God is fire

(I preached this sermon on Pentecost, May 31, 2020.  You can find the full worship service atwww.ststephenlc.org).

Fire has three necessary ingredients – you need heat, fuel, and oxygen.  Take away any one of the three and a fire will either not start or it will be extinguished pretty quickly.  Heat is necessary for fire so that the chemical reactions can take place that produces fire or keeps it going.  Think of when you strike a match – the friction releases energy and heat.

Fuel is necessary because without something to burn, you don’t have a fire.  Think of any campfire you have ever been a part of.  The wood is the fuel for the fire.

Oxygen is necessary for fire to start or continue.  Without sufficient oxygen, the combustion process stops.  Think of putting a glass over the top of a candle and watch it suffocate itself out.

In 1989, Billy Joel, the singer and song writer, released a song – We didn’t start the fire.  Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between 1949, the year of his birth, and 1989, when the song was released.  It encompasses the history of most of the Cold War era, although he never intended for the song to be that.

The chorus between some of the stanzas of events goes like this:

We didn’t start the fire.  It was always burning since the world’s been turning.  We didn’t start the fire.  No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.

We didn’t start the fire that burns across the globe and especially here in the US right now.  It just shows up in different places, with difference intensities.  It consumes.  In some cases, it destroys and it kills.  Uncontrolled fire can do that.  Fire that is chaotic and unrestrained is destructive fire.  It will burn hot, take up any fuel that exists and suck the oxygen out in order to keep burning and it will never be satisfied.

Anger has often been associated with fire.  And for good reason.  The three ingredients of fire are present with anger too.  Anger gives us a warm feeling that can be comforting in an odd way when we are really upset and is addicting for some people.  Remember the last time you were angry – how did you feel?  Did you feel the heat, the warmth inside you?

Anger feeds on the fuel of our emotions, consuming parts of us to the point that our whole being is consumed by anger, and we lose perspective and reason.  When we see through the lens of anger, possibly getting to the point of rage – the fire is out of control.

And anger needs oxygen.  The oxygen that comes through the breath.  Anger is breathed out in words that are expressed. Some of those words are enough to cause a destructive spark – especially words that dehumanize and degrade others.  Just look at recent pictures of men and women yelling at police offices – their faces full of rage and anger.  The words we use to describe events and situations are fuel that adds to the fire.  It doesn’t matter if you are talking about the protesters or riotous thugs in response to the death of George Floyd or the protestors or armed intimidators at state capitols demanding that their state reopen.  The words we use to describe each group fan different sets of flames depending on whether you see either group as protestors or something else.

Leaving aside what we think of any of these protests.  Large groupings of embers have been building up, the heat has been rising, and there has been plenty of oxygen available.  All it’s taken is a small spark to get the fire going and burn out of control.

I don’t know about you, but I’m burning through a range of emotions right now. Multiple emotions over so many things.  Emotions that I didn’t know could be grouped together.  And honestly, I’m just tired of it all.  My patience has worn thin, or is non-existant any longer.  I don’t have answers.  I don’t even know what to think anymore.

I don’t know what to think about the pandemic.  100,000 people have died.  100,000.  Let that number sink in.  And yet so many people seem more interested in debating about whether wearing a mask or not signifies some kind of allegiance to a political party?  Really?  100,000 people are dead.  Someone people tell me at what point partisanship will take a back seat to more important things?  Please…

I don’t know what to think about the protests and/or riots – whatever you want to label them.  Each day new cities are ablaze in protest.  And I have to ask – do we assume that our own life experience is the norm by which we can judge others?  Are we the measuring stick?  if so, Why?  We could at least be consistent in how we use that measuring stick – applying it just as equally to those we support and agree with, instead of finding convenient excuses for anything that doesn’t measure up.  No, we aren’t the measuring stick – Jesus is. That’s what we signed up for when we started following Jesus.  And as we know, Jesus is complicated.  He preached and lived non-violence, and at the same time flipped tables in the temple destroying others’ property and disturbing the economic activity that was going on.  People didn’t like it – remember he ended up dead a few days later.  Was he rioting or was he trying to get people’s attention?  Or both?  Or something else entirely?  I don’t know.

Are the protestors wasting an opportunity to bring people to together?  Are there outsiders, either left or right wing paid whatevers masquerading as protestors to turn protests into something else, as has been reported? or was Martin Luther King Jr right when he said the following in 1968:  “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”  That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968.  Is it still true today?  Does it apply to this situation?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that the Gospel was made for a time like this.  It was made to be preached in the midst of chaos and crisis.  Not because the gospel stops conflict as if it doesn’t exist.  But because the Gospel is a fire – a different kind of fire – one that sheds its light on events.

You see, the gospel has been preached throughout our history, especially in times of crisis.  The fire of the spirit provides a light for us to see the gospel clearly – to see Jesus clearly.  The fire of the Spirit burns so we can feel it through our very being.  The gospel was preached on Pentecost – we heard it.  The Gospel isn’t something just to be heard though.  Rather it is an encounter with the living God.  The Gospel changes everything.  Some didn’t like it.  They ridiculed and rejected it.  We heard that too.

The gospel was preached during the civil war, another time of crisis – pastors preaching against slavery and some didn’t like it.  They said it was too political to preach against slavery.  The founder of Gettysburg Seminary, Samuel Simon Schmucker, vehemently attacked slavery, calling it a national sin. He exclaimed:

“As a patriot and a Christian, I feel bound to bear my testimony against the unjust laws relating to our despised and often oppressed colored population. . . .  some of the laws on this subject are direct violations of the laws of God. . . .  Until we have used our utmost efforts to purify our own statute book . . . we must stand guilty at the bar of heaven of participation in this sin.”

You see, we didn’t start the fire.  It was always burning since the world’s been turning.  We didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.

But did we? Are we?  Or did we just throw more fuel and heat and oxygen on the fire as a society?  I don’t know.  And I don’t know what kind of fire extinguisher we need to use to put it out?  Or even if we should?  I just don’t have any idea.

Fire can be destructive and deadly if it is out of control.  It’s always been that way.

Pentecost, or Shavuot in Hebrew, was a pilgrim festival that attracted large numbers of Jews to Jerusalem, just as we heard in the Acts passage.  It was an agricultural commemoration – the offering of the First Fruits of the wheat harvest, that later became a commemoration of God giving Moses the 10 Commandments.  The instructions for celebrating this festival from Deuteronomy were clear:  “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground…and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for this name (The Temple).”

Political struggles entered into this festival, too.  Josephus recounts that after 4 BCE, fighting and riots broke out in Jerusalem between Jews and Romans when the Roman procurator (The senior financial officer) wanted to seize some of Herod’s treasure, which the Jews felt by rights belonged to them.  The net result was a large loss of life on both sides.

We didn’t start the fire.  It’s always been burning since the world’s been turning.

Do you hear what’s underneath the Shavuot, or Pentecost, gathering in Acts?  Can you imagine the emotions that welled up in so many of the gathered Jews who were celebrating this festival telling them about the land given to them to possess and when they look around, it is Rome that possess it?  The words and the reality did not match up.  This Pentecost had all the ingredients necessary for an uncontrollable fire.  The heat of an unjust execution of Jesus 53 days beforehand burning within many gathered.  Fuel of the recent history of Jerusalem which experienced riots and multiple attempts to overthrow the Romans. And oxygen – words that could very easily feed the fire of deadly revolt that had happened so often.  But instead of a spark that sets off an uncontrollable fire, they are encountered by the Spirit which sets off a different kind of fire.  A holy fire.

This fire burns away things and ideas that have no life in them.  It burns away things and beliefs that have no value and add nothing to the Kingdom of God.  It burns these away in order to make room for new life.  To make room for the Kingdom of God.

We see this flame in the Pascal candle.  Representing Jesus.  And while trite sayings about God are nice and pleasant in good times, they are not helpful in times of crisis.  We are a world on fire.  We don’t need trite niceness.  We need God as fire – not an uncontrolled fire that consumes and destroys.  But a fire that cleanses and makes all things new.

Today we hear about God as fire.  Jesus breaths on the disciples gathered in the Gospel.  It’s oxygen.  And in Jesus’ breath the disciples and us receive the Holy Spirit.   Jesus says the words we need to hear – Peace be with you.  Not a peace that is weak, that avoids conflict and difficult situations.  Jesus doesn’t offer that – remember in this Gospel it was just a few days before that Jesus was executed – an innocent man was executed because he was a threat to the comfortable established order that exploited and oppressed people.  That’s why the disciples were hiding in a locked room out of fear – they thought they were next.  Jesus spoke words that offered peace to them and then he breathed on them the Spirit.  Peace is a way of living and being.  A controlled fire that clears injustice and oppression away.  There is no peace, real peace, without justice.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells us of the fuel that God uses – we are one body, many members.  We are embers that burn.  And we burn in different ways as the Spirit blesses us.  We are part of God’s controlled fire that sweeps through God’s creation.  We are invited to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God – a fire that clears away the brush of old sins that bring no life to anyone.

We hear of heat. Heat that comes forth from the Psalm and tells us that you Lord look at the earth and it trembles; you touch the mountains and they smoke.  That’s how much heat you have Lord.  But it is not a heat of angry fire.  Rather it is the heat of your endless love that you have for creation.  A fire that cannot be extinguished.  A fire that keeps burning in spite of our efforts to turn away from you in sin.  Thank you God for that fire – burn away our desire to turn inward on ourselves in sin.  Light a fire in us Lord that would transform us.

And Acts – it’s the spark.  It’s what takes what has always been present all along and lights it on fire.  It takes the elements that have always been there and sets them on fire to carry out God’s flame.  Not as chaotic uncontrolled fire, but rather what God has always been – bringing order out of chaos, moving the world towards the kingdom of God, towards shalom wholeness.

Borders and boundaries that humanity has used to separate and divide are burned away because they have no life in them.  The fire of the Spirit comes and burns away all things that do not give life.  The fire of God melts everything and everyone together.  And yes, there is opposition – those who don’t accept what is happening.  They ridicule and taunt because what this fire of the Spirit means is that their uncontrollable fire of wanting to in control will be put out.  And yet, the Spirit doesn’t care, it just does its work anyway.  Those in opposition don’t get to determine what God will do.  And yet, they are still invited to participate – not to be consumed in anger and destroyed.  Because that is what God is about – always inviting, always expanding the kingdom, always moving us towards shalom, always burning away the deadwood so we can see the image of God in others.

When I look around at the world right now, I see it on fire – burning uncontrollably and with more heat, fuel, and oxygen being added all the time.  And I don’t know what to do or to say.  I have a range of emotions that burn through me.  And in spite of all of that, on this Pentecost, Today, right now, the fire of the Spirit burns.  Maybe we don’t hear the sound the rush of the violent wind or see tongues as of fire over each other, but today is Pentecost.

The Spirit is here – it’s there where you are.  The fire of the Spirit burns.  The fire of the Spirit is out in this world.  It shows up to comfort and warm those who are afflicted and are mourning the loss of a loved ones who die due to the virus or racism or anything else.  It shows up to heat the food that is given to so many who are struggling to survive due to loss of income and employment.  It shows up in groups that clean up riots – burning away the debris.  It shows up in our worship – burning away our sins in order to make room for God and what God has planned for us.  The Spirit sets us on fire, ready to go out and proclaim a bold message – that the fire of God burns – a cleansing fire, a renewing fire, a fire that gives life.  May the Spirit transform us into the breath that provides the fire of mercy and forgiveness.  May the Spirit transform us into the fuel that serves our neighbors, that loves our enemies, and that opens our eyes to see the image of God in all.  And may the Spirit transform us into the heat that calls us to love – to love in an unquenchable way, like a fire that cannot be stopped.

We didn’t start the fire.  It’s always been burning, since the world’s been turning.  We didn’t start the fire – God did.  A holy fire.  Pentecost is the spark that got it going.  And we have been transformed by God to be the heat, the fuel, and the oxygen.  Let the Spirit burn within us.  Amen.

Prayer for May 28, 2020

Prayer for May 28, 2020: Please pray with me.  God who gives us our identity, open our eyes.  Open our eyes to see what you have created us for.  Open our eyes to see the Image of God in ourselves.  Open our eyes to see this in others too – especially those we deem our enemies.  Why is this so difficult Lord?  Why do we insist on our blurred sight that seeks to find enemies to conquer, rather than family members to love?  Why do we insist on making others in our own image, rather them seeing them and us made in your image?  What is it about being in control that we so desire?  Yet we don’t want the actual responsibility of being in control.  We’d rather blame you when something goes bad.  How childish is that?  Yet, you put us with us.  Again and Again.  Why?  Open us to new ways of being, to embracing the identity you give us.  Amen.

Why we are struggling and divided

One of the more disturbing aspects of the response to the pandemic is the exposing of how divided we are as a nation.  The division has been there for a long time.  One could argue that the division has always existed.  As soon as the Revolutionary War ended, there was division.  Having a nation didn’t solve that division, it only highlighted it.  That division took the form of political parties, among other things.  History tells us of the early divisions in this nation – divisions often around the notion of race and what to do about it.  But there were also divisions on the scope of government.  That’s what the two early political parties were founded on.

During the Presidency of John Adams in 1798, our second president, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed.  Here’s what History.com has to say about these acts:

“The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1798 amid widespread fear that war with France was imminent. The four laws–which remain controversial to this day–restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press.” (Source)

And that’s just at the beginning of the nation.  As the nation progressed there were division that resulted in a Civil War, in new emerging political parties that stood for opposing ideals and values, the role of government in terms of regulating business, all sorts of rights – voting rights for women, African-Americans, age of voting, etc.  Divisions around monopolies and taxes.  Divisions around poverty and how to deal with it.  Divisions around immigration – lots of divisions around immigration.  Divisions about war.

What we’ve had in this country is a paradox.  We have told ourselves from the very beginning that we hold in common a set of beliefs and core values – an identity.  The problem with this claim is that there isn’t evidence to back it up.  Yes, we have slogans.  Yes, we have stated ideals.  Yes, we have songs.  Yes, there are times when the nation has gotten along well together.  But history shows that the times of relative stability, unity, and peace as a nation are the exception to the rule.  We seem to have trouble living into the ideals we espouse – often completely ignoring those ideals or rejecting them in practice while still claiming them verbally.

Often this unity has come when we were threatened by outside forces.  It allowed us to define ourselves based on our enemies – we aren’t them.  We don’t stand for what they stand for.  But has there been a time of unity in our nation when we have been able to say with uniformity and not pointing to an outside force or opponent or enemy – this is us and what we stand for?  We haven’t been able to do this long term because we don’t actually agree on the meaning of the terms we all claim to believe in.

Ask two groups what freedom means – Pick any time in our nation’s history.  Can you find a common definition?  Freedom meant something different for the Robber Barrons of the late 1800’s than it did for the freed slaves of the South.  Even in today’s environment, words that are used by political opponents are not defined the same way.  We have two different (or probably many different) ways of defining common words.  We always have.  The word Freedom comes to mind.

Which gets to the heart of a core value of this nation – individualism.

Individualism has both positive and negative attributes.  In the positive, it frees us from forced association with others – allows us to be more fully who we were created to be.  And in the negative, it blinds us from seeing how connected we are to others around us.  Like most things, Individualism is neither good nor bad by itself.  It lives on a fluctuating scale.  In the extreme it comes off as narcissism.  But that’s not always the case.  It is individualism that allowed some of our greatest heroes to say and do the things they did – because they were not attached to or compelled by unhealthy conformity.

Why do we struggle as a nation so much?  There are many answers to that question. Here’s one that I propose.  We struggle as a nation because we are facing yet another time in which we struggle to answer the question – why are we here?  Both individually and communally (or nationally).  It makes sense that this struggle would impact us this way.  The ideals of individualism and community are at the core of our values and are the reason for our conflict.  We have had a difficult time weaving these two ideals together.  Our culture has never done well with ambiguity and paradox.  We struggle when there are more than two options or ways.  Our imaginations struggle to grasp the idea that maybe instead of either/or, that the answer may be both/and.

And so we struggle as a nation.  But this isn’t new.  This latest struggle to define why we are here – individually and nationally – has been going on for decades now, back to the end of the Cold War.  When the Cold War ended, we cheered.  We won!  We survived.  And then we realized something – how we defined our identity just changed.  We could no longer define our identity based on our not being the USSR, not being Communists.  What were we?  And we haven’t had a good answer since.

Is it any wonder that we’ve had two impeached presidents since that time – one from each political party?  Let me be clear, having no answer to the question of why we are here does not necessitate impeachment.  But it is a symptom of something deeper than just political division.  It is a symptom of a nation that has competing answers to the question of why it is here.

During this pandemic, I see another variation of this same challenge.  It comes out when I see the debate raging around the wearing or not wearing of masks, how to deal with the unjust death of black men and women, thoughts about saving the economy, debates about climate change, universal health care coverage, working conditions and pay, etc.  If we look at these issues in a compartmentalized way, we will miss what’s really going on.  We will run ourselves ragged chasing after each injustice.  We’ll get caught up in scoring political points.  And we’ll miss what it’s all about – who are we?  Why does this nation exist at all?

There are competing answers to those questions.  Just as there always have been.

While I admire and support the efforts to change society – to move us towards a more just society – I have a real concern.  If we focus on piecemeal changes or policies, we’ll always be playing catch-up.  And policies can be reversed very easily.  Just watch what happens when you change from one Administration of one party to the other.  Especially when it comes to Executive Orders – which is why I’ve never been a fan of these.  Easy come, easy go.

If you want to change the situation in the nation, I suggest we change our identity – we answer the question of who we are.  Not based on who we aren’t.  But based on a vision of who we are and where we are going.  That’s how lasting change takes hold and shapes policy and daily life and changes lives.  Change an identity and you’ll make lasting change.

And yes, I know this isn’t easy.  It’s really hard.  Maybe it’s impossible, I don’t know.  And we Americans are really bad at it.  But there are glimmers of hope.  We’ve done it before.  Read history.  We formed a nation.  We won a Civil War.  We expanded rights.  We protected lands.  We have ideals.  All of those came in conflict.  They came with a cost.  And there wasn’t unity.  We don’t seem to grasp the idea of coming to an answer through consensus.  We seem more inclined to do it by force – either militarily, electorally, or any other means available.

But remember, there’s individualism.  And that’s the challenge and the beauty.  It’s a challenge because most people have never done this for their own lives.  How are they supposed to cast a vision for the nation?  Which is why we shouldn’t wait for everyone.  We’ll be waiting forever.  All of those things I just listed above didn’t happen because we waited for everyone to catch up.

Instead, let us cast a vision together.  Let those who will get on board do so.  Let those who cast a different vision do so.  It’s not about beating out other visions though – that’s an endless struggle where no one wins.  That’s been the approach all along and it hasn’t worked.  We’re still struggling and doing things piecemeal.

Maybe it’s time to finally admit that we have competing visions and values in our nation.  Maybe it’s time to say let’s work together where we can and to live peaceably apart with those we cannot reconcile with.  Maybe we need a more realistic vision, one that doesn’t end in killing one another or endless conflict or degrading those we disagree with.

We struggle as a nation and are divided.  And those divisions grow deeper and deeper.  They blur our vision from seeing the Image of God in those we disagree with.  They blur our vision from seeing ourselves in our opponents.  We’ve always been a nation that has defined ourselves based on not being our enemies.  And that’s what we are doing now – only we see our fellow citizens as the enemy.  There is no need for an outside threat when an internal one will do.  Do we not see that this will not end well?  When will we reach a time when we don’t need an enemy to define what we are about?

So what is our identity?  I don’t base identity on nationality.  Nations comes and nations go.  Political parties come into existence and they die off, only to be replaced by something else that claims to have the banner of truth.

For me, there is only one identity that matters – a Godly identity.  God is love.  God has an identity – we read about it in Scripture.  It defines God’s identity and how God acts.  It determines what God does.  We see God’s identity in the story of creation.  We see God’s identity in the endless stories of God encountering creation and humanity.  We see God’s identity in Jesus – willing to go to death itself out of love.  Let us not wear rose-colored glasses though.  There are plenty of stories in Scripture that depict God as wrathful, vengeful, and murderous.  In other words, God is complicated.  And so are we.  That shouldn’t surprise us.

Maybe the vision for the nation isn’t based on unity, but on the reality of complexity.  That we don’t have one unified identity.  That we don’t share many common values.  Maybe the vision we cast is one based on the truth of our reality – that it’s complicated.  It’s not a high and lofty vision or identity.  But it is accurate.  And it opens us to imagine – maybe for the first time.  If we start from where we truly are and are honest about it, maybe then we would finally be free to actually envision what we can be, what we are called to together.

Prayer for May 27, 2020

Prayer for May 27, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of breath, you breath life into all creation.  It is through your breath that you bring peace.  You breathed life into the bodies in the valley of dry bones.  You breathed life into Adam.  You breathed onto your disciples at the Resurrection.  You breath and with your breath, we will.  Let us not forget that you are the author of life and that it is your breath that gives life.  Be with all those who cannot breath.  Give them breath so that they may have life.  Amen.

“I can’t breathe.”

“I can’t breathe.”

That’s the words a man said loud enough to be caught on video in Minnesota.

One story on the incident started this way – “A man exclaiming “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground and put his knee on the man’s neck for about eight minutes died Monday night…” (Source)

“I can’t breathe.”

Three words.  I wonder how many us can’t breathe right now.  Not in a literal way.  But for this man, and for so many others, it is literal.  And not breathing is costly.  It cost him his life.  He died with a knee on his neck.

Reminded me of two other quotes:

The first one is attributed to George Orwell – “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

The other quote is attributed to Gary Lloyd – “When the government’s boot is on your throat, whether it’s a left boot or a right boot is of no consequence.”

“I can’t breathe.”  A man says this while a knee is on his throat.  And he ends up dead.

This Sunday is Pentecost.  It’s the Sunday we celebrate the formal appearance of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Book of Acts.  And while the Acts reading will get most of the attention this coming Sunday, I was struck by the Gospel reading assigned for Sunday.  It is John 20:19-23,

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

I added the emphasis of “he breathed on them.”  Jesus breathed on them.

In this Gospel, we hear how the disciples are gathered together on the evening of the Resurrection – just a couple of days after the execution, or the lynching, of Jesus, as theologian James Cone labeled it.  The disciples are gathered for fear.  They are afraid – not generally.  No, they are afraid of a specific group of people – the ones who were yelling “Crucify him.”  While it’s not written, I think it is fair to say that they were also afraid of the Romans, the ones who actually carried out the execution, or lynching.

If your friend had been killed, how would you respond?  Would you be afraid?  Afraid for your life?  I wonder if that’s what African Americans across this country feel right now.

If you had witnessed or heard story after story of people being executed, or dying, at the hand of a specific group of people, how would you respond?  Jesus was one of many who claimed to be Messiah in Israel.  Many of them, and their supporters were put down by military force, through crucifixion, and other brutal means.  And stories of these executions would be well known.  But Jesus was different of course.  He wasn’t leading an armed rebellion against Rome or the Temple.  He was instituting the Kingdom of God – through the means of peace, grace, and mercy.  He did this even though he received none of this in response.

And then on the cross we are told he breathes his last.  And dies.  He could breath no more.  Death by crucifixion is really death because you can’t breath anymore.  You drown in your own fluids in your lungs.

But it is in the resurrection account that we heard about breath again.  In our Gospel account for this coming Sunday, we hear Jesus do something that we would not dream of doing right now in the midst of a pandemic – “Jesus breathed on them.”  A dead man brought back to life breathes on them.

His appearance in the locked room shocks them to the point that they don’t even hear what he says.  They ignore the fact that he breathes.  They ignore what he offers and what he says – “Peace be with you.”

Jesus repeats himself – “Peace be with you.”  And then he breathes on them.  And this breath is the Spirit.  It is a breath that will be fully felt at Pentecost in another room depicted in Acts 2.

Jesus’ breath brings life.  It brings a mission with it.  The disciples are sent.  They are sent out, with the breath.  They are sent to forgive or retain sins.  They are sent to do the work of the Father.  They are sent to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.  They are given peace.

How are we sent right now?  Are we like the disciples that can’t hear when Jesus show up and offers us a different way of being in the world?  Are we like the disciples that ignore what he says to them?

“I can’t breath.”  Are we listening?

“I can’t breath.”  What peace is Jesus offering right now, in the midst of fear and tragedy? What does it look like?  Peace isn’t wishy-washy and weak.  It’s active.  It is a way of being.  It doesn’t mean avoiding conflict.  It doesn’t mean surrender.  It doesn’t mean give in.  Peace isn’t a destination that we ever arrive at.

In this account of the Gospel, Jesus’ offering of peace is linked with breath.

“I can’t breath.”  A man utters these words and dies, without peace.

Without peace, there is no breath.

But Jesus, a man executed, whose breath is taken away from him, shows up in the midst of fear, in a locked room, and does the unimaginable – he breathes.  And offers a new way of being.  He breathes.  He breathes because not everyone can.

And as his followers we have an obligation to bring peace where there is none – to offer breath where none is available.

“I can’t breath.”

“Jesus breathed on them…”

 

Keeping church buildings closed is not a Constitutional Infringement

Keeping church buildings closed is not a Constitutional Infringement.  Not even close.  Here’s how I know.

The Federal Government and the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (where our church is located and who’s jurisdiction we fall under) aren’t trying to stop worship.  In fact, many government officials have offered supportive words for worship to continue – albeit in an alternative form than in-person.

There is not one news story in this nation about troops or police showing up at a pastor’s house, or a sanctuary, or anywhere else that a recording of worship or a live streaming of worship (with no in-person gathering) is taking place for.  Not one.  No government is trying to stop virtual worship.  No one is trying to stop Zoom worship or Facebook live worship.  No government agency is hacking into websites or shutting down church websites to prevent worship from happening.  No public declarations are being made about efforts to stop worship from happening.  No pastors are being jailed for leading virtual worship.

Virtual, and other forms of socially distanced worship is being publicly shared and disseminated and there are absolutely no efforts or attempts to stop worship from happening.

No church anywhere has to do worship in hiding when they do it virtually or through social distance precautions.

This isn’t about an evil government trying to step on Constitutional rights or squash churches and their First Amendment rights to worship.

The language of the First Amendment states the following:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There is no establishment being dealt with here, so let’s set that aside.  I think we can all agree with that.

Now onto the second part – “…prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  First of all, the Amendment deals with Congress making laws – it’s right at the beginning of the Amendment.  Congress is the subject of the Amendment.  Congress has not done any type of law pertaining to COVID-19 in relation to religion.  It has been state governments who have made recommendations and rules.  But even with that in mind, there is not a prohibition of the free exercise of religion going on.  We are worshipping just as we were before, just in a different platform.  As I mentioned before, no one is trying to stop the church from worshipping.

Here in Pennsylvania we look to the Pennsylvania Constitution which says in Article 1, Section 3:

All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship
     Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences;
     no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any
     place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his
     consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control
     or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference
     shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or
     modes of worship.

The governor has not violated this.  First, the governor never dictated to churches that they must close their buildings – it has always been a recommendation.  And many churches have followed this recommendation for the safety of their congregations.  They did this willingly as a precaution based on sound science.  This isn’t about living in fear – it’s about loving our neighbor and not willingly doing anything that could cause harm to our neighbor.

If you want to worship in person, you are free to do that. Gather together with other likeminded people.  Sing together if you wish.  Shake hands if you want to.  Do it in a place that you want that you have legal access to and are welcome to be in.

Just don’t demand anyone else accommodate you.  Don’t demand that your pastor attend and risk exposing themselves and their loved ones to a virus through you.  You do not have a right to control your pastor or church leadership to accommodate your demands.  Keep in mind this clause in the PA Constitution – “no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”  Your freedom does not demand other comply with you and your desires.  Those who wish to follow the safety guidelines have just as much right to withhold from in-person worship as you do to desire in-person worship.  And they would still be worshipping because there is no infringement on the right to worship.  Is there an inconvenience?  Sure.  But inconvenience is not the same as violation of rights.

There is no Constitutional violation going on.  The church building is closed…for now.  But it will reopen.  The building is not the church.  The people are the church.  And the church has always been open, active, living.  Regardless of what happens with a building.  Worship isn’t a passive activity where we gather to be entertained.  Worship isn’t about the focus being on me, me, me.  Worship is about God.  It’s about gathering together as a community to publicly proclaim that we are not the center of the universe and that following God isn’t about our wants and desires, but rather about conforming to the will of God.  Worship is about recognizing our place as creatures in God’s creation.  Worship is about dying to self so that we can be encountered by the living God so that we can be transformed and resurrected so that we may serve humbly and proclaim boldly God’s loving work in the cosmos.  Worship is about hearing the Word of God as the authority for our lives.  Worship is about our desires dying so that Christ can live in us and through us.

At its heart – worship isn’t about us.  It’s about God.  It’s not about our wishes and desires.  It’s about God.  If worship is about what we want, then it isn’t worship.  Worship is about God.

Jesus, Ahmaud, race, and grace

(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 17, 2020.  The sermon was in response to the Gospel reading – John 14:15-21.  You can find the full service at this link – https://youtu.be/rxrf0IjSViI)

I have never worried about going on a run.  Ever.  I’ve run 11 marathons and 16 halves and numerous other races of various lengths.  It’s not the races that I’m talking about though.  It’s the multitude of months of training runs – hundreds, if not thousands of runs over my lifetime.  I’ve run alone more times than I can count in all sorts of settings – in the neighborhood around my house, in parks, on trails.  I’ve run in small rural areas like the Cumberland Valley rail to trail.  I’ve run in small urban areas like the greenloop in and around Harrisburg.  I’ve run in large metropolitan cities – like NYC, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis.

I’ve had my share of difficult runs that felt like I wouldn’t survive them – mostly because of how I was feeling during the run.  But I’ve never worried about being chased.  Or shot.  But Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t so lucky.  We was a black man who decided to go out for a run, minding his own business.  He didn’t survive a 2.23 mile run he did in February.

By now you’ve heard the story about how he was chased by two white men who took the law into their own hands and ended up shooting and killing Arbery because they thought he was a suspect in a crime.

Let’s acknowledge something off the bat – talking about race is dangerous, especially in a primarily white congregation, in one of the most white denominations in the country.  It’s like going on a run through a field of landmines – careful where you step, or I might blow myself up.

The mere mention of the word race, like I’ve done, causes a multitude of reactions. And that’s not even saying anything about race – it’s just saying the word.  That should tell us something about our relationship with race.  For some reason we have no problem proclaiming that Jesus can break through the barriers of the tomb and overcome death, but we have trouble believing that Jesus can be a part of the conversion on a difficult topic like race?  Really, race is more difficult for Jesus than overcoming death?  We have no problem declaring that a brown skinned jewish rabbi is the Son of God, but we have trouble thinking that Jesus can be a part of the conversation and has grace to offer?  Does the Good News have a boundary that stops at the doors of race?

For some talking about race may cause them to stop listening.  For others, it may cause you to listen more intently.  Still others it may have some to jump to assumptions – assumptions like that I’m automatically labeling anyone who is white as a racist.  I’m not.  Others may assume that I’m going to lay some kind of guilt trip.  That doesn’t help.  Some may be relieved that we are talking about this at all – something that rarely happens in predominately white settings – as if race isn’t a thing and that it can be ignored.

Others will find this extremely uncomfortable – you may never have had to talk about or even think about race intentionally before.  You may not have any idea of what to say or think.  You may not see the point in talking about it or thinking about it.  You may fall back to a culture which has an underlying belief that we just don’t talk about things like this.  I don’t know.  And I don’t know the answer either.  And I don’t expect you to either.  And that’s ok.  We’re not going to solve anything here today.

It’s not about having the answers.  It’s about facing reality intentionally instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist.  Pretending that black people are being killed for no other reason than they are black isn’t working.  And talking about it doesn’t imply guilt or blame.  The problem isn’t going away.  Not talking about it hasn’t made it go away, nor will it.  All you have to do it list off the names of numerous black Americans who have died in recent years – many just minding their own business – going for a walk, driving in their car, sleeping in their home, pulling out a cell phone, and doing any number of just day to day things not breaking any laws.  Can we just acknowledge that something isn’t right about this?

Talking about race doesn’t make you a racist.  It makes you care about people who suffer injustice.  It makes you human.

We can look to our Gospel reading for some guidance on this.  No, it doesn’t specifically talk about race.  Mostly because the concept of race as we think about it today wasn’t invented until the 1600’s.  Today’s Gospel is part of what has come to be known as the farewell discourse.  It’s Jesus long goodbye message.   He knows what going to happen to him.  And he talks about it.  He’s going to be killed.  He doesn’t avoid it.  He doesn’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  He addresses it squarely.

By doing so he’s able to talk about the painful parts, but also the hopeful parts – a vision of the future.  The parts of promise.  You can’t get Good News by avoiding difficult topics.  You can’t get the hope of the future until you acknowledge the pain of the present.  The proclamation of the Gospel works this way – it highlights our brokenness to the point that we feel hopeless – that we can’t escape our fate on our own effort.  That’s true, we can’t.

We can’t be good enough to earn God’s love, or salvation.  We are incapable of doing that.  It is only in embracing who we truly are – broken, sinful – that we can fully appreciate the Good News and how truly good it is.  That’s what grace is all about.

Grace is different from Karma.  Christianity rejects the idea of karma.  Karma is getting what you deserve.  The problem with karma is that it is reliant on you and what you do.  It depends on how good you are.  We reject karma.  Instead, we proclaim grace and mercy.  Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and mercy is not getting what you do deserve.

Too often, when there is a discussion about race, it is based on karma.  It’s focused on blame and scapegoating.  It’s full of labeling and finding fault.  It’s hopeless.  No wonder we don’t want to talk about race.  Why would anyone?  But what if we approached race from a Christ-like standpoint?  What if we approached the unjust shooting of a black man through the lens of Christ?  What if we said, this isn’t right.  What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

You see, we can’t receive hope by avoiding talking about death.  You can’t fully be encountered and embraced by God unless we deal with crisis head on.  The same goes for injustice and fear.  Jesus faces these and brings the disciples along for the ride.

Today we hear the promise.  The promise of the Spirit of Truth.  And we hear of the reality – that the world cannot accept the Spirit.  Why?  Because the world refuses to see or know the Spirit.  The world puts its head in the sand, avoiding the truth.  It refuses to see the image of God.  It refuses to participate in what God has been doing all along – moving creation towards shalom – towards wholeness, completeness.  That doesn’t happen through karma.

It happens through grace and mercy.  It happens when we acknowledge reality.  Ignoring the reality of death doesn’t ease the pain.  Ignoring division doesn’t heal it.  Ignoring injustice doesn’t make it go away.  Ignoring the issues around race doesn’t move us forward as a society and a people.  It holds us back. It keeps us slaves to sin.  It keeps us in karma.  It just continues to cause harm and wounds for everyone – including those who ignore and pretend there isn’t a problem.

This is a passage of scripture that shows how broken we are.  And that’s Good News.  Because that means we can’t do this on our own.  We can’t follow Jesus’ commandments on our own like he calls us to.  They are too difficult to do on our own.  We can’t love our enemies on our own – one of the hardest commands Jesus ever gives.  History shows how terrible humanity is at the love your enemy command – even and especially within the church.  It’s too hard.  We can’t pick up our cross and follow Jesus on our own – the weight of the cross is too much for any of us.  We can’t love God on our own – we can’t even conceive of what that fully means.  We aren’t capable.  It’s not about how good we are.  It’s about how broken we are.  It’s about how good God is in spite of our brokenness.  It is only in repentance – radical reorientation towards God – that we can really appreciate what God does and who God is – God does it all.  And we benefit.

Not just individually, but as a community, as a people.  Because remember, God’s message is about shalom – wholeness.  We are not complete and whole by ourselves, individually.  We are only whole when we are connected.  And that goes beyond just the people we know.  It branches out to those we don’t know.  It embraces those that are our enemies.  It connects us to those we usually don’t even think about.  It connects us to people of other races, religions, cultures.  The Good News isn’t about our own personal relationship with God.

It’s about the restoration of all of creation, and we are a part of that.  And so is Ahmaud Arbury.  And every unarmed black man, woman, and child who has been killed unjustly.  Our salvation and survival is intimately linked with those who don’t look like us.  We are called to see the image of God in others.  We are called to see ourselves in people like Ahmaud Arbery.  Can we do that?

It allows us to get a glimpse of Shalom – the kingdom of God.  The word race may scare us.  And that’s ok.  Because we are not alone.  Jesus sends us the Spirit of Truth.  The world cannot receive the Spirit because it neither knows nor sees the Spirit.  But we do.  And that Spirit shows us the truth – that we are no different than Ahmaud Arbery in the eyes of God.  Because both Ahmaud and you and I all have the image of God within us.

And the Spirit shows us the truth that the world isn’t interested in us seeing the image of God in someone like Ahmaud – not even to acknowledge that what happened to him was wrong.  Don’t we owe it to the community, to the members of our own congregation whose skin color either matches or is close to matching Ahmaud Arbery?  Should we let them know that what happened was wrong and that we would do what we can to make sure they don’t become the next name on the list?  That they matter?

The world would prefer we ignore this and every future killing.  To believe that it doesn’t impact us.  To remain silent.  The world would prefer to pretend that black people aren’t being unjustly killed for no reason other than they are black.  But the world doesn’t get the final say.  God does.

Even in the midst of death, God still speaks.  God comes to us and promises to be with us – to send God’s Spirit of Truth.  And God promises to declare the truth – regardless of how inconvenient and uncomfortable it may be.  Because that’s what shalom is about – the whole truth.  That we are broken.  And that in spite of our brokenness, God loves us anyway and does what needs to be done – because God cares and loves us that much.  God loves us so much that God is willing to die for us, you, for me, for Ahmaud Arbery, for the whole of creation.

God does what needs to be done for us and for the families of the men and women who died a senseless and unjust death.  Jesus gives us the Spirit of Truth to abide with us.  Give us eyes Lord to see that Spirit and be moved to live out the faith that God has given us.  To speak up for those who suffer injustice.  To do what we can to prevent future injustices.  To acknowledge the truth.  To love.  To see the image of God in ourselves and others – especially those that are different from us. Amen.

Prayer for May 14, 2020

Prayer for May 14, 2020: Please pray with me.  God of love, you are love.  Not the mushy gushy kind of love that we prefer.  Rather, you are the love that endures, that bears all things.  You are a love that exists through a force of will.  You are patient.  You are kind.  Fill us with this love.  Open our eyes to see that you have always filled us with your love – a love that makes no rational sense.  A love that does not focus on what we deserve, but rather a love that is given in spite of what we deserve.  A love we do not deserve.  Yet you give it anyway.  You give yourself over and over.  You are a love that is vulnerable Lord.  A love that is willing to get messy and be rejected.  And a tenacious love that doesn’t quit on us, even when we push you away and reject you.  Wow.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 13 is more than just a nice wedding Scripture

You’ve probably heard 1 Corinthians 13 if you’ve ever been to a wedding.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (NRSV).

 

Certainly are great words for a wedding aren’t they.  Except that’s not what Paul, the author, was writing them for.  Weddings were the furthest thing from his mind when we wrote this.

The chapters preceding 1 Corinthians 13 talk about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and the church being one body and having many parts.  This is about community, beyond the community of marriage.  I think the words Paul wrote certainly fit for our understanding of marriage in the 21st century.  I also think that his words have deeper meaning in the midst of pandemic.

Let’s take a short look at that middle paragraph from ch. 13.

“Love is patient.”  Why?  Because life can be frustrating.  Patience allows us to recognize that we are not in control.  Patience allows us to recognize that we don’t get to determine the speed at which things happen.

“Love is kind.” Why?  Because there is so much meanness and anger.  Love is an alternative way of being in a world that is traumatized by so much.  kindness isn’t sappy and weak.  It’s is confident that it’s way of being will outlast any emotional burst that tries to stop it.

“Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”  Why?  Because Love isn’t self-centered.  Love isn’t narcissistic.  Narcissism is envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude.  Love is the opposite of narcissism.

“It does not insist on its own way.”  Why?  Because Love isn’t about the self.  The self is incomplete.  It is only in community that there is completeness, wholeness.  Even God is not alone, but rather a Trinity – an eternal relationship in community that works together in perfect harmony and oneness.  Love is voluntary in response.  Force is not a part of love.

“It is not irritable or resentful.”  Why?  Because Love is all the things we have already mentioned.  Love isn’t focused inward on itself, but rather, Love is so confident of what it is that its focus is outward.  Love exists to expand.  Love grows.  It isn’t resentful because love isn’t in competition with anything.  Love sees the image of God in all.  If the image of God is in all, then what competition is there?

“It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  Why?  Because love doesn’t need to hide behind lies or falsehoods.  It doesn’t skip out on harsh reality.  It faces it.  Love desires to know what the truth is so it can be dealt with – so there can be wholeness and completeness.  Love rejoices in the truth because it has nothing to hide.  Love is vulnerable and hence risky.  A risk like that needs the truth and it does not fear the truth.  Love doesn’t manipulate data in order to tell a different story.

“It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Why?  Because love is expansive, breaking past all barriers that are intended to restrict it and contain it.  Love cannot be contained or walled off.  Love does not fear death.  Because Love knows that death is not the final say – just a stop on the journey.  Love is what resurrection is all about.  Love is what God coming to creation to spend eternality with renewed creation is all about.

Love never ends.  And that is a good thing – not just for a marriage.  But for all of us, regardless of our station in life.