Archive for October, 2014

Anita Peebles Sermon from the Festival of Young Preachers in Nashville, TN

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Luke !0:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

In late January 2012, I found myself in a little tiny car driving up Black Mountain. Black Mountain is in southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia, and is known for its black bears, cougars, and coal. It is also the highest peak in Kentucky. As I drove up that mountain, the January fog got thicker and thicker, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see anything but clouds at the peak. Up and up and up I drove, around breakneck bends with no guardrail on the side. Up and up and up I drove, until I rounded the last bend and pulled over into a gravel parking area.
What I saw when I stepped out of the car made me weep.
What I could see over the border into Virginia was Mountain Top Removal. Mountaintop removal is the process of using dynamite to blast off the top ridge of a mountain to expose coal seams; in many places it is used instead of deep underground mining. The phrase “laid waste” took on a new meaning. Where there were supposed to be endless parallel ridges of Appalachian glory, there lay only the long ropy scars from the naked coal seams. Where there had been vast forests, there lay pits excavated by dynamite blasts. Where there had been a skyline that humans had born witness to over thousands of years, there lay only the flat triumph of human power and greed over the breadth and beauty of God’s creation.
This sight moved me deeply. Black Mountain was also in line for Mountain Top Removal.
Right there on that mountain, I decided that I could not live in the way that I had been before—namely, in chosen ignorance about the destruction of extractive industries. Standing there in the cold on top of that mountain, I vowed that my children and grandchildren would see mountains. Right there on that mountain, the paradigm in which I saw my life shifted, and I was faced with a choice—to pass by or to act.

Do I have an obligation to help this mountain?

It was a cool and lonely evening as the Samaritan man walked down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road he walked was known for being dangerous, full of breakneck bends and merciless robbers. The sun had already set and the man was tired from his travels, a merchant heading home to Schechem, a city in Samaria. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, leading his donkey. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, until he turned his head and looked to the side of the road.
What he saw in the roadside ditch made him pause.
Just visible in the ditch beside the road was a human figure who had evidently been brutally beaten, lying naked, exposed to the elements. The person’s face was bruised and bloodied, barely recognizable. No clothing or identification or possessions accompanied the man, who had been robbed of all he must have carried with him, valuable or invaluable, on this dangerous road. Only long ropy scars marked this man’s back.
This sight moved the traveler deeply. He also knew the despair of being robbed of his dignity, of living in a world of oppression, and of being seen as unworthy of anyone’s assistance because of the walls people set up between each other.
Right there on that road, the traveler had to make a decision. What if this person was a Jew? What if they didn’t want to be helped, seeing only danger hovering above them in the form of an oppressive Samaritan? What if other Samaritans found out he had shown mercy to a member of a hated ethnic group? What kind of world did he want to leave for his grandchildren?
The traveler didn’t even know that he was not the first person to pass by the man in need, that others had seen and not taken action. But that night on that road, he didn’t ask the wounded man’s name or country or station before he tended the man’s injuries. Instead, he decided to offer an extravagant grace, a radical hospitality, in caring for someone in need by virtue of them being a fellow Creation of God.

Who is my neighbor?

In the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer at the beginning of this passage, Jesus does something really cool. The lawyer, like many of us today, is looking for instant gratification; he simply wants to know how to gain eternal life by doing something simple, by crossing something off his to-do list (AJL). He is wondering, “Whom must I treat as a friend? Whom do I have an obligation to help? How far do the limits of my responsibility extend? Where can I draw my borders?”

Jesus, however, turns these questions around, asking, “Who in the story acted as a friend?” He includes action in his rephrasing, changing the conversation to one about verbs—gaining eternal life is not about believing one thing, but it must be combined with actions. In this back-and-forth, “Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from one who is the object of kindness (in need and receiving the compassion and mercy) to one who bestows it.” There is mutuality in the word “neighbor”: it is a two-way street of loving “your neighbor as yourself.”

Many of us are good at this. We volunteer in soup kitchens, deliver water to people whose water is contaminated, donate clothes to the needy, visit folks in prison, and (sometimes) we even welcome the stranger. Jesus does not only expect us to bless others with our privilege as a community service project, but he paints a picture of a society in which there is mutual benefit from assisting and accepting assistance from each other. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interpretation of this parable: “[King] said something like: ‘I don’t know why [the priest and the Levite] walked by the man in the ditch, but here’s what my imagination tells me. Perhaps these men were afraid. The priest and the Levite say to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? There are bandits on the road.” And the Samaritan says, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” So the Samaritan asked the right question.’ King goes on to say: If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers in Memphis, what will happen to them?’ And we know what happened to King.”

So: no more can we view ourselves simply as the givers and distributors of aid. No more can we simply view ourselves as waiting for someone to haul us out of the ditch and fix the world for us. And certainly, no more can we wear our tunnel vision through our lives, missing the stranded travelers and people in need along our path. Gaining eternal life is living into a beloved community over time—being a “neighbor” is an ongoing process of being fully engaged and committed to community. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a simple story about just one person showing compassion to one other person in need. It is about different ways of being in a community, and how we should treat each other as neighbors.

What if a mountain was our neighbor?

Knowing what we know about human-enabled climate change, we cannot continue to pass by on the other side of the road. No matter how much differing views say humans contribute to environmental issues, if we are part of the problem, then we can also (and should also) be part of the solution. We cannot continue to think that recycling our plastic-ware and planting a tree every Arbor Day are going to fix everything. We cannot watch the Appalachian economy suffer while coal companies shut down, without having another solution ready. We cannot watch people going hungry when there is enough healthy food in the world and not do anything. There must be a verb enacted so that we can truly be neighbors to our fellow created beings. How far does our responsibility extend? Whom and what must we love in order to be true neighbors?

Philosopher William James writes, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Though humans find many reasons to separate ourselves from each other and from nature, we must realize that we are all part of the same Creation, the same dream of God. Environmental justice is not just about saving a tree for a tree’s sake, but it is about the health and wholeness of all the beings that share this planet. It stretches across race, class, gender, sexuality, geographical location and even time. Many indigenous cultures emphasize understanding all actions we do as affecting the world even to the 7th generation from now. All things—you, me, a tree, water, animals—we were all formed intimately by God’s own hands, raised out of the dust and given the breath of life. And God loves us extravagantly. It is our job to reflect that love back—around our neighborhoods, in our communities, and throughout the whole world.

Right here and right now, I challenge you to live into a beloved community of creation. Support school gardens. Help reduce your church’s waste. Listen to children’s stories. Get to know your neighbors. Share a meal with friends. Witness the season’s change. Reflect the extravagant grace and hospitality that God showed the world—even to the 7th generation.

The radical hospitality that the Good Samaritan showed the Jew lying in the ditch–that Jesus showed the Earth by coming to us incarnate in human flesh—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of a community that upholds justice and love of neighbor—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God, the community of all Creation.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.”

Imagine you are traveling up a mountain. The air is cool. You see your surroundings clearly—every rock, tree, animal, and person gets your attention. You see the homeless person and the river contaminated with coal dust. You see the endangered woodpecker and the children living in food deserts. You see the mountains lying naked, scarred from demolition–their dignity ripped away by extractive industries’ violation. What do you see? What do you do? What kind of world do you want to leave your grandchildren?

Candles and Prayers

Monday, October 27th, 2014

1 John 4, Romans 8
October 19, 2014
Steve Hammond

As I was waking up one morning last week, I was listening to an interview on BBC radio with Frederick Taylor who wrote a history of the Berlin Wall. It was actually the morning of October 9 because it turns out, October 9, 1999 was a crucial day in the history of East Berlin and the Berlin Wall. I put something on Facebook about it.

Earlier in the summer of 1989 a weekly Monday night gathering had begun at a Lutheran Church in East Berlin where people were beginning to organize for greater freedom in East Germany. The crowds got bigger and bigger each Monday, and the authorities were getting more and more irritated. Everybody sensed that October 9 was going to be some kind of watershed moment. The folk gathering at the church were prepared for a government crackdown, the government was expecting some kind of attempt at an overthrow of the government. Lots of people stayed in their homes that night because they were expecting trouble, so there weren’t nearly as many people at the church as there had been on the previous Monday nights.

The folk who were at the church decided to have a prayer service and then they lit candles and marched through the city. And nothing happened. When writing the book, the author asked one of the government officials why the Army backed off that night. She told the author that they were prepared for everything, except they hadn’t prepared for candles and prayers. The author went on to tell the interviewer that October 9, 1999 was the night the people of East Germany lost their fear. In the next weeks the crowds marching through the streets with their candles and prayers got bigger and bigger. Finally, they marched right past the stunned soldiers and started tearing down the Berlin Wall.

So that got me thinking pretty quickly about what things would be like if we lost our fear in this country. We have become such a fear based society. That is nothing new for us. In his famous first inaugural speech in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt told the people of the United States that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” There is a long history of politicians manipulating peoples’ fears in this country including things like the red scare after the Russian revolution and the McCarthy years which were a prelude to the Cold War when we were supposed to be afraid of everything. Here is the well known quote famous lines from a commentary by Edward R. Murrow. “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthty’s methods to keep silent. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.”

Once politicians and the media could no longer use the Cold War to stir up our fears, they turned to terrorism. It’s amazing how quickly we surrendered our civil liberties in our country after 9/11. In the debate between liberty and security we have chosen our security. Fear has won again. And fear causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Just look at the perpetual war we now have going in the Arab world. Lots of people knew that there was no justification for starting the war in Iraq, that has led to such disastrous consequences. The emperor had no clothes but, like everybody in that story except that one kid, we were too afraid to say anything. And that’s just the way emperors like it.

Just the past few days I read some commentary in the New York Times that said the overarching theme for Republican Campaign for the 2014 elections is “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Be afraid of terrorism, be afraid of ebola, be afraid of same sex marriage, be afraid of tax increases, be afraid of regulations that would curb climate disaster, be afraid of Hillary Clinton, be so afraid that you have no choice but to vote for us. And the democrats response is basically be afraid of Republicans. But you can’t build a country on fear. And these same people who insist this is a Christian country seem to be the ones who appeal so quickly to fear.

A couple of weeks ago there was a seminar that Al Carroll helped plan and organize about conflict transformation with Iraq as a case study. Professor Mahalliti put forth an audacious proposal suggesting that our foreign policy should not be based on what’s best for the national interests, but on making friends. What if we gave up fear for friends in our international relations? Making friends instead of making enemies seems to be not only more productive, but much more in line with what those who claim as a Christian nation would want to endorse.

. Bruce Springsteen sings a song where there is a line about a man having tattoos on the top of his fingers, right below the knuckles. On one hand it says love and on the other fear. You see, hate is not the opposite of love, fear is. And truth be told, most of us I think, live in that land between love and fear. I think the writer of the First Letter of John is on to a universal truth. And it’s not just nations and politicians. It’s us. And it’s perfect love that casts out fear. That’s also a universal truth.

So I am not what one might call an anxious person. I am not what I heard referred to the other day as a catastrophic thinker. Maybe me talking about getting over our fear is a bit presumptuous. But, in my defense, this passage about perfect love casting out fear does speak to me. I may not be anxious, but there is plenty I worry about. And it may seem trivial, but it’s real to me. I think about things like what if nobody likes this sermon, or what if somebody gets upset with me because of something I said, or something I didn’t say? If someone visits church and doesn’t come back, I assume it has something, if not everything, to do with me. What happens if we don’t meet the budget next year, or this electrical work ends up costing way more than we imagined? What if I don’t offer someone what they really need at the time they need it most? What was that funny look on that person’s face after church today, or that pause on the phone? Why didn’t they respond to that email? Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, is coming in a couple of weeks. What if that is the day lots of us are gone or decide just not to come? What’s he going to think about me if that happens, think about my ministry? (Please be here. And if you wanted to invite a bunch of your friends to church, that would be a good time to bring them with you). So my fears may not be world class fears, but they do exist. I’m not assuming this passage about perfect love casting out fear is directed to others, and not me.

I’m also aware that I don’t struggle with fears on the same level as others do. It’s easy to say let love cast out your fear if you don’t have any trouble loving yourself. I don’t experience that personally, but for most of her life, I and so many others worked so hard at helping our daughter Sarah try to love herself just a little bit. But she could never do it. So I have seen how hard this can be. And I hope I am not throwing out some simplistic answers here.

Here is what I think I know. When we lose our fear we can trust love. But it’s hard to lose our fear alone. We need each other to lose our fear. We can stand tall with and because of each other. Fear is contagious, but so is fearlessness.

What if, together, we kept remembering day in and day out that God loves us. That’s the whole point of why Jesus came to us, to show us that love. And what if we remembered every day that there are people who love us. And what if we focused on those who love us and we love rather than those who don’t or might not love us? What if that love began to crowd out, at least, some of the fear?

I guarantee that everyone in this room is loved. By God and, if nobody else, loved by others in this room. But I also bet there are plenty of others who love each of us as well.

And think about all the people you love. There is plenty of love to draw on both what you give and receive when those voices of fear, within and without, are trying to cast out love. When fear is at the door, don’t cower but stand tall. God and the people who love you and that you love have your back.

If you can’t love yourself, trust the love of God and the love of others for you. It may not sound doable or really helpful, but what’s it going to hurt to try? And if just a tiny bit of the fear gets cast out for just a little bit of time, it seems to me to be better than nothing.

Rob Voyle, who was Bible study leader at Peace Camp in 2011, talked about perfect love casting out our fear. I remember him talking about how for so much of our lives we are waiting for disaster around the corner. You know that feeling of what can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s just about to happen. The person you don’t want to see, the email you don’t want to receive, the bank statement you don’t want delivered, the doctor’s appointment you don’t want to go to, the test you don’t want to get back, the conversation you don’t want to have, the boss or board member you want to avoid. Those kind of things do seem like they are right around the corner and we can run into them at any time. But Rob said what if we start expecting Jesus around the corner, rather than the things we are afraid of. And even if those things really are right around the corner Jesus is, too.

One of the other things I remember so clearly Rob Voyle saying is to ask ourselves what we want, more life or less death. The love that Jesus showed us, the love that casts out fear is about more life. He doesn’t want us to settle for less death, even though, sometimes that is the best you can get. But don’t settle for less death if you don’t have to.

Some of you have heard me tell this story that I want to close with. Back in the days when we were still a part of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio I was the point guy for the Ohio Baptist Peace Fellowship. We would have a display table every year at the Annual Meeting and there was one very memorable encounter at that table. This man got very angry with me and said that we were not only wrong-headed in working for peace, but that if we had peace in this world then Jesus couldn’t come back. I don’t quite get it, but it is something lots of people believe. They have this whole end times thing going that says the world has to get worse and worse and when it gets bad enough Jesus will come and rescue his followers.

The man finally settled down and we actually got into a good conversation. Here is what he said that continues to move me. “Christians are not supposed to be afraid,” he said, “but everybody in my church is afraid. What you could really do for me is come to my church and speak to our fears. But I know my pastor would never let that happen.”

He knew the way to deal with our fears and more deeply experience God’s love is with each other. He also knew there is lots that keeps that from happening. If I speak to anybody’s fears, all I can do is talk about love.

You’ve got candles. We are going to light them and pray. What walls do you want to tear down?

Do you remember this from the Apostle Paul? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When Life is Not So Easy…Remembering Mental Health Awareness Week

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Psalm 69, selected verses; Job 2:11-13
October 12, 2014
Mary Hammond

Many years ago, I proposed a topic to the student discussion group, Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin. 99% of the time the students suggest topics and lead the discussions, not me or Steve. I don’t think I’ve actually led a discussion in the group since that time. However, for some reason, I felt it would be good to talk about Mental Illness and Spirituality.

The night of the discussion, one student opened up about her family. All her life, her mother had struggled with mental illness, and that had profoundly impacted her childhood. As she shared her story, she wasn’t the only teary-eyed person in the room. Others began to speak of personal struggles with depression or anxiety. Some mentioned friends they were concerned about. It was an intense and honest conversation.

That evening we also explored the question, “What contours does spirituality take when entangled with mental illness, either in one’s own life or in the family?” This is an issue that deserves a lot of attention, and is often overlooked.

I never forgot that evening. Mental illness mainly seems to come out of the shadows when a prominent figure like Robin Williams commits suicide, or some young man completes another horrific mass murder. Politicians and families call for reform in one area after another—mental health services, gun laws, and education. Other politicians and special interest groups push back. And then mental illness returns again to the shadows.

I’m always glad when Yvonne Garland, one of our dear parishioners who is currently shut-in, speaks up during Sharing Time about her own journey with mental illness. On occasion she will make remarks like these: “Someone in the congregation today is depressed and wonders whether life is worth living. I just want you to know, there is no shame in mental illness.”

The gift of Christian community is to provide a safe place for everyone to come out of the shadows, whatever those shadows may be. Our hearts’ yearning is to be able to speak our truth and be received with compassion and openness.

There are a few things that I have learned along our family’s journey as our oldest daughter struggled so long with mental illness before her death nearly three years ago. These are simple but hard-won lessons worth passing on today. They are also applicant to many other situations people face in life.

The first of these is amply illustrated by Job’s friends before they start trying to come up with explanations for his misfortunes and sorrows. Hear the words of the text: “When they [saw Job], they began to weep and wail, tearing their clothes in grief and throwing dust into the air and on their heads. Then they sat there on the ground with him for seven days and nights without saying a word, because they saw how much he was suffering” (Job 2:12b-13).

This is the ministry of presence. We so often think we are doing nothing when we are just there, lending a shoulder to cry on, offering an encouraging word, or simply listening. But these are precisely gifts that can be in short supply for someone whose family may be un-supportive, whose colleagues cannot know, whose church tells them to “pray the devil away,” or who is simply feeling too alone and overwhelmed to reach out very much. Never underestimate the ministry of presence.

Along with this ministry of presence is the importance of not trying to fix things. We want to fix things. In American culture, we are do-ers more than be-ers. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We cannot “fix” another person. What we can do, however, is love them unconditionally. That love takes time and commitment. It may also come bathed in sacrifice. Sometimes it is gushy and gentle, all hugs and helps. Sometimes it has to be heartbreaking, tough love. Soaking that love in prayer matters, but here’s the catch:

There are some things that are not healed in this life, in spite of mountains of prayer and reams of unconditional love. Compared to 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, substantial relief for many forms of mental illness exists through prayer, meditation, medication, therapy, support groups, body work, experimental brain stimulation, community, and so many other means.

But it can still take the mentally ill a herculean amount of strength to get through each day. This is not only true for this population, either. It can be a reality for any who face a long-term disability or history of trauma. The effort to continually choose life amid the temptation to just “give up” needs to be honored and appreciated, even celebrated, every single day.

As we close, I invite you to let the music of Ken Medema fill your soul, the light from the dancing candles touch your heart, and the voice of the Spirit speak deep within yourself. Amen.

How do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? Maybe we need more information. Maybe he was a work in progress. Maybe we are all works in progress.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Philippians 3:4-14
October 5, 2014
Steve Hammond

Remember the song from the Sound of Music where the question was “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” Well, what do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? For some in the church he’s the problem and gets the blame for all that they see wrong in conservative Christianity. For others he’s the solution to the problem of liberal Christianity. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between. I don’t think he deserves either the depth of the vilification that has become a cliché in some circles nor the height of unquestioned authority he receives in others. Today’s passage shows us that there is way more nuance than we often allow for him. We see both the peril and promise he engenders.

This passage doesn’t, initially, seem to be one you would want to highlight in multifaith dialogue. Paul is hard on Jews, and he can’t stop talking about Jesus.

First of all, we can’t get past the fact that we look at this passage through 2000 years of Christian history, some of it unfortunate and tragic when it comes to Christianity’s interaction with Judaism. But none of that was there when Paul was making this testimony he made from his prison cell. Paul, like all early Christians, understood himself as a Jew. And most Jews understood Christians as one of the many sects of Judaism. It wasn’t until gentiles, or folk who hadn’t grown up Jewish, began to become followers of Jesus that people even started asking about whether Christianity and Judaism were separate religions. And it took a long time to settle that question.

We begin to see that debate taking place about this question of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in some of the later writings of the NT. But archaeologists have found evidence of Christian congregations basically viewing themselves as branches of Judaism up until about 150 C.E. And it wasn’t until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E that the structures in Judaism began to push back against sects like Christianity. With the Temple destroyed, there was a felt need by many to rein in the varieties of Jewish expression. It was time to circle the wagons and have a clearer definition of what it meant to be Jewish.

So the argument for Paul initially, anyway, was not Christianity vs. Judaism, but a struggle for the future of Judaism. It seems to me to be very similar to what has happened in the history of the Christian church to this very day. Christians continue to discuss, debate, argue, name call, and condemn to hell or some other condemnation if you don’t particularly go along with the idea of hell, other Christians. And there were many times when those disagreements led to violence and death. If I just say names like Pat Robertson or Jerry Fallwell, what kind of feelings arise in you? But I don’t think an outside observer would call me anti-Christian because I believe that Pat Robertson has a wrong view of what Christianity is supposed to be. So I think it is a bit harsh to call Paul anti-Semitic because he had serious disagreements with other Jews about what Judaism is supposed to be.

Another way to look at it is to think about Martin Luther and the other Reformers. They were exactly that–reformers. They weren’t trying to bring down Christianity, just challenge it to be something else, something they saw as truer to what God had in mind. In much the same way, Paul understood himself as a reformer of Judaism, not it’s enemy. Christian Eberhart, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston put it this way, ”In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147)

Now in his zeal, and the heat of the moment, Paul may have crossed some lines, which anti-Semites have found helpful helpful. And don’t forget it was folk from his own Jewish tradition who worked to have him imprisoned and eventually martyred. You can imagine how intense their arguments got. But I think the problem may sometimes have been more of how he argued than what his argument really was. And it’s not only the Apostle Paul that has fallen into that kind of thing.

What was obviously more important to Paul, though, than the future of Judaism was the new life he found in Christ Jesus. And he was not shy in his testimony. Last week Mary talked about street cred. Paul had street cred in Jewish life. He came from the right family, he studied with the right teachers. How did he say it, “You know my pedigree, a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” Paul, or Saul, as he was known before Jesus changed everything, was on his way. He was one of the golden boys. The Jewish establishment was his to occupy.

One day, though, on a journey to deliver some Jesus followers over to the law, Jesus knocked him off his horse. Whether that was literally or figuratively, that argument rages, but whatever happened, Paul became a different person. What was once a fast track to a corner office in the Temple was suddenly of no importance to the future Apostle. “I count it all as rubbish,” is how some of the more genteel translators put it. Petersen is getting closer when he says the Apostle Paul thinks of what could have been as nothing more than dog dung. The commentators at girardianlectionary.net put it in an academic framework. “The Greek word skybala is found only here in the NT and very rarely in any other Hellenic literature; some scholars conjecture that it is a slang term for excrement.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper22a.htm)

However you say it, Paul had found something in Jesus that made everything else, all his credibility, all his assumed future, all the power that could have been his, worthless. He felt himself come alive in Christ.

That’s what we bring with us. Christianity has plenty to apologize for when it comes to multifaith dialogue. But we are not the only ones. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, paganism and atheism have all brought death, destruction, and oppression. But there is so much life in all of those traditions, as well.

Rabbi Brand on campus suggested to me once that one good way of engendering multifaith dialogue is to start talking about some of the ugly parts or our histories and traditions. And he didn’t mean Jews talking about some of the awful things Christians have done, or Christians talking about some of the difficult texts in the Koran, but each faith talking about itself, its own problematic histories and texts.

Now Paul may seem like too much of a Jesus fanboy to be of any help in multifaith dialogue. But I don’t know what we have to bring if we don’t bring Jesus. I don’t think we would legitimately expect Muslims to not talk about Muhammad or Allah if we were going to enter into dialogue with them. We wouldn’t ask Jews to stop talking about God or Moses or the commandments. We wouldn’t look askance because Buddhist were talking about the Buddha, or Hindus were mentioning their gods and goddesses. And I don’t think they are expecting us to not talk about Jesus.

It’s when we bring life into this world that we are being good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good whoever. All that the Apostle Paul could see in Christ was life. And what he objected to most was when people tried to turn Judaism or Christianity toward death. Resurrection was not some theory or theological formulation for Paul. It’s what filled his heart with hope and imagination.

In his more candid moments, like here, Paul admits to his own deficiencies . He didn’t claim to have it all together. But he knew that he was reaching out for the Christ who had grabbed hold of him. He was off and running. And even if he got off the course now and then, he wasn’t turning back, because Jesus kept holding out life before him.

And he did get off the track, for example, when it comes to women in the church. Though not all of the awful things attributed to Paul were really from his own pen, we do get enough to realize that he had a woman problem. But as you keep reading Paul, you see him evolving or growing from “no woman is allowed to speak in the church,” to where he is commending the work of his women co-workers and greeting the churches that are meeting in their homes. He wrote to the Galatians that “in Christ there are neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, neither men nor women.” As he was running that race toward life in Christ, he changed along the way. And I am glad the scriptures let us see that. It’s too bad, though, that people have focused on some of his earlier understandings rather than his later ones.

This, was the guy who wrote 1 Corithians 13, the ‘love chapter.’ This is what we read from him in Romans 12. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In Romans 8 he wrote about all of creation longing for the revealing of the children of God and how nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

He said many provocative things along the way but he also wrote about how it was his job to help Jesus followers provoke one another to love and good works. And then there was that thing he wrote in Ephesians. “Be kind and tender hearted to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ.”

Paul neither deserves to be placed on as high of a pedestal as some think nor have his statues torn down. We are all works in progress. What Christians bring to the mix is that we are, like Paul, coming alive in Jesus. And so at communion, as Paul pointed out, and in so many other ways we are simply called to remember Jesus. And we are reminded to remember what Paul knew with all his heart, that Jesus has grabbed hold of us and we are reaching for the life that is in him.

Street Cred(entials)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014
Mary Hammond

I am always astounded by the creativity and wisdom of Jesus when he is faced with “thinking on his feet.” Jesus is a master of the adroit question and penetrating story. He knows how to get to the heart of a matter quickly, even when others don’t see that coming.

As Jesus’ ministry expands, the religious authorities seek to blindside him and trap him in his own words. They are threatened by his popularity and incensed by his disregard of religious tradition.

Time after time, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He exposes their foibles, bringing to light their deepest motivations. He outwits them, again and again.

Today’s Gospel story is a perfect example of this phenomena. The context of the passage is telling—Matthew situates this story shortly after Jesus’ Procession into Jerusalem on a donkey during what turns out to be the last week of Jesus’ life. This ragtag parade isn’t really the great palm-waving celebration that the Church has transformed it into over the centuries. Rather, it is a portend of the immediate and impending Clash of Empires–the Reign of God vs. the Reign of Caesar, the Rule of the Holy One vs. the Rule of the Roman State.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first stop after entering Jerusalem is the Temple. He takes note of the profiteering, greed, and other evident abuses of his religion. Like the prophets of old, Jesus takes bold action. He overthrows the tables, scatters the pigeons, and laments the sad state of affairs. He cries out, quoting from his own scriptures, “My house was designated a house of prayer, You have made it a hangout for thieves” (Matthew 21:13).

After that momentous and exhausting day, Jesus heads to Bethany for the night. Now, Bethany is the town where his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live. You may remember the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Or you may recall a story in Luke’s Gospel. Martha is in a huff about meal preparation and hospitality while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the position used by rabbinical students, learning from him.

I like to think Jesus hung out at their house after that intense confrontation in the Temple and dusty trip to Jerusalem. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they might have had.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shows up at the Temple again the next day to teach. Imagine this scene for a moment. Jesus really has a following by now. The religious leaders have had enough of him. The Temple is their turf, not his. They are furious about his incursion into this space and all the ruckus he created the day before. They are wary about the crowds he is attracting. According to Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, “The Last Week,” they are also colluding with Rome to keep the peace among the populace. What could happen next?

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law demand to see Jesus’ credentials. ‘What are you doing here? Why gave you permission to teach here? Who did you study with?’ These are the questions of credentials! Clearly, in their estimation, Jesus is not welcome in their Temple!

Jesus could have answered them by saying, “Actually, I don’t have a degree or even a certificate. I haven’t been apprenticed to a famous rabbi. I was not invited to teach here by one of your scholars. In fact, I was home-schooled at the feet of my revolutionary mother.” He doesn’t say that. Instead, Jesus spars with the religious leaders on their own grounds. “You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours,” he replies.

So begins the duel. Jesus never addresses the question of his own authority or credentials. Instead, he brings up his cousin, John the baptizer, who was beheaded by King Herod. John still has quite a following among the common people.

So Jesus asks the religious leaders about the baptism of John—Is it from God or humans?

The religious leaders know they are trapped. Remember–Jesus is teaching in the Temple. There are other people around. Afraid of riling up the populace, the religious leaders whisper among themselves. One answer exposes their own blindness; the other threatens to disturb the peace. They concede this round to Jesus, and he refuses to answer their question.

Jesus continues with a story about a father who has two sons. In patriarchal first century culture, marriage and bearing many children is the norm rather than the exception. Further, sons are the most valued progeny. These male religious leaders could easily relate to this story.

The plot is simple. A father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard for the day. One refuses, relents, and later goes. The other agrees, but never follows through. ‘Which one does the Father’s will?’ Jesus asks.

“The first son,” they answer.

Jesus then segues onto the topic of John’s ministry among the people again. “…John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him” (Matthew 21:32)

According to Jesus, credentials aren’t found on a piece of paper, in who a person has studied with, or how many years of loyalty they have given to an institution. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Street cred?” It is short for “street credentials,” authority that comes from incarnational practice—the kind of living that gets tangled up with the sufferings of the world, engaged with the most vulnerable and despised. It is living that exposes the abuses of religion, particularly of one’s own. It is living that challenges the status quo and takes on the power of the powerful, regardless of the cost.

Where is the Kingdom coming? It’s coming in the streets. Amen.