Earth Day Reimagined

Third Sunday of Easter: Frustration and Hope

The LORD is merciful and righteous; our God is compassionate. The LORD protects simple folk; God saves me whenever I am brought down. I tell myself, You can be at peace again, because God has been good to you. You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk before the LORD in the land of the living. Psalm 116:5-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

As I read this passage from the Book of Psalms, I was struck by the line, “The LORD protects simple folk.” I think I was so struck by that line because sometimes in our pursuit of all that is lofty and holy, in the race to discover the right philosophy or the proper theology, we forget that God protects “simple folk” like you and me.

Now, the term “simple folk” could be taken as derogatory. Sometimes simple is equated with a lack of education or wit. But I don’t think that was the intent of the author here. Instead, I think he was attempting to illustrate that God is not only on the side of the rich and powerful but that God is also protects the average Joe, like you and me.

So, what if we were to expand this understanding of simple folk beyond just this passage and remember that God is the God of all people and all of creation, even the birds of the air and the weeds of the field. God is the God of the simple. And it’s within this simplicity that we find a deeper meaning of how to follow Christ.

I mean, Jesus never asked us to recite a creed or to seek power, fame, or wealth. He never said step on the head of your neighbor or exploit the poor in order to get ahead. Of course not. But what Jesus did command us, in the simplicity of his message, was to be a loving people. He said things like, “love God, love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemy,” and finally, we are to “love one another as God has loved us.”

I can think of no better way to overcome our frustration as the days of sheltering in place continue. Love one another by refusing to put your neighbor in danger. Love one another by keeping in touch by phone or from a distance, especially those who are alone during this time. Love one another by continuing to give to the food pantry, by continuing the work of peace and justice by supporting our church both prayerfully and fiscally. Love one another, especially on this Earth Day weekend, by using your voice and vote to promote policy change, both locally and nationally, because even when this pandemic is over, the existential threat of climate change will still be a danger to all of us.

In his book Cathedral on Fire, Brooks Berndt says, “The sheer enormity of the climate crisis combined with the empire-sized forces that brought us to this moment can instill a paralyzing sense of powerlessness. Yet, Jesus’ ministry points to one of the gifts that churches bring to the climate movement: a new reality, a reality defined by liberating values and practices. In the face of odds that seem overwhelming, churches provide a relational web of sustenance and support. Bonds are formed. Needs are met. A common purpose is shared. This is the stuff of tangible hope.”[i]

While Brooks was speaking about the climate crisis here, I think these words of hope and the role of the church can also be applied to this on-going pandemic. “This is the stuff of tangible hope.” It’s a hope that’s propagated within and among a group of people who love one another in the same way God as loved, and continues to love, each of them. It’s a love that expands beyond the frustration of the times, and it’s a love that transcends borders, ethnicity or race, it transcends social standing or past mistakes; this love, the love of Christ’s followers for one another, their neighbor, their enemy, will in the end, transcend these days of isolation and fear. And I don’t know about you, but the simplicity of this message and the love for one another that I have already witnessed on the ground by our congregations, that gives me cause to hope. I tell myself, the Psalmist writes, You can be at peace again, because God has been good to you. …So, I’ll walk before God in the land of the living. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Brooks Berndt Cathedral on Fire: A Church Handbook for the Climate Crisis (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2020) pg.24

Repaired by Hope

John 20:1-18 Easter Message

There’s an old story about a man who was in a terrible accident and he was comatose for 30 years! He finally woke up and was amazed at all the changes in the world. The Internet. Technology. All the advances in medicine and science. He started reading book after book about all the changes in the world. A few months later he had an appointment with his doctor, and he said, “All these changes in the world are amazing!” And the doctor said, “Yes, absolutely. So many wonderful things have happened in the world.” And then the man said, “Of course, I still believe that the greatest miracle ever is the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning.” That’s when the doctor said, “I guess you haven’t got to the part about the Cubs winning the World Series!” [i]

Well, the Cubs not-withstanding, I agree with the man . . . nothing surpasses the message that Christ the Lord is Risen! But the truth of it, the relevance of it, the great heartbeat of it, well, that’s up to us alive.

What do I mean? Well, I believe with all of my being that the Love of God is alive and well in the world today. And it’s because the Spirit of God journeys with us that we can face these troubling days, that we can endure this time of isolation, and that even as we mourn the loss of so many people to the Covid19 pandemic, we can find hope.

My friends, we can have hope, when can share hope, we can rely on hope, because God is with us. But there’s a challenge of being in the presence of the Risen and Living God and the challenge is this: it’s not something we can keep for ourselves. The grace and the blessings and the love that we’ve known in our lives, even in our darkest hours, is something we need to share with others.

Why? Well, as we gather virtually today, I would invite each of us to consider the things we admire most about Jesus. What was it about this wandering Rabbi, this first-century prophet, that has captivated the imagination of millions and millions of people across the centuries?

First, he was a person of profound compassion, bringing good news to the poor and healing to the brokenhearted. He reached out to everyone who had been wounded by life, including those who had been wounded by organized religion. He transcended ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and status in society. And instead of judgment, he brought understanding. Instead of revenge, he brought forgiveness. And in the face of power, he brought courage for justice and fairness and respect for all people. Most of all, he brought a profound sense of hope, believing that betrayal and violence do not have the last word. Nor do our personal disappointments or heartaches. As long as love beats inside the human heart, then a new humanity is possible. That’s the Easter message we celebrate today.[ii]

It’s a message of grace and faith and love. My friends, our Easter message today is one that proclaims the veritas of Spring in the midst of lifelessness, healing where there was once, only suffering, and the light of hope penetrating the darkness. Our Easter message for today is one of life over death.

Now, as I considered this understanding of Jesus and Easter this week, I came across a wonderful set of 7 affirmations from a UCC congregation in Los Angles. 7 Affirmations we would all do well to consider on the Easter Sunday.

  1. We affirm that the gospel of Christ calls us to speak to our times, as it did to all our Christian ancestors.
  2. We affirm that God’s love shines equally on all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic background, or religion.
  3. We affirm all creation is God’s handiwork, and that we are called to respect, protect, and nurture it. Not exploit it.
  4. We embrace the diversity of our state and nation, and seek respect for women, refugees and immigrants, different nationalities, minority groups, the poor, and the disadvantaged in our society.
  5. We resist those who use hate, anger, and intimidation to divide us, and who use speech, disinformation, and actions to demean others.
  6. We resolve to make our church a safe space for all people of good will and to welcome them with dignity, respect, and compassion.
  7. We commit ourselves to make our church a vibrant place for ideas, a faith informed not only by Scripture, but by reason, experience, scholarship, and scientific knowledge.[iii]

You know, there’s so much brokenness in the world. A brokenness that’s not limited to “them.” Everyone, including you and me, carries something broken inside our soul. But what if we could live-into these 7 affirmations? What if they became our mantra? Would we not display to even a greater degree those qualities that we admired in Jesus? Might some of the brokenness of the world and within our own beings, be repaired? Repaired by hope.

My friends, God is alive, and God is still speaking in the world today, even when it’s beyond our capacity to understand. And it’s in the presence of God that we are being repaired by hope each and every day.

I invite you now to hear a story of life over death, a story being repaired by hope, I invite you to hear once again, the story of Easter!

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.[iv]

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[i] Scott Colgazier. Easter? It’s Up to You! (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2017

[ii] Ibid Colgazier

[iii] Adapted Statement of Faith, First Congregational Church, Los Angles California, 2017.

[iv] John 20:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)

When In Doubt, Doubt

John 20:19-28

Today, as the season of Easter continues, we begin a series of narratives about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. But, as you probably already know, these “stories” and more importantly, their purpose, vary greatly from gospel to gospel.

What do I mean? Well, consider that Mark ended his masterpiece of a gospel with a cliffhanger. We might even call it “a resurrection with question marks.”[i] You see, in the original text of Mark, there were no resurrection appearances, only a handful of frightened woman returning home. Now, “Luke, Matthew and John, writing generations later, embellished the story, adding multiple appearances and new miracles by the risen Jesus. I don’t know, maybe they had better intel than Mark. Maybe they created fiction for a people craving hope. Or maybe they had a lived experience of a Christ who kept showing up, shaping and saving their lives.”[ii]

But here’s the good news for us as we continue to endure the isolation and unknown of this pandemic: a double-thousand years later, we pick up these four stories, and as we consider them within each context, we are invited to discover our own sense of resurrection. My friends, the original Easter story has never ended. Resurrection isn’t limited to history but instead it goes on, in endless song, above the earth’s lamentations. Resurrection isn’t an ending, but rather, it’s only the beginning.

Now, the strange new world we’re living in may lead us to believe that resurrection is only a thing of the past. I’ve heard time and again across these past weeks, that this pandemic is the end of days. And I realize that a narrow view of the situation may seem that way. This disease may seem like the end of the story. The reality is that we will not all be raised from our sickbeds or our tombs. Some of us will lose our jobs or the businesses we have spent a lifetime building. Marriages that might have made it otherwise, absurdly pressured by quarantine, will end in divorce. And maybe worst of all, some of our loved ones or some of our neighbors may lose their lives just as some of our fellow citizens of this nation and this world, have already lost theirs. We mourn each and every one of these losses and offer prayers of hope and healing for their families and their friends.

But here’s the thing. After all of these endings, there will be new beginnings; some of them visible, tellable, others beyond the veil of earthly life. My friends, Easter is not a history lesson with a tidy ending, but an invitation to look past death in all its disguises. The problem with a lamentation proclaiming the end of days is that it doesn’t allow for resurrection. Yes, you may sometimes have to endure a year of Good Fridays, but in time, Easter will always arrive. It is as inevitable as a sunrise after the long night.[iii]

And it’s with this understanding of the on-going-ness of Easter that we encounter Thomas today. Thomas the disciple. Thomas famously dubbed “Doubting Thomas.” But is this a fair or even accurate portrayal of Thomas? And if it is, what is it about doubt that frightens so?

I mean, in the text, Jesus doesn’t seem to be afraid or even put-off by Thomas’ need to see for himself. Actually, Jesus is rather matter-of-fact towards Thomas. He walks right in, bids him peace, and says, “Here Thomas. Put your hand here and touch there.” It’s as if Thomas’s doubt is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, the word for faith and the word for doubt come from the same Greek root. It’s as if they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s as if you can’t have one without the other. If your faith doesn’t have any doubt mixed in with it, it’s not really faith, it’s certainty.[iv]

And therein lays the problem. The most frightening words in the language of the Christian faith are “God’s will is…” Why? Because to claim to know God’s will, to be certain about the nature of God, is nothing more than hubris. And as you already know, we are challenged by Scriptures to practice humility, the opposite of hubris. We are invited to dwell in the Mystery of God. Because, you see, certainty is an end in and of itself. Certainty doesn’t allow for growth or discovery, or the expansion of the mind or faith; certainty doesn’t allow for new relationships to form. Certainty stands in the way of the gracious God-given invitation to contemplate our doubts, and own them, which then frees us to begin to discover our own sense of resurrection.

You know, Frederick Buechner once said, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[v]

I read about one theologian who tells his students that knowing God is not like knowing whether you’re hungry. It’s more like music. “Like the knowledge of music,” he says, “the knowledge of God is something that can never be fully attained. It’s a knowledge which always leads to a kind of unknowing.”[vi]

I would like to leave you with one final thought today. In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about people who would come to her because they had trouble believing. Some believed “less than they thought they should about Jesus. They were not troubled by the idea that he may have had two human parents instead of one, or that his real presence with his disciples after his death might have been more metaphysical than physical… For others, the issue was that they believed more than Jesus. Having beheld his glory, they found themselves running into God’s glory all over the place, including places where Christian doctrine said it should not be.” In the midst of these conversations, and her own questions, she said, “I realized just how little interest I had in defending Christian beliefs. The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold, I stand at the door and knock…’ Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief.”[vii]

Thomas, I’m convinced, was a beholder. But what was it that Thomas beheld? Was it, Jesus’ eyes, piercing and deep? His face, open and available? The way Jesus walked into the room, gently but with authority? These are the features we’d normally look at to recognize a person. But no, Thomas wanted to see the wounds, the nail holes, the pierced side. He wanted to witness the epicenters of pain.

If like Thomas you’re feeling doubt about discovering your sense of resurrection, whether life will really win out over death, then it’s time for you to look into the wounded places in the world. You need to be in touch with people who are wounded, people who are down and out, people who are poor, people whom the world has forgotten or despised or rejected. You need to be in these places because at one time or another we’re all the ones who are wounded. And it’s in these wounds that we will finally find the Living Jesus.[viii]

My friends, as you turn off your device today and go back to your exile, my prayer for all of you is this: When in doubt, doubt. If you’re suffering, seek healing. If you’re struggling with fear, that you will let your faith shine through the darkness. And when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, that you will pray to discover your sense of resurrection.

May it be so for you and for me. You’re all in my prayers. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Molly Baskette This Is Not the End (www.ucc.org/stillspeaking) 2020

[ii] Ibid. Baskette

[iii] Ibid. Baskette

[iv] MaryAnn McKibben Dana “Doubt Your Faith, Have Faith in Your Doubt” (www.asermonforeverysunday.com) 2017

[v] Ibid. McKibben

[vi] Michael DeLashmutt, quote from the Christian Century.

[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 110.

[viii] Ibid. McKibben.

 

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[I]

This is of course The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. And I began with this poem today because this concept of diverging roads looms large in this text and in the world today. Let me explain. In our Palm Sunday story from Matthew today, we see Jesus entering Jerusalem from the east. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, however, suggest there was also another parade that day. There was a Roman procession entering from the west, a military parade, featuring the governor Pontius Pilate.

Now, the comparison of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast. One came as an expression of empire and military occupation whose goal was to make sure Israel’s oppressed masses didn’t find deliverance. It approached the city with mighty horses, weapons and helmets gleaming in the sun, proclaiming the power of empire. But the eastbound procession was quite different. Jesus came in on a donkey, the humblest form of transportation (after walking I suppose) And the crowds, the crowds were spreading cloaks and laying branches on the road in front of him, all the while calling out, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven.” The west road was about spreading fear. But the Traveler from the east, he came proclaiming the peaceful reign of God.[ii]

Now, historically speaking, these two competing parades are well documented. We know they both took place. But theologically speaking there’s another road I’d like you to consider today. The one less traveled as it were and that road is the road to Emmaus.

You remember the story. Jesus appeared mysteriously to a couple of disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples thought he was just another pilgrim heading home. As they were traveling along, these two disciples tell the incognito Jesus of their shattered hopes and dreams. A dream of liberation from Rome and a hope that rested on the shoulders of the great prophet whom they thought would redeem Israel.

Remember now, the concept of redemption for those disciples, and for many other Jews including Judas Iscariot, meant that a conquering, sword-wielding Messiah would come and lead them to freedom. They wanted a warrior messiah. So, you can understand why their hopes and dreams had been crushed by the death of Jesus.

But, that’s when it happened. Jesus, still a stranger to the disciples, proceeded to explain to them that their expectation for a Messiah had been accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But they still hadn’t identified him at this point. Upon arriving in Emmaus, however, the disciples invited the stranger into their home to share a meal and stay the night. Jesus agreed. And when it was time for supper, he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. It was in that moment, that they recognized the Risen and Living Christ.

So, here we are. We have three roads, three journeys, each containing a distinct message. Pilate’s message was “might makes right” and he could back up his claim with the mightiest military force on earth. But Christ’s message was a little different. Maybe we could say his message was, “right makes might.”

You see, as he mounted the donkey that day and as he began to move into Jerusalem, he knew what lie ahead. He knew he was headed toward the cross, toward his execution, toward his death. But he went anyway because he knew it was the right thing to do.

But the story doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end at the cross nor does it end in the tomb. Remember, the third road, the road to Emmaus. Now, this narrative has often been viewed as a message of faith or as a reflection of the sacrament. Others have lifted-up the hospitality of the two men and used them as an example of how to offer a wide welcome in our communities and churches today. All these applications are correct. But I think it goes deeper than that, especially considering the parade of palms.

You see, on the road to Emmaus Jesus was moving outward, away from Jerusalem, symbolically moving away from the cross of death and toward the resurrection of life. So, this story is finally about taking the good news out there taking out a message of hospitality, and sacrament, and faith.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The road to Emmaus is the completion of the palm laden, triumphal journey into Jerusalem. It’s a completion of Christ’s journey in this world, but not ours. Our journey continues. It continues as we attempt to live-into our covenant with God and as we live-out our faith by enduring these troubling times, by remaining in the service to our neighbor, and by propagating community in spite of our isolation.

As we figuratively “hit the road” today, we can ask ourselves a couple of key questions that may facilitate our journey. As a congregation, what palm leaves have we spread? In other words, during the “quote/unquote” normal times and during this period of global upheaval how have we made a difference in our community and in the world? And on a more individual level, on a more Spiritual level, where have you seen Jesus? At a stop along the road? In the sacred, healing bread of communion? In the giving or receiving of hospitality? Perhaps by being there, if only on the phone, with someone who’s frightened, or grieving, or alone?

My friends, as we once again move into Holy Week, my prayer for all of us is that we will come full circle and complete our Lenten journey, by encountering the Risen and Living Christ on whatever road lays ahead. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] Robert Frost. The Road Not Taken. (found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org)

[ii] John Crossan & Marcus Borg. Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome, and the Kingdom of God. (Living the Questions DVD Series, 2010)

Come Out!

John 11 The Story of the Raising of Lazarus

“God never forces us toward life or love by any threats whatsoever. Yes, God seduces us, but compulsion? Never. Whoever this God is, he or she is utterly free. Love cannot happen any other way. Love flourishes inside freedom and then increases that freedom even more.” [i] I read these words in a devotion by Richard Rohr this past week and I was struck by his underlaying premise. A premise which I believe can be broken down into a couple of simple but poignant statements. First, “God is God, and we’re not God” and the second statement is this, “God is Love and so are we.”

You see, there are many things in this world that are beyond our control. We cannot control the weather or natural disasters or even this on-going pandemic, but, we can control how we respond to adversity. We have the ability to choose to be safe, to be concerned about the health and wellbeing of our neighbor, and we can choose to be generous even in face of this on-going crisis.

Now, this is not to say that God caused this pandemic as some sort of punishment for wrongdoing or as an incentive to change. I don’t think God works that way. Perhaps it’s more like Richard Roar said, “God never bullies us to be loving” but rather that “love is both who we are and who we are still becoming.” It’s like the sunflower seed that becomes its own flower. Like the acorn that becomes the mighty oak. Like the child that grows into an adult. Within each of us, there is what Aristotle call “potentiality.” The potential to be all that we were created to be. And a huge part of reaching that potential, for us as people of faith, is to display the love that God has called us to share.

And here’s the really cool part. It’s a love that reveals itself in the final and full message of the Risen Christ. It’s a love that’s without borders and is beyond time, and yet, it literally fills the space between every atom and finds its voice in the breath of humanity. God literally “breathes” love into each of us and all of creation with the life-breath of the Sacred.

Now, at this point my might be saying, “That’s great philosophy, but how this going to help us in the real world, in a time of real trouble, during a very real pandemic?” Great question, glad you asked.

The story of Lazarus, that we have before us today, is much more than simply a tale of resurrection and it’s more than just a story about the deep, loving friendship between Jesus and Lazarus. Today’s Scripture lesson touches upon the human experience of loss, it brings to light the very nature of grief, and finally, this is a story about restoration. This narrative is also about an audacious hope, the profession of faith, and a familiar, powerful response to the question, “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.”[ii]

Come and see. I read a powerful example of this by an author identified only as A. Byrne. She shared these words with us today, “[In] mid-February my husband passed away. Ten days later, his sister passed. Grieving has been chipping away for several years as I cared for and watched them suffer. I did not anticipate that grief would arrive with a new face via the coronavirus. For now, I take comfort in the words of Henri Nouwen: “Hope frees us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us.” I think what God is asking of me is to trust and take one day at a time. Not always easy, but there it is.”[iii]

You know, there may be any number of things clouding our vision in these troubling days. Perhaps grief or loss, anxiety or financial troubles, perhaps hatred, or resentment, or the isolation caused by this pandemic have put us in our own tomb of despair. But this is where Scripture can comfort us. Along time ago, in a far-off land, Jesus stood outside that tomb and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” And, my friends, God is still speaking to us today, calling us out from our tombs of despair, denial, and death, calling us to new life, right here, right now!

I’m going to leave you now with the words of a longtime friend and colleague who now serves the United Church of Christ in our national office. In a liturgy she wrote for today Elizabeth Dilly writes:

“Come out! Jesus commands, and calls us from the tombs of our existence into the brightness of a new day. Come out, Jesus cries,
and unbinds us from the chains of our past. Come out, Jesus calls,
and entices us into a world filled with grace and possibility.

So. Go out! Go out into a world that needs our life, our breath, our spirit! Go out into a world that needs the Spirit of God, carried on our lips and in our loving arms. Go out into the world to live as God’s resurrected people! Go out and go on the breath of God’s holy wind!”[iv]

 

My dear ones, we cannot physically “go out” in this time of social distancing, these days of isolation. But we can go out in spirit, we have the technology reach-out to the lonely and to each other. We have the resources to lift-up the most vulnerable in our society and we have do have the faith, my friends, to indwell love, to be love, and to share love; God is love and so are we!” God is love, and in these difficult days, so are we!”

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[i] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for True Self (Jossey Bass: 2013) 176-178.

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Conversations That Unbind Us (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[iii] Ibid Rohr

[iv] Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, Come Out on the Breath of God. (www.ucc.org/worshipways) 2020

The Light

Well, here we are. Isolated. Sequestered. Some of us are self-quarantined while others are practicing social distancing. Words that, quite frankly, weren’t even in my vocabulary just a few short weeks ago. But here we are.

Now, as we turn to our lectionary narrative for today, we see that Jesus is once again “on the move.” Even as we’re hunkered down in our homes, we can see the dynamic movement of Jesus in the wider world, if we are willing to metaphorically replace our blindness, whatever that blindness may be, with a deeper insight into the perspective of John’s account of Jesus’ life.

And as we continue this Lenten journey toward a deeper insight, the first thing we encounter is the continuity of this imagery that John uses between darkness and light. Remember, two weeks ago we met Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus as they came together under the cover of darkness. And from that encounter, Nicodemus, who wrestled with the meaning of what it meant to be “restored from above,” perhaps gained his first tiny glimmer of Light. And last week, in contrast to the midnight visit of the religious leader, Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman in the light of the midday sun at Jacob’s Well. A simple woman who was an outsider in both of their cultures, but who, in the end, was able to more fully grasp the deeper insight of Jesus than the learned religious leader. And as a result, she was sent out to share Jesus’ message of grace and hope with her people. And today, our journey takes its next step, as Jesus comes upon a man who was born blind. Here’s the story.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So, the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

Later…

Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?” He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.” The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Healing. Healing is an interesting animal. Healing can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. And it’s been my experience that all three of these types of healing are interconnected and interdependent upon each other. Healing can come in an instant like a lightning bolt or over the course of time like a long, slow sunrise. And sometimes, healing doesn’t come until after we’ve departed this life.

This week’s healing story is the lightning bolt kind. It’s about Jesus giving sight to “a man born blind.” Now, in this text, John uses “seeing” as a metaphor for faith and for the process of discovering the nature of God. And even though the healing itself is sudden, the man in this story makes his way, like most of us, toward faith and understanding, over the course of time, through a process of encountering the long, slow sunrise of being in the loving presence of the Divine.

Now, this former beggar’s openness and growth in his faith contrast sharply with the fearful, hesitant questions of his neighbors and the downright judgmental reaction of the religious establishment. While the other characters in the story remained unchanged by this encounter, the healed man’s life was transformed, and he found himself in a very different place; he found himself not only able to see but restored and reunited within community.

Now, John told this story and used these images of seeing and not seeing, of darkness and light to help an early Christian community find themselves in the story. They knew what it felt like to be driven out of the synagogue by the religious authorities, to be expelled from their “church home.”[i]

Sound familiar to anyone? We’ve been expelled from our church home, from our faith community, from social interaction with our neighbors, not because of religious persecution, but because of this on-going pandemic. And this where we find ourselves in the text today. We’re isolated in our homes like the blind man was isolated. We’re practicing social distancing like this man was distant from his society. My friends, we were thrust into a situation that was not of our own making just as this man who was born blind, found himself living under circumstances which were not of his own making. And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that this man lived, every day, with a sense of fear and longing, because most of us find ourselves griped by a fear of the unknown and a longing for the way things were.

Now, that being said, there are really three questions we must ask ourselves as we endure this on-going global crisis. The first question we must consider is this: How will we take care of our neighbor? The man born blind depended upon the generosity of his neighbors. Imagine the fear in being blind within a society where there was no social safety net. The man was left with no recourse except to beg by the roadside. He was thoroughly and completely dependent upon the generosity of his neighbors.

Many of our fellow citizens in this nation and this world face this same kind of fear. Exacerbated by this pandemic, imagine the fear of the poor and the marginalized, who are and will continue to be, disproportionality hurt by the circumstances under which they exist. Our task then, is to find remote ways to help. One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) is one way among a myriad of others. Today we would have taken up our OGHS offering. If you wish, you can still send a donation into either Delta United Church of Christ or Cable United Church of Christ or in Cable, you also have the opportunity to sign up for on-line giving. You can access that opportunity through our Website. My friends, the folks who were struggling before will be at an even greater risk now. I encourage you to seek out and find ways to reach-out to the most vulnerable in these difficult times.

The second question we face is this: How will we continue to be in community with each other? Well, community doesn’t have to be nurtured face to face. Especially with the technology available in our time, we can view messages like this one, speak with family and friends and neighbors by phone, email, text message, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Facetime, Snapchat …and so and so on. The point is this. We can communicate and pray and share our joys and concerns with each other through these medias. And in the days and week and isolating months to come, it’s especially important that we reach out to our neighbors who are at home alone through all this. We can do this. We can continue to be in community.

Which leads us to the final question we must ask ourselves during this pandemic: How will we take care of ourselves? Beyond reach out to help the most vulnerable, beyond maintaining community, we must also care for ourselves. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we must find ways to get through this difficult situation.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, yes the same Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who brought us the five stages of grief, says this about enduring trying times. She writes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”[ii]

My friends, we’re all beautiful people. We beautiful people who can and will get through this. We are beautiful because we’ve been formed by our experiences, both good and bad. We’re beautiful because each of us has on multiple occasions “found our way out of the depths.” And it’s because of these trying times that we are now able to be more compassionate. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the deeper insight of this text. It’s how we respond to both success and failure, to triumph and adversity, that finally makes up our character. The response of those gathered at the blind man’s healing was lukewarm at best, cynical at worst. The response of the Pharisees was to conserve their tradition, to adhere to the letter of the Law, by trying to discredit Jesus. Both of these positions demonstrate a character that was less-than-desirable. Both the crowd and the Pharisees are left wanting.

But not the blind man. Yes, it took him a bit of time to come around, but in the end, he saw the Light as it were! The Light of the World. The Beacon of Grace and the Illumination of God’s Love that was expressed in the person and life and teachings of Jesus.

One final thought. Our Hymn of Response today would have been #584 in the New Century Hymnal, I Am the Light of the World composed by a man named Jim Stranhdee as he responded to a Christmas poem written by Howard Thurman. And since we cannot sing it together today, I’d like to close with these wonderful words from the final verse. “to bring hope to every task you do, to dance at a new baby’s birth, to make music in an old person’s heart, and sing to the colors of the earth.” And then from the refrain, “If you follow and love you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.”[iii]

May we, in these uncertain days, follow and love and continue to be in the process of learning the mystery and meaning of our existence. And as we do these things by remembering and reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society, by participating even if it’s at an arms distance in community, and by practicing self-care. My friends, in these difficult times my all remember that we are beautiful in God’s eyes and we are all being held in the loving embrace of the One who calls us, forgives us, and heals us. It’s in Jesus that we can summon the courage and discover the hope to move forward.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen & Amen.

———————————————

[i] Katheryn Matthews I Am Because We Are (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[iii] The New Century Hymnal #584 I Am the Light of the World (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press) 1995

Restored

Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou.

We, unaccustomed to courage exiles from delight live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.

Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies old memories of pleasure ancient histories of pain. Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity in the flush of love’s light we dare be brave
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.
Yet it is only love which sets us free.

 John 4:4-15

As I began to think about the message for today, I came across the following TED talk, which I also posted on my Blog and on Facebook: It’s called The Danger of a Single Story by a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Here’s her story. Growing up in Nigeria, she lived a comfortable, middle-class life on a university campus where her father was a professor and her mother was an administrator. This meant that her family, like many others of that social class in Nigeria, had “domestic help.” When she was eight-years-old, Adichie recalls that a new house boy named Fide came to work for them. Her mother told her only that he was from a poor family in a neighboring village. Now, Adichie was moved to pity by the boy’s poverty. All she know of his family is that her mother would send them extra food and old clothes. That was her “single story” of him. He was a poor boy.

So, when she visited Fide’s home one day, she was shocked to discover that this family was more than just the sum of their poverty. Fide’s brother showed her a beautiful patterned basket that he had made. That didn’t fit into the “single story” she had in her head about Fide’s family: she didn’t think they could do anything but “be poor.”

Her story continued, but in reverse this time. When Adichie came to school in America, she was dismayed that her roommate asked her how she learned to speak English so well. English is Nigeria’s official language. And when her roommate asked her to play some of her “tribal” music, her roommate was dismayed this time when Adichie played a Mariah Carey CD. She describes her roommate’s “default” position as “patronizing, well-meaning pity” because she had only one single story of Africa. And that single story, western culture tells us, is one of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

For her roommate, that single story was easy to understand, and she didn’t seem to know how to encounter and engage Adichie as an equal, as someone who was like her in many ways, as a complex person shaped by many different stories.

Of course, life would be so much simpler if everyone has a single story. A story that shows them as one thing, as only one thing, and then we would be able to tell that single story over and over, until they become that thing. This is about power, of course, when somebody else decides what your story is and, therefore, who you are because of it. That’s where stereotypes come from, and we all know how helpful stereotypes are, right? Adichie goes on to say that to engage a person properly we have to engage all the stories that have made that person who they are.

So, holding onto this idea of the danger of a single story, we come to our text about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

Now, like most of you, I’ve heard and read this story many times; it’s one of my favorites. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the Bible and who he has this “longest conversation” with. He chose to sit and talk with someone who was on the margins of society in many ways. First, she was a woman and a Samaritan woman at that, she was a person who’d had many husbands and was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. So, many in her day would boil all these circumstances down to the single story, a dangerous single story. According to her culture she was an outsider and to Jesus’ culture she was an unclean sinner.

And we need I think to hit pause here for a second and consider contextual significance of this scene. Jesus, as a Jewish male, was not even supposed to talk to a woman who was not his wife, let alone accepting water from a sinful foreigner. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear, right? [i]

But, as we often see with Jesus, rules are made to be reinterpreted. Rules, or the Law, as the Bible calls it, was intended to lead people flourish, to be healthy, to find abundance. Too often the Law, however, both then and now, casts judgment, excludes the outsider and the most vulnerable in favor of those with the most power.

But Jesus doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s only welcome to this Living Water if she repents and changes her sinful ways. No. Jesus doesn’t put any conditions on receiving the Living Water of God’s grace because God’s grace is a free gift available to all people. This is an understand of the Law as embedded in grace rather than judgment. Instead, Jesus, in this pivotal story in John’s Gospel, is just sitting there with her, sharing a cool drink in the hot noonday sun, listening to her, and treating her like a beloved child of God, because she was indeed a beloved child of God.

And speaking of sharing a cool drink of water, recently, Becky, Manny, and I watched a couple of seasons of a show called A Series of Unfortunate Events based on the popular Lemony Snicket book series by Daniel Handler. And all of these month later something that the main character Lemony Snicket said has stuck with me. He said, “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”

You know, this quote has special meaning today as we consider the fear surrounding this growing pandemic. Now, we’re NOT called to tell people, “don’t be afraid.” Of course, people are afraid. We’re afraid because we care about one another. We’re afraid because there are so many misleading rumors out there about what’s going on. We’re afraid because the security we’ve become accustomed to has been disrupted. We’re afraid because the road ahead is unclear, our immediate future is unknown. We’re afraid because quite frankly, there’s been a lack of responsible leadership or even a coherent message around this current pandemic. Of course, people are afraid.

However, our calling in this moment, I think, our calling as a people of faith and as citizens of this nation, is to figuratively sit with each other in our common fear, even if sitting together literally is unwise. But the challenge that we face is this: in these uncertain times we cannot let our fear eclipse our faith. Our faith, as you all know, is based on what the Apostle Paul called greatest among all the virtues: Love: love of God, love of neighbor, love for the least and the lost and the lonely, love for the marginalized and the oppressed and the poor in our society, love for the stranger and the enemy and the friend alike, love for the refugee and the immigrant, love for those who practice our faith but in a different way and love for those who practice another religion or none at all, love for all people and all of creation. Fear leaves love in the Holy Temple, as Maya Angelou so poignantly observed, rather than recognizing it’s liberating presence within and around us and among us.

My friends, God is that Love. This moment isn’t a time to succumb to our fear, rather, this is a moment in time to let the light of love and the courage of our faith illumine the path for those living “coiled in shells of loneliness” so they too might experience a love that comes into our sight to “liberate us into life.”

My friends, as go from this place today, as we go out-there, into the unknown, may we do so with a myriad of stories, with a wealth of courage, and may we do so in lock-step with a God who chose to restore a fallen, foreign woman, from a different religion, nation, and culture, a woman who in many respects, is a lot like you and me.  And as we sit with each other in our common fear, over the course of the next days, weeks, and months, may we let our faith in God and each other be our hope.

May it be so for you and for me, Amen and the people of God said, Amen

 

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Reflection on John 4 (www.ucc.org/sermonseeds/samuel.com) 2020

Bold Blessings

John 3:1-9

The need to be “born again” or in the contextually better translation “to be renewed from above” is at the heart of this story about the midnight encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. But, as most of you know, the meaning and therefore the application of this famous passage is often misunderstood and thusly, it’s either used as a litmus test for who’s in or who’ out of heaven or it’s completely ignored. Today, I submit that neither extreme, neither solution to Nicodemus’ question is sufficient.

Let’s begin with a real-life illustration about misunderstanding the meaning of being renewed from above and then we’ll take a look at the text itself in more detail.

Back when I was a student-pastor of a small suburban church in Iowa, I was called upon to officiate the celebration of life service for a young man with no church affiliation who was killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to evade the police. Not an easy task for any pastor let alone a rookie. But there we were. So, on the day of the service, our little church which held maybe 150 people was packed with over 300 friends and family of the young man. He was a 20somehting and the vast majority of the gathered crowd were 20somethings. He, as I said before, was unchurched. And when we began to attempt to sing the first hymn, notice I said attempt, most of those young people didn’t know to open the hymnal to find the words of the hymn. We were probably on the final verse of Amazing Grace before even a smattering of the group figured it out. This told me that they too were unchurched.

Well, long story short, the hospital chaplain that co-officiated with me gave a beautiful, grace-filled time of remembrance. I preached a message of forgiveness and grace and of God’s acceptance of all people. The young man’s father and a good number of his friends spoke words of loss and they remembered the good and joyous times they had spent together. His AA sponsor spoke of his struggles and his courage in the face of addiction. It was a moving and I dare say and holy experience.

Now, fast-forward to the funeral lunch following the service. I had a man approach me. He turned out to the young man’s uncle. And even though his wife was visibly trying to dissuade him, he felt the need to express his disappointment and disgust with me over the content of the service. After what seemed like an eternity of being brow-beat, he closed with “you missed an opportunity here today. The Bible has been fulfilled, the end is near, and all of these young people won’t be saved! You have the chance to save all of these people and you failed!” he then stormed off, got in this car a drove away.

Now, as you might imagine, I was kind of upset by his comments. I didn’t agree with him, but was he right on some level? Did I miss an opportunity to bring salvation to many that day? So, I shared my worry with the very seasoned chaplain who had co-officiated the service with me. And in his wisdom, he used this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus to open my eyes to the deeper message of Jesus. Now, I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but the following summary captures the essence of his wisdom.

In verse 9, the Pharisee says to Jesus, “How are these things possible?” Isn’t that the sixty-four thousand question for us as well? How are these things possible? How are the miracles we see around us every day possible? How is community possible? How is the unconditional love of God, possible?

Of course, in the story, Nicodemus was asking a different kind of question. He was questioning how he might go back into his mother’s womb in order to be born again. Which, as he rightly points out here is non-sense. And its non-sense because he was being too literal. “Like most texts in John’s Gospel, [this story] is rich with symbolism, missed connections and double meanings.”[i] And to discover and investigate this richness is important.

So, what are these symbols, missed connections, and double meanings? Well, first consider the images of darkness and light. These symbols are present throughout all of John’s account. He says that Jesus is the Light shinning in the darkness, the Light of the World, the true light that enlightens every person, and Jesus is the one who gives sight to the blind. And even though Nicodemus has come to the light, he has yet really seen the light.[ii]

So, it’s important for us to understand that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus was in the dark, he was confused, and he was seeking something, but he didn’t know what that something was. But even after laying-out, in pretty stark detail, the symbolism of light and darkness, the double-meaning of wind and Spirit, (The word in Greek pneumatos is the same for both wind and spirit as well as breath) So, Jesus said the wind blows where it chooses which has both a double meaning and is symbolic of the Spirit freely moving within creation. Even after all that explanation, Nicodemus missed the connection; he still didn’t quite follow.

And Jesus gets-on him a little bit here, doesn’t he? Jesus says in essence, “You’re a teacher of religion and yet you still don’t understand?” Why. Because again, Nicodemus was listening to the teaching on a surface, literal level while Jesus was speaking on a much deeper spiritual level.

And this is the mistake many still make today. They try to reduce the symbolism and the missed connections and the double-meanings in this text to a literal litmus test for salvation. But here’s the thing. When we as the faithful do that, when we are reductive regarding Scripture, we miss the real message that Jesus has to offer here.

What exactly do I mean? Well, “the Greek word from which “save” (so-zo) comes is also the root of words meaning to heal, to preserve, to do well, and to be made whole.”[iii] In our context, we’ve reduced this word, along with being renewed from above, to a “one time, static achievement. “I’m saved that that’s-that” But the first disciples, those who followed Jesus in the earliest days of the church, called themselves “The Way.” The very name itself suggests that quite the opposite was true. They followed Jesus and preached a message of salvation that was dynamic, communal, and always, always in progress. They were always on “their way” toward salvation.[iv]

And if we can open ourselves to this broader definition of what salvation can mean, if we can open our hearts and commit our lives to a deeper understanding of what healing, and preservation, and doing well, and being made whole might look like, it’s then that we are truly living in the process of being “renewed from above.”

My friends, there’s no litmus test you can pass, no creed you can recite, no altar call you can answer, that will “save you.” It’s like we’re fond of saying in the United Church of Christ, we believe in “testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith.” My siblings in Christ, God loves you and God calls you to indwell that love by actively seeking transformation, renewal, and restoration deep within yourself; and God is leading you to share that love within and beyond this community by seeking peace, and practicing justice, and by reaching out by loving those others have deemed unlovable; and God is challenging us to BE that love to all people, to be kind, and to be gracious, and to be truthful, and to be ethical, and to be faithful in all of our interactions with others, even those with whom we disagree. That’s the essence of salvation. We can love because God first loved us. That should be our creed. That should be our testimony of faith.

Which leads us back to that celebration of life service that I spoke of previously. All of those unchurched young people shared their testimony of faith that day. You see, by their presence and through their willingness to gather in community for prayer and restoration, in their attempt to try and find some meaning in the death of their friend, and I would add, even through their meager attempt to sing Amazing Grace, these young people began a process of renewal, a process of moving toward wholeness, of being “saved” as defined by John’s Gospel and in terms of feeling the healing presence of God in that community and in that moment. A healing that no amount of bad theology or propagation of end-of-days fear could have produced.

And perhaps some seeds were even sown that day, seeds of grace or compassion or faith, and maybe, just maybe, some of those seeds sprouted later on, with a viriditas, a greening from the inside/out like a twig in the spring time transforms from a life-less gray into the living-green shoots of “wholeness”. Who knows? The Wind blows and the Spirit works wherever she chooses.

So, here’s my hope and my Bold Blessing for all of you. May that same healing, that same viriditas, that same understanding of salvation, that we’ve discovered in John’s words today, lead you though this season and all the seasons of life that lay beyond this one. May find your place in this story and may you find your “renewal from above” in whatever form that renewal may take. And may you find healing, genuine healing, the God-gifted healing that starts on the inside.

May it be so. Amen & Amen

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[i] Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2004) pg. 105

[ii] Ibid. Borg. Pg. 105

[iii] David M. Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2012) pg. 215

[iv] Ibid Felton Pg. 215

From the Heart

Micah 6:6-8

What does God require of us? Micah says we are to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God. Doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? We’re all kind people, most of the time anyway. We attempt to practice justice by loving our neighbor, most of the time anyway. And we’re humble enough when it comes to loving God. But is most of the time enough?

In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the prophets of Israel were about two things. Their ministry included both criticizing and energizing. The prophets criticize the elite, they disturb our status quo, they question the reigning order of things, they help us to see the normal state of affairs in a different light, and they advocate for a new way of living every dimension of life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, and political. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent. Brueggemann says that when we read the prophets we should expect “a slap on our helmet.”

But the prophets, he goes on to say, also energized God’s people. They comforted the afflicted. They intended to “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future.”  They weren’t just negative naysayers. One of the functions of a prophet was to offer positive affirmation, and encouragement. Brueggemann concluded his remarks by saying, “Yes, the prophets dished out the vinegar; but they also gave us honey for the heart.” [I]

So, bearing in mind the vinegar and the honey, the two faces of a prophet if you will, let’s take a deeper look at this passage. But as we begin to do that I think we must first consider the meaning of humility. The common connotation of the word “humility” is “to be taken down a peg,” right? To be humble is to lower one’s self to the level of others. But humility also carries with it, overtones of repentance. One often has to be haughty or arrogant or prideful before one discovers humility.

Now these are all good definitions and helpful for us to understand our place in the order of things. But I think Micah was driving at something else here. Consider that he uses humility as the descriptor for being in the presence of God. And not just in God’s presence but actually journeying with God in this life.

This is fascinating considering the common theology of Micah’s day. Remember the God of the Hebrew Bible was “other-than,” God was literally believed to be in the Holy of Holies, in the Arc of the Covenant, in the center of the Temple. There was no Jesus yet. There was no understanding of an incarnate God, yet. There was no wider understanding of God being with or journeying beside anyone.

Or was there? Think about some of the earliest writings in the Bible, the Psalms. In the Psalter, some of the writers there seem to have a personal understanding of the divine both in creation and within the events of their lives. Even Genesis uses human characteristics to describe God, God walking in the Garden of Eden for example. And there were many incarnational visions, especially among the prophets, of what a messiah might look like, a warrior, a king, a liberator, a servant.

My point here is that Micah was really ahead of his time theologically. He’s proposing that humility should ultimately be endowed with an understanding that God is not “other-than” but instead “present-with” us as we walk through this world.

And this is no small thing as we look at this prophecy of Micah. He was criticizing the elite class of his day. Before and after this text he’s anything but hopeful. Micah said that God would cut down, destroy, demolish all of their buildings and their idols, their cities and even their horses. Real gloom and doom kind of stuff. At one-point Micah even says, “I will make you a sign of destruction, your inhabitants an object of hissing!”

Now, this is important to the contextual integrity of this text. Micah wasn’t a fortuneteller looking into his crystal ball, he was looking at the failure of the nation and what that failure would most likely cost them. What was that failure? They failed to live up to their covenant with God. God’s covenant challenged them, as a nation, to care of the widows and orphans, to provide relief to the suffering and liberation of the oppressed. But they weren’t doing that. In fact, Israel was doing quite the opposite, the were stuck deep within that trap that I alluded to earlier; the trap of “I’ve got mine, too bad for everyone else.” Does that sound familiar to anyone as we think about the state of our nation today?

But, it’s not all hopeless. Remember Brueggemann’s words. A prophet was also tasked with energizing the people. And it’s this energizing grace that lays at the heart of this passage. What do I mean? Well, inserted among all of this doom and gloom is a short message of hope; a message to show them, and us, a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. And what does this flicker of hope look like? What does God require for hope to win the day? God as told you, human ones, what is good and what is required to express that goodness. “Do justice, embrace faithful love,” older versions of the Bible say, “love kindness,” and finally, “walk humbly with your God.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the nugget that we can take-away from this articulation of hope. These “requirements” are not disconnected from one another. They’re interdependent. Like the peanut butter and the chocolate in a Reses cup, each one is enhanced by the other.

I mean, what does it mean to “embrace faithful love”? Maybe it means going out of our way to share random acts of kindness? How? Well, how about smiling at a stranger just to brighten their day or giving a hug to a friend who’s down so they might feel the literal embrace of faithful love? I don’t know. Maybe walking dogs at the humane society just because you can? There are so many examples of this. So many ways we can be kind.

But if being kind represents the little things that we can do to share an embrace of faithful love, then doing justice takes it to the next level. Doing justice is kindness on steroids. Doing justice is taking those random acts of kindness and intentionally acting in such a way that brings the embrace of faithful love to the whole of society. Doing justice means changing our narrative from “I’ve got mine” to “we’ve got ours.” Do you see what I’m driving at here? Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. This is important so I’ll say it again. Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. The two are inseparable.

So, when we take-action, when we live-into our covenant with God as a people and as a nation, when we’re just to each person and kind to everyone, we’re sharing our embrace of faithful love. When we advocate for the rights of immigrants, we’re sharing the loving embrace of God with the “widows and orphans” who are seeking something greater for themselves and their loved ones. When we march to raise awareness of the on-going disaster of climate change and when we challenge ourselves to address and reduce our own carbon footprint, we’re embracing the planet with the love of God. When we propagate peace, both within ourselves and to the ends of earth, we’re offering the peace of Christ to everyone as we coexist in this world by respecting all forms of religious expression. And we do all of these things, my friends, all of these things, not of our own accord, but as we walk humbly, side by side, and hand in hand with each other and with our Creator.

Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen


[I] Dan Clendenin. Micah: Prophetic Critique and Pastoral Comfort (www.journeyingwithjesus.net) 2017