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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

The pool of water was still. Only the humming sound of a honeybee across the pool in the tangle of wisteria and willow on the edge of the water and the murmuring wheeze of the old man’s breathing broke the silence.

“Been comin’ here a long time.” The old man whispered to the man sitting next to him. The old man looked up at the sky. It was clear and cobalt. The sun shone like a gold plate reflecting light. “Good day ta be here.” His companion nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes sir. A good day! You know, I think I just might be ready. I know by the look on your face you’re wondering’ ready for what?’ Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m ready for the train to take me home. Finally, I am ready for the train. It took me a long while, but I’m finally ready. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get ready, but I never felt really ready. When Myrna died, what…three years ago….I wasn’t ready.

I was foolin’ myself still. Myrna, she was ready. She was ready near her whole life. Not a better woman around. She lived the good news. She knew it and she lived it! She took care of folks when they were sick. Baked bread for the new wives arriving in town. Helped people when they were down and out. Had me build a house for those young Murphys when they first came here. Didn’t have a nickel, but sure did have babies. Myrna made me find him a job. She was wonderful. She made us go to church every Sunday.  She said, God gave us over a hundred hours a week, we could praise the Lord for at least two of ’em. Praise him, she said. That’s what we did, too. I..I never really understood her until now. Now, I know what she meant, when she said she was ready. Be ready at anytime. Nothin’ ta fear if you’re ready, she said. Now, I know. I’m ready!”

The old man saw the expression on the face of the man sitting next to him, “You have no idea what I’m talkin’ about do you?  Well, I don’t know how ta explain it, but let me try this way.

You see, a man and a woman stood on the platform at the train station. The day was beautiful with the deep blue sky, wispy clouds floatin’ overhead, and a soft, warm breeze ruffling their clothes and coolin’ the heat of the day down to a comfortable 75 degrees.

The man stepped close ta the woman and said, “Are you waiting for the train?”

“Yes, I am.” she said and inched away.

“So am I.” He said without moving. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not very long,” she said and smiled at him.

“Me either. Do you know when the train will be here?”

“No,” she said, “I am not sure when it will be here.”

“Maybe I should go and ask the ticket seller.”

“If you want, you may, but I’m not worried about it. I know it will be here sooner or later.” She shrugged and walked away to sit down on one of the green painted benches under a wooden canopy.

The man shuffled off ta see when the train would be there. When he came back to the platform, the woman was still sitting on the bench under the canopy. He marched over ta the bench next to her and plopped down with a “humph” and unzipped his jacket.

“Well, the ticket seller was not very helpful. He had no idea when the train would be here. Said it was delayed somewhere. Might be a long time.” The man said.

“Oh. No matter,” said the woman. “It will be here. The time is not really important.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the bench.

“You seem very calm about all of this.” She did not answer him or open her eyes. “Don’ t you want ta catch the train and be on time?”

“Of course. I already have my ticket and I cannot be late because the train has a schedule to keep, so I know it will arrive here when the time is right.”

“Why did you get your ticket so soon? There’s plenty of time ta git the ticket.” He looked around the near empty train station. “There’s not exactly a lot of people here.”

“Yes,” she sighed heavily, “but it is better to be prepared, so when the train comes one can board it immediately.”

“Why? I can’t imagine seating is a big problem.”

“The train does not stay in the station very long because it has many other stops to make along the way. If one is not ready to board it, one risks being left behind.”

The man frowned and half-turned away, “Poppycock! I can git my ticket and still make the train. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of time.” The man lay down on the bench and fell asleep. The woman fell asleep too.

The daylight faded into darkness. The lights of the canopy shown down on the two sleeping figures as other lights in the train station broke the darkness into circles of light. In the distance, a whistle blew. The shrill sound woke the woman. She heard the stationmaster shout, “Train is comin’. Train is comin’.” She shook her herself awake and stood up. She glanced at the man still sleeping. She reached down and shook the top of his shoulder.

“The train is coming into the station. You should get up.” She said as she shook him. The man woke with a start. He wiped his mouth and sat upright. “The train is coming.” She said as she walked to the edge of the platform.

“Uh. What?” The man said. “Oh. The train. The train is comin’.” He jumped up and ran to the woman. “How far out is it?”

“I do not know exactly, but I see a light down the tracks.” She said over her shoulder.

“Oh. Oh. Do I…”he glanced toward the station “Do I have time to get a ticket?” The woman shrugged. “How about you. Did you get an extra ticket? Can I get on board with you?”

“No. Everyone needs their own ticket, their own life. I only have one. You better go and get your own.”

“Yeah,” The man dashed off.

“And, you better hurry. The train is almost here.” She shouted after him.

The great diesel train whooshed into the station. The great silver and black compartments gleaming in the circles of light. The train stopped and a door opened in front of the woman. She smiled at the conductor, handed him her ticket, and boarded the train. As soon as she was inside and sitting comfortably in a compartment, the train roared and whooshed off.

The man came running out of the station house toward the train. “Wait! Wait! he shouted. The train roared down the tracks into the darkness. He stood at the edge of the platform. He crumbled his ticket in his hand and threw it down on the tracks. He turned round and walked back to the bench under the canopy.

Somewhere in the darkness an old gospel song played, “Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready to sit by throne? For the Lord is comin’ to carry you home.”

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I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

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“I’ve heard your anguish, I’ve heard your hearts cry out,

’ we are tired, we are weary and we are torn out,’

set down your chains until only faith remains,

set down your chains and lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom,

no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon,” these song lyrics written by Jewell remind us God calls us to an expansive, deep, commitment in a life where humanity’s imagination is beckoned to embrace a vision of the possibilities for a vibrant, thriving community life far different than the fear based life so many people feel trapped within,

This life begins with the risen Christ coming to quicken, to bring alive, a festival of eternal springtime in the innermost heart of humanity,” Brother Roger of Taize wrote in 1970, “Christ is preparing for us a springtime of the Church-a Church devoid of the means of power, ready to share with all persons a place of visible communion. Christ is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation, of unity. Christ is going to prepare us to give our lives so that one person will no longer be the victim of another person.”

A life uncommon is the vision Paul is writing the house churches of Corinth to embrace as God’s call filled with immense possibilities that go beyond the little, trivial status seeking, having arrived self assured, individualistic salvation sometimes articulated as ”I have my Jesus, my salvation, my ticket to heaven is punched, so don’t bother me about some commitment to the world, to other people.” This was, of course, part of the Corinthian church’s conflict fueled by spiritual arrogance, attachment to a charismatic-celebrity teacher, wanting everyone to be like minded, and the misconceptions about why they existed as a community of faith in the first place.

Now, private faith in a personal future is more comforting and marketable as so many television preachers from Tammy Faye Bakker to Joel Osteen have discovered, however such faith has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn’t really spell good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the left out. Not only that, but such individualism is unbiblical because God is not focused on saving one person, God aims to save all the people, to transform the whole of humanity. But more importantly, such a private faith is simply too small, too shallow to be the call of the God, who makes mountains rise up from the seas, who makes deserts into an oasis, who turns the cries of mourning into giggling laughter, whose way of creating human life is the image for how creation itself was created in the beginning and is being created even in this very moment.

Which is why, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians toward this life uncommon by beginning this letter with his call to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul asserts his call to this ministry is not by his choosing. This wasn’t his desire. Remember Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was a persecutor of the church because his understanding of who God was, and is as well as how God intended the life of God’s people to be lived did not include Jesus as messiah. However, God had other plans for Paul, plans that began on the road to Damascus. Plans sending Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and a church planter in places like Thessalonica and Corinth. This wasn’t Paul’s plan for his life, it was God’s plan for Paul’s life and, by the way, it wasn’t so Paul could be rich and famous, a celebrity of the church because if you sent Paul’s resume out to any church, including this one he’d never get called to be a pastor. Indeed, there is a story about a church that received Paul’s resume when they were searching for a pastor and they even rejected Paul. I know Paul is telling the truth because if you asked anyone I went to high school with if they thought I’d be a pastor; they’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Indeed, it took me years before I really thought God might be calling me to ministry.

The point is that Paul was called by God to be Christ’s apostle just as the house congregations of Corinth were gathered together by God and called by God to witness by their lives to God’s grace in Christ-together with ALL those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The ALL are not simply those in Corinth, they are every Christian community from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to India to Pakistan to Rome to Spain to the Slavic tribes of Central Asia to China and Korea. God’s community of faith is not limited to any one congregation in any one place, rather God’s community stretches north, south, east, west and all the way to the ends of the earth and every community of faith has all the knowledge, the ability to speak and witness to the gospel, all the spiritual gifts it needs to be God’s people. It is by God’s acts in Jesus Christ that the Christian church exists at all.

Which is the reason, the church of Jesus Christ is so much larger than just one congregation in one city or town or village or denomination, which ought to make us more aware that American Christianity is growing in amazing, yet hidden ways. For decades, we have heard that Christian churches in America are declining, so we need to work to get stores to have Christmas sales, we need the ten commandments carved into the stones of our public buildings, and we need have government sanctioned prayer in schools otherwise we’ll stop being a predominately Christian nation-if we ever really were one in the first place. What nonsense!

Yes the mainline Protestant churches’ membership have been declining, however the truth is captured in this tidbit of information. There were 200 churches in the city of Boston in 1970, but thirty years later there were 412 churches. From 2001 to 2006, 98 new churches were planted in Boston. Does this sound like decline? Of course not, but here is the important part of the story. Most of these “new” churches were immigrant or multiethnic congregations of Asian, Haitian Creole, Hispanic and other immigrant peoples. It is true that mainline, ethnically northern European congregations declined, but God’s church, the church of Jesus Christ wasn’t declining. It was growing!!! It is becoming more diverse because it is reaching to the ends of the earth and ALL those who call on the name of Jesus are called to be Christ’s body because as Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote her Carmelite sisters, “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands, but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing well; yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless men and women now.”  This is what some call an incarnational theology-the idea we are to be Christ to the world by fully embracing  and embodying God’s love for the world, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies,” as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches.

This is the life uncommon God calls every person to embrace, yet it is a life that can at times make one feel tired and worn out as the prophet Isaiah speaks about. This servant experiences this call from God beginning when God was creating and forming this person in the womb to the moment when the servant was tired and worn out as though he has done everything he could do, everything God called him to do, and still his efforts have not borne the fruit he desired. This servant in whom God was to be glorified had momentarily forgotten one thing, it wasn’t up to him to make his efforts bear fruit, God would do that.

Quite honestly, this is a common mistake. It is made every time church folks say, “we’re bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment or we’re bringing God to this city” as if God’s kingdom weren’t already here, as if God was late because JetBlue grounded the flight due to weather. However, it is a serious concern as one young, high school woman told Rodger Nishioka several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do campaign was at peak. She had been given a bracelet with the WWJD on it, as Rodger tells the story, and she fully understood it was to be reminder that we follow Jesus and that we are to be guided by Jesus’ actions in every facet of our lives. Her problem, she said, was that she didn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would actually do, let alone do it faithfully because as she said, somewhat exasperated by being reminded that we have scriptures and a wide community of believers to help us, “yeah, but don’t you see! I’m not Jesus I am fully human, but I am not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God.”

And, she has a point. None of us are God. None of us are Jesus and for sure, even those of us we have received Master of Divinity degrees are not really Masters of the Divine. Yes, what we are really to be doing is living lives that embody Christ and to love the world as God loves the world, but we must understand the world will not be saved by what I do or what you do.

Rather, it will be saved by what God has done, is doing and continues to do in the world around us and for the world through us by being present with us, strengthening us when we need the strength to, like the servant in Isaiah, keep on keeping on being those whose lives point other people to Christ like John the Baptist, who calls people to see Jesus Christ, to see God at work in the world by saying, “Hey look, God is alive, God is in our midst. Behold the Lamb of God .Behold, the Holy Spirit is weaving among us and within us, transforming circumstance and people,” for a life uncommon.

A life that is a festival of eternal springtime here and now lived in the visible communion of the whole humanity, whose voices sing songs of freedom and who lend their strength only to living into the expansive possibilities of God’s call setting them free to live lives filled with love and bravery.

 

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Darkness falls fast in these autumn days and we know the darkness will continue to grow in the days ahead of us as we venture into the cold days and nights of winter. Yet, many people feel darkness has been falling upon them for longer than a season. Whether it is the news of the high infant mortality rate of Rochester, the continuing struggle to solve the education issues plaguing city schools, the rise in the suicide rate of middle age white males and veterans or the year-long election cycle that has been filled with hatred spewing forth on a daily basis with threats of jailing political opponents and deporting millions of people, scandal after scandal in a drip-drip-drip leaking of documents by a group caught in their own brand of self-righteousness or encouraging violence against people who are different as the answer to the frustration and despair of an economic prosperity that has become nearly unreachable for many people in this country regardless of skin color or ethnicity as has the myth of an American Dream created out of a model of unending consumerism fueled as Wendell Berry writes by a commerce of violence, or voter suppression by the government or public institutions being assailed as useless and cracked cisterns incapable of holding water let alone our society; all have contributed to the weariness and darkness many have experienced and may experience as fear of the future imprisons people.

This darkness seems to deepen with the images Jesus describes for his followers in this morning’s reading from Luke. The image of armies surrounding us, the need to become refugees to escape the violence of war, being hated because we are followers of Christ, the woe to women who are pregnant or who are new mothers, the enslavement of one people by another people, even creation will shake, rattle and roll as the Jerusalem Temple is destroyed.

Yet, all of us gathered in our own community of faith like gatherings of other communities of faith in Irondequoit, Rochester, New York State, America, The Northern Hemisphere and around the world know the darkness will be driven away by the light. Darkness, hate, despair, fear and hopelessness cannot overwhelm and imprison us because God’s light will not allow it to do so. This is the starting place of joy and hope that dispels fear because God promises to be doing an entirely and completely “new thing” that will not resemble the old or grow out from the old.

This is the promise uttered by the prophets and the psalmists, particularly during Israel’s exile when the promise from God was that even exile will be transformed into a viable place for life. This promise as Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book “Theology of the Old Testament  “which defies every logic, but which could not be devised by those who reiterated the oath, assures Israel that its life and eventually all of the historical process, is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality.” Rather, it is God’s powerful intention for well-being, abundance, justice and compassion to bring into reality a newness of life that cannot be extrapolated from the present, but is an utterly new life. The words of God the prophet Isaiah speaks tell of God’s promise to overcome all that is amiss whether caused by Israel’s disobedience or the untamed forces of fear and death. The newness of God’s new creation will touch every aspect and phase of life as every portion of life is re-created by the positive, life giving power of God’s love enacting wholeness, abundance and restorative justice for all human communities as hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. In this extraordinary new creation the light of God’s love will drive out fear and darkness.

Perhaps this is the reason doctors without borders and nurses without borders risk their lives to tend to the wounds and disease of patients in places where medical services and medicines themselves are in short supply, but too often where the violence of war is abundant. Perhaps this is the reason for the Red Cross to bring food, clothing, toiletries and blankets to places like Haiti and Syria and Louisiana. Perhaps this is the reason why Hope Fellowship travels to re-build homes and communities in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Perhaps this is the reason why our mission team travels to communities to repair, re-build homes and lives each year. Perhaps this is the reason why the community garden has nearly doubled in size and may grow larger next year. Could it be they want to live in a world where babies are not born for sudden death, but live long full lives; where no more shall the sound of weeping or cry of distress be heard in the world because of hunger, disease or violence; where an adult lives a long full life filled with meaning and where people shall build houses to live within and will plant vineyards and vegetable gardens, whose produce the gardeners will eat and enjoy because no one will take it from them or force them to work for those who oppress them; where the shalom-the peace of predator prey living together in harmony and where violence no longer exists?

Could it be that the hope of God’s new heaven and new earth where peoples, habitations and nature are all woven into a complex relationship of wholeness has been heard as an invitation to take part in God’s creative transforming mission-Missio Dei- to the world? Could it be that when they have heard the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s intention to create an entirely new world where heaven and earth are to be one unified creation they were reminded of God’s creative capacity to create life anew because God’s creative word speaks a vision that comes to realization. This Missio Dei vision of a new heaven and new earth does not come out of nothing not does it come out of the ashes of a destroyed creation, rather it is the creation out of the chaos of human endeavors, of a spoiled and polluted nature and of everything in between. In this Mission Dei, God is transforming creation so thoroughly that the former things will not be remembered and will no longer influence or effect the present or the future.

Imagine a totally new beginning for Irondequoit and Rochester where everyone has a place to live in safe and decent homes, where everyone can freely move about without fear of violence or the fear of driving through dangerous neighborhoods, where a person isn’t stopped by police simply because of the color of their skin or because they fit a certain profile, where no one is a stranger and where everyone has meaningful work and a living wage. Imagine buying your home and knowing you can keep it forever – no one threatening to take it from you because they want it, or because you’ve been laid off, or made redundant, or had your job shipped overseas. People can breathe again – really breathe – without fear that life will be snatched away from them.

Last year, I asked you to imagine this congregation being a totally new congregation, designing and planning its organization in new ways, finding new ways of getting things done,  discerning new ways for us to worship God, designing a new way of welcoming visitors by first getting to know them as friends, and discerning the way we reach out into the wider community around us based solely on Missio Dei-God’s creative transforming vision of a new heaven and new earth. Letting the past be the past without any power to control, determine or define the future. Letting go of all the ways we compare ourselves to other congregations because we are focusing on being authentically who we are. Letting go of the old paradigms and schemes for growing the church by focusing our life together on God’s mission for this community and for the world.

I challenged you to join the Israelites who came back to Judah from Babylonian exile and respond to your situation the way they did as recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their response was to rebuild the city and the Temple and to rebuild their community by once again committing themselves to centering their lives in God and God’s way of being a community where well-being, health, and growing and sustaining life was for every person. This is the hope contained within the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth, a hope inviting people to live today in God’s new heaven and new earth.

Interestingly enough,  this is the invitation to living the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do to you” and being mindful that the yardstick by which we measure others will be yardstick by which we ourselves will be judged. Both of these are simply calls to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the hope of the sacredness of life at every moment of life, of welcoming the stranger either the migrant or the refugee as sisters and brothers whose desire for a life of stability, of health and well-being and peace is the same as our own, of ending poverty and the immorality of homelessness, of encouraging all people to dream the vision of God’s new heaven and new earth then act on that vision.

We have made good beginnings in meeting this challenge of participating in God’s mission to the world through the continued support of the mission team, the Live Nativity teaching the real story of Christmas that is the birth of Christ coming as a gift to us of God’s love, the expansion of the community garden that grows community by growing relationships, the prayer windsocks and prayer shawls, the new opportunities of joining with other Presbyterian churches by using a $50,000 grant to change lives in metropolitan Rochester as well as the Love Thy Neighbor project.

While God will bring this new heaven and new earth to fullness as Jesus taught us that God will do, the call to be Christ’s body here in this place at this time challenges us to fully participate in Mission Dei- God’s creative transformation of the world, it challenges us to consider how to best use our increased financial and human resources in reaching out beyond ourselves into the community of Irondequoit and Rochester and the world, so whatever we do reflects God’s expansive and inclusive will for the world and not our limited vision of what is possible, challenges us to be an entirely new Summerville Presbyterian Church focused on creatively thriving knowing that as Paul reminds us that if God is for us, which God is, who can be against us, who can hold us back from living in God’s new heaven and new earth today? No one.

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Gotcha is a slang term derived from the phrase “I got you”and usually refers to an unexpected capture or discovery of something. I learned about this term 51 years ago when I began working as a reporter for a small weekly in California. The editor wanted me to know that asking questions that will make someone look either foolish or guilty about something without having facts (you remember those) to support the question was a no-no. Usually, the gotcha question was something like asking a politician, “Sir, when did you stop beating your wife?”  Typically, this creates quite a stir and any quick answer will make the politician look either foolish or guilty or both.

Gotcha, however, is not a new game. It is the same game the Sadduccees were playing with Jesus when they asked him their long, convoluted question about levirate marriage. Whose wife, they asked, would a woman be in the resurrection after she had married a man with seven brothers. Essentially, levirate marriage is the tradition where a woman marries a man and if he dies then she marries his brother. When the brother dies, she marries another brother, and so on, one after another. So, they ask Jesus, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

Couple of things to remember about the Sadducees. First, the Sadducees came out of the priestly cast in ancient Israel and over time gained control over the rituals in the Jerusalem temple a position which also made them power brokers in affairs of state during the Roman rule of the ancient near east. From their perspective God was intricately tied to the Temple and the rituals and liturgies of the Temple and without the Temple the people could not worship God or be God’s people. Also, they did not rely on the oral tradition like the Pharisees did for their interpretation of scripture. Indeed, they considered only the five books of Torah-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy- the real scripture unlike the Pharisees who included the prophets and psalms as scripture. In addition, they rejected much of the Pharisees’ teaching, including the resurrection. The did not believe in resurrection. They thought resurrection was at best a lot of nonsense. That’s why, when they ask Jesus the question, they don’t care about his answer. All they wanted to do was to win the debate, embarrass, discredit, or destroy Jesus, so the crowds would stop following him. That’s the reason they ask this clincher question, “Whose wife will she be?”   with an unmistakable sneer just waiting to shout “gotcha!” For the Sadducees, gotcha is not a game, it is a weapon designed to destroy the opposition.

Jesus, of course, answers their question by simply pointing out the inappropriateness of the question, given the difference between life in this age and the age to come. In this age, the fact of death makes marriage and perpetuation of life essential. However, in the age to come there is no death and the earthbound nature of marriage will give way to the greater life promised to the children of the resurrection. Then, Jesus follows that with a wonderful example of midrash or interpretation, by adding testimony from Moses, who in the presence of the burning bush confessed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the living, “to whom all of them are alive.”  This is who God is, Jesus says, the One in whom and for whom death has lost its sting forever. God is God of the living, now and in the resurrection.

This, of course left the Sadducees speechless. They clearly had lost the game of “gotcha.” But, they had lost more than this because what they failed to realize is they were playing this game with God. The Sadducees were so certain of their own perspective about God that they had become blind and had become overly focused on the small stuff of life that is unimportant, rather the big stuff of life that is important. Their blindness and focus on the small stuff led them to disregard the significance of the Temple as a place of worship. This wonderful building with massive stones and the appearance of stability and long lasting traditions was important for the Israelites because it was the symbol pointing the people of God beyond themselves, beyond the power structures of the world around them-the kings or emperors and the wealthy who benefited from power as well as beyond the peoples’ own limited vision of all God was doing in the world by pointing the people to the God, who takes an unformed mass of lifeless chaos then molds and shapes it to create life, creating a world capable of sustaining life through God’s ordered and intricate interconnections and interdependencies with a rhythm of work and rest, and by pointing to the God who commits God’s own being to an intimate relationship with a particular people as the way to demonstrate to all people how wondrous and marvelous God’s love is and how God’s intention is for all creation to have life in abundance within the tranquility of the wholeness of peace.

The Sadducees were so caught up in the small stuff of life they had forgotten why the Lord prompted the prophet Haggai to call the people to rebuild the Temple after they returned from exile in Babylon.  When the Israelites returned from Babylonian exile and met those who had never left Judah and they discovered they had to rebuild their community. The returnees had to build homes, rebuild social structures, and rebuild relationships. They also began to rebuild the Temple, but somewhere between planting and harvesting and trying to rebuild their economic life along with their community life, they focused on the small stuff and stopped rebuilding the Temple. Eighteen years later, the prophet Haggai calls the Israelites back to complete the rebuilding project.  After all, they had finished homes, shouldn’t God have a finished home?

But, that’s not why God wanted them to rebuild the Temple. The Israelites need to rebuild the Temple because they have sowed much, but harvested little.  They move from work to home and back to work then back to home in a routine like a hamster running on a wheel, moving fast, but getting nowhere because they were centering their life on the small unimportant stuff of life and not on the big important stuff of life such as where their life is centered or on whom their life is centered.

Rebuilding the Temple will guide the people to once again center their lives in God and their relationship with God, the relationship that is foundational for the rebuilding of their community.

Yet, the Sadducees were also blind to really seeing God. God doesn’t need to live in a building nor will God somehow vanish if the building is destroyed. To suggest that any of that is true is absurd. God is present with us in the middle of lives as the psalmist in our reading this morning reminds us, but God also transcends creation. God is not caught within the creation God brought into existence, which is in part the reason God created humankind. We are supposed to represent God within creation by acting in the way God acts with compassion, patience, steadfast and self-giving love. Now, the Temple, like church buildings, is simply the place where the people of God gather together to acknowledge the big stuff of life, which is that God is the one who gives them life, God is the one who sustains life and it is God who can be counted upon to save life by transforming the circumstances of life in ways we may not always see or appreciate except in hindsight.

Unfortunately, as the centuries pass blindness and a focus on small stuff become hardened like concrete among some of God’s people and they no longer see the way God is at work in the world to change the world. All they see is a building and they mistake the building for God and they begin worshipping the building and the rituals conducted inside of it instead of worshipping God. Sort of like worshipping the organ, instead of using the organ as one more way of praising God through sung or instrumental prayer or worshipping the layout of the sanctuary instead of using it to creatively worship God.

It is the same when people instead of worshipping God, worship the rules of piety, particularly rules about who is ritually pure enough to be included in the community and those who are ritually impure and must be kept outside the community. Or, the way some folks will hide themselves away in a small, isolated community thinking they are the only “true people” of God. The result of all this is that those who are supposed to be God’s representatives and witnesses to the world actually separate themselves from God just the way Adam and Eve did in the garden. And, with the same result.

So much so that when God comes to be with us in Jesus, they ask foolish questions about the resurrection as if the God who creates life out of a lifeless mass of chaos cannot resurrect life from death, betraying both their foolishness and their disdain for God and for God’s people. Also, they fail to do what God calls his people to do – live here and now in the joy and the anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises of life by living today as the people God calls them to be and in the way God calls them to live.

This is Luke’s lesson for us who are gathered here this morning. It is an invitation to open wide our eyes and our ears, so we might not fall prey to the mistakes the Sadducees make nor be as, Calvin tells us, “foolish and rash by being focused on rearranging the furniture of heaven and taking the temperature of hell.” For when we do so, we focus on the small stuff and forget the big stuff, as the psalmist reminds us, that we are called to be the generation “that lauds the works of God to younger generations and declare God’s mighty acts and the glorious splendor of God’s majesty to the next generation, so all might sing aloud of God’s righteousness and abundant goodness.”

We forget that we do not need to worry about our future because our future and the world’s future is in the hands of God who in Jesus Christ has triumphed and will triumph over all the powers of suffering, sin, injustice, and death. We forget that God in Christ has freed us to live today in the joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises of life as God’s servant church, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do what Christ commissioned us to do- Go out into the world teaching everything that Christ has taught us.

As Julian Hartt reminds us, “We and the world have a great and desperate need for the gospel. The power of that word is not in utterance but in concrete life. The power of the word is that a real, transcendently righteous and creative love is within the God, who is comprehensively and decisively in charge of all life and God willing shares this righteous and creative love with all creation in its life now and with humankind in the resurrection life lived with God.

Hence, while the church has an utterance to make, sermons to preach, hymns to sing, and prayers to offer, above all it has a life-giving, life sustaining compassionate, abundant love to share, which is the big stuff of life lived from the inside out, as Richard Carlson writes, “Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple revelation that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present.”

May it be so for you and for me today and all days lived in the light of God’s presence where the fullness of joy and the tranquility of wholeness dwells.

 

 

 

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“I am not really myself. I am someone else. When others see me to talk to me, they are talking to a stranger. Not me. I am kept hidden away, safe from discovery or attack, behind the cover of my masks. Each day, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. As I sift through my closet, choosing which clothes to wear, I also search my mental mask menagerie, carefully selecting the image I want to project. Like an actor, I have learned to portray many roles. Many faces. Many moods. And I use a different mask for each.”

In this moment of honesty the young woman poet says what many people want to say, but have a hard time admitting. Very often in one way or another people often hide behind masks. Masks of happiness, because we want to be happy, though we may not be. Masks of the socialite because we want to have friends, though we are afraid people may not like us if they knew our real selves. Masks of self-sufficiency because we want to take charge of our lives, particularly when life seems beyond our control. Masks of “I’m fine” even when I am suffering from an illness or disease that threatens my life and I’m in denial. Masks of confidence when I don’t want to admit mistakes, weakness or hurt. Masks of superiority to tamp down feelings of being a fraud just waiting to be outed. Masks of all kinds to fit all the situations life presents to us each and every day.

I have often wondered why we wear these masks. Is it because it’s simply easier to go along to get along? Have we been rejected so many times in our lives that we choose not to risk being real? Or, is it as Henri Nouwen suggests that we live in the house of fear when he wrote, “The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like.”

Or, is it because we feel like a bowl that a friend of Joyce Rupp owned. This friend had a bowl with a lovely oriental design on it that was used at every family gathering for years. Over the years the design faded, one side received a crack and was chipped in several places. Pat, Rupp’s friend, admitted she turned the bowl, so that its “bad side” faced the wall and the bowl’s flaws were less noticeable.

Whatever the reasons, the downside of hiding behind masks creates more problems for us as the poet reminds us, “As I continue to wear these masks they begin to feel too comfortable. Natural. Necessary. As I get used to my masks I begin to believe they might really be me rather than merely a façade. Yet, meanwhile, my true self lies dormant within me. Isolated. Forgotten”

This is what has happened to the Pharisee, who has come to the Temple to pray, though he doesn’t realize it.

The Pharisee stands with his hands upraised and his face looking up in the traditional posture for prayer. Then, he begins his prayer without realizing how where he stands combined with the words he is speaking betrays the mask he wears. Now, to be sure this Pharisee believes he is a good man. In fact, there are a number of congregations that would welcome him with open arms, including this one. After all, he is not a crook, not a timeserver, not a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn’t honestly earned, he gives everyone a fair measure, and he is faithful to his wife, and patient with his children. And, he is religious. He fasts twice a week, he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent of all his income is for God, and he gives God thanks. Or at least he thinks he does.

You see the Greek phrase “pros heowton” can be translated as “standing by himself” or “praying within himself’ or “praying to himself.” By the first way of translating the phrase he is standing aloof from all the other people praying suggesting he has physically separated himself from the community as one who is too pure to stand near them, thus his words, “Thank God I’m not like other people,” and his actions of standing off by himself reinforce each other. By the second and third way of translating the phrase, he is mainly talking to himself in a narcissistic soliloquy and has separated himself from God.

Perhaps Jesus means he has done both, since the words of his prayer separates him from his community in its very opening, “Thank God I’m not like all these people” and he separates himself from God by listing all the things he does to justify himself-to save himself without God having anything to do with it. This is a man who has little need of God or the community. This is a man who leaves the hour of prayer self-assured and self-justified in his mask of self-righteousness, sort of like Ann Coulter or Bill Maher.

But, he has forgotten the one very important truth.

The truth known personally and deeply by the other man who is praying in the Temple’s shadows. The tax collector is a man, who knows he is only fit for the shadows and barely has any right to be in the Temple because he has sold out his neighbors and taken up with those who are oppressing them. He is the Tony Soprano of the first century enforcing Roman tax laws on his neighbors as well as bleeding them dry by adding on top of the Roman taxes his own greedy sum of money. He is hated by his neighbors as a collaborator and oppressor and treated with disdain by the Romans overseeing his operations. He has no place in the community, except in the shadows, where he stands with his eyes fixed on his feet, beating his chest the way men of the Ancient Near East did in heart-wrenching anguish, saying only a phrase adapted from Psalm 51- “God, have mercy upon me- a sinner.”

Which is absolutely true. He is a sinner. He knows he is a sinner and is not about to pretend to be what he is not. He has come to prayer hoping for God’s mercy because only God can forgive him. Only God can save him. He cannot save himself.  By the simple words of his prayer he takes off the mask he has been wearing and admits he has separated himself far away from his community and from God. He knows that on his own he cannot be reconciled to his community or be reconciled to God, only God is able to do that. He has come to the truth novelist Douglas Coupland writes, “My secret is that I need God- that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

This tax collector has come to this moment because, I suspect, somewhere before he arrived at the Temple he discovered that one important truth the Pharisee has not yet discovered. We can hide from our neighbors by the masks we wear. We might be able to hide from ourselves even when we look in the mirror. But, we can’t hide from God.

God knows us as the psalmist tells us, “ O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.”

There is simply no place where we can go that God is not present. There is no thought we might think that is hidden to God. Nor words, nor actions. Like the Psalmist, we encounter God who knows us through and through. God knows our daily habits, our most intimate thoughts and intentions. God’s knowledge, moreover, is not casual or indifferent. It is searching, penetrating, disturbing. It lays bare the innermost core of our being. We are surprised to find that God is not only near, God is uncomfortably near. God is before us and behind us; we are surrounded and if we are as aware of God as the psalmist is then we too will feel the constraint of God’s hand upon us.

Such a God is disturbing, disquieting, unsettling. God threatens our self-sufficiency. God does not confirm us as we are. Rather, God upsets the compromises we have made with the world and ourselves. Like most of us, the Psalmist yearned to know God. Obviously, neither he nor us had expected such a God as this. One may discern in the shadow of the psalmist’s surprise that the God he yearned to know was a projection of his own wishes and values, the champion of his cause. Isn’t that the God we have often yearned to know? The one who will do what we want, who will answer our prayers as we deem best on our terms and on our time tables? However, the encounter with the One who is truly divine is too much for the Psalmist. It requires a revolution in his life he feels he cannot make.

Yet, here is the good news Jesus brings into the world like the rising sun lit dawn chasing away the darkness of night, “God loves us.” Loving us not for our perfections, but with our flaws and imperfections readily apparent. That’s why Jesus called a tax collector to be one of the twelve disciples. That’s why Jesus constantly ate with thieves, prostitutes, lepers, and all who were sinners and beyond the bounds of the community of respectable people. That’s why Jesus so infuriated those who opposed him. They thought they had the in with God and when the Messiah came they would be confirmed. They are like the older brother in the prodigal son story, who gets angry when the ne’er do well younger brother is forgiven and is welcomed with a lavish feast, but forgets he is already blessed by his father. They have forgotten they have already received God’s grace because they have become so comfortable behind their masks of self-righteousness and have forgotten they too are sinners just like all those other people. They too need God.

They too need God’s mercy to see that their flaws are some of their greatest treasures, being irritated and grated by the sand of God’s presence in Jesus, so they become pearls. The pearls that keep our ego in check by reminding us daily of our need of God’s grace. The pearls that keep us growing and becoming more the real persons whose lives resemble Jesus’ life. The pearls that helps us to be more understanding and compassionate with the inadequacies and flaws of others. The pearls that help us to continually grow into being more loving persons, seeing what our flaws tell us about our relationship with God and with others. Reminding us not to hide behind masks or to turn our flawed side to the wall, but to rejoice in the grace of a God, who knows us inside and outside and still loves us and wants us to walk God’s path of life where there is fullness of joy and peace.

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Amos and the story of the Samaritan remind us to ask the question, “What kind of community are we?” The prophet Amos tells Israel of the Northern Kingdom that God is measuring their faithfulness to God and the covenant of God’s way against their unfaithfulness in the same way a builder uses a plumb line to measure a building’s vertical line and its ability to stand if its vertical line is true or the likelihood of it to fall down because it does not have a true vertical line, instead it is crooked.

The prophet tells the people God’s judgment is coming because they have failed to be the people God created and anointed them to be. Their community is highly stratified with the poor being bought and sold like commodities and are oppressed and crushed by those with wealth and power, that the merchants cheat their customers by using dishonest weights, the people worship idols of their own making or the gods of other people, the leaders-kings, priests, and the imperial prophets-have failed the people time and time again with the priests and the imperial prophets telling the king and the people what they want to hear as opposed to speaking God’s word of the covenant. The Northern Kingdom has become just like all the other kingdoms around it instead of being the distinctive people of God.

While Amos speaks a word of judgment and justice, the story of the Samaritan stopping to help the critically wounded man on the side road running from Jerusalem to Jericho is told to a gathered group of Judeans, some of whom are testing Jesus to see if he is orthodox enough to included in the community’s tradition. The story comes as a response to the lawyer, who began testing Jesus. The lawyer has asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling the story.

Typically, we would focus only on the Samaritan story as an example to be compassionate to strangers in need without delving more deeply into the story and its significance for a people trying to comprehend what it means to be God’s people who “Love the Lord with all heart, mind, soul and strength and Love my neighbor as myself” while ignoring or somehow toning down the prophet Amos’ words and God’s justice, however the events of this past week and the steady, highly polarized drumbeat of stereotyping, blaming and violence demands we dive more deeply into both.

Certainly, both readings challenge us to describe the community we live within and the community we want to be. The Amos readings reminds us about the way God desires to order human life as a community of inclusion with  each person treated with equality without regard to their position or status in society and treated with the same restorative justice, that each person in the community stay connected to the resources of food, vocation and a home, so all have a share in the abundance of the community’s life, and that those who are the most vulnerable-children, the elderly, and the resident migrant- be kept safe and free from oppression and abuse while being treated with neighbor love as are all persons in the community. This is a community valuing integrity and the truth and faithfulness in all relationships between people and between people and God. It is a community where Sabbath rest is valued for all persons, animals and machinery as much for the need for re-creation and healing of a person’s body and the mind as for the recognition that endless work is unhealthy and destructive to each person and animal and machinery and will destroy the community. It is a community living together with each having all they need for life without falling into the trap of envy and coveting what their neighbor has. Indeed, it is a community where such envy is unnecessary because no one has more than their neighbor. It is a community where leaders focus on the well-being of the entire community without regard for reward or their own agenda. It is a community that articulates gratitude for the blessings received from God as the recognition that life is a gift from God and that they did not create themselves. Amos further reminds us that if we ignore God’s way of community we will be like the crooked building that loses its ability to stand. We will crumble and fall into complete destruction.

Just as Amos is a critique of the status quo of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so too is the story of the Samaritan a critique of Judah in the first century because they too live in a highly stratified society with power and wealth exercised for the benefit of the few while leaving the poor and the marginalized of the community to fend for themselves, then the scribes, priests and Pharisees condemn them for not being quite good enough to be part of the community. It is a society that does not tolerate critique and sees critique as threat and rebellion with the only response by the state to destroy those who question and offer alternatives to the status quo. Into the midst of this society, Jesus comes teaching God’s desire for a community of loving God with hearts, minds, and strength and neighbor love that is inclusive and seeks ways to bring persons back into the community from the margins without hierarchy and which seeks an abundant life for all persons. The Samaritan story challenges us to ask whether we are content to walk past those neighbors needing compassion,  we are willing to stop and provide all the resources needed for the neighbor to regain health and well-being, or are we willing to receive the help we will need by persons we, too often, regard as inferior to ourselves.

Both Amos and the Samaritan story challenge us to ask what kind of community do we want to be? We are challenged to question and critique the prevailing cultural perspectives of Anglo-Saxon privilege and dominance, laissez-faire or mercantilist economic policies that privilege the wealthy at the expense of the poor, philosophies of ideological or religious intolerance in the name of purity and homogeneity, all the ways the community is divided into discrete demographic sectors that are viewed monolithically, and the drive to maintain or gain political power and control using whatever means will provide the outcomes desired. We are, also, challenged to name the issues or problems needing to be solved without making people the issue because if people are the issue or the problem the only solution is to separate ourselves from those people, which is not a solution that will achieve peace nor a solution God desires for humanity and creation. Finally, we are challenged to become the community God desires and creates us to be, a community where each person is equal and connected to each other in the dance of life that is the very image of the Triune God.

 

 

 

 

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