In the Desert

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In these weeks before our season of Advent starts, we’ve been exploring the Psalms of our scriptures.
Rev. Andrea Severson joined us at the end of October to talk a bit about times of transition and journeying and the songs the Israelites wrote to accompany them on the way.
Last week, as we remembered our saints, Pastor Todd reminded us of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Today, we turn our attention to one of the Psalms of Lament. These songs of lament, frustration, and longing make up over half of the psalms within our Bible!
They are the words that we cry out when we are troubled, persecuted, frustrated, and hopeless.
“There’s got to be more than this,” we say. “There’s got to be more than this.”

This particular psalm is one written by David and the note in the scripture itself indicates it was during a time when he had fled to the wilderness. Likely, it was written after he had become the King of Israel. His very own son, Absalom, led an insurrection and David was forced to run for his life.
And there, in the desert, he cries out…
Not just for water…
But for the very presence of God.
Robin Gallaher Branch writes that “although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness… his soul longs for God.”

In the midst of our trials and tribulations, in the midst of the pain in this world, do we, too, cry out with the psalmist?
Do we believe “there’s got to be more than this?”
Do our souls hunger and thirst for God?
And can we hang on to the vision of God’s enduring love in the midst of our longing?

Last week, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a sanctuary in Sutherland Springs, Texas for worship. They were there to pray and to sing and to worship God… and twenty-six of them lost their lives.
Yet another mass shooting in America.
Yet another tragic loss of life.
And I feel like we are lost, wandering the desert, parched with our longing for the violence to end. Parched with exhaustion from debating types of weapons. Parched with weariness from trying to understand the motivations for such acts.
There has got to be something more than this.

And so, we are gathered here, today, seeking God… thirsting for God… turning our hands and our lips towards the divine…. Clinging to the one who has upheld us before.

What comes next?

Do we turn inward and lock the doors?
Do we get lost in debate about causes and solutions?
Do we stop loving and trusting our fellow human beings?
Or is there something else?

In some ways, I wonder if the lessons of Veteran’s Day are precisely the ones we need in the midst of a desert like this.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the “Great War” finally saw peace on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was believed to have been “the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
The next year, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day… a day commemorated “by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace.”

You see, in the midst of all of that loss and pain and grief … in the midst of the desert of destructions and sacrifice… as they looked out upon that broken world and believed that there had to be something more than this… they named what they were longing for – peace – and they set it before them as a vision for what they would pursue.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized the date as a legal holiday – a “recurring anniversary of this day, commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

And yet, even with that vision of peace before us, it was not the war to end all wars.
There was a second world war, and then the Korean conflict, and we know that since those days countless of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors have served our country around this world.
In 1954, aware of this reality, President Eisenhower proclaimed that we would expand this day to honor the veterans of all wars and to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

In the midst of our own desert of perpetual war and violence, we believe there has got to be something more than this.
And so we cry out every year, longing and thirsting for God’s peace to prevail across this world.

Maybe the question is… have we truly reconsecrated ourselves to the task of peace?
Simply marking a holiday is not enough…
How are we called to live differently in order to help God’s peace to be known all across this world? How do we lift up our hands and call upon God’s name and allow the divine power and glory to shape our world?

This past week, a colleague wrote a reflection about the kind of preparation she plans to do in the wake of more violence. Instead of preparing her church for someone who might burst in with a weapon, she wants to prepare her church to work against violence in this world.
And friends, there are lots of ways we can do that.

We can mentor students in our schools who are at risk for joining gangs.
We can work to provide better mental health care for our neighbors.
We can respond to domestic violence and take seriously the stories of women who are assaulted and work to not only keep them and their families safe, but provide help for those who are perpetrators.
We can get to know our neighbors and become a part of creating a community where people have one another’s backs and look out for what is happening.
We can talk about the gospel stories that teach us how to respond to oppression and injustice and hatred – often by heaping on extra doses of love and compassion and working for justice.
We can be a church that helps our children, especially our boys, learn healthy ways to express their emotions and to play so that they don’t grow up to believe that anger has to be expressed through violence.

If in the midst of this desert of violence, we turned our eyes to God and allowed that vision of peace to quench our thirst…
if that was the deep well from which we as a church and as a community chose to drink from…
if in the midst of this barren and hopeless struggle we chose to turn our eyes to the Lord and to bless God’s holy name and to cling to the one who has been our help…
then like David, we might find our souls satisfied.

May it be so. Amen.

The Spirit of Peace

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This is a vuvuzula. It is a long, narrow horn that really caught on in World Cup soccer matches a few years back.

These simple horns can produce up to 120 decibels of sound when you are standing just three feet in front of them. That is as loud as a rock concert or a jet engine. It’s kind of hard to believe that such a little piece of plastic can make all that noise!

At that level of sound, there can be permanent hearing loss, damage, and actual pain from the noise that is involved.

So, if we imagine 300 men, surrounding the Midianite army in the middle of the night, blowing horns and smashing pots and creating the noise of 300 rock concerts going off in the middle of the night – maybe, just maybe, we can understand why the Midianite army turned around and fled before a rag tag bunch of soldiers under the command of a man named Gideon.

As children, when we hear the stories of God’s victory in the Old Testament, we might be reminded of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and made the walls come tumbling down with marching and shouting.

We might think of the shepherd boy David and how he took down the giant of a man Goliath and thus saved the day.

Or we might think of the story we heard this morning about Gideon’s defeat of the enemies with a bunch of horns and smashed pots.

As children, we hear these tales of God’s victory… but rarely do we go into the harsh realities of battle and war. We conveniently skip over the parts of the story where men, women, children, and animals are destroyed in the name of God.

As adults, when we reread these familiar and inspiring stories I know I start to wonder what kind of a God the Old Testament describes… how could this be the same Prince of Peace that we find in the gospels? Where is the God of mercy and love?

I know that more than one of you has come up to me after some of these difficult bible passages and you have asked what we should make of these stories of war and destruction. We don’t understand the genocide that we read on these pages that accompany God’s victory. We can’t comprehend the loss of life.

Or maybe we can.

Maybe these battles seem so real to us because of the wars that we engage in.
We, as a nation, have been fighting in Afghanistan for fifteen years.
In your lifetimes, we have been a part of war on five continents.

And in a week like this, when we have celebrated our nation’s independence, we know that so many of our battles were entered to preserve and defend the truths for which we stand.

At the same time, we are tired of all the fighting.

We took my niece and nephews to a parade recently and as the procession turned the corner and we caught a glimpse of the color guard, the kids began to sing – “you’re a grand old flag.”

We have lots of patriotic songs, but their school had spent some time in the past year with that particular one. At ages 5 and 8 they knew every single word and shouted them out proudly. You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave…..

And forever in peace may you wave…

those words jumped out as me as these children sang them.

Forever in peace…

I once believed that the opposite of peace was war.

I believed that we would finally have peace in our lives when men and women… but mostly men… laid down their weapons.

I believed that peace would come when all of our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters returned home.

But I’m not sure that is true anymore.

Anyone you ask will tell you that we have a lack of peace in our world, but we also lack peace in our nation, in our state, and in our families.

Even if all the swords and guns in the world were destroyed does not mean that peace will come.

Peace, you see, must be bigger than a lack of war.

Peace must encompass more than the fights we find ourselves in.
The peace that we seek is like the peace of Isaiah in chapter 65….

I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox…

In the Hebrew Scriptures THIS VISION, lifted up by the prophets, is Shalom.

Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace, not only in terms of fighting and conflict – but it describes the wholeness of life. As one commentator put it, “everything fits together, the relationships work like they were designed to, and things just work right.” (http://listeningtoscripture.com/Textual_Studies/Isaiah/12isaiahspeace.html)

Paul Hanson says that shalom is “the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from the fear of all which diminishes and destroys.”

Doesn’t that sound amazing?
A life free from the fear of all that could destroy us?

That is the peace that we seek.

For those of us who are farmers or gardeners… when the usual flow of the seasons and the weather doesn’t cooperate… we fear that drought or too much water could destroy our crops and our livelihood.

When we work with machines, like in a factory, there are constant safety protocols to keep the terrible from happening… we are constantly regulating the chaos and trying to prevent spills, injuries, and death.

When we are a part of families, we try to manage our time and our schedules, fearing we won’t have enough time with one another and that our relationships will suffer because of it.

The opposite of peace isn’t war… but chaos.

And chaos is a life where there is no freedom from fear. A life where any and everything takes away from our ability to live and live abundantly.

How many of you know chaos in your lives today?

In Ancient Israel, chaos was the norm. Nation states were constantly fighting for land and power and dominance. There were no programs for social security. A single drought could wipe a family out. That was if they had anything left after the rulers took away their goods.

In the time of Gideon, the people were afraid. Their crops were being confiscated, their lands were being consumed by the Midianites and they cried out for help.

And God responded… NOT by sending them into war… but by reminding them that God was and always has been on their side.

My favorite part of this story is when God whittles away the army of 32,000 able men to 300.
Three hundred individuals take nothing but jars and torches and trumpets and scare away a whole army.

And God does this to remind them that while human warriors can’t defeat the forces that destroy shalom and bring chaos… God can.

The Israelites have no need to raise a standing army and to set a king over them… they have one God who reigns over them.

And God will fight for them.

They don’t need to be afraid of those things that might destroy them. They only need to trust.

But you know what, that trust in God doesn’t last long amongst the Israelites.

They keep demanding a king. They keep crying out to be like the other nations and to be able to demonstrate their strength through armies.

Finally, God relents and allows them to set a king over themselves.

But as Bruce Birch reminds us, “Israel, in the belief that it could create its own security, was in reality flirting with chaos.”

If you read through the books of Chronicles and Kings and the prophets you see how time and time again, the kings went to war – with God on their side or not – for power and territory.

They brought chaos upon themselves, because they were trusting in their ways and not God’s ways.

It would be tempting to say that if we simply trusted in God more, chaos would disappear.

The rains would come more regularly.
Our paychecks wouldn’t be so sporadic.
Fights between parent and children would diminish.

I’m not sure that God promises us that… at least in this lifetime.

The peace offered to us by Christ is a peace that is different from the one the world offers.

It is the peace that comes from relationships returned to their rightful balance through forgiveness and mercy.

It is the peace that comes when we learn to trust in God more than our pocketbooks.

It is the peace that comes when our priorities are realigned and family comes before our jobs.

It is the peace that comes when we remember that while this moment or this present struggle might be difficult, in the end, God is in control and those forces of chaos will not have the final say.

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and to be a shining city on a hill, an example to all.
And I think the core of how we do that is to trust in him.

To allow the Spirit of God to enter our lives and transform them.

To set us right inside.
To set us right with one another.
To set us right as a people.

And when the chaos of fear leaves our family… or our church… or our city, then people will look at us with wonder and say – what is it that they have figured out?

And when they do, we can point to the One who brought peace… shalom… into our lives and we can tell them all about it.

Amen and Amen.

The Beloved Community

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Today, we enter the world of Micah… a prophet from the late 8th century…  just over 700 years before Christ.

And to put ourselves in Micah’s shoes, I want you to imagine with me for a moment a world that is under great stress.

Imagine pressure coming from an aggressive empire or state that believes their success is determined by how far they expand their influence and power and who will stop at nothing to do so.

Imagine attacks upon nations’ capitols.  Imagine an influx of refugees. Imagine increased social stresses. Imagine those attacks that were far away and in other places suddenly taking place in your own homeland.

 

Maybe we don’t really have to imagine, do we.

 

Like Isaiah, Micah wrote from the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.    And also like Isaiah, there are sections of this short book of scripture that seem to come from AFTER the time of Judah’s own destruction and exile two hundred years later, possibly updated by others.

And that is because Micah, like so many of our prophets, is lifting up a timeless theme that is just as relevant today as it was 2700 years ago.  We, too, could update the names of nations and rulers and find ourselves right here in this text, right now.

The judgments and accusations against Samaria… against Jerusalem… those capital cities of these ancient nations… they could be leveled against Washington, D.C. or Des Moines, Iowa as well.

So let us hear them…  Let us hear these judgments and lift up our confession

We seek God in all the wrong places (1:5)… like Pastor Jennifer said last week, we often turn to everything but God in order to fill that God-shaped hole in our heart.  Whether it is the abuse of drugs or sex, Netflix binges or self-help books, we have a spiritual hunger that we seek to fill in so many ways EXCEPT by seeking God.  Forgive us, O God.

We exploit the work of others and we tear down their homes… even the meager homes and tents of the most vulnerable among us (2:1-2).  Here in Des Moines, we know the homeless are among us and yet our official city policy is to keep evicting the homeless camps, knowing that there is nowhere else for these people to go.  We do not have enough beds and shelter spaces or a long-term strategy in place.  Forgive us, O God.

We turn to prophets who say all the things we want to hear, instead of what we need to hear (2:11).  I think one of the biggest symptoms of this is the echo chambers we find ourselves in… only paying attention to the news or science or reports that we agree with and only being friends with those who share our opinions.  Forgive us, O God.

Our public officials who should guard justice are corrupt and take advantage of the very people they should be serving (3:2-3). No matter which sides of the political spectrum we are on, we recognize politics is a dirty business.  Unlike the political landscape of Micah’s day, we live in a democracy and have the unprecedented opportunity to hold our public officials accountable through our votes and yet, so often we choose not to exercise that right.  Forgive us, O God.

The pastors and religious leaders serve the highest bidder, yet claim to be serving and proclaiming God’s will (3:11).  Too often, our religious leaders try to whittle all of scripture down to a single issue and claim this is the only issue that matters above all else, and then use that one issue to influence our people and our politics.  I believe in doing so, we are neglecting the breadth and depth of God’s call to us as God’s people.  So for the times I have done this, Forgive me, O God.

 

What the prophet Micah offers to us are not simply words of condemnation and judgement, but also a vision of what true community in God could look like.  Micah calls us to a different way of living and being in this world. Micah paints a picture of the beloved community… a sort of antidote to all of the spiritual, political, and economic sins of our day.

That term, “beloved community,” was often used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a description of the ends sought by the civil rights movement.  In that time of turmoil and unease, he relied upon the wisdom of the prophets to help show the way forward.  And because the goal of the movement was redemption and reconciliation, the only path forward, Dr. King believe, was a path of nonviolence.  It was the only means that would seek the ends of God.

He proclaimed:  “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…. it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God working in the lives of men.  This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Now, that passage is from his 1957 message called, “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.”

Right now, as a nation have a moral dilemma.  We have neglected the vulnerable. We demonize our opponents.  We are afraid of one another. We are unable or unwilling to speak out when we see our neighbors oppressed.

And, we, the church, are called to say something… to do something… to be active agents of God’s redemptive power in this place.

We, too, need to hear again the call of the prophets, the vision of God’s kingdom so that WE can live in the kind of way that might bring salvation to our civilization.

 

And in Micah’s vision, there are three things that we, the church, can do.

First, we need to stop waiting for our leaders and we need to go to the house of God, to learn from God and walk in God’s path.

We have to get deeper into our scriptures.  We need to sit with our bibles and in prayer and ask for God’s guidance.  If Pastor Jennifer is right, and I believe she is, that the moral famine of our world is preceded by our spiritual famine, then we need to start being fed once again by God’s word.   So make Sunday mornings a priority in your family and come to not only worship and fellowship, but get involved with a study.  Participate in a  life group.  Find a friend and pray together once a week. Ask daily for God to guide you.

Second, we need to set aside violence and bloodshed and stop being afraid.

We might not walk around with spears or swords, but our own weapons today include more than guns.  As Bishop Jonathan Keaton preached at our North Central Jurisdictional Conference, social media has allowed for daily combat.  We fire off shots like snipers towards unseen and nameless others.  We bully and taunt with a few taps of our fingers.  And we escalate conflict, learning war and hatred from one another instead of seeking the ways of peace.

Seeking nonviolent interaction with our neighbors or enemies is about more than refusing to physically strike them.  It is also refusing to impart spiritual or emotional blows.  It is about choosing to see your opponent as a child of God.  It is about choosing love over fear or hate.

And finally, we can live a life of worship.  A life, in our language, of love, service, and prayer.

Micah describes this life of worship, not in rituals meant to appease God, but in every waking moment we live out the greatest commandments… to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We worship by doing justice.

We worship by loving kindness.

We worship by walking humbly with God.

Or as the Message translation puts it:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.  Be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously… take God seriously!

Will the entire world be transformed if we do these things?  Not overnight.  But we can never get to that beloved community… we will never see God’s kingdom lived out right here on earth if we never take the first step.

If you are seeking an instruction manual or the blueprints for the beloved community it’s right here:

God’s made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.

Do justice.

Love kindness.

Walk humbly with God.

Serve. Love. Pray. Every single day. Amen.

Lamentations and Investments

I must confess it was difficult to pick just one passage from Jeremiah and in the light of the events of this week, I wasn’t sure that I picked the right one.

I wondered if I should have chosen from Jeremiah 8 and 9:

Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there? Why then are my people not been not been restored to health?  If only my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.

Or maybe Jeremiah 31:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and waiting.  It’s Rachel crying for her children; she refuses to be consoled, because her children are no more.

 

And I find it so hard to get back up in this pulpit every week with some new tragedy or terror that must be addressed.  But we have to do so.

We have to speak about the pain and suffering and loss of this world.  To not turn to our scriptures and prayer and ask where God is in the midst of what is happening would be irresponsible.  It is what we should do every moment of every day…  and if I can’t model that for you on Sunday mornings, then I’m not doing my job.

 

It pains me that a world that is so connected… 24/7… on every device at our fingertips… can be so divided and at war with itself.

I look around and see so much anger and hurt.  Here in the United States and all across this world.

#bluelives #blacklives #Muslimlives friends, they all matter. We all matter.  It’s not an either/or.  It’s a both/and.

And yet we take the pain and hurt and anger we feel and turn it back against one another for not being “on our side.”

There is only one side for us to be on.  The side of life and hope and peace.

 

It often feels like we are living in the worst times of human history.  Like things have never been this bad.

I could quote statistics about how violence… especially deadly violence is down in many different categories across this world.  That seems hard to believe, but its true.  But you know what… that seems to trivialize the pain that every death, every particular death carries in this day and age where we collectively witness and experience them.

 

I am in grateful to be preaching from Jeremiah this week because he lived in what the Jewish Study Bible calls “the most crucial and terrifying periods in the history of the Jewish people in biblical times: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon…  [he] grappled with the theological problems posed by the destruction of the nation, and who laid the foundations for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple in the years following the end of the exile.  In the course of his struggles to understand the tragic events of his lifetime, he tells the reader more about himself than any other prophet, including his anguish and empathy at the suffering of his people, his outrage at God for forcing him to speak such terrible words of judgment against his own nation, and his firm belief that the people of Israel would return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem once the period of punishment was over.” (p917)

 

It is strange to say that I feel like I’m living the lives of these prophets this summer, but maybe that’s what happens when you spend time in the scriptures.

So I’m feeling Jeremiah’s anguish and empathy when I look out at you… when I scroll through my facebook feed… when I turn on the news and see the heartbreak and frustration and hopelessness of so many people… in Baghdad, in Medina, in Baton Rouge, in St. Paul, in Dallas…

And I, too, have been crying out to God asking “How long…  how long will you let us turn against one another before you come and do something to fix this?”

Jeremiah turned all of the grief of his people into laments to God… he cried out to God and I think it is appropriate on a day like this,  in a time like this for us to do so.  For us to lament and grieve…

And so I want to invite you into a time of lament with me.  And together we will sing a response that is familiar to many… Oh – Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

O Holy God,  we have come here this morning from many places,

From east and west, north and south,

From pain and disillusionment,

From anger and confusion,

From grief and sadness,

Looking for hope.

We come together for one thing only:

To raise our hearts and voices and very bodies to God,

In the hope that the very act of raising them in lament yet in faith,

We might know the transforming and surpassing power of your love.

 

Oh Holy God, hear us as we cry out to you.  Our pain is more than we can bear alone.

Response: Oh— Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Unable to forget the violence and the loss of this past week, we cry…

Mourning the loss of the innocent, we cry…

Looking for justice where none seems possible, we cry…

Outraged by the actions of those who should have known better, we cry…

Lost, looking for your guidance and direction, we cry…

Weeping with families whose loved ones will never return home, we cry…

Standing with all of those who have sworn to protect us and who gave their lives, we cry…

Desperate for the courage to speak out against racism, injustice, and oppression, we cry…

Wanting to put all this behind us and live in wholeness, we cry…

Looking for the peacemakers, we cry…

( Liturgy of Lament for the Broken Body of Christ, adapted https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/Liturgy-plan.pdf)

 

O God, in mystery and silence you are present in our lives,

Bringing new life out of destruction, hope out of despair, growth out of difficulty.

We thank you that you do not leave us alone but labor to make us whole.

Help us to perceive your unseen hand in the unfolding of our lives,

And to attend to the gentle guidance of your Spirit,

That we may know the joy you give your people. Amen. (Ruth Duck, BOW 464)

 

Friends, we cry out “How Long…”

But I think the reminder of our scripture for this morning is that God turns that “how long” back on us.

And God is asking… what are you going to do, today, to be the answer?

How are you going to be a witness, an example, a living testimony of the firm belief that though this time is painful and brutal that YOU are on the side of life and hope and peace?

How are you going to personally invest in the future you pray for?

 

Jeremiah found himself in precisely that situation.  As he was proclaiming the destruction of the land he loved…  even as he was imprisoned by the very king he was trying to get to act differently… God asked him from his jail cell to buy a plot of land as an investment in the future of the land.  As a reminder that “houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

The armies are at literally at the gates of the city.  The siege has started.  And Jeremiah is buying property.

He was investing in the future he so fervently prayed for and so firmly believed in.

 

I’m tired of the loss of life in our world.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

We have to start investing in the future we long for.

We have to figure out what it means to “buy a plot of land” today.

 

And I think there are a few concrete things we can do, today, to invest in God’s future.

First, we have to invest in relationships with people who don’t look like us.

My friend, Jim, and his wife, Lori, have a son who is seven years old.  His name is Teddy.  And because he is adopted, his skin doesn’t look the same as that of his parents.

Jim wrote to me, “I’m keenly aware that I didn’t really ‘get it’ until I was invested in the life of my son; and all of the fear and trepidation I feel for him as he starts growing up to be a young black man in America.  So I know that compassion and grace towards those who don’t ‘get it’ is necessary because I was one of them in the past.”

The only way that we can ever start to live into a future of peace is to actually cross the street and talk with our neighbors who are people of color or Muslim or police officers or elderly or of a different political party.

We have to invest in personal relationships with people who are not the same as us.

 

Second, we have to practice humility.

We are not better than anyone else. We are not perfect. We don’t have all of the answers. And we need to create space for others to teach us, for others to lead us, for others to speak.

And part of that means that we need to look at all of the ways in which dominate conversations or perspectives and we need to step back and listen.

This past week, as the holy month of Ramadan was ending for our Muslim brothers and sisters, a bomb went off in the heart of one of their holy cities.  And we barely noticed.

We can be so focused on our own lives and our own experiences that we do not stop to let go of ourselves and make room for the pain and grief of others.

 

Third, we need to speak the truth in love.

The first part of that is that we have to tell the truth.

We have to stop spreading rumors or hyperbole. And we need to take a moment and pause and ask about the source and if it is trustworthy.  We have to take a breath.

But, we cannot be afraid to speak the truth when it is in front of us. We have to name injustice.  The only way that evil is overcome is when it is brought into the light for all to see.  So we cannot be afraid to name it. To speak it. To see it.

And we can do so in love.

We can disagree.

We can speak the truth and invite conversation and dialogue.

We can do so with our feet in protest non-violently.

But we should never resort to demonizing or attacking other people because of what they believe.

 

We have to start investing in the future we long for.

We have to invest in living differently in this world.

 

Just a few minutes ago, in the prayer I prayed that:

We come together for one thing only:

To raise our hearts and voices and very bodies to God,

In the hope that the very act of raising them in lament yet in faith,

We might know the transforming and surpassing power of your love.

 

And so I want to invite you in to a prayer with your whole body as we invest in the future God hopes for us:

Touch your forehead:

Put on the mind of Christ, a spirit of humility, encouragement, unity, and love.

Touch your ears:

That in the cries of the oppressed and grieving you may hear God calling you to another way.

Touch your eyes:

Darkened by tears, unable to see past privilege and power, blinded by hatred, that they may be brightened in the light of Christ.

Touch your lips:

Silenced by fear and the shock of news, that you might respond to the word of God and speak justice and truth in love.

Touch your heart:

Broken in pain and uncertainty, disappointment and grief, that Christ may dwell there by faith.

Touch your shoulder:

Weighted and heavy with sadness and sorrow, that your burden be eased in the gentle yoke of Jesus.

Touch your hands:

Wrung in anger and despair, that Christ may be known in the lives you touch.

Touch your feet:

That you may stand firm in faith and hope, and walk in the way of Christ.

( Liturgy of Lament for the Broken Body of Christ, adapted https://www.futurechurch.org/sites/default/files/Liturgy-plan.pdf)

Singing for Peace

As we continue to wait for the one who has already come, the birth of Christ into our world and our lives, we are so close we can almost taste it!

Maybe your lights are up and the tree is decked out.

Maybe there are already Christmas cookies sitting on the countertop and presents under the tree.

We are ready for the heavenly choirs of angels mingling with the shepherds in the fields.

We are ready for the moment the wise ones, led by celestial signs, lay eyes on the infant in the manger.

We are waiting in holy anticipation – not for experiences beyond this world, but ones that are embodied in things we can touch and feel, live and breathe.

We are getting ready for God to take on human flesh in our midst!

And boy, do we need it.

Maybe one of the reasons those little lights twinkling on my tree bring me so much comfort is that they are signs of light and life, hope and peace, in a world that is really struggling.

 

Last week, I lifted up so many places where violence has disrupted lives and this week, more cities, more lives are added to that list. San Bernadino, California. Savannah, Georgia.

If you count up all of the tragedies where four or more individuals were injured or killed in this year, there have been more mass shootings than days.

If you look at our own community, Des Moines has seen its 20th homicide this year – the highest number in 19 years.

 

On this Sunday, we are called to lift up the promise of peace as we light the Advent candles.

And peace is my prayer on this morning.

Peace is the deep yearning of my heart.

 

And this morning, we hear from Luke’s gospel songs of longing for peace.

 

Yes, songs.

 

As Magrey deVega reminds us in our Advent Study, if Mark’s version of the gospel is a Reader’s Digest, Matthew is like a Steven King novel, and John is like a Shakespeare play, then Luke is like a Broadway musical.

 

When his son, John is born, Zechariahs heart sings out: The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release; God shall fulfill the promise to bring our people peace! (UMH #209)

 

Elizabeth recognized that the child in her cousin’s womb was the longing of all Israel. She was absolutely overjoyed…. and in her joy and in Mary’s song they recognized deep in their hearts that the promise from Micah – the promise of the one of peace – was being fulfilled.

 

Our hearts in contrast… are jaded and worn and disappointed. And maybe that is because we are looking for peace in all the wrong places.

I remember quite clearly President Obama delivering a speech to the nation and an audience at West Point in 2009.

He had just been named the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and he was announcing a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan.

“I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace on with the other.”

The prophet Micah describes the Prince of Peace in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain themselves as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn. They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

 

There was no triumphant singing after Obama’s West Point speech… and while there may have been music in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies, Obama’s own speech tempered any bit of joy and celebration.

We keep looking to our national and world leaders to bring peace.

We keep waiting for the right legislation or diplomacy or defense policy to make us safe and quiet the world.

But they are not the ones we are waiting for.
We live in a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred. Whatever conflict we are experiencing… whether it is family trauma, violence in our neighborhoods, a civil war halfway across the world, it creates conflict internally.

In my own life, I am wrestling with the distractions of family conflict and must admit there are times it is all I think about.

I desire grace and healing to be experienced and yet I hold onto grudges and my own comfort with the status quo. These things are not compatible. They war within me.

And that internal conflict is magnified on the world stage.

Even as we seek peace, we send troops. Echoing out this week from Christian leaders were calls to sign the death warrants of our enemies and to seek out and destroy those who are against us. We demonize those who are different. We label those who have committed atrocities as outcasts and terrorists so we don’t have to recognize that they are human… just like us.

Yet, if we live in this way, will we ever experience healing or reconciliation? Will we ever know peace?

 

We come together as people of faith and we light the second candle on the advent wreath because we dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign.

We dare to hope that there will be day when nation will not rise up against nation.

We dare to hope that a day is coming when innocent lives are no longer taken by gun violence.

We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
And so we pray for peace.

The thing about prayer, though is that it is not a passive thing.

Prayer is an activity.

Prayer requires doing.

Richard Foster wrote:

“Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We believe that God is active in the world, bringing peace through us… just a Mary sang out that God was radically transforming the world through her.

As deVega writes in the third chapter:

The church can offer the very thing that would most remedy a world caught in an endless cycle of self-destructive behavior: a subversive, surprising song. A song whose lyrics speak of self-giving love rather than self-addicted agendas. A song whose sounds are counter waves to the thrum of war chants and the clanging of swords [or the sound of gunfire]. A song whose melody drives us upward towards holiness and purity, rather than into the darkest recesses of our sinful instincts. A sacred harmony that pulses with God’s unconditional love, calling us to forgiveness… the church has a song to perform, and we each have instruments to play.” (p. 60-61)

We each have instruments to play.

If we want to pray for peace, then we have to be peace in the world.

Robert Mann calls us to

“Be a reverse terrorist.

Plot. Plan. Scheme and launch random acts of love.

Incite it. Invite it. Ignite it.

Shake this world to its foundation.

And enjoy yourself in the process.”

That might be peace in the Middle East, or peace between you and your neighbors.

It might be peace among loved ones, or peace between you and your inner thoughts.

In this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and distress and we not only look for the coming of peace, but we live it.

We stand like Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant with the hope that God’s promises are real.

The reality we long for this and every Advent…

The miracle that we wait for this and every Christmas…

Is that we might wake up one morning and run outside to discover that God is with us – Emmanuel – and that the Prince of Peace rules the earth.

Until then… we pray and we sing and we live for peace.

 

 

**side note** this summer, I attended a concert with Reba at the Iowa State Fair.  She talked about how she had been wrestling with so much going on in the world and asked God what she could do and the answer came back… pray for peace… ***

 

Praying for Peace in Honor of our Veterans

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

 

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations… – President Woodrow Wilson

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; – U.S. Congress resolution recognizing the end of WWI. 

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. – John F. Kennedy

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

-This is My Song, stanzas by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness

Save Us!

Some of you sometimes ask what I like to do in my spare time and one of my favorite things to do is binge watching television.  I like all sorts of things, from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad, but I also have a healthy obsession with British television and sci-fi.  Both of which are perfectly satisfied by Doctor Who. About five years ago, I discovered Doctor Who and I think I’ve watched every episode of the newer material about three or four times.

So, what, you might be wondering, does Doctor Who have to do with Palm Sunday?

Well, this is a show about a time-traveling alien with twelve lives, but of all the places the Doctor could go in the world, Earth seems to be his favorite. One the one hand, he sees its vulnerability and innocence.  On the other, he praises humanity for their survivability and curiosity, their fortitude and spirit of exploration.  He wants to see them thrive.

In the series two premiere, Christmas has come, but chaos is reigning on our planet with a large alien war ship hovering over London.  The Sycorax have seized control of 1/3 of the population and Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?  Someone to save us?  Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?

 

When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them.  He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away.  He saved them from their current predicaments.  He was amazing.

And then, like any good Savior, he rides in on a donkey, the ancient world’s version of a white horse or a blue box to save the day and make everything better.

You see, that’s what the people thought Jesus was there to do.  He fufills the prophecy, as told in Zechariah 9: the symbolic triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem on a young donkey:

“Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Unlike conquering forces who rode in on war horses, this was the sign of a true king – the one who brings peace and hope to the people.

And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA!  Which means Save us!

Their lives are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.

He can heal them.

He can save them.

He is on their side.

HOSANNA!

 

Only, Jesus doesn’t save us in the way we expect.

 

They, and we, expect our hero to be a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone type hero: riding in to save the day, confident, untouchable, there is no question that they will triumph.

But Jesus appears more like Frodo Baggins: he seems to be facing an uphill battle, he is humble, at times during this holy week questioning his purpose, and yet always willing to sacrifice his own life for the purpose to which he was called.

In our Philippians reading this morning, that picture of a humble servant is painted for us. It has come to be known as the Christ Hymn – a song of praise for the one who gave everything up, the one who emptied himself of power and life rather than grasping at it for himself and for others.

Repeatedly, Jesus demonstrates humility.  He gave up his seat at the right hand of God to be born among us, an infant whose life was in danger from the very start.  He reached out to the hurting and sick and those imprisoned by sin.  He invited them to his table and was rejected for doing so. He touched the unclean and welcomed children onto his lap.

Jesus went to the underdogs of this world.  Those who don’t have power, money, or the system on their side, and he loved them.

 

If that was how he lived his life, I’m not sure why we expect the road to salvation will be different.

We want fireworks and trumpets and victory, but instead the path before us this week is marked by the cross.

Jesus will spend the coming week in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t leave victorious… he leaves carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save them and us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.

And so they stubbornly turn their backs on him.  Like children, they stomp their feet and pout: If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

 

christmas_invasion-1I find “The Christmas Invasion” episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  He stands up for earth and is willing to be their champion in an epic duel for the planet.  And although he defeats the Sycorax, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

And the Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.

He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.

He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.

He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, Harriet Jones signals for a weapon to be fired and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

 

We are not happy when things don’t go our way.  And when our “savior” comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence.  How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against.  How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.

 

Just five days after they shouted in the streets for Jesus to save them, the people reject Jesus, and shout for him to be crucified instead.

 

And as Paul writes in Philippians, Christ was obedient to God’s will, Jesus remained the humble servant, even when it meant death on the cross.

When we praise Jesus, it is not the triumphant entry, but the cross that truly shows us God’s glory. In giving up his power, in emptying himself, in this act of love, Jesus reveals what divine power is all about: non-abusive, patient, never grasping, “power… made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Today, we live on the other side of the cross.  We know the power of the resurrection.  We know that death was not defeat at all, and that Christ has not only risen from the dead but has been exalted on high.

The question is:  how do we live in light of that knowledge?

 

From a jail cell, Paul penned the “Christ Hymn” and encouraged the Philippians to embrace the power of Jesus… to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)

We are to let go of our power and live in obedience to God’s will.

Here at this church, we claim a particular vision:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

Our salvation demands that we live as Jesus lived.

And as we adopt the mind of Christ, our eyes are opened to those all around us who are in need of love, and service, and prayer.

We are called to love: we are called to go and stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are called to the dark and lonely corners of this community – to the people who have no one and to carry the love of Christ with us… even if it means putting our own lives on the line.

We are called to serve:  We are called to be in relationship with people and offer ourselves.  We are called to sacrifice time and energy and money to help our brothers and sisters.  And that service extends to more than just a handout… we are called to bow down in service and treat those with whom we minister as honored guests.

Finally, we are called to pray:  Sarah Coakley believes that to be in Christ, we need to practice prayer.  We need to “cease to set the agenda… [and] make space for God to be God.”  In doing so… in praying for our community and our world, we set aside what we think we are entitled to and instead ask for God’s will to be done.  We ask for God to give us the courage and strength to act on behalf of those who can’t.

 

Today, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.

He rides not on a war horse, but a humble donkey.

He rides not to conquer and destroy, but  to die for our sins and to set us free.

As one of my colleagues wrote this week:

We thought that we wanted a King.

We thought of all that he would bring.

Power and might and wealth and singing.

We thought we wanted a King.

Instead, we got everything. (Jessica Harren)

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the one who sets the prisoner free!

Blessed is the one who comes to save us!

Shake It Out… #gc2012

I’m not even sure there are words to describe the last 24 hours. 

My roommate and re-acquainted friend from our youth days, Jessica Ireland, was hit by a truck in an intersection last night.  She came out on the other side sore, scraped up, with deep scrapes on her foot that will take a while to heal… but with no broken bones.  She came back to the hotel late last night and some of us young adult delegates from Iowa kept her company with pizza and conversation and laughter until the wee hours of the morning.

With little sleep, but a heart full of gratitude that Jessica is okay… or at least will be with some time… we headed to conference.

Our agenda today dealt with sex, money, and power. Literally.

Human sexuality occupied most of our morning session… and I do mean most, because after we failed to pass legislation that claimed United Methodist people of faith disagree on the issue, a protest crossed the bar and occupied the space.  We were heading into the morning break, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.  Those of us who gathered shared communion because what else do you do when you feel so broken?  Where else do you turn? 

But as the conference returned from break, it became clear that those who were in the middle were not leaving.  I was back in my seat, but others refused to budge.  After the monitoring report in which our head of GCSRW took off her badge and prophetically helped us to see that all of us are children of God,  Bishop Coyner declared that the conference was unable to continue its business, he dismissed us for lunch (1.5 hours early), and declared that when we returned from lunch at 2pm that the plenary hall would be closed to all but delegates.

I’m going to just say it.  I am an ally of the GLBT community.  I have not always been a strong ally or advocate in the past because I feel it is my pastoral duty to care for all of my flock and to provide a safe space for people wherever they are and whatever they believe.  So, I’m not outspoken.  But my mother-in-law is a lesbian.  I have dear friends who are clergy and/or would like to be clergy who are out.  I have friends and mentors from my years in seminary and working at West End who are gay or lesbian or transgendered and have helped me to become a better Christian.  A good friend from my high school youth group came out to me as bisexual. I have congregation members who have GLBT sons or daughters or grandchildren or siblings. 

So as I watched my brothers and sisters in Christ in pain, I was heartbroken.  We had said once again that we can’t even agree to disagree about this issue. And I saw the faces of those I love and knew that I couldn’t stand by, I couldn’t leave the plenary space if they were there, singing their hearts out, around the communion table.  Not knowing if as a reserve delegate I would be allowed back in if I left for lunch, I sat in my chair and wept with friends.  I prayed with my Bishop. While I knew that I was not prepared or felt comfortable occupying the plenary space or facing potential arrest from the non-violent demonstration, I was determined not to be shut out of the room.  I prayed for a peaceful resolution for that moment… knowing that a peaceful resolution for our denomination would have to wait another four years or longer.

For three hours, those who were around the communion table sang and marched.  And as plenary gathered once again, it was announced all would be welcome back in the room.  And then our Bishops became our pastors.  They calmed our hearts.  They spoke peace.  It was not okay, and they spoke that truth.  Bishop Wenner said:  This General Conference and the polity of our church have hurt you.  She was real.  She was honest.  And we all listened.  And the protest ended and they marched out of the room holding one hand up in the sign of peace. 

Someone tweeted that nothing quiets a protest faster than a discussion of actuarial tables and within minutes, we were ankle deep in pension discussions. And then we talked about delegating the powers of general conference to another body and the petitions (amendments to the constitution) failed. And all day long, I kept looking for the voices of women and people of color and they were few and far between.  I’m not sure if we were tired or beat up or if we just couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but the entire afternoon felt very heavy…

When we came to worship this evening, we weren’t quite sure we wanted to worship.  We weren’t sure our hearts were in it.  But Marcia McFee did it again… the right words at the right time.  The right songs to stir our souls.  The right symbolic actions to bring us together as the body of Christ… and dear Lord, the right bishop to break open the word of God for us.  Bishop Kiesey’s words were like healing balm for my soul.  I was reminded that this work of two weeks is just that – long, hard, difficult work.  But it is not everything.  We are called to feed the lambs of God.  We are called to feed the sheep of Jesus’ flock.  And on Sunday I’m going home to be IN ministry.  To love the flock God has entrusted me with… to lead them… to feed them… to care for and cast nets wide in search of those people in my community who are desperate for God’s love.  None of this matters if we can’t leave this place and go and serve the ones Jesus loves.  That’s it.  Feed his sheep.  Simple. Succinct. So True.

As we closed, the Lake Junaluska Singers broke it down like no other.  A regular dance party broke out on the floor of general conference and we continued dancing until we had worked out all of the tension and stress and weariness of the day.   It was cleansing to let go.  It was holy to let the Spirit move us.  It was joy in the midst of suffering, kindom fellowship in the midst of the broken world. 

My friend, Sarah, told me tonight that there is a reason dancing is a part of a purging ritual in so many cultures.  We can’t carry that pain with us everywhere.  We have to shake it off.  We have to dance it out.  We have to let wild abandon come over us so that we can breathe deeply, replenish our souls, and start over again tomorrow.

Lord have mercy.