Liberty and Justice For All

Matthew 10:40-42

“We can never make peace in the outer world until we make peace within ourselves.”  As I read these words, spoken by the Dali Lama, I thought of the 4th of July.  Odd? What does a Tibetan religious leader’s philosophical prose have to do with the summer weekend when we celebrate our nation’s independence and rekindle our civic pride. What does an expression of peace have to do with a holiday has become synonymous with getting outdoors, cooking-out, and going fishing or boating.  The 4th of July is about cheering at a parade, eating burgers and brats at the park, and of course, watching fireworks.  The 4th of July weekend is a time to celebrate with family and friends not burden ourselves with things like world peace.  Right?

But the 4th of July, I think, offers us an opportunity; the opportunity to be introspective.  Independence Day offers us the chance to be thoughtful about our direction as a people of faith and to discern how we will live-into our role in society. What do I mean? Well, consider the final words we say as we cover our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “…with liberty and justice for all.” It seems to me that if this weekend is indeed about civic pride and celebrating our independence, then we ought to take a serious look at what were proud of and the responsibilities that come with being an independent nation. In other words, are we striving toward a day when America is truly a place where there’s “liberty and justice for all” or are we just blindly uttering the words? And if we are committed to this ideal, as I believe we as a congregation and as the United Church of Christ most certainly are; what’s our next move? How do we proceed toward a goal of “liberty and justice for all?”

Well, our Gospel text for today may help us out here.  In the 10th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us some instruction about the meaning of “liberty and justice for all.” And that instruction begins with something as simple as offering a cool drink of water to someone who’s thirsty; it’s as simple as offering hospitality.

Henri Nouwen once said, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”[I]

Dan De Leon reinforced this understanding when he wrote, “Hospitality is crucial to the advancement of forgiveness and healing, of justice and mercy, of righteousness and hope. No hospitality, no gospel message. But if hospitality is so important, how do we practice it? Apparently, according to Jesus’ instructions in today’s text, by offering a cup of cold water.”[ii]

But come on? Is it really that simple? How is one simple act of kindness going to change anything?  Well, as the Buddha once said, “we become what we think.” And that gets to the core of what Jesus was talking about here.  If we consciously practice hospitality in all phases of our lives, we will become more hospitable. If we practice compassion we will naturally become more compassionate beings. Practicing kindness leads to becoming kinder. And so on.

In more spiritual terms, that small gesture of offering a cool drink takes seriously the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” According to the Jewish law of Jesus’ time, a person’s emissary was synonymous with that very person. Like Paul says in Galatians, “You welcomed me as Christ Jesus.” To welcome a disciple with even a cup of cold water is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God.

I read a story once about a young parish priest visiting with an older priest. The young priest mentioned the homeless people who would come by his church seeking help. He said to his elder, “I know we’re supposed to help the poor, but these people are asking for help with a bus ticket or a utility bill or money for food. Is that really their story? They’ll probably just going to buy liquor or cigarettes.” Finally, the young priest said, “It gets exhausting justifying who I’m going to help and why.” Now, the older priest just sat back and let the young priest’s words float around the room for a while. Then he said, “What business is it of yours determining who gets help and who doesn’t? Why exhaust yourself with that burden? You are a follower of Jesus Christ. Your task, therefore, is simply to share out of the wealth of God’s abundance. Your requirement is simply to love others as God loves you. Your job is simply to give.”[iii]

My friends, Jesus says that we are to extend hospitality and kindness to every human being. He didn’t waver on that one bit.  Jesus charges us to welcome all members of what Maya Angelou so beautifully called “the human family.” And specially, we are to extend hospitality to those who are among the most vulnerable; the outcast and the marginalized groups in our society, the immigrant families and the displaced refugees, those fleeing oppression and war.  To welcome all people is to welcome Jesus himself and thereby to welcome the Divine.

Yvette Flunder, the senior pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, writes, “Oppressive theology, or a theology that welcomes those who fit a normative definition of the dominant culture while excluding those who do not, is a ball and chain on the heart of the body of Christ, and with it we keep each other in bondage.”[iv]

My friends, hospitality frees us from that bondage.  It frees us to offer a cup of cold water to someone who might be in a situation completely foreign to our experience. And when we are brought into relationship with one another by the bond that hospitality creates, there is no more host and guest, no more insider and outsider, no more room for foreigner or citizen; there is only a space in which we listen to and learn from each another, value and honor one another until all the uneven ground on which we stand becomes level. And it’s through this process of finding peace within ourselves, peace among the diversity we call America, that world peace can become a reality.

So, on this 4th of July weekend.  I encourage you to eat a brat, to cheer at the parade, and to watch the fireworks.  But I also commend to you the challenge that Jesus has put before us as a people of faith and as a nation.  The challenge to continue to move toward that day, when we truly live in a nation, where there is “liberty and justice for all.”

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Crown Publishing Group) 1986

[ii] Rev. Dr. Dan De Leon. Hospitality: A Crucial Cup of Water (www.ucc.org/sermonseeds/samuel.com) 2014.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Yvette A. Flunder, Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (The Pilgrim Press)   2005. Pg. 7.

Enduring Hope

Romans 5:1-8

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Life is Art & Art is Life.” I was reminded of this saying this week as I once again encountered G.F. Watts’ painting entitled HOPE. It’s the image that you have before you.  I would invite you now to take a few moments and really look at this powerful image. Look closely at the woman sitting on a globe, blindfolded, notice that she has an instrument in her arms and that the instrument has lost all but one of its strings.

Now, as I examine this image I can’t help but wonder what struggles this woman must have encountered in her life. What were her experiences, her joys and pains, her disappointments, her celebrations? Had she experienced life as being a series of failures and held onto the one thing that brought her joy…her instrument? Or had it just come to this? And how did she end up with only one stings. I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But it seems to me that the one string is why Watts entitled this painting HOPE.  That solitary thread signified that all was not lost, there was still hope.[I]

In a world where we encounter so much negativity, so much greed, so much polarization; we rarely encounter individuals or communities who dare to speak of a hope.  I wonder how many people see Watts’ painting and see only the broken instrument of a hopeless woman. And that’s sad.  It’s sad because they miss out on potential of that one string.  Who knows, maybe that one string could give the instrument its integrity and give the woman the ability to make beautiful music. That string may just be the one that makes all the difference.

Paul ascribes to this way of thinking.  He writes to the people of Rome speaking of a faith that can only be described by a single word, PEACE. The peace of God through Jesus Christ.

Historically, Paul was writing to a people whom he had not met to reassure them that all that they had encountered, all they had gone through, all the challenges of life that they had confronted, were for the sake of their new beliefs and faith in something and someone greater than themselves. And in this text, we see Paul giving them permission to feel good about their adversity, so that they might share with full confidence all that they had received from God. Paul saw the potential in these folks and because of that he had hope.

So, what about us? Does Paul’s confidence translate into our world? Do we possess the potential to be more than we currently are? Does he give us permission to feel good about overcoming our challenges?

As you ponder these questions, I invite you to consider American Ninja Warriors. Yes, I said American Ninja Warriors. If you aren’t familiar with American Ninja Warriors, it’s a television program, now in its ninth season, where a variety of athletes from across America try to conquer an obstacle course.  The most interesting part of the program for me, however, is the back stories of the athletes.  Many of them had to overcome adversity to compete.

Take Flip Rodriguez for example. Flip, for many seasons wore a mask every time he competed. The mask, he said, covered up his emotions and he felt that gave him a completive edge.  Last season, however, Flip shed the mask. He took it off because, “it symbolized how he hid his pain through his smile when he was younger.” You see, Flip Rodriguez was abused by his father as a child. One step to dealing with that abuse was to lose the mask.  And as he moves forward, Flip hopes that his story can inspire people around the world to speak up if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. “I am so blessed to be on this platform to inspire the youth,” he said, “a lot of people reached out to me to say that it was inspiring to see someone in my light talk about sexual abuse and it gave them the courage to be able to talk about it too.”[ii]

Paul says, “trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.”  Flip endured, in fact, he flourished.  And through that endurance he developed character. A character that lead him to use his fame to reach out to others in need.  And that, my friends, is hope. A hope that we all can cling to and emulate. When we reach out beyond ourselves, when we see other people, no matter who that person is, as a fellow child of God, we are producing hope.

Which brings us back to the blindfolded woman. The woman in our picture was more than just a woman blindfolded and sitting upon a globe. She was more than what her feet or her dress may have suggested. She was a musician, one who could make beautiful music even with one string. Yes, she may have suffered, but she pushed on and continued. She was a woman whom God had called to do something different and something unique.

Maybe that was what Paul was trying to say to the Roman people. Maybe he was telling them “If you could go through suffering and still push ahead, building the character of who you are, there’s hope on the other side.”[iii]

Now, I cannot know all your deepest sufferings, your trials, what tribulations that you have encountered in life; but I can encourage you to keep on pushing through. I mean, the lady could have stopped playing, put down her instrument, and said, “forget it, I have only one string, what good will that do?” Flip could still be wearing his mask. But he isn’t and she continues to play.

Hope, my friends, is an enduring thing. It can withstand far more than we can even imagine; you can withstand far more than you can imagine.  And we can do this because of our faith, because of our relationships, because of our community; we can endure and find our way to God’s peace, because Jesus endured …and continues to endure, giving hope to all humankind and all creation.

As you leave this place today, as you reenter the world, my prayer for you is that hope, a hope that leads you to the Peace of God, may find its way into your innermost being.

In the name of the One who challenges us to endure, calls us to serve, and invites us to love.  Amen.

[i] Rev. Charles L. Fischer. Suffering to Hope (www.textweek.com) 2016

[ii]How ‘American Ninja Warrior’ Flip Rodriguez’s Sexual Abuse Story Is Saving Victims (www.toofab.com)2017

[iii] Ibid. Fisher

 

Living Compassion, Living Hope

Matthew 9:35-38

The wonderful Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwen, once wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[i]

Now, these are moving words, but do they set the bar too high? Is it possible for us, our faith community, to become a part of this “living compassion” that Nouwen espouses here; can we convey a “living hope” to others?

In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, we learn that indeed the church is to be about the business of healing, teaching, and proclaiming the good news. And, this is key, that the church is to be in motion.  We are not to have a static, stay-at-home, preserve-our-level-of-comfort-and-let-them-come-to-us faith, but instead, a bold “going-out” into the world kind of faith.  A faith that knows a God who loves passionately and who created wonderfully.  And we are to share this Divine understanding with those who have not yet heard God speaking to them, or felt the touch of God’s love upon their lives. But, how do we know this? How do we know what the church is to be about? To find the answer, we need only to look at Jesus and what he was about. Matthew reminds us that Jesus didn’t sit still but traveled about, curing and teaching and healing, and when he saw the hunger and need and confusion of “the crowds,” he felt profound compassion for them. Jesus both moved and was moved.

We too are to see the need of the world, its hungers and confusion, and like Jesus, we’re called to respond with compassion and lovingkindness. And it also seems that we are called not to sit still but, like Jesus, to be on the move, open to those we meet along the way.[ii]

I read a great devotion this past week that exemplified this understanding of compassion.  UCC pastor Vince Amlin told the story of the first time he met Rev. Al Carmines.  “He was ensconced on a couch in the church fellowship hall,” Vince remembered, “smoking two cigarettes at once. As he greeted my friend and I, one of the cigarettes dropped onto his sweater, and he let it burn there on his belly while he puffed on the other. Al was legendary to me. I had read about his place in the 1960’s theater scene in Greenwich Village, and I had sung many of his beautiful hymns while worshipping at Judson Memorial Church in NYC. And when I told him so, on that first meeting, he requested that I sing a solo in the service that was starting in five minutes! Eight of us shared worship that day, which featured only me singing the Old Rugged Cross and an extended pastoral prayer by Al, offering a blessing for a transgendered man he had met at a bar the night before.” And then Vince added these words, “It was one of the most unusual and compassionate services I’ve ever been a part of.”[iii]

My friends, that’s the thing about compassion, it challenges the status quo. Compassion asks us to step out from behind our preconceived notions about groups of people and to see the value of each, individual person.

A perfect example of this is the narrative about Jesus healing the man with the withered hand. You remember the story.  Jesus encountered a disabled man in the Synagogue on the Sabbath and he had compassion for this man.  So, Jesus healed his hand.  Which, as you know, was illegal. It was against the law to do any work on the Sabbath including the work of compassion. So, Jesus’ act of compassion was in fact a crime.  Now, Jesus could have said, “I don’t want to get into trouble, so come back tomorrow and I’ll take care of ya then.” Or even worse, he could have mocked the man for being disabled, he could have made fun of him or blamed him for his condition.  But he didn’t. Instead Jesus had compassion on this man and understood that he, like every person, had value, and Jesus healed his infirmity.[iv]

Now, you and I probably cannot touch a man’s hand and physically heal him. But we can seek to discover the value of each person.  In The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible, Paul, speaking to the Church in Rome, implores them to “Love from the center of who you are; and discover the beauty in everyone.”  How? Well, Paul says, “Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.” He goes on to tell us to, “…laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy and share tears when they’re down.”[v]

And you know what? We can to this! We can be agents of a different kind of healing. A healing that goes beyond the physical to a deeper emotional and spiritual plain; to a place that values each person’s unique abilities.  We can touch those society had deemed untouchable; we can love those others have written off as unlovable; and we can have compassion for those who are “out there” wherever “out there” may be. And we can to this because of our faith. And I’m not talking about needing four years of theology classes, I’m speaking of a simple understanding of Christ’s call to be compassionate actors on behalf of God.

Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, affirms this when she says, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”[vi]

That’s the essence of compassion.  We can be compassionate, even under the most difficult of circumstances, because we are a part of the One who came up with redwood trees.  We can be agents of compassion because in every situation, God goes before us.  That’s maybe the single most valuable lesson I learned about pastoral care; God goes before us!

Yes, compassion invites us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share with others in their brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. And it requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[vii]  But compassion doesn’t leave us there alone.  God, through the Spirit, walks right beside us, sometimes leading, sometimes pushing, but always, always, encouraging and loving.

One final thought. Jesus reminds us in our text today that the workers, the ones who are out there sharing the healing and compassion of God with the masses, are few.  Maybe our take-away for today, our challenge if you will, is to stand up and be added to the numbers of those “living out” the compassion of Christ in our lives; and “living into” the hope that compassion brings.

May we all continue to love from the center of our being, understand the value and gifts that every single person brings to the table, and through that understanding, may we discover the beauty in everyone.

In the name of the One who IS Love.  Amen.

[i] Henry J. Nouwen. Compassion: A Reflection on Christian Life (Doubleday Publishing) 1983

[ii] Rev. Kathryn Mathews a Reflection on Compassion (www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

[iii] Rev. Vince Amlin.  Many Gifts, One Spirit (Still Speaking Writers Guild) 2017

[iv] Luke 6:1-11 Common English Bible (CEB)

[v] Romans 12 The Message (MSG)

[vi] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, (Riverhead books) 2004

[vii] Ibid. Nouwen