Sunday, August 20, 2017

Black Lives Matter Because All Lives Matter!

Black lives matter.
I assume some of you right now are thinking of bolting for the door.
But please give me some grace here, and listen to the rest of the sermon.
We have been told that the tag line black lives matter is offensive because “all lives matter”.
I think this is a false choice.
Black lives matter because all lives matter.
All live matter because black lives matter.
In order for all lives to matter the group that it is least important, on the outside, the minority of group.
The most repressed of groups has to matter.

This morning’s Gospel is a good example.
Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman.
Just so you know Canaanites are looked down upon by good God fearing Jews.
Interesting enough Jews of Jesus were themselves an oppressed group.
Jews were held back by the Romans who occupied their land, who collected their taxes, and who sometimes would interfere in their religion.
So a group that is looked down upon looks down on another.
We often focus on Jesus words to the women.
He insults her.
That is upsetting to us because it flies in the face of what we think of Jesus.
(This is not a sermon about that.)
I mention it because for the people reading Matthew’s Gospel in the first century that wouldn’t have been a surprise.
Lots of people talked to each other the way that Jesus talks to this woman.
What was surprising was that Jesus says that this woman had faith.
That was in possible.
Canaanite woman do not know the God of Israel.
They don’t know what God has done and has promised.
This woman doesn’t matter because she can’t comprehend God’s graciousness the way a Jewish person could.
She wasn’t Promised Land and a people by the God of the universe, she wasn’t rescued from slavery, and she wasn’t brought to the Promised Land.
She didn’t know the things that Jews knew.
How could she have faith in God?

Amazingly what she knew was the truth that was forgotten by God’s people.
This is the same truth that we often forget.
God cares about everyone.
In caring for everyone he cares for this Canaanite woman.
If it were not true that we could not make the claim that “all lives matter”.

This truth runs through Matthew’s Gospel.
It is always the gentiles who proclaim faith in Jesus as the messiah.
It was true in the lineage of Jesus, which includes Ruth who was a foreign Moabite.
It was true Jesus’ birth with the Wise men coming from a distant country.
It was true when Jesus healed the man with the demonic spirit.
It is true with the Canaanite woman.
It is true at the cross when the Roman solider confesses Jesus as the Son of God.
Matthew’s Gospel ends with telling us that our call is to go into all nations baptizing in the name of the father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Jesus of Matthew Gospel gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God that includes the all people.
And today we see that it even includes this Canaanite woman.
In order to say that God cares about all people we have to be able to say that God cares about this particular person.

This is not just an idea Jesus made up.
It is constantly in the scriptures.
There are times when God’s people forget this truth.
They bury it in national pride, self preservation, or legalistic procedure.
(By the way this is what happened in the Church before the reformation.)
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us the vision of the world that God is bringing into being.
“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
Again in the Psalm, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations on earth.”
God chose Israel not because they were the powerful nation, but because they were of no significance.
By showing that they matter God showed that all people matter.
God’s cares about all people.

This week my daughter Phoebe came with me to some meeting I had in Durham and then at Camp Calumet.
In the car we had a discussion about God.
And she was telling me that God couldn’t possibly care about her problems.
They are too small and insignificant.
I spent some times trying to convince her that indeed God does care about her problems, because God cares about her.
God cares about Phoebe Hopkins.
If God doesn’t then we can’t make the claim that God cares about everyone.

And this is the good news for all of us that the God of the universe cares about each one of us.
We all matter to God.
That no matter where we find ourselves in our lives God cares.
We matter, because everyone matters.

Black people, brown people, red, yellow, pink (like me), and everything in between, all people matter to God.
That is what we have faith in.
We have faith that the meal of God’s grace is so big that we will get the scraps.
The meal overflows from the table and there is plenty left over for everyone.
That the meal is not about our skin color, nor is about our worthiness.
It is about a God who cares for us, whose love over flows.

Michael Curry, who is the first African American Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has told the story of why he is Episcopal.
His parents went to an Episcopal church one Sunday morning sometime in 1940, during segregation.
They were the only people of color there.
When the time came for communion his mother, who was confirmed, went up to receive.
His father, who had never been in an Episcopal Church, and who had only vaguely heard of Episcopalians, stayed in his seat.
As his father watched how communion was done, he realized that everyone was drinking out of the same cup.
The man looked around the room, then he looked at his fiancée, then he sat back in the pew as if to say, “This ought to be interesting.”
Would the priest really give his fiancée communion from the common cup?
Would the next person at the rail drink from that cup, after she did?
Would others on down the line drink after her from the same cup?
The person right before her drank. 
Then she drank. 
Would the next person after her drink from that cup?
He watched.
The next person drank. 
And on down the line it went, people drinking from the common cup after his fiancée, like this was the most normal thing in the world.

I love his story, because it shows what we as Jesus people believe.
That all lives matter.
That black lives matter.
That here in this place away from the world everyone is welcome to the feast of God’s love, grace, and mercy.

You who have come this morning are welcome here.
This is the place for you.
You matter.

I was thinking on Monday that I really wanted to leave you with a positive message this week.
Then I read the text, and the Holy Spirit spoke to me.
I knew what I had to do this morning.
I knew that not everyone would like it.
But I hope you will take away the positive message that you matter to God, and if you matter then everyone else matters too.
That is the Good News of our God that no matter who you are, we matter.
That is the nature of a loving, grace filled God.
So when people say that black lives matter, what I hear is Good News!
I hope you will too.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

It Is Hidden From Us

I grew up a Lutheran in New Hampshire.
The church I grew up in as a child was a small church.
The large churches were for my Roman Catholic friends.
Most of the people I knew outside of Church didn’t even know what a Lutheran was.
I was surprised when I first got into the ministry to hear stories from my congregation about “the good old days” when church was filled with people.
I simply never had that experience of Church.
It is easy to believe in Church growth.
In fact, one of the problems I think we face in the Church today is that we have been running on the idea of infinite Church growth for so long that we are shocked that it hasn’t continued.
But I want to suggest this morning that this is not a bad thing.
For us as Christians kingdom building is always a bit problematic.
Kingdom building can lead us down some very tricky roads.
It can, if we let it, lead us away from seeing the real kingdom of God.

All of our parables this morning talk about the kingdom of God.
They are all different ways Jesus gave us to understand what this Kingdom of God looks like.
And all of them are in contrast to the kingdom of the world that Jesus lived in and that we live in.
All of them are about finding treasures in hidden places.
They are all about small things that add up to more than what it is valued at.
We don’t have enough time this morning to go through all five parables.
I want to focus on just one of them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was completely leavened.” (different translation than the one we had this morning from the NRSV)
It would appear that this parable is about growth.
That in taking leaven and adding it we get growth.
The sermon I thought I was going to give this morning was about leavening our lives so that we can grow the kingdom of God together.
But after reading the passage a couple of times, and doing some reading, something else stood out.
The women hid the yeast in the flour.
(We have a different translation from the NRSV.)
This is the thing about God’s kingdom it is often hidden.
It is hidden from our eyes and our view points.

I like that it is hidden from us.
It should be hidden from us.
Because when we get involved we usually mess it up.
We make following Jesus about a triumphant march, instead of a slow and often unsteady walk of faith.
If we could make the kingdom happen I would hope we would have done it already.
If all that was necessary to make the kingdom of God appear is that we have everyone go to Church, and everyone believe in God than we would have had it already.
But the truth is that the message of the Gospel cannot come to us in this way.
It is hidden, buried not in our institutional involvement, but what is in our hearts.
It is hidden in the interactions we have outside of these four walls.
And what we come here to do is to uncover it.
We come to dig through the doe so we can find what leavens the bread.

This is all too theoretical for me.
So let me try to give an example.
People want to know about Family Promise, “Pastor how many people have we helped?”
They want some numbers to show progress of the good we have done.
Of course there are numbers.
I can tell you we have helped 12 families.
I can tell you the stories of those 12 families.
Families like Christina and her son.
She came to us with no job, no place to live, no money, no future.
She will be leaving the program with a steady job, and a new house that habitat for humanity helped build.
She will leave with a life.
But all of that does not tell the full picture.
All of that are only surface things.
None of those things is the real picture of the good that was done.

There are things that came from Family Promise that none of us will ever see, or know about.
There were lives changed, epiphanies received, and growth.
We will never know, because it wasn’t just the families who were helped.
The people who provided that help were also helped.
The people, who brought a meal, stayed the night, provided some money, the people who prayed for someone they didn’t know.
How were those lives affected?
How was the agenda of God advanced within each of us, or the hundreds of other volunteers?
It is always hidden from us.

We do these things not because of the numbers.
We do the things we do because of faith in God.
We believe that the help we offer, the volunteering we do on behalf of another is far beyond our ability to see the outcome.

That is why we have Church.
Not because we can give God a spreadsheet of all the good we have done for people, but because we believe in faith that we are participating in the kingdom of heaven.

In our trip to Germany we saw the dangers of kingdom building.
We saw what happens when the Church is obsessed with building bigger and bigger churches.
When it is consumed with political power it forgets that everything we do is based on faith.

At camp once a pastor got up and gave a very nice sermon.
At the end he told us that we were going to go out and change the world!
I don’t believe in that message.
It is nice to say, and perhaps it will make everyone feel good about themselves.
But that is not what Jesus is teaching us this morning.

He is telling us that the kingdom is found in small and foolish things.
He is telling us that it is found in God’s ability to take hidden things and turn them into enough bread to feed a hundred people.
That is always what we must believe in.
That God’s plans are bigger than ours.
That God’s ways are beyond our ability to make them happen.

I am not saying that we don’t have a part to play.
The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel would never say that.
I am saying that we will never know the full impact of the love we share, the things we give away to others.
We are not to build the kingdom, but rather to participate in it.
We are to live in faith, totally dependent on the wonder and beauty of God.
Always believing that hidden underneath everything, the good, the bad, the sinful, the strange, the unexplained, is God at work.

So may all of our lives be filled with the yeast that is hidden.
And may we always live in faith that God is growing the kingdom in that hidden yeast.

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Where There Will Be Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth"

“Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I don’t know about any of you, but I have always struggled with this part of Matthew’s Gospel.
It actually doesn’t just appear in this one parable we have this morning but multiple times.
It is usually at the end of the parable, and is thrown out as what appears to be a warning to us.
If you are like he evil ones then you too will be thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I think this interpretation of the text comes from our general understanding of the religion, and the Bible.
Religion is seen as a way to keep people in line, to make sure they do the right things.
And the Bible is a book of rules to keep us out of hell and helps us get into heaven.
This morning I want to explore with you some possible interruptions of this text that will be more helpful to us.

I want to start by asking if any of you have ever been in hell?
Have you ever felt that life was awful, horrible?
Have you ever felt the sting of death, or maybe multiple deaths?
I know that there are times in people’s lives that multiple things happen to people that are devastating.
This week I had a woman come visit me.
She didn’t say that she felt like she was in hell.
But her life was hell right now.
She was trying to care for her disabled son, her mother who had early dementia.
She had lost her job.
She was sleeping on a friend’s couch.
She had medical bills she couldn’t pay.
She was about to lose her storage unit with all of her worldly positions in them.
Her life was hell.
As she told me her story she wept, and she gnashed her teeth.

This is the privilege of being a pastor is to be with people in hell, to hear people’s stories of loss, of addiction, of hurt, of pain, of sin.
It is a privilege to go with people to the places that are awful, the places of fire.
There is a real hell.
I have seen it many times with my own eyes.
When we are in that place the only response is to cry to wail and gnash our teeth for relief.

Jesus was naming a reality.
It is a reality that sometimes we experience.
Some people experience more than others.
This is life.

Is it possible that in these parables that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God he names this reality.
That while we grow here in the world there will be moments and times when we are burning.
There will be moments when our lives are in hell.
And the only appropriate response is to wail and gnash our teeth.

Maybe that doesn’t do it for you.
Maybe you want to say, “But Jesus mentions evil pastor.”
Isn’t there real evil?

Yes evil is real.
And I like you pray every day that evil will be removed from our midst.
But the idea that God wants to punish us for eternity is not something I can get behind.
I have made the case many times that it is simply unbiblical.
That the view in the Bible is of a God that wants the best for us.
We fight against what is best for us.
That even though we fight God the God who is full of grace hangs in there with us.

But I will admit that accepting this God of grace is not easy for us.
And this leads me to my next point.
Entering the kingdom of God is not easy.
And so entering the kingdom of God there usually is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It is not easy to accept what Jesus wants from us.
Matthew Gospel is filled with teachings about love that are really difficult for people to live out.
Matthew’s Gospel starts with The Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus interpretation of what it means to faithfully follow God in the world.
And Jesus’ teachings are really difficult, and so we fight God and in that fighting there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There is blood and tears as we try to have it our way instead of God’s way.

When Vicki and I were in Germany learning about the Reformation we saw this.
It would be easy to think that Martin Luther showed up and told everyone that the Church had forgotten the Gospel and needed to reform.
And then everyone saw the errors of their ways.
The Church then reformed and everyone was happy.
But the true history is much more complex.
Many people resisted reform.
Many powerful people within the church who did not want to give up power and prestige.
Or who just thought that Luther was being difficult.
The Reformation led to wars, and death.
It led to weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It led to bloodshed.
The Kingdom of God comes with difficulty.
The world will not easily want to accept what Jesus had to say.
And people in the Church will not easily accept it either.
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as God tries to get us to accept living in grace and love.

Hell can be found right here on earth.
Our lives can be fraught with difficulties that we might face.
We can bring hell on ourselves as we fight to accept a God of grace and love.
As we fight against a God who blesses the poor, peacemakers, mourners, and the losers of the world.

What this parable does, as all good parables do, is take this world and turn it upside down.
Because the truth is that Jesus is a horrible farmer.
Of course you separate the wheat from the weeds!
That is really bad advice.
But Jesus refuses to let that be the answer.
Only through love can God win our hearts.
Only through patience as the good and bad grow together.
Only through times in our lives individually when we fight through the bad can we come to see the good.
Only through times as our life as the Church when we fight and weep and gnash do we come to see the good.
In other words we live all the time under God’s grace.
In grace we live in a place where the head farmer doesn’t tear down the field as we go through hell.
Instead the farmer waits, and asks us to wait, waits for the weeds and wheat to be sorted.
Waits for us, waits with us.
God comes to our hell so that we might rise.

Is there evil?
And it is in us, around us.
It is in others too.
But only God has the fire that burns it away.
Only God can bring the grace and love that kills our sins and rises us to new life.

I hope for you this week that you will not be in hell, that you will not wail and gnash your teeth.
I hope for you to be renewed in the patient farmer who breaks convention to give us grace and love.
So that you will know the great love of the Lord toward you, and you will be delivered from the fire!