Nothing is Impossible: A Place for Miracles

July 23rd, 2014

Al Carroll – July 27, 2014

Some number of months ago, what I thought was a catchy title for a sermon crept into my brain, and I foolishly said at a PCC community meeting that I could probably provide a sermon during this summer of uncertainty for the Hammonds. Unfortunately, despite what Peggy keeps saying about her poor memory, she remembered what I had foolishly said, and called me up a few weeks ago to say that it would a good thing if I would actually give the sermon for which I only had a title.

The thoughts that had been vaguely rambling around in my skull, resembled a physics lecture – but that really didn’t seem like a suitable form for a sleepy, summertime Sunday. However, this is probably no more than my 6th or 7th sermon that I have given in my lifetime, and preparing a sermon is good time to try to gather the various strands of my life. – and at age 78 this sermon might possibly be my last. So bear with me, a rather confused older person.

I have always liked the story about a preacher who had put together what he thought was a pretty good sermon, but there was a bit in the middle that didn’t quite hang together. However, it was late Saturday night, and his wife was saying, “It is time to come to bed, dear.” So he hastily scribbled in the margin of his notes, “Not sure about this, SHOUT!” But I’m not that kind of person. At Peace Camp, just over a week ago, Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop of the indigenous people of Canada who are Anglicans/Episcopalians said for indigenous people it is particularly important to know who are ancestors are – particularly those on our maternal side. Well, my Mother was a graduate of Wellesley in physics, as well as one of my older sisters. I couldn’t go to Wellesley, but I was a physics major here at Oberlin College. All this is to say I have physics in my DNA, and I should be calm and collected, and not shouting to cover up my uncertainties — of which there are many this morning – particularly since this sermon is about uncertainties.

What has evolved for this morning is a ménage a trois, a mixture of science, religion, and my obsession that peace through nonviolence is what we really need. Since this is church, I thought I should begin with the religion part. A couple of weeks ago, Polly & I received an email from Rachel Naomi Remen, who has written books relating her Jewish heritage to her professional career as a physician who counsels people with serious diseases, in particular cancer. Via the Internet she read a story from her book My Grandfather’s Blessings to us, her linked in audience. As a child Dr. Remen said she was often tired and fidgety, during the long Passover Seders in which the story of how Moses had freed the Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt was told, much of the story in barely understood Hebrew. Her Grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, realized that that this story was too much for a young child, and told her a shorter and simpler version in English:

He told Rachel, “Thousands of years ago the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Like slaves everywhere, they suffered greatly and they had a dream of freedom. So as you remember, Moses pleaded with God to let his people go. God answered Moses, and backed up Moses by sending one plague after another when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrew people go. After smiting the first-born of all the Egyptians, and passing-over all of the Jewish people, Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have their freedom. At this point the little girl Rachel asked her Grandfather, “Were they very happy?” We know the answer from the verses from Exodus [16: 1-3] we read this morning. Her Grandfather answered, ‘ No, Naomi, they were not. “They knew how to suffer. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free.”

Rachel Remen’s conclusion was the opposite of slavery is not freedom but the opposite of slavery is the unknown — uncertainty. A difficult idea to accept — BUT, President Eisenhower once said that the most secure man, was one with a life sentence. Every day was predictable, and he didn’t have worry about where he would sleep or what he would eat.

But at this point, you might say that we, a modern, well-educated congregation, have science to tell us what are the facts about the world. This brings in is the science part of this sermon that has been rattling around in my brain. Despite what we hear on TV and read in the news, in my understanding, there actually are no scientific FACTS, only scientific THEORIES. A couple of days ago I was reading responses to a blog by Professor Stephen Zunes (he was here at Oberlin this spring) on the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis. One responder after another stated what they thought the “FACTS” of the situation were. But in actually, all they had was opinions or at best evidence. This would be evidence in the best of circumstances, which in this long-standing heated emotional debate, this clearly isn’t. Evidence in the legal sense would be “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” When this legal standard is applied in the most serious criminal cases involving the death penalty, it has been found that in a substantial number (300 in the State of Illinois) that legal decisions were wrong and innocent people had been executed. The then governor decided that the only reasonable policy was to abolish the death penalty instead of making irreversible decisions that might be wrong.

To the anti-science crowd, this uncertainty says you evolutionists, climate-changers, and peaceniks are just guessing, you don’t aren’t absolutely sure about you are talking about. This is true, scientists are never absolutely sure of what they believe is true. Let me illustrate from a very rapid history of the THEORY of gravitation.

Unfortunately, this portion is liable to be a little lite on scripture, and probably too heavy on science, because Jesus gave us few parables on the nature of science– so these are mainly my opinions without much scriptural authority to back them up. It is not too surprising that Jesus didn’t dwell at length on science because modern science didn’t come into being until late in the 16th century. Prior to that time, respected philosophers, like Aristotle, thought and pondered the question of falling objects and then wrote down in elegant Greek that it was obvious that a heavier body would fall faster than lighter one. Since Aristotle said it, everyone believed it until Galileo had the simple, but brilliant idea to go up to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa and drop two balls of unequal weight – and have his friends at the bottom of the tower observe that the two balls reached the ground at the same time as accurately as they could tell. So people gradually came to the conclusion, that thinking and pondering are great, but one’s great thoughts needed to be tested by experiment against the real world. Albert Einstein was a great thinker and ponderer, but he proposed experimental tests to check out his radical new ideas of relativity. So does this mean that modern day science establishes by experiment “facts” that are indisputable? No it doesn’t. The “Laws of Science” are fact only theories with high, often extremely high, probabilities of predicting outcomes of particular situations. All scientific “facts” are provisional, subject to further test. As an experimental physicist you can get to be famous, by showing that a seemingly well established theory is wrong in some way.

If all scientific “facts’ are actually uncertain to a certain degree, does that mean we can just ignore them if we wish? Of course not. Even if there are uncertainties as in the study of climate change the evidence is strong enough that we would ignore it out our peril. The “Laws of Physics” are guides that if not followed in building, for instance, a bridge, or travelling to the moon, will most likely result in disaster. But are these “laws” derived from the work Sir Isaac Newton, absolutely true? Another diversion – for a long time it has been on my scientific bucket list to try to understand Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. As an experimental nuclear physicist, I was very familiar with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity which deals with objects like sub atomic particles observed travelling at speeds near the velocity of light in a fixed direction. General Relativity deals with objects, like planets, that are subject to changes in velocity and direction as they travel in their orbits around the sun under the influence of gravity.

I was in the College’s science library looking for another book when I happened to notice a new book titled, Einstein: Relatively Simple. Aha, I thought to myself, it is summer, a perhaps even at the age 78. Mr Egdall, will be able to finally explain to me the complex reasoning and difficult mathematics that is necessary for gaining insight into Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which by the way is actually more accurate than Newton’s Law of Gravity. One could design a bridge or plan a trip to the moon every so slightly more correctly using but Einstein’s General Relativity, but you would be crazy to do it because it is almost certain that you would make a mistake in using the complex mathematics of relativity.

However, there is a practical, every day use for General Relativity. Because the satellites that provide information to the GPS systems in our cars travel high above the earth at high velocities, small, but significant, corrections based on General Relativity are needed. The atomic clocks in the high-flying satellites run faster than the same clocks on the ground. Without these corrections from General Relativity our GPS position would be inaccurate by about 15 feet in 2 minutes and then accumulate to an error of 6 miles in a day. Last week, The GPS system in our car did not have the map information for Canada, and we found ourselves wandering around confused without this miraculous device on which we had grown dependent.

So far, General Theory of Relativity has passed every serious test proposed, but that does not insure that this will be true in the future. Perhaps research that Dan Stinebring is now undertaking, will uncover in some way that General Relativity to be less valid than originally thought.

Is physics really a better science than chemistry, biology or psychology? Sometimes we physicists think so, but the actual situation is that physicists choose to work on simple, well-defined problems like a single planet revolving around the sun or a single electron revolving around the nucleus of an atom. Because these systems are simply described they are subject to precise mathematical analysis using proposed theories.

Molecular biology, which is the most precise part of biology, deals with great big molecules with thousands of atoms for which only approximate mathematical solutions are known. The psychologists and other social scientists are dealing with humans who are made up of a 100 trillion cells and each of them contains thousands of great, big molecules under the control of our not very well understood brains. If we find that in the simplest of sciences, physics, there is no absolute certainty, how can we ever say that there are established scientific facts about “Laws of Human Behavior?” Modesty is required at all levels of science.

What is the upside of all of this uncertainty? The answer is that while a given course of action is very improbable, it can never be scientifically proved that it is actually impossible. Since the scientific theories of human behavior are known to contain a lot of uncertainty, if the occasion warrants it, it worth having a try at “violating” them. So “miracles” which are violations of the known laws of science are nearly always possible, even if unlikely.

While research in physics and astronomy related to the fate of the universe is definitely interesting, at least to some of us, there is general agreement among scientists, that we have a few billion years before anything other than man made disaster, causes something catastrophic to happen to our planet. So for these questions scientists can afford to be slow, careful and reasonably dispassionate. Human related catastrophes as we were reminded again and again at Peace Camp may be just on the next page of history.

We would like definite scientific answers now! One example is medical research. There are number of serious diseases killing people daily, like cancer. It is painful to watch researchers carefully conduct one clinical trial after another before releasing a pharmaceutical for general use, particularly when early results showed such promise. The alternative, however, is the possible introduction of drugs, which at best are only useless and expensive, but at worst have terrible unanticipated side effects. Hearing Mary Hammond’s struggles with treatments for her cancer is a reminder of the great complexity in medical research. I think reasonable religious people and scientists are in near agreement here. Studying the evidence in a slow, careful way is the most probable way to achieve the best result.

This brings me to my personal obsession – achieving world peace by “stopping the next war before it starts.” In the complicated and emotionally charged questions of war and peace, there are no scientifically proven FACTS. History books are filled with stories of battles and famous warriors. Powerful political leaders and moneyed interests generally support the war side of history. The histories of peacemakers are considerably fewer and slimmer, but the peacemakers do have the founders of the world religions on their side. If you go to the Multifaith Center in the College’s Lewis House, you will find at least 20 versions of the Golden Rule. As Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures when confronted by the religious scholar, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These Golden Rules are not FACTS, but FAITH in moral rules which people have felt in their hearts, and have witnessed in their lives.

At Peace Camp, I was checking my email, when up popped an announcement from Google that today, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela International Day. Good for Google! For Nelson Mandela is a remarkable example of miracle-like leadership. What could a man confined in prison for 27 years possibly do to free his African brothers and sisters from the horrors of apartheid? Any reasonable political scientist would say that he didn’t have a chance. But with his remarkable sense of justice and compassion for all races, and with help of the visionary religious leaders of South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Alan Boesak, they achieved what nearly everyone considered impossible – freedom and reconciliation. As Mandela and his co-workers found, achieving peace takes time and patience. Trying to settle disputes after the killing starts is not the best way.

Right now the world is focused on the conflict between Israel and Palestine and between Russia and the United States. These are critical problems, which require as much diplomatic effort as possible. From my physicist prospective, we should not neglect another, simpler international problem, which nearly has a solution in hand.

As many of you know, my obsession has generally been focused on avoiding war with Iran by first reaching an agreement on nuclear and economic issues, and then re-establishing diplomatic relations. It would be a good, positive of news in a region mired in violence. I managed to convince the members of Community Peace Builders that this should be one of two priority projects for the next few years. I view it as a miracle-like occurrence that a war with Iran has not already happened. War has been looming on the horizon ever since the hostage crisis in 1979. Peace-minded people like the Quakers’ Friends Committee on National Legislation, and military leaders who realistically assessed the consequences of war, have held off the forces of aggression.

President Obama came into office with a promise to talk with the leaders of Iran. Of course, the President of Iran at that time was Mr. Ahmadinejad, a difficult person to say the least. Last August the Iranian people decided that they had enough of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his chosen successor, and elected a much more reasonable person, President Rouhani. So we now have two heads of state who desire peaceful relations. But others consumed by their own bloody conflicts, particularly Mr Netanyahu of Israel and his supporters in the United States insist that the Laws of International Relations state that the only way to deal with Iran is with maximum economic pressure and overwhelming military force. Of course this Law has been subject to experimental test. The United States applied overwhelming military force in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – and there was a notable lack of success.

We have seen miracles of reconciliation through the use of nonviolence; so I think we can go with our Christian gut reaction – our Jesus-given moral and ethical sense, and say let us seize this opportunity for peace. The consequences may be uncertain, but we cannot afford to do otherwise.

So in conclusion, don’t be excessively overawed by scientific “FACTS.” Even, if in the best of cases, like the so-called “laws” of physics, there still is an element of uncertainty. For the scientific “FACTS” related to our experiments with human behavior there is considerable uncertainty. While it is important that we listen to the evidence from multiple sources concerning which path of action to take, it is always required of us, as people of faith to keep in mind the wisdom that Jesus and the prophets of other faiths have said. For if we act out of love for our neighbor, no matter who he or she may be, we will be right on the border of God’s kingdom.

Can’t We All Get Along?

July 13th, 2014

Genesis 25:19-24
July 13, 2014
Steve Hammond

There are lots of just plain weird stories in the Book of Genesis. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Abraham’s aborted attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac? Now today the story is about two of Abraham’s grandchildren. The narrative that starts the Esau and Jacob saga sounds like the kind of story that gets told around campfires and on barstools when folk are congratulating themselves about how much better they are than some other people.

The Israelites didn’t get along with the Edomites, or the Reds, whom they claimed were all descended from Esau. So folk loved hearing the story about how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. As the blogger Rick Morely says it, “The punch-line is that the great-great-grand-daddy of the Edomites was a hairy, brutish, blue-collar dunce who sold his most valuable possession for a bowl full of bean stew. Or, ‘red stuff.’”

At first glance it’s easy to read this story as just another testimony of how dysfunctional families can be. Not only was there that Abraham/Isaac attempted sacrifice thing, but Abraham also sent his other son Ishmael off into the wilderness to die. Then, of course, there’s the story of those other brothers Cain and Able. Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. But I don’t think family dysfunction is supposed to be the main takeaway here. I think a lot of the stories in Genesis and much of the Hebrew Scriptures are trying to get at the questions like, “Why are we the way we are? Why is there so much violence, so much suspicion, so much fear and jealousy not only between nations and clans but even in our own families? Why can’t we all get along?

I think it’s pretty hard to find a hero in this story of Esau and Jacob, or the many stories like it. I don’t know that I would want to lay claim to either Jacob or Esau as my progenitor. And as hard as many Jewish and Christian commentators who have, over the centuries, tried to ignore or present the shortcomings of Biblical characters like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob as virtues, they are, I think, doing the storytellers a disservice. I think we are meant to hear the stories of these flawed heroes. If for nothing else, we are all flawed heroes who God, nevertheless, imagines we can change the way we live with each other.

Just look at what’s going on in Israel and Palestine right now. Or Syria. Or South Sudan. Or Iraq. Or Guatemala City. Or the Capitol Building in Washington DC. On Native American reservations and settlements in the U.S. and Canada. In border areas. Maybe in our neighbor’s home. Or maybe our own homes. The violence, the oppression, the abuse, the lack of respect and compassion, this us against them mentality goes all the way back to Jacob and Esau and farther. And we all know we don’t have to live this way, but we do. It’s not some other world that we read about in stories that needs redeemed, but the one we live in. The one Jesus came to. That’s why we have the stories the way they were written.
So what do we do? How do we stop living this way? How could the story of Jacob and Esau be rewritten? How could some of our stories be rewritten?

Esau, it appears, couldn’t see beyond the next few minutes. I would get into a lot of interesting conversations when I was working with kids at the Juvenile Detention Home. I remember asking one of the girls what she wanted to do with her life. Her response was she hoped she got out of the DH before the party on Friday night. That’s an Esau response.

Jacob, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted and knew how to get it. He was planning on stealing his brother’s birthright, it appears, from the womb. He even schemed with his mother Rebekah from his young days about how to accomplish that task. He was willing to do whatever it took.

Imagine a different story for these twins. Mary and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of our twin granddaughters which could take place any day now. I hope they have a better relationship than Esau and Jacob did. But if they come out of the womb with Mae grabbing hold of Rose’s ankle, I guess we will have to keep an eye on things.

What if Jacob and Esau had decided they were going to fight the dysfunction in their family rather than surrender to it. What if they had decided to work together for something good, than be rivals from the womb?

I think most relationships–siblings, families, workplaces, schools, churches, to neighborhoods, nations, the created order–would be so much better if we didn’t buy into this idea that everything is a zero sum notion that somebody else’s gain means my loss. And the things people end up fighting are often not all significant. There’s that old saying about the reason University departments fight so much between themselves is because the stakes or so small.

I realize that this story of Jacob and Esau goes way back when things were really different than they are now. But, it does seem a bit unfair that because Esau was born, according to the story, seconds before Jacob, that Esau got all the inheritance when Isaac died, and Jacob got nothing. But that idea isn’t all that old. This country was populated by second and third and fourth sons, who like Mary’s Finnish ancestors, came from places where the first born son got everything and the younger sons nothing.

What if Esau could have realized that maybe he and Jacob could work together to create something better? Sure, Esau would have had to give up some of his inherited money, but there was much else he could have gained by working with his brother for something good, rather than working against each other for something unjust. And there still are so many family disputes over money.

When people are working together, trying to draw good things out of each other, whether we are talking about families, neighborhoods, churches, or nations, wonderfully good and surprising things happen. In the climate crisis work that is being done there is a lot of talk about negative feedback loops, or things snowballing. For example, when the tundra begins to melt because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the melting tundra releases more carbon dioxide which only speeds up the melting of the tundra. But there is also positive feedback that comes when people are drawing good things out of each other. It all snowballs in a good way. We see each other differently. We can forgive more easily. We can understand more about each other.

Most people know I love and treasure Oberlin. You may have seen that thing on our mantle that Mary got me a long time ago that says “I wasn’t born in Oberlin but I got here as fast as I could.” Yet, there are some things I find pretty irritating about this community, the chief one being is how quickly we mistrust each other’s motives. I think Oberlin has more mind readers per capita than any community in America. So often I hear people telling me what some other person is really thinking, or what they are really trying to do, or what they really meant. Usually it seems to me that person or group seems to be actually trying to suggest or accomplish something that can be of help to the whole community. But the mind readers assure me they are just looking out for themselves.

It’s bad enough to have that attitude toward acquaintances and strangers, assuming that their motives are bad and that they are trying to take advantage of you or don’t really care about you. But it’s even worse when that happens with people we are closest to. I am amazed sometimes how quickly people can attribute bad motives to people who they love and respect.

I heard a story about the time a person got a very angry response to an email he sent out. The person he heard from was a person who was a good friend, someone he had worked on projects with, been in church with. But she was livid and she told others about how angry and disappointed she was with him. Finally, it occurred to this guy to ask the woman to sit down with him and go over the original email, because she was accusing him of things and assuming things of him that were so contrary to everything about him. And when they read the email together, she realized that she had simply misread it. He didn’t say anything in that email she accused him of.

It was nice to get the matter resolved, but he was left with these lingering thoughts of why she so quickly jumped to all those wrong assumptions. They were friends. She knew what she thought the email said wasn’t anything like him, and in fact contradicted much of what she knew about him. So why wasn’t her first thought I must have read this wrong? Or even if she hadn’t read it wrong, why didn’t she think, boy he’s really having a bad day, or had a rough spell of things?

Instead of ripping into him because she thought he said something so contradictory to his beliefs and nature, she could have thought he could use some support right now, because this is not the way he is. But too much of the time we don’t do that. And we shouldn’t really get caught by surprise by stories like Esau and Jacob. We know these stories.
Now there are, of course, some people whose motives you ought to question. They aren’t looking to bring out the best in you or find ways to work together. It’s all zero sum for them. They want what they want and are going to do anything to get it. There were plenty of folk that Jesus didn’t trust. He did say, after all, we need to be as wise as serpents, because there are a lot of snakes out there. But he also said that even when we are dealing with the serpents, we need to be as gentle as doves.

Somehow the Jacob/Esau, Cain/Able cycles need to be, if not broken, at least dented a bit. I think Jesus was showing us the only way we are going to stop living this way is to stop living this way. Sure there are folk who are never going to be your best buddies or regain your trust. But we can still try to regard them as more than brutish dunces. Who knows why they have been off their game for so long? Maybe there are ways to, at least, bring out a bit of the better in them if we can’t find anything you would call the best. But some of these folk are going to continue to be a part of our lives and we can’t let them determine how we are going to live.

Towards the end of Acts 10 we read one of the great sermons of the early church when Peter is in the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. “…Jesus went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. ‘And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in Israel and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross.’”

Nobody lived a better life than Jesus. But even his motives were questioned. See how crazy it can get. But he was determined to live a better way, the way of God’s realm. And he trusted he was on the right path, the path of life. Nobody knew better than Jesus about the dysfunctions that run so deeply in ourselves, our families, our workplaces, schools, and churches, in our politics, and our nations. But he also knew we don’t have to keep reliving the story of Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers, or the children of Israel and the Edomites. He bet his whole life trusting that if we opened ourselves to the ways of God that we actually could help each other live different lives.

Esau and Jacob didn’t choose to live that other way. That’s why this is a cautionary tale. We can end up where they did, or follow Jesus along a different path and write a better story.

The Yoke and the Rest

July 6th, 2014

Matthew 11:27-30
July 6, 2014
Mary Hammond

Jesus speaks to his those in his hearing, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” There is no big requirement here, no ‘to do’ list, just an invitation to “come.” Over the centuries this passage has spoken to countless people bearing both loads we cannot imagine and loads we know all too well. To that audience so long ago, to you and to me, to each one of us, Jesus says, “Come.”

He offers something we all yearn for—“rest.” But we will talk about that later, as this promise of “rest” frames the passage. Jesus continues, “Take my yoke upon you…”

I don’t have any direct experience with yokes. None. But Jesus was a carpenter by trade. One of the items he likely constructed was a yoke. How many of you have actually seen yokes before, and not in a museum? You first must picture two enormous oxen. A yoke is a long, single piece of wood, attached on the necks of a pair of oxen. It is connected to leather straps used to direct the animals, whether from a cart or just walking behind them. The oxen can move in concert, which facilitates their work of plowing, treading corn, and pulling heavy loads. An ill-fitting yoke slows the animals down, placing an unnecessary burden on them. A well-fitting yoke, however, allows the oxen and farmer to accomplish more than either could accomplish alone.

What an interesting analogy Jesus uses here! It comes straight from the experience of a carpenter who knows what it takes to fashion an effective yoke. The yoke is not meant to restrict, but to empower and facilitate partnership. Jesus’ evocative image of the farmer’s yoke fashioned by the carpenter connects the animal realm–the oxen; the human realm–the farmer; and the earth itself–the ground in which both labor. In tandem, the Community of Creation joins with Jesus in a co-conspiracy of grace and growth. Together we plow, plant, sow, reap, and bear the heavy load. Together we fulfill the callings and roles that are ours in the Realm of God.

When Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, he does not ask us to do something he has not done. The verses directly preceding the “Come to me” passage sound like they could be straight out of the Gospel of John. They are intimate reflections of Jesus on knowing the One he calls Father and that One knowing him. Hear them again, acknowledging the way Jesus speaks about himself and God, this deep Father/Son relationship, even union: “All things have been handed over to my by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” To move beyond strictly patriarchal images, we can see these reflections as bearing witness to a deep Parent/Child relationship between God and Jesus.

For years, this passage and others like it were associated in my mind with either the exclusivity of fundamentalism, the breadth of patriarchal language used to express truths in scripture, or the divine election articulated in Calvinism wherein certain people only are chosen “to be saved,” a theology as a Baptist I bristled against. But reading this part of the text in the context of the “Come to me” passage evokes poetic imagery of Jesus profoundly yoked with God, calling his hearers—and us–into an equally intimate relationship with the Divine.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” Jesus continues. It is noteworthy that he speaks of “learning” rather than “following.” Jesus so often says, “Follow me,” but this time he invites his audience simply to “learn from him.” What does it mean to just “learn from Jesus?”

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time learning from Job. It is not that I feel “like Job.” Instead, I admire how he navigated his journey in times of suffering and personal loss. I find inspiration from Job. There are qualities he has that I want to nurture and possess. There are ways I wilt under sustained pressure that he does not. So I read and study Job, I reflect on Job, I learn from Job. And this strengthens me. He has become a journey-friend.

This, too, is what Jesus invites his followers to experience. Look at how I live. See how I work. Watch me navigate conflict. Study my character. Learn from me. Just learn.

What an open and inclusive opportunity this is! Jesus welcomes both the burdened and those who place heavy burdens on them. He welcomes the curious and the critical, the eager and the skeptical, the friend and those who seek his demise.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus asserts. What a welcome contrast to the yoke of oppression, poverty, and everyday challenges Jesus’ first century audience faces. Yet, when Jesus describes his yoke as easy, he doesn’t say that life is easy. Life isn’t easy for Jesus, and it isn’t easy for the disciples who follow him. He does not offer his followers an easy life; he offers them an easy yoke. Walking together, the journey is lighter than bearing it alone.

“For I am gentle and humble in heart” proclaims a radically different leadership style than that of the rulers of the Roman Empire and their collaborators within cooperating institutions. These words directly challenge these systems of domination. Who can imagine, in the public square, that gentleness and humility have the power to change the world?

Now we get to “Rest.” It is promised twice in this passage, both at the beginning and ending. What does this “rest” look like if it does not correlate with relief from life’s tragedies and traumas? It is a “rest” of profound relationship and union, much as Jesus describes his own union with the one he calls “Father.” It is a “rest” that is built on intimacy and partnership with the Holy One and all creation, yoked together in common purpose and commitment.

This “rest” cannot be simply a “feeling,” because feelings come and go all the time and are so often contingent on circumstances. A “rest” that is based on a “knowing” is a different kind of rest, a rest that can be accessed in the midst of the quiet or the storm.

John Bergen placed a quote from contemplative Thomas Merton on Facebook. Merton writes in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” (p. 142). “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

It is this unveiled person that finds a place of rest in relationship deep within the heart of the Holy One, walking together in community with all creation amid whatever comes our way.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today, we recall the love, courage, and perseverance with which Jesus faced his own journey. He stayed the course as he remained yoked with God, finding his own rest amid conflict, struggle, joy, and blessing. As we come before this Table, let us hear the invitation of Jesus one more time. I will speak it very slowly and contemplatively, so we can truly let these words sink deep into our souls. May the Spirit speak to us and within us through this hearing:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Amen.

I Desire Mercy Not Sacrifice

June 30th, 2014

Genesis 22:1-14
June 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

There is a Yiddish folk tale that says that when God went to the angels to get one of them to go tell Abraham that he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, they all refused. They said if God wanted such a horrible thing done then God would have to be the one to tell Abraham. The angels wanted nothing to do with it.

This is a hard story. A couple of the commentators warned that this story should not be read in the service until after the children are dismissed. It’s one of those texts of terror. And for a long time believers have been trying to figure out what to make of this story. Here is a slide of some of the ways people have characterized this story. A. Abusive God,. B. Misguided Abraham, C. Religious violence at its worst, D. A story of faith and obedience.

Here is how one commentator started his comments about this passage. “There are a lot of directions one can run with a Scripture passage like this, but there is one prominent biblical truth that surfaces here, and is reinforced in the Genesis readings for the Sundays on either side of this date, as well as in a multitude of other passages: God will provide. Here is a one-point sermon. We can use these and other readings to provide varied illustrations of this axiom: God will provide.”

I think this passage is a little bit more complex than that simple one point about how God’s providing a ram to be sacrificed rather than Isaac is really about God providing all our needs.

What do you think about this story?

The writers of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament also thought about this story and here is what he or she came up with in that long section in chapter 11 about Abraham’s faith..”By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ Abraham considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back.”

Now there is someone thinking about how there is more to this story than God will provide. You do have to confront the whole notion that God would ask Abraham to kill his son, and then how Abraham was going to deal with that. And for the writer of Hebrews that means Abraham was thinking about resurrection long before anyone else was. God had promised Abraham that his line would continue through Isaac, but God wanted him to kill Isaac. The writer of Hebrews figures that for Abraham, the only way this thing could work was if God raised Isaac from the dead.

While reading and thinking about that I touched the wrong link and ended up coming across this really interesting article about resurrection from a progressive Christian perspective.

It was written by Rev. Bruce Epperly, a Pastor in Massachusetts, and a Process theologian. He says that progressive and mainline spiritual leaders need to reclaim words like ‘miracle’ in new and creative ways. He writes that “We need to be theologically and spiritually bold, expecting great things from God and great things from ourselves.”

He goes on to write that “The most significant historical and biblical meaning of resurrection involves Jesus’ transcending the power of death and living on as agent and subject on earth and in heaven. Process theologians have often been far too humble in reflections on the afterlife; they have made agnosticism and sometimes even unbelief in survival after death an article of faith! Given the plethora of best-selling texts of near death experiences, offering glimpses of heaven, we need to be both humble and hopeful in our preaching and speculation on the afterlife. We are rightfully worried about the temptation of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But, process theology’s affirmation of the interdependence of life and creaturely creativity enables us to imagine a relational, evolving, and creative afterlife, in which new energies of love and artistry, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and transformation will be available to us beyond the grave. In claiming the complex interdependence of life and imagining continuity of personal identity in the afterlife, we can articulate an ethics of immortality, affirming that our life choices today, personally and politically, shape peoples’ experiences now and beyond the grave. Though we must recognize that we see in a mirror dimly, we can be both heavenly minded and earthly good.”

He ends his essay with some thoughts about the Disciple Thomas, who we call a doubter and he calls a hero. He says that Thomas was rightfully agnostic because he missed the resurrection excitement the others experienced. The key is, though, that Thomas remained “faithfully open to what may come. “John 20 concludes with a portrait of the heroic Thomas, who misses the excitement of Jesus’ resurrection, but stays with the disciples, faithfully opening to what may come. The faithfulness of Thomas he writes “is found in his willingness to participate in the resurrection community, despite his missing the community’s mystical encounter with the Risen Christ….But, Thomas did not sacrifice his questioning mind for the sake of going along with the crowd. His agnosticism is an openness to experience, not a closed mind. He willingly opens to resurrection when he encounters the Living Christ.”

His essay finishes with this. “[The Gospel of] John concludes with an invitation to imagine the many textures of Jesus’ life. The fullness of Christ cannot be contained by any text, including our Bible. We cannot think small about Jesus; there is more to Jesus than we imagine or contain in the written word. Resurrection expands our minds and inspires unexpected compassion. John’s gospel invites us to be part of the resurrection story and become living witnesses to new life in our worlds. We are writing the resurrection story in our time by our faithful opening to divine resuscitation and willingness to go forth with good news of life-transforming love.” (http://processandfaith.org/ resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-04-27/second-sunday-easter)

So I don’t know exactly what Abraham was thinking about resurrection that day. But one of the things that it is probably important to keep in mind when is the fact that child sacrifice wasn’t an unusual thing in Abraham’s day. All the gods were demanding it. In fact, the weirdness of this story, in its setting, would not have been that Abraham sacrificed Isaac, but that he didn’t. That’s what wouldn’t have made sense to people then. Here is what Brian McLaren writes, “It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive.”

And in coming back down the mountain with Isaac still alive, some argue that is the real faith that Abraham is showing. More from Brian McLaren. “Put yourself in [Abraham's and Sarah's] sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship, and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed!”(Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, chapter 7).

I am going to put another slide up here that talks about this. “What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.”(Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled).

For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990′s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.
For many people in the history of the church, this story of Abraham and Isaac has pointed to the death of Jesus. You have Jesus carrying his cross, and Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt sacrifice he was going to become. But there is a difference in the two stories. What is it? Jesus gets killed and Isaac doesn’t.

Yet this story has become key in folks understanding of the substitutionary atonement, that Jesus had to become a human sacrifice in order to appease God’s wrath toward all humanity. It’s actually even worse in that Abraham was willing to kill Isaac himself, but God contracted out the killing of Jesus to the Roman Army. We need to think long and hard about that. Do we really believe that God demands human sacrifice? By the end of the story Abraham didn’t. And all of Israel gave it up. And there were plenty of prophets that proclaimed that God wasn’t even looking for animal sacrifices. What God wants, they cried, is mercy, not sacrifice. But we have made Jesus the exception.

One of the things that has always perplexed me is that some of the Christians who claim to take their faith more seriously than most others, don’t really talk that much about Jesus. In fact, they don’t seem to like a lot of what he said about living nonviolently or welcoming the stranger and refugee. It as if the only thing that mattered about Jesus was that God had him killed as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s like there is nothing redemptive in how he lived, just that he died, and that he died as a human sacrifice.

You know we would like to assign child sacrifice to more primitive days. But children are being sacrificed day in and day out for our sacred causes. I remember former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright being challenged on the fact that the U.S. led embargo of Iraq back in the 1990′s led to the deaths of more than 50,000 children from disease and malnutrition. She said the cause they died for was worth it. How often have we talked about the young men and women killed in battle for the sacred cause of freedom? What about the children who parish in all our conflicts, who are abducted by terrorists, forced into becoming child soldiers, or sexual or economic slaves? Why are we sacrificing our children’s future for the gain we get in poisoning the environment and destroying the climate? Children are being sacrificed for somebody’s sacred cause at this very moment, so we shouldn’t be too tough on Abraham.

That’s why we need to change our ideas about God. And that is what happened with Abraham. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking when he walked up that mountain with Isaac. But when he came down with him it was because he was starting to see God in a whole new way.

When Phyllis Trible writes about texts of terror, she says we have to deal with them like Jacob did with the angel that night. We wrestle with these texts until they bless us. And at the end, stories like this might leave us limping. But this story helps us to take the chance to see God in new ways. It helps us to understand that there is much more to being faithful than we have often been told. If stories like this can help us understand that things like mercy are more important to God than our ritual sacrifices, if we can walk back down the mountain with Isaac thriving, then we are going to make some angels very happy.

Pentecostal Soil

June 25th, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9
June 22, 2014
Mary Hammond

I have to confess that I am not a gardener, nor have I ever been a farmer. I do believe our Gospel Parable today would be richer in meaning for me, were I either one of these. And yet, the story is not devoid of meaning for me. The beauty and lessons of nature are everywhere for all of us to observe—in the lost bug wandering the house; in the stunning cloud formations that change moment by moment; in the glorious sunrises and sunsets that often begin and end our days.

Sometimes we share here at church stories of when we feel closest to God. The gardeners among us often relate the connections they experience with the Divine while working in the soil. Many of the rest of us also recount adventures walking in the woods, sitting by a waterfall, or gazing at a field of wildflowers. There is a holiness to the earth and our interactions with it. There is a primal nature to this relationship.

Throughout the spring, Anita Peebles invited us to ask new questions about the Parables of Jesus, questions that help us face and address our “anthropocentrism,” or “human-centered” bias in exploring these stories. Our habit, as human beings, is to proceed the way the disciples do in this Gospel story. They scratch their heads in confusion, eventually asking Jesus what in the heck he means. Why, they want to know, does he often teach in parables? Jesus offers a rarely invoked interpretation—just of this particular story–which is recorded later in the chapter. Unfortunately, as twenty-first century readers, we too often then choose the easy path. We read that explanation, which is really all about us, and cease pondering the story. What if, instead, we stayed with the seed and soil for awhile?

Our text today is an Earth Parable meant to open our eyes to the lessons of the Spirit which the earth yields. It is a musical trio between a farmer, a seed, and the soil. We could spend a whole second sermon on the duet between nature and the human being.

Jesus invites us to simply pay attention to the music, like he does. He listens to and observes the ways of nature as she interacts with the farmer’s action of throwing out the seed. Jesus processes this deeply. He uses seeds, soil, rocks, and weeds to teach his disciples about growth and flourishing, about stunting growth and choking it completely.

The question we want to ask is not, “What does human life teach us about the seed?” Instead, we want to hear the original question this parable poses, “What does the seed teach us?” We then turn anthropocentrism on its head, and let nature be our teacher, ourselves the students.

Steve and I just returned from Niagara Falls where we experienced the sheer power and grandeur of a lot of earth, water, and air. We saw trees growing on rocks that we never thought could sustain such growth. Utter tenacity overcame the difficult environment the seeds found themselves in. Both trees and plants burrowed through the rock, finding nourishment wherever they could.

This is also a lesson about soil. Sometimes plants aren’t given the best soil to grow in, yet they persevere anyhow. What is beneath them may be hard and unforgiving, and yet they search for the cracks in the rocks and make their homes there. In other contexts, weeds may flourish all around, and yet a beautiful plant will pop up, seemingly out of nowhere—that one blooming wildflower that stands alone amidst the overgrowth.

Steve and I were astounded by what we witnessed. From a bridge, we saw a marsh teeming with life. Elsewhere, we walked through well-manicured gardens replete with growth, nurtured in rich, fertile soil and tended by a host of gardeners who were working there at the time.

The sky is itself, and stands alone in its fierce and gentle beauty. The sky can also serve as a metaphor, or parable. So, too, with the seed. It also can be a teacher. Its story can inform us about our story. We, too, resemble the seed (isn’t that different than saying “the seed resembles us?!”).

Like the seed, we sometimes have to burrow beneath nearly impossible obstacles in order to grow. Some are blessed with the richest of soil for flourishing and the most skilled of gardeners for tending their lives. Others feel thrown out into the roadway, forced to find their own way to survive and thrive.

Sooner or later, we long to plant ourselves in fertile soil where we can truly blossom. Seeds find these places, and so do we. For us, they can be close-knit communities and cherished family relationships of origin or choice. That nourishing soil may be discovered in the wonder of the outdoors or the silence of a chapel. Fertile ground may include play, work, recreation, contemplation, and a host of other activities and non-activities. For some, work feels like being thrown on the rocks! I so frequently talk to people who confess this to be the case.

The seed also reminds us that gestation–not endless activity–is essential to growth. Do we heed that lived lesson of the seed?

Just like the seed when it becomes full-grown and mature, we too eventually scatter our little seeds into the world. We seek to become for others rich, good soil and caring, attentive gardeners. We watch and wait, praying and yearning for a remarkable yield.

Today, as we bless the soil of the earth from the gardens among us, we are reminded of the blessings of nature which nourish, enrich, and surround us. Everyday, we are granted countless opportunities to listen and learn from the Earth’s wisdom.

The Spirit comes to the early disciples like a “mighty wind,” as “tongues of fire.” But She also comes as “fertile, Pentecostal Soil,” as living streams of Water, as radiant beams of Light.

“Are you listening, really listening?” Jesus asks his disciples as he recounts the dance of the seed in the farmer’s hands, as she falls and interacts with the earth. He asks us as well. Amen.

Hands (sort of) Held High

June 24th, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014
Steve Hammond

I grew up in a church that would host revival preachers. The preacher would preach several nights in a row and would end each service with an altar call. Now the altar call was what each evening was about. The whole purpose of the revival preacher was to have people “make a decision” for Christ. Now I don’t know if we were a particularly righteous group at Big Walnut Baptist Church, or just a hard sell, but those preachers would have to work hard to get people to walk down the aisle. So what would eventually happen with just about every preacher and just about at the end of each night’s altar call is that the preacher would ask us all to bow our heads and close our eyes. And then he (and it was always a he) would say something like “with every head bowed and every eye shut I am going to ask you to raise your hand if you want to accept Jesus into your heart.” On occasion that must have worked because the preacher would make some acknowledgement of a hand or two being raised. All of this was, of course, to fulfil what has been come to be called the Great Commission that Jesus charges his followers with at the end of Matthew’s gospel.

Somehow, though, when Jesus called his followers to make disciples I think he had something more in mind than getting people to raise their hands while everyone else but the preacher had their eyes shut. That’s hardly the kind of thing that could get you dragged off to the Coliseum to face the lions. But there have been plenty of hand raisers who left many a revival meeting assured of their place in heaven even if nobody else there, save than the preacher and a kid or two taking a peek, knew anything about it.

Most of those people never actually got baptized, which Jesus does happen to make specific reference to in this passage. It was enough for them and the preacher, evidently, that the hand had been raised, though I am sure the preacher would have loved to have them go all the way to the waters of Jordan. But there is a real contrast between what Jesus had in mind and what those preachers had in mind. And that contrast is still there in many cases when people go beyond hand raising and do get baptized.

That’s because in many places what happens at the revival meeting or in the baptistery is built around this idea that it is all a personal transaction between God and the person who has raised their hand or stepped into the waters. You see baptism is not about me getting saved because I have made a decision to follow Jesus and fulfilled, at least, the minimal requirement. Rather it is about me joining all those other folk who are being saved because we are learning together what it means to be the disciples of Jesus.

And I think you can make a good case that when Jesus is talking about baptism he is talking more about those who are doing the baptizing than those who are being baptized. Jesus says to go to every nation and teach people what he showed us. That’s one of those things you can read right past until you stop to think about the implications of what Jesus is saying.

For Jesus, baptism is another of his messages of inclusion. None of the religions that Jesus was familiar with at his time would have ever thought that they should have any dealings with folk other than themselves, much less the whole world. After all, they were the saved ones. Everyone else was the infidels. To go into the whole world is not only to invite people in, to acknowledge they belong as much as you and your own kind do, that God loves them as much as you, but to, also, welcome what they bring. Taking the message to the whole world is not simply telling others you want them to be followers of Jesus, but you want them to help you follow Jesus. Baptism is this invitation we all get to build a new world with Jesus.

Now, of course, if you are going to all nations and calling folk to join you in following Jesus, being his disciples together, you are going to have to deal with the fact that you encounter other religions in those nations. That plunges you right into the reality of this multifaith world we have always lived in, but are finally acknowledging. What tends to happen with Christians in those multifaith encounters is that we either can’t stop talking about Jesus, or we don’t say anything about him at all.

I came across this article written by Harvey Cox back in 1998 where he laments the sad state of dialogue among the world religions at the time. I don’t know if he would think they are better, or maybe even worse, now. But one of his concerns among others expressed back in 1998 is that one of the reasons that interfaith dialogue and engagement had “begun to sputter and stammer, and in many instances come to stop is that faith communities are increasingly divided within themselves, and the rifts are often exacerbated by political tensions.” He points to divisions within Islam and Judaism, and writes about how “Christians who work for interfaith understanding have been shocked and perplexed by the attacks of fundamentalists who condemn them as traitors to the gospel but who themselves seem willing to cooperate with non-Christians if their politics are acceptable.”

He feels like that dialogue fundamentalist and progressive Christians needs to have with each other, or the dialogue that Shia and Sunni Muslims need to have each other are crucial if we are going to have satisfying dialogue between religions. But, he realizes interfaith dialogue can’t wait for the various faith communities to get it together. So he writes about sitting in “gatherings of urbane representatives of different faith traditions, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches or the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard where my mind has strayed from the conference room out to those jagged corners of the world where other confessors of these same faiths are killing or proselytizing—or just frigidly—ignoring one another.”

One of the ways that he sees the dialogue going wrong is where Christian participation has ended-up “soft peddling the figure of Jesus himself….I have noticed that when reference to Jesus is postponed or downplayed, conversations between Christians and people of other traditions tend to become arid, but when the figure of Jesus is brought to the fore, either by Christians or—as sometimes happens—by the others, the dialogue comes alive.”

“For the vast majority of Christians, including the most energetically engaged in dialogue, Jesus in not merely a background figure. He is central to Christian faith. Not only do Christian dialoguers realize this, but so do their partners from other faiths. Wherever one starts, whether with creation, with the omnipresent enlivening Spirit, with the faith experience as such or with something else, any honest dialogue between Christians and others will sooner or later…have to deal with the figure of Jesus.”

Here is how Cox suggests we enter into dialogue with those of other faiths as we go into all the nations and make disciples. “To be a disciple of Jesus means not to emulate or mimic him but to follow his ‘way,’ to live in our era the same way he lived in his—as a sign and servant of the reign of God. To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or turn water into wine but to take his life project—making the coming of God’s reign of Shalom real and immediate—our own. Friendship among the peoples of the world faiths and the nurturing of a sense of ‘species consciousness’ are an indispensable facet of the coming of God’s Shalom.’

Harvey Cox closes his article with this. “From Jesus I have learned both that he is the way and that in God’s house there are many mansions. I do not believe that these two sayings are contradictory. In fact, I have come to see that only by understanding one can we come to understand the other.”

As always, I am struck by the fact that Jesus puts his mission, his hope for the Reign of God to be realized in our world, in the hands of folk like us. Do you remember that part of the story where it says some of them worshipped and some of them doubted? It turns out that sentence could also be translated “some of the time they worshipped, some of the time they doubted.” That seems to say it well. Kind of sounds like people like us. But it’s not that it depends on each one of us to get it right. In fact, it’s not about each one of us, at all, but about all of us, people who have been invited together to be the community of disciples of Jesus who learn from and teach each other. We don’t simply make disciples, we are made disciples with each other.

Mary has been scouring the web to find some resources on how to do evangelism from a progressive Christianity perspective, but hasn’t found much. I did come across this in some reading I did this week from the pastor of a church called House of Mercy. “We do not do outreach, we do not try to convince or persuade—we try to proclaim and point, then let folks and the Spirit of God work it out.”

Maybe the reason those revival preachers had to settle for raised hands rather than wet bodies was because the people were waiting for something compelling enough not simply to propel them down the aisle, but into a new way of living. This baptistery hasn’t gotten much use lately, so I don’t think we can sit in too much judgment of all those revival preachers out there. They can do a better job, and we can do a better job of making disciples, of helping people understand what it means to follow Jesus. But with every eye open, and every head held high, I want you to take a look around this room and see who it is that we have been invited to follow Jesus with. And we have this great commission from Jesus to invite others to help us join with them in making disciples, starting with us.

Spirit-time, Oberlin Summer

June 10th, 2014

Kathryn Ray
Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014 {Pentecost)

As you probably do not know, the University of Chicago, where I attend graduate school, is on a quarter system.One feature of the quarter system is that we have finals week in mid-June. Next week.One learns new lessons about the Holy Spirit during finals week.

Finals week, when you are called to make good showing of the knowledge that is in you. To show that you have paid attention to the lessons you have received,whether you paid attention or not.

Time shifts around me during finals week. Into this weird, funky Kathryn-time. All the words that I could possibly write or say,lose the space in between that kept them ordered, suddenly everything that needs to be done, needs to be done right now.Everything that needs to be said, needs to be said right now. This is Kathryn-time.

Kathryn-time moves a lot faster than normal time. It doesn’t just happen during school exams. I spent enough time out of school to know this. It turns out life has its own kinds of exams, relationship trials, work trials.

When suddenly there is everything to do, and no time to do it.
And I move into Kathryn-time, which has this terrible, paralyzing, anxiety.

The story of my past week. It was not a week to agree to cook for a woman in my church who just had a baby and came home from the hospital. But I had already agreed to do this, because I knew that now I’m a grown up and if I start making excuses, I will never stop. There will always be a reason.

As I was cooking lentils and grading cheese, chopping carrots, there was this moment, when a new kind of time interrupted. All of the words that had lost the spaces in between, all of the ideas that had just congealed together like leftover oatmeal, It all opened up.

There was just this moment. Suddenly it was just me and the carrots, and there was all the time in the world. That, I think, was the working of the Spirit, that Holy carver of time and space. This is Spirit-time.

That is my prayer for worship this morning, for our time together. That God may open up the space of a moment in our hearts and speak in the language known only to us.

I am going to add an additional Scripture this morning, from the book of Acts, chapter one.To understand our Pentecost text for today, the coming of the Holy Spirit, which takes place in the second chapter of Acts,we have to go back in time to the first chapter of Acts.

The disciples have spent a good forty days chilling with the resurrected Jesus, in which he teaches them. It is a sort of advanced seminar on the kingdom of God. And just before that seminar ends, with Jesus ascending into heaven before their eyes, He gives them their charge.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. Here in Jerusalem. In the whole nation, Judea. In Samaria, that nation over there. And to the ends of the earth that you do not even know.

Make good showing of the knowledge that is in you. Show that you have paid attention to the lessons that I have given you. It is the disciples’ final exam, only it’s the kind that lasts a lifetime.

In this past week, I read those words through the disciples’ eyes. And they were anxious eyes. I don’t know if it was my own anxiety or sympathetic anxiety on behalf of the disciples. Maybe it’s the same thing.

I felt myself standing there, looking upon Jesus, and feeling everything coming together into one moment. All that the disciples have learned in the past three or four years, coming together. Where do you start? What do you do? How do you witness to someone whose deeds and sayings could fill more books that this world can contain, as the gospel of John says? There is not enough time in the world to fulfill the task that Jesus has given them.

If I were the disciple, I would not have wanted to wait around for the Holy Spirit to show up. I would have already booked my ticket for the ends of the earth. This is Kathryn-time moving here. Kathryn-time says better not waste any moment. But the disciples don’t do anything right then.

For once in the New Testament, they do the right thing. They follow Spirit-time. Because the first part of the charge Jesus gave them was to wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Then, you will do the work that I have given you. Not yet.

If God were working according to Kathryn-time, that is to say if God worked efficiently to maximize output, it would have made more sense for the Holy Spirit to descend then and there. Jesus goes up, and Holy Spirit comes down in a dramatic display of power. But Jesus goes up, and the disciples are just left there, waiting.

What was the Spirit waiting for? They were wasting time. There’s sicknesses to heal. There’s good news to be preached. There’s bonds of oppression to break. Spirit-time, it would seem, is not terribly efficient. Spirit-time is not maximally-productive.

The Spirit, in her infinitely wise schedule, has shoehorned a span of time between Jesus’ charge and the disciples’ going forth. A time in which they gathered as a community, and took stock of where they were. A time in which they prayed together and presumably broke bread together.They prepared themselves, making changes in the community. They spoke of their lost member, Judas. I ask myself if they took the time to grieve for him then. I wonder if they took this time to forgive.

The Holy Spirit opened up this space in time between the Ascension and the Pentecost for the community to just be together and attend to themselves before they all plunged into their ministry and witness.A time for them to turn inward, before turning outward. A time in-between what was before and what was to come

In doing so, the Spirit proclaimed to the disciples “everything that you will do and everything that you will be, does not need to come to pass right now.” The Spirit’s answer to Kathryn-time.

This was something I did not understand when I was a student here at Oberlin. I remember graduating and wondering with panic what kind of impact I was leaving on the community.I wondered if I had accomplished anything worthwhile.I have since come to redefine “worthwhile accomplishment.”

But more importantly, I have realized that preparation is something important. I had expected myself to transform my world without understanding that transforming myself was a mighty enough deed. In Kathryn-time, there was not enough time to stop, and gather up. There was only time to act.

In Spirit time, there is room enough for acting, and for being. In Spirit time, there are moments that can capture an eternity.
Spirit time invaded Kathryn-time this week, when I was cooking for that member of my church. A moment that was not the mission.

The mission, when you are approaching finals, is writing, synthesizing, and analyzing, But that moment, that moment was just Holy Spirit and mincing garlic and cooking lentils.

I suspect Spirit-time at work, when I watch the overnight transition of Oberlin from a hive of graduation activity to a quiet summer town. The Holy Spirit has chased the students from the city, wrapped it in a blanket of calm. Oberlin takes a breath, as Mary Hammond said in a Facebook post once.

Come late August, the town moves, and the Spirit moves with it. This church knows how to speak in a variety of tongues to young people from a variety of backgrounds.You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth will come to you. Young people seeking to define themselves as adults in ways as yet unknown to them.

You will add their languages, as you always do, to the ones you already know. Languages of comfort for the grieving neighbor, the language of anger and justice in halls of power, the language of repentance for pain we have inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly.

You speak of God in a thousand tongues, proclaiming in each of them messages of hope, and love, and justice. So many messages to preach in so many languages.

But just as the Spirit gives us words, the Spirit gives us the space between the words. The Spirit gives us Oberlin-summers between the frenzies of May and August.

The Spirit gives us time. Spirit Time. A space for the community to turn inward, as the disciples did so long ago, to tend to itself, to grieve the losses of the past year and celebrate the growths.Oberlin-summer is a sacred space in time guarded by the Holy Spirit

Who banishes the anxiety of the need to do? The need to accomplish everything you can imagine that needs accomplishing?
There is time for all of it. There is time enough. For this moment, we gather as community, to be together, and simply to be.

Within That Luminous Time…

June 1st, 2014

Acts 1:1-11
June 1, 2014
Mary Hammond

I want to take you back, back, back. Let’s dispense with the theological words we now use for what has been happening in Jerusalem and thereabouts. Terms like “resurrection” and “ascension” quickly turn cataclysmic events into theological concepts or beliefs carefully explained or quickly debated. Today, let’s just live with the story, walk inside of it, and imagine ourselves among the people experiencing it.

A little background is in order. The Jewish people have been longing for a leader to overthrow Roman domination and re-establish the glorious kingdom of Israel. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, many hope this might be that moment. Instead, Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified alongside common criminals. These dreams are shattered. Many male disciples go into hiding, afraid that they could be the next targets of the ruling authorities. Some of the women get up early on Sunday morning and go to Jesus’ tomb, intending to properly prepare his dead body.

When they arrive, however, the tomb is empty. These women become the first witnesses to this next shocking turn of events. Jesus was dead; now he is alive? The divergence in the Gospel stories at this point reminds us what a mind-bending time of tumultuous anxiety, loss, wonder, amazement, doubt, and confusion this week has been. What might you be thinking? (Congregational response).

There is a luminous time in the weeks after the death of a loved one. In his book, “After Death Communications: Final Farewells,” Louis LaGrand concludes after years of worldwide research that at least 50% of people–regardless of nation, religion, no religion, class or other distinction–report some form of after-death communication. LaGrand names nine most common ways this occurs, including apparitions or appearances, dreams, linking objects, nature, an inner voice, and several others.

For forty days, Jesus appears to his followers on a walk, in the breaking of bread, in the casting of a net to catch fish, and many other ways as he continues to instruct his disciples. The most common of places becomes a location to encounter Jesus.

While the women are the first witnesses to the appearance of Jesus after his death, the male disciples, whom Luke calls “apostles,” head to the Mount of Olives with Jesus after those 40 days end. Arriving at their destination, they ask Jesus, “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

These disciples seem stuck in one place, on one question, with only one vision of the future. They still yearn for a political and/or military solution to the Roman Empire’s oppressive reach. They still think Jesus is the guy to make this happen. The reigns of political power are in the hands of men; it makes sense that their minds would be more focused this direction than those of the women. This reminds me a bit of our own patterns as human beings, regardless of gender. We so often ask the same old questions over and over when the situation at hand demands both fresh questions and radically different answers.

Jesus lets these disciples know that even he is not in charge of timing, that it is left to the one he names “Father.” Instead of offering a handy time-line (which we seem to prefer as human beings), Jesus provides a stunning commission. It is stunning precisely because of the state of these followers. They are anxious and disbelieving, unmoored and confused. They doggedly cling to grossly mistaken understandings of what is to come.

Still, Jesus lets loose with the simple statement, ”You shall be my witnesses.” Contemporary evangelicalism frequently employs the verb “witnessing,” rather than the noun, “witnesses.” Jesus is talking about “being” here, about who they are, the light they shine, the lives they live. Jesus is making a monumental leap of faith. Thankfully, he doesn’t leave his followers to their own devices, because he tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit, and that this Spirit will empower them for the journey. What a huge relief! Little can they anticipate what alone imagine the transformation they will experience when this power comes upon them!

Jesus sends his disciples out, first to Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s faith, and it is also a place where Empire has seeped into temple leadership and developed cozy collaborations that oppress the common folk. To start being witnesses in Jerusalem is dangerous—it is the place where Jesus was arrested, tortured, and murdered. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem.” Big stuff.

Start in Jerusalem and Judea, Jesus implores, but don’t stay there. Samaria is filled with Jews and Gentiles who have intermarried over generations. Samaritans are considered “less than” and “unclean” by the Jews. Usually, faithful Jews walk around rather than through Samaria. Jesus calls his disciples to be witnesses there and to the ends of the earth.

Blogger Danielle Shroyer thinks this day should be named “The Day of Honesty” (thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/easter7nt/). Jesus is leaving, and guess who is going to be his hands and feet in the world from now on? Bumbling, confused, imperfect, empowered human beings. Those early disciples. You and me.

After this shocking commissioning, Jesus disappears. Again two men appear, as happens in Luke’s rendition of the encounter of the women at the empty tomb. They ask the male disciples a question, “Why do you keep looking up to heaven?” They then tell them that Jesus will return the way he came.

Now, I sort of wish the two men had just ended with “Why are you looking up to heaven?” and re-focused the disciples’ attention back to this earth. In the western contemporary church this final statement has oftentimes become more important than Jesus’ startling commission. It has evoked centuries of end-times speculation and sheer calendarizing. Countless groups have gravitated to specific time tables, sold their possessions, and waited for the dazzling return of Jesus, being disappointed and left with their dashed hopes or new calendars. End times theology has become its own industry, selling billions of dollars worth of books and Christian paraphernalia. Jesus resisted all of this when his disciples asking him about time-tables. Why do humans gravitate toward them so?

The men are instructed to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the promised Spirit. They follow these instructions and return to the upper room where the others are gathered. Luke names each of the remaining eleven men by first name. He follows with a general statement about the presence of “the women,” making special mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He also notes the presence of Jesus’ brothers, who previously taunted him and once considered him crazy.

The way Luke speaks of these encounters, it seems to me that it was only the eleven men who were privy to this experience on the Mount of Olives. I could be wrong, but it is interesting to consider. Whereas women were witnesses to the empty tomb, men seem to have been witnesses to the Last Goodbye. Both groups are tasked by two men in white, according to Luke’s Gospel and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, to go back and share with the others what they have seen and heard.

The upper room in Jerusalem is full of people whose lives have zig-zagged back and forth over a several weeks since the parade into Jerusalem. The disciples are scared, confused, hopeful, wondering, and doubting. They gather up their courage, and waiting. They are waiting for the Spirit to come in as strange a way as everything else that has been happening.

Yet, amid all this, the men and women gathered in that room agree that they are “in this thing for good.” They are committed. They are ready to be part of whatever happens next.

They are poised and waiting, waiting, waiting…waiting for the promised Spirit.

That’s next week. Amen.

The Way

May 18th, 2014

John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014
Steve Hammond

The other day I was listening to a podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called The Spirit of Things. The topic for the program was the importance of faith in people’s lives. When the host of the program, Rachael Kohn, asked the Christian on the program what his favorite verse in the Bible was he said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s John 14:6 where Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the father save by me.” When Rachael Kohn asked him why that verse was his favorite of all the verses in the Bible, he said it was because that verse had assured him that he had found the one and only way to get to heaven.

I think that is so interesting. Is that really what this verse means? Is this proof that Christians, or more narrowly those who his man would describe as real Christians, have cornered the market on salvation? Is believing the right things what this whole thing is about, after all. That’s the whole question behind the book we are currently reading in study group. In The Future of Faith Harvey Cox points out that there is a big difference between having beliefs about Jesus and having faith, or what Cox says should be translated trust, in Jesus.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this story from John’s gospel. Though that 6th verse has become the cornerstone for those who say that it’s what we believe about Jesus that matters, I think Jesus is trying to get the disciples and us to realize that it’s what we trust about him that matters.

Lots of us have read the stories about Jesus in the gospels. Or if we haven’t read them as much as we know we probably should, we are familiar with the stories. We know about Jesus. Does this interpretation that what Jesus means here that only a relatively few people are going to get into heaven and the rest are going to burn in hell for eternity sound like the Jesus we know?

It’s like that whole thing people do with their interpretations of Revelations and the end times. All of his life Jesus went about doing good. He taught us to love each other. He said there was nothing more important than forgiveness. He said we need to welcome in the outsider, to lift up the lowly. He said violence never does anything for us but create more violence. But there are a lot of people who say that when Jesus returns it’s no longer Mister Niceguy. He is going to come back and it’s going to be all about violence, death, hate, and retribution. He is going to delight in the death and destruction he brings with him. Does that sound like the Jesus we know?

Maybe that’s all true and all that Jesus wants from us is to believe the right things about him. I could be wrong, but I think this story is telling us that what is more important to Jesus is what we trust about him.

Let’s put this story in context. John doesn’t mention the Last Supper in his gospel, but he spends several chapters of the gospel writing about what happened on the night that Jesus was betrayed. The men and women who were with Jesus hadn’t figured it out yet, but Jesus was saying good-bye to them. Jesus knew that in a few hours the Romans were going to grab him and that he would be, literally, picking up his cross.

He’s the one who was about to be dragged off, tortured, and hung naked on a cross. But he was trying to comfort them. So he said to them don’t be frightened by what’s about to happen. Trust God, trust me. He said stuff to them that should have been said at his funeral. “I go to prepare a place for you, in God’s house.” And then he said something that I think is at the heart of this story, “you know the way.”

Thomas replies to that by saying, “You are out of your mind Jesus. Like just about always, we have no idea what you are talking about. We don’t know the way. We need a roadmap, the directions. You know go right for 4.5 furlongs and turn left on to the road of Jericho. If you reach Bethany you have gone too far. That kind of thing.” The disciples so desperately wanted something they could put their hands on, something that would show them the way so they wouldn’t have to figure it out.

Jesus had to be so frustrated. Here it was at the end and they still didn’t get it. So he just looked at them and said, “You don’t get any things like doctrines, statements of faith, or creeds. You don’t get things to believe about the way. You just get me. Because I am the way. You’ve got to trust that the way I have lived is what will get you to God’s house.”

I don’t think Jesus simply meant heaven when he was talking about the many rooms in God’s house. For Jesus, living in the presence of God was being in God’s house and there was plenty of room for everyone. The road or way to heaven starts on the roads of this world.

So Phillip chimed in, Phillip who was one of the first disciples that Jesus called, one of those who had been with Jesus the whole time. And he said what we need you to do Jesus is show us God and we will be satisfied. So Jesus looks at Phillip and said, “You know Phillip you have been with me this whole time and don’t you get it. Don’t you realize that I’ve been showing you God this whole, crazy time. You’ve seen me. Don’t you trust that what I’ve shown you is who God is? Sure it’s different than anything you have ever been taught about God. Just think about it. Look at what I have done. I have shown you God over and over. And it’s not over yet. One of these days you will see that you do trust me, trust that I have shown you the way to God, the way to be in God’s presence.”

It wasn’t over because Jesus not only had this great trust in God but he also trusted that the disciples would become what he had always imagined they would become. They would, he trusted, do greater works, we would do even greater works than he did. How? By trusting the way Jesus showed us. Trusting that he had shown us God. The greater works are not miracles and great shows of faith and Christian courage. The greater works come because of the faith and trust that following Jesus is all about.

Jesus set us on the way that leads to truth and life, the way that shows the world God. That is all the work we need to do. Just trust that what Jesus did and said and what he showed us about God was right. And amazing things will happen. And if we need help along the way Jesus says just ask, and we will get what we need.

That guy in Australia said John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me,” was his favorite verse. The more I go on, the more my favorite verse is simply the one where Jesus says ‘follow me.’ And I trust him that it is in the following that I will discover that he is the way to truth and life.”

Open Roads and Open Hearts

May 4th, 2014

Anita Peebles
Luke 25:13-35, Luke 10:25-37
May 4, 2014

Open Roads and Open Hearts

ASK FOR CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE TWO STORIES:

I like road trips.
Road trips: in the car with dad, singing to Greg Brown, reading Harry Potter, finding ways to pass the time. Look out windows, notice how the land changed as we traveled north to the UP, Land of Superior. But there are always things that we miss, that we are traveling too fast or too far to pick up. Road trips/travels in stores are often about transformation (the Odyssey, Into the Wild, etc.)—there is a lesson to be learned, a prize to be won, and so what do you do? You go on a road trip. You pack your snacks, some sunscreen and your hiking stick, and, if you’re my family, your folding kayak, and you get on the highway.

When I think of roads in the Bible, I think of two stories—the ones we have heard this morning.

Men walking along the road—they totally missed the fact that Jesus was RIGHT NEXT TO THEM. Why didn’t they recognize him? If Jesus was walking right next to me, I hope I’d recognize him…it would be pretty cool! But he had undergone some transformation in the past several days, had died and risen again, had done something and been through something that not many had experienced. This transformation made it hard for the travelers to recognize him.

-learning to see the unseen: why is it unseen? By ignorance? Were they blinded by their grief such that they could not recognize him? This is not hard for many of us to understand, being in places in our lives that make it hard to notice others and give them the respect and care they deserve.
-aspects of hospitality in each story (it was only when Jesus showed the hospitality that the two men on the road that they recognized him; similarly, it is only when the Samaritan shows the Jew in the ditch hospitality that the Jew recognizes him as a fellow child of God; and again, it is only when we extend our hospitality towards the least of these, and even towards the Earth that we recognize the other for a Creation of God)

The point is this: We miss Jesus a lot. We miss him in the way that we don’t see what is around us, the homeless people, the mental health crises, those we love crying out for wholeness and forgiveness and acceptance, LGBTQ children contemplating suicide, the earth crying out for sustenance and renewal. Jesus is always there, always with those that are hurting, with those that are in pain and living in solidarity with those that are silenced and ignored. The question for us is this: how can we learn to see the unseen, learn to open our hearts to those traveling next to us, and how can we bring about a shift in how we treat each other that is understanding of the travels and transformations that surround us everyday?

Many of you know that I have spent much of the last 9 months researching and writing about parables for my religion capstone work. Parables are one way that Jesus sought to teach his followers about the questions I have just posed the question that comes down to “how do we live together?”

Most Christians are familiar with the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son as simple stories that have a moral to discover. Mennonite pastor and theologian Ched Myers refers to the saying that parables are “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, modifying it instead to be “earthy stories with a heavy meaning” which I like far more. I think the way we read parables today, and the way many people read the Bible in general, is much too simplistic—the search for easy answers is too tempting and too prevalent. So how can parables help us deepen our relationship with the bible?

How parables function:

Parables are stories are inherently subversive in that they subvert the status quo, sometimes flipping it on its head or even shattering the social norms. Parables take the reader through a process of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. In the case of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ original audience of Jews would have been oriented to the social norms and values of the sociopolitical context they inhabited. When hearing the story about a person being robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, they would have recognized a moralizing story.

As the story goes, a priest and a Levite, both members of religious orders, noticed the person lying in the ditch and pass by on the other side of the road. At this point the hearers would have been ready for the third passerby to come along, probably an Israelite layperson to form a counterpoint to the two religious leaders. This person would probably help the person in the ditch.

The disorientation takes place, however, when the next person to happen along the victim is a Samaritan, a member of an out-group that Jews at the time labeled “other.” The hearers are completely surprised when it is the Samaritan who shows compassion and mercy to the person in the ditch, binding their wounds and paying for their stay at an inn.

Jesus questions his audience as to who was the neighbor to the person in the ditch? The answer “the Good Samaritan” is given—there is a mutuality in the term “neighbor” that does not only apply to the object of the help but also to the person doing the helping. Thus, based on the Samaritan showing a radical neighborliness to the Jew in the ditch, the hearers of the parable have to completely reorient themselves to their social values and norms to consider all the meanings of the word “neighbor.”

This aspect of parables is what New Testament scholar and Baptist preacher Clarence Jordan called the “Trojan Horse” quality: the story pretends to be a friendly one, cozies up to you and comes inside your city walls, and then jumps out and changes the way you conceptualize your way of being in the world. In this way, the hearers of Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan could no longer live in the way they had been before encountering the parable.

A parable-like time is upon us currently. Based on the current environmental crises, including climate change, as a Western Christian I must reevaluate how I live, how I’m traveling this life-road. Parables are often seen as a way of translating morals across time—we do this by identifying with a certain character or event in the story. In the case of the Good Samaritan, instead of waiting for God to help us, we must question the structures of power that have us at a disadvantage. Instead of seeing ourselves as Samaritans, able to always bless others with the advantage of our privilege, we need to hold the robbers accountable for the actions that force others into places of marginalization. How would we live differently seeing ourselves as the passers-by?

Setup: context of the lawyer’s question—asking about who to bless with the excess of his privilege, WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
In Jesus’ discussion of the lawyer’s question, the definition of the word “neighbor” shifts from the one who is the recipient of the blessing to the one doing the blessing—there is a mutuality of terms that I find meaningful—much like realizing the fact of the Creation by God (we as well as our environment are part of Creation)

My question is “What if a mountain is your neighbor?”

-we’ve been discussing Community of Creation, so we’re getting used to thinking of all of the different beings that we are traveling alongside. And how do we treat them?
-expanding the definition of neighbor?away from anthropocentrism and towards the whole Creation, just as the disciples had to expand their view of Jesus?away from the human realm…they had to think of him differently having undergone this paradigm shift and transformation from death to life

Therefore “Loving your neighbor as yourself” is far more radical than many treat it today—this ethic includes recognizing responsibility for beings outside oneself and acting in solidarity with them to alleviate their suffering. Just like the disciples walking the Emmaus road, we need the veil lifted from our eyes to end the willful ignorance and see what’s right in front of us with new eyes.

What are we overlooking in our ignorance and willing ourselves not to see?

-extinct and endangered species—lacked someone to recognize them, show them hospitality
-chemical spills affecting many more beings than the ones living in rivers and lakes and oceans
-people living in poverty in areas that will soon be submerged due to sea level rise
-fracking, MTR…in our own backyards

In resisting the temptation to be bystanders, we are affirming the inherent value of Creation. In consciously removing the scales from our eyes, the Creation is transformed right in front of us, traveling the road alongside us. In looking beyond the veil of this time-bound world to the Kingdom of God (or the Beloved Community or the Community of Creation) we are able to see the world transformed, and our place in it, more clearly.

My journey the past few years has been learning to see. Learning to see people when they are sad and sick and lost, learning to see the things that divide us from each other—learning to look through the worry and pain and depression and anxiety to imagine a community and a world where there is enough support to hold all of us in all of our life events.

I am constantly reminded of all that people in Oberlin do to transform our world. People here feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and visit those who are imprisoned. Many of us here in this church are dedicated to a radical hospitality that seeks to recognize the stranger as a family member and bring them into the Community of Creation. Many of us here in this church lift each other up as children of God and siblings in Christ. Many of us here in this church walk lightly on this sacred Earth so that we can preserve the beauty and bounty for our children and grandchildren, even to the seventh generation.

According to Romans chapter 8, the Creation is “groaning” and “crying out”; I pray that we can all learn to hear these groans and cries and learn to see what many would not see. Only then can we pick up our neighbor when they are down and invite the Lord into our home to break bread with us. Let us go forward now and be witnesses to the hospitality of Creation. Let us “love our neighbor as ourselves” radically, seeing our fellow travelers for who they truly are, and transforming our world.