The Cry of the Oppressed

October 6, 2019

Exodus 1:8-14, 3:1-15

This is our fourth sermon in a series around our identity as church. This week our focus is on the aspect of our mission statement that says we are a people who are “Reflecting Christ through our actions.” As I hear that as a statement of who we are, our relationship with the divine should define us so much so that, those who are looking on can come to better know the divine through our actions. 

But who is the divine that we seek to reflect in our daily lives, and is it the same one we are in relationship with? I ask this because one of the arguments regarding the hypocrisy of Christians is that we hold one set of standards for ourselves and a whole other set for others. That we find abundant welcome and salvation for ourselves and then, set conditions for others. So, we do need to ask ourselves what reflection of the divine are we intending to show? Instead of just looking at the Gospels to determine who Christ is that we seek to reflect, it is important to look at the whole of scripture regarding the relationship that the divine held with God’s people. 

In the end of the second chapter of Exodus starting with vs 23 we hear, “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” 

Not trying to gloss over the implication that God had forgotten the covenant that had been made with Abraham and his descendants, but it was out of the groaning and crying out that God was reminded of the divine’s relationship with the Israelites, and God acted. Where God acted in such profound way that it has been immortalized with the iconic depiction of Charleston Heston as Moses in the “Ten Commandments.” It is in the hearing the cries of the oppressed that God remembered the divine covenant with this people. 

But God doesn’t act independently of the world in rectifying the Israelites oppression. Instead God acts in relationship with Moses. God, calls a murderer, an exile, someone who benefited from the oppression of his own people, to bring them up out of Egypt. God worked through this imperfect, and flawed man to answer the cries of the people. And it is this man that has been used throughout the Old testament to compare the messiah to. A prophet like Moses. 

This also becomes a moment that defines how God expects the Israelites to treat others, especially the stranger or foreigner or alien. Explicitly in Leviticus 19:33-34, “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” 

In the same way that the people are called throughout the Old Testament to treat the foreigner with justice, so too are they called to care for the least of these. Time and time again when issues of justice are raised it is with concern for the least of these that those in power should be mindful of the orphan, widow, alien, outcast, lame, and the other. Time and time the people who have the means are expected to be mindful of the least of these. There is the expectation that the people will keep their ears attuned to the cries of the oppressed just as God does. 

But as our social circles can insulate us from the brokenness of the world, simply because we are not aware of the cries within our community, or we intentionally ignore them because it is easier to live as if we don’t know about the ills of the world. I know at times it is easier for me to stay in the office than go to community meetings where I hear of the brokenness of the world. It is easier to limit myself to the immediate community because one can be inundated with the cries of the world that are too much for one person or local community to deal with. It can be exhausting to constantly hear and listen to stories of brokenness in the world, without having a good way to tend to each and every individual. But we aren’t expected to fix every problem or heal all the brokenness on our own, but to work with the divine to do what we can in our part of the world. 

Even though we aren’t expected to fix all the ills in the world there is still the expectation for us to encounter the brokenness in the world and hear the cries of the oppressed as we are called by God to work for justice in the world. We are called to reflect Christ through our actions, and some times we need to learn those lessons that Jesus had to learn according to the Gospels. 

We have the question before us that needs to be answered. Who do we say that Christ is? What are those names that we give our savior?… If we are to reflect Christ in our actions then are we not called to also reflect those names as well?

Now there is another text I would have you consider today, that points back to the issue of hypocrisy that I raised earlier. Matthew 15:21-28, “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

Sometimes we are faced with those issues of the world that call us to question those walls that we have placed within our lives. Those standards of who is in and who is out. Who is worthy and who is not. Earlier this week in the Tuesday Bible study we spent some time on this text and I found myself summarizing the Cannanite woman’s argument like this, “Are you willing to withhold salvation for my daughter because I am not Jewish and you think I am not worthy even though I have faith?” 

Yes, my summary leaves out the dialogue between the woman and Jesus, but it gets to the heart of the debate taking place. And it points to those arguments that take place in churches all around the world today when we have higher expectations of others than we do for ourselves in regards to salvation. 

As we find ourselves being faced with the brokenness of the world, and even in those spaces where we are called to question those unwritten requirements to salvation, we are still called to reflect Christ in all that we do. We are called to be present in those places where brokenness abounds at the minimum. 

Simply being present with communities that are being oppressed, or shunned tells them that they are not alone. That there are people who are willing to hear their stories, willing to listen to their pain and be present, when they may feel alone otherwise. 

It means speaking up for change in our society, and uplifting the voices of the ignored. And speaking out against those who would seek to further oppress those in our community with false rhetoric or hate speech. 

To say that we are a community called by God to reflect Christ in our actions, is simple, forgets that the ministry Jesus calls us into is difficult and hard work. It forgets that as we are called to reflect Christ in the world so much so that others are able to better understand who the divine is because they know us, puts a great deal of responsibility on our shoulders. We should always be mindful of how we behave and treat others, especially how we listen to the cries of the oppressed and respond accordingly. 

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Is this a Joke???

North Hill Christian Church

September 15, 2019

Genesis 8:1-15, 21:1-7

As we continue to ponder on the question of who we are as church, I invite us to consider our mission statement together just as the church board did so yesterday at our annual visioning and focusing meeting. We didn’t simply contemplate our mission statement as a nice fluffy statement about the mission of the church, but rather were invited to hear it as the reason for why we do all the ministries that we do together in this place. Why we gather together each week for worship and fellowship. Why we gather in times of study and service. Why we continue to publicly declare who we are in this place as disciples of Christ. 

Let us speak together and hear the reason why we continue to seek to be church in this place. “We of North Hill Christian Church are a people responding to God’s call, building whole community reflecting Christ through our actions, and living into the reign of God.”

For this week I want to focus on one single section, “Responding to God’s call.” All that we are doing is in a response to who God has called us and continues to call us into being. We aren’t here in this place because some person somewhere decided to plant a church in this neighborhood. Instead God called those original founders of our congregation to plant this church here. Jenn and I didn’t just move here because Spokane sounded like a nice place to live. No, God called and led us here. 

All that we do together here in this place is because God called us here, and we answered. Now, we may not have always answered the calling in the same way. There may have been times that we responded with great enthusiasm like Abraham, who picked up his whole life and followed where God led. While other times we may have questioned the sanity of where God has been leading. Or even gone as far as laughed at the thought of what God was saying is possible like Sarah. 

Now we need some context for the texts that we have heard this morning. To start off, Abraham has already heard the promise of children in the previous chapters, and we can know that Sarah has also heard this promise. It has also already come to pass that Ishmael has been born and a sign of covenant has already been made between God and Abraham’s house, which included the circumcision of all the males in his house. It has already been stated multiple times that Sarah was going to bear a child, even in her advanced age. But now, we get a more immediate timeline of when this will come to pass. 

Prior to the 18th chapter of Genesis, we hear of Sara making an end run around God’s plan. Trying to make sure that Abraham had a child even if it wasn’t with her. So she took God’s promise into her own hands in giving Hagar to Abraham. She tried to make the end result in her own way without fully trusting God to use her.

In the text from chapter 18, we hear of Abraham’s continued excitement and enthusiasm with hearing God’s calling and promise upon his life as he continues to welcome the messengers of God. On the other hand we have Sarah, who in overhearing the timeline and promise that she will bear a child within the year, simply laughs as it seems to be an absurd possibility. 

There have been those ministries in the history of this church that we took on without question and with great excitement. There have also been those that we questioned how God would make this ministry possible. And then there are those ministries that we have tried to force through rather than listen for God’s leading. 

One such ministry that we have recently approached with apprehension and questioning/laughter would be the XPLOR program. Prior to our first official year of being a part of this ministry, we had been talking and planning, and hearing God’s calling upon our congregation. We spent hours in meetings listening for how God is leading us here in Spokane. We spent time in conversation with different groups within our congregation and at Country Homes. The initial planning and discernment group even went through a questionnaire regarding the viability of this program. All before we got the call from the NBA (National Benevolent Association). But once we got that call and really started planning, there were those moments of questioning. Is God really leading us in this way. Are we able to do this? How is this even going to be possible? There is so much work to be done, we don’t know if we have the time or the energy to do it all. And yet, here we are beginning our second year in this program and remembering all that we have done, and looking forward to the possibilities in this new year. 

A part of our identity here in this place is as people who are constantly listening and responding to God’s call upon our lives. It isn’t something that we did once and now are all done. Rather it is a constant state of listening and responding as our community changes. As our neighborhood changes, as we ourselves change, God calls us into new and different ministries.

This is a big task for us to do. But the biggest reminder out of our texts from this morning isn’t how Abraham jumped at the change to welcome the messengers, or how Sarah laughed. Not it is that God followed through in the divine covenant. A child was born to Abraham and Sarah, even though they were well on in age and thought it was impossible. God followed through and kept the promise. 

Even when the calling that we hear seems to be absurd and impossible, we should always remember that if God is calling us, then God will make it possible for us to succeed in God’s own ways. Not by us forcing it but by listening and following where God leads us. 

Watching from the Sidelines

Rev. Chris Snow

North Hill Christian Church

September 1, 2019

Luke 14:1, 7-14

For the longest time I found it difficult to watch soccer games on TV. Not that I don’t enjoy soccer, it was just that I wanted to be in the mix of the game rather than just watch from the sidelines. But as I have grown up and my body isn’t as young and spry as it used to be, I have found enjoyment in watching the matches, even if a part of me would like to be playing again. In a way my time away on sabbatical has been like being a spectator watching from the sidelines. Watching the goings on in the church and in people of faith, while intentionally taking time away from being immersed and active. 

Growing up on the soccer field, I recognized the importance of listening to the coach’s instructions, but my mind was still focused on my role on the field. So focused on defending the goal, or moving the ball up the field that I wasn’t aware of the patterns that the coach could see. Unaware of all the passing opportunities that were available because I couldn’t track all the moving parts. Yet now as I watch matches on tv I can see the whole field. I can see the movement of the various players setting them up for scoring opportunities or setting up for an offsides call. 

Taking time off for sabbatical allowed me the chance to go from being on the field to the role of a spectator seeing patterns and blind spots that one can loose sight of on the field. 

Each time I have preached on this text from Luke in the past, I have talked about the role of the guests and the host. How the guest should be humble and not assume that they deserve the place of honor, and that the host should not simply invite those who can return the favor. But what about the onlooker. The one who is watching from the sidelines, watching from across the street, watching to see what kind of party this is, and deciding if they want to join in. Watching the guests to see if they are fighting over the place of honor or find a seat and wait for the host. If the host is generous and kind in who is welcome to their table or simply surround themselves with people of means and power. 

This past summer I had the chance to be a fly on the wall for several different congregations. As I watched to see what they were doing, what made them unique, what their worship service said about who they are as a congregation, and how they welcomed the stranger. 

One congregation specialized in hearing and telling stories. The only part of their two hour worship that felt like a worship service was about half an hour around a communion table. The rest of their time together was in sharing a meal, listening to one another’s stories, and then providing a space for individuals to share their stories with the whole group. 

Another congregation’s unique identifier was its bold and vocal stance regarding issues of justice. From the banners and flags in the sanctuary, to articles in the bulletin, and the words spoken from the pulpit and during the time of prayer. 

Another congregation we visited, reminded us of the importance of signage and instructions for greeters, as visitors are welcomed. For this congregation we entered on the main level, or what we could assume was the main level. Immediately greeted by individuals with bulletins but we were left to find our way to the sanctuary which was through the fellowship hall, up a flight of stairs, and through the narthex before we found it. Luckily we were able to follow the sounds of the congregation preparing for worship. 

But something that all these congregations had in common, they did not have a huge attendance. Overall their attendance was about the same to 10 or 20 more than our average. These congregations didn’t seem to be dead or dying. Rather they were congregations who know who they are and continue to live into God’s call for them in their place. Now, I’m sure they all have those grumblings of only if we can attract more people. If only we can attract young families. If only we could do this or that…then maybe we could be as big as we used to be. 

We know these grumblings, and yet were are still called to be a congregation listening for God’s constant calling upon our lives to declare the good news as best as we can knowing the divine is there with us helping us along the way. We are not listening for God’s calling as if we are the same church we were 20 years ago, but rather as the church we are today. 

Several years ago this congregation set forth a vision statement that says: “As a community of people called by God, blessed by the Holy Spirit, and following Christ’s example, North Hill Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is bound in covenant to continually seek God’s guidance, to act and to take action in ways that embody the reign of God, and to serve human need wherever it is found. God calls us to be a whole community and we are a place where all people are welcome, all are accepted, and each of us has an opportunity to find and joyfully share our gifts, talents and passions through worship, prayer and mission. We seek God’s guidance in building up people who explore and expand the depths of their personal relationship with God. God calls us through relationship as a whole community to minister and live as examples of the present and coming reign of God.”

The one constant of our worship and faith journey together is our time around the table. The words and actions that are shared at this table should embody all that we wish to be defined by. Where all are welcomed, all are invited, and barriers are removed for anyone who wishes to come. 

As I visited several congregations this summer and engaged in conversations, I have recognized that we can say we are welcoming, but our actions and traditions don’t always say the same thing to the on looker. The one who is watching from the sidelines to see who we are and if they are truly welcome. They are watching to see who is invited, and who is welcomed into the party that is our community.

In the coming weeks and months we will be asked how are we doing with living into this statement, and is it who God is calling us to be at this time and place. We will be in conversations about who we are as a congregation, what makes us unique and what are the ministries that define who we are. I hope that we will all continue to listen to God’s calling upon our lives and this community of faith as we take the time to discern what God is doing in this place. 

“God Makes us Clean”

May 12, 2019

Acts 10 1-17, 34-48

The church from the beginning of time and who knows how much longer has wrestled with the question of who is a proper disciple of Christ. From the question that arises out of Acts chapter 10, through the question of whether or not the various branches of Christianity were valid before the Council of Nicea, through the Catholic Church to the various protestant denominations, and even to the point of who is good enough to be a member of a local church. Whether or not we wish to admit it, we still struggle with the question of who is in and who is not. Who is good enough to be a Christian and who needs fix something first. 

At its core the question revolves around tradition and remaining comfortable with the status quo. A couple weeks ago we heard out of Matthew the commission for the disciples to go forth and make disciples of all nations, but up to this point in Acts they haven’t figured out the policies and procedures of how to do so. They haven’t figured out the ins and outs of how to make disciples of all nations, because they are entirely wrapped up in their identity as Jewish followers of Christ. That’s all they have known up to this point. 

They hadn’t gone through the whole process of figuring out who got keys to the building or to the supply cabinets. They hadn’t set up the procedures for church membership They hadn’t started looking beyond their own community to see how they would have to change. They hadn’t done the work for growth, but the spirit was growing restless. 

The struggle was about whether or not someone had to first be a Jew in order to be a Christian. So far everyone who had been baptized had first been a Jew and not Gentile. There isn’t any indication on if the early apostles had considered or talked about how to create disciples out of Gentiles. Someone who is not Jewish. Someone who was not a part of the core community. So they left it up to the Gentiles to take care of their stuff first and once everything gets sorted then they can be baptized.  

That is until the spirit decided to intervene and give Peter a push. Beginning with Peter’s vision on the roof top that highlighted the the perceived conflict of clean vs unclean, Kosher vs non-kosher, that Peter along with the rest of the disciples needed to wrestle with. It was that very struggle that had possibly held them back in bringing Gentiles into the fold. The strong sense that those who were not Jewish were unclean according to scripture and thus needed to be cleansed first. Yet Peter is led by the Spirit to go to Cornelius’ house where as he preaches before the gathered crowd something special happens. 

He is led by the spirit into an uncomfortable situation and place. A place that up this this point he had vowed would never happen because they were “unclean.” It wasn’t proper and yet the spirit was leading him and he followed. And he preached…until the spirit breaks in once more.  

The spirit descends upon the Gentiles and they exhibit gifts of the Spirit even though they were Gentiles, and even though they had not been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. And after witnessing the work of the divine they see no reason why these Gentiles should not be baptized. And that is the argument that Peter and the other believers took back to the other Apostles in Jerusalem. 

All the other apostles wanted an explanation of why Peter baptized the Gentiles and his response was, the spirit moved first. Up to this point they hadn’t seen the spirit move first. In Acts 2 the Spirit descended upon the disciples, and they went forth preaching and baptizing the crowds. After which the Spirit descended upon the crowds who had been baptized. 

This was new territory, and the question went from how do Gentiles become followers of Christ to, how can we deny what the spirit has done and place any barrier in the way that the spirit has descended upon. 

If you know anything of the history of the church even in the past 50 years you know that the church hasn’t gotten any better with responding to those places that the spirit has moved. In calling women into places of leadership of the church as deacons, elders and as clergy. Recognizing those with disabilities as full members of the community rather than individuals to be segregated somewhere else or off to the side to be invisible. Or in recognizing the spiritual gifts present in those of the LGBTQIA community. Or even seeing the homeless as equals in faith. 

It all comes down to recognizing those places in which the spirit is leading us out of the comforts of tradition, and our own conclaves of comfort towards something bigger and better. Something that embodies the full kingdom of God not just our little part of it.

For the past week or so, when thinking about how tight we hold onto the keys to the kingdom, declaring who is in and who is out, I am reminded of imagery from several different church women’s groups. And I will preface this as it is not a general statement of all women’s groups but a selection out of my own experience. Where the group had their own table cloths, and or dishes that no one else was to touch, without permission. Yes there was good reason for there to be control over those supplies, and yet it reminds me too much of how we try to control who is in the community and who still needs work. Who needs special permission to enter into the gates and who can just freely enter. 

Yet as the scriptures continue to remind us, the spirit will move where the spirit moves, and who are we to stand in the way of the work of the divine.

Bound in Forgiveness

March 10, 2019

Matthew 18:15-35

The statue in the image before you has an interesting story behind it. It was created by Josefina de Vasconcellos in 1977. It depicts a man and woman embracing and was originally entitled Reunion. 

Josefina describes the sculpture in this way; “The sculpture was originally conceived in the aftermath of the War. Europe was in shock, people were stunned. I read in a newspaper about a woman who crossed Europe on foot to find her husband, and I was so moved that I made the sculpture. Then I thought that it wasn’t only about the reunion of two people but hopefully a reunion of nations which had been fighting.”

Later it was renamed Reconciliation upon the request of the Peace Studies Department of the University of Bradford which owns the original. In 1995 (to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II) bronze casts of this sculpture were placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and in the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. An additional cast can be found on the grounds of Stormont Castle in Belfast. To mark the opening of the rebuilt German Reichstag (parliament building) in 1999, another cast was placed as part of the Berlin Wall memorial.

The Coventry Cathedral where this one stands became the International Center for Reconciliation in 1940 out of the ruins of the destroyed cathedral in the second World War. The history goes that instead of seeking revenge for the destruction of the cathedral the center’s founders vowed to seek reconciliation in areas of conflict. 

Another significant act of reconciliation has come out of South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of Apartheid. As the victims of Apartheid were able to voice the wrongs done against them, to their oppressors so that the people could move forward, not out of revenge but reconciliation. Seeking healing from times of oppression and injury.

These historic moments of reconciliation out of horrendous tragedies in humanity’s history, are wonderful examples of how it is possible to find healing even in the presence of terrible brokenness and scars. Times when the harm that has been born out of conflict, or oppression, is brought to light so that a way forward may be found. 

It is easy to look at these as virtuous examples of healing out of harm. Of forgiveness for the wrongs that have been done, and yet, we struggle in those moments where we are to forgive. We can lift up these examples where peoples have been able to move forward in relationship, even after terrible injustices have been done. These historic moments did not just wash away the evils that had been done, but rather brought them to light so that the victim and the oppressor could hear and see the error of their ways. So that in recognizing the brokenness they have caused they could move forward through repentance. 

This past Wednesday, some of us came together to mark the beginning of Lent. This is a season where we are called to intentionally look within ourselves at those moments where we have fallen short, where we have sinned against God and one another. To seek forgiveness as we strive to be better followers of Christ. As we seek to heal the brokenness in our world. To heal the brokenness in our own lives. Yet if we are to seek reconciliation with those we have harmed, we are also called to find reconciliation with those who are seeking forgiveness. 

The whole of chapter 18 is about forgiveness and healing in one way or another. It begins by calling out the individual who has done harm to another and calls the hearer to examine their own life so that restoration may be found. Then we have today’s reading starting with verse 15, which first instructs the hearer in how to make the brokenness known to the one who caused it, and then how we are to forgive those who have sinned against us. 

And then we have this parable from Matthew 18:23-35. 

We begin by hearing how a master forgives his slave’s immense debt when he simply asked for more time. Now to provide some context here, a talent was equal to about 15 years worth of wages for a laborer, and he owed 10,000 talents. 15,000 years worth of wages. No telling how this slave was able to amass such a debt, not to mention how he could ever pay it off, and yet the master forgives him the debt. 

Then the slave goes to one of his peers who owes him a hundred denarii, a few weeks worth of wages. A mere fraction of what this slave had been forgiven by his master, yet when their peer is unable to pay, they are thrown into prison until it is paid. 

This parable isn’t about the exact amount of money but rather about the absurd amount of compassion that God has for us, and our response when others ask for a mere fraction of that compassion. 

Each Sunday we pray the Lord’s prayer and I hope as we say the words, we are reminded that God’s forgiveness of our sins and brokenness is tied up in how we forgive others. We celebrate through songs, and prayers the Love of God. We lift up our broken places seeking forgiveness, knowing that the Lord our God has compassion for us. Yet, we need the reminder of this parable. We need the reminder to forgive those who seek our forgiveness. It doesn’t mean forgetting the harm that has been done, but rather moving forward into a place of reconciliation. It doesn’t mean the person escapes punishment from the proper authorities. It does mean we don’t hold the burden of their sin over their head when they seek forgiveness. 

The International Center for Reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were not set up to simply forget the brokenness in our world through conflict and oppression, but rather recognized more good can come from healing than through revenge and retribution. More healing can be done as we learn, and grow from those places where sin has caused injury. 

As we find forgiveness in the Lord our God, we find a way forward, to be better, to bring wholeness into our world. In the same way as our peers seek forgiveness we have the opportunity to find healing and growth. A way forward together, rather than demanding retribution. Finding healing where there could otherwise be a weight, weighing both parties down. 

Finding God’s Favor

January 27, 2018

Matthew 5:1-12

From day to day I hear the word “blessed” thrown around with ease and without consideration for what we really mean. In most contexts in which I hear the phrase, “I am so blessed.” It is out of gratitude and thankfulness for what they have. Which is different from saying one is blessed. To be thankful for something means something different than how blessed is used throughout the scriptures. 

Some may take the beatitudes and switch out the word happy for blessed. “Happy are those who are poor in spirit it, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Happy re those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 

The substituting the word happy or joyful seems to miss the presence of suffering and yearning within these statements. Those who mourn aren’t all of a sudden happy because they will be comforted. There may be assurance in that statement but doesn’t change their current emotional state. Being meek doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Being a peacemaker or one who works for righteousness in the world, doesn’t always equate to happiness just because. 

Instead to look at the presence of blessing in these statements is to recognize God continually showing preference for the least of these. In these statements we hear of God’s favor for each of these groups. God is paying special attention to those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.  Whether their life circumstances have caused them to be in one or more of these areas, or through conscious decisions they have chosen to show mercy and strive for righteousness, or peace, their lives have been named as those that have God’s favor. They are blessed. 

As we also continue to consider how we speak to God’s blessing, I am always reminded of a conversation with my peers as we sat in a circle of rocking chairs as we were debriefing from a long day of learning through experience in Managua Nicaragua. It turned into a deconstruction of how we as North Americans overuse, or misuse the word blessed, when we instead mean, happy or thankful. 

We had spent days traveling around Managua, learning about the culture, and what the churches were doing in that area. We were listening to what they found to be important to their lives and their faith. But we also saw poverty, to a much larger extent than we know here in the US. We saw how greed caused immense harm. We heard of those places in which groups came into the area in response to a massive earthquake to help, but refused to listen and hear what was needed. We heard of the hundreds of families that live, work, and learn in the city dump. 

What does it mean when we say that we who have the means, and the ability to travel to other countries to learn and experience, from the safety of vans, compounds, and guides, to say that we are blessed in doing so? When we claim that we have God’s favor for having such an opportunity that is not afforded to others? We all recognized that we were thankful for such opportunities, and that we have been changed by them, but did we actually deserve to claim God’s favor for an opportunity that most do not have?  

The Gospel of Luke in chapter 6 has a similar text as Matthew with a significant change. In Luke we see both sides of the coin of blessings and woes. “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of your, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’”

In both Matthew and Luke, we find these texts at the beginning of Jesus’ sermon to the crowd that has gathered near him, after he has been at work in the countryside healing the sick, casting out demons, and working with the least of these. So those that Jesus finds himself speaking to include those that he has already been working with and declaring the good news through his actions. Others that have gathered are those that have heard what he has been doing and have drawn near to hear what he has to say. 

Jesus opens the significant teaching moments of his ministry, the sermon on the mount in Matthew, and the sermon on the plains in Luke, with these statements of blessing. Blessing the least of these, not those who have all their needs and wants cared for. Blessing for those who have been forgotten, and excluded by society. Those very people who have found themselves cared for by Jesus and drawn close. 

But how do we hear the beatitudes and the good news of Jesus Christ, that pays special attention to those that our society still ostracizes and pushes to the fringe. How do we hear the words of Jesus’ sermon when we still grumble when some one doesn’t fit our “perfect” mold wants to hear the good news? How do we hold the gospel close to our hearts if we grumble about the homeless in our community? For we are full now, we are housed now, we are happy now. 

The blessings we have heard this morning come with a warning for those who have enough. Those who are comfortable enough, those who are satisfied with the way things are. For in those places there is warning because there is still work for us to do, if we hunger and thirst for that righteousness and seek to be peacemakers in this world. 

Wandering With Faith

January 20, 2019

Matthew 4:1-17, Psalm 91

Commercialized Christianity holds and promotes an idealized view of how our lives will be if we just have faith. If you pray hard enough, or just right, all your troubles will simply go away and all your prayers will be answered. If you have faith your life will be easy without stumbling blocks and struggles. If you turn everything over to God, then everything will be taken care of. If you believe and pray just right you will have all the money and stuff that you ever wanted. 

Granted there are a number of different theologies and stereotypes thrown into this mass of popularized Christian themes. But there is a reoccurring theme in all of them, which in practice causes more harm than good. If you have the right amount of faith and practice it just right, then God will take over so you don’t have to do anything. If you walk in faith just right then you won’t have to struggle in any way. If you do things just right your salvation will make everything perfect all the time. 

This whole idea misses the point of the countless lives of faith that are listed in the Bible, who even though they had faith they struggled. None of these individual’s lives in the Bible turned out to be perfect. No one within our scriptures lived their lives without struggles, even as there are countless texts that tell of how God will watch over you and protect you. 

“Psalm 91”

The scriptures are filled with these encouraging texts and words of promise for those who are seeing the assurance that God is with them. Scriptures of if one relies on God, then they will be protected. But there is still that element of struggle. An element that even the faithful will face problems and temptation, but the Lord our God will still be there. 

When I was running cross country in High School I would often recite a portion of the text from “Isaiah 40:28-31”. I didn’t read it so I could run faster or be without fatigue. Instead I recited it to find encouragement. To remember that I was not alone. To find a different source of energy that helped me continue on in those places where I just wanted to stop and rest. 

Today’s gospel text reminds us of Jesus’ own temptation before his ministry kicks off. As Jesus has spent a prolonged period of time out in the wilderness, fasting both day and night, the tempter comes to him. While his body is at its weakest, the devil comes to tempt him and lead him astray. We have the temptation to satisfy the bodily needs of bread. Then The temptation to test God’s word. Finally the temptation of absolute power. 

The first two temptations utilize if-then statements. If you are indeed the son of God then.,, Then you can turn this stone into bread. Then you can simply throw yourself down from this high place and the angels will protect you. In all three of these temptations Jesus responds with scripture. The first recognizing that the bodily needs are not all that we need, and the second addresses the misuse of scripture on the devil’s part. Matthew utilizes Deuteronomy for reference regarding the testing whether or not the angels will protect him. While this is true, Jesus responds in such a way that recognizes how scriptures should be used. We can find justification to do many things for our own benefit, but that is not the way of Christ. 

The final temptation is that of power, that the devil presumes to have authority. He presumes to be able to determine who has power over all the kingdoms of the earth and offered it to Jesus for his loyalty and devotion. Jesus responds with a the commandment to, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The end of Matthew concludes with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go therefore and make disciples of all nations The power over the earth lays with Christ not the devil.  

In this text we recognize that even Jesus had to deal with temptations. Even Jesus had to deal with bodily hunger and struggles. And because of his humanity, he struggled with the people. He struggled amongst the people. He was not separated from the ills of this world rather he was neck deep in the struggles of this earth, with the people. We can hope that at our best we can be as strong as Jesus at his weakest. We can hope to find strength to do what is right, as we follow the example of Jesus Christ. 

We are called to follow in the footsteps of Christ as we seek to shrug off the temptations of this world with the help of the divine. We are called to do this in relationship, not just with the divine, but with those around us. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t one of individualism, get your self fixed and go along the way. Instead it was a ministry of community, a ministry of being with the people who are struggling, so that we can provide a helping hand.

Even as we find ourselves journeying on the way with the divine and one another. Let us not be diluted in thinking that all our struggles will simply disappear if we have enough faith. Let us instead recognize that the divine strengthens us to keep going. Encourages us when we feel beaten down. And gives us a shoulder to lean on when we feel we can’t go on any more. And as we find strength, we are to share it and use that encouragement to bring others up out of the muck as well. 

Gifts for a King

January 6,2019

Matthew 2:1-23

The popularized image of the magi coming to present gifts to the Christ child fills us with such great joy and excitement. We celebrate the gifts that they have brought to this child, even if they don’t make sense for a young child and a simple family. And yet, we are compelled to look past the facade of three magi presenting gifts to the child in a stable, to consider the ramifications of these individuals searching for this new king of the Jews when there is already someone sitting on that very throne. A declaration that causes the holy family to flee from their homes, out of fear for their own safety and the life of this child, to a foreign land, only returning once the threat is gone. 

We have seen the photos of refugees fleeing into Europe. We have seen photos of those who wish to seek asylum within our own country, but we don’t often consider why are they making this journey. Why are they risking their lives to seek safety, to seek refuge, to seek asylum in another country that shouts in loud voices, that they are not wanted? They are fleeing a place that is not safe for them or their families. Some are being hunted, others persecuted, others trying to get out of situations of violence, hoping to find safety. And I would ask, “Was the holy family welcomed with open arms into Egypt, or looked upon with scorn.” 

The Magi come to King Herod asking to see this child who has been born king of the jews. A king that is not Herod. A king who’s very existence is a threat to Herod’s reign which was already on shaky ground. These Magi, from another land come seeking to pay homage to this king who has been born, but need directions first from the current king. They bring forth gifts that hint to his greatness, in wisdom, healing, and divinity. Gifts are offered in proclamation of who they knew this child to be. And that was not good news for Herod. 

Throughout the history of the church, throughout the history of the world, when the declaration like this of the Christ Child is made, in the face of authoritarian regimes. In the face of dictators, and oppressors, it does not bode well for the one declaring this truth, and in this case does not bode well for the savior. 

In Nazi Germany the honest and truthful declaration of Jesus the Christ as messiah, savior, redeemer, was one that pushed back against the authority of Hitler. And so it was suppressed. In China this same declaration is a contradiction to the perceived power of the government. And so the churches are regulated. Yet suppressing the truth of the christ does not make it any less true. 

Herod’s response to hearing the proclamation by the wise men, plays out like that of many science fiction, or dramatic movies in which there is a savior figure. The one who is to bring peace, and stability. The one who will make everything good and right. The one who divinely special. Once those in power have heard about their existence, instead of embracing them and asking for their guidance and help, they are hunted down. Their lives become increasingly difficult. But they still win out. 

As Herod hears the details of when the magi first saw the star he sends out an order to kill all the children in the Bethlehem area who were two years of age and younger. He throws a wide net, hoping to capture his prey and eliminate the threat to his reign and power. But the holy family escapes to a foreign land where they can be safe for a time. 

Between the actions of the magi and the holy family, I find my self pulled into two directions this morning. The first is that of the magi’s confession of faith. To confess Christ as lord, Christ as king, Christ as savior is to say that others are not. They were taking a risk in even proclaiming this truth in the face of king Herod. 

Now while the Disciples of Christ, don’t have a creedal confession of faith on which to measure one’s beliefs we do have an affirmation of faith. “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the World.” For us to declare this truth, also declares that those who call themselves by these titles are not. For us to declare this about Christ, is our declaration that others who would call themselves savior, lord, messiah, are not. 

While I was in college, in Canton, MO I worked in the chaplain’s office, and it just so happed to be a presidential election year. As I was talking with some of the more seasoned employees of the college, the name of the candidate I voted for came up and my identity as Christian was put into question by this person. Because I voted “wrong”. The idea of if you are truly a christian you will vote for this person, and not the other. The idea that if one is to truly be a Christian one must give allegiance to this person over another. 

In Nazi Germany there were many churches that gave their allegiance to Hitler even though they knew somewhere in side that what he was doing was wrong. Yet they still hung his flags on the altars and sacred spaces. 

There is a problem when those in power demand unyielding loyalty and allegiance. But the confession of faith that we say each Sunday is a statement in which I find strength. It is a reminder of where the real power is in the world. It is a reminder of our calling to seek something higher and more amazing, than expecting one person, one leader to do it all for us.  

The second is that of our response to the plight of the holy family. Later on this Spring we will be looking more closely at the Matthew 25 text of the judgement of the nations. But it is key here. This is not a question of what would Jesus do, but rather how would we care for the holy family? How would we treat them and how do we treat those who find themselves in the same situation? 

In the Matthew 25 text we hear of the Son of Man as he returns in all his glory separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who cared for the least of these. For those that did it to any of the least of these also did so to Christ. The goats were those who refused to tend to the least of God’s children for in doing so they did not do so to Christ. 

Our hearts are torn when we see images of refugee children, especially in Europe. But we find ourselves faced with the same opportunities. As we recognize there are individuals waiting on our southern border seeking asylum, seeking safety, seeking refuge from dangerous situations. How do we respond? Do we remain silent because this doesn’t effect me. Do we remain blind because we don’t want to get involved. Or are we willing to speak out. Seeking to declare God’s truth, and push the power that be to make available options for their safety. 

The declaration of the magi was one that we should not take lightly. The declaration of who Jesus is in the world is one that we should hold onto without wavering in the face of those that would seek to take over the savior role. As we hear the confession of the magi, we also hear of the danger posed to the messiah. Danger that never fully subsided as Jesus’ existence threatened the powers that be. We recognize the injustice done by those who oppress the people through fear and intimidation, and are called to respond when they seek sanctuary. The confession of the magi is much more than bringing three gifts to the holy family. It is a confession that brings danger and truth. 

Come to the River

January 13, 2019

Matthew 3:13-17

As we come to the river, figuratively or literally, we come with expectations. We come as we are. We come because we have heard a calling. We come, for something special that we know may change us if we let it. We come just as those came to John the Baptist who was crying out in the wilderness, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of God is close at hand, come and turn aside to find it. Come, change your direction, and seek that which has come near. 

That warning of “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” in too many ways has been taken as a threat; an omen of the end of the world. A statement that is to strike fear into the hearts of sinners. While instead, if we recognize the truth of Jesus the Christ that this warning declares. The truth that lies within the heart of Jesus’ ministry, love, compassion, and healing, is instead one of encouragement for those who hear the call. 

As I remember my own journey towards being baptized, it wasn’t one wrapped in fear and dread, but rather one that celebrated what I knew of the divine. I remember this sense of invitation, not condemnation or pressure, invitation to come as you are to seek the kingdom of God. Give your life to the divine for something far better. Since that moment I have also recognized within myself the responsibility within that decision. There is a responsibility within our choice to be baptized. It is a responsibility to continually seek the kingdom of God and strive to make the truth we know in Christ a reality in on earth. 

As John cried out in the wilderness, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near…I baptize you with water for repentance…” The baptism wasn’t the one and done end all cure for the brokenness within the people’s relationship with the divine. It wasn’t the final solution to cure all ills. It was just the beginning. It was a choice to change one’s life direction. It was a choice to come and seek the kingdom of God. The baptism became more than a simple ritual cleansing and washing, to something more. A starting point in one’s new life with the divine.  

It was an action of turning to the Kingdom of Heaven that even Jesus found himself engaged in. Each time I have found myself engaged in a community Bible study on this text, I have almost always receive the honest question of, if Jesus was without sin why did Jesus choose to be baptized. 

This week, the answer to this question for me is wrapped in the word of repentance. It is a word that goes much deeper than simply seeking forgiveness for one’s sins towards requiring something more. Requiring a change in one’s direction for their life. A conscious change in how one chooses to live their life. In the case of John the baptist, baptizing in the river, it was in connection with the kingdom of heaven. Calling the people to change their ways that would bear good fruit for the kingdom of heaven, rather than for the kingdoms of this earth. 

The scriptures are filled with those intentional moments to come and seek the divine. Changing their direction in order to follow where the divine was leading. We have Abraham and Sarah who heard God’s promise and followed wherever he was led. Moses out in the wilderness noticed a burning bush off in the distance and changed his direction to investigate. Samuel, who heard God calling in the night, and with help answering the call. The early disciples being called by Jesus along the lakeshore to put down their nets and come and follow. There is a defining point within the scriptures where individuals had to make a decision. Turn from their current life to seek God or not. 

As Jesus comes to be baptized by John, we see this intentional decision that he makes to pursue the kingdom of heaven. Before this point, except for in Luke, we don’t hear about Jesus’ life through childhood or as a young adult. At this point, which appears before Jesus’ ministry officially begins he intentionally comes to John, a humble act, to be baptized. A decision to orient his life on the kingdom of Heaven that will be revealed in his ministry. A visible sign to all those who are watching of the choice that Jesus is making. In doing this all the people hear of who Jesus is as he arises out of the water. “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  

Our baptism is our intentional decision, to repent, seek forgiveness, seek the kingdom of Heaven. It was not the final step in being made whole with the divine but rather the beginning. Our journeys towards God did not end when we decided to give our lives over to the divine. Our lives in Christ simple began, because now we have a responsibility to the divine to pursue and bring forth the kingdom of heaven how ever we can. 

Preceding Jesus’ baptism John is cautioning all those who have come to him for baptism. Warning them that simply washing and seeking forgiveness isn’t enough. They have to change their ways and bear fruit worthy of repentance. Having ones actions reflect the change in one’s direction, from those things of this world, to that of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

As we remember the baptism of Jesus Christ this morning, we are called to also remember our own baptism. To remember the decisions that we made to dedicate our lives to Christ. To remember that choice to pursue the kingdom Heaven, and evaluate how we are doing. Are we bearing good fruits or do we need to lay down some fertilizer  on our spiritual lives to get back on course to bearing abundant fruit. 

“All are welcome”

Over the past few weeks I have been surrounded by constant reminders of barriers that are put up around participation in worship. I have been constantly aware of restrictions on participation as one with disabilities and recognizing our church buildings and especially sanctuaries were often designed and built without the ADA in mind (or prior to the ADA). And yet those very structures limit the ways in which the whole congregation can participate and aid in the leadership of worship.

Then comes the reminder that the church has not always been loving and welcoming to those that don’t fit our understanding of normal and what may be helpful for the whole congregation to be active in worship. As I have been actively working alongside other clergy in my area to host an interfaith Pride service for the LGBTQ community, I am ever mindful that the church has not always been welcoming to this community. I say that we are hosting this service because it is not for us but rather for this community so that they may know they are loved by people of faith and that there are indeed places of worship that have their doors open to individuals that have too often been hurt by institutions of faith.

As I walked along the sidewalk prior to the Pride Parade with a rainbow clerical collar on, I recognized the grace that was known because of my presence in opposition to protestors who threw statements of hate and disgust at our community members. As I sat on benches and talked with members of the LGBTQ community, I understood their pain caused by religious institutions while at the same time their gratitude for being willing to show up and be present without asking for anything in return.

As I am reminded of the harm churches have shoveled upon the heads of the LGBTQ community I have been shocked by the many conversations and many posts on social media of people being hurt, shunned, dismissed by the church because of mental, physical, or developmental disabilities. It is too easy for churches to plan their worship and life of the congregation to be nice and tidy but that is not reflective of our lives. It is not even reflective of our culture or mindful of the brokenness that is present within churches themselves. We like to think of worship of being a perfectly planned out service, when instead the occurrence of a service with 0 mistakes or typos is rare.

Perhaps this ideal of a perfectly orderly worship service is a part of why churches struggle with welcoming everyone into their doors. By holding up our desire for a perfect worship service and to be the perfect church we forget about the messiness of our lives and the need for accommodations for those that are differently able and engage worship in different ways. Churches could easily put ramps up to the chancel of the sanctuary, “but won’t that cause us to move everything around to make it work.” Churches could provide sign language interpreters for deaf members, “but where will they stand and won’t they be distracting for other people.” Churches could…fill in the blank…and why “it won’t work.”

So, while churches too often seek the perfect worship service, this often goes in opposition to saying that everyone is indeed welcome. When seeking to be perfect, churches and cultures drive away anyone that does not fit into the norm. It drives away those that see themselves as imperfect or not good enough. In part the message that is sent when perfection is the goal for church life is that in order to be a part of this service or community you have to take care of your “stuff” first, then you can be spiritually fed here.

My mind is drawn to the first creation story within the book of Genesis which spans the entirety of the first chapter and the first 4 verses of the second chapter. We hear this very orderly account of the creation of all that we know. From the stars to the smallest of organism on the earth. It is so orderly in fact that it makes us forget about the messiness that is found in the world. Or better yet those things that we name as imperfections or abnormal. This creation text was written at a time of chaos and disorder when the people were seeking to understand how God is able to overcome that chaos. We hear that in the beginning there was a formless void. No sense of order nothing has taken shape. There was chaos and as each day progressed God spoke things into existence in a very orderly and methodical manner, and as each item was created God called it good.

We love this sense of order but as we look upon God’s creation today and reflect over the texts that include people that do not fit the understanding of normal either in their context or today, we forget that they too have been created by God. We love the order of God’s creation until we have to face the reality that God’s creation does not always fit with our understanding of normal or perfection.

We love the idea of God’s perfect creation and in some ways, we try to live up to that while at the same time forgetting that it is our mission to bring healing into the world. We seek perfection and in doing so we often seek to live perfect lives where we do not get our hands dirty, or don’t take risks to make things better. While this way of being may have, us living in our own little bubbles of perfection it causes us to disassociate with anyone that we see as other.

That very action of disassociation goes against the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as our self. We are called to love all of our neighbors in spite of our imperfections. Yes, loving our neighbors is hard work, but I believe it has to start with recognizing that all of our neighbors are beloved children of God that God created in our mother’s wombs. Just as we claim the text from Psalm 139 to speak truth about our individual relationships with God we must also allow that text to speak the truth of our neighbors as well.

As we seek to live out our faith in this messy world we need to move away from seeking to be perfect in every way to moving towards making the world a better place. In order to bring about change in the world one has to show up and be present in the messy places of our world. We have to show up and provide a presence of grace as we recognize the harm that those that claim the same title of Christian have caused upon the LGBTQ community, and many other disenfranchised communities in our world.