Texas Mission 2017 #5

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The last “work” day of our 2017 Mission to Mission trip was powerful in many, many regards.  For a variety of reasons beyond our control, the time spent at the home in Donna, TX was limited to half a day.  In some ways, that was probably a pretty wise decision, given the heat we experienced this afternoon.  As with most things in our lives, we didn’t finish the job entirely, but we had to stop anyway. We’ll trust that just as the Lord raised up hands to begin work of which we knew nothing two weeks ago, we’ll trust that there will be hands sent to complete the tasks we were obliged to leave undone today.  At any rate, it was wonderful to see this project to this point and to celebrate with the homeowners as they continued to dream of moving into their own new space.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried...

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried… I think Lauren may be reading some sort of liturgy from her phone.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window...

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window…

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

With Adriana and Raymond - we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

With Adriana and Raymond – we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

pizzahutOnce again, we found ourselves the recipients of lunchtime hospitality.  This time, it was not a meal cooked and delivered to the site, but rather the treat of personal pan pizza in air-conditioned comfort.  Our liaisons at First Presbyterian Church of Mission TX, Kathy  and “Tejano Bob”, took us to Pizza Hut in an effort to break up the day.  It worked.  Folks were in a food coma ten minutes later…

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut...

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut…

Several of us took advantage of the extra hours in the afternoon to visit the Refugee Center located at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.  Here we were privileged to see how this congregation has rallied people of faith and good will across the Rio Grande Valley to provide a hospitable welcome to those fleeing persecution and danger in Central America.  Persons who are seeking refugee status in the USA are received by the Border Patrol and vetted at a detention center nearby.  Those who are cleared for entry and continuing the process are then brought to this center, where they are given a hot meal, a clean set of clothes, a shower, and a place to sleep for the night before going to the bus station the next day to travel to the city in which their sponsors will receive them.  It was our honor to be on hand when two young mothers and their children came in and were received so graciously by the volunteers of the parish.

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

thurs3

Dinner provided us with the incredible opportunity to share in a lengthy reunion with the Paz family, with whom we were glad to work two years ago.  We stopped by to say “hello” yesterday, and then got a message inviting us to dinner today – and what a feast we shared.  There was enough chicken and sausage to feed an army, along with some amazing beans and a homemade cake.  It was good to get caught up on the who’s doing what in school and to see how the house is continuing to provide a blessing to our friends and those with whom they come into contact.  We don’t often get a glimpse of the kingdom, but tonight we did.  And we were glad for it.

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The table is spread!!!

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly.  Alert readers will notice that Ricardo is holding a recently-imported bottle of Nali brand hot sauce from Malawi.  That’ll get the old salsa up and running!

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I'd say...

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I’d say…

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’ll take the drive up to Houston and then on Saturday return to Pittsburgh.  It’s been a great trip for all kinds of reasons, and I hope and pray that the fruit will show in years to come.

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.

 

When the World Falls Apart

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’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our text for Sunday June 19 was Ruth 1.  

 

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times last week as I shared vacation with my granddaughter: “Read me a story, Grampy.” And I did. You know I did.

Because we all love stories, don’t we? We like to hear them, read them, watch them, tell them… We use stories to entertain, instruct, inspire… we use stories to allow us to enter into a different reality – one that, if we’re lucky, allows us to understand our own a little better.

So this summer, we’re going to dive into one of my favorite stories of all time, a classic “once-upon-a-time” love story from the Old Testament that begins in tragedy and ends with “happily ever after”. It is, as you have heard, the story of Elimilech’s family – and more particularly, some of the women in that family.

Here’s a spoiler alert: if the story was really about Elimilech, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. If it was really about Naomi, or Ruth, or Boaz, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. Mostly, it’s in the Bible because of the ways that it points to the family that became King David’s family, and as you know, King David was a pretty big deal in the Bible.

More than that, though, it’s a story about the family that became Jesus’ family – also a pretty big deal in the Bible.

But as much as I’d like to tell you this story because it’s about Elimilech, or Naomi, or Ruth, or David, or Jesus… I think that the main reason we need to hear it today is because it’s about us. For the next five weeks, we’ll be listening to this old story and, I hope, being entertained, instructed, inspired, and challenged as we try to live lives of faith in 2016.

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

The story begins with some amazingly horrible events. There is a famine in the land of the Promise, the land of Israel – and so Elimilech and his family become refugees in the land of Moab. Once there, however, things go from bad to worse, because only three verses into the story, Elimilech dies. It only takes two more verses for his only children, Mahlon and Chilion, to succumb, and now Elimilech’s widow is left with two foreign daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The first five verses of our story are about death, decay, and devastation.

Sounds like page one of this morning’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Shootings in Orlando, or Wilkinsburg, or Crafton Heights. Refugees streaming across borders in Turkey or Greece or Ethiopia or Germany or Honduras or… Families, many of which we know and love, who have been displaced by untimely death, or job loss, or the arrest of someone in the family, or unsavory landlords…

We don’t know what it’s like to move from ancient Israel into ancient Moab, but we know something about pain and loss and times when it seems like the world is simply falling to pieces, don’t we?

And when that happens, well, it can be easy to think that we are alone in the world. Nobody has felt pain like our pain. Nobody knows the difficulties we’ve been through. We are alone in our struggle against the universe, or God, or fate. And so in our reading from this morning, Naomi responds to the famine in her native land and the deaths of her husband and sons by sending away her daughters-in-law. “Don’t waste your time with me,” she says, “I’m a broken down wretch of a creature.” She tries to bless these women as she sends them back to their homes, but her heart isn’t really in it. Eventually, Orpah is able to leave her mother-in-law, but Ruth won’t hear of it. Four times, the old widow looks Ruth in the eye and says, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m alone. Beat it. Go home.” Because that’s what pain does, doesn’t it: it isolates you.

In his  “Ted Talk” on depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eBUcBfkVCo), Andrew Solomon says,

Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

That’s what grief and pain and loss do to us, isn’t it? They make it seem impossible to grasp any kind of future. I’ve seen that in refugee camps in South Sudan. I heard it when my friend Kucho said, “the government of Sudan is bombing our villages in the Nuba mountains every week, and the world does not notice. Nobody cares. We are alone.” I have heard that in the plaintive cries of the lost and lonely and grief stricken here in our own community: “Go on home, Dave. You can’t do anything anyway. Nobody can.”

There are times, when like Naomi, we become convinced that not only is the world against us, but the Lord is too. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me”, she weeps. When the world is falling apart, it’s easy to think that you’re alone.

So our story tells us, so far, that horrible things happen and that when they do, we feel like we are alone. Another lesson from this chapter is that people who are in pain can be, well, unpleasant. Sometimes, people in pain act like real jerks. For instance, after Naomi is unsuccessful at getting her daughter-in-law to go back to her family, she returns to Bethlehem (accompanied by Ruth). Did you hear what she said when she got there? “My name isn’t ‘Naomi’ (meaning ‘pleasant’) anymore. Call me ‘Mara’ (which means ‘bitter’) from now on. When I left, I was full, but now I am empty and alone.”

Now when she says this, who’s there? The folks in Bethlehem, of course, but also Ruth. Here’s Naomi going on and on about how nobody loves her and all this horrible stuff has happened and she’s all alone in the world, and Ruth is standing there, helping to hold the old lady up, waiting to be introduced. The more that Naomi complains about being alone and bereft, the more Ruth has to be thinking, “Seriously? What am I, chopped liver? You know I can hear you, right Naomi?”

Remember Ruth had just made this amazingly beautiful speech about love and support and faithfulness – so beautiful, in fact, that some of you wanted to read it in your wedding services – and now Naomi is pretending that Ruth doesn’t even exist. What is up with that?

People in pain lash out – and often that winds up hurting those who choose to come close. I’ve seen that happen in a hundred ways: someone comes in to the church looking for a little help, and we go to the food pantry to pull a few things together. I come into the room where the person is waiting and explain that I’ve got some spaghetti and beans and peanut butter and whatnot and the person looks into the bag and says, “Strawberry jam? Seriously? I hate strawberry. Is this the best you’ve got?”

My first reaction is get defensive, and to proclaim, “Listen, Bub, you better check that attitude at the door because I’m only trying to help here… you’ve got no right to be angry with me.” And I realize, this person isn’t really angry with me. This person is ashamed at having to come to our food pantry, or devastated at the loss of a job, or otherwise incapacitated by the pain they’ve suffered, and I happen to be standing here at the time. That’s what happens when the world falls apart – we become people that we don’t want to be, at times.

So what do we do? We get it, Dave – the world is a hard place for lots of people on lots of days. What are we supposed to do about that?

The first and most important thing that we can do is to, pardon my language, give a damn. In a media cycle full of alligator attacks and celebrity divorces and gossip scandals and basketball finals… it’s easy to think of 49 people gunned down in Orlando as so “last week”, or to think that the nearly sixty million forcibly displaced people across the globe are someone else’s neighbor, not mine. You don’t like the news that’s in front of you? Change the channel. Turn the page. Play some Candy Crush or Trivia Crack. Who needs that negativity in your life, anyway?

I’m not asking you to care because it’s easy, or because it makes sense in your life right now. I’m asking you to give a rat’s ass about these kinds of things because I think that’s what the Gospel compels us to do. And if you are able to muster some discipline to care, at least a little bit, about the people whose lives are falling apart, then the next step is to look for a way to enter into some part of their story with them.

For the people who are close at hand, that’s a little easier. Our Cross Trainers Staff, for instance, will have the opportunity to brush up against some young people this summer whose worlds have been or are being turned upside down in all kinds of ways. You all will spend time with children who have been abused or neglected; you will engage with young people whom God loves dearly who carry incredible scars that might well be invisible. If someone opens up to you about some incredible pain, know that in all probability, you won’t be able to fix it. Fortunately, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job – it’s everyone’s job – to listen for it. To respect it. To enter into it. And then, perhaps in conversation with Brad or Jason or me or someone else, to help that child get to a place where she or he is able to envision a different reality for her or himself. The young people we’re hiring have the easiest way to respond to the message this morning.

stop-the-gun-violence-iconAnd if you’re not on Cross Trainers staff? Figure out a way to care. I don’t care if you are a gun owner or a pacifist, can we agree that it’s horrible when 50 young people are cut down while dancing in Florida? Can we agree that it’s not God’s intention for school children or office workers or worshippers to be mowed down by the blazing barrel of an assault weapon? Assuming we can agree on that, can we talk about creating some strategies for reducing the likelihood of that happening? This is a great week for that kind of discussion in all kinds of ways. There will be some discussion of action on a national level about legislation, and you might want to reach out to our senators or representatives. Offer your ideas as to what we can do to reduce the number of funerals at which we wring our hands and say “never again”.

But here’s the deal on that, from me, this week. If you are a Christian, you are not permitted to make this conversation about what you need to do to protect your rights and keep your options open. Frankly, as a follower of Jesus, you’ve already settled that: you’ve confessed that your rights are not the most important rights in the world – that you are here to serve others. I’m not saying you don’t have rights or shouldn’t value them – but that’s not the reason for this conversation. The reason for the conversation is to look for ways to staunch the flow of innocent blood. Talk about the people who will never experience another “right”, about the parents or spouses or children who sit across the breakfast table from an empty seat this morning. Obviously, any solution to gun violence will have to account for individual rights, yours included – but how about if we don’t start there? How about if we start by throwing around some ideas geared towards preventing gun violence?

REFUGEES-1And maybe, for some reason, you just can’t get your head wrapped around how to slow gun violence in our community or our world. Here’s another option. Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day? Every minute of every day, an average of 8 people are forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safer. On average, refugees spend seventeen years – seventeen stinking years! – waiting for whatever is going to come next: a return to their home, a resettlement somewhere else; seventeen years of uncertainty and vulnerability. Those people drowning in the Aegean Sea, or walking across borders in Hungary, or riding the trains north through Central America… they are children of God. They are our neighbors. We are called to do what we can do to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just us.

And again, please don’t come crowing to me about how we can’t really help these refugees because all they want to do is come here and take our stuff. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve already said that what’s yours isn’t the most important thing, but rather, living in the footsteps of Jesus is what you want to be about. Your stuff, my stuff – it’s important (hey, I have a fence to keep the deer out of my garden) – but it’s far from the most important thing, and it’s not where we’re beginning this conversation.

I’ve offered a Resource Document containing a number of websites for you to check out on your own time this week. Some are related to gun violence, while others have to do with refugees. Please understand, the only action that I am actively endorsing is that you take the time to care about this stuff. I’m not saying we are going to agree on strategies – but I am saying that Elimilech’s story, and Naomi’s story, and Ruth’s and David’s and Jesus’ story – that our story – ought to drive us to the place where we care about what happens; and that place of care can lead us to a means by which to get involved.

This is our story. We are created as people in and for community. Can we choose to care, and to act together as we stand against violence and hatred and death? Thanks be to God, who calls us from death to life through Jesus his Son, Amen.

The Fugitive Gospel

The lectionary for December 29 included a vivid description of the horrors that faced the Holy Family in the months following the nativity.  Matthew 2:13-23 provides a narration of the flight into Egypt and the resettlement at Nazareth.  This message was preached to the good people of  The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.

What kind of Christmas cards are you apt to select for your seasonal greetings?  Do you send out the understated, serious card that can be received by folks of many (or even no) faith – you know, the wintry scenes or nature photos that say “Happy Holidays”?  Do you go for the cute cards – the “precious moments” nativities, or the cartoon Santas?  Maybe you like the funny cards, or the more personal cards that include your own photograph.  And, since we’re in church, I would bet that more than a few of you select a religious card, perhaps with a painting of the wise men or shepherds gathered around the manger, reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” or inviting us to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo”.  Do you have a favorite?

Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (Luc-Oliver Merson, 1880)

No matter how you may have answered that, my hunch is that there are some things that you’ve never seen on a Christmas card.  I don’t believe that Hallmark or American Greetings sell many cards that feature an image of the Holy Family sneaking into Egypt as they run away from King Herod, looking tired and hungry and decidedly un-holy as they fear for their lives and wonder about the terror that they left behind in Bethlehem.  I’ve never seen a Christmas card featuring Joseph and Mary looking at real estate in Nazareth, a backwoods town some 65 miles – several days on foot – away from Jerusalem.  They are relocating, not because of a boom in Joseph’s carpentry business, but because they are afraid of Herod’s son, Archelaus – and what he might do to them if he finds out who Jesus really is.  And what about a lovely Christmas greeting featuring the mothers of Bethlehem holding their dead babies after Herod’s goons have gone through the village killing anything that looked to be male and less than three years old?  They don’t have a “precious moments” scene for that, I don’t think.

But aren’t those things a part of the Christmas story?  Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all about the birth of Jesus – we get a family tree, the story of Joseph’s dream, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then the move to Nazareth.  That’s all Matthew tells us about the birth and childhood of Jesus – and most of it doesn’t get so much as a mention in our traditional Christmas celebration.

I’ve thought a lot about this part of the story as I have wandered through Christmas this year.  And as I have thought, I have a lot of questions – and I’d like to share a few of them with you this morning.

First, let me ask you this: when Joseph took Mary and Jesus and ran into Egypt, was he a “refugee” or a “fugitive”?  A refugee is defined as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, esp. to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”.  A fugitive is “a person who flees; especially: a person who flees one jurisdiction (as a state) for another in order to elude law enforcement personnel”.  Both come from the same word – the French fugere: “to flee”.

A refugee – a poor person seeking safe harbor.  Or a fugitive – a menace to society running from the law.  Which of those words best describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus?

I would suppose that it depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?  I mean, because Jesus played for our team (or, more appropriately, I suppose, we should say that because we play for Jesus’ team), it’s easy for us to see the holy family as refugees – vulnerable and weak, fleeing one dangerous spot and ending up somewhere else while life is tenuous and survival is difficult.

But if you were to ask Herod’s soldiers, then those would be three of Jerusalem’s “most wanted”, right?  Fugitives who pose a threat to the status quo, and thus the safety and security of the Empire. The family seems to be an ordinary group, but they must be stopped by any means necessary.

Refugees?  Or Fugitives?  It depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?

Political cartoon by Art Young depicting Jesus on a “wanted-poster”. First published in “The Masses” in 1917.

Here’s another question that crossed my mind this week:  what makes me so different from Herod?  I mean, he’s the guy that everybody loves to hate in this story – especially everyone who’s on our team.  But what makes me all that different from him?

Like Herod, there are times when I find myself so eager to protect what I think of as “mine” that I push others away.  To be sure, I don’t usually resort to a gang of thugs on horseback riding over to your house to wipe out you and your family, but there are a lot of times when I find myself afraid of losing power and control, and my response to that is too often one of anger or insecurity.  Herod woke up every day and asked himself a simple question: to what extent will I use the power that I have to protect myself and my own interests?

Isn’t that a question that I ask myself every day?  One time I needed a pair of shoes.  I ran up to K-mart and found a pair of sneakers that was only $15.  Such a deal! I brought them home and remarked on the cost to Ariel, who said, “that’s probably because they were made by a six year old in the developing world, Dad.”  Were they?  I don’t know.  But surely some of the “good deals” that I got this past holiday season were there because somehow, my economic interest was more important than someone else’s right to food, housing, or safety.

Unlike Herod, I’m not the king of anything.  But like Herod, I have a lot of power.  And I like it.  And I use it.  What makes me so different from him?

Another question, along the same lines, but in a decidedly different direction:  What makes me so different from Joseph?  I mean, I hold onto a promise I’ve received from God.  No, I haven’t seen any angels, or had dramatic awakenings in the middle of the night, but don’t I know the same promise that he did?  Am I willing to trust God’s leading enough to follow a dream, even if it means going against the culture in which I live?

Joseph was willing to live on the margins of his world – to make due with less – because he believed that the things that God was doing were even more amazing than his dreams.  He left his home and his family and shouldered a set of responsibilities that were incredible because he thought that in some way he could be a part of the big, new thing that God was doing.  And every day, Joseph woke up and asked himself, “How am living into God’s promise, even in the midst of Herod’s world?  Isn’t that a question I could ask myself?

What makes me so different from Joseph?

To what extent will I use my power and privilege to protect my own interests?  How am I living into God’s promises in Herod’s world?

As we walk through these scriptures and consider questions like these this morning, what can we “take away” for our lives this week?   Perhaps I can remind you of three things this morning.

As the new year dawns, and as the political landscapes in our nation and world continue to evolve, let me remind you to be very suspicious about any claims that a nation, a military power, or a political movement might make about bringing in Christ’s kingdom.  History shows us that many, many times people have equated such power with Jesus, and almost every time, the church has lived to regret that – when we look back at Constantine’s efforts to legislate Christianity, or the crusades, or the “conversions” of many of the native American peoples to Christianity, almost always it seems as though the strategies used, the motives employed, and the end results were not exactly in line with what we know about the one who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. We pray for our leaders and hope that they are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we affirm that God, not any human being, rules the earth.  We do not do well when we confuse our political movements with God’s presence on the earth.  So pray for, and support our leaders – but remember that these men and women, as much as anyone, face the temptations that Herod faced every single day.

As you think about the possibilities and the challenges that face you, personally, in the year to come – what you will save, spend, or give; how you will use your time; the places where you will invest your energy – are you acting because you are afraid of losing what is yours?  Or are you following the promise and believing the dream?  Let me remind you that you, no less than Joseph and Mary, have heard the promise of God’s salvation.  That you, no less than they, have the chance each and every day to make decisions that will put you in a position where you can pursue a life of grace and peace.  That today, and tomorrow, and the next day, you will face a hundred choices about what to do with your money, your time, and your energy.  Will you make those choices remembering that a light shone over Bethlehem, and that one shines in your heart as well?  You may be afraid – our brother Joseph was afraid of Archelaus, and settled in Nazareth as a result.  But will the fear and uncertainty that may lie in 2014 drive you to behave in ways that are selfish and greedy?  Or will the awareness of life in an uncertain world encourage you to be more generous and flexible as you look around you?

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

And lastly, let me remind and encourage you to spend time with the people who are “on the run” in our world today.  At this time last year, I was preparing for a visit to Africa, where we began the Presbyterian Church USA’s first “Tripartite International Partnership” by linking with the church in Malawi and South Sudan.  There was joy and hope as a team of folk from Malawi and Pittsburgh visited the world’s youngest nation and preached in her churches.  This month, I am frantically scouring my emails, looking to see whether our friends in South Sudan are alive or dead in the wake of violence there.  There are, by some accounts, more than 42 million refugees in our world today – people who do not have a home, whose kids are not in good, safe schools; people who may or may not have access to safe water, sewage, or other fundamental needs. We gather this morning to worship a savior whose first few years included living as a refugee in another country and who later became an “internally displaced person” because of the threat to his life.  And as we gather to worship the baby that Herod sought to kill – can you make room in your life this year to spend some time with the lost, the hungry, the frightened, or the vulnerable?  You don’t have to go to a camp in Palestine or South Sudan to meet someone who has a hard time seeing the light of Bethlehem; you don’t have to travel with Doctors Without Borders to encounter someone for whom the dream of Christmas – the hope of God with us – is just that – a dream.  A fuzzy, cloudy, dream.  Will you help someone else to glimpse that dream this year?

I’d like to close by sharing a brief meditation by Howard Thurman, entitled “The Work of Christmas”.  I share it with you in the hopes that as you plan your task of packing up the decorations, you won’t think that the work of Christmas has ended:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 


When the star in the sky is gone, 


When the kings and princes are home, 


When the shepherds are back with their flock, 


The work of Christmas begins: 


To find the lost, 


To heal the broken, 


To feed the hungry, 


To release the prisoner, 


To rebuild the nations, 


To bring peace among brothers, 


To make music in the heart.

All right, folks, Christmas is just about over.  Let’s get to work.  Amen.