and then to sit down with the bag until later. As we were finishing our series on the 10 Commandments today, today was the day to focus on the two coveting commandments. So after the reading from Exodus 20, and then a reminder of the dialogue between Jesus and the expert in the law, I asked if everyone on the one side had a glowstick and handed out one to the person who still needed one. I reminded the congregation of my personal love of glowsticks, and asked if anyone on the side without glowsticks liked them too, and a few people raised their hands. One person wondered aloud why they had not also been given glowsticks. So I asked what they would be willing to do for a glowstick. That’s what coveting is about. Someone has something and we want it, and we set out to figure out how to get it. Specifically how to get theirs. Whenever we do this we upset people’s lives.

It all starts with a look and deciding to act. And usually it involves bigger things than glowsticks. But whenever we try to get the things others have or change relationships, we cause hurt and damage. And it usually leads to those bigger commandments. And we stop trusting in God to provide for us.

Of course we also remembered we are to share and later we did handout glowsticks to the others because Jesus calls us to love and to share.

So then we were ready to move on to the rest of the sermon, but as a way of background, last Monday, a gentleman who worshipped with us week in and week out, died suddenly and unexpectedly of cardiac arrest. He was a quiet man who sat alone each week. A few years ago he had lost his voice in a bout with throat cancer but was able to communicate with an adaptive device. Having met his family for the funeral I learned there was so much more to this man than I knew, and I felt the sting of not knowing more in my three years as pastor. And I was surprised how little anyone else knew as well. I sat with that this week and wondered how God was speaking. And so today’s sermon was in part a moment to draw together as community and start a risky conversation, knowing everyone of us needed to. And for people to hear how a quiet man saw this place in ways he also never shared.

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Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of coveting is David and Bathsheba. Bathsheba was bathing on the roof, which I know seems odd now, but then it wasn’t. She was bathing on the roof and David caught a glimpse, and she was hot. It only took a look. From then on he just had to have her, and he made it his purpose. It led him to send her husband Uriah into battle to fight a fight he couldn’t win, which also means he sent a whole army into a fight they wouldn’t survive. And he had to because he and Bathsheba had already gotten together and she was pregnant. Today on Facebook, we’d say their relationship status was “It’s Complicated.” Massive destruction of relationships occurred involving killing and lying and stealing and adultery. But it all started with a look and a desire. To have something that wasn’t his.

Coveting itself isn’t about infidelity or theft- those are other commandments. But these two coveting commandments are given, according to Luther, to show us that it is a sin to desire or in any way aim at getting something of our neighbor’s- their spouse or their possessions. It’s about relationships.

Yesterday I conducted a funeral for Art and as a part of it got to meet his wife Elizabeth and his family. And you might wonder what on earth that has to do with coveting. Well, Art had been a member here at Holy Spirit since he was a child dropped off at the Childrens’ Home nearby. And as many of you know it was the practice of the late great Pastor Radcliffe to bring children from there to here so they could have a church home. They were adopted if you will into this church family. So much so that when Pastor Radcliffe retired and later died, it was like losing a Dad for those people. Art was 79 and had been worshipping here for about 70 years. He say over there in the last row, and was usually about the first one here. Week after week.

Elizabeth has been a lifelong Catholic. And the family was raised in the Catholic church. So many of the life milestones happened there. But over the years, Elizabeth shared with me that she and Art came to agree that though they worshipped in different places, God would give them the strength to respect each other’s faith. The most important thing was being active in their faith and church. And frankly I think that there were times when as a spouse she would have had a right to say the family ought to all be together. And maybe even times they did try to influence the other. But she recognized the role this church played in Art’s life, and that he was only really going to be a Lutheran, and that his being here strengthened him to be the husband and father he was. So she didn’t work at trying to get him to change. She saw that God’s family is bigger than we think.

That’s what these commandments get at. That even if by right you could obtain something, we shouldn’t alienate someone from it. And it was obvious that Art’s life was blessed by being here with all of you. But there is another aspect of this relationship that ought to be explored and I am going to risk discussing it.

In spite of the fact that Art was here for all these years, when I was announcing his death, it seemed that not many people really knew him or who he was. That most did not. And frankly I myself, as the pastor here for three years, had to ask why I knew so little. Yes, he was quiet, but still I wonder. And it makes me sad.

And I want to suggest a very subtle aspect of coveting that churches can fall into. When I first came here one of the things people wanted me to do as the new pastor was to get everyone back who left. And the truth is that some of them had found other churches. As much as I like you want the place to be filled, going after people who have other churches is coveting. And it was important to say that trying to lure them back would be wrong. We want this place full and sometimes we are very focused on wondering how to draw more people here. At the same time however, coveting skews our perspective. Because when we get so focused on the blessing we are so sure is somewhere out there, we lose sight of the blessings in our midst. That’s the consequence of coveting- missing the blessing.

And Art was a blessing. I have heard stories of how much he adored this place, and all of you. He kept coming year after year because of you. And the encounter with God in this place. Even if you never knew it. He talked about this place with love. I wonder how many of us knew?

Last Sunday none of us knew what Monday would bring but last Sunday I preached on loving the neighbors right in front of you. And during the sharing of the peace, I have heard several of you remark that Art made a point of shaking your hand, every hand, more than usual. Loving all of you.

And then we had anointing as we do on the last Sunday each month- for healing, forgiveness, wholeness. And Art has come to receive this before, but this past Sunday he was intentional, and stood ramrod straight before me so I could make that cross on his forehead. And he was obviously pleased- he smiled, there were tears in his eyes. He was overjoyed to be here.

And I think about the beauty of the Catholic faith where anointing is a sacrament. Last rites and anointing should be offered whenever possible. And I am struck by knowing that last Sunday, Art was blessed to be in this fellowship and at Christ’s table, and to receive that cross on his forehead, the same one made in baptism, one last time- like a bookend in his life. That cross that tells us we are adopted into God’s family, and that salvation is ours. What a blessing.

It reminds us who God is for us in Christ. And we’re freed, to live. Today I hope we can remember that we should never be so focused on looking elsewhere for the blessing we miss out on how God is blessing us right here. God’s celebration is better than we imagine. And if there is someone here you realize you really don’t know- reach out and ask. No one is going to tell you it’s too late. Don’t wait- let’s live into the blessing of God’s reality now.

As Long as You're Here- Love Your Neighbors


How many of you know what important world history anniversary took place yesterday? It may not be as important to us this side of the pond as it is across the Atlantic, but yesterday, June 28, 1914 marked the day that is considered to be the starting point of World War I-the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He and his wife Sophie were visiting Sarajevo in Serbia, to inspect the troops. A show of strength to the Serbians whose territory had recently become a part of the Empire. Franz Ferdinand was visiting on just about the worst day possible- June 28 was the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo- a major symbolic show of Serbian resistance, and a rallying point for freedom fighters. During the motorcade, one of several potential assassins that day tried to kill the Archduke with a bomb. It missed his car and hit another, killing one of the Archduke’s officers. Which might have been a moment to think about the whole event. But instead, it was decided to re-route the drive. But the driver hadn’t been given the new route. And while he was trying to put the car in reverse-Shots were fired and the world changed.

And it all could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.

And Lots of neighbors could have responded differently but because they didn’t, what we now know as history began a whole new chapter of life as we know it. Within 37 days, war had been declared by the major European players, and horror on a whole new scale unfolded.

I’d like to take a moment and look at a very broad overview of what happened and how all of the 10 Commandments came into play. Let’s see if we get them all in. Serbia was trying to engage in expansionism which is another way of saying- I want what you have- which I think fits the coveting of the stuff of others ( #10). Arguably the very nature of empire building of the Austro Hungarians means that words like annexation are just a cover for taking what is not yours- stealing. (#7) Once the Archduke was assassinated, and everyone was trying to posture, most people would have told you that assassinations were pretty typical- they didn’t lead to war, unless what you really wanted to do was fight. But Franz Ferdinand’s killing was a good excuse to kill others. (That is a whole lot of #5). And while we’re at it, let’s say that it was pretty universal that war was a god to some- the thing from which you most expect what you want and where you take refuge in distress.  Clearly for the leaders of the empires, but also ultimately for others. While there were socialist movements in most of the Europeans countries that were pretty vibrant, and while the workers could claim that workers of the world should unite, and while these movements threatened strike and claimed war was insane, in the end, they believed the claim that war was in the country’s best interest. (#1). And at least for Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm believed that God had predestined the Germans for greatness- assuming we know what God ordains. #2.

The French encouraged the Russians to be aggressive, probably exaggerating the truth about their neighbors, and rumors ran in every direction-#8. This could have been avoided except that the most peace oriented member of the French government had earlier been forced to resign because he was having an affair with a mistress that created public scandal- #6 and #9.

And in the midst of this Britain, scared, pretty much assumed the “not my problem” approach- not my neighbors.

I think I probably didn’t exactly fit in the 3rd or 4th commandments- but surely war took no Sabbath, and doing what seemed to be right, robbed a lot of people of the sons who should be tending the land- and who were no longer there to care for elders as almost an entire generation was lost. And it could have all turned out differently. But no one was thinking of their neighbors. They were thinking about themselves.

There are whole libraries full of deciding whose actions or inactions mattered most in World War I starting- but so many points of change passed by it’s easy to decide that it was too big to stop.

And sometimes I wonder when we so easily say we should love our neighbors, don’t we deep down think that God’s call to turn toward our neighbors in love is it just too big?

In our world that continues to spiral toward aggression and nation building globally, and in our nation and city facing profound challenges. As we approach the anniversary of a day celebrating OUR freedom, are we thinking about our neighbors?

That’s what God wants to know. And what the Commandments show.

One writer has suggested that the 10 Commandments show how a freed people can live. Freed from the powers of sin and the world. A new life, if not perfectly seen, is still possible. Some today suggest we don’t know what freedom really is or we don’t appreciate it. I agree. But I am not so convinced we ever did as humans. After all World War 1 was supposed to the “War to End All Wars.”

"Freedom is often seen I think as an end to itself. It means unlimited choices, keeping options open for one’s self." We can look in history, or ponder how others we know today have it all wrong, in the end, God is speaking to us here today and asking what we think it means to live free. The commandments are “words for life.” They show what a life of freedom looks like.

"It is not when the powerful take what they want- but when we all respect the property of others, and we do our best to help them take care of it and hold onto it. It is not when the strong dominate the weak, but when the bodies and lives of all are protected and their rights respected- the young, the elderly, the impoverished, the handicapped, everyone.

It is not the endless satisfaction of every impulse, but a commitment to living as loving and committed" community. Because there is more freedom in lives committed to each other than everyone for his or herself.

So I am not preaching about self improvement- but neighbor improvement. Because "the point of the commandments is not about you and your personal growth and freedom. It’s not about “your best life now” but “your neighbor’s best life now.”

And often it does seem like it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do, and we settle in to believing that it can’t turn out any differently- that the sin in our world condition is as tangled as the web of history I described earlier. Why try?

Because God says again today- "OK, it seems large, but while you’re here, love your neighbors."

God calls us to move from mistrust which leads to misery. To keep moving toward freedom. And peace. And it starts small.

Start with your neighbors- God loves them so much, God gave the law so we would know how to love them. Don’t kill, or steal, or destroy others’ relationships, don’t hurt with words, or spend your time burned up about what your neighbor has and whether it’s fair.

God loves our neighbors so much we are given the law. The first part helps us love God. The second part to love everyone who is not yourself.

Likewise God loves us so much, God gives our neighbors the law.

And yes, not everyone will love us.

None of us perfectly keep the law. But then God loves the whole world so much, God gave Christ- who reminds us of the gift and challenge it is to love, but assures us of God’s love for all of us.

We experience and reflect one aspect of this love in worship here. But most of the time, the place we spend most of our hours is where God is ready for us to experience and reflect love- with our neighbors. That’s where most of living out the law happens.

It really can all turn out differently- But we need each other. And instead of waiting for someone else to do what we want, or focusing upon who deserves our love, perhaps as ever the best place to start is loving people first. Love the people right in your midst who cross your path. While you're here, love them. You or I may not solve the whole world this way, but it’s a darn good place to start.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tuning In to God


Growing up in the 1970’s the now late great Casey Kasem was a regular part of my life. I could be found tuning in each week no matter what to American Top 40. And back in the day, as some of you know, it literally meant fussing with a dial on the radio, sometimes in the car, trying anything to hold on to that signal as Casey presided over counting down the hits. All those songs covered the emotions of my pre-adolescent life- new love, fresh breakups, parents who just don’t understand, the first days of summer, and more. And listening to the show you knew you were never alone- all those others were listening too, and you always had something to talk about- whether your song was #1, or how some poor soul had called in with a sappy long distance dedication to his long lost love as Casey cued up “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Week after week, at the end of it all we’d be reminded to “keep our feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

For a time I centered my whole life around being able to listen to that show. It was a “god” for me and I was totally tuned in.

Luther says that a “god” is the thing from which you expect all good and where you take refuge in distress. Preadolescent me called American Top 40 a “little g” god. I’ve moved on to others- and we all have our “little g’s.” A fact of which our creator is well aware- we’re not told to have no others gods- just no others that take first priority. That in order to have abundant life for all our goal should be to be tuned into our Creator first- to love God with all we’ve got.

And just like with that radio, it means working to tune out all those other things that bleed in and disrupt the signal of the song God is singing- that song of love and life that shapes the commandments we’re given.

This is not to say we should be hermits in a cave trying to exclude all of life. Rather to center ourselves on having balance so our “little g” gods don’t become the big G that takes over. To ask ourselves what controls our life and dictates our existence.

In the first three commandments or words for life, we hear that call to pay attention to what we allow to govern our lives, how we speak of God, and the importance of Sabbath time as all being crucial to being tuned into God.

When we work to center our lives around money, power, beauty, or anything else, it not only affects us individually, but those around us. Our living has a cost. When we resist saying “no” to ourselves we lose sight of God has the one who creates, redeems and empowers us.

But perhaps those concepts are well seen- whether we like it or not, we get the “other gods” thing.

What about how we use God’s name? I could speak of words I shouldn’t say here, or even how others put a lot of words into God’s mouth that are actually full of hate and take life. I’d like to lift up something else- how we speak God’s name to God.

God longs for us to call often, and to actually believe that invoking God’s name means forgiveness, or thanks and praise, deliverance, healing. God begins a relationship with us in baptism with a name and wants more than a long distance dedication.

Which brings me to Sabbath time. It’s a day. A day- to be tuned into God and God’s word- not an hour. And I know- I too am going out for lunch. But still this is a word for us. In Deuteronomy, Sabbath is about remembering what it was like in Egypt to never get a day off. That is a word for today. To recognize what no longer being slaves to that would mean for you, your kids, your workers, your animals- everyone deserves rest.

But in Exodus- we hear another piece. The story of God breaking into human existence. Redeeming people is not just about God being all powerful. It’s about God being related- to our lives- in all and with all.

Rolf Jacobsen speaks of Sabbath then being intended to show us regularly that God’s grace is breaking through. Not just once for the Israelites, or once in Jesus, or even just once a week for an hour. Regularly.

Worship is the ritual that reminds us of this. We are to here to be reminded not of usher lists or greeters or other things. We are here to be reminded that God’s grace is routine.

Grace breaking in is why I ask where we’ve seen God at work.

We have to rest sometimes to ponder that.

Sabbath reminds us that God’s law is for every day. Keeping Sabbath is keeping faith with the One who keeps faith with us. Worship is being a community centered in this Christ, and re-centering to tune in to God’s constant song- of forgiveness, and love, in praise and in mission.

Together.

And I wonder- what would happen if we all started telling all the other influences that try to bleed in, to stop interrupting our favorite song, and let God’s song be the one that gets stuck in our heads?

Again this day we’ve heard forgiveness, and we’re about to be fed as we sing of God in Christ who became more fully present in our world to show us God’s law of love.

And this is where I think Casey had it wrong-

We don’t have to keep trying to reach for the stars and hoping it works out- God’s already here and waiting for us to tune in.

AMEN

 

God's Words for Life


We began 4 weeks of sermon series using the Narrative Lectionary texts of Exodus 19:1-6 and 20:1-17 on the Sunday of Holy Trinity. Week one is an overview of the thrust of the Commandments, the week 2 is the 1st tablet of the Law and Week 3 is the 2nd before a summation. The Exodus passage is paired with the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is asked by the expert in the law what is the greatest commandment and Jesus responds with “love the Lord you God with all you heart, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself for upon these rest the law and the prophets-

 

When I was growing up, my father periodically had helpful advice for me. My Mom had LOTS of advice. But my Dad didn’t spend so much time in the explaining. His advice was often simpler and more straightforward. And if I summed it up in one phrase, it would be, “Take it from me, don’t do this the hard way.” Just Ten Simple Words. “take it from me don’t do this the hard way” was easy to remember, and easy to hear in the middle of whatever new opportunity for making decisions about how to live with integrity was before me. Or hopefully words to hear BEFORE ending up in some new chaos, or mess. Happy Father’s Day, Dad-I forgot to get a card.

Somehow those 10 words don’t have the same power.

My Dad’s ten simple words were also first and foremost about the speaker. His words assumed that I believed that my father loved me, had saved me before, and had my present and future at heart. And that he cared who I would be in the bigger world.

My Dad also told me to dare to do things, and I was free to do this because of our relationship. In then end, it’s all rooted in that loving relationship that held together those ten simple words.

And I think that’s a good way to begin our four weeks together with the Ten Commandments. Or as the Hebrew would tell us we could say it- God’s Ten Words. And boy does that sound different, doesn’t it? God’s Ten Words given for life.

Different than a lot of the popular images we have- from Charlton Heston in the iconic movie, to people trying to post them in courtrooms to tell “bad people” we’re judging them and God is too.

Let’s step away from all that.

And remember how these words came to be in the Book of Exodus, or as David Lose says, “ Remember that 19 came before 20.”
In Chapter 19 of Exodus, the people are reminded of the relationship between God and the people before they hear about the framework of Chapter 20. And the people haven’t done anything to earn it.

It’s just pure grace.

Before there’s any talk about obeying or law, God’s children are reminded how God has already filled their lives, so that they can then respond. Already freed, already believing- ready to dare to live as God’s people. Because “I the Lord you God have delivered you, brought you out of captivity, borne you up on eagle’s wings.”

And the people would have immediately gotten the image. But in case we don’t it’s the image not of a father, but a mother. Mother eagles not only flutter over their young to protect them when they are vulnerable, they also get busy pushing them out of the nest when they must grow and mature. And they learn to fly. But she is nearby ready to swoop in and bear them up if they start to fall. Not caught in talons, borne up on wings. Lifted. Because that’s how God is.

The loving Creator who initiates our whole existence, is fully involved. Creator, Redeemer, Nurturer – one whom we can trust. So when the 10 words are spoken they are spoken by a God who has the past, present and future at heart. Who wants life for them. Who loves them and wants them to live for others in a way that reflects that love God has for all creation.

In ten simple words intended to be direct, easy to use and remember, that can shape each new situation, and spare people and creation from chaos. Words to help them be who they were created to be.

Martin Luther has said “Know the 10 Commandments, know Scripture” and I think it’s so because while we are not the people of Israel, we as God’s people in this time are still able to be guided by God’s unchanging ideal. God’s unchanging ideal of love. Words given by a God whose grace is determined that people never be left without direction. Either individually or as a community.

Ten words whose fulfillment in Christ mean that our salvation is never in question. This is the opposite of how our culture envisions “command” or “law.” In places where we too ask which commandment is greatest or whose sin is too great.

The Commandments are neither a vehicle for assuring our salvation, nor are they a tool for assessing the guilt of others. They are intended to be words that hold together a life. The life we see most fully in Christ who came not to condemn or get rid of the law, but to show us what fulfilling it looks like.

And instead of being narrow, they open up possibilities that are limitless, like God’s love. Commands seem limiting. Words seem unbounded, and I suspect that the truth is that the words we are given can sound like a limit or a promise depending upon where you stand. When we think of all the ways our actions speak to the things God puts before us.

And here’s the real kicker- these words are not about you, or you, or you. They’re always about someone else. You and I are the actors, but not the receivers. We don’t try to follow this life because of what we get-they are about the community. And the realization that the life and health of others stems from what you, and you and you, do or don’t do.

These words call us to infuse the world with the love we’ve received, that goes beyond words. Because whether we have memorized them is not really the point.

Reflecting the love of a Creator who has guaranteed our salvation and who empowers us to dare for the sake of that love is.

Because we’ve got nothing to lose! We can risk believing that these words are not only a guide but an invitation to go beyond. Knowing that when we worry about what’s beyond the nest, or we feel like we’re freefalling, we will be lifted up. God’s words are not here to weigh us down but to show us what freedom looks like, and to share that with others. So we can dare to face each new opportunity in faith and integrity assured because God is our God for life.

Monday, May 26, 2014

It's How We're Wired


This morning I had you all turn to face the center aisle as I read the gospel so that we could be centered and connected to each other and the word. We’ll come back to that in a bit but first, as you know, tomorrow is an important day in our country. We call it Memorial Day, but it was first known as Decoration Day, and there are a variety of stories about how the day began to be observed. One story is that in 1865, Henry C Wells, a local druggist in Waterloo, NY mentioned to some friends at a social gathering that while it was important to praise the living veterans of the Civil War, he was concerned that people were losing sight of remembering those who had died. And thus began a year long process of forming a group to plan the decorating of graves of their dead and conduct the appropriately proper event. The first such event took place one year later in 1866.

Also in 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, the flashpoint of secession that began that same Civil War, African American clergy were concerned that a burial ground of war dead was untended. And they began meeting. It was the burial ground of 257 Union soldiers who had been Confederate prisoners of war. The now freed men, women and children spent 10 days building a fence and whitewashing it, landscaping the graves into neat rows and erecting an archway over the gate to the cemetery. Then they held a procession, carrying armloads of flowers, and wreaths and crosses which were so numerous that after they were all placed, “not a speck of earth beneath them” could be seen. And then, they prayed, heard Scripture and speeches, and sang “America” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” The perfume of the flowers and the notes of their voices filled the air as they connected themselves to people they did not know but for whom they felt moved by the Spirit to love. And it was courageous- for a group of freed slaves, in the Deep South, in a place still torn apart by the war, to honor those men.

Both of these events claim to be the first observance, but I’m not sure that who’s first matters, but that the Spirit of truth moved.

As I read these two accounts, I thought about three things:

First, how easy it is to forget why we do what we do- after all, what are your plans for tomorrow?

Second, how our culture has oddly shifted so that we are far more elaborate in remembering the dead sometimes than in lifting up the living

And yet…

That walking alongside each other is how we are wired.

And these are things Jesus is lifting up to his disciples as he is saying farewell. He knows he will go on to die on the cross, and return to the Father and he is preparing them. They are telling him they love him and are in disbelief that he is leaving. And we hear Jesus say, “remember. If you love me ( and I know you do), keep my commandments. Do as I have done and now command you to do. Love.”

“I am leaving but God the Father is sending you another-the Spirit.” And then Jesus describes the Spirit in a word we hear translated as “Advocate.” In it’s original form, the word is “paracletos.” You can dazzle your friends with that word. It is often translated as “Advocate” or “Counselor” or even “Supporter.” And each of those ideas helps us envision the role of the Spirit. Each helps us remember why we do what we do, and what to do, and empowers us to then do it.

The Advocate in court takes a stand, reminds others of what is important or necessary or right. A Counselor guides people in how decisions ought to made or completed. A supporter lifts others up in their work. All useful. But today I want to focus on another definition of that word “Paracletos,” one lifted up by David Lose, now the incoming President of the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia. That “paracletos” is “one who walks alongside another.”

Jesus describes the Spirit this way as we hear him say “ I will not leave you orphaned.” Promising not to leave us alone-you will not be abandoned. As I look around I see almost all of you are not alone- but Jessica, I see you and Cal are each sitting by yourselves. Can you go and join him in his pew? Now- not alone. Not only walking alongside, but sitting alongside.

Jesus also tell us that the Spirit is not the first God has sent to fulfill this role. That is Spirit is “another.” Jesus was the first. Born into the world to come alongside us to help humanity see and know an otherwise invisible God. To make that connection I spoke of as I began this sermon. And if you think about it, all of the stories of Christ’s ministry show this- from walking up to random fishermen and saying, “follow me” to all that follows of healing and forgiveness and love. Even reaching out from the cross to a dying thief, promising “today you will be with me” and to those not even looking, gasping, “Father, forgive them.” Advocating to the last.

This same connection is promised to us in the Spirit.

That the Spirit will continue to come alongside us so we can remember why we do what we do and to endeavor to do it. And we are told this same Spirit dwells in us- each of us and all of us as a community in the Spirit. You are each little “paracletos!” The ones who walk alongside others doing as Jesus did-sharing with others in comfort, in faith, in courage and loss. Because “loving Jesus most fully is seen in doing what he said to do-Love.”

This love is the work of the living. Which brings me to the part about our focus as a culture. As the daughter of a living veteran, I am appalled that we as a nation spend ungodly sums of money making war, and making elaborate displays of the caskets of those who have died, but cannot spend what it takes to care for the living wounded, who sacrifices seemingly go unnoticed.

Not only am I the daughter of a veteran, I am the great granddaughter of a man who emigrated from Germany as a leather worker, who a generation after the Civil War found work- wrapping the leather around the artificial limbs of those Civil War veterans who were shattered.

The Spirit of truth calls us to lift up those who have served and survived so they don’t die awaiting care on a hidden list, or end up homeless, or tortured by post-combat stresses they fight alone. We must walk alongside them also-in real life and accept the cost as part of being that community in the Spirit. Those who serve as they are commanded and their families should not feel abandoned.

This is just one way we remember that love is the work of the living and it is for the living not just the dead. And it’s for all whether we know them or not.

And the Spirit reminds that this is not just work of a day. Many days ago now we celebrated with processions, and singing, flowers, prayers and crosses another day- That Easter day where we proclaimed Christ is risen- He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Praise God!

It’s still Easter! And Christ is risen and the Spirit is present-in all the other places of our living too. This is the good news! Sometimes our culture suggests that we shouldn’t talk about losses in our lives. So we don’t. But then we miss out on the comfort, care and solidarity of community God intends. The Spirit comes to help us combat- yes, combat against another enemy- ISOLATION.

Where are those places of pain, in need of healing, of loneliness where you need to see Jesus and us walking alongside?

Today again we will be offering anointing for healing and wholeness. Not isolation. Wholeness. Today again we will experience and share communion- Christ with us in the bread and wine for us all. Wholeness, healing, communion. Love.

This is how God is wired, and how we are.

It’s like Memorial Day- we are here to remember. The difference is that through Christ and in the Spirit, it’s everyday.

Thanks be to God!