The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

Don Quixote and Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)

The South Will Rise

Our scriptures for the second week of February, 2015 included John 17:20-26 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Reflections on The Belhar Confession, Black History Month, and the hope that is the church.

I have been in some pretty sketchy places over the years. Earlier this week I was telling my wife about one of the rooms I stayed in on my recent trip to Africa, and I heard myself saying, “You know, once I got used to the rats, it wasn’t bad at all.” I remember taking the youth group into an incredibly seedy fast food joint a number of years ago, and a very disturbed and clearly hallucinogenic patron could not quite make up his mind whether he wanted to order food, throw up, or make a pass at Jessica Prevost, so he did all three of those things. In that order. As I recall, I was not among the finalists in “Youth Group Leader of the Year” that season.

LiveCustomersHere’s a photo of me in another sketchy place. I’m standing at the door to the bus station in Dangriga, Belize. In case you can’t make it out, the sign on the door at the bus station in Dangriga, Belize reads, “Live Customers Only.”

I’ll let you sit on that for a moment. “Live Customers Only.” What do you suppose happened there, and how many times must it have happened, to lead someone to say, “You know what, Luis? I’ve had it. I’m sick of this. Put up a sign. We’ve got to have some sort of policy about live customers only.” Really? How many places in the world is this a problem – too many dead people trying to take the bus? It was a sketchy place.

BelizeBusI hasten to add that I was not in Dangriga for the purpose of visiting the bus station. I was there because, well, I wanted to get on a bus. We were heading into the heart of that country to visit the Central American rain forest – a place of beauty and wonder and awe. And because I believed that that destination was worthwhile, I found myself clutching my sixteen year old daughter a little closer as we waited in this sketchy place, surrounded by broken, but live, people.

February is Black History Month in the USA. It is not a religious observance, per se, but it does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are vis-à-vis race relations in the US, in Pittsburgh, in Crafton Heights, and in our own lives.

And I don’t know whether it’s connected or not, but during Black History Month, Pittsburgh Presbytery will be taking a vote as to whether a document called The Belhar Confession should be included in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. The Book of Confessions is a collection of faith statements written over a span of about 1700 years that helps to shape our journey toward faithful discipleship in Christ. The Belhar document is a statement that was written by a group of South African theologians as that nation and its cultures wrestled against the demon that was the apartheid system of racial oppression, torture, and death.

BelharWorshipService440x180I like the Belhar Confession. I think that it is Biblical, practical, and wise. If you’d like to read it for yourself, there are some copies on the table in the back of the room – it’s just a few pages. Unlike every other document in our Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession is rooted in the global south. Nearly all of our other creeds and statements, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, and everyone’s favorite, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1536 come from the north of Europe. It’s not wrong to have a Book of Confessions that is rooted in one place; it’s just incomplete.

Some of my friends will look at the title of this message and say, “The south is going to rise? Yeah, baby, you know it will…” For many, that phrase evokes echoes of this nation’s civil war, or as some of my friends insist on calling it, “the war of northern aggression.” Saying that the South will rise is another way of saying that the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come back.

You will not be surprised, I hope, to learn that this is not what I mean. When I say that the South will rise, I hear it as a message of hope. Christians with life experiences that are different than mine will gain prominence in the world. As this happens, the global church will be made more complete and will more adequately reflect all of God’s intentions for humanity. When I say the South will rise, I do not mean to imply that the North will fall. All of us can be lifted. The fact that the Belhar Confession is under consideration by a church with roots in Switzerland and Scotland is an encouraging sign that perhaps the South is, in fact, rising.

What can we learn from the Belhar Confession? Well, let’s go back to the bus station in Dangriga. I knew, even before I saw the sign, that I was in a difficult place. Similarly, you don’t need me to tell you that this world is damaged in significant ways. We are surrounded by things that are not as they should be.

The Belhar Confession names some of that brokenness this way:

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…

Do you hear what that says about the world in which we live? That it is full of injustice and hatred, oppression and hunger; that there are too many who are orphaned or widowed or captive or poor. The world is not the way that it should be!

But remember, I didn’t go to the bus station in Dangriga in order to visit Dangriga. I had a destination in mind: the rain forest. The bus station was simply the place from which I started.

The Belhar document reminds me that the places where we begin are not necessarily the places for which we are destined. The kinds of brokenness that surround us now are not God’s purposes for his beloved children. God’s intentions, as stated squarely by Jesus in John 17 and Paul in the letter to the Romans, are for God’s people to live together in right relationships, connected truly and authentically with God and with each other.

The Christians in South Africa put it this way:

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another…

  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted…

  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind…

Isn’t that where we want to go? We don’t need to stay where we are – it woudn’t make sense to stay in a place that is broken. Doesn’t that passage describe God’s purposes for the church?

But how do we get there? How do we leave the bus station and get to the rain forest? How do we pull away from the brokenness and separation that surrounds us and grow into the community to which Christ calls us?

4701837-Chicken-Bus-in-Belize-City-1Well, back in Dangriga I got on the bus. Listen to me, beloved: I did not make the bus. I did not drive the bus. I had no information as to the safety inspections of that bus. All I know is that if I was going to get my family to the rain forest, we were going to get on that bus. The bus was a given to be enjoyed (or endured) – an experience with many languages, many children, many baskets of produce, many, um, delicate aromas, many chickens, and a few turkeys. That bus was the means by which I would leave the station and arrive at the rain forest.

Similarly, God has given this world a means in which to leave the brokenness of our present condition and grow into the fullness of his intentions for us. The vehicle in which he intends us to arrive at his purposes is, well, us. The church is God’s instrument of healing in the world.

handsinsandMake sure that when you hear me say that, you understand that I mean the church as it is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not necessarily the institution that sits on this corner and enjoys a tax break every now and again. If God is going to do what God says God is going to do, then it’s going to happen because the church – the whole church, the one church – will point to those intentions of God. And the only way that we can do this is in the strength of Jesus Christ.

Listen one more time to what Belhar says:

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.

  • that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…

Note that the strength and the power that is given to the church does not come through political policy or worship style; it’s not based on skin color or moral purity – it is based in the unity that we have received as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

The church is one. The church is the Body of Christ. We are not supposed to be Christ’s Body, or going to be that Body some day. By definition, the church is one and the church is Christ’s.

In 1982, a group of Christians came to see this in South Africa, and they rejected the sin of their age: an evil system of racial hatred and segregation that had been enshrined not only in the national law, but in the church doctrine. The brothers and sisters in that time and place rejected apartheid as false teaching and repented. That is to say, they changed direction.

Beloved, as we stand on this corner at the beginning of 2015, we confess that like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or Paul writing in a prison cell, or believers living in Capetown thirty-five years ago – we are not where we should be. We have been called to walk towards God’s best for his children. And in this time and this place, I need to say that I will walk in that direction, and that I will walk the only way that the church knows how to walk – with everyone who has been called of God. I can’t go only with the people that I like the best, or with the folks with whom I feel most comfortable. I can’t go only with people who think I’m right all the time, or who speak in a language that I understand flawlessly.

As we seek to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, may we be ever-increasingly aware of the unity that is ours in Jesus.

I get it. Black History month is an artificial construct. It can be downright hokey. But let’s use it anyway. Let’s use these days to learn something of a culture that may not be our own. Let’s listen for stories we don’t know. Let’s consider where there are places that we may need to repent, or turn around, or try again.

It’s not a black thing, and it’s not a white thing. We don’t do this because it’s politically correct, or because it will make us feel all warm and gushy inside. We do this because the unity of the Church is a given; it is essential to the very life and being of the church. We ought to live like that unity is not merely an idea, but a reality; and if we deign to call ourselves the church, we ought to live like the Lord has called us to live.

We may not be where we want to be, and we are not where we are going to be – but God has shown us his intentions. – where he wants us to be. And, so far as I can see, there’s only one bus out of this place, and it’s called the church, the Body of Christ. May we be that body – that living, breathing, very much live body – in this place and time. Amen.

Outlandish Trust

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the first Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Abram.  The scripture was from Genesis 13:1-18.

My friend and neighbor Jessalyn would say that this is a “first-world problem”. But I’m here to tell you, it really chaps my hide.

Five spots.  Don't screw it up.

Five spots. Don’t screw it up.

The distance from the corner of Earlham Street to the fire hydrant in front of my house is about a hundred feet. If you do it right, there’s plenty of space for five vehicles. If you screw it up, you can park two there.

Nothing gets under my skin more than driving home after a long day and discovering that some idiot has ruined two or three parking spaces in front of my home because he couldn’t be bothered to learn how to parallel park. I’m driving up Cumberland Street, and I wonder – will there be enough space to park? I mean, come on, people, I pay my taxes, I take care of the place, and I don’t have any place to park my car?

And some kind person might say, “Well, Dave, why not park around back?” “What are you, crazy? I can’t park there! That’s where I keep the boat…” Oh, yeah. Rich people’s problems.

You see what’s happening here, right? This is a great illustration of a concept with which we’re all familiar, and on which too many of us base our lives: the concept of scarcity. All the economic systems of the world are based on the ideology of scarcity: communism, capitalism, it doesn’t matter – all of us are trained to see the world through the lenses of scarcity. We believe – we know – that there is not enough to go around, and so we need to figure out a way to get what we want. Now. If there were five parking spots and only two interested cars, you’d just take one and be done with it. But if there are more cars than spaces, and we all want to park as close to our homes as possible, who ends up with the prime location? You see? Scarcity. We know the ideology of scarcity.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham.  Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham. Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

Our reading this morning from Genesis points us towards an example of scarcity and its implications. Abram and his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, had been in Egypt where some rather unusual things had gone on (more about that in a moment). They are called from Egypt northwards – back to the land that had been promised to Abram and Sarai and their descendants. And as they show up near Bethel, the drama of scarcity plays itself out before our eyes.

Abram and Lot have each done pretty well for themselves in recent years. They’ve got sizeable herds and more than a few employees. It turns out that the “promised land” doesn’t have enough water or grass to keep everyone happy. Tempers are short. Conflict erupts. And here we see, according to theologian Walter Brueggeman, the tension between the ideology of scarcity and the power of the promise.[1] God has already promised this land to Abram and his descendants. Abram could say, “Well, Lot, it was good to be with you. Good luck with the herds and everything – I guess you’ll be needing to make your own way in the world now, so I can save all of these resources for my descendants. I hear that Lebanon is nice this time of year…”

But you know that’s not what happens! Instead, Abram opens up the land to Lot. “Go ahead, son, you choose.” How can he do that? Because Abram has a trust in the promise that trumps his fear of scarcity. As a septuagenarian who is depending on God to make a great nation out of his unborn children, Abram is saying to Lot, “Look, it doesn’t matter. If God can keep the promise of a great nation out of my withered old body, then he can do it on any land. Just pick, and let’s not fight.”

That attitude from Abram brought a question to my mind: where did he learn to believe like that? How did he trust so completely? Well, in chapter 12, God promised the land to Abram and Sarai . However, their first experience in that place is one of famine. Turns out the “promised land”, at least on first glance, wasn’t everything that these old folks thought it might be. So they leave the land, and, facing a scarcity of food and a time of insecurity, they come into Egypt. And there, in that climate of worry and doubt and fear, Abram responds by lying to Pharaoh. Pharaoh has a crush on Sarai, and Abram doesn’t do anything to discourage it. “Did I say she was my wife? Ohhhh, must have been a mistranslation…She’s my sister. My sister.” Fortunately for everyone, God intervenes in a remarkable way, but the lesson is learned. Even when Abram was careless with the promise (after all, how was Abram going to come by all these descendants apart from his wife?), God remains faithful. God’s promises do not depend on human situations – God is not a believer in the ideology of scarcity and God reunites Abram and Sarai and sends them back to the land he’s pledged to give to them and their children.

And, as you read, the result of Abram’s faith, trust, and generosity is that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Lot took over the rich bottom-land and Abram was left with the scrub country around Dead Man’s Gulch.”[2]

But that’s not all he’s left with. There in the desert of Canaan, God renews the promise. And whereas in Genesis twelve, God mentions “offspring” or “seed” only once, here we see that word three times in verses 15 and 16. Abram’s children will be countless, God says. You can’t see them yet. They’re not here yet. But there is seed. And then God calls Abram to get up and take a survey of the land; Abram builds altars to worship the Lord and continues to live in tents.

It’s interesting to note, too, what didn’t happen. When Abram gave Lot the good land, there wasn’t any great declaration of gratitude on Lot’s part. The children that God promised didn’t come immediately. There was no mass outcry from the local population for Abram to come and live with them. Abram and Sarai were not given the “keys to the city” anyplace in this promised land. Abram was, in the eyes of the world around him, pretty irrelevant and insignificant. Just a crazy, lonely old guy who trusted God and obeyed him. That’s how Genesis 13 ends.

So what is the word for us today? Where is the call of God in our lives from this passage? Allow me to suggest that this scripture invites us to explore the areas in our lives where there is a conflict between what is easy and what is right; between what is convenient and what is just; between what is good and what is best.

Think, for instance, about the fact that the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. I was not on that grand jury, and so I can’t speak to whether they did the absolute right thing or whether they blew it big time. But I do know that many of my African American friends are experiencing this as a season of grief and fear, rather than of Thanksgiving. It is very easy for me, as a white adult male, to say, “Well, that’s too bad. I’d rather have seen that go the other way”, and then switch channels and hope that the Steelers can pull it out today. I do not fear for my safety. I do not believe that the system is rigged against me.

Some of the community who disagreed with the verdict reacted with rage and hate. You saw the images of the flames. That’s not good. It’s easy to understand, in a way, why that happened, but it’s not good.

Abram’s nephew Lot saw the easy money and he took it. I probably would have done the same thing.

Abram remembered the promise and lived it – even when it didn’t look all that strong at some points. He depended on God in the gray areas of his life, and he did not let his fear dictate his actions.

It seems to me that the life of faith looks at the situation in Ferguson and refuses to take the easy way that says, “well, those people are never going to change. You can’t make them ­­­_________! It’s no use.” I think that allegiance to the promise requires us to engage the reality of our day and to listen for the story – and the promise – as heard by the other.

Three weeks prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a crowd at the Grosse Point High School and talked about his concern for the prospect of racial unrest in the upcoming summer. He said,

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[3]

Is that true? Am I more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than I am with justice? If that’s the case, there’s something wrong.

And you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave! Brown men are shot by the police way too often in our country. That’s a problem.” And you’re right. And then you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave, there are way too many riots in our country.  That’s a problem.” And once again, you are one hundred percent on target.

I believe that the Christ who invited us to this communion feast fully intends for there to be enough – enough grace, enough justice, enough hope, enough joy, and, yes, even enough parking in the world. More than that, I believe that there is enough of all of that.

seedThe difficulty is that too much of it is still in the form of seeds. The difficulty of Advent is that too much of what God intends is waiting to germinate…and God seems to expect us, like the old shepherd Abram, to care for and nurture the seed into bearing fruit.

The call of Advent and the call of Christ is to not throw up your hands in despair, nor to give in to rage or helplessness. The call of the Gospel is to engage, to advocate, to speak for those whose voices are muted and to care for those who have lost their way. To trust that the Spirit continues to enter silently and secretly and to do all that you can to proclaim God’s intentions of enough for all.

When you hear the news, how do you pray? Are your prayers based on the presupposition of scarcity in which we’ve all been trained? Have you accepted as fact the notion that God can’t possibly be interested in keeping his promises of justice and love, so you’re better off simply looking out for yourself?

Or can you, like Abram, remember that you are a people of promise. God promised Abram that through him, the world would be blessed. God is calling you to be a part of the answer to that prayer – God is calling you to be a blessing in the life of someone else today. There is enough of you to be a blessing in someone else’s life today. And, thanks be to God, you can do that. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (John Knox, 1982), p. 131.

[2] Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979) p. 4

[3] “The Other America”, delivered at the Grosse Pointe High School (Michigan) on March 14, 1968.