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A Hopeful Cry for Peace

A Hopeful Cry for Peace

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A Hopeful Cry for Peace

In light of recent events of these past several weeks, and the ongoing six-year crisis in Syria, we of the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network (SLPN) feel compelled to issue a response regarding the current state of affairs. The continuing loss of life and displacement of innocent people speak to the dark and destructive evil behind the use of chemical weapons and any military responses, whether by accident or by intention.

Such responses must be deemed as unacceptable going forward in the Syrian crisis. Prior to these events, negotiations were going on near Homs to begin working toward some shared resolution. After these attacks, negotiations between local parties inside Syria have ceased and a wider polarization has resulted. It appears to us that military responses such as these will always bring even more violence and quash efforts at resolution through discussion and negotiation.

The military response taken by the Trump administration has been called by some a “measured” action. This has been said even though it was one that was unilateral and immediate and took lives on the airstrip in Al Shayrat. The repercussions of that action are now emerging and show the likelihood of an escalation of hostilities and yet more carnage to be inflicted on the Syrian people.

The question of responsibility for the chemical attack remains but, as more time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find the truth. In the “fog of war” it is frequently said that “the first casualty of war is the truth.” Yet we must always be committed to understand as much of the truth as we can identify in order to help us respond truthfully going forward. Responses devoid of such truth in the end will show no effect at bringing about lasting resolution. To achieve this kind of understanding requires time and a fuller understanding of the far-reaching implications of what our actions may be.

It has seemed to us irresponsible and unjust to follow the bandwagon created by government officials and the western news media in immediately casting blame on one side or the other for such deplorable behavior. It seems any rush to judgment allows guilty parties to take refuge in the “fog” and make plans for other such uses of chemical weapons. Therefore, as the Steering Committee of the SLPN, and having spoken with our partners on the ground in the region and those who are part of our network here in the United States, we call on all parties to view and portray this crisis not as a “civil war” amongst the Syrian people, but much more a “proxy war” that admittedly involves many forces within the country, and one that has been seized upon and escalated by the outside influence of warriors from more than 90 countries. These outside combatants have been allowed open access through bordering countries in the region who have a stake in the outcome and who clearly desire a government change in Syria.

We also call for any influence of “super powers” to be used in a just manner for the cause of peace in this troubled country. Such influence clearly means the cessation of providing military resources and actual hardware that bring a continuance of this deadly conflict. The vast expansion of military force in the region provides an economic boon for countries around the world. No civilized country should be complicit in advancing the spread of this war. Violence only creates more violence and not lasting peace. All parties must use their power to help rebuild this country in the post-war period and to create an incentive for those who have fled to return to a peaceful homeland.

Today is the open window to do something new, something prophetic in the cause of peace. It must be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. In this season as we continue to celebrate the great sacrifice and resurrection of the Prince of Peace, we are committed to peace in real terms. May we too give our lives for the cause of peace in the world. To that end we offer a prayer given to us by our PCUSA General Assembly co-moderator Jan Edmiston.

“God of hope and peace, we pray for your healing of our world. We mourn for the children, women and men who have been killed by today’s swords and spears. We give thanks for those who seek to heal rather than harm. We pray for peace that seems so far away, yet that through you, we know is possible. We pray that the communities of nations will practice wisdom and restraint in this vulnerable and broken part of your creation. May we be part of a resurrection to life and peace in Syria and embrace a future where no one will learn war anymore. Amen.”
Looking Ahead with Hope,

The Syria Lebanon Partnership Network
Tim McCalmont, moderator
An Evening with Shane Claiborne A sermon delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan on March 11, 2017

A sermon delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan on March 11, 2017

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A sermon delivered to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan on March 11, 2017

by the Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee Scripture: John 3:1-17 Good morning all! It’s good to be with you today.

I’ve had a friend from college visiting with me this week, and it’s been delightful to catch up with her–to find out what has been going on in her life, and share what’s been happening in mine, and also to reminisce about our college days, which were nearly 20 years ago, now.

As I’ve been preparing for this sermon, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular experience I had in college. It was at a worship service I attended most weeks. This was a student-led service, not affiliated with any church or campus organization–just a couple kids with a guitar and a violin and a drum who started getting together to pray. It started with about 10 friends and quickly blossomed to over 100 students, so they asked to use the sanctuary of a church on campus so that this large group of students could continue to meet to worship at 10pm every Thursday night.

On this particular night I was in a sanctuary with all these fellow students singing a song called “Days of Elijah.” It’s a praise song that makes numerous references to the Hebrew Scriptures–Elijah, David, Ezekiel–and anticipates the second coming of Christ, using some of the language of the Hebrew prophets.

It’s an upbeat song, and the drummer and guitar player leading worship had people dancing in the aisles, like we were wont to for these songs of celebration. Usually I would have been dancing along with everyone else, but on this occasion I was frozen in my pew, because one line in the chorus had jumped out at me—“Lift your voice; it’s the year of Jubilee, and out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.”

Jubilee. I had just read about the year of Jubilee in Sunday School–we were studying a book called “The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life” by Russ and Gloria Kinsler, and in it I learned that the Jubilee law was about forgiveness of debts and redistribution of resources.

And right in that pew, I found myself putting together pieces of a puzzle–a puzzle I didn’t even know I had been carrying around for months or even years. I started thinking about what I had learned of Jubilee, and about a book on my parents’ shelf called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”–a book that makes the case that if every Evangelical Christian in North America tithed, we could resolve world hunger and still have enough money to keep our churches running smoothly. I thought about my experiences on mission trips to the Philippines in high school, and about students at my college who had just returned from a trip to Nicaragua; I thought about what I was learning about fair trade and human trafficking, and all kinds of pieces started clicking together. As I began to step back and look at all these pieces as a whole, I had an image–a vision of an African mother, bound in poverty, rejoicing at the coming of salvation because Jesus was going to spread out the wealth of the world so that she would have enough. Enough to feed her children and live life without fear.

And I was on the other side of the globe, with less so that this mother could have enough.

Now, I’m not here this morning to make a case for reinstating the biblical Jubilee–most scholars of ancient history will tell you that there is no evidence that the nation of Israel ever actually followed that law. And I’m not here to make the case that redistribution of wealth is God’s plan for the coming kingdom. What I am here to talk about is the struggle inside of myself when confronted with the reality that in a just world, I might be called to have less so that others can have enough.

That struggle which I first felt at about 10:30 pm on a Thursday night while a room full of college students danced to “Days of Elijah”–that struggle was my first experience of confronting my own privilege. I didn’t have that language, yet, but I could feel the tension.

I found myself asking, could I really sing this song authentically? Could I sing it with joy? This song was about good news for the poor. If I am not poor, but am among the wealthiest 10% of the planet is it still good news for me? If it is good news for me, can I believe that it is good news, even if it might mean changes in my life that feel like sacrifice or loss?

This is a tension I want to invite us to occupy today. It is deeply uncomfortable, but in our society more than ever, we need to ask these questions and sit with them for a time. It is too easy for us to assume that we are playing a zero-sum game. That everyone either shakes out as a winner or a loser. We see this assumption when people get defensive at the women’s movement, as if saying that women matter implies that men do not matter. We see this zero-sum assumption when people get upset at the Black Lives Matter movement as if it implies that white lives do not matter.

Can I believe in a world where I do not have an unfair advantage over my sisters and brothers of color, but in which I am not oppressed by them? Can I imagine that? Can we imagine God’s kingdom as one in which we have less privilege, but enough justice?

When I ask these questions, I find myself much like Nicodemus, coming to Jesus in the cover of night. I’ve been pondering these questions for two decades, and for most of that time I’ve been pondering in solitude–or maybe with one or two other friends over dinner, but far out of the pulpit and public eye. It is frightening to ask questions about my own privilege; it exposes my own ignorance and limitations.

And so I come to Jesus saying, “I’ve heard stories of what you do, and I believe you are amazing. I look at the problems in our world, and I know you can change everything,” but I do it in private, in secret. And then Jesus pushes my comfort zone. “Sarah, honey, it’s not about what you know. It’s about a whole new life. Bottom to top, inside out, everything transformed as the Spirit of God births you into a new way of being in the world.” And as I stammer and stare, wondering what on earth that means, Jesus puts a hand on my shoulder. “You say you’re a pastor, huh? And you haven’t gotten this part, yet?”

And I want to get defensive because I really like being competent, but I see the love, I know the love, I trust the love in Jesus’ face, so I shrug.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

And I think of Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a Birmingham jail, writing a letter to all the white pastors in town who are telling him to slow down and stop being so disruptive. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

Or the Black Lives Matter protestors who are told by white media and plenty of white pastors and Christians to stop antagonizing the police. “We speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.”

“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Does that cut your heart the way it does mine? Sisters and brothers, this is where we live. We live in this space between our impulse to get defensive when our neighbors testify about their own experiences of racism and the possibility of believing. Believing the reality of their experiences; believing the truth of our nation; believing the truth about our own hearts.

And oh, is it painful! It is heart-wrenching and soul-crushing and tears your body open, like childbirth. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that our nation that we love has a legacy of white supremacy that we cannot erase or ignore. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the police officers we know and love, often in our own families, are caught up in systemic racism that targets African Americans and threatens their lives. It is so painful to see the truth when the truth is that the mother across the street from me raises her brown-skinned boys to be polite, not so they can make a good impression, like I do with my son, but so that they can survive to adulthood.

And it is painful to see the truth when the truth is that I only feel this pain when I choose to. Part of my privilege as a white American woman is the luxury of looking away.

But here is what I have come to believe.

I believe that seeing and naming and working to dismantle white privilege is good news. I believe it is good news for me.

I believe it is good news for me, because of John 3:17–that oft neglected verse that follows its much more famous counterpart. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Seeing and naming our privilege is not about shame. Admitting that I am racist is not about personal guilt and wallowing in remorse. Jesus has come to liberate the captives, and sisters and brothers, we are captive to racism–we are bound up in a system that we did not create or choose, but which infects our ways of seeing and thinking and speaking and behaving in the world, and we need salvation. We need to be born again.

And praise God, who did not send Jesus into the world to look at our sin and shame us or condemn us, but to liberate us from its hold.

Do we believe that this is good news?

I am coming to believe that it is, and that is why, today I am not seeking Jesus out in the cover of night, but standing before you in the light of day to proclaim: Yes. This is good news. In the just and righteous kingdom of God, we who are white will not be privileged over others. We will have less so that others can have enough, and this will be our salvation. May we proclaim the kingdom of God and work out our salvation with fear and trembling each and every day.

Amen?

Amen.

Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899

Following Jesus into Eternal Life

Following Jesus into Eternal Life

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Following Jesus into Eternal Life

Sermon on the Good Samaritan for the Muskingum Valley Presbytery meeting on Feb. 4, 2017
1 John 4:7-21
Psalm 112
Luke 10:25-37

Following Jesus into Eternal Life

 

by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson

My wife and I enjoy comedy.  One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food.  In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food.  He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff!  It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…”  We justify how much food we eat around the holidays.  Anyone have children?  Me, too.  And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?”  Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.

In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself.  And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness.  Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.

Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou.  It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.”  Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior.  It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others:  “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!”  In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus.  It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.

The lawyer asks two questions.  One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it:  Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  And we take the bait, too!  “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God.  Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat.  “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever.  Love God with blah, blah, blah… done.  Check.  Moving on.  What about my neighbor?”

But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us.  Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

So Jesus doesn’t answer his question:  he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus.  The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving.  It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.

We all want to be the Good Samaritan.  In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.”  Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are!  But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,”  “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him.  We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.

The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself.  Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore?  We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity.  So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God!  That just never works; that’s not a good place to be.  And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.

The first is really a group:  the robbers.  They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.”  They justify they’re robbery.

The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite.  The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean.  I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.”  The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest.  As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales.  And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing:  “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy.  Much, much too busy for you!”  Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.

These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.

But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.

The first is the Samaritan.  Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that.  The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.”  Now, I’m a nerd.  I make no apologies for that.  The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai.  The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon.  Try saying that:  spla(n)gchnonSpla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs.  It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity.  It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation.  The Samaritan does not try to justify himself.  His compassion is justification in itself.

First is the Samaritan.  Second is the man robbed.  He cannot justify himself.  He never says or does anything.  He is unable even to beg for mercy!  He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.

And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead.  We’re not fully alive.  Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy.  And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about.  Finding life.  Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?

See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God.  On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa.  But their understanding of holiness got in the way.  Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like.  He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’  It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy.  And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!

This is important!  Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies.  And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.”  That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer.  “The one who showed him mercy.”  This is what God does!  God shows mercy.  So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.

Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.”  The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him.  The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel.  And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!

Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing.  We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead.  And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.

Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight.  But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience.  So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect?  How about this:

A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C.  Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe.  I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side.  Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible!  I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping.  But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.

Now…maybe you liked that version!  How about this one:

A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled.  Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away.  Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client.  But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.

Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it.  We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.

So let me ask:  Who is the Samaritan in your life?  From whom would it offend you to receive help?  Who is difficult for you to love?  To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?

Because here’s the thing:  in Christ, God has shown mercy to all!  And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!!  If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?

As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to.  God is neighbor to all!  Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us.  At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.

The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he.  He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority.  The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself.  He cannot and does not say: you should help me because…  and yet he is helped by the Samaritan.  The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.

And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions!  The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command.  But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return.  And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other.  Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions.  The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.

So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you?  Good!  That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God.  But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…

Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable:  I think we become the innkeeper!

See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion.  And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”  But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing.  “Take care of the man…”  The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation.  But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we?  Will we?

Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors?  Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people?  Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?

Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus.      Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love.  But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.

If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness.  May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself!  Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone.  Do that first.  Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Dear Citizens of Flint, MI The Kingdom of God Among You

The Kingdom of God Among You

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The Kingdom of God Among You

The Kingdom of God Among You
Sermon Preached at the November 12, 2016 Meeting
of The Presbytery of the Miami Valley
Rev. Diane Ziegler

Scriptures:

Isaiah 12:2 – Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.  (NRSV)

Luke 17:20-21; 33-35 – Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” . . . . Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.  I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.  There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.   (NRSV)

Prayer:

Startle us, O God, with your truth and open our hearts and our minds to your wondrous love. Speak your word to us; silence in us any voice but your own and be with us now as we turn our attention, our minds and our hearts, to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (Rev. John Buchanan)

My husband is a car enthusiast.  He would love to drive a Bugatti, or a Koenigsegg, or a Pagani.   But instead he drives a grey Honda Accord that he treats like a Bugatti – – washed and shined regularly and meticulously cleaned.  This morning I drove here with an open cup of coffee – –  SSSHHH – – Don’t tell him!

Two grey Honda Accords ago he bumped someone in a parking lot and the “H” on the front of his Honda broke off.  It was weeks before he found a replacement “H” that met his price point, but he was so glad when he did.  The car was back in pristine order.  For a bit anyway.  At least a week.  For not too long after he had that “H” back in place on his pristinely maintained Accord, he found himself headed up I-75 on a routine ride that would change him forever.

He was driving north, our younger son – – then about 5 – – with him, on the way to pick up our older son.  The highway was packed.  He was in the third lane from the right, vehicles all around him.  Directly in front of him was a pick-up truck loaded with a household of furniture, topped with a metal bed frame, and tied up with string.  As he drove in the traffic, at the speed that 75 demands, he watched, with distress, the bed frame begin to bounce and loosen and he knew  it was coming off.

He could not brake.  Or go right.  Or left.  Or catty-cornered either way.  Even if they survived the frame’s impact on the car, he thought a huge accident would follow.  He thought they were going to die.  He said he watched his whole life run before his eyes, just like “they say”.  He looked at the kid in the car for what he thought was a last time.  Wondered how long the other child would be left waiting, and how I would find out what had happened to them.  He thought about who he loved.  What he valued.  What he had done and what he had not done that he wished to do.  And he wondered what life for his family and for his corner of the world would be like if he was no longer part of it.  He maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed a last prayer to Almighty God.

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

Facing death is hard.  Our physical death.  Communities as we grew up in them.  Congregations that served generations of the same family now in steep decline or closed.

The death of life as we know it, the death of life as we remember it in a time gone by – – facing death is hard.

Remember when the pews at church were full?  When you could hear the lock-step of the Elders returning the offering plates or the communion trays to the front of the sanctuary?  When Presbytery meetings were the place to be?  When the Establishment seemed unmovable?

When we see life lived and longed-for slipping from our very hands, our grasp, our memory, our ability to hold on, well, it is very hard.  And we struggle, we struggle to hold it so tightly that we clasp and grasp, and cling, turning inward to shield ourselves from the change to come.

And that is exactly what we have done.  We’ve planted our feet unwilling to move.  “I’ll die before I change!” one frightened church member exclaimed.

Our faces and faith have turned inward, my friends.  Maybe more so today than a week ago.  Individually, in our particular churches, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, the Synod of the Covenant, and the PC USA.  And we tremble.  We tremble.

We don’t want to die.  We don’t our memories of full churches to fade any further.  Facing death is hard.

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid.

Seemingly quick or simple solutions are the first to surface in our minds and hearts and faiths turned inward – – we just need a charismatic pastor, or for churches to just do what they are supposed to do, or to cut out the troubled spots, to get rid of every one not like us; and then we can begin again.

These quick solutions aim to remove us from the muck and the mire and the hard work of following Jesus.  They remove us from being part of the solution.  Like the Left Behind messages that have for years taken people captive with a false comfort – – like those bumper stickers “in case of rapture this car will be unmanned” –  – simple solutions hope for something to take us, remove us, lift us like Elijah out of this hot mess of a world in which we find ourselves.

But the solutions aren’t simple.  And Christ didn’t take the easy way out.  And Christ doesn’t intend to pull us from bed, or the grinding stone, or the field, or the workplace, or the school bus, or the retirement home, or the pew, and lift us to some heavenly realm where we can escape the trials of the world.

Instead, “in fact”, he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”.  My friends, “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”.  In Belle Center and Huntsville; Urbana and Springfield; Huber Heights and Downtown Dayton; Eaton: Oxford; in Bellbrook; Middletown; Blue Ball; Monroe; in Reily; in Morning Sun; Sugar Creek; Fairborn and every other town great or small with the presence of the people of God.  We, my friends, are to manifest the Kingdom of God in our individual lives, our congregations, and the Presbytery of the Miami Valley.  “The kingdom of God is among you.”

We are called not to turn inward.  We are called not to look to the skies to be drawn up in a chariot.  Instead, we are called to look down upon the holy ground on which we walk.  We are called to look onto the faces that we pass.  We are called out into the places in which we find ourselves each moment of each day; called to live and carry and forward the kingdom of God.

For it is among you.  It is among you.  Brothers and sisters the kingdom of God among you!  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

But let’s be honest.  We have failed.  We have fallen to fear and dusty memories and hopes unrealized; longing for a time when the world seemed less complex and divided, less violent, less apathetic.  We have not done what we should do, loved as we should love, given as we should give, trusted as we should trust.  We’ve embraced isolation at best, and at worst, hatred and division at times too.  We are Presbyterian but not Presbyterian.  Christian but not Christian.  Followers of Jesus as long as Jesus doesn’t put us at any risk.  Because we are afraid.  And our fear is deep and wide.  Our uncertainty is great.  Our self-preservation high.

Lift us away, O God, and leave the others behind. 

But self-preservation is not the Kingdom.  It does seems much less risky, much more secure.  When hear Jesus say that those who try to make their life secure will lose it, and those who lose their life will keep it – – well, it makes no sense at all – – how can that be?  If we just wait a little longer, keep the doors open a little longer, keep COM and Leadership Council running a little longer, show me some signs and some indicators so that we can say, “Look, here it is!” . . . the kingdom will surely come.

All the while ignoring those words already spoken.  “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”.  All the while ignoring those words that those who lose their life will keep it, those who lose their life will keep it.  The Kingdom among you!

The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

My son started High School this year and that has brought some new phrases.  One day he was telling some story about something that happened and I honestly don’t remember the story at all except for the ending statement about whoever had misfortune in it, “sucks for him” he said.

At first I was rather mortified.  My younger son has the potential to make a sailor blush, but my older son, he’s like Ghandi shoved in a 14 year old’s body!  What?  What just spewed from your mouth, child?  But then I was fascinated.  Leave it to a teenager to understand how the world really is.  Sucks for him.  Sucks for you!  It’s the descriptive phrase used among these 14, 15, 16 year olds for the person who did not have things go his/her way, for the one who was defeated, for the one who was left alone, or whatever their misfortune may be.  Sucks for you.

How sadly reflective that phrase is of our world, our nation, our communities, our Presbytery, our congregations, even in our own lives.

Sucks for you.

“In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.”  Sucks for you who are left behind.   To heck with everyone else; I am out of here.

Sucks for you Syria and Yemen and Iraq where violence and starvation take life after life, for the women and girls who suffered under Boko Haram and then again under those in the camps where they sought refuge.  Sucks for you.  For Italy and the earthquakes, for Haiti battered and beaten by water walls and storms, for Chicago with over 600 homicides.  Sucks for you.  For Democrats and Republicans and everyone in between, our national division deep and wide.  Sucks for you.  Hungry child killed not too far from where we worship today for seeking something to ease the pain of a stomach that was empty too long.  And child’s mother who took her child’s life in mental illness, poverty, adrenaline, anger or whatever evil it may have been.  Sucks for you.  The list goes on and on.  Sucks, sucks for you.

O God, pull us from here!

Churches who leave.

Churches who stay.

Churches we’d like to see leave.

Sucks for you.

For Presbytery meetings we skip rather than endure.  Committees and networks we do not want to take the time to help staff.  Support dollars we withhold.  People we “minister” alongside for years and never say much more than hi.

For pecking orders among pastors, and congregations, and members.  For people we don’t like.  For the “crazy” people who take all of our time.

For good pastors and faithful congregations, large and small, seeking to do the work and will of God who seem to get lost, or ignored.

All the while we wait to be beamed up, lifted, removed.

Our outdated understandings of our roles, our congregations, of what effective and faithful means.  Our seeking to be members of the Church of Comfort rather than disciples of the Crucified God.

What we know and cling to is so much easier than what the Spirit of God says.

No worries.  It doesn’t matter anyway.

Sucks for you world.  We’ll be gone and you’ll be left behind.

But that isn’t what Jesus says at all, is it?  “In fact,” he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”.

Something does happen to us when we think we, or what we know, or what we love, or what we remember may die.  But Jesus isn’t much for hunkering down and hoping things will pass.  He’s not a “sucks for you” guy at all.  In sharp contrast, to proclaim that “sucks for you” does not have the last word, he stretched out his arms on the cross and he died.

Jesus doesn’t leave the mess.  He’s smack in the middle of it.  With tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and fishermen!

Jesus is in the mess, in the midst, with the sick and the sinners JUST LIKE US!  Because he knows where the Kingdom of God is.  It is among you.  It is among you!  The kingdom of God among you!  Look around!  It is right here!

If we’ve had bad theology, or unfaithful service, or poor performance, it is not the end.  Looking death in the eye, facing the prospect of a loss, is sometimes is cleansing.  It gives us an opportunity to think hard about what matters to us and where we have been faithful and where we have failed miserably.

And if we are graced to see Death’s face but still live, that is a gift.  In that gift we see our lives are resurrected.  In that gift we do not seek to be lifted out, but to be faithful and intentional with every single second of every single day.

Yes, the prospect of death, the prospect of loss, can be a gift if we choose to see it as such, and if we choose to rise from that prospect, from the waters of baptism, and live.  Live.  For the kingdom of God is among you!  The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

Death is right before us.  And we can choose to hunker down and hide until our last breath.  Or we can live.  And if we choose to live, then we’ve got some work to do.  Work to let go of our preferences, our pretenses, our certainties.  Work to release our judgements of one another, of this Presbytery, of what we are called into.  Work to discern a future of collective, connected, covenantal ministry that isn’t based on a longed-for past, or ease, or our preferences, or who we like and don’t like, but on the true realization of the words of Christ Jesus.

The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed.  For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.  It is among you.  It is among you.  It is among you!  The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

Our time today is sacred.  The ground on which we gather holy.  The community to which we belong redeemed and saved.  Knowing that, may we take on this task with sincerity and integrity, with dedication and faithfulness.  May we allow ourselves to be startled by the Living God who called the church into being for the sake of the world and called each of us to be a part of that church – – particular and Presbytery.  Pray, discern, be faithful, my friends.  Not to what you want.  Not to what is easy.  Not to what is comfortable or familiar.  But to the future to which the Spirit calls us.  For the Kingdom of God is among us.  It is among us.

The world desperately needs us to stop seeking to get out, stop trying to save ourselves, stop being okay with sucks-for-you.  And instead, to proclaim salvation and justice and mercy and peace to the ends of the earth.  To preach and live and proclaim the kingdom!  This is our calling, our charge, our task, our life, my friends.  Surely God is our salvation; we will trust, and will not be afraid.

We have no reason to fear.  We are baptized – – we have already died and risen again in new life.

Our physical death is now just a detail.

Our old selves, old lives, old ways, those are the things Christ calls us to leave behind.  And rise, and be, and live into the Kingdom among you!

My husband maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed.  The frame flew off the back of the truck, smacked in to the front of the car, and bounced in a perfect arc over the car in the far left lane, landing with a single bounce in the grass between highway north and highway south.  Traffic moved forward as if nothing had happened at all.   Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.  When he got to where he was going, he got out of the car, gasping for the air that had been squeezed from his lungs and legs shaking in fear.  He walked to the front to see what damage was done.  The car was not scratched.  Except the “H”; it was gone.  Sucks for you.

Let us not be afraid, my friends.  Let us not turn inward.  May we not seek what is easy or familiar.  Instead, with courage and hope may we receive the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who seeks to guide us as we work and discern and covenant with one another over how to faithfully live out the Kingdom of God that is among us.

For the Lord God is our strength and our might.  He has become our salvation.

Trust.  And do not be afraid.  The Kingdom of God – – it is, my friends – – among you.  Among  you.  Among you.

All glory be to you, O Lord.  Amen.

Unless We Really Care

Unless We Really Care

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Unless We Really Care

While the election season has finally ended, for now, political campaigning will nonetheless continue as usual. It is not surprising that in year or so professional politicians and their party machines will gear up to sway the public by manufacturing trivial crises and prioritizing a handful of superficial controversial issues that suit their billionaire/millionaire donors. Relying on armies of professionals, political pundits will wage wars with well-crafted speeches and repeat magic phrases and themes. Voters are often tempted to fall for dooms-day warnings, character assassinations, and empty promises for change. No wonder many simply do not exercise the right to vote regardless who is running.

With very few exceptions, candidates and politicians intentionally ignore major issues. Those brave and serious candidates however often fail to garner fair attention and support, or perhaps voters fail to give them the attention they deserve or fail to place such important issues before politicians.

Democracies rely on elections because democracy relies on the voices of the citizens, but self-serving politicians will rely on corrupting the political system even if that system is codifies in the constitution as a tool for democracy. A true democracy will respond to the needs of the people and accentuate hidden real issues even when voters are misinformed. Unlike Lady Justice, democracy has eyes that see the needs of the people, ears that listen to their cries, hands to deliver justice, and feet to move forward. Democracy’s eyes are capable of seeing and can make better determination as who and what the magistrate sword cuts, and whether the scale of justice is balanced. Nevertheless, democracy is as fair and compassionate as its voting citizens and their representatives.

We The People are often so distracted by the numerous cycles of elections and lost in our gerrymandered voting districts that we miss colossal realities. We often ignore such neglected but evil realities including waging 5 wars (some argue 7 wars) concurrently, incarcerating the world largest prison population per capita, boasting 750-800 disclosed military bases around the globe while neglecting and dehumanizing veterans. Not to mention drastic cuts in assistance to the very poor and inflating the national debt to slaughter innocent civilians and impoverish sovereign countries in order to profit from sale of weapons.

The Church must speak truth to this empire. The Church must denounce the unjust status quo. The Church must resist the corruption of this political system. The Church must preach less and serve more. The Church must repent and practice genuine love, charity, and compassion.

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”(Psalm 127:1-2)

COVENANT, GRACE, GRATITUDE,

Raafat  Zaki

From the Lions’ Den

From the Lions’ Den

This entry was posted in Presbyterian Life on by .

From the Lions’ Den

From the Lions Den

My mother was a smoker. Like many of her generation, she started smoking as a teenager, unaware of the health risks she was inviting. Once the dangers of smoking were publicized, she tried to quit, but a lifetime of habits is hard to break. She finally did quit, though, but it was too late, and cancer was already taking her life at the age of 61. Change – even life-saving change – is hard.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of columns in this space about the challenges facing American Presbyterians in our day. I discussed the reasons for our chronic membership decline, the increasing marginalization of churches in a post-modern, post-Christendom America, and the need to develop a new way of being the church to adapt to this changing landscape.

I call that new way becoming an “inside-out” church. By “inside-out,” I mean a church which is not content to sit inside the church building trying to attract those who are outside to come join them to encounter God. Instead, an inside-out church is one which recognizes that we are called out from our churches to engage our neighbors in the world where Christ is already present in mission. The church building is no longer the destination for our mission but its base.

This is a tidal change in how the church has operated over most of its history in North America. It recognizes that our situation is more like the church of the mid-first century than the church of the mid-20th century. But change is hard, especially the kind of change that forces us to adapt our ways of being the church to a new and different set of challenges.

You might be familiar with the parable of the frog in the kettle. The parable points out two ways of trying to boil a live frog (don’t try this at home). The one way is to boil a kettle of water and then throw the frog in. That doesn’t work because the frog will detect the hostile environment and jump right out. The second way is to put the frog in a kettle of cold water and raise the heat so slowly that the frog doesn’t even know it. The frog will simply stay in the kettle until it is boiled to death.

The world is changing around us, but if we do not recognize the change and get out of our comfort zone, we will end up like the frog. Change consultant Robert Quinn calls this “the normal state” that leads to “slow death”:

The failure to change is a process of closing down, of ceasing to respond to the changing signals from the world around us. As we become increasingly closed, we lose energy and hope. We experience negative emotions such as fear, insecurity, doubt, and denial that lead us to shut out the signals being sent by evolving external realities. We thus become increasingly disconnected and lose still more energy.

In [churches], the same dynamics come into play. We all spend most of our time unconsciously colluding in our own diminishment and the diminishment of the [church]. We collectively lose hope, turn to self-interest, and experience increasing conflict. The [church] becomes more disconnected and loses more energy. At both individual and [congregational] levels, we tend to choose slow death over deep change. (Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, p. 19)

The work of transformation isn’t easy. We are creatures of inertia. We settle into routines and expectations that create a comfort zone in which we operate. Whenever we try to break out of those comfort zones and change those routines and expectations, hidden forces of inertia within the organization rise up to return us to the normal state of terminal comfort.

Change consultants call these adaptive challenges. They are different than the kind of problem solving we are used to doing that merely require applying some technical skill or launching some new program. Using a medical analogy, technical challenges are like broken bones: the physician resets the bone, puts the limb in a cast, and the healing will happen. Little is expected or required of the patient. But adaptive challenges are stopping smoking or maintaining long-term weight loss. They require the full participation of the patient to change behaviors and a larger community, typically, to assist in resisting the physical, social, and emotional pressures to return to the former condition. 12-step programs are examples of adaptive change (Heifitz & Linsky, Leadership Without Easy Answers).

Adaptive challenges require new ways of thinking and acting. Real transformation can’t happen by technical fixes like changing the worship service or starting a new program. It only happens when we change our way of thinking, and our desire for change is greater than our natural preference for the safe and familiar.

Changes are happening around us. The heat is on and no one will turn it off. We can recognize the change and get moving, or sit and boil.

Faithfully,

Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter
dsaperstein@presbylh.org