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Two Texts: Privilege and the Beloved Community

In my life, I have been pulled over by a police officer perhaps half a dozen times.   One was for a broken taillight and the rest were for speeding.

Every single time, my heart rate rose and my palms got sweaty. I was nervous. I felt guilty. I knew I was in trouble.

But never, ever, did I fear for my life during a traffic stop.

Never have I ever felt unsafe in the presence of an authority figure.

And never, after one of those stops, have I received a ticket.

 

Contrast my story with that of a woman named Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change on July 10 this summer.

Maybe her palms got sweaty. Maybe her heart rate started to rise. Maybe she was nervous or had feelings of guilt. Maybe she knew she was in trouble.

Maybe she feared for her life.

Maybe she felt unsafe in the presence of an authority figure.

Maybe her fight or flight instinct kicked in.

As the conversation between her and the officer escalated, Sandra Bland was arrested.

 

Will you pray with me.

Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be holy and pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

 

Three days after Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal when she changed lanes, she was found dead in her jail cell.

It was my first day back in the office after my renewal leave, and I decided that morning that I wanted to do this series in worship.

Because we live in world where I, a white woman, am pulled over for speeding and I am sent on my way without a ticket, and where another person, an African-American woman, is pulled over and ends up dead.

Maybe she took her own life. Maybe she was murdered.

I honestly have no idea. And I’m not sure that it matters, because either way, the result is the loss of her life.

And to be honest, I can’t know the heart of the arresting officer to know if he treated her differently based on the color of her skin.

The problem is, I have heard her story too many times.

In November of last year, Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble, our bishop, shared his story as part of lecture at Cornell College:

In 1974, when I was a second year college student, I, along with my younger brother James, went to visit our older brother in California. He lived near Palo Alto, California and was working for Hewlett Packard as a computer engineer.  While traveling to his apartment in his Volkswagen Beetle we were stopped by police who questioned my brother and asked for license and registration. Even though he produced his license, registration and work identification we were still told to exit the car with hands up. Additional squad cars arrived and with guns drawn on them, three young African American men were handcuffed and taken to jail. We remained handcuffed for about 45 minutes and were then released after being told that my brother’s car was not stolen but we looked out of place and suspicious driving in that community. My older brother, John, now a college professor, was, at the time of the incident, a graduate of Northwestern University and Stanford University. 1974 was a long time ago, but thousands of African Americans have similar stories.  A recent CNN special highlighted one college student in New York who had been stooped and frisked over 100 times. (http://iowabeencouraged.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2015-01-06T11:01:00-06:00&max-results=1&start=6&by-date=false)

What I do know is that this is not the regular experience of my white brothers and sisters.

What I do know is that this is not about conflict between African Americans and police officers. That might be one facet or symptom of what is going on, but that’s not what this is about.

 

We, all of us, have stopped seeing the image of God in the eyes of another person.

We have become comfortable in our own stories and situations, in our own class or race or gender, and we have stopped reaching beyond them to be in real relationship with other people.

We have started to believe that their lives don’t matter to us.

 

Perhaps Jesus saw this happening around him when he told a story to a man who would have been his disciple:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’ (Luke 10:30-35, MSG)

The priest decided that the life of this man didn’t matter.

He responsibilities to attend to and couldn’t defile himself.

The Levite decided that the life of this man didn’t matter.

He had an image to maintain.

They had other things to worry about.

They were special.

They were different.

And that man didn’t matter.

 

The Samaritans were mixed race people who were often thought of as lesser than their Jewish cousins. He would have been bound by the same rules as the priest and Levite when it came to touching a bleeding, dying man.

Yet the Samaritan stopped.

The Samaritan believed that this life… that every life… holds the image of God and is of sacred worth.

The Samaritan went out of their way to show love and care and mercy towards this person.

 

Privilege can be defined as a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed by someone beyond the advantages of most.

It can be defined as the position someone holds that exempts them from burdens or problems.

Privilege is always social. It describes our relationship to other people and how we are either the beneficiaries of that position, or we are the group that privileged status is being compared to.

 

Religious Privilege is being a Priest or a Levite instead of a Samaritan and feeling like you are immune from having to stop and check on the welfare of another human being.

Male Privilege is making 17% more money working the same job than your female counterparts.

Class Privilege is being able to choose to eat healthy food if you want, because you live in a neighborhood with grocery stores or you own transportation to get you there and back.

Ability Privilege means that as a healthy person, you don’t have to think about your daily pain level when planning activities and events.

Racial Privilege is getting a cut, opening the first aid kit, and the flesh-colored band-aid matches your skin tone.

 

And what we discover in this world is that we are never simply one of these things.

Some of us experience multiple advantages and privileges based upon who we are.

Some of us experience a mixture of them all.

Some of us find ourselves at the intersection of multiple social disadvantages and burdens.

 

Our world today is not the Beloved Community envisioned by Dr. King or the Kingdom of God lifted up by Jesus and described by Paul.

It is not a place where Jewish and Palestinian kids can go to school in peace.

It is not a world where transgender women and straight women experience the same judicial system.

This is not a country where black boys and white girls will grow up with the same opportunities.

And the biggest problem is that we who experience the advantages often don’t even realize the privileges we hold.

We are so caught up in our own experiences that we don’t see that of others.

Just this last week, I got an email from our Commission on Persons with Disabilities in our annual conference. In the process of planning annual conference worship, I tried hard to include people who spoke various languages, genders, ages, ethnicities… and the email was a gentle reminder that no one who led worship had a physical disability.

Privilege is looking up at the stage at annual conference or up in the front during worship and knowing that the person who is there looks or talks like you.

I know how important that is, because I remember when I looked up at the stage and saw a woman preaching and I thought… I could do this.

Yet, because of my social location, providing that same opportunity to someone who was differently abled didn’t even cross my mind.

But it does now.

 

In our video this morning, Bishop Warner Brown, the President of our Council of Bishops tells us that:

Hope occurs in the places where we meet people. It involves where people live, where they work, where they face the challenges of life.

Hope occurs in the places where we meet people who don’t look or talk or move like us.

Hope occurs when we let love and not fear rule our actions.

Hope occurs when we cross over the road to where we see someone who is at a disadvantage – whether they have been injured or oppressed or are struggling or are behind – and we stop to see the image of God in them.

Hope occurs when we shed our own privilege and step out of our comfort zones to meet someone where they are.

Hope occurs when we listen more than we speak about our life experiences.

 

As we hear in 1 John, chapter 4:

This is love… not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his son to sacrifice his life for us.

And if God loves us in this way… so we should love one another in this way.

Love without fear.

Love without privilege.

Love without question.

Love.

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Two Texts: Pope Francis, the Environment, and Relationships

This summer, Pope Francis issued a letter to the world, “Laudato Si’” or Praise be to You which calls upon all people to care for our common home, our sister, Mother Earth.

And while it made the news this summer, one of the first thoughts I had was that, as United Methodists, we had a letter of our own like this about six years ago. In 2009, a pastoral letter was issued from the United Methodist Council of Bishops called: God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/council-of-bishops/documents/grc_letter_english_1010.pdf)

If you would like to see or have a copy of our letter, you can pick one up at the table in the back as you leave today.

 

In both, we are reminded of the relationship between living organisms and their environment… that we need to understand our ecology: the interconnected system of water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ourselves.

From the fight over water rights in California, to our own conflict here in Iowa over nitrate levels, this summer has been full of stories about how the environmental choices we make in one location impact the whole of creation in another. And I’m not just talking about the decisions of a farmer. Each of them is simply responding to the demands of the market, which is impacted by our choices as consumers. We do not always appreciate how precarious the balance of our ecologies can be, until the weather and climate change.

As our Bishop’s letter states, “we no longer see a list of isolated problems affecting disconnected people, plants and animals… the threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another.”

Or as Pope Francis writes: “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation…”

Everything… from the availability of quality water, to the loss of biodiversity, to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy, violence, warfare… is interrelated.

 

And rather than debating the merits of specific proposals or policies, Pope Francis points us towards the foundation for a different way of being.

 

It all boils down to three relationships

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationships with our neighbors
  3. And our relationship with creation itself.

So today, aware of the multitude of articles and stories this summer on climate change, water, drought, and the environment, let us explore the text in our scriptures that lays the groundwork for our ecology… Genesis One.

 

We learn in this story of a creative and life-giving God. Everything has a purpose. Everything is connected to another. The sun, moon, and starts give light and determine the seasons. The plants provide food for the animals, who provide sustenance for humanity.

Everything is a gift and nothing was made by our own hands.

Therefore, the foundation of our relationship with God should be one of gratitude.

Gratitude for every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, every creature in the multitude of this diverse, beautiful planet.

 

Our relationship with our creator is also fundamentally related to our relationship with the creation, because we are called to take care of this earth. Historically, we have heard verse 28 as the call to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We look at this image of the creation and our central image in it and believe the world revolves around us.

The language of dominion and subduing has led us to believe we are called to control and use and have power over the world. It is ours to do with it whatever our hearts desire.

 

But when we really look at these verses in context, I think we have been sorely mistaken.

The Hebrew word in this place is not so much the idea of dominion or rule, but rather that of holding sway over… influencing… guiding. Pope Francis holds both the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts together, reminding us our call is to “till and keep” the garden of the world…. We are to cultivate and work this creation… while at the same time caring for it, overseeing it, protecting it.

In my organic ministry class this summer, I have been reminded over and over again that any good farmer cares for the soil as much as they do what is planted in it. One must protect the earth in order to work it. And one must listen and pay attention to what the environment demands and respond accordingly if you ever want to influence what might grow there.

That is far different than a more domineering perspective…. a stubborn resolve to use the earth and grow whatever your heart desires whenever you want to.

 

I learned about this in my own garden this summer…. (talk about tomatoes)

Even if we stick with the language of dominion, the root of dominion is in the Lordship of God. We are to be lords as God is Lord over creation… in love, in creation, in fostering diversity, in nurturing life.

 

This earth does not belong to us. It is a gift. As we remembered two weeks ago when we recalled the Jubilee in ancient Israel, God tells us that the land is not ours… it is God’s and we are merely strangers and sojourners upon it.

Yet in God’s gracious and loving spirit, we are allowed to take and use what we need for sustenance. We are allowed to care for this earth, and pass its gifts down generation upon generation.

Because this planet belongs to not only Adam and Eve, but all descendants, all humanity, then our relationships with one another are intertwined with the gift of creation.

Just as every plant and animal, microbe and molecule is a gift… so too is every person on this planet. The very idea of Sabbath calls us to let the earth and its workers rest, so that all be renewed. And the promise is that even if we rest and cease working, there will be abundance and plenty. God will take care of us.

The gifts of this planet are to be shared. Not only with people of today, but future generations as well.

So that all might find joy. So all might be at peace.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a description of the type of lifestyle that people of faith should aspire to… a tribute to his own namesake, Saint Francis. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology… he was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace… Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human.”

May we be people who are concerned for nature.

May we be people who always seek justice for the poor.

May we be people who are committed to society and work towards its common good.

And may we be people who find inner peace as we do so.

 

Amen.

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Two Texts: Greece, Debt, and the Jubilee

2008 was a tough year for everyone financially. Wall Street had faltered, global markets took a tumble and nearly everyone felt the pinch. It was pretty much an accepted fact that there would be a long, tough, uphill battle to get back on track… not just in the United States, but globally as well.

Just one year later, when they had barely begun to recover, Greece admitted that they were a bit over-extended. The country had been “understating its deficit figures for years”[i] and they were having a really tough time getting back on their feet.

Just as measures were being announced to tighten the belt and get back on track, investors lost confidence in Greece, and in 2010, there was a huge pull of money out of the country. 8-10 billion euro worth of money. Some of this was from outside investors, but it also represents the wealthy of the nation who took their money out of the Greek system. As one analyst put it in February of 2010 – “If indeed the money rush out of Greece has commenced, then it is too late to save the country…”[ii]

This moment of crisis led to the first of two… and maybe now three bailouts by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the Eurpoean Commission… bailouts that have come with conditions like budget cuts and tax increases that are the center of today’s controversy.

 

Since the beginning of the crisis, Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Unemployment is over 25%. Almost 2/3 of Greece’s debt today is now owed to the Eurozone bailout… money it doesn’t have to start paying back until 2023…. But also money in its current situation it is not likely to be able to pay back.

 

When I look to the scriptures for a word about debt and finances, one of the first places I turn is to Leviticus and the idea of the Jubilee.

Jubilee springs out of the idea of Sabbath or rest.

Just like every seventh day we are called to rest, every seventh year, was a Sabbath year. It was a call to let the land lie fallow, release the slaves and cancel outstanding debts.

And Leviticus chapter 25 lays out a vision for us of the Jubilee, that every seventh Sabbath year was a clean slate. Every fifty years, or once in every lifetime, a person would witness restoration. Debt would not last forever.  “Economic relationships are never to be allowed to make life hopeless.”[iii]

Biblical scholars today aren’t sure that the Jubilee practice was every fully lived out or realized. But the vision of Jubilee is proclaimed by psalmists and prophets and echoed by Jesus Christ himself.

As our gospel reading this morning reminds us, Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth, with a reading from the prophet Isaiah..

“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the prisoners

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to liberate the oppressed,

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee.

 

So, how might we apply this concept of Jubilee to our lives today? What is God saying in the midst of not only the debt crisis in Greece, but in the midst of a global debt crisis, where the world’s developing countries are shackled by foreign debt they could never hope to repay?

 

First, debt is sometimes necessary and it can be sustainable.

As much as we might wish to live in a world without debt at all, it is part of our economic reality.

Sometimes debt is the extension of credit or the planned payment of something… like our home mortgages, car loans, or like when our congregation took on some debt when we put on the Faith Hall expansion. This debt comes from knowing that we could pay for the project, but we need some time to do so.

Sometimes debt is the result of falling behind. Even the ancient Israelites understood that one might fall into debt as a result of bad crops or poor decisions…

In our insert on the social principals, the very first thing we note as United Methodists is that some deficits, even as nations, are necessary.

But those debts need to be sustainable.

One fascinating aspect of the Jubilee system is that the amount of debt one could take on was proportional to the time left until the next Sabbath or Jubilee year, rather than based on your status or credit. Your debt was repaid by participating in the harvests to come, so if you had six harvests worth of work to give, your debt was greater than if only one remained.

We must ask ourselves if we are carrying sustainable debts and as we loan to others, we must be careful not to lend more than the other can bear.

I wonder, as the negotiations with Greece continue, what sustainability looks like and how the conditions that are put upon the debt help to create opportunity, or take the country farther from hope.

 

The second lesson of the Jubilee is that debt cripples families and communities. The Jubilee is necessary because without it, all hope would be lost for those who are caught up in the snowball of debt and repayment.

When the prophets and Jesus describe the year of Jubilee, words like release and oppression and liberation are uttered because debt has the power to destroy our ability to get out of it.

Our social principles and scriptures call us to have compassion on those in financial trouble, to reduce interest rates or to lend without interest at all so that our fellow human beings can survive among us.

This is not only a concern for those of today, but it is a concern for future generations. The Jubilee year was to be a guarantee that children would not suffer based upon the troubles of their parents or grandparents.

Our Social Principles call us to recognize that this is not simply a financial issue, but an issue of justice for those yet to be born… that future generations can by shackled… there is that language of imprisonment again… shackled by the burden of public debts.

One of the ways that we allow people and companies to be set free, today, from the burden of debt, is through the practice of bankruptcy. We allow them to wipe the slate clean and start over. We have now see it happen as well with cities.

One of the more fascinating questions in the air right now is what that bankruptcy would look like on a national scale and how it might help allow for a release from burdens. The Jubilee movement today, calls for the cancelation of debts of many developing countries that simply will never be able to repay their burdens.

Limited debt relief has been provided to some nations and places like Tanzania and Uganda have used the resources to double school enrollment, and Mozambique and Burkina Faso have used resources to meet basic needs and provide health care.

 

Lastly, there is an underlying economic principle that must be understood in order to make sense of the idea of Jubilee.

Nothing belongs to us.

This is contrary to everything we have been taught and the very structure of the world economy today, but it is the foundation of God’s economy…

Nothing belongs to us.

It’s all God’s.

Everything that is, was created by God.

And our use of the land, our relationships with one another… it is all a gift.

We are not owners of this planet… we are stewards and caretakers.

The vision of Jubilee was a call to remember that nothing we have belongs to us.

We might work the land, we might benefit from it, we might experience a measure of success, but our very presence in this place itself was a gift.

The ancient Israelites knew this first hand, because they had just escaped slavery in Egypt. They knew how precious the gift of land and blessings were. And in all things, they were called to remember that God had made them, God had saved them, and they were to share that gift with others.

 

In our Lord’s prayer, we pray for God to forgive our debts. To set us free from our mistakes, our sins, our failings, and our financial woes. We ask God to forgive us… as we have forgiven others.

God’s blessings and abundance are meant to be shared. God’s forgiveness and grace are meant to be shared. And as people of faith, when we face the world and its people, may the idea of Jubilee… the joyous good news for those struggling in economic trouble… guide how we reach out and work with those with the greatest need.

Amen and Amen.

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=0

[ii] http://www.zerohedge.com/article/run-greece-here-investors-pull-out-%E2%82%AC10-billion-troubled-country-crisis-escalation-here

[iii] Jubilee 2000, Sermon Helps, http://www.jubileeusa.org/faith/faith-and-worship-resources.html

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Two Texts: Iran, Cuba, and the Gerasene Demoniac

This month, our “Two Texts” series takes seriously the advice of Karl Barth… that we should take the bible and take the newspaper and read both.

All sorts of stories have caught our attention over the summer and have led us to wonder what the Bible might have to say about that.

What do people of faith have to say about these issues of our day?

And how do we, as a congregation with many different perspectives, look at these stories in a way that respects one another?

I and Pastor Todd can’t claim to be experts on world events, politics, finance and sociology. But we do know this book. And so our series this month will not dive into the details of policies, but will instead point us to biblical themes that have a bearing on our world today.

Will you pray with me…

 

I must start in our exploration of diplomacy in the midst of disagreements by reiterating a confession I just made. I am not an expert on these topics. In fact, the roots of both of the conflicts we will talk about today started before I was born.

In 1960, Cuba took over and nationalized American-owned oil refineries without permission or compensation.   The Cuban Revolution had overthrown the Batista regime, Fidel Castro was in power, and the United States and our economic leaders were … well… not happy. October 19th of that year began the United States embargo against Cuba.

Our national relationship with Iran also changed as the result of a revolution. In 1979, their United States supported leaders were overthrown. Eventually Iran became an Islamic republic, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. There were a number of factors that eventually severed relations between our countries, but perhaps one of the greatest began on November 4 of that year. A group, angry that Iran’s former leader had been allowed into the United States, took over the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for over a year. Over the years that have followed, our sour relations have focused on the attempted development of nuclear weapons by their country.

Our anger, our fears, our troubled relationships have led us to keep both of these nations at more than an arm’s length. We see them as dangerous to ourselves and our interests. We have intentionally cut off our connection with both nations in an attempt to force them to change and keep ourselves safe.

 

When we turn to the pages of the Bible, I am reminded of someone else who was kept at a distance. In the region of the Gerasenes, there was a man no one could control. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and was causing chaos in his community. As the Message bible tells us, “no one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones.”

 

How should we respond to those we fear? Or disagree with?

Do we keep them at a distance?

Do we try to chain them up and isolate them?

Do we prefer to turn our backs, avoiding them at all costs, while they in turn self-destruct?

That is what the people in the Gerasene region did. They were helpless. They were scared. And they kept their distance. Can we blame them? They are human like we are.

 

But what do we do about a whole country?

We think of this biblical story as the story of a single person, but when we dive deeper, this is a story about communities.

As Jesus approaches the demoniac (the demon possessed man) he tries to cast out the spirit. And he asks the spirit’s name…

“My name is Mob.” “My name is Legion.”

The spirit was not one, but thousands. A Legion is actually a military term for an entire unit in the Roman army… between 3-6,000 foot soldiers.

An entire community was living inside that man, tormenting him and everyone around.

So the larger community did what they could. They couldn’t cast them out. They couldn’t change the man, so they chained him up. They isolated him in the hopes that the spirits would leave.

Much like the larger world community has used sanctions and embargos and severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Cuba in order to protect ourselves and to force a change in the regimes of these places.

 

This summer, we have seen our diplomatic ties with these places soften a bit. We have reached a historic compromise with Iran that we are now debating in our own country. We have warmed up to Cuba and will soon be opening a United States Embassy there. We have reached out as a nation to talk, to imagine new possibilities, to rebuild relationships.

 

When Jesus approached the Gerasene Demoniac, nothing about the man had softened or changed. He was still as dangerous as ever. But through God, all kinds of healing are possible. Where the rest of the countryside had given up, Jesus knew that the man could be saved.

And so Jesus and the Legion had a talk. They negotiated. They each made some diplomatic concessions.

 

There are three larger themes I think we can point to in this story.

First, knowing Jesus had the power to cast them out, they begged Jesus to be merciful.

Power is a dangerous thing. In each of the conflicts mentioned, military power has been a thread of both disagreements – whether it was missiles pointed at our country or the development of nuclear weapons. But our nation also has a strong measure of power that has kept the other at bay.

Each week this month, we are also including a bulletin insert from the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Maybe we can think of this as our third text. These are the official positions of our church on some of the issues we are exploring today.

This one, in particular, challenges us to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. It is a reminder that our first moral duty is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises. It is also a strong condemnation against nuclear weapons.

Above all, it is a reminder that our power to hurt one another is great. And as people of faith, our call instead is to always seek peace first.

Rather than destroy the mob of spirits, Jesus showed them mercy.

I mentioned at the start of the message this morning that I wasn’t even alive when these conflicts started, but I learned along the way that over half of the population of Iran wasn’t around for the beginning of this conflict either. Half of their population is under the age of 25. A quarter of their people are under the age of 15. They certainly didn’t start the conflict, but they are impacted by it.

Mercy in these situations looks like recognizing each nation as a part of the human family and prioritizing human values over military claims. It means listening to the hopes and concerns of the other as we seek a way forward.

 

Second, this story reminds us that there are no easy answers to these negotiations. There are sacrifices and consequences to be made along the way.

As Jesus showed the Legion mercy, he allowed them to enter a herd of pigs that were grazing nearby. As we heard our lay reader say, nearly two thousand animals were possessed and driven mad, they charged over a cliff into the lake and drowned.

While pigs are not clean animals and wouldn’t have been part of the diet of the Jewish families, this was a gentile region. Someone or many someone’s lost their entire herd that day. The economic livelihood of many families was probably destroyed.

Yet, you also have to consider that the economic well-being of the region was probably hampered to begin with if this possessed man had been terrorizing the countryside. Travelers and merchants probably avoided the area as much as possible.

Every negotiation has a give and take. Diplomacy is not easy and it is important to consider what must be sacrificed for the greater good. That doesn’t mean anyone will be happy… and the people of the region, though initially relieved were pretty upset with Jesus over the pigs.

In our diplomacy with Iran and Cuba, we might not all agree on the specifics of the deals. But we must remember that in all cases, a negotiation means we let some things go, so that we might reach other objectives.

 

Lastly, this is a story of reconciliation. Relieved, embarrassed, ashamed, the man who had been possessed by the Legion, now didn’t know what to do. He begged Jesus to allow him to run away with the disciples.

But Jesus refused. He ordered him to return to his own people, to his own community, to find his place there again.

In every encounter Jesus has with those who are displaced, shunned, or isolated, his end goal is to return them to their own community. It is not to rescue or remove them, but to reconcile them. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the prodigal son, the lepers or the hemorrhaging woman? In every instance, they are healed so they can return to their place in society.

If we are the Body of Christ, then we need one another. This church community needs those we disagree with and those we don’t understand. We all have something to teach one another.

On a global stage, we might not all share the same faith or belief systems, but we are all human beings. We breathe the same air and need the same water. Our economies and politics impact the people of this world, not only their leaders. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.

 

As we encounter the news and hear stories of our diplomatic ties to Iran and Cuba and other places where our relationships have been difficult, let us think of the Gerasene Demoniac.

Think of the man, the Legion, and think about how Jesus walked right up and offered a path forward. Not an easy path, but a just path, a merciful path, a path towards reconciliation.

May we seek these things in all of our relationships.

Amen.

Image: Second Coming of Christ With Two Gospel Miracles
Detail: Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac
Artist:  Alexey Pismenny

Apps and Folders

How you categorize something matters.

It speaks to the importance you place on it and the function it serves.

My smart phone has the ability to create folders for my home pages and various apps go in them.

I have one for tools (flashlight, calculator, etc.).

There is one labeled fun (Netflix, Pandora, and whatever game I have loaded – currently 2048).

A folder called work contains my Bible app, pages manager, and the link to our CMS software.

Social media apps like Facebook, twitter and Snapchat are included in social.

And then there is my self care folder. It contains fitness and running apps, a link to our insurance app, and WordPress.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out where to put my blogging app. For a while, it was with the social apps. Relationships, community, conversation are all part of the reason I blog. It could fit with work, because I usually blog about things related to ministry.

But I realized that primarily, I blog for me. I blog to think. I blog to let go of things. I blog to discern. It is a spiritual practice, as every bit as important to my self care as what I eat, or how much sleep I get.

Why do you blog or write? How would you label your practice?

Hungry?

Yesterday, I preached on Jesus and the fig tree.  It is such a strange pericope (aka story).  Both Matthew and Mark tell us (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) that Jesus was walking along, sees a fig tree, doesn’t find fruit, curses the tree and wham-o, it dies.

What?!?!

There is a broader point to the story, as I mentioned in the sermon: about prayer, about asking for what we want, and about the power of God to move mountains.

But, c’mon… what is it with this  fig tree?

This morning I sat down with my devotions and read from Albert Edward Day’s The Captivating Presence:

Sometimes the best of us have days when our dearest friend must say, “you are not yourself today”. That fact gives them a hard time and sends them away deprived of what they should have from us. BUT GOD IS ALWAYS GOD.

“You are not yourself today.”

That’s what I wish the disciples had told Jesus when he cursed that fig tree.  It wasn’t even the right season.  What was he thinking?

Well, probably, he wasn’t.

 

snickersHave you seen those Snickers commercials with Betty White and Joe Pesci and the like?

You know… the one where  they are handed a Snickers and transform back into their real selves with just one bite?

The tagline is “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry.”

What if this story is a reminder that while God is always God, Jesus was also fully human.

And human beings get hungry.

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. (Mark 11:12)

Early in the morning as Jesus was returning to the city, he was hungry. (Matthew 21:18)

When I get hungry, I get grouchy. Seriously cranky. My head hurts. I don’t want to do anything. I’m a bear to be around and I often lash out at whatever or whomever might be nearby.

What if Jesus just really needed a candy bar?

 

I wish I had the answers about how Jesus could be fully God and fully human all at the same time, but to me it is a mystery.  And I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with the unchanging, holy, everlasting, eternal, awesome God becoming one of us.

I’m okay with the idea that Jesus can be totally divine and holy and merciful and good and loving AND that he was a human being who cried as a baby and learned and changed as an adult, and yes, got hungry sometimes.

It doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t change my ability to turn to God or learn from Jesus.

Well, maybe it does change my feelings… maybe it deepens my appreciation of God’s love for us.  That God would go so far to get to know us so well.

Team Triple B
Image

Keep P.U.S.H.ing!

My aunt Barb has been diagnosed and treating uterine and ovarian cancer for about two years now. She has been through a few rounds of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Some of it has been successful! Some of the cancer has returned. It has been an up and down journey, but she has had quite a few healthy months in the midst of it all.

Through everything, family and friends have been a huge support and together they have participated in Relay for Life the past two years.

As Team Triple B, their slogan is “Keep PUSHing”

For them, PUSHing means that you Pray Until Something Happens.

 

Pray Until Something Happens.

 

In these past six weeks, we have talked a lot about prayer. We started out by talking about prayer as group activity… something we do together. Pastor Todd talked about prayer as an intimate relationship with our parental God. Trevor invited us to think about prayer as something that is always hard and always necessary – a sweet devotion. Our guest preachers, Pastors Ted and Mara, have led us in a variety of disciplines and continued to stretch our thinking on how we practice prayer.

While I was away on leave, I spent every single morning in prayer. I wish I could say that I always spent every morning in prayer, but as Trevor so eloquently stated in his message, prayer is hard work.

Yet, on my renewal leave, my only real task was to pray. To pray for you. To pray for our ministries. To pray for God to guide me and us. And I read a lot about prayer as well.

One of the things that kept striking me is that we need to pray like we mean it.

We need to pray about those things in this world that we really want to change.

We need to pray until something happens!

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem and he passed by a fig tree. Even though it was out of season, he looked for fruit and didn’t find any. So he said, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” The tree withered, dried up, and died within 24 hours.

Jesus prayed… and something happened!

Now, I’m going to be honest… this is a rather strange story that leaves us with all sorts of questions:

Why would Jesus punish the tree when it couldn’t help that it was the wrong season?

The scripture says he was really hungry… so maybe he was just really grouchy, like I often get when I haven’t eaten in a while…

Because, I mean, what kind of Jesus is this that arbitrarily causes things to die?

United Methodists don’t typically buy into the kind of prosperity gospel that says if you pray for what you want, you will get it.

We are fully aware that all kinds of faithful people pray for things like healing and miracles and help and the answers aren’t always what we want.

Maybe that is why even though it is a story mentioned in both Matthew and Mark, most of the cycles of scripture readings pastors use completely ignore this passage. We’d rather Jesus didn’t have this encounter with the fig tree.

 

Yet, the core of the message here… aside from the weird stuff with the fig tree… is repeated over and over again by Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9)

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains… nothing will be impossible (Mt 17:20)

If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

If we pray… stuff will happen! Not little stuff… BIG. GIGANTIC. POWERFUL. MOUNTAIN SIZED stuff!

That’s what scripture tells us.

That’s what Jesus keeps reminding us.

Prayer is powerful.

 

There is a important thing to remember in this power of prayer, however.

This power only works when our prayers are aligned with God’s will.

If I started praying for a bigger house today… I probably wouldn’t get it. Because that is not about God… its about me.

As 1 John puts it: If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for what he wanted… but he ended that prayer: not my will, but yours be done.

What I love about my aunt’s prayer during this time  is that while she has all sorts of hopes and wants and desires for her treatment, their goal is for God’s will to be done.

They are going to Pray Until Something Happens.

That might be good news and healing. It might be deeper relationships.  It might not be the ending they want, but they are open to discovering God’s blessings and God’s answers along the way.

And through it all… they are going to pray.

 

I have found that we don’t hesitate to lift up prayers asking for healing. We are even pretty good at lifting up prayers of gratitude.

But there are things in this world that we are called to do and change and work towards… and we forget to pray about it!

We get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to ask God to be a part of it. We keep thinking it is all about us.

And when we do so, we forget to tap into the mountain-moving power of prayer that is right there at our fingertips.

 

 

And that is what we need to do.

Last fall, we sat down and spent some time asking God what we were supposed to do here at Immanuel. And out of those conversations as leadership, we set some goals around places we have passion and we felt God was moving. Now… we need to pray about it.

We need to Pray Until Something Happens.

 

One of those goals was that we wanted to increase our visibility in the community… We want get to know our neighbors better… And our goal, our hope, is that those new relationships will mean there are 10% more people here in worship at the end of this year.

But you know what… we haven’t really prayed about it. We haven’t asked God to help us with this work. We’ve been trying to do it on our own.

 

Another goal we set last year was create space for people to serve here at Immanuel. We want to make sure that everyone is connected to some kind of ministry beyond Sunday morning. And one of the pieces of this goal is to encourage new people to embrace God’s gifts in their life and we wanted to find a place for 10 new people to serve on our ministry teams.

But we haven’t been praying about it. We haven’t asked God to help us.

 

And as the Iowa Annual Conference, we have this amazing new goal. As United Methodists, we want to make a significant impact on poverty in our communities and we think we can do something really big by addressing the opportunity gap in education. And so, we are being asked to get involved with an effort to distribute half a million books and to give a million hours of time over the next year. And it is a big and awesome and mountain sized goal and we are just getting started…

So you know what… we had better start praying for it.

 

In fact, we need to start praying for all of these things.

We are going to need God on our side if these things are going to happen.

If the world is going to change… if the kingdom is going to come… if God’s will is to be done, we need to ask for God to be involved.

We need to start praying until something happens.

 

As we leave worship today, you’ll find that there are some tables at the back with three different stations.

Each station relates to one of those goals I lifted up in the message this morning.

And at each station is a prayer card I want to invite you to take with you.

I want us to commit to praying for mountains to move.

I want us to commit to praying every day that God’s will be done in our midst.

 

You don’t have to pray for every single one of them… but pick at least one.

Commit yourself to prayer by name.

If we have at least 50 people here in the church praying for every one of these goals do you think God will hear us. Do you think God will sense we are not only people who care about these things, but we are ready for change. We believe. We have faith that God can make a difference here.

 

Ghandi once wrote:

If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water,

Or stir up the fire with the bellows

Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table,

Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice-field,

Or standing by the smelter’s furnace

We do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery,

The world will never be saved.

 

We may not share the same faith as Ghandi, but we all believe in the power of prayer. And Ghandi’s words remind us that prayer is not just for the super-religious, and prayer is not only for renewal leave… prayer is something we are supposed to be doing every second of every day of our lives.

 

We should be praying when we work.

We should be praying as we play.

We can be praying as we brush our teeth and drive to work.

We can pray at the dinner table.

We need to be praying everywhere, all the time, about everything.

 

And what I want you to do is take one of these prayer cards this morning and pray your heart out.

Put it on your bathroom mirror and pray it every morning.

Stick it in your car and pray before you get to work.

Take more than one if you want to, and put them wherever they might be a reminder to you.

Bring your prayers to breakfast and take turns each saying your prayer together.

 

Pray… even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed.

Pray that mountains might move.

Pray that kids might learn to read.

Pray that we might meet and grow with new people.

Pray that every person might find a place to connect and serve.

Pray.

Pray Until Something Happens.