Wherever You Are

Ephesians 2:14-22

Years ago, several Israeli contractors overseeing the construction of a wall between themselves and the Palestinians were prosecuted for stealing Palestinian olive trees. You see, they’d been uprooting these thousand-year-old trees and selling them to Israeli settlers to create new gardens and parks. And the trees they couldn’t sell they destroyed. To their owners, these trees represented their economic lifeblood. To the thieves and buyers, they were merely ornamental details.[I]

It seems to me that peace cannot happen without reconciliation.  I know that sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that unless we find common ground with our neighbor, propagating peace is nearly impossible. The contractors, and the buyers of the stolen trees, never considered what the trees meant to their neighbors. Why? Because their neighbors were Palestinian, and Palestinians were considered the “other.” And making someone “the other” is the easiest way to justify stealing from them, persecuting them, or even killing them. But making someone the other is the opposite of what Jesus taught; of why he died.

Paul affirms this for us once again this week. He says that Jesus “…canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body.”[ii] Let that sink in for a second. How often has society, and by extension the Church, sought to separate or divide? How has the Church been guilty of creating “the other”?

I once had a conversation with a woman who was estranged from the church I was serving at the time. We’ll call her Mary. And although it had been many years since the incident, Mary was still hurt by what had happened. The incident? A dispute over potato salad. Yes, I said potato salad. It seems that Mary was famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her potato salad. Apparently, it wasn’t very tasty, but no ever had the courage to confront her directly about her less-than-pleasing side dish. Instead, one day at a funeral lunch, Mary came into the kitchen only to discover her potato salad hadn’t been served but was in the garbage. She left without a word and never darkened the door of the church again.

Now, those trying to justify their action might say, “Well, Mary was too sensitive, she should have had a thicker skin” or “What will people think of our church if we serve bad potato salad.” But, of course, these excuses miss the point. Mary was cast as the “other” and as a result, the body of Christ was wounded. And until reconciliation and forgiveness take place, the wound will continue to weep.

I sometimes wish I could go back to that day and share with that church the words of William Slone Coffin. “Of God’s love we can say two things,” he said, “it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the lowliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.”[iii]

Mary has value whether or not her potato salad tastes good. The Palestinian people have value. The Israeli contractors and the buyers of the olive trees all have value. Paul says that Jew and Gentile alike have value in the eyes of God. Maybe that’s why Ephesians has been called one the Bible’s great hymns to God’s reconciliation of all things and this passage in particular, as God’s call for us to participate in the good works of reconciliation.[iv]

And I think Paul’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a community of faith. So, what might a community that affirms the love of God for all people and espouses reconciliation as the beginning of peace, look like? Well, I think it would be a church that looks beyond itself and embraces “the other.” It would be open and affirming and welcoming to all people. It would advocate for good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food, clean water, and affordable health care for all and not just some. It would promote steps to combat global climate change, providing breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us.

My friends, God’s vision of peace means that we as people of faith must promise to save lives rather than destroy them. It means understanding that God’s house is all of creation and all of it is sacred. And finally, being the church means recognizing that God’s breath dwells within each and every person on this planet.[v]

One final thought. In this epistle, Paul emphasizes the unity brought about between Jew and Gentile through the brokenness of Christ’s body. If we were to view this text through a spiritual or a devotional lens: How might we as a faith community be “broken” for the sake of peace in our world today? I don’t know. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today. But let me leave you with one example of reconciliation.

I read somewhere this week that a group of Israeli rabbis have started a tree-planting movement. Through their efforts, hundreds of new olive trees are taking root in those Palestinian villages where the old trees were stolen. Now, it’s a fragile gesture, a sapling is not the same as a thousand-year olive tree. It can’t bring back all that was stolen.

But tree by tree, a little optimism returns. Tree by tree, you see it, something new.[vi] Tree by tree, reconciliation is being planted. Tree by tree God is building all of us, all people and all creation, into one household. And tree by tree, hopefully, peace is becoming a reality. This is my dream.  This is my prayer.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Mary Luti Under Trees (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2018

[ii] Ephesians 2: 15-16a Common English Bible (CEB)

[iii] William Sloane Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 6

[iv] George W. Stroup Feasting on the Word David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)

[v] Katheryn Matthews, Household of God (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[vi] Ibid. Luti.

God Inspired Joy

Philippians 4:4-9

(Sing: If your happy and you know it clap your hands)

That’s a fun song to sing… when I’m happy. But what if I’m not happy. I mean, I can’t be joyous all the time, can I? Sometimes I don’t what to clap my hand or stomp my feet; sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m feeling apathetic, or sad, or afraid and I find no joy when I’m feeling those emotions.

But Paul says that we should “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS” Always. So, what gives? Is he saying “put on a happy face” or “fake a smile” no matter what’s going on around you? I don’t think so. That doesn’t square with we know about Pauline theology or even the rest of today’s text. No, I think Paul was talking about something beyond momentary happiness, he was describing to the church in Philippi, and to us, what a deeper sense of joy might look like even in tough times.  

You see, Paul know about tough times. He was in prison and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians was written as much to himself as it was to them. Because, being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, I think he was writing to himself as much as he was to others. Because, you see, we’re not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”[I]

And it’s in our response to the challenges of life, that “…we begin to find and become our true selves; it’s when we notice how we are already found by God; how we are already entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”[ii] And it’s in this discovering of ourselves, our authentic selves, that we find this deeper joy, this unsurpassable peace, that Paul espouses.

“Well, that great,” you might say, “but how can I find this deeper joy within myself, really?” Glad you asked. When we read this text, we tend to focus on the “rejoice in the Lord, always” part and maybe the “excellence” part, but there’s a key line in this passage we often ignore. Verse 5 reads: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” followed by, “the Lord is near.”

Now, you could easily read and understand this passage without verse 5; “Rejoice, in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything, but in everything…” Okay, it makes literary sense but Paul though verse 5 important enough to include. Why? Well, if we desire a deeper sense of joy, if we long for a deeper sense of inner peace, Paul says, we must show an outwardly gentleness.

As I thought about gentleness, I remembered a cute story I heard many years ago. It seems that an elderly woman took her freckle-faced grandson to the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws. “You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line teased the grandson. Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head. But his grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles,” she said. “When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles, freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandma’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”

Now, that’s one way to let one’s gentleness outshine bullying. I mean, the grandmother could have chastised the little girl, called her a name back, or the grandson could have punched her. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the grandmother chose a non-violent solution.  And believe me, it’s not always easy.  It’s not always easy to espouse and practice non-violence in a violent world. It’s not always easy to “turn the other cheek” when someone calls you a name, or trashes your family, or belittles your faith. We’re taught and eye for an eye, right? But you all know Jesus took that Old Testament sentiment and turned it upside-down.  He offered, no, he commanded us to seek non-violent solutions.

You know, Gandhi once said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in though, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress toward it”[iii]  

And I think that’s the golden nugget here. Paul’s “letting our gentleness be known to everyone,” is finally not a weakness; it’s a strength. My friends, it’s when we find the strength to practice non-violence, as individuals and as a nation, that we can truly begin to love our neighbors in earnest.  It’s when we find the courage to “turn the other cheek” that we can truly feel the presence the God. And, it’s when we practice gentleness, and all those “excellent” things Paul listed, that we can truly gain a deeper sense of inner peace; it’s then, that we can truly “rejoice in the Lord, always.”   

My prayer for all of us in the days and weeks and months ahead, is that we will find that “always.”

May it be so. Amen.  

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[i] Rev. Dr. Douglass Oldenburg. It’s Your Choice (www.Day1.org) 1996

[ii] Quote from Anne Lamott in Who Does God Say We Are? Katheryn Matthews (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Mahatma Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018