“I Got Your Back,” – God

 

Isaiah 58:6-12 Common English Bible (CEB)

Isn’t this the fast I choose:

releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,

setting free the mistreated,

and breaking every yoke?

Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry

and bringing the homeless poor into your house,

covering the naked when you see them,

and not hiding from your own family?

Then your light will break out like the dawn,

and you will be healed quickly.

Your own righteousness will walk before you,

and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;

10 

if you open your heart to the hungry,

and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,

your light will shine in the darkness,

and your gloom will be like the noon.

11 

The Lord will guide you continually

and provide for you, even in parched places.

He will rescue your bones.

You will be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water that won’t run dry.

12 

They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;

the foundations of generations past you will restore.

You will be called Mender of Broken (BRIDGES)Walls,

Restorer of Livable Streets.

 

The people of Israel in our scripture today have returned home, to find that it is hard to build community.  They were conquered and exiled to Babylon, and then finally allowed to return after generations.  However, their best and brightest did not all come with them.  They have lost what they see as their core values.  Their temple, their central place for the holy, is gone.  Nothing seems to be going right for them.  They have experienced an unbelievable drought for both their crops and perhaps their conscious, and as usual an intense battle for survival is bringing out the worst qualities in them.

 

The prophet writes to remind people that through the worst of times, God is with them.  Through the chaos and the misgivings of neighborly feuds, that God is inviting them to mend bridges, and make the streets livable again.  God is reminding them that they can be the light of the world by working together.

 

There is a young woman who is 30 years’ old and has won prestigious awards in genomics.  She uses molecular biology to map genes and studies how human genetics make us susceptible to infections.  The awards she has won have provided her enough money to pay her salary for her upcoming post-doctoral work at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  She was ready to come to the United States to do this important work, until she was stopped last week while boarding her flight to Boston.

 

This young woman sold her belongings, let her apartment go, and then was told she will be unable to begin her work, work that could help millions of people.  She was stopped because of the recent immigration order signed into effect and stopped because her name sounds a certain way, Samira Asgari, and because she was born in Iran.

 

The order that stopped Samira has been blocked by a federal judge in Seattle, but I wonder if we have already begun to tear down bridges and build walls.  Last week Samira share these words,

 

“I feel like I was believing in an image, all these stories of people who are second- and third-generation immigrants. They all help you build this image of a hospitable country. That image got unsettled.

 

All the Americans I’ve met, they’ve been extremely nice, very collaborative, very helpful. I believe most Americans are like that. I have no reason to believe otherwise…I had this image of America as a country that is free and that has a history of fighting discrimination and fighting biases. Now it’s like going a step back.”[1]

 

The people in the time of the prophet Isaiah were convinced that all of their problems were happening because they had failed to reconstruct their temple.  It was believed because they had not rebuilt their temple to its former glory, they were somehow not worthy of God’s favor.  This anxiety led the people to not trust each other, and to bicker and fight.  I would risk saying that the people of ancient Israel also blamed people who had moved onto their ancestral home land for their predicament too.

 

We as humans tend to scapegoat groups of people when it seems our world is not giving us what we need.  There are numerous accounts of this in the Old Testament, and you can find it throughout American history.  We have seen one group of immigrants or minorities persecuted after another: African Americans, Irish Catholics, Jews, Mexican Americans, Latinos, LGBTQI, and more.  Our political environment as of late seems to be whipping our country into a fervor to victimize yet another group.  This week I have sat with people whose fear of becoming the next persecuted group is very real.

 

Last Tuesday I was not stopped while boarding my flight to Phoenix, and last Sunday I had the opportunity to worship in a church whose description sounds like the daydream of someone who fell asleep during a boring sermon.  I attended a progressive Evangelical church, with a pastor educated at United Methodist Seminary, and they met in a trampoline park.  Before you get jealous of their trampolines, they don’t use them during worship.  I drove up to this storefront church in Chandler, Arizona got, out of my car and not 10 seconds later they were showing me around their church.  What an amazing group of people excited to share message of how Jesus loves everyone exactly as they are.

 

Preaching at that church was one of my favorite Christian authors, Brian McClaren, who shared this story:

 

It was after September 11th and Brian got what he calls a “nudge from God” that said, “Your neighbors are in danger, reach out.”  Brian listened to that idea, wrote a letter, made copies and delivered them to the local Mosques in his community.  The letters said, “We are a Christian Church in your community and we support you.  If you need any support, of any kind, please let us know.”

 

Brian wanted to deliver the messages by hand, so he took a day to drive to stop by all the Mosques.  Most of the mosques were locked up tight and Brian had to slip the letters in mailboxes or under heavy metal doors.  As he approached one mosque he saw a TV truck, one with a big satellite dish drive out of the sliding metal gate that surrounded the building.  Brian slammed on the accelerator, which was less than dramatic in his Prius, and went flying in the gate before it closed.  An Imam came running toward his car screaming and waving his arms, and Brian slammed on the brakes and got out of his car.

 

The Imam was still waving his arms as Brian walked up to the man apologizing profusely.  Brian explained he was a pastor of a local church and wanted to share a letter with the Imam, and handed the Imam the letter.  The Imam took the letter, and read it.  Then looked up at Brian, and down at the letter.  Then wrapped his arms around Brian and hugged him.

 

The Imam explained that the TV truck that had just left, was there to interview him because a woman who was a part of his mosque had just been assaulted and harassed.  The Imam was wondering if anyone in his neighborhood actually cared about him or his people.  The Imam and Brian became close friends after this.  And Brian shared that while his church wasn’t sure what to do with an Imam coming to visit Brian on a regular basis, they sure did learn to love the Pakistani food their friends from the mosque would bring to them.

 

Brian wrapped up his sermon with a scripture written by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:

Common English Bible (CEB)

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

 

As I was driving away from the service, I flipped on the St. Paul’s livestream and heard Marianne say, “Never read Paul without having a Peanut’s Cartoon right after it.”  All, I could think of was the image of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, and the phrase, “Do not be conformed by this world.”

 

So friends,

Do not be conformed by the fear of this world,

Do not be conformed by those who build walls instead of bridges.

God is saying, “I got your back,”

God is with us,

and we have got to have each other’s and most of all our neighbors backs.

 

Be there for your neighbor this week, reach out and do what you can to support your distant neighbor this week, and remember God’s love will never leave your side.

 

Amen

[1] http://www.vox.com/2017/1/28/14426586/iranian-researcher-barred-us

 

Link to audio:

http://www.stpaulshelena.org/sermons-2/i-got-your-back-God

Hidden Gifts

 

Prayer

God, let us learn how to act to change the world through your love. Help us to see the ways in which your love invites us to be transformed, and in that love let us use our gifts to help transform the world.

 

Amen

 

Today’s reflection begins with some of the words Martin Luther King Jr. shared over 50 years ago in Washington D.C. These words are taught in our schools, and have been adopted as a part of the American legacy, they are words built upon the gospel’s hope for a beloved community, and they call to us still. I invite you to listen to these words with new ears as we reflect on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

 

(MOVIE) –

http://www.saltproject.org/christian-video-resources-for-small-groups/i-have-a-dream

 

 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

 

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”[1]

 

 

“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is a song that brings back images of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Song was an incredibly important component of sharing “the dream” of a truly free and diverse nation. Songs were used to calm the nerves of those who were marching without weapons in peaceful protest, so when the violence started they could remain calm. Song was used to draw the community of people together for strength as they faced great fear. Song is one of the amazing communication tools we have where every voice, every person added makes the song more complete. Each voice added to the “dream” Dr. King share with us is a blessing and it is part of what the Gospels share as the beloved community.   The beloved community is all people sharing their God given gifts, the gifts hidden by society and by discrimination. Today we will hear in the Corinthians passage that we all have these gifts to be shared.

 

1 Corinthians 12:1-11Common English Bible (CEB)

12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

 

Other songs were powerful during the public acts for equality in the 1960s. Two that we continue to teach our children are “Come by Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Often we don’t give these songs much credence as songs of power, but to the people marching with Dr. King these songs gave peace in the face of danger, and hope to stay non-violent in the face of fierce opposition. These songs were songs of power and bravery that the many different voices joining together might overcome the hatred and bigoted violence coming toward the people of peace and justice.

 

In a New York Times article in 2010 the history of the song, “Come by Here,” was shared to help point us back to the amazing history it had as a song of bravery.[2] “Come by Here” or as many know “Kumbaya” was a song created in the deep south under among slaves and former slaves. It actually was never called Kumbaya and most likely got that name because people couldn’t quite understand the beautiful speech of the people singing it. This song with a humble root would grow to become a spirited part of the movement of Dr. King and other brave leaders.

 

In today’s political rhetoric, “Come By Here” is mocked and teased as a song and term of weakly seeking compromise. The same New York Time’s article stated:

In the civil rights era, “Come By Here” was a call to action. In the cynical present, essentially the same song has become a disparagement of action.[3]

Politicians have continually used the rhetoric that compromise, working together is weakness. Some have literally used “Kumbaya” as a demeaning term for those who are weak.

 

I too have mocked this song with others, as we hold hands and joke that this will be a “Kumbaya” moment. In doing this I fear I have made light of the work of Jesus’ message of bringing people into community, and also teased the work of brave souls who came before me as people of weakness. Perhaps on this Sunday we should reconsider the power of “Come by Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

 

1964 was the suFBI_Poster_of_Missing_Civil_Rights_Workersmmer the civil rights act passed and in that same summer that a group of students and civil right leaders from all over the United States went to Mississippi to work hard to get people, especially Black Americans, signed up to vote. During this work James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered to be missing. Later it was discovered that they were lynched by a mob, and some were members of the KKK. When the group doing the work of training people to go out and help register people to vote learned the three young men were missing he called the group together. This story was re-told by Martin King Luther Jr.’s speechwriter and friend Vincent Harding in interview with Krista Tippett.[4] He said something happened during that gathering that turned him from ever making fun of the song “Come by Here” again.

 

As the leaders of the movement to create equality and register people to vote in Mississippi called all of the people together, it was clear that there was struggle and concern about the friends who had gone missing. They had no idea what had happened, but they and the country feared the worst. Vincent Harding tells that one of the leaders of the movement told everyone to go and consider if they wanted to continue. No one would think less of them for going. He asked them to take some time to make their decisions.

 

As the people gathered to discuss their choices groups of people started breaking out in song:

 

“Come by here my lord, come by here, come by here my lord, come by here.   Someone’s missing lord come by here. Oh lord, come by here.”

 

No one left, they all stayed and the song of bravery was one of the reasons. They stayed put and became another signpost for us of the bravery of the coming together it takes to change the world. They joined each others voices and shared their gifts, because those missing could not.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to courage, compassion and creativity to overcome the oppression and division that existed among us. Joining voices helps and continues to help us to do that. King’s vision of a stronger America is still not come to pass. This past year of violence, riots, and stories about the aversive discrimination that exists in our country continues to show us that the nightmare is not over, that Jesus’ vision of a beloved community has not come to pass. And I can assure you that many of us don’t know what to do to help continue the dream.

 

Vincent Harding tells one other story of a young man named Darryl. Darryl is was a young man that Dr. Harding met on a couch in an apartment of a friend. Darryl told Dr. Harding the thing people need today to help challenge systems of discrimination, to live more into the dream is “signposts.” These “signposts” are the things young children need to hear to know they can be more than just a part of a system of birth, work, and death. These are stories like “Come by Here” from the Mississippi Summer. Dr. Harding soon learned that the man sitting next to him on the couch was a drug dealer for his neighborhood, but even he knew the world and what he did was not ideal. Darryl knew that what people needed were “signposts.”

 

That is why we keep telling the story of Dr. King, of Vincent Harding, of Rosa Parks, and others who have gone before us. This is why we keep singing and teaching “Come By Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.” We tell and we teach because generations now and in the future need to hope and reach for something greater. They need to reach for a community where all people can share their God given gifts, and no one will be judged by the color of their skin, but instead by the content of their character.

 

We need to know we are loved as we help create this community, because there will be hard days. We need to know our light still shines and that God will come by here as we continue to dream of a beloved community. We need to keep singing these songs in the face of feeling silly or as if compromise does not truly change the world. Working together with our brothers and sisters, inviting peaceful solutions, and seeking true justice is our calling as people loved by God and lead by Christ. Singing proudly the songs of the civil rights movement is one of the ways we continue to be signposts of bravery and courage for the dream. At the very least as people of Christ we need to point to signposts of love, so that people can hope for a better future where all voices are heard.

 

Go today, be a signpost, or a person pointing to a signpost of hope. Know that God needs all of our voices to accomplish this dream. May we sing proudly about our little light, and invite God to come by here, so we live to sing about a “sweet land of liberty.”

 

Amen

 

[1] Quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm. Accessed January 15, 2016.

 

 

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/us/20religion.html?_r=1

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/us/20religion.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.onbeing.org/program/civility-history-and-hope/79

Are you here yet?

         2 Peter 3:8-15    December 7, 2014

As a parent driving down the road on car trips there is nothing more annoying than those faithful words, “Are we there yet?” The words that echo from the backseat as if it were the Grand Canyon absorbing a choir yelling “Are we there yet?” This faithful call from the backseat of the car is trying to figure out when the next step of the trip will come. It is frustrating because in the front seat we know that “we will get there when we get there.”

 

As a teenager I had the opportunity through the church to travel throughout Montana and Wyoming for youth events. My friends and I were from all different parts of Montana and Wyoming, so we would only see each other at these meetings. That meant that along with the work we had to accomplish each day that sometimes we would stay up all night talking and enjoying each others company.

 

As soon as one of us would mention the need to sleep in order to drive home one friend would say, “Oh come on, Jesus is my co-pilot.”

 

Our scripture today comes from 2 Peter and it is a message to the Christian people in the early 2nd century. For many early Christians the second coming of Jesus was supposed to happen quickly and Jesus was to replace Rome and bring in the New Kingdom of peace with justice. However, this had not happened in the way they had all imagined. People were beginning to struggle and question if it would ever really happen. 2 Peter is a response to this struggle and I invite us to all listen to the words that brought comfort to Christians of the 2nd Century.

 

2 Peter 3:8-15   Common English Bible (CEB)

 

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

 

One line in our scripture reads, “You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God.” For many Christians I believe we have often focused on the “hastening” and less on the “waiting” end of that verse. As if we are the kids in the backseat of the car yelling “God are we there yet?” or “God are you here yet?” There are consistently groups of Christians trying to find ways to excite people that the end is near; the world is about to be overturned by God. It happened at the turn of the 20th century, the turn of the 21st century, and even when people decided the Mayan calendar was important again and 2012 was the end.

 

However, I don’t think it is just extreme Christians who rush the coming of Christ. Everyday Christians rush it as well. We rush it when we wish this moment would just end, so we can get to the next. Instead of us hoping to make the best of the gift of this moment, we teach this hastening to our children during the Christmas season when we hone in on Christmas as the overarching day of the season, instead of asking us all to live fully each day leading to Christmas. By quickening the pace we actually miss the point of Advent. The point of advent is we should prepare patiently for God to be born into our lives at every moment.

 

Video Clip – http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/learning-how-to-hope

 

I love this clip that Pastor Brian Zahnd shares on Advent. As we prepare for God’s love to be born to us, the wisdom of the Advent season is patience. The other two lines to pay attention to in our scripture are long before hastening “…that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day.” “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but patient toward you…”

 

We are called by this season to a term that has been extremely helpful in my faith practice, “Holy Urgency.” Holy urgency is the sense we have when we are excited about what is to come, but find the wisdom of patience to look for the kingdom of God in every moment or season of our lives.

 

The kingdom of God, or “the Empire of Christ” that Brian Zahnd talked about is an image described by the prophets of the Bible, share by Christ, and it is what the Christians of the second century hoped for. The early Christian community was hoping for the end to the violence of the Roman Empire, to be able to worship God instead of Caesar, and to be able to be living in a kingdom where righteous actions were the goal. The coming of Christ was centered in the hope of a loving kingdom of God coming and the earth being made new for good. Quite literally the early Christian church was called to have Holy Urgency that they would be ready for this glorious change in the workings of the world.

 

Advent keeps happening though, and the ultimate change did not come and has not yet been fully realized. Each year at Advent we seek to see hope that God’s kingdom might be realized and in the celebration of Christmas we remember it is born into the world in small and surprising ways.

 

As we entered advent this year the grand jury rulings in two cases have recast our national attention to race. Protests about the Ferguson verdict are happening throughout our nation and I have caught wind that a candlelight vigil is happening tonight in Helena. The most adamant opposition to these protests that has been vocalized is, “We no longer live in a racially unjust nation, so what is this all about?” I think this concern comes from the hope that we had moved beyond race in our culture. It comes from that same yearning the prophets felt. The prophets hoped we could live in a more just world centered on God’s love.

 

A United Methodist pastor in Kansas City, Adam Hamilton, interviewed several African American couples in his congregation inquiring what they felt the recent protests and push for change was about. These are people who come from all socio economic backgrounds too. Some are executive at Fortune 500s and just like many of us live and work to make a living. From the interviews it was clear that many of them were mixed about the Ferguson case, but they shared that many of the feelings around the protests come from things their current and past experiences that brought race issues back to the forefront.[1]

 

Race unfortunately has not left our country. Pastor Adam shared stories from the people he interviewed to highlight this reality.

 

One couple he shared had been moving into one of the towns near his church. As they unloaded the moving van, taking boxes into the house and empty ones out, a patrol car pulled up. The officer got out and asked them to demonstrate that they were the owners of the house.

 

Another shared the reality that most African American parents share with their sons that they need to be extra careful not to goof off around authority. Stating that unlike their white peers, it can result in their injury or even death.

 

The executive of the Fortune 500 shared that when he was pulled over one time he saw the officer unsnap the strap that goes across his holster…just unhooked it as he approached the car. When the executive asked the officer about his reason for this the response he got was, “I will ask the questions here.”

 

Pastor Hamilton, who is of European decent, says, “I have been pulled over several times in my life for plenty of good reasons. Never have I seen an officer do this.”

 

I found Adam Hamilton’s sermon in a message he sent to his congregation this week saying, “Police are not bad.” He reiterates over and over again that police are not the problem. Many of our police and law enforcement are the best people I know. They are people dedicating their lives to helping keep our communities safe.

 

In Portland about a week ago there was a protest in response to Ferguson. A young boy named Devonte Hart went to protest holding the sign “free hugs.” He knew he wanted to be at the protest because he didn’t like the idea that a young black man was at risk just walking the streets. Devonte who was young didn’t know exactly why he was there, except something needed to change.[2]

 

As he stood, scared with tears in his eyes, a motorcycle police officer named Sgt. Bret Barnum motioned Devonte over to him. He shook Devonte’s hand and said, “Why are you here?” Devonte shared that he was there, mostly he was sad about national events, and he didn’t want the things that happened in Ferguson and Staten Island to happen to kids like him. Sgt. Barnum apologized to Devonte that things like that happen and vowed to not have that happen on his watch. Then noticing the sign that Devonte had now dropped, he said, “Can I have one?”

16448702-mmmain

 

God wants us to climb in the front seat and stop yelling from the back, “Are you here yet? Are we there yet?” God wants a co-pilot in helping get us to the kingdom of God.

 

Jesus’ teachings remind us that we are children of God, but that we are called to work alongside God to share love. The story from Portland of Sgt. Barnum and Devonte is a great example of us climbing into the front seat and working with God. When we break bread and share in the experience with each other, then the healing can begin.

 

Many of you know I grew up in Helena, and I grew up at this church. Somewhere in that growing up was planted in me a seed that I should be wary of dark strangers on streets. It was an idea deeply planted in my being and I don’t think there was any person who planted that in me directly.

 

I shared in a sermon last spring that during a walk through Denver I acted more defensive when a black man walked by Crystal, my friends and me. The man called me on it. It was an act of defense based on assumptions that had been ingrained to me. It is something I personally am going to have to work on in order for race to no longer is an issue for me.

 

In the case of race our call is to not be defensive, but instead to be like God. To be like God and Christ we have to risk being vulnerable with one another. Being vulnerable like the Christ child who was born and the Jesus we know who walked among us. God through Christmas dared to meet people where they were. There is plenty of change that needs to happen and it requires us patiently seeing moments to share hope in the small moments of life. Sgt. Barnum and Devonte both chose a moment to do this. There will be moments in all of our lives to take part in simple acts like this. To share hope with each other we have to risk the encounter with each other.

 

Jesus wants to be our co-pilot in this Advent journey, but we have to be patient and we have to listen. It is about haste to reach out when moments of love are in front of us, and patience to listen when the people are hurting.

 

The call of Jesus in this advent season is that we seek ways to birth hope into this world through small acts of love through vulnerability. To challenge the brokenness of this world by climbing into the front seat and joining God in guiding our world down the road with Holy urgency and patience. God patiently sits next to us as we beg the question, “Are you here yet?”

 

[1] http://vimeo.com/113305677

[2] http://www.oregonlive.com/multimedia/index.ssf/2014/12/portland_police_sgt_bret_barnu.html

 

Which Way?

Religious billboards, the ones we see around today, really don’t help my blood pressure.  Most of them seem to carry an ultimatum on them.  “Follow Jesus or spend eternity somewhere you don’t want to.”   “Ignoring Jesus? Well he died for you.”  The guilt flows from these billboards like a flooding river in spring.  One billboard I drive by consistently reads, “Do you have any idea where you are going? –God.”  One practice I have taken to is answering “no” to its question every time I pass.

Driving home from the gym, “Do you have any idea where you are going?”  “No”

Driving to a friend’s house, “No.”

Walking back home from an appointment, “No.”

I first started answering “no” because of the implicit meaning of guilt in the billboard.  I can’t stand the way religion tends to use guilt and fear to justify sharing the message of God.

After I kept answering this way for a while, I began to find extreme comfort by answering “no.”

Our scripture today comes from Luke 3:10-14.  It comes from the Baptism narrative of Jesus and the dialogue is between people being baptized by John and John as the baptizer.  The people are inquiring, “Now that I have been baptized, what should I do next?”

Luke 3:10-14

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John Dominic Crossan’s lifelong study has brought him to the conclusion that Jesus was committed to learning from John’s way and in fact learned much of his practice of ministry from John.  John has a message we hear it in this passage.  “Clean up your act.”  John shares this wisdom due to his belief that God is coming to clean up the world and you want to be cleaned up when that happens.  John’s message is a lot like those billboards that drive me crazy.  His message is full of guilt, trying to get people to act responsibly before God violently purges the world.[i]  Jesus learned many teachings from John, but Jesus’ message was very different.

The peace I have felt saying “no” to the billboard has been strange.  Each time I pass, it asks “Do you have any idea where you’re going?”  I find I am now saying, “No.”  And also, “Do you?”  As if I am asking God for a reply to this existential question.  Each time I ask, “Do you?” Thoughts run through my head of all the things that are going on in my life and directions to be chosen: family, friends, challenges, joys, fears, hope, the larger world, and even questions of my purpose.

In the scripture John gives different directions to the people who have come to be baptized.  To the crowds, “Share your wealth.”  To the tax collectors, “be honest, and stop stealing.”  To the soldiers, “Don’t be bullies stop extorting people with your power.”  To each group or person a new instruction is given and no single path is the right way.

When I was in college I was a part of a small United Methodist campus ministry.  We met at the Methodist church and at friend’s houses.  We prayed, shared in mission work, talked, and shared in meals together.  There were much larger campus ministries and part of me always wanted to be a part of those.  They had more people, more money, better music, and seemed to be so well organized.  They were doing outreach with all sorts of groups and our campus ministries’ outreach seemed so limited by our size.

The reason I couldn’t join those other ministries was their message left me feeling like I was dripping with guilt.  It was a lot like the message of John, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.”  In those words alone there is nothing wrong.  Repent means to think differently or to change your path.  However, those other campus ministries’ “kingdom of God” is something I struggled with.  Their understanding of the “kingdom of God” was a world in which everyone had to follow their way of thinking, believe what their God said, and didn’t provide room for a lot of questions.  The reason their message made me feel gross is I couldn’t actively be curious about my God.

God in this context looked more like an abusive relationship, than a relationship of Grace being offered.  I knew that if I was a part of one of these other communities I wouldn’t have conversation, argue or challenge the norm.  Obedience was the key.  To leave the community would be to risk the worst of fates, eternally risky.  The icky feeling I got was because God didn’t feel like a safe place to be vulnerable, but instead a dangerous place to keep my guard up.  Why would I want a relationship like that?

“Do you know where we are going? – God”

I wish the billboard on Helena Ave. was posted like this instead.  This switch of questions is the same way Jesus switched his message from John’s message.  Instead of “repent for the Kingdom of God is near,” Jesus message was “repent for the Kingdom of God is here.”

The thing I really envied about the other campus ministries in college were the diversity of people they were engaging with their faith.  That they had found ways to share the experiences they were having with God.  I wanted to share my experiences of God, but I just couldn’t find the vocabulary, the shared language to do it.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor in Denver, Colorado.  If you see a picture of Nadia you won’t think pastor.  She has more tattoos than anyone I had met prior to her.  I interviewed with Nadia at one point, to see if I could complete my internship with her church.  Some days, I really wish I had taken that internship.  She is now a nationally known speaker on faith.  Her church is called House for All: Sinners and Saints.  This community she has worked to build is an incredibly welcoming community to all kinds of people.  So diverse, that Nadia shares a story about how hard it was to accept people in khakis and polo shirts when they started to show up too.

In an interview online Nadia shared that she had the opportunity to engage in a clergy group with some evangelical and pentecostal leaders.  She was the only mainline clergy in the group.  She explains that at one point she felt “schooled” by these pastors because of the dynamic ways they were engaging with the poor in Denver.  Often times the mainline churches(Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, etc.) claim they know social justice and are experts at it.  Nadia experience is not always that and she states, “That sometimes evangelicals and pentecostals are able to share a message of the bible and of Jesus that is more connected to their hearts.” [ii]

The language Jesus shares in the scriptures is one of diversity and openness.  It is an invitation to join together in the work of making the world a better place.  The message of Christ is non-violent and filled with justice.  Justice filled like John’s message to the people, the roman soldier, and the tax collectors.  The message of Christ invites us to share God’s love by doing good and sharing love in community.  Then Jesus asks us to take it step further.  Christ invites us to pay it forward; because we can best feel God’s love when we are sharing God’s love.

Jesus doesn’t say to the Samaritan Woman at the well after offering her the life giving water of God.  Oh, and only offer it the first Sunday of every month.   Jesus doesn’t say to the man in Gerasine, whom he cured from the insatiable voices of demons in his mind, and if you don’t believe God did this for you the demons will be back.  No!  To both of these people he offered love and healing and said, “Go, share God’s Love.”  And there was never a mention of a penalty if they didn’t go and share.  Jesus invited people to partner with him, to dream with God about the potential for a better world.

The followers of Jesus way became so fond of the path that Christ laid out for them, they began to call it, “The Way.”  I don’t believe they use this term to describe the “only way,” but instead to share their fondness and hope in the fruits of their practice.  By practicing their faith they were beginning to see how God worked with people to share love, healing, and wholeness with the world.  Jesus was the way they had learned and it was helping them grow toward God.

It wasn’t the only way.  Jesus learned from John another way.   Jesus learned the world had to be changed and that justice needed to be invited by those who asked for direction.  However, Jesus learned also to invite some people who weren’t able to ask for the help they needed.  The systems of the world silenced them and hid them away, as happens today.  He would go to them and learn from them their pain, and then work with them for healing and wholeness.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech spoke words of hope to us.  I know almost no one who is not inspired when they hear the words of Dr. King.  His speech was deeply rooted in his tradition, our tradition of Christianity.  The dream Dr. King shared was a world freed from race, freed from oppression, and where our children could live in peace.

This is our language!  This is the language we need to share with the world.

The language:  We are a people invited to partner with God.  We are invited to dream with God about a just world.  And we invite you to dream with us.

Bishop John Shelby Spong says, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”[iii]

Our Christian tradition gives us the language of Jesus and his Jewish heritage.  A place to study, learn, dream of God, and invites us to work together with God.

May we be wise in our listening and conversing with God and not afraid to know the real question God is asking, “Do you know where we are going?”

God’s dream is that we might collaborate with God and see a future more whole than today.  A future beyond boundaries, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other division we might see.  May our continued community prayer be, “Which way should we go, God?”


[i] Crossan, J. D. (2011). The challenge of jesus, the new paradigm series. (Vol. 1). Sardom, INC and THE D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation.

[ii] https://vimeo.com/48757737

Another choice. Why Methodism?

Many times I have been asked, “Why I chose to be a Methodist Pastor?” The church is declining in membership, young people are not sure of its importance, and people are wondering if they even need religion. The Methodist movement maintains part of the answer to this. The central notion of Methodism is to involve groups of people gathering together to talk about their faith and how to actively share that with the world. Sharing faith is conversation and support that helps sustain in trying live a Christlike life. Faith sharing can be about: the challenges we face in maintaining healthy relationships, where we see pain and injustice in the world and want to change it, the challenges we face each day, the joy we experience, or anything that impacts our lives.

Sharing with each other reminds us of God’s love in our lives. Religion becomes vital when we recognize that by sharing our faith and going out to live we live as Christ. We see things that we would not see by sharing with one another and we work to address the problems in our world.

Methodists then go one step further and say this isn’t enough for me to just do this work amongst ourselves, lets find out what they do down the road or in the next town. We create faith sharing communities that overcome the physical and political boundaries that separate us. Our goal in doing this is the same as it is to share with a group in our local town, to share the burden of living challenging lives and seeking to bring love to our world.

Why Methodist? Because we can’t share a love as big as what Christ taught by ourselves.

Enthusiastic Peace,

Pastor Tyler

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Labyrinth your thought

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The amazing thing about God is that the presence is that you rarely know where you will find it.  This past week I had the opportunity to fly down to Tampa, Florida.  My main intention in being down there was to attend the Large Church Initiative of the United Methodist Church event at Hyde Park UMC.    Due to the way flights from Montana work I needed to arrive a day early.  I took the opportunity to try and take some time for personal retreat.  Pastors like this stuff because most of encountering of God happens in the presence of other people.  I found a beautiful Franciscan Retreat Center in Tampa and spent 24 hours there.  Little did I know it would be the beginning of process that would change my thinking.

God shows up in the most interesting ways.  Yes I was at a retreat center, yes I was trying to encounter the divine, but all of my energy when I first got to the center was thinking.  Why didn’t I just go curl up on a beach somewhere at a resort, instead of coming here?  The retreat center was nice, but it wasn’t a beach resort.  However, I let myself get settled in and started wandering the grounds.

As I wandered I stumbled onto a labyrinth and little did I know it would be the story that would define my week.  Labyrinth’s are not a stranger to me.  I love their curved paths for prayer.  In Helena, MT where I live there is a wonderful labyrinth out in an open field that I like to use.  The point of a labyrinth is to enter and walk the path in prayer, in conversation with God.  The thing about a labyrinth is it takes our linear realities and bends them.  It seemingly takes time and slows it and forces the brain to relax.  God’s presence is much more clear as this happens.  I picked to walk the labyrinth 3 times while I was there.  Figuring it was a good trinitarian number.  I felt in those walks blessed assurance of my call to serve people in ministry and with my life.

Then I went to this training.  I have been skeptical of church conferences as of late.  It generally seems we get together, speak of our sense that the church is dying out, toss around a few good ideas, and then head home to the status quo.  I WAS WRONG.  Whether it was me doing the prep work, or God’s spirit working on my heart, it was as if the entire Large Church Initiative event was walking a labyrinth of what my call to Methodism was and call to ministry in the world could be.

Now I know this is where I am profound and say it was one specific talk, or workshop that inspired me.  It was not one thing.  It was the path of walking the conference.  I encountered in the conference a reality that leading a church is utilizing the skills in myself that I had been preparing my whole life, the ones I was continuing to develop, and in talking with others I recognized I had the knowledge to initiate this work.

You see for each of us the labyrinth isn’t about a defining moment.  Rarely does the end leave you feeling good.  It is actually the biggest let down, because in the middle of the labyrinth you reach the half way point, the journey outward still has to happen.  The labyrinth of our lives is walking with God, letting the shifts of life not break you, but instead guide you to the next phase.  It is the gentle nudging of God’s spirit that will awaken in us the realization of how where we have been, can be the sustaining nurture for the possibility of tomorrow.

I took away from the conference some of the best conversations, skills, and resolve about who we are as Methodists and Christians.  However, if I pretended that was the end it would be a lie.  It was but the first turn as I entered the labyrinth of my call.  The same way when I wake up in the morning and step out of bed I take the first turn of my daily call.  Where is your first turn today?

 

May God’s blessing be upon you.

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Who am I?

Mark 8:27-30 Rev. Tyler Amundson September 16, 2012

Gracious God may the words shared here be true to your loving presence on this earth. As we go through each day may we remember the blessing of play you invite us into. You invite us to play, to know, and to share with our neighbors both known and unknown the amazing vision of your blessed Kingdom. May we take time each day to notice the moments of perfection in the world around us.

Mark 8:27-30
“27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” [1]

Play is one of the earliest forms of communication we learn as children. If you watch young children as they begin to play with one another it is quite fascinating. At first they are completely separate entities. Each functioning in their space and with their toys. Then as they take notice of one another they try and communicate what they are playing. Whether with language of voice or of the body they slowly demonstrate to one another what they believe the shared reality to be. From time to time the children pull back to their own world, but once play is shared it is as if they can’t help to come back to one another.

One of the most striking dynamics of play is the act of vulnerability. The children for the first time risk not having a black and white understanding of what they believe is happening. The child has to risk that their exact idea of how the play should happen might be rejected. This letting go is to risk being hurt by the one you are interacting with. It is for many of us the first risk of vulnerability we take of our own free will. If it is accepted by our peers we begin to share a reality and our play gets rich beyond our imagination. Our imagination becomes shared with the other persona and so our scope of reality can grow. Our reality grows to help us to define who we are as human beings through this act of vulnerability

If you think about play parents, family, loved ones, and all people want to experience the act of play whenever we see a child. As a father, it has been interesting to see the side of people that comes out when I have my daughter with me. People get silly, relaxed and try and play with my daughter sometimes totally ignoring my presence. We have this innate need to be vulnerable with our peers and it is as if the reminder of childhood draws us back into that place where we can be vulnerable again.

I bring up this notion of play as a way for us to recognize how vulnerability makes for richer lives. We literally share our imagination with one another. We are able to dream bigger dreams when we are able to share our vision of the world with one another. When vulnerability is supported and we are able to learn from it then we grow exponentially as individuals and as communities. By being vulnerable we develop a rich understanding of who we are by seeing it through the imagination of others.

There are a couple of youtube videos of a researcher named Brenee Brown who has studied the aspects of vulnerability. She has found that people willing to be vulnerable live more whole hearted lives. They are able to “let go of who they thought they should be, to be who they were.” [2] In every sense of the term they are able to play and share the imagination of those around them. These people felt more fulfilled and engaged throughout their lives. They have a sense of who they are because they were vulnerable.

I want to share with you a much simpler way of understanding this notion of vulnerability. This cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson is a great illustration of this. [3] You see Calvin is in this world of play constantly and in this moment his dad is not feeling the need to be vulnerable, instead a need to get to work. I share this cartoon to demonstrate how vulnerability allows for humor. This cartoon is funny because we are willing to be vulnerable to Calvin’s dream of a playful world. A world in which snowmen seemingly come to life. By being vulnerable to this idea and buying in for a moment we find this amusing.

Vulnerability is what allows us to share a reality with one another and more especially a dream with one another. The scripture passage today is the author of this gospel trying to demonstrate the vulnerable way Jesus was engaging with his disciples. Jesus asks, “Who do people say I am?” The author is demonstrating the reputation of Jesus as a teacher – a teacher who is vulnerable with his students that they might learn from one another. The disciples share “Elijah and John the Baptist” as possibilities. They are vulnerable with Jesus and share their thoughts about the possible dreams of what Jesus can be.

Then Peter shares, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus withdraws quickly and informs Peter he must not say such things. For us as an audience this seems like a fearful withdrawal because perhaps Jesus is scared of what is about to happen to him. However, if we look deeper it is a firm response to something that we know clearly to not be true as outsiders looking in. Peter is trying to talk about the Messiah that is referred to at this time in history. This Messiah figure is one who will violently come back to re-establish Israel. Matt Skinner, a New Testament Professor at Luther Seminary, demonstrates Peter as basically saying, “I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.” [4] Jesus is sharing in return that this is not the idea he has. He is saying, “You may expect big things Peter, but you are not dreaming big enough about God’s love and grace.” We know, as the author of this gospel knows, that the Christ figure brings about the reality of God’s kingdom not through violence, but by being vulnerable. Jesus, God incarnate, allows vulnerability with humanity, the violence of the world, and is open to the possibility of resurrection.

Remember as we read this scripture from Mark that it has taken until this point for the Jesus as Christ to be mentioned. [5] This is a turning point in the scripture and as piece of literature the book of Mark is written to demonstrate this change of reality happening. The gospels are books that are written as stories to demonstrate who Christ was to a worshipping community. Bishop John Shelby Spong who will be here in a few weeks reminds us that “…the memory of Jesus had already been interpreted through the Jewish scriptures.”[6] This demonstration is the author showing Jesus, the Christ, being vulnerable and connected with his disciples. The author wants us to know his Christ is sharing in a relationship to demonstrate who Christ is, but also who we are in relation to God.

We have this amazing knowledge that we believe Christ to be God with us, literally God among us and experiencing us. This continues in our belief that the Holy Spirit surrounds us and continues to work with us to share God’s vision on earth. This scripture is one example of this tradition we have of God being in relationship with us. Vulnerability is a deeply rooted part of our calling as Christians.

Vulnerability is hard. It is a dangerous world and the temptation is to hold up in a safe place away from all that can harm. I myself have felt this need over and over again. All we have to do is be hurt once and we know the danger of being vulnerable during moments of violence, anger, and pain. Some people never get the chance to play at a young age because of the violence in their lives. People face oppression, abuse, and a list that can go on. Each of these things creates fear that vulnerability can cause more harm because of the incident happening before.

Our society does a great job of dredging up this fear to make sure we remember being hurt. Fear is a powerful motivator that demands our attention and is an easy tool to create a shared reality. Think of the list of violent incidents over the last week. It makes me want to hide or the alternative search for a power that can destroy those scary things. There is no simple answer to a hope that these horrible things won’t happen. The reality is that throughout history horrible things have happened.

The Christian message takes us away from these horrible things to a message of God being vulnerable with us – God demonstrating that resurrection and new life are possible. These amazing things are possible because in our vulnerability we share a vision of God’s love with one another. The other incredibly important aspect of Jesus’ vulnerability in this text is that he is claiming that God in Christ is more powerful than all the fear in the world. That vulnerability with one another in community and with God creates a reality of grace that we cannot comprehend. Christ is clearly saying, “Be vulnerable to one another and to God, and God’s grace will be a power in your life beyond comprehension.” The grace of God takes us in our brokenness and loves us into a transformed and resurrected people. A people of God who dream in the light about the good of the world, and not in the fear that creates realities of darkness.

This message seems almost against our human nature which is to protect and defend ourselves. Yet this is what Christ meant when he asked us to have faith like a child. Vulnerability is the thing that allows us to share a dream with one another, it helps us answer the question, “Who am I?

For myself this vulnerability has been true in an image of church that I have followed for several years now. Until I started thinking about it in terms of vulnerability though it didn’t quite make as much sense. For me God is most revealed when we can share our lives, our hearts with one another. Church’s goal is therefore to create space for us to share that spark of God inside each one of us. We share the spark of God through art, conversation, learning, service, mission and connection. It is when we are able to share that spark most openly and in our own way that God shared most vividly.

The most recent episode of Parenthood on NBC was a striking example of this sharing of the divine. Parenthood is a show about a large family with adult children and the adult children’s lives. Crosby, the youngest, has been working in the music industry and has a pretty crazy life. As the show progresses he learns he has a young son named Jabbar. Crosby, this fairly carefree young adult, has to learn quickly how to be a father. In the episode last week Crosby is walking down the hall in the house and passes his son Jabbar’s room. Crosby does a double take and sees Jabbar praying at the end of his bed. This was not at all what Crosby expected and especially due to the reality that Crosby really doesn’t have a defined understanding of God or prayer. Following this there is questioning of relatives pushing Jabbar into praying or forcing religion on him. Crosby and his wife confront the grandmother whose response is wise. She states that she is sharing her faith. She then inquires what are the parents doing to be vulnerable about their beliefs with their son. She may be a bit of a Bible thumping grandma, but she is right. We need to vulnerably share our faith with each other to help each other dream what this universe is for.

The final scene with Crosby and Jabbar has them sitting on the back porch drinking root beer and watching the stars. They engage in this amazing sharing of their beliefs with one another as father and son. It is in this vulnerable moment you can see the grace of God transforming both Crosby and Jabbar. They share with each other a spark of God and see the dream a little more clearly.

Jesus told us clearly in this story who we are. We are beloved children of God, who when vulnerable with one another can create beautiful dreams for the world. Jesus declares that God is with each of us and has come near to us. God has been vulnerable with us and grace is available to us all. May we continue to find ways to play with one another, to create space to be vulnerable, and to grow in God’s love.

[1 ]Mark 8:27-30, New Revised Standard Version(NRSV), Retrieved from www.bible.oremus.org, September 12, 2012.
[2] Brown, B. (Researcher Storyteller). (2011). Brene brown: The power of vulnerability . [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
[3] http://cdn0.sbnation.com/imported_assets/1025923/CH940221_JPG.jpg, Accessed September 12, 2012
[4] Skinner, M. (2012, September 16). Commentary on gospel. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/16/2012&tab=4
[5] Skinner, M. (2012, September 16). Commentary on gospel. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/16/2012&tab=4
[6] Spong, J. (2011). Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. HarperOne. Pg 222.

Welcome

God’s Grace and Peace to you all,

Welcome to a page for reflection and a time of understanding of the Universe that shapes and changes us. Please take time when reading this page to relax and know that God’s kingdom is ever present in our daily lives. God will change you in ways you can not imagine if you relax into the spirit that is around you. This page will be update everyday with new prayers and desires for change each day. Please use your time at this page to reflect each day.

Grace and Enthusiastic Peace to you all