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Change’s gonna come…How long? Not Long

Change’s gonna come…How long? Not Long

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Change’s gonna come…How long? Not Long

January 19, 2020

Rev. Dr. Charles D. Tinsley
Pastor, West Cincinnati Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15th 1929. Had he lived he would have celebrated his 91st birthday last week.

People of his generation were born between the two world wars, raised during the Great Depression and tragically enough, tempered in and by what was an apartheid society.

African Americans who began their lives in the years between 1920 and 1940 were more than likely to have descended from grandparents and great grandparents who had been held in bondage, in a most pernicious form of chattel slavery that ended a little more than 60 years before Martin King’s birth.

The period of Reconstruction, a time when those formerly held captive, and the republic itself, made significant strides in positive directions.

The humanitarian natures of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution of the United States extended legal protections to the four millions of Black former slaves.

A mere 52 years before Martin King’s birth the country began to move in a radically different direction. A backlash occurred in response to and as a result, in great part, of the social, economic and political gains enjoyed by Black Americans. There were those who sought to return to the past, a sinful, misguided and evil movement to “make America great again.”

They aggressively sought and worked relentlessly to return societal norms and practice to an unfortunate time when one group convinced of its inherent superiority, oppressed, suppressed and restricted, “by any means necessary” the upward mobility of people of African descent.

Those tyrannical efforts to dominate and arrest and smother the progress of the newly emancipated people of this country, manifested themselves in codified restrictions, constraints and malevolent exploitation.

In the years leading to the end of the 19th century, the widespread passage of local and state so-called “Jim Crow Laws” provided for vile mechanisms designed to keep Black people “in their place,” in total submission, in a state of “second class citizenship.”

In 1896, only thirty-three years before Alberta Williams King gave birth to her middle child, her first son, then named Michael, the United States Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation laws where public facilities were concerned were constitutionally acceptable as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality.

Although the facilities never were, the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” conceived in infamy opened the virtual flood gates for de jure segregation in all of the former confederate and slave states and de facto segregation elsewhere. Racial segregation and discrimination was the law of the land.

Protest and rebellion against these monumental assaults on human decency, integrity and justice and peace were routinely addressed with savage, violent, often deadly acts at the hands of “domestic terrorist” groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In the four decades prior to the future drum major for peace’s birth several thousands of 5 African Americans were lynched. Lynching was the cowardice, ominous, disgusting, and murderous tool employed as a means to control, by raw torture and terrorism, every aspect of the lives of citizens of African descent in the “land of the free and home of the brave…”

Twenty-nine years before the future pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, the imminent writer, scholar, activist, author, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois in his “Address to the nations of the world” shared the following: “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question of how far differences of race-which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair-will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of 6 sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization”

That same icon of the struggle for freedom was one of the founders of the oldest civil rights organization in these United States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, just 20 years before King’s birth. This in the same year the so-called Atlanta Race Riot occurred and described by the French newspaper Le Petit Journal as “a racial massacre of negroes” It was one of many in the 20th century…

A mere 16 years before the future founding president of the Montgomery Improvement Association arrived in the world, the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the re-segregation of federal agencies 7 bluntly stated, “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.”

Three hundred ten years after the arrival of the first Africans were brought involuntarily to the Virginia shores, the child whose birthday, 90 years later, we now celebrate was welcomed into his parents’ home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the one-hundred fifty third year in the life of the republic, the future leader of a movement toward freedom, was born into a society that was not free–for some. The nation, this nation that espoused in its founding principles the notion of equity and egalitarianism for too long not had not practiced to what it preached.

The “gloomy past” that James Weldon Johnson spoke about in his poem “Lift every voice and sing” spoke of the content of the character of a country that had failed to truly live up to the lofty ideals it purported to champion.

In January 1929, mere months before the world was plunged into the economic disaster of what was the Great Depression, God brought upon the scene one who would challenge this country to search the very depths its conscience.

Well into the 20th Century, for far too long the conduct of institutions of this society fell short of reflecting the principles of love, peace, unity and justice for all people. For far too long sinfulness and blatant hypocrisy accurately described the unsustainable nature of the content of this nation’s character.

“Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died” For generations the oppressed, the suffering, those held in bondage, in times about which James Weldon Johnson so eloquently shared, cried collectively in anguish, HOW LONG? How long must we endure the inhumanity, the pain, the injustice?

The late American Religion scholar, Dr. James Noel, maintained that the unique African American theology, unlike those native to Africa or to Europe, was itself born in the dreadful holds of slave ships on the Middle Passage.

Imagine the collective cry: “God, HOW LONG will we be forced to bear this degrading, miserable and escalating hardship at the hands of those who profess to follow in privilege a fair and just God?”

For generations before the third decade of the twentieth century the answer was elusive and uncertain… Although the child King, the son and grandson of prominent and devout Christian ministers was nurtured in the relative comfort of a middle class home and family, he was nevertheless raised within a wider social setting, one characterized by the racial, social and economic tension and distress of the times.

Exactly thirty-five years before Grammy winning hall of fame artist Sam Cook recorded his prophetic song, “A change is gonna come,” the future standout Morehouse College student came into a world that was in flux and its inhabitants about to experience profound and radical social change.

Sam Cooke sang, “It’s been a long time, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will” During Martin King’s formative years, thousands of African Americans migrated out of the brutally segregated agrarian South seeking jobs, some semblance of freedom in the industrial centers of the North, even during depths of the Great Depression.

That mass exodus increased following the entry of the United States into World War II. Employment opportunities were suddenly available as never before for African Americans and women of all hues.

People of all ethnicities and racial origins were forced to work together and function as teams, in ways and fashion unimagined in prior decades.

The year before Martin King began his college studies in 1943, the Vice President of the United States Henry Wallace shared: “We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home. Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism…”

The time and need for the ruling elite and certainly all American society to thoroughly reexamine itself and its fundamental principles was upon itself. “Are not those people whom we have subjected to all manner of humility, inhumane treatment, indignities and discrimination even AFTER 246 years of chattel slavery, UNHAPPY? Why in God’s name are they rioting?”

HOW LONG? Not long because the back of Jim Crow was breaking. Equal opportunity in the work place was gradually becoming the rule rather than the exception.

African American veterans returning from battles across the oceans in a war against despots whose platforms for war were founded on notions of racial superiority, were eager to win on two fronts–both abroad and at home. HOW LONG? Not long because the back of Jim Crow was breaking.

The United States military was, by presidential executive order, forced to desegregate six months after the Morehouse College graduate Martin King celebrated his nineteenth birthday and two months before he entered Crozier Theological Seminary. Following his initial theological training, the Reverend King undertook his doctoral studies at Boston University.

Given his educational background, elegance and style the young Dr. King could have stayed in the less hostile environs of the North. Any number of prestigious pulpits or professorships in major population centers were available to him, including right here in Cincinnati. But, his God, our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah and Rachel called him back to the South, “in times like these” of the early 1950s.

HOW LONG? It was not long before in 1955 the mother of brutally beaten and lynched fourteen year old Emmet Till allowed tens of thousands of people to file past his open casket to witness up close and in person what evil deed had been inflicted upon her child. This following her permission for a photograph of the corpse to appear in Jet magazine.

When the self-admitted killers were acquitted of the crime of murder, the African American community was stunned, not surprised, but angry, indignant and exasperated.

Mere weeks later, in Montgomery Alabama a Black seamstress named Rosa Parks expressed the mood of the Black community there locally, and even nationally, when she was TIRED, refused to vacate a public bus seat for a white man. In her humble weariness Ms. Parks certainly “broke” the decidedly asinine “Jim Crow Law” but perhaps unwittingly participated in the culminating assault on systematic and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination.

This act was an important defining catalyst for the birth of the movement to which God called the young but well prepared minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to labor in a major leadership role.

HOW LONG? Not long was our brother Martin, the true conscience of this nation destined and allowed to love us and serve us. A mere years was he allowed to bravely challenge the nature of this country’s transgression.

He sought to cause all people to love unconditionally one another as we love our selves created equally by and in the image of our God; the God he sought so ably to serve. It is the same God by whom we are indeed judged by the content of our character as expressed by our faith and conduct.

A little more than 56 years after the “Dreamer” shared his dream with a nation on the threshold of the doors to reformation, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and 52 years since he was violently taken from our presence, the dream lives on. Thank God.

James Weldon Johnson ended the first stanza of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” thusly: Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won.

65 years later in Montgomery Alabama at the conclusion of the March from Selma, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “spake” all these words, saying: “Last Sunday, more than eight-thousands of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and 19 across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore.” “Now it is not an accident that one of the great marches of American history should terminate in Montgomery, Alabama. Just ten years ago, in this very city, a new philosophy was born of the Negro struggle. Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age old oppressors” “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’ Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark street, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.” “The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not all together a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.  I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” AMEN

Source: PRESBYTERY OF CINCINNATI Martin Luther King Jr. Service on January 19, 2020 at Covenant First Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Celebrate SDOP Sunday “WOULD THE REAL NINEVITES PLEASE STAND UP?”

“WOULD THE REAL NINEVITES PLEASE STAND UP?”

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“WOULD THE REAL NINEVITES PLEASE STAND UP?”

First Presbyterian Church, Marietta, Ohio
April 29, 20178
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10

By Rev. Marc van Bulck

Our Scripture reading is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture.  Sunday School curriculums have been made about it.  Veggie Tales made a movie about it.  I’ve met people who have told me that they’ve never heard of Jonah in the Bible, but upon hearing “He’s the guy who got swallowed up in the belly of a fish,” they’ve said, “Oh, yeah.  I know that story.”  It’s also a great story for seminarians and Bible snobs who love to correct people and say, “You know, the Bible doesn’t actually say it was a whale.  It says it was a ‘large fish.’”  Whatever.

Jonah is one of the most beloved Bible stories that we tell to children, but when I read it today, it reads a lot more like a religious, political satire.  The business with the fish only takes up about a fourth of the story, and in my opinion this narrative feels like something much closer to Mark Twain than Mr. Rogers.

God has had it up to here with Nineveh’s shenanigans and warns Jonah that they’re goose is cooked if they don’t get their act together.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria whom the writers of the Hebrew Bible largely looked down their nose at.  They were foreigners.  Outsiders.  They didn’t exactly believe what we believe.  They didn’t go to our church.  They behaved differently.  They were sinners!

So, God tells Jonah to get his butt over to Nineveh and warn them that a can of you-know-what is about to be opened if they don’t start to straighten up and fly right.  So, naturally, Jonah hops on the first boat for the exact opposite direction instead as you do when you’re a Biblical prophet.

This makes Yahweh very grumpy who sends a storm over the water that threatens to break the boat to pieces out on the open ocean, and in a rare moment of self-awareness Jonah recognizes that maybe the problem is him!  So, he has the crew to toss him overboard.

As Jonah is sinking into the depths of the water, Jonah begins to drown and begins to die.  And so the large fish that God sends to swallow him up is not there to seal his fate; it saves his life.  Jonah is vomited back onto dry land, and our Scripture reading catches up to him:

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.  ’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

I relate to Jonah a little bit more than I like to admit.  I used to like this story back in seminary when I thought that relating to him was a good thing.  I’m not so sure I feel that way now.  Jonah is the very definition of privilege.  He’s got all the right religious beliefs.  He’s the good, well-behaved church-going boy.  He can recite the B-sides to the Psalms even when he’s swimming in fish guts.  When his life is in danger, God swings in and saves him and makes sure he’s okay.  When Jonah gets uncomfortable, God plants a nice, shady tree just for him.  Isn’t that nice?

Jonah has everything he could possibly want, and yet throughout this entire story, all he ever does is whine about it.  Jonah whines all the time.  He is spoken to by the very voice of God (a privilege afforded to very few), and the first thing he does is slam the door like a moody teenager and run in the other direction.  God saves the lives of every living person in Nineveh, and Jonah still manages to find a way to make it all about him.  One minute he’s all, “Thank you, O Lord, for saving my life!” and the next minute: “I’d be better off if I was dead!”

And why?  “Because a worm was eating my shady little tree!  Boo, hoo, hoo!”  God says to Jonah, “Is it really right for you to be angry about this?” and Jonah says, “Yes, it is!  Angry enough to die!”

You know what the real irony here is?  The way this story sets up how horrible, evil, sinful, and depraved these Ninevites are, we might expect this kind of behavior from them.  The irony, though, is that when God asks them to do something, the text tells us they wasted no time jumping into action.  Verse five tells us “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast…everyone, great and small!”

They don’t whine.  They don’t complain.  They don’t ask stupid questions.  They don’t try to argue with God.  Their very first response is, “Holy Moses!  Thanks for letting us know, God!  Quick, come on, gang.  Let’s get it together.  Maybe there’s still a chance we can turn this ship around before it’s too late.”

The supposedly horrible, sinful people who we’re not supposed to like are the ones who come out looking like the heroes in this story, and it is the supposedly good, faithful, religious-type who is portrayed as a selfish, entitled hypocrite who has everything he could possibly need but can’t seem to do anything but complain like he’s being persecuted all the time.  It’s just the saddest commentary on our religious institutions you’re ever going to find in a story like this.  It would be a pretty biting piece of satire even by today’s standards, and this was written over two thousand years ago.

I’ve never been to Nineveh.  I’ve never traveled to that part of the world, but I’ve seen plenty of Ninevites in my own life – or at least people that I was raised being told were Ninevites.  People who were outcasts in my neighborhood but not because they were from some old country from the Old Testament.

They were outcasts because they were gays and lesbians.  They talked about things like “gender identity” that we didn’t understand and rolled our eyes at.  Maybe they were Ninevites because they lived over on the other side of town, or maybe they were atheists and agnostics.  Maybe they were Ninevites because they went to that other school, and heaven forefend one of them actually muster up the courage to wander into our church on Sunday morning.  Most of the time, however, we never really saw them that much.  They lived over in Nineveh.  They kept over there.  We kept over here, and that was just the way we liked it.

I also remember many people I knew who were supposedly good, faithful, church-going Christians who had everything they could possibly want.  People…well, like me!  We grew up in beautiful homes in beautiful, safe neighborhoods.  We knew the lyrics to every single hymn in the hymn book.  We had beautiful families who often had plenty of money to send kids to good schools.

Yet sometimes it seemed like all we were able to do was complain.  “Oh, my God, can you believe what so-and-so is wearing to the Christmas Eve service?”  “Here comes that horrible person from the committee.  Can you believe she wants to change the colors of the drapes in the fellowship hall to chartreuse?”  “He’s an alcoholic, you know.”  “I heard they’re getting a divorce.” “Christianity is under attack!  Why can’t these poor people just get a job?!  It just makes me so angry!  It makes me angry enough to die!”

The truth is that the Ninevites are dying both in our world and in Jonah’s.  Like any good satire, the book of Jonah does not end with a nice little moral that spells out the lesson that we’re supposed to learn.  It ends with a punch line, and in this case, it’s a real zinger.  God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…should I not be concerned about Nineveh…in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…?” (4:10-11)

The painful irony, though, is that when the original audience first heard this story, Nineveh had been destroyed long ago.  Was that God’s will?  It didn’t sound like it in the story.  Either way, humanity let it happen anyway, and the city was never rebuilt.

Many of the Ninevites in our neighborhoods today are dying, too.  Dying from poverty, from hunger, from suicide, or from occupying forces.  For all its wit, irony, and sarcasm, I believe there is also a vision of possibility embedded deep between the lines.  A commentary from the author that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way.  History doesn’t have to repeat itself.  The cycle can be broken.”

However, like any good satire, it doesn’t let us off the hook either.  It is also a cautionary tale.  That’s the other side of the coin.  The cycle can still continue.  We can choose to just ignore all that stuff and imagine all of the ways that we think we have been persecuted instead and how we are the real victims here.  Not these Ninevites.  The thing about satire is that it doesn’t always wrap everything up in a nice, comforting reassurance that everything is going to be okay.  Rather, the author uses irony and wit to simply tell it like it is.  To show us both choices and say, “It’s up to you.”

Jonah may have a thing or two to learn from these Ninevites.  He might learn something from their example and the way that they respond to God.  It makes me wonder if we could learn a thing or two from the Ninevites in our own midst.  Many of those same Ninevites I told you about that I grew up with were people who acknowledged that our society is guilty of letting things like poverty, hunger, prejudice, misogyny, and addiction become problems in our world and that they were guilty of participating in it!  Even though they were not always necessarily churchgoers, it was often through their example that I learned a thing or two about the practice of repentance.  To come to that realization and to respond with humility by actively taking steps to change it.

I have seen Ninevites in my own life model that example.  Maybe you have, too.  I have known Ninevites who volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters over the weekends.  I have known Ninevites who have spoken up far louder and at far greater risk to themselves than I ever have about equality, prejudice, and social injustice.  Who have demanded vocally and visibly that the marginalized be treated with dignity and integrity.  I’ve known people who have shared with me that they are in AA who were far more open, honest, and willing to own up to the issues in their own life than I fear I am even on my good days.  These issues were of far more interest to them than the local gossip about so-and-so and what they did about such-and-such.

Not to bring Jesus up when preaching about an Old Testament story, but when we see Jesus treat the wretched, the outcasts, and the sinners as if they were royal guests of honor at his table, we remember that in the Biblical world of Jonah, God saw people like Ninevites as the real heroes in this story.  They are the ones who really, truly get it.  They are the ones who know what time it is.  Maybe we have something to learn from these Ninevites.  Will the testimony of our faith look like theirs, or will our response look more like Jonah’s?  The choice is up to us.  Would the real Ninevites please stand up?

To God be the glory now and forever.  Amen.

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