A Prophetic Witness: A Voice of Reason in Unreasonable Times

Jeremiah had been telling the people: “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, or famine, or by disease. But whoever surrenders to the Babylonians will live; yes, their lives will be spared. But the officials said to the king: “This man must be put to death! By saying such things, he’s discouraging the few remaining troops left in the city, as well as all the people. This man doesn’t seek their welfare but their ruin!” So they seized Jeremiah and threw him into a muddy cistern within the prison quarters.                     -From Jeremiah 38

When I read about Jeremiah’s troubles, I couldn’t help but think about the state of our community and our nation during this ever-worsening pandemic. And for a couple of weeks now I’ve been mulling over what “a prophetic witness” might look like during such troubling times.

The first thing I came to realized is that none of us can predict the future, nor should we try. Like all of the prophets we encounter in the Bible, we’re not fortunetellers. Biblical prophecy is never about predicting the future, it’s always about improving the present.

So, bearing this in mind, how are we called to be living examples in this moment? How are we being challenged to love our neighbor in the midst of Covid-19? Well, we can do this by wearing a mask in public, by limiting our contact with large groups, and by continuing to worship and meet online. We can BE the Church by putting public safety before our own desire for things to “get back to the way they were.”

Now, I understand that holding the line on these issues isn’t easy nor is it popular. It seems like everyone else is going back to normal. Other people don’t wear masks, other people are gathering in large groups, eating out, enjoying life. Other farmer’s markets have resumed and other garage sales are going on. Other churches have resumed their in-person services. Why can’t we?

Well, this is where Jeremiah can help us out a bit. In the passage I shared above, Jeremiah was actually thrown into a cistern, into the mud at the bottom of a pit, because he stood up for public safety. Jeremiah stood up for what was right even though it wasn’t mainstream or popular. You see, he knew that his community was about to be overrun by the Babylonians. And he knew that to stay in the city and fight would mean certain death. So, he advocated for surrender, for exile. He encouraged his people to choose life over death even at the expense of their personal freedom.

Now, we’re in a similar situation. We’re being asked to give up a little bit of our freedom as this pandemic threatens to overrun us. We’re being challenged to keep our church building and our Farmers Market and our Second Chance Sale closed even though it’s not mainstream, even though it’s not popular. But like Jeremiah, we must hold the line by putting the welfare of the general public before our individual desires. Like Jeremiah, we are being asked to choose life over death.

So, how do we do this? How can we continue to be the church even as the building remains closed, with the farmer’s market cancelled, and as the garage continues to be shuttered. How can we endure this loss of freedom?

Well, I think it’s important to remember that freedom doesn’t mean we have the right to do whatever we want. Freedom is instead a responsibility. It’s a responsibility, in this case, to love our neighbor by demonstrating and advocating for the health and safety of the majority over the desires of individuals. Freedom means accepting our time in the mud for the greater good of all of God’s beloved people.

My friends. Be safe. Be well. Be a prophetic witness!

Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

 

 

 

With or Against?

A Message about Compassion.

A Reading from the Ninth Chapter of Matthew’s Account of the Good News.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God on earth. He cured every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The great Henri Nouwen once said, “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, I share this timely quote with you today because it’s a wonderful explanation of the nature of compassion. But compassion goes even deeper than Nouwen’s quote. Compassion can be expressed in more ways than one might think.

Maybe think of it like this. You’re out walking one day and you see a stranger stuck at the bottom of a pit. What do you do? Well, you could just mind your own business and walk right on by, but that wouldn’t square with your calling as a person of faith or as a human being for that matter. The second option might be to go for help or a ladder or a rope. All would be acceptable acts. But there’s a third option here. You could jump down in the pit with the stranger. Now, the third option is an illustration of compassion. Compassion calls us to “suffering with” someone in distress. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the part of compassion that you might not expect. We’re not called to stay in the pit. Compassion invites us to climb out of the pit …together. In other words, compassion calls us to be with another person in need and to work with them to find our way out of the pit, toward wholeness, toward God. And it goes without saying then, that being with someone who’s struggling, or grieving, or suffering injustice, means not working against them. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth.

Now, Jesus, in our text for today, looked out across the crowds that were following him and the narrative says, “He had compassion for them.” In other words, Jesus was with them in their struggles as they suffered injustice at the hands of the Roman Empire. And he was with them as they tried to square that injustice with their spiritual lives. Jesus said they were like sheep with a shepherd.

The interesting thing I see here is that Jesus, no matter how many sick people came to him, no matter how many times his disciples questioned or doubted, no matter how many times he was accused of heresy or breaking the law; no matter how many suffering people Jesus encountered, he persisted in proclaiming the good news of the present-reign of God. The text says he “cured every disease and every sickness.”

And as we look beyond this passage to the rest of the gospel, we encounter a Jesus who didn’t care about one’s past mistakes, one’s religion, one’s status in society; he didn’t care about one’s national origin or race, he didn’t shame anyone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or lifestyle; Jesus didn’t judge people based upon on any of these criteria, he simply loved them; he simply had “compassion for them.”

So, how might this passage speak to us in our present situation? I mean, as the privileged majority, do we stand with the disadvantaged minority who are suffering racial injustice or do we work against them. Jesus’ answer seems pretty clear. We’re to have compassion for those who are struggling. We are to suffer with those on the margins of society, those who have suffered violence because of the color of their skin.

Now, despite all of the negative things going on right now, I have seen many wonderful examples of compassion. In one instance a group of police officers put down their shields and joined in a protest march. In another instance, I saw two uniformed police officers playing basketball to two young men. Time and again, I’ve seen examples good policing.

But at the same time, the deep scars of racism still pollute the minds of some, even of some police officers. My grandma would have called them, “a few bad apples.” And that, from my perspective, is what these peaceful protests are all about. Yes, there are other “bad apples” who are taking advantage of the unrest to loot and steal, and to complicate things even more, there are white supremist groups whose goal is to stir up trouble and cause even more civil unrest. But by and large, what I have witnessed are white and black and brown people, and police officers, and community leaders, and elected officials, coming together to create change, real change in law enforcement practices. And please, I implore you to tune-out the political pundits from both sides of the isle, no reasonable person wants to get rid of the police. “Defund” is a misnomer. The goal is to encourage reform through the reallocation of resources; the goal is to bring about a greater unity and a deeper understanding between peace officers and people of color, so that policing will become more just, more humane, …more compassionate.

One final thought before I move into our community time of prayer. Jesus ends this passage by saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” My friends, the harvest of injustice and racism and hatred in this nation is indeed plentiful. It’s overwhelming sometimes and it’s been exposed as never before in my lifetime over the course of the past three years. But we are called to stand against oppression, to use or voice and our vote, our prayers and our protests, to either physically or in spirit, go out as laborers into the harvest, effecting change through sharing the good news of the present reign of God in this world, and by having compassion on all whom we encounter. The Lord of the harvest has called us, the few, to stand up against the injustice of many.

But here’s the good news, the few are ever-expanding, growing in numbers and spirit every day. In the end, we will live-into the justice and equality that God intends for all humanity. I’m going to leave you today with the immortal words of Dr. King, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bend toward justice.” May we as compassionate harvesters, become a part of that arc-bending; may we as people of faith, begin to move past the evils of racism and into the fields unity, co-existence, and grace. May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/seeds/samuel) June 14, 2020

I-God: The Ideal, The Inspirational, and The Intuitive

In observance of Earth Day several years ago, the Associated Press asked astronauts who had returned from space to recall what it felt like to look back at the earth. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, whose 1968 pictures of our planet became famous as “Earth Rise,” spoke eloquently about perspective: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”[i]

You know, sometimes it’s prudent to take a step back and reflect for a moment in order to gain a fresh perspective. I think that’s what all of us need today. A moment of reflection. Of course, we can’t gain our new perspective from a “Bill Anders” vantage point, but we can look at the current chaos in our nation and our response as people of faith with new eyes.

Now, as I said before, today is Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the trinity is something that could benefit from a little new perspective. I mean, I’ve been at this theology thing for a good number of years and, over the course of that time, I’ve progressed and grown in my understanding of trinitarian theology. Like most of you, I began by just accepting the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one, without question. When I became a student pastor I quickly transitioned to the more inclusive and welcoming Creator, Christ, and Spirit.

But then came seminary, with all its fancy terms like perichoretic coactivity and homoousios, and just between you and me, I was more confused than ever. So, I kind of set the trinity aside. Oh, I found ways to speak of it once a year on Trinity Sunday. I compared the trinity to three forms of water, (ice, liquid, steam). Then I likened the trinity to relationships (I’m a husband to my wife, a father to my kids, a son to my parents, three different relationship, some person) Actually, that one still works pretty well because it get at the relational aspect of God.

But it still wasn’t quite enough. So, about a year ago I began to revisit the concept of trinity. I read a book by Richard Rohr called Divine Dance and that launched my quest for a deeper comprehension and a re-invigoration of my personal trinitarian theology.

Now, the premise of this book, as the title indicates, is to recapture an understanding of God as three-in-one by adopting the image of an unending dance. Creator, Christ, and Spirit, ever-twirling, ever-dancing, ever circling one another seamlessly dancing together within the mystery of the Trinity. Rohr then uses this illustration to demonstrate to us that God is in fact “community.” A community that exists among the three-persons of the Godhead and their coactivity, their movement, he contends, is always dynamic and fluid, thus, the image of the twirling dance.[ii]

Now, you’re already familiar with this concept of the divine dance because it was the core of my sermon on the Trinity last year. But my quest didn’t end with Richard Rohr and this eastern concept of the “whirling dance.” A couple of weeks ago, as our nation continued to sink deeper into crisis, I began to wonder what image of the trinity might be more practical, more healing, more hopeful in the midst of all that’s going on. So, I came up with and new perspective, a Bill Anders view from outer space if you will, I came up with the concept of “I-God.”

I-God is a practical application of the trinitarian formula for the 21st century. It’s basically the three “I’s” of the trinity: the Ideal God, the Inspirational God, and the Intuitive God. This is how it works.

The Ideal God is God as creator, mystery, other-than, the More. This is the transcendent part of God that is often beyond our grasp. How is this practical? Well, one of the most basic ideas out forth by Scripture is that God is God and we’re not. The Psalmist says that God created humans “only slightly less than divine.”[iii]

Now, the Inspirational God is an extension of the Ideal. It’s not enough to simply realize that God is mysterious, we must also understand that God is around us. Incarnate is the theological term. Jesus, of course, is the face of the Inspirational God. Jesus inspired his disciples back then, and people of faith still today, as he healed taught them and us about justice, forgiveness, and compassion, living-out those qualities all the way to the cross. And Jesus inspires all of us, above all else, to be love and he challenges us to put that love into practice. A love that when practiced becomes more than a mere concept; it becomes a part of the very fabric of our being.

And it’s this indwelling of love that constitutes the Intuitive God. The Intuitive God is the Spirit of the living God within each of us and within all living things. The Spark of the Divine. The Consciousness of God dwelling within each person. The Intuitive God is the part of God which compels us to speak out for justice, stand up for equality, and to seek peace. The Intuitive God is the part of God in which we “live and move and have our being.”[iv]

My friends, as this pandemic drags on and as the consequences of systemic racism continue to unfold, we’re not wrong to long for the kind of soul calming peace that came over us, as we saw, for the first time, those distant pictures Anders took fifty years ago.  But as history has once again taught us, we cannot truly have peace in this nation until we have justice for all. We cannot truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave until the privileged majority summons the bravery to stand up for the freedom of the disadvantaged.

But, my friends, if we summon that bravery, that courage, the courage to enact a new perspective, to live-into an updated understanding of God as Ideal, Inspirational, and Intuitive, then we can be nothing less than a faith community, and faithful individuals, who creatively find ways to become a voice for the voiceless, to advocates for racial equality, and to be promoters of non-violent resistance in the face of whatever kinds of evil we encounter. This is finally what it means to be Love …to be the Church!

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[i] Katheryn Matthews A Reflection on Psalm 8 (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2020

[ii] Richard Rohr Divine Dance (Whitaker House Publishing) 2016

[iii] Psalm 8:5 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iv] Acts 17:28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)