Five Years Later...

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It's been about five years since my life got flipped on its head. Does that sound too passive? Five years since I flipped my life on its head. 

Five years since I moved out of my family's house. 

Five years since I was asked to resign my "dream job". 

Five years since I made a lot of decisions that I have time justifying today. 

Five years since some of my closest friends turned their backs on me. 

Five years since I became a person people felt they no longer knew.

Five years since a "friend" told me "if you don't fix things with your with your wife, you will put a bullet in your brain in five years". 

Most relevant to me today, five years since my diagnosis of major depressive disorder (clinical depression). With all the other things that were going on at the time, it seemed very likely what I was experiencing was actually just situational. But it has been about five years since I started using words like "abuse" and "trauma" and realizing that some of the things I had been feeling in the midst of this horrible time were feelings I had had with me since at least my teens. This was a part of me. 

5 years. 

 4 jobs 

3 different antidepressants tried. Still not sure I've found the right one. 

2 cities. 

1 marriage ended. 1 begun. 

Went from 2 kids to 4. 

Went from losing 20 lbs to gaining those back plus an additional 25. 

With all the changes over these five years, the depression has remained. 

This week has been one of those where it has been hard to get out of bed. No... I can get out of bed, I just don't want to stay out. I'm unfocused and pretty emotionally numb. I'm lacking motivation. I'm not particularly enjoying much. 

What's different, five years later, is that I know this will pass. I know I will get through this because I have repeatedly over the last five years. People have stepped up and walked beside me. People who won't shame me for being on medication or taking time out for self care. Five years later I have a team around me, people who get me; maybe not in the specifics, but in the broad strokes. 

I still think often of my "friend's" words. This is the fifth year. The year that I'm supposed to put a bullet in my brain. He also said, "I know you. I know how dark things can get for you". This was weeks before my official diagnosis, but only days before he decided that he could no longer be my friend. I think about that a lot. I wonder if he's right. Will this be the year that the darkness becomes so unbearable that I decide to turn the lights out for good? I doubt it. I have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Still, depression is a cruel illness...

It's been five years and I am more resilient yet I am also more unsure. I walk more cautiously upon the earth, wondering if I have permission to take up space. I try to rest in the knowledge of the love that surrounds me constantly yet I am in a constant battle with the voice telling me I am undeserving of such love. 

It's been five years... and I'm tired. I'm not checking out, but I am so so tired...

 


Change is God

Over the last couple of years,  I have revisited Octavia Butler's books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents through audiobooks. Unfortunately, they feel incredibly timely. They are based in a not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future where America is taken over by religious conservatives, vowing to "Make America Great Again". I kid you not! In the face of this, Lauren Olamina endeavors to start an alternative community built around Earthseed, a religion/philosophy that she has developed around the tenants that "God is change". 

"All that you touch, you change

All that you change, changes you. 

The only lasting truth is change

God is change." - Parable of the Sower 

I've been thinking about these words a great deal lately. To a large degree, I subscribe to the ideas.  I've been thinking about how I have changed. I have been thinking about the things I have touched and the ways that I have changed them and the ways that they have changed me. It's not always been pretty. "Change" itself is value neutral. That we'll change is inevitable. How we will change is the product of numerous factors, some out of our control, some not. 

Usually when thinking about change we are reflective. Looking backwards, we can see all the ways that we have grown and maybe a few of the ways that we have regressed. In the Parable of the Sower, Lauren's ideas about change are future-facing. "The destiny of Earthseed  is to take root among the stars".  She believed humanity was intended to travel and colonize space, and thus the actions taken in the present should be with an eye toward that goal. That included creating a community of people who could live together in harmony and that would be dedicated to science and exploration. 

My forward-looking isn't that futuristic. I just turned 39. I'm thinking about how I will change the world and be changed by the world as I approach 40. Yes, 40 is just an arbitrary number, given weight by society because it ends with a "0" or "5", but these milestones give opportunity for reflection and evaluation. How will I change the little piece of the world that I touch? How will I let it change me? 

I am starting this year with two jarring losses. My stepbrother died the first week of the year, two days before his own birthday. This morning I learned about the death of Al Denman, a mentor and friend from my time in Ohio. These two losses mean the world is down two very kind men. During the remembrances at my stepbrother's service, person after person expressed how he made them laugh and made the time to make people feel special. Al was a brilliant man, who thought deeply about the life of the spirit and philosophy. He invited me to gatherings where I found myself incredibly out of my depth in terms of the concepts being discussed. But beyond his intelligence, I and I think most people, will remember Al for his gentleness and kindness. He was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and incredibly considerate. He adored his wife and seeing them together made you believe in love. The world has lost two very kind men. 

"Everything you touch, you change"

I have been changed by the kindness, humor, and gentleness of these men. In return, I feel compelled to think about how I will change the pieces of the world I will touch. I guess I have always thought it would be my intellect that would change the world. Perhaps my creativity. Maybe even my humor. Turns out, I'm not that smart, I'm not that clever, and I'm certainly not that funny. When I think of how and when my life has actually had an impact on people, it has been in those places where I was kind to them. It was in those times and places where I was, gentle, non-judgmental, and accepting. People haven't always been touched by my humor, but they have been touched by my smile.

Unfortunately, it has been my anger that I have most often used to change the world. Anger in and of itself isn't a bad thing (I think?) but, as I described to my therapist, anger is a horrible friend. At some point, you have to stop hanging out with it. My anger has cost me relationships and caused me act in ways counter to my declared goals of sharing love and peace with people. My anger has been toxic. I've come back to the epistle of James a few times lately. "You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness" (James 1:19). In other words, anger can't produce the change I want to see in the world or in myself. 

We do have some choice in what touches us and therefore what changes us. What I am allowing to touch me is the legacies of these men that are now suddenly gone, legacies of goodness, kindness, humor, and gentleness. Those things, it seems to me, have more power than anger ever could. Those things are things for which I believe I have a greater capacity. Those things produce God's righteousness (or justice). 

I came across this quote from Abraham Joseph Heschel whose birthday is the day before mine: "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people". I'm not exactly "old" but the sentiment remains. If the things I touch are changed by me, I want them to be changed by kindness. And if this world of ours is going to change, maybe kindness is the only thing that can make it happen... 

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Sermon audio and text 5-6-12 "Ask for what you wish"

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Texts: Psalm 22; John 15:1-8

 

Psalm 22

1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

7All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

8“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

9Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

10On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

12Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

15my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

16For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;

17I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;

18they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

19But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

20Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

21Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

23You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

26The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!

27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

28For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

 

John 15:1-8

15”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning I would like to talk with you about prayer. It’s one of those subjects I come back to every so often because it so mystifies people. It mystifies me. I think it’s supposed to be somewhat mystifying. After all, we’re communing with the Creator of the universe. That should cause us to take pause. But I think where many of us get caught up in prayer is in choosing the right words. In a worship service like ours, where the words of prayer are pre-selected and (usually) well thought out, we can be fooled into thinking that good prayer comes from eloquence and well chosen words. Jesus himself warns against such thinking. So then what makes for quality prayer? If prayer isn’t right words, then what does make for good prayer?

 

I want to look at our 2 scripture and see what they might have to tell us about prayer. Psalm 22, if it sounds familiar at all, it is because the first verse contains words that Jesus said from the cross. Interestingly enough, to me anyway, some scholars argue that Jesus didn’t just say the words of the first verse, but recited the entire Psalm (and perhaps others ) as he hung to die. The Psalm itself is traditionally thought of as being written by King David when he was under siege from his son Absalom. It is a cry of desperation, a cry for help that then turns into a vote of confidence in God’s ability to care for those who are vulnerable. Psalm 22 is poetry and prayer. And it is deeply relational. Prayer at it’s heart is always a relational activity. It is relational and not transactional.

 

I think the real problem we face is that we think of pray in terms of a business deal. Prayer is first and foremost the foundation of a relationship between God and us. If we understand God as love, then it is a relationship based in love and seeking to express love.

 

To speak of relationship with God makes us draw parallels to our relationship with others. Why do we relate with others? Do we form our relationships solely upon what people can do for us? While it’s true that many of our relationships are strictly of a transactional nature, based off of what the other person can do for us, that is not the depth of relationship to which we are called, nor is there much fulfillment to be found in these kinds of relationships.

 

In our service-based economy, it is very easy to dehumanize the people that serve us: the waiter at a restaurant, the checker at the grocery store, the postal worker… these are relationships that tend to be based on the service that the other person provides for us. I’m not suggesting that we can be best friends, and have relationships of deep meaning with everyone that we encounter… who has that kind of time?.... but we can humanize people we encounter. The small acts of learning a name, giving a smile, thanking people with sincerity, go a long way towards giving dignity to the people we encounter… yes, even the people who’s customer service has not been stellar.

 

On top of some of my more ambitious life goals, I have one goal in life that really isn’t all that ambitious: to be the regular at a bar. It’s the whole I idea of the show “Cheers” where everybody knows your name, where you can order your regular and the bartender knows what you mean. That is being known.

 

That’s the point of prayer. In the process of prayer we get to know God and in the process find ourselves being known. We find that we know ourselves more in knowing those things for which we pray.

 

And that is where the challenging piece begins. Jesus makes this problematic statement in the gospel reading: ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. Now it’s a conditional statement: IF we abide in Christ and Christ words abide in us THEN we can ask for whatever we wish. Still, it seems like a sweet deal, and one we wouldn’t want to pass up. So what does it mean to abide in Christ?

 

Jesus uses the image of a vine and its branches. That’s a pretty intimate connection. This metaphor tends to strike us as one of dependence. The branches are dependent on the vine for life. But that’s not a one way street. The vine’s purpose cannot be accomplished without fruit producing branches. There’s a mutuality of relationship expressed in this metaphor.

While it may not be kosher to say that Christ is dependent upon us, it is true that the Kingdom of God is being built by human hands. And we, as branches receive our purpose and identity through being connected to something lasting and infinite.

 

To be a branch on the vine means that our purposes can’t be at cross-purposes with the vine. If we abide in Christ and the words of Christ abide in us, then our desires will be to see the purposes of Christ lived out in the world. That means as a branch, we produce that is in line with the values of God’s kingdom: peace, compassion, justice, and love.

 

This is the diabolical thing about prayer. As much as we would use it as a tool to change and influence God, it becomes a tool by which we are changed and shaped. Prayer is a means by which we are united more and more, little by little to the person and mission of Christ. I think we see the highest form of prayer come form Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night that he is arrested, he prays first his desire, that he might be spared of the pain of the cross as any of us might, but then he prays that God’s will would be done. Jesus assumes that by us abiding in Christ as he himself abided in the love of God that our desires would become those of God. He assumes that we would become more in tune with the Kingdom of God or if you prefer, the dream of God, or the Narrative of God.

 

Hear the words of the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis:

 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

 

This strikes me not as the prayer of someone who believes that he can get whatever he wants from God, but who has such a deep relationship with God that he wants what God wants.

 

So how do we begin this process of praying not only the desires of our hearts, but the desires of God’s heart? Again, I think Jesus helps us out a lot with the model prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Exercise: choose a favorite version of the Lord’s Prayer and/or rewrite the words in your own words. 

 


Sermon texts and audio 4-29-12

I John 3:16-24; John 10: 11-18

 

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1 John 3:16-24

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him

20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

 

 

John 10:11-18

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gospel of John is problematic for many reasons. The first is that this gospel, more so than the other three is polemical. It is not only written for one community of people. It is written against another group of people. In particular, it is a polemic against the Pharisaic temple leadership, the code name used through out the Gospel is “the Jews”. Whenever you see “the Jews” in the gospel of John, it is referring to the Pharisaic leadership, not a slam against all of Judaism as it has been tragically interpreted in the past. So that’s one problem.

 

The second problem I have with John is the style. Jesus’ words are far more enigmatic in John. Jesus’ words seem to bounce from one point to the next without any real connecting points at times and we’re left scratching our heads as to what the gospel writer is trying to communicate.

 

Third, and we’ll deal with all of these, but this is where I really want to spend our time this morning, is that fact that John, more so than the other Gospels makes claims both about the divinity of Christ and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ that are troubling, and divisive in a multicultural interfaith world.

 

So let’s deal with John. The fourth gospel was written possibly as late as 90 CE, a good deal after Jesus’ earthly ministry, and two decades after Jerusalem was sacked by Rome and temple was destroyed. What survived after the temple was the beginnings of rabbinical Judaism, not based on the temple for worship, but based on teachers who would guide and interpret the law. Pharisees were part of that rabbinical tradition and Jesus himself taught in the Pharisaic tradition, though it is evident that the content of his teaching was very different than other Pharisees.

 

The polemic here is that Jesus is a different kind of leader. He is a good shepherd, not just in terms of morality, but in terms of compassion, mercy, and love. Again, English does us a disservice in having only one word for good. “Agathos” is the greek word for morally good. “Kalos” which is the word that Jesus uses here is not about moral quality, but about goodness of heart. Caring, compassion, loving. The Pharisees, were “good” in the moral sense. They followed the laws. They did the things that were considered to be upstanding. Jesus demonstrates a goodness that goes beyond morality to compassion.

 

This compassion becomes self evident in sacrifice. This is really at the core of the Gospel message. God’s love is manifest in a kind of love that is able to reach outside of its own need and see the need of others. A love that is willing to give up its own comfort in order to be of service to others.

 

But wait a minute… this can’t really be a polemic about Jesus vs. the Pharisees, can it? How is that helpful? Sure it’s a good story. It gives Jesus antagonists, and that’s fun, but does it help us? Well it doesn’t if we take it out of the context of the whole of the Gospel of John. If we tie it in to what we heard on Maundy Thursday, then it begins to become clear. This love that the good shepherd shows for the sheep is the same love that we are to have for each others. It is the same care that Peter is told to show for the sheep at the end of John’s gospel. The role of shepherd transfers from Jesus to his followers. Okay, so far so good….

 

But then Jesus throws out that he has sheep that are not of this flock, but will hear his voice. What on earth can that possibly mean? It could simply be a nod to the fact that the movement that Jesus and his disciples began would be one that included Jews and gentiles and people from all nations. But even that begs a question: a sheep that belongs to Christ?

This is probably a different question than what you might think I am asking. I’m not asking do we know who is saved or not. I honestly don’t believe that that is a question for us to try to answer. But I do think there is a couple of threads here that need to be tied together.

 

As I put these together, I can’t help but think of two things related to Mahatma Gandhi. One of my favorite quotes of his was speaking to a group of Christians he claimed ““I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Could it be that Gandhi heard the voice of Christ maybe better than some of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus? It’s easy to argue that someone who chose the weapon of non-violence to resist a system that dehumanized people knew quite a bit about what Jesus was up to.

 

Here’s the second story related to Gandhi: It actually was in the preview for Rob Bell’s controversial book “Love Wins” that came out last year. In the preview, Bell talks about an art show that his church held. One of the artists produced a piece of artwork that had a quote on it from Gandhi, I think it was Be the change you want to see in the world. One of the attendees of the art show asked the artist, “why would you put a quote from Gandhi on your art? You know he’s in hell because he wasn’t a Christian”

 

I can’t stand this kind of thinking. For some reason we’re supposed to believe that a God of love will condemn people to eternal damnation because they didn’t believe a certain creed or sign on to a confession, despite the way that they lived their lives? I don’t buy it.

 

Here’s what I do buy: there are people in this world who live into the values of the kingdom of God. People who respond to the voice that calls out for mercy and justice in the world. There are people of goodwill in of every race, nationality, and every religion and I often find that I have more in common with those outside my own tradition who believe in peace and justice than those within it who believe in violence and domination. I would rather work with those who believe in non-violence and who love selflessly who hold to a different faith or no faith at all, than those of proclaim my faith tradition but are interested only in themselves.

 

In 2010 we met Daisy Khan. Khan is married to the Imam who was behind the Cordoba initiative also known as the Ground Zero Mosque. We heard her speak at the Chautauqua Institute and I was so amazed by her graciousness in response to questions, particularly when those questions were outright disrespectful of her faith. As we had a chance to listen to her story and share a meal with her, the impression that she left me with was that she wanted the same things out of the world that I do. She believed in justice, and compassion, and non-violence AND she was frustrated with those of her own faith who used their religion as an excuse to make war. It was not hard at all to find common ground with her. If love is at the heart of Christ’s teaching, then isn’t possible that those who love, in selfless ways as the good shepherd himself loved, isn’t it possible that they are one with us as well? That they are of the same fellowship, whether or not they proclaim the same faith?

 

The letter of first John makes it clear that love is shown, not in the words we proclaim, but in the actions that we take. Do we truly believe that Christians have the market cornered on loving action? Do we really think that we have mastered the notion of self sacrificial love? One my favorite stories last year, during the Arab Spring uprisings of last year, was about a group of Muslims in Egypt who went out of their way to protect the Coptic Christians in Cairo from the chaos that was swirling in the streets so that they could get to and from their worship services in safety. It was a beautiful picture of love in action.

 

What’s at stake in this conversation? Quite a bit. One of the great challenges in this age, where people across the globe are becoming more connected and more religious at the same time, we have to ask ourselves what role will our faith play? Will we be people who draw lines in the sand around doctrine, creeds, and confessions or will we open ourselves up to dialogue with people who may not share our confessions, but share our goals. Will the fact that we speak different words or call the infinite God by different names get in the way of the fact that we share similar values and common cause?

 

When we lived in Portland during the summer of ’06, we found ourselves connected to a group of friends and neighbors, most of whom were very “unchurched”, some atheists, some spiritual but not religious, some outright atheist. As we got to know this group of people during the summer, it was really hard to condemn them for not wanting to go to church on Sundays. During the week they were caring teachers, social workers, advocates for environmental justice, and case workers. I sort of got the sense at times that they were too busy making the world a better place to go to church. The Church hasn’t had the best track record in many people’s eyes, so sometimes we have to work a little harder to build bridges to those who are about the work of justice and peacemaking in the world without the perceived baggage that the church brings with it.

 

And at the same time, we cannot lose the unique power and witness that our faith brings to the table. I hope that you have been following what has been going on with the Leadership conference of Women religious, the group of catholic nuns who have been formally reprimanded by the Vatican for their stances on homosexuality and challenging the notion of a male-only priesthood while simultaneously doing amazing works of love and compassion with the poorest of the poor in the world. One of the nuns, Sister Joan Chittister was a speaker at a conference I attended several years ago. She is an amazing woman! Much of what she said was way over my head, but at the heart of her message was the fact that the church has spiritual resources that the world desperately needs right now and that we have a unique place to speak life into the hurts of the world. To speak resurrection, if you will, in the midst of death. She challenged in saying that our spirituality is how we live out the teachings of Jesus in this particular time. While Sister Joan is a Catholic and I am a protestant, she definitely speaks my language.

 

I believe that Jesus’ flock is made up of all those who love in action and in truth, whether they call themselves, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, or if they’d rather avoid labels all together. And I think it is our role to reach out to people of goodwill, however they may situate themselves, to be healing presence, a tangible sign of the resurrection in a broken world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Sermon audio and text 4-8-12 "Same Old Story"

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Texts: John 20:1-18; I Cor. 15:1-11

 

Paul begins this section of his letter to the Corinthians with the words, “Now I would remind you”. In other words, you’ve heard this story before, but let me tell it again. It’s funny, as I interact with my preacher friends over social media how we all feel the pinch of telling this story, yet again. Here is this remarkable story, which should be able to stand on its own, and yet through repetition it has become a story that has become forgettable at best, laughable at worst. I wonder if some of us, yes even some of us preachers, have just heard this story so many times that it has become boring to us.

 

But maybe the problem isn’t the story per se. Maybe we’ve been telling it wrong. Maybe part of the problem is that we aren’t telling it like it is good news.

 

So hear, let me try to tell it again.

 

God loves us, but we sin, so God sent His son to die and then God raised his son back to life. If we believe all of that then we go to heaven.

 

That’s an okay story. Sometimes it’s told like this.

 

God loves us, but we sin, so God sent His son to die and then God raised his son from the dead and if we don’t believe that, we’re going to hell. You know... because God loves us.

 

I don’t particularly like that story. Maybe it’s like this:

 

God created the world. It was perfect. But we rebelled and ruined it. And God got mad at us. And the only way that God would stop being mad is if we slaughtered animals. At some point, there wasn’t an animal special enough to cover up all of our sins, so angry bloodthirsty God sent his son and demanded that he die. And then God raised him from the dead. And if we believe that, and don’t drink or smoke, or swear, or dance, and vote republican then we won’t go to hell.

 

 

Okay, I’m being silly here, but let’s face it, that’s not far off from how it’s usually presented. God is so angry with humanity, that the only thing that can stop that anger is blood. And then all that is necessary is for us to give some manner of intellectual assent to this story about God, and adjust our behavior a bit, mostly by avoiding things that are fun, and we’re good to go. I gotta be honest. That’s not very good news. Here’s why: in that version of the story, God’s still angry, the world isn’t set aright, and the whole system is based on fear, guilt, and punishment.

 

I want a better story. I want a story that sounds like good news, that feels like good news in my day-to-day life. I want a story that is good news for more than just me and people who think and look like me. So let’s tell a different story.

 

It still starts with God. This God is pure love, but love needs both subject and object. And this God lives in community, but even that community is not enough to be the object of pure love. So God creates in love. God creates a world teeming with every form of life, all of which God loves. But there’s something missing, all of what God made wasn’t able to interact with God as God desired. So God made humanity, both male and female in God’s image (because God’s image is both male and female)… but here’s the kicker, God made these humans free. This is risky, because it leaves God open to being rejected and being heartbroken, but love isn’t love if it’s coercive. So humans had to be free. And yes, there is sin, because in our freedom humans sometimes choose to put themselves above other humans and nature in really unhealthy ways. So, God enters the world, in various forms at various times, always trying to direct us back to a simple path: love of God through love of neighbor. God does this most clearly in Jesus. Here’s the problem, some people have become so comfortable in using their freedom to take freedom from others, that they will fight back against, forcibly if necessary, against anyone who tries to show them a different way. And that’s what happened to Jesus. Because he didn’t just affirm the humanity of the blind, the leper, the fishermen, the foreigner, women, and children, he also spoke out against systems that dehumanized others. So those who profited from those systems conspired together and had him killed…

 

…  and what shall we say about what happens next? Did the physical body of Jesus rise out of the tomb? Are we superstitious or naïve enough to believe such an absurd thing? Well, the first disciples did. Paul did. He goes as far as to say that those who saw the living Christ were among them. It mattered to Paul. It mattered to the early Christians. It mattered because they needed to believe that their way of life was not in vain. It mattered to them because the Gospel had changed everything about the way that they lived. It changed their sense of community. It changed their sense of purpose. It changed the ways they interacted with each other and with outsiders. It changed everything about the way that they were for the remainder of their lives.

 

It changed them because they began to imagine themselves in a different story. Instead of living in the story that told them that God was angry with them, they began to live into the story that God was for them. Instead of living in the story that said they were only worth what the empire said they were worth and they imagined a story in which their worth was that of those who bear the image of God. They began to imagine that God was so for them that God would go to great extents to show that they weren’t alone.

 

Faith begins when we are willing to imagine a new story. A bigger story. A better story. Faith requires that I imagine a world that is not the world I see everyday. Faith requires that we imagine a world where the blind, see, the lame walk, and the dead cannot be confined to tombs. And if we can do that, it will force us to imagine a world where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, where weapons of war are used as tools for growth, where predators no longer prey on victims.

 

Growing up as I did, I always assumed that one must believe the fact of the resurrection to live into the truth of it. What I have come to understand is that there are many who have historically denied the facts of the resurrection while living into it’s truths. A great example of this is a man named Albert Schwietzer, the man famous for bringing the quest for the historical Jesus to the English speaking world. While Schweitzer denied the existence of any real person who was named Jesus who did the things depicted in the scripture, he took the example of Jesus so seriously that in 1905 at age 30, he went to Africa and began an medical mission that served thousands of people while also being an outspoken critic of the colonialism that had separated people into class by race. He actively opposed the development of nuclear weapons along with Albert Einstein. He did all of this because of the gospel that he believed to be true, if not fact.

 

As I have gotten older, and my I wrestle with what my faith means in the face of science, in the face of all of the world’s ills, in the face increasing religious fundamentalism of all stripes, I have become far more interested in the truth of Easter than the fact of Easter. Jesus rose from the dead? So what? What does that do about hunger? What does that do about war? What does that do about discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or race?

 

The truth of Easter is that a new world is possible. A world where the needs of the hurting are cared for. A world where the dividing lines between people are broken down, a world where violence and domination are exchanged for justice and compassion.

 

Paul tells the Corinthians that through this truth they are being saved. Not that they are saved. It is a process. You grow into a new reality. You are shaped and molded. The walk of faith is an ongoing journey, not a moment, but a continually revelation of the expansiveness of the grace of God.

 

As Mary came to the tomb she came expecting to find a dead man, she left with heart full of possibilities… for if the one who she saw crucified was alive, what else might be possible. She becomes the first evangelist because she was the first to encounter the reality that death does not have to win out over life.

 

Easter makes more sense to me after going to Haiti. I’ve probably mentioned that the 2010 earthquake that killed thousands happened on my 30th birthday. And you may call this crazy, but from the day it happened I felt God calling me to go there. So I went last summer. If you want to understand what Easter means, go to Haiti. Go to a place where death is evident, but the imagination tells them that things can be different, that a new world is possible. Go to a place where being resurrection people is a little more than a clever metaphor. Go to a place where people hope when hope is the most foolish thing they could do.

 

The thing that is being saved within us is our imaginations. Kids can imagine a world without fear. They can imagine a world without pain. They can imagine a world where resources are shared because that’s the world they live in. They can imagine a world where people play together, because that’s the world they live in. The resurrection first and foremost saves our imaginations. It gives us the grace and freedom to imagine a better story. The story of God, the dream of God, the kingdom of God.

 

So yes, I believe in the truth of the Gospel. I wrestle with the facts, but much less than I used to. The truth of the Gospel is that a better world is necessary and through the example of Christ a better world is possible. And for me, there was no better disciple than Mary Magdalene. She sees and experiences the Risen Christ and she immediately begins to give witness to the new reality. This is what we are called to do. Through our love, through our service, at times through our words, but definitely through our generosity and compassion, we give witness to the truth that the systems of death are not the only way to exist in this world. This is what we are called to do. We are not called to be people that argue the facts of the resurrection, we are called to be people who live the truth of the resurrection.

 

Friends, this morning we are invited to find our role in a new story. A story in which the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free. A story in which wars shall cease and injustices made right. A story in which those who have been victimized, abused, oppressed, and beaten down can lift their heads and know their worth. Nothing worthwhile in this world has been accomplished without a good dose of Holy imagination.

 

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Imagine. What else might be possible? 

 


Sermon audio and text 4-1-12 "Join the Parade"

Texts: Ps. 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 11: 1-11

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Psalm 118

1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

2Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

25Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

27The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Mark 11:1-11

11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years back, President Obama came to Pittsburgh. Of course there is always a certain buzz when the president comes to town, but there is also a feeling of annoyance. Usually the announcement is followed with something like, “crap, which roads are going to be closed?” It’s an auspicious event when an official of that caliber comes to a city the size of Pittsburgh. It’s not quite like New York, D.C., or LA that is used to the massive disruptions. Life has to be altered. People take notice. Traffic is rerouted. Businesses have to close or alter their business hours. People inevitably gather on the side of the streets to watch the secret service cars go along their route.

 

This is NOT what Jesus was doing. This is not the ancient equivalent of a motorcade. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Jesus had no interest in people other than the disciples knowing that he was going up to Jerusalem. This was an attempt to get a surefooted animal that would be able to navigate the back roads into the city.

 

The colt of a donkey isn’t all that impressive. We live near a farm that has donkeys on it. Every time we drive by it, I look at the small colts and think to myself “I would look ridiculous riding on that thing”. Rest assured, this was not an attention grab on Jesus’ part. There is nothing regal or majestic about a donkey.

 

So how did this thing turn into an event so important that all four gospel writers decided to make reference to it? John Dominic Crossan, the prolific and controversial theologian and author offers an explanation for what is happening. Crossan explains that while Jesus is entering Jerusalem from one direction, that there is another much more impressive entrance being made, most likely by Pilate. Now Pilate would have had the ancient equivalent of a motorcade. He would have had warhorses, soldiers, the banners of Rome waving, swords, shields, spears, all the works. And of course people would have lined up for miles to see the spectacle of Roman power entering the gates of Jerusalem.

 

Okay, so that still doesn’t explain what’s happening on the other side of town. Well, I think a couple of things are happening here. And that brings me to what I want to focus on this Holy Week and Easter. You see this time of year, we tend to focus on who Jesus is. Makes sense, to a degree. But I want us to focus on our response to who Jesus is, what does it mean to be disciples in response to what we say is true about Jesus. That’s what we’re talking about this morning. That’s what we’ll reflect on Thursday evening and that’s what we’ll be talking about Easter morning.

 

So we have to ask ourselves what the disciples were doing here in this place. First option, this is a genuine outpouring of praise to God. They are shouting Hosanna, save us. They see Jesus’ arrival as the beginning of the salvation that they seek. They see him as a manifestation of God finally bringing freedom and liberation into their lives. And for that they were thankful.

Gratitude has to be a part of our lives of discipleship. It is difficult to be thankful at times when we we’re in the darkest points of our lives. But that’s not the issue that most of us face in our day-to-day lives. Our problem is that we have become so pessimistic and cynical that all we can see is the negative that surrounds us. The words of Psalm 118 draw us to lives grounded in gratitude, recognizing that each new day is a gift and that God is in the business of saving those who hurt and elevating those who have been brought low.

 

It never fails to amaze me that the folks I have met in life who are the most grateful are the ones that we would judge to have the least. It is the ones whose lives are reoriented to a different set of values. The ones who can find pleasure in the simplest of things. This group of people who gathered along the road to Jerusalem would have ranged from those who were hard working to laborers who lived hand to mouth each day, to the very poor who were barely living. In Jesus they see a hope for something changing. It makes me wonder if our stuff can actually get in the way of our gratitude. Gratitude asserts that there is enough for all in a world that is constantly telling us to be afraid of scarcity. In that way, gratitude is a revolutionary act.

 

But if Crossan is right about Pilate entering the city at virtually the same time as Jesus, then we have to assume the disciples are up to something else. Something far more dangerous. In the face of the overwhelming narrative that Caesar is king and that Rome is the ultimate kingdom, Jesus’ followers are holding a demonstration that makes a mockery of Rome and claims that there is a superior kingdom at work. This is insurrection and protest at it’s finest.

I hate to be a broken record, but we have lost sight of the radical nature of what Jesus was up to. In an empire like Rome’s, for someone to proclaim a new kingdom, a new set of values with a new figurehead was incredibly dangerous. The disciples were making a political statement, whether they meant to or not. They were declaring Jesus was king in the face of Caesar. Some scholars argue that the disciples believed they were amassing an army. Certainly some understood what Jesus had been telling them all this time, but they certainly thought their march would be the beginning of the end of Rome being in their land.

 

Our discipleship is meant to be a pledge of allegiance to a heavenly kingdom. It’s meant to be a statement that we are ruled by a wholly different constitution. It is difficult in our country where Christianity has become more or less a civil religion to disentangle the values of our country from the values of our faith. And it becomes tricky when we recognize that the values of our own nation have very much become the values of Rome.

 

Given all of these factors, it’s certainly not surprising to see how the resolve of this crowd would fade away. It shouldn’t come as a shock to shouts of Hosanna change to shouts of “crucify him”. It shouldn’t surprise us because we can see the ways that our own dedication can lag and waver. We see how difficult it is for us, with far less at stake, to stay committed to the ideals of our faith.

 

This year I have given up meat for Lent. To this point, I have kept at it, but I can’t help by being struck by the fact that for about 40 days I have done something that billions do by necessity and that millions additionally do voluntarily as a lifestyle including many here. AND, I’ve complained about it just about everyday. Is that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? That’s not what it meant for the early disciples….

 

For them it meant running away when things got rough. It meant denying that they knew Jesus when they got questioned. It meant betraying Jesus to authorities. In other words, they were terrible at it too.

 

Throughout history, people have had many ideas of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Some it has meant taking on vows of poverty, for some it has meant a monastic identity separated from the rest of the world, some have seen following Jesus as a heroic crusade to vanquish other faiths, some have seen it as a call to gain as much political influence as possible, some see it as a mere punching of the clock for an hour on Sundays, others have seen it as a life of lived in foreign nations bringing the Gospel to those unreached by the words of the gospel. At it’s best it can be a genuine outpouring of love and adoration and at it’s worse it can be

 

Jesus had his own ideas of what it meant to be his disciple. Surprisingly his ideas were much different than ours. We’ll talk about exactly what Jesus definition of discipleship looks like on Thursday, but suffice it to say for now, that it means being a part of a very different parade. Not one built on pomp and power, but a parade of fools, worshipping a man on the colt of a lowly donkey, believing that he can save them from those who enter the city ready to wage war.

 

His first words to them all those months and years ago were “follow me”. Do we dare follow him now, knowing where this parade route leads? 

 


Sermon audio and text 3-25-12 "Tear Down/ Build Up"

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

 

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Jeremiah 31:27-34

27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

John 12:20-36

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

 

 

 

 

 

I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh that was (and still is) a predominantly white area. In fact the 2000 census said that our town was 99% white and 1% “other”. I’m pretty sure that by “other” they meant my house. One thing about growing up in that circumstance is that you learn not to assume the worst of people. You also learn to keep your eyes open. 90% of the people who lived in my neighborhood were great people. My race led me to very few problems in my growing up years.

 

But I remember the few times very well. I remember the word nigger being used pretty casually in certain circumstances. I remember being having it yelled at me by some much older boys when I was delivering papers (this was back when we still had paper boys and girls). I remember always questioning if any slight I received was based on who I actually am or if was based on the color skin with which I was blessed.

 

It’s largely because of this experience growing up that I have always attempted to engage myself in conversations about race relations and racial reconciliation. It’s always a messy conversation. People who these problems are easy to solve, overstated, or even non-existent have their heads very deep in the sand. People get very touchy around this conversation. Feelings get hurt. Old feelings and memories get unearthed. People get angry. People get angry about others getting angry. The hurt cuts in both directions. People with good intentions get their feelings hurt when those intentions are misinterpreted. Others find trust to be difficult in cross cultural situations.

All of this has been rolling around in my head as I’ve been sitting with the story of Trayvon Martin for a little over a week now. It’s a heartbreaking story: a 17 year old African American boy, who by all accounts was a great kid, was coming home from buying candy. It was a rainy evening, he had his hood up. A neighbor, George Zimmerman, himself having Hispanic heritage, made a 911 call reporting that the boy looked suspicious. In the 911 call he also called the boy a racial slur. Despite the 911 operator’s insistence that he not pursue, he chased the boy, tracked him down and shot him to death. A despite a groundswell of outrage and support for Trayvon’s family, George Zimmerman is a free man. He claims self-defense, despite the fact that Martin was armed only with Skittles and Iced tea. Some say that Mr. Zimmerman’s ethnicity stops this from being a story about race. In my mind, it makes it several stories about race.

 

So what do we do with all of this? Well, I think we should be angry. And I think we should cry. And I think we should sign petitions. And donate money. And we should put pictures of ourselves wearing hooded sweathshirts on facebook and we should get really heated for, oh I don’t know, maybe a week or so… and then we should return to the status quo and wait for the next thing that outrages us. That’s an option. It is most often the option that we take.

 

But what if we want something lasting? What if we really want to see change? What if we are so tired of seeing young black men gunned down because they are guilty of breathing while black? What if we are tired of seeing people harassed and questioned because their primary language is Spanish? What if we’re tired of suspicious glances shooting towards our neighbors because they appear to have Middle Eastern decent?

In the midst of some of his most enigmatic words, Jesus says to those who are listening that if I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. ALL people. He says this an indicator of the cross. All people will see the cross of Christ and be drawn to it. What does that mean? For the early church, it meant that the Gospel was forcing them to have cross cultural encounters. It meant the cross was forcing them to die to their preconceived notions, their prejudices, their biases, and their stereotypes and see only those who like them were, like the words of the hymn, drawn in by the Spirit’s tether. We see it at Pentecost. In fact the entire book of Acts is the story of the church growing from a Galilean sect to a movement that incorporates people from all nations, tongues, tribes, skin tones, and languages.

 

The cross calls us to die to self in a way that won’t allow us to feel superior to another for any reason, but particularly not for reasons of culture. This is not to say that the cross calls us to “color blindness”. I hate that term when it comes to talking about race and culture. You don’t properly value someone by pretending to ignore a facet of them. What we’re being called to crucify is a form of pride that says that my life has greater value than yours. My culture has more worth than yours. My attitudes and behaviors are normative and yours are deviant. We are called to nail that sort of thinking to the cross.

 

The cross calls us to see love as our highest ethic. Love is not assimilation. Love is not “color blindness” a term I hate hearing in regards to race and culture. If you’re willing to ignore something as central to who I am as the color of my skin, then what else will you ignore when it becomes convenient to do so. No, love calls us to walk arm in arm with those with whom we have differences, knowing that we’re walking in the same direction and that we don’t get there unless we get there together. Love calls us to see the worth inherent in all humans.

 

In the cross, the power of love is made evident, calling us to reconciliation with God and with one another. Reconciliation is different than assimilation. It is different than integration. Reconciliation acknowledges that there are in fact major differences and despite those differences, relationship must persist. Not for my sake, nor for your sake, but for love’s sake.

 

The prophet Jeremiah calls us to imagine. This is in fact what good prophets do. Jeremiah calls us to imagine a time where we need not have religious teachers and institutions because we all have the knowledge of God within us. Isn’t it interesting to note that Jeremiah says that what gives us such knowledge of God is the forgiveness of sin. TO know that we have received grace for our many faults allows us to deal graciously with others. Imagine a world where we have so internalized the grace of God that we need not be given external proofs of its existence. Where love and forgiven are imprinted on our hearts in ways that make teaching about such things unnecessary. I long for such a world. For in such a world, young men don’t die because of the suspicions of men.

 

Jeremiah’s God is a god involved in renovation. Jeremiah’s God tears down in order to go back and build up. Jeremiah’s God is planting a garden with humans as seeds. I think that God is calling us to be a part of both the tearing down and the building up. I think we are being called to be apart of tearing down systems of racism, bigotry and injustice. I think we are being called to tear down systems that devalue life enough to kill based on suspicions. I think we are being called to tear down that which creates “otherness” in our neighbors. In it’s place, we are being called to build up systems fueled by grace.  We are being called to conversations that are hard, but honest. We are being called beyond mere integration to the true beloved community of which Dr. King so often spoke. We are being called to look into the face of strangers and see instead the face of God.

 

I don’t know what else to say about Trayvon Martin’s death other than that it was tragic. But our faith is built on the death of an innocent man. Our faith is cemented in the belief that the tragedies we experience do not get final say. That death does not have the last word. That hope can emerge from even the darkest of moments. May this be a time when we push beyond superficial gestures and momentary outrage and move instead to dismantling the systems that create injustice and distrust. And replacing them with communities of love and acceptance where all see the image of God imprinted in the face of their neighbor.