Born Again. And again. And again.: Sermon for March 12, 2017

There are some things that define the differences between generations. There are young adults who have never known a world without the internet, for instance, and others for whom this is still a pretty recent phenomenon. Or, there are those who remember rotary phones, and others who would have no idea what to do if one was put in front of them.

There’s another one, and my generation is sort of right on the dividing line for this: library card catalogs. Do you remember having to write papers using a card catalog? You picked your topic, went to those big wooden stacks full of drawers stuffed with index cards, and you looked up all the different books you would need.

That changed while I was in college. Most libraries don’t have those anymore. Now you can use a computerized system, and maybe even pull up what you need at your home. But I’ll never forget being about elementary-aged and being at the library with my friends. And we had some questions. Questions of the type that our parents weren’t ready to answer.

You get where I’m going here.

Schlagwortkatalog

Photo credit, Dr. Marcus Gossler, wikipedia commons image.

So you could innocently enough go to the card catalog, pretend you were looking for something else, and find that card that would send you to a book that would explain everything. And there’s no shame in natural curiosity, but even still, your heart was pounding the whole time, right?

Library card catalogs answered a lot of questions that we couldn’t ask others back in the day. Today we might turn to the internet. But, what if you were a Pharisee, a religious leader, back in Jesus’ day? And what if there was this guy who kept doing these things you couldn’t explain? And what if all the other religious leaders you worked with didn’t like him at all, but you were curious? And what if you needed to find out who he was for yourself?

That was the situation that Nicodemus was in. He was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and he was expected to toe the party line. And the party line was that this guy named Jesus, who kept doing things like turning water into wine and running money changers out of the temple, was bad news.

But Nicodemus was curious. He thought there might be something more to this. But there was no card catalog, no webpage, for figuring out Jesus. And so, he did the only thing he could think of…he went straight to the source. But, like a kid looking in the card catalog, pretending to be doing something else, Nicodemus didn’t go in the bright of day and just ask. Instead, he snuck out under the cover of night, and went to Jesus while everyone else was asleep.

Can you imagine Jesus? He was probably sleeping himself, and now this Pharisee was waking him up asking him questions. He says, “Jesus, I know you’ve got to be a teacher from God, because otherwise you couldn’t do these things. Who are you?”

And Jesus, as usual, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he starts talking about being “born again” or “born from above”. And Nicodemus is like, “What do you mean ‘born again’?” And he actually asks if he’s supposed to reenter his mother’s womb so she can give birth again.

But Jesus tells him, “that’s not what I mean”. And Jesus explains about being “born of the Spirit” and how we have to have a spiritual rebirth, one that changes us. And Nicodemus doesn’t know this at the time, but Nicodemus himself is in the midst of this second birth. He is having a sort of birth pangs brought about by a curiosity that he cannot ignore any longer. He is being changed.

There’s an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” And I have vet bills to attest to the fact that curiosity can at least cause very expensive injuries to the cat. And we humans sometimes take this saying to heart in order to discourage our own curiosity, and sort of keep our heads down.

And, though he wasn’t a cat, Nicodemus’ curiosity was indeed dangerous. If his friends had known what he was doing, it would have cast suspicion on him. It would have changed the way he was seen. That’s why he had to look for answers in the middle of the night.

But curiosity, while generally bad for cats, is actually a really good thing for humans, especially in our spiritual lives. Asking questions is a sign of deep faith. Nicodemus knows there is something about Jesus, and so he goes and tries to learn more. And that’s what we do too.

We get curious, and when we do we sometimes have these encounters with God’s love and grace. We wrestle. We grapple. We try to work out who we think Jesus is, and what that means for our lives. And that work doesn’t always go quickly, or end neatly.

This text is the same way. Nicodemus just sort of disappears in the end. He doesn’t get this big “aha” moment where it all makes sense. Instead, he probably walked away from Jesus more confused than ever before.

That’s not surprising…Jesus can be infuriating like that.

Down South where I grew up there were a lot of people who would talk about being “born again” the way Jesus does here. And, for them, it was often this one, shining moment when all of a sudden they believed and their lives changed and everything made sense.

But I never got that moment. I had times when things made a little more sense, and I felt God’s love, but the curiosity and questions never ended. And like Nicodemus I’ve had that same pattern of getting curious, seeking answers, and then ending up with more questions. And sometimes I’ve had to wrestle with faith and doubt, and fight my way out of the safety of the womb and into new life.

I actually think that’s a good thing. I don’t want my spiritual life to ever come to a terminal point where I have all the answers. That would be boring, intellectually and spiritually.

Instead, I like the idea that we are continuously and gradually being born again. We are living lives of change, in a world full of change, and that means we are constantly having to go back to Jesus and ask the questions that keep us up at night. And we have to keep being born again, maybe not just once, but over and over and over again in many ways.

Martin Luther King once used the story of Nicodemus to talk about being born again. He said that Jesus hadn’t given Nicodemus easy instructions or said “stop doing this” or “stop doing that”. Instead, Dr. King said, Jesus told Nicodemus “your whole structure must be changed”. This was nothing less than a total shake-up.

Dr. King was talking specifically about how America had to be “born again” and deal with injustice. And that’s a good example of how we as people, and as institutions and communities, must also sometimes be born again, and do what is right and what is good, for the love of God and for the love of the world.

And it is the love of the world that Jesus is talking about. If you’ve ever watched a football game you’ve seen signs with a verse written on them from this very passage. John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.

There’s a real irony in the fact that this one line, that comes in this passage about the kind of faith that is not easy or simple, has become emblematic of easy and simple faith. Because he whole story of Nicodemus is a little too long for a piece of poster board. But that’s fitting, because our faith journeys cannot fit onto one sheet of paper, or one bumper sticker. They require nothing less than the full length and depth of our lives.

That’s true of all of us, and that’s true of Nicodemus too. We see him only two more times in the Gospels, but in those two appearances we see a man who is in the process being born again. The next time we see him he is making a sort of tentative defense of Jesus when Jesus is in trouble, trying to save him, trying to keep the religious authorities from killing him.

And the last time we see him, he is one of the two men who takes Jesus’ body after his death, and buries it, putting it in the tomb.

I think there’s something meaningful about that. In mourning Jesus death, Nicodemus was showing that he had been reborn. And when Jesus rose again, that new life took on new meaning.

Sometimes curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Sometimes it saves him. For God so loved the world, that God would want nothing less for us. Amen?

Baptisms of Resistance: Sermon for January 15, 2017

Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.

hidden-figures-posterAll three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.

And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.

I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.

Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.

John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.

Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him dovecoming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.

Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.

What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.

What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.

Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.

The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?

Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.

I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.

The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.

917f3bba67764b291ffc5a59916e6b2bOn Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.

That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.

When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.

But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.

The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”

And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a

la-oe-lewis-selma-movie-20150119-002

John Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by his Christian faith. This is him being beaten by police in 1965 during the Selma march.

person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.

But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.

We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?

And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…

Gifts for the Beloved Community: Sermon for January 17, 2015

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;

12:5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;

12:6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

12:7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,

12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,

12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

12:11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
In 1963, a young man stood in an empty space, waiting. Everyone had been told when to arrive, but aside from a small group of his friends and supporters, no one had come. People had told him this would happen. They had said it was a bad idea, that it was too soon, that he didn’t have the authority to do it, or the resources he needed. From the highest reaches, the word had come down: call it off, because you will only hurt your cause.

The young man was the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the place he was standing was the National Mall, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The date was August 28th, and there was supposed to be a march on Washington that day. But that morning, no one was there.

Dr. King started to wonder if his doubters had been right. Other civil rights leaders had told him the march would never succeed. Even President Kennedy had asked him not to do this. But he had pressed on anyway, and now, with the Mall empty in front of him, it looked like everyone had been right.

This morning we read a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul tells the church in Corinth something that every church that has ever existed needs to hear: Now concerning spiritual gifts, he says, I want you to understand…there are many gifts, but they come from the same God. There are many ways to serve, but they all serve God. It doesn’t matter if you are a healer, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a prophet…every gift or ability you have, it comes from the same place. And what’s more, Paul says, every good gift is to be used for what he calls the “common good”.

Paul was writing this letter to a divided community. He had heard that they were dismissing one another’s gifts and their need for one another. And so he wrote them this letter and he talked about how each one of us receives good gifts from God. And each of these gifts is important. And he tells the church members, use your gifts not to serve yourselves, but to serve the common good, or what Dr. King might have called the “beloved community”.

I think Paul could have just as easily been writing to the people surrounding Dr. King as he planned this march. The ones who said to him, “it’s too soon”, or “you can’t do this”, or “you’re going to fail”. I think he could have been saying to them “not so fast…because this man has been given a gift from God. Don’t dismiss this gift because it doesn’t fit into your timeline. Don’t reject it because it makes you uncomfortable and afraid. Let him use his gift because you are about to see something amazing.

gty_march_on_washington_martin_luther_king_ll_130819_33x16_1600That day as Dr. King stood on the Mall, a car finally arrived. Some people got out and walked over, and he must have thought “well, at least someone came”. But he asked them about their trip, and they said something unbelievable. They told him they would have been there earlier, but the roads were packed. The highways were filled…people were coming to Washington from all over.

You know what happened next. You know that around 250,000 people came that day. You know that Dr. King gave a speech that told the world about his dream. And you know that day that the country reached a tipping point when the passage of the Civil Rights Act became inevitable.

But the most amazing part of that story to me is that even when everyone was telling him “no”, Dr. King pushed ahead and decided to march anyway.

I don’t know how someone decides not to listen to every negative voice that surrounds them. But I know Dr. King did it. And the best I can figure is that he did it because he knew God was going to show up at that march no matter what, and he knew that God had given him the gifts to make something great happen.

But how did he know? I think that’s the more important question. I think Dr. King knew he had those gifts the same way that virtually all of us come to know of our own gifts: someone told him. And someone told him not to waste them.

That is wisdom each of us needs to hear. Because while we might not think we have any gifts, and certainly not the kind that Dr. King had, the truth is that each of us has been given extraordinary gifts by God. We just don’t always know it. Or, even worse, we know it but we are too scared to use them.

I always try to be careful to talk about sin in ways that won’t make people flee the building. But I think when we fail to name something we give it even greater power over us. Like Hermione Granger talking about why she would say “Voldemort” when others wouldn’t, we should be reminded that sometimes “fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself”.

And so, I want to talk about wasting our gifts in terms of sin. Paul Tillich, echoing centuries of relatively privileged and self-assured theologians, wrote that pride was the cause of every sin. And that’s true sometimes. But not long after he said that, a group of women theologians challenged him. They said that when you’ve spent your whole life being told that you are in some way special, perhaps your pride does make you stumble. But for those who have spent their whole life being told what they cannot do, it’s not pride that causes us to not use our gifts. Instead, it’s the exact opposite. It’s our self-doubt, and our belief that we are somehow lesser than others.

Often that’s what keeps us from using every good gift that God has given to us. And, yes, that’s sin. Not in the sense that we are evil people, but in the sense that God wants something more from us, something better for us, and we are letting our fears come between us and God.

And so, here are the questions: What gifts has God given to you? And what gifts have you resisted claiming?

Put another way, if you believed truly in your heart and mind that God had given you your gifts and you would not fail, what would you be doing with them?

I’m asking you these questions not just because I want you to have the joy of finding God’s gifts inside of you. This is not about living your best life ever. I’m asking them because God did not give you these gifts only so you could use them for yourself. God gave them to you, like Paul says, so that you can put them to use for the common good.

The world needs those gifts right now…perhaps more than ever. It would be a mistake to think that the time for heroism and courage is in the past. It would also be a mistake to think that injustice is a thing of the past, or that the Civil Rights movement fixed everything.

Our world is in need of people who have gifts. It’s in need of people who have the courage to use them. Our gifts are like the puzzle pieces that God has given to us to fill in the places of suffering in our broken world. And when we hold them back, they do us no good, and they are denied to others.

And so, we cannot hide them. No matter how big or small they are, no matter how insignificant they may feel to us, or how inconvenient using them might seem. These gifts are not just ours; they are for the world, and we cannot keep them to ourselves anymore.

I’ll close with this. In the movie Selma, which followed Dr. King in the weeks leading up to the march over the Pettus Bridge and into Alabama, there’s a powerful scene in which Dr. King is strengthened and empowered by the gifts of another. His life is being threatened, his family is living with terror, and once again, two years after the march in Washington, he is trying to lead people out of their fear and into their faith.

And so he picks up the phone, and dials a number. And on the other end of the line we see the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson pick up. And he asks her to sing him a song, and right then, in the dead of night, her voice soars:

“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

In the end Dr. King’s gifts would change this country, and this world. Even as they cost him his life. And yet, he could do no other.

But he did not do it alone. He was surrounded by others who had gifts; like the ability to sing a hymn over a telephone line in the dead of night with a power that could make you believe that God was close.

If that is true for a man with the gifts Dr. King had, how much so is it true for us? And how much so is it true for all of those who need our gifts?

If there is any simple way to honor the legacy of Dr. King, and all who had the courage to fight for freedom, it is this: have the courage to give the world the gift that God has given to you. Do not keep it to yourself. Share it for the common good, and share it to build the beloved community. Amen?

Why Are WE Here, Part II: Discipleship – Sermon for 25 January, 2015

Mark 1:14-20
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.

1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

1:19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

1:20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Like Cat was just telling the kids during the children’s sermon, one of my favorite hobbies is fly fishing. In the late spring and summer I’m always trying to sneak away for just an hour to fish. And, even when I don’t catch anything, which is most of the time, I just love being there in the stream, casting each fly out like a hope.

So, I like fishing stories in the Bible, and I take special joy in the fact that most of Jesus’ first followers spent their lives fishing. And that still matters to us today because fishing is a big part of the Gospel stories. So much so, that we even talk about how our job as Christians is to be “fishers of people”.

And all those fishing stories start with this one. One day two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, were out on their boat, casting nets out into the sea. And Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and said to them “follow me”. And they did. They left their nets right there, and they followed.

A favorite fly fishing stream.

A favorite fly fishing stream.

And then they all walked a little further down the shore and they saw two brothers, James and John, and Jesus did the same thing. And they too left everything behind to follow Jesus. And just like that, Jesus had made a few everyday fishermen four of his twelve disciples. And so all these years later we call this passage “the calling of the disciples”.

Last week we started a new sermon series centered around a big question: Why are WE here? That is, why are all of us, you and I, here together. And the quick answer is that we are here to be the church together. But over the next three weeks I’m going to be talking about three specific reasons we are called here together: to learn, to change, and to love.

So we have this story today, about Jesus and some guys who fish, and you might be wondering “What does that have to do with learning anything?”

The answer, sadly, has little to do with fishing, and more to do with what we call the people who followed Jesus during his ministry: disciples. And it’s important to note that in addition to the twelve disciples we often talk about, there were probably many more, all of whom surrounded Christ. And Scripture again and again uses that word, disciples, to describe them.

Take a minute and think how you understand that word “disciple”. When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many others too. In Jesus’ time a lot of religious leaders, and others as well, had a group of disciples. John the Baptist, who was loyal to Jesus from the beginning, even had his own, and they followed him just like the disciples we know who followed Jesus.

Each disciple followed someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. And they thought the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is “mathetes”. Now, you don’t need to remember that word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.

Now, I know you all enough to know that this is a community that values learning. We have good schools in our community. We are right next door to the Academy. Many of you are teachers or other kinds of educators. You want educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked any of you what you wanted for your children or grandchildren or any other young person in your life, one of the things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”

And that’s a good thing. Because you can’t help but grow when you learn. And when you stop learning, you stop growing. And if we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians.

Cat was just talking about this in the children’s sermon. We were showing the children the fishing rod and the flies and the reel and everything else, and we were talking about how before you fish you have to have the tools you need, and you have to learn how to use them. And that’s why a community that teaches you those things, and gives you the tools, makes all the difference.

It’s fitting that we are using my fly fishing gear to demonstrate that, because the first time I tried to learn to fly fish, I didn’t do so well. I like trying to figure things out on my own, and I’d known how to fish with bait most of my life and I thought to myself “how hard can this be”? And so I ended up in a river, slipping on the rocks, not knowing how to tie the knots, getting my line tangled in the tree, and never, ever, catching anything. And after a few months I said to myself “this is boring” and I gave up.

But a few years later, I decided to try again. And this time, I decided that maybe things would go a little more smoothly if I asked someone for help. And so I took some free lessons at the local fly fishing shop. And I asked a lot of questions. And I did a lot of watching. And I even stood on the front lawn with a fly rod casting back and forth, back and forth, until I knew what I was doing. And the next time I went out on a river, everything worked. And I realized I loved it.

Being a Christian is not the same as being someone who fly fishes. It’s much more important than that. But the principle is the same. Being a follower of Jesus is not easy. And it’s hard to do on your own. And it can be so frustrating at times that if you have no one in your life that you can learn from, or ask to help you, you might just feel like throwing up your hands and giving up for good.

But if you want to learn, and if someone is willing to teach, that can change everything.

In the church we sometimes use two words interchangeably: disciples and apostles. This is especially true of the twelve we see Jesus call himself. But those two words don’t mean the same thing. Disciple means student, but apostle means “messenger” or one who is “sent out”. And the Bible doesn’t use the word “apostle” for the twelve until later on because before Jesus set his disciples loose on the world to be his messengers, he first had to teach them. They had to follow him, ask questions, and see how he lived. They had to be disciples. They had to be students of Jesus and his life. Only them could they become the teachers themselves.

Jesus didn’t call them out of the boats and say “now you are fishers of people”, after all. He called them and said “I will make you fishers of people”.

A large part of the Christian life, our life, is doing that same thing: learning to follow Jesus. And, like I said, that’s not easy to do alone. And so that’s one of the things that we in the church have to do well together. We have to learn together, and we have to teach one another.

That’s one reason that when we started searching for a new Minister for Christian Growth, the position Cat now fills, we were very careful to say that Christian Growth programming is not just a concern for our children and youth. We have to do those things well, of course, because we are teaching them what it means to follow Christ and to be the church.

But, for those of us who are adults, we can’t stop learning and growing either. We have to keep encouraging one another as we learn how to follow Jesus, whether we are 19 or 99. The task of learning and growing together should never end, because when it does, so does our commitment to the one who calls us to learn, and grow, with him. It’s like we just stop dead on the path and stop following him. And when that journey ends, so does the church, because the church that will not learn, and will not grow spiritually, is not actually being the church at all.

And so here’s the challenge: how do we all keep being learners and teachers together, here in this church? Cat and I, as your pastoral staff, are always going to work hard to teach, and we are also going to work hard to keep learning and growing in Christ. But, this is more than just the job of those of us who work here everyday. This is the job of everyone here. Each of us is called to learn, to grow, and to teach because it’s the best way to be church together, and for each other.

I’ll close with this story. Last Monday, on Martin Luther King day, I went to see the movie “Selma”. And there is a scene early in the film that moved me. (I’m not giving anything away here, so don’t worry.) In it, Martin Luther King is shown in a moment of despair and uncertainty. And he needs encouragement. And we just see him dialing a phone number written down on a scrap of paper.

A moment later the scene cuts away and Mahalia Jackson, the great Gospel singer, is shown waking up in the middle of the night. And she tells her husband it’s Dr. King on the line, and then Dr. King asks her to “sing it”. And so, with this powerful voice, she begins to sing what was Dr. King’s favorite hymn: “Precious Lord take my hand”. And every lines seems to fit: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.”

What does that have to do with church? What does that have to do with learning or teaching?
In my mind, everything. Because when we are at a place where we need encouragement, when we are uncertain about what to do next, and when we need guidance, that’s when we need one another. That’s when we need someone we can turn to who can teach us, and remind us, what it is to follow Christ. That’s when we need someone who will call us back, and walk a path of discipleship with us. That’s when we need church. If Dr. King, who probably “got it” when it came to following Christ more than most Christians do, knew he needed it, that says something to me.

And it reminds me that at its core church is about learning who Christ is again and again, and church is about growing each day of our journey. Church is about never stopping on the path self-satisfied. It’s about knowing there’s always something new to learn. And the only way to do church well, the only way to do it at all, is to do church together. Amen.

Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the Luxury of Hindsight Hope

Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.

As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.

But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?

I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.

But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.

In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable

And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.

I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.

I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.

And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.

As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.

When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.

I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.

john

Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

Remembering Dr. King…

296871_10151186570296787_1748055205_nOn this anniversary of his assassination, I’m remembering Dr. King and I’m wondering a lot about how he led.

When he spoke, were there some white folks in the crowd whispering, “But he just sounds so angry”?!

When he worked outside of the established and preferred channels (as he did to make sure the March on Washington actually happened) did he get labeled a divider?

When he branched out from just speaking about racism to also speaking about poverty, was he chided about not staying on topic?

Probably.

But I’m glad he led the way he did anyway.