The Wealth in our Wallets instead of the Well-being of the World

This afternoon I watched the United States join two nations… Syria and Nicaragua… in being the only three nations in the entire world that are no longer signers of the Paris Climate Accord.

As I listened to the justifications, what I heard over and over again was the mention of a few economic sectors that will be impacted negatively and are disadvantaged because we are choosing to prioritize a different future for the world.  Our President spoke about a drastic and unfair “redistribution of wealth” through the International Green Fund and how instead we need to put America First. His focus is solely on the wealth and wallets of the few, instead of the well-being of the many.

Well, if we are really going to put Americans first, perhaps we should think about all of these ways that Americans will be impacted if we do not make drastic changes to halt climate change.  The link is the official report of the National Climate Assessment and includes data from thirteen different U.S. government agencies.  The impacts include health, agriculture, energy, coastal migration, extreme weather, and are broken down by sector, region, and show the risks if we do nothing.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the argument to withdraw is that we need to stop worrying about other people and focus only on ourselves and what is best for ourselves. And yet, as I understand the Christian faith and my calling to live our the love of Jesus Christ in the world, my duty is to love my neighbor and to set free the oppressed and to care more for the well-being of others than I do myself.  Even if we stick with the idea that we, as Americans, are leaders in protecting the environment, the thought that we can just take care of ourselves without helping to bring others along doesn’t even find a home in scripture.  For as Jesus teaches the disciples in the gospel of Luke, we have been given this world as a gift and we are called to be its stewards.  “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

In this chapter filled with parables, we are called to remember the worth of even the sparrows, to guard ourselves against all greed, to sell our possessions and give to those in need, and to make wallets that won’t wear out.  And then, ironically, Jesus lifts up the fact that the crowds “know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky” (12:56).  We know when its going to rain or when a heat wave is coming.  Except, it appears that our government can’t see the conditions on the earth and in the sky.  We refuse to acknowledge our impact on the world around us.  We are willing to put our own personal gain above the well-being of the world.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.” – Luke 12:34

Lord, have mercy on us.

The Hope of the World is Us

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The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.

Transferred into the Kingdom

Over the last two weeks in worship, we have talked extensively about how we should give thanks for one another…  

Because of our differences, we give thanks.

We gave thanks as we broke bread together.

We gave thanks around the waters of baptism.

We should give thanks always and everywhere for the people of this world who help us claim our inheritance, who help us overcome division, and who teach us how to practice what is true and holy, just and pure.  

 

Today, we explore one more of Paul’s letters.

Today, we are reminded to give thanks to God who is the reason we all share in the Kingdom.  

 

Let us pray:

 

This past week, the annual Bucksbaum Lecture at Drake University was given by Krista Tippet.  

Many of my Sunday mornings, as I drive in to church, I listen to her broadcast, “On Being,” and I listen as she asks people from all sorts of traditions and backgrounds what it means to be human.  

Recently, I picked up a copy of her book, “Becoming Wise,” and like she starts so many of her interviews, she starts by exploring her own background and faith tradition.  

 

One of the interesting things about Tippet’s story is that she served as an aide to the American ambassador in Germany while it was divided.  

She writes:

More riveting to me in the end than the politics of Berlin was the vast social experiment its division had become.  One people, one language and history and culture, were split into two radically opposing worldviews and realities, decades entrenched by the time I arrived.  I loved people on both sides of the Wall that wound through the heart of the city.

I keep thinking about the division of Berlin… the division of Germany after WWII… and the division of our own nation in this moment.

Especially in regards to our letter from Paul this morning.

 

As Paul writes to the Colossians, Gentiles who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey, he writes to encourage them in their faith… to help them grow into this new relationship they have found with Jesus.

And as Paul talks about the transition, the shift they have experienced in their life by accepting Jesus, he uses this really interesting phrase.  

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  (1:13)

Transferred us into the Kingdom.

As Neta Pringle describes this word – transferred, she writes that:

His image conjures up pictures of refugees, rounded up after battle and taken to the victor’s land, of Israelites marched far from home to live in Babylon – a kingdom so different, so far from home in both geography and style.  Here the rules are different, the ruler is different.  All assumptions about the way in which life goes on – indeed about its very meaning- are different. (Feasting on the Word)

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like those who found themselves on the eastern side of the wall in Berlin suddenly found themselves living in a different country, under different rules.  

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like after an election a nation wakes up to a world where different people are in charge and different priorities come to the front.  

You don’t always have to physically shift your location to feel like the world has changed all around you.  For better or for worse. 

 

Except, Paul is not writing here about a temporary shift in power that comes and goes with various political leaders and world events.

Paul is writing about a cosmic shift…

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  

And not just the people of Paul’s day and time.  Not just the Colossians, or the Ephesians, the Philippians, or the Romans.  

All of us.

We have been rescued from the powers of evil, sin, and death.   

We all have been transferred into the kingdom of forgiveness, redemption, and life.  

Thanks be to God.

 

Today in worship, we celebrate that Christ is King.  That he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. 

We celebrate that through his death on the cross, the blood of Jesus rescued humanity from its captivity to the powers of this world.

In the cross, in the resurrection, Jesus declared victory over the powers over evil, injustice, and oppression.

And friends, in that great and glorious act, we have been transferred into God’s kingdom.  

We have been transferred into the Rule and the Reign of God.

We are no longer merely citizens of this place, of Iowa, of the United States… Jesus is Lord.

Thanks be to God!

 

To emphasize this new reality, Paul continues his letter by breaking out into song.  

While we don’t know the melody, while it isn’t a familiar tune to our ears, these lyrics in Paul’s letter would have been as familiar to the Colossians as Amazing Grace is to us. 

They might have even started singing along.

 

And this song reminds the people in familiar words that when we look at Jesus, we see God.

They remind the people that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were made.

They remind these new citizens of God’s kingdom that everything… every nation, every King or President, every Prime Minister or Governor, every Mayor and every Councilperson… everything is from God and finds purpose in God.  

From the clouds in the sky to the microorganisms in the dirt beneath our feet, God in Christ holds everything together.  

And Jesus is in charge of it all.  

From beginning to end, Alpha and Omega, this kingdom will never end.  

Thanks be to God!

 

And like any change in leadership… whether temporal or heavenly… the rules under which we live change a bit.

So this letter to the Colossians is a reminder that them and us that we are called to grow in love and faith.

Paul encourages us to bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God.

And we are reminded that just because Christ has already won, does not mean that evil death and sin are forever gone.  Paul’s letter, in fact, is full of the reminder that we will be made strong in Christ and is meant to help us endure with patience the trials and tribulations that will come.  

That is why when we gather around the baptismal font and we welcome new ones into our midst we make these familiar pledges:

We pledge to renounce the spiritual forced of wickedness and evil powers of this world.

We repent of our sin.

We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.

And we must hold one another accountable to the rules of God’s kingdom.  

All because we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior.

All because we promise to serve him as our Lord.

 

When Krista Tippett talks about life in Berlin, she also talks about the day the wall came down.  It was her twenty-ninth birthday.  

She writes that “no one imagined that it could fall or the Iron Curtain crumble…. The wall finally collapsed with a whimper, not a bang, as fear lifted all at once from an entire nation.  I had walked through Checkpoint Charlie hundreds of times, respecting its absurdity as authority.  On the night the Wall fell… the entire city walked joyfully through it.  The border guards joined them. It was truly nearly that simple.”  

 

While we live under the rule and the reign of Jesus Christ, we work and pray for the day when all people will joyfully walk through the walls of division and hatred.  

We work and pray for the day when fear is lifted for all people.  

We work and pray for the moment when the powers of this world that keep us apart let go of their last grasp upon our hearts and we are finally free to simply be in Christ.  

And until then… we live as people who see all things and all people in their true light… as the ones who already belong to Jesus.  

Thanks be to God. 

Practice These Things…

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Last week, we broke bread in spite of our differences.

We shared at the table of the Lord with people who would vote differently than us and with some who would not or could not vote at all.

And we touched [will touch] the waters of baptism and remember our baptism in Christ and that we are all children of God.

And we did so because our heritage… our inheritance as a church… our tradition as people of God… is to overcome any division among us.

Paul exemplified this in the way he gave thanks for the Gentiles in Ephesus… in spite of the vast sea of differences between them.

 

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is writing to a different community… to the people of Philippi in Greece.

This, too, was a diverse community, and one of the interesting features is that there were many descendants of Roman army veterans living there.

 

Later on this morning, we will share together in a potluck meal and celebrate and honor our veterans… all of those who have faithfully served our country, who sacrificed in countless ways for us.  Every step of the way, they put the rights, the lives, the needs of other people above their own.

 

I believe that self-giving spirit… that spirit of love that would cause someone to lay down their life for another person… is part of what has made our country great.  We don’t sit back when people are in need, but we show up.  We have showed up to fight back tyrants and dictators, oppression and evil… and not always because it was on our doorstep, but because it was on the doorsteps of others.

 

All throughout the letter to the Philippians, you can see that kind of self-giving spirit we honor in our veterans.  Practice these things… practice that holy, radical, sacrificial love… Paul writes.

And yet, the context of Philippi was very different.  This was the site, if you appreciate history, where Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated by the armies of Marc Antony.  And much of the land was taken away from the original inhabitants and given to the soldiers and their families as a reward.

 

This was a place of division, dislocation, and disparity and the gospel of Jesus Christ took root in the people who were the most vulnerable in this community.

For some, everything had been taken away from them:  their citizenship, their land… everything that made them who they were.

Until they found their identity in Christ.

And as Paul writes this letter of encouragement to these displaced people, that identity, that love, that faith is what he reminds them of over and over again.

 

In chapter 3 he writes:  “All these things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.  But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

These are not empty words of someone who had privilege… as Paul was.  As a Roman citizen, he had rights that many of them had just recently lost and this might have felt like salt thrown onto open wounds…

Except, Paul really did let go of all of his power and privilege for the sake of the gospel.

This letter is being written from a jail cell – because Paul is awaiting trial for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

He is living out with his very life every word he writes on the page… including the call to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Practice these things…

In every part of this letter, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to put others ahead of themselves.  To love fiercely, in spite of what might happen.  To overcome conflict and difference, anger and fear.

 

And friends, that’s not easy.

When there are deep divisions in a community it is easy to hunker down with people who are like-minded, to grumble and argue, to weep and be overcome with discouragement or to hold our victories over one another.

But Paul tells us to be grateful.

Paul tells us to rejoice.

Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.

The key to unity we heard last week… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”  (2:2-4)

And in our scripture this morning, from the Message translation:

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. (4:4-5)

 

Friends, I need you to know that there is real pain and fear across this nation right now.

There have been acts of hate and violence and aggression in our communities and neighborhoods.  And in this neighborhood, there are families who fear they will be separated and there are people who have been targeted because of their gender, or sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity, or even because of the clothes they are wearing.  I cannot and will not utter the hateful and horrendous words that have been used to diminish the value of our neighbors.

There have also been acts of violence as a part of generally peaceful protests and marches.

 

So I need you to know that I am not calling for a unity that blissfully ignores conflict.

Paul is not calling for a unity that ignores the trials and tribulations of our brothers and sisters and siblings OR neglects truth-telling and accountability.

Paul is in prison because he refused to be silent… because he challenged the powers-that-be with the radical love and gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

No, the type of unity Paul speaks of is a unity of resistance against the forces of this world that seek death, division, oppression, and hatred.

Paul calls us to “be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt.  Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.”   (2:15-16)

Stand firm in your faith, in spite of your enemies.

Be united in love and compassion.

Be united against injustice.

Be united against hateful rhetoric.

Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.

Put into practice all that we have learned from Paul – and won’t worry about it, don’t be paralyzed by fear, but lift up petitions and supplications and praises to God.

As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… (4:8)

So let me close by telling you a story… a first-hand account from a Muslim woman:

Yesterday my husband and I attended a football game, it was Duhur time and we needed to pray.

Finding a place to pray at a football stadium is tough, but we managed to find an empty corner.

I was a bit nervous to pray because it wasn’t private at all, particularly in front of everyone, maybe i’m silly but i’m always paranoid i will get attacked while focused in prayer. My husband started praying and i get approached by stadium security.

I thought in my head, here comes this guy, he’s gonna escort me out and tell us we can’t do this here.

I was wrong…

he came up to me and said “i am going to stand here and guard you guys to make sure nobody gives you any problems, go ahead and pray.”

He allowed us to pray and stood in front guarding us to make sure we are safe. When i finished he came up to us shook our hands and told us to enjoy the game.

The key to unity… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

The key to unity is to listen with grateful ears the stories of another person… even if it is a story of hurt and fear and pain… it is holding open spaces for people when they are scared… standing by their side when they are in pain.

The key to unity is to seek out someone who is different from you and to tell your story – even if it causes conflict BECAUSE we are grateful they are part of our community and because we want to continue to be in relationship with them.

The key to unity is to practice what is good and true and holy… putting others before yourself and giving thanks to God that they are in your life…

May it be so.

 

 

The Electoral College… a view from 17 year old me.

My husband and I were talking about the electoral college and our shared frustrations about it.  I’ve felt this way for a very very long time.  The following is a letter I sent to Senator Grassley in the spring of 1999… and I still had a copy of it saved on my computer!  That summer I would gain the right to vote.  That fall, I would cast my vote for George W. Bush, who won the election not because he won the popular vote, but because he won the electoral college.  Even having had my candidate succeed, I still disagreed with how it came to happen.  And I felt that way as a resident of a “sparsely populated state.”  I’m in a different place today than I was then and support different political perspectives… and can’t help but call back to this letter when, yet again, a candidate has lost the popular vote, but won the electoral college. 

March 21, 1999

 

Dear Senator Grassley,

In the fall of 2000, millions of Americans across the nation will be going to the polls to cast their vote for the next President. I am lucky enough to be one of those individuals who will be voting for the first time. Nothing excites me more than the opportunity to participate in one of the most essential elements in a democracy… the right to vote. I have already begun looking at candidates and deciding which one I think best represents my opinions and moral views. Just when I was getting into it, I realized I was wrong. I will not be voting for a President on November 7, 2000. Rather, I will be voting for a list of citizens who have ‘dedicated’ themselves to a particular candidate or party.  I will be voting for electors in the Electoral College.

I had always believed that living in a democracy we should all have the right to vote, and that we should all be represented equally. I was extremely disappointed when I realized that this is not so. “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address… can only mean one thing- one person, one vote” (Braun and Longley 15). This statement, made in the Gray vs. Sanders case, was what I had always envisioned democracy to be. One person, one vote. After all, we are a government of, by, and for the people. Why is it then that we must have this intermediate stage of the Electoral College? Not only is this process outdated but the small states actually have an advantage in many situations. Another aspect, called the unit system, is unrepresentative of the people’s vote. The current way that we elect our Presidents needs to be reformed or abolished.

The Electoral College was “merely a jerry-rigged improvisation…” says John P. Roche (qt. in Braun and Longley 22). It was the second choice to many from its creation. Some believed that Congress should elect the President and some thought that the direct vote of the people was the right way (Peirce 41). Nevertheless, at that time, the people of the United States were spread out and did not have means of communication. In fact, the candidates could not campaign because it would have taken years to inform the country about their stance, therefore, citizens were incompetent to elect a President. This was the reason that in that time, the elector system seemed to be the best plan. In today’s technological world, information travels around the world instantaneously and we are competent to make our own decisions. “What really moved the delegates to accept [it]… were certain practical considerations dictated not by political ideals but by the social realities of the time- realities that no longer exist” (Braun 25).

One of the biggest compromises in the Electoral College was over the populated states vs. sparse states controversy. The following are three ways in which the sparse states have gained not only equal footing, but also an advantage over populated states. In the original plan, formed by members of a special committee, the states would receive electors according to the number of representatives from both the House and the Senate. This benefited the sparse states because whereas Vermont would have had a 1:4 ratio vote with West Virginia based on population alone, the addition of the two votes made the ratio 3:6, or 1:2. Also, the national average for people per electoral vote is 333,314; however, some less populated states like Alaska and South Dakota have 75,389 and 170,129 respectively. Meanwhile, Kentucky and California are getting the short end of the stick because they have 337,573 and 392,930 respectively (Peirce 263).

Another aspect that the committee decided on was what to do if there was not a majority of votes for any given candidate. They concluded that the House of Representatives would decide the President. To protect the sparse states, each state only had one vote, regardless of population. Then they were on equal footing with the populated states and could not be outvoted.

One of the major concerns of sparse states is that if the Electoral College is changed, they will lose some of their edge and will not have any say in who gets to be President. The twelve largest states could indeed vote and take the election, but all of those states would have to agree unanimously with each other for that to happen. In the history of the United States, there has never been an instance where all of the sparse states were overruled by the populated states. No clear set of different interests has been shown in relation to size. Most of the disagreements are over ideas, economics, and regional issues. One politician has called it the “Great Irrelevancy” (Peirce 262). The truth of the matter is that if we did not have the Electoral College system, we would not even have to worry about what state a person was from. It would be one person, one vote.

One of the most undemocratic aspects of the entire Electoral College is the unit voting system. All of the states except for Maine are currently running under a system that gives all of the state’s electoral votes to the candidate with the state’s majority and none to any of the other candidates. In the 1960 election, Kennedy and Nixon won the two states of New York (45 votes) and California (32 votes) respectively. Although both of these individuals had nearly the same percentage in each state, Kennedy had a larger lead with seven votes, simply because he won the larger state (Peirce 138).

Candidates can easily gain votes by trying to look appealing to a certain group of people: a minority, special interest, or lobbyist group. These organized groups have immense bargaining power, especially in those large states with so many electoral votes at risk. They can dominate presidential campaigns, and invite fraud, corruption, illegal fundraising and such tactics to come into our governmental system (Peirce 152).

Another thing that the Electoral College unit system does is discourage voters from going to the polls. In “safe states” or states where there is an overwhelming majority of a party, either democratic or republican, why would someone want to vote? All of the votes of his state are going to the candidate anyway, so why vote? Furthermore, the party that is in the minority may not feel the need to vote because their votes will not count in the Electoral College. They will end up adding votes to the candidate they were voting against (Politics 94). In fact, from 1908-1945, 372 million votes were cast for presidential candidates. Forty-four percent of those votes, or 163 million, were minority votes that did not count (Peirce 138).

The unit system was added to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, but 13 states asked the Supreme Court to look over this system again and require the states to split their electoral votes to reflect the population (Peirce 190). According to this plan, the votes would be divided in each state according to the popular vote (Braun 49). It is an easily comprehendible solution, and at least two parties are encouraged in each state because the votes for minor parties are reflected. In addition, there would be less fraud because you would limit the power of organized minorities or interest groups (Braun 54). However, if we are going to change it this much, why not change it all the way?

The current way that we elect our Presidents needs to be reformed or abolished. Some will say, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” What they do not see is the imminent danger that occurs when there is a close election, like in 1992 where there were three major candidates (Carey). In the elections where a candidate had a 3% or less advantage on the opponent, 30% of the time, he was not elected. According to some experts, there is no better than a 50/50 chance that the President will be the candidate who won the popular vote (Goldstein 34). This is all due to the Electoral College. It was created as a compromise, but is now outdated. The sparse states are given too much power, when we should all be equal. The way that the electoral votes are given to the candidate is unrepresentative of the people in each state. Is this a system that you are willing to allow continue? Am I supposed to just sit back and let others decide for me, or will I actually be able to choose who the next President is? I urge you to bring this to the attention of others. It’s time for a change. It’s time to let the people vote.

 

Sincerely,

Katie Ziskovsky

Claiming Our Inheritance

When I came home from our United Methodist General Conference in May, I shared with you these words:

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

I went on talk about why that was:  how the source of dilemma lies in being a global church, in the way we make decisions, and the reality that we can’t agree on some fundamental basics of what it means to be church together, like what we mean by covenant or how we interpret scriptures.

 

This month, our bishops have not only announced the members of a special commission who will help us find a way forward, but they have also announced their intent to call a special session of General Conference in 2019… one year earlier than we would typically meet.  The purpose will be to allow this commission to do their work and then the delegates of our last general conference will gather back together solely for the purpose of discussing and voting on their recommendations.  Many imagine that if we cannot agree to a way to hold our differences in creative tension that our church will split at that time. 

 

For the last few months, there has been a tension in my shoulders that I can’t quite shake. 

I’m worried.

I’m worried for my country.

I’m worried for the United Methodist Church.

I’m worried for this church.

 

And the root of that worry is less about who wins on Tuesday or what kind of church we will be on the other side of 2019 or how many people stayed home from worship last weekend…

I worry about how we treat one another and whether or not we see the person sitting across from us as a person of inherent worth and dignity… and that we seem unable to set aside our thoughts and opinions for long enough to actually listen to the truth of another person.

I think the antidote to the worry we collectively are bearing might be found in our scripture this morning.  

 

One of the radical messages of Ephesians that is lost to modern readers of the scriptures is the fact that Paul reaches out and give thanks for people who are outside of his faith.

Historically, the early church experienced great tensions between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ.  They had different backgrounds, different traditions and practices, and yet all claimed to have accepted the good news of God.  There was infighting and arguments about who had to give up what part of their heritage in order to be part of the community.

And so when Paul, a Jewish scholar and leader of the church, writes to this Gentile community at Ephesus, it is remarkable that one of the first things he does is emphasize unity.

We have obtained an inheritance”, Paul writes.

And then he goes a step farther… “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul specifically reaches out to people who are very different from him… people he has never even met before… and tells them that he is grateful for them.

This letter to the Ephesians is fundamentally about unity. 

That is our glorious inheritance.

Unity with God in Jesus Christ.

Unity with the saints who have gone before us.

And unity with one another in this present moment. 

And as Paul teaches us in these first few verses that you can’t have unity without gratitude. 

 

As we light candles to remember the saints, we are reminded that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we remain connected and unified with all of those saints who have gone before us… and with all who will come after us. 

As we break bread, we sing and feast with the saints.  This meal is an act of unity. This meal and the hope it instills in our souls is our inheritance. 

And as we remember, we give thanks for eight people from our congregation who died this past year:  for Lois.  Becky.  Viola.  Ruth.  Gary.  Mildred.  Sharon.  Marcia.   Thank you, God.   

But we also give thanks for the many people, friends and family, who have gone before us. 

We give thanks for all of the saints who shaped our lives. 

And we give thanks for the multitudes of saints and the historic church that is our foundation.  When it feels like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders and that the church will live or die based upon our decisions, it is good to remember that God’s church has been around for two thousand years.  It is built upon the prophets and the apostles.  The church is far bigger than this congregation or even this denomination.  And for that I give thanks…

And I also pray that we might claim this inheritance and that somehow we might be part of passing along this faith to generations yet to come. 

 

Sarah Birmingham Drummond reminds us that the unity we experience is not only across time and generations, but also for this present moment. “Paul’s message of unity was radical in its day, as it suggest unity across divisions that were woven into the fabric of daily life.  This suggests that the early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.”

Let me repeat that. 

The early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.

After all, Paul was reaching out to people he didn’t have a whole lot in common with to give thanks.   His letter reminded not only them, but also himself, of the unity of Christ that brings all of us together. 

That is our inheritance, too.

 

Today, we will break bread not only with the saints, but also with people who will vote differently than us on Tuesday. 

We worship every Sunday morning with people of different ages. 

We worship with people who prefer different types of music. 

We worship with early risers and people who long to sleep in on Sundays.

Yet overcoming division is part of our mandate as people of faith.

Being a people who overcome difference in order to be in community… that is our inheritance. 

That is the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.

 

No matter what happens on Tuesday. 

No matter what happens in 2019 with our denomination.

No matter what tension we feel as a result of our worship times or classes or studies.

Our responsibility is to look around this room and to give thanks for each soul and get busy making a difference in this world.

That is the inheritance we can claim, right here and right now. 

 

And we do so… we claim the inheritance of Jesus Christ across generations and across divisions because we believe that God’s mission is built upon a church united to transform this world. 

Because we believe that God needs all of us… past, present, and future, to bring healing and hope to a broken people. 

Because our differences are small when compared to the call God has upon our lives to claim our inheritance. 

Because we believe in the immeasurable greatness of God’s power to truly make a difference… right here and right now.