Sunday, October 27, 2019

Faithful Witness


October 27, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Exodus 20:2, 16; Matthew 15:10-20

In Exodus, the Hebrew people, set free from the Egyptians, begin to establish a new culture, and discover their identity as God’s people. Having set the people free, God gives them the means to remain free. The law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, sets this people apart as the people of God – the Lord God who brought them out of slavery to freedom. And the people of God worship and honor God by obeying God’s laws.

The law is not a punishment, a burden, or an obstacle to freedom. True freedom requires responsibility. Freedom without responsibility, without limits, is anarchy. And anarchy is the mob rule, freedom for the strong and the powerful, but slavery for the weak and defenseless.

In order to be a free people, we must be at peace with one another, able to trust one another, responsible for the well-being of one another. And God, by giving the commandments, by setting the boundaries, has provided the means for the people to remain free. If the people worship God, resist temptation, and take responsibility for one another, they will prosper and remain a free people. God fulfills the promise made earlier in Exodus: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”[1]

The commandment to not bear false witness is a particular command that protects society by creating a space for truth to be told. In ancient Israel, witnesses to a crime – who incidentally also brought the charges – had to testify before a court of elders. At least two witnesses were required, as stated in Deuteronomy: “Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”[2] If a witness was found to be lying, the punishment was the same as that given to the accused. This was when “an eye for an eye” was the rule of law. If one was accused of a crime that was punishable by death, the lying witness would have been put to death. This harsh reality ensured that the court of elders was a place where truth would be told.

Truth, indivisible from trust, is the foundation of community. The Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann says this commandment is “a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”[3] In order for society to function, there must be a place and time where we can trust that the truth will be told.

The commandment that we shall not bear false witness gets at the heart of our capacity to ruin ourselves and others by lies and deceit. Another theologian, the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, once wrote: “The capacity to speak… is the primary way through which we human beings express ourselves, and nothing reveals more deeply the biblical insight into the sinfulness and brokenness of human life than our verbal means of self-expression.”[4] Speech can express both truth and falsehood.

Our words are powerful. They can do tremendous good – think of the words written by Lincoln in The Emancipation Proclamation. But our words can also do tremendous harm. Mein Kampf led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. The thoughts in our minds and the feelings in our hearts come forth in our words, and they make an impact on the world around us.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, we hear about the power of our words to do harm. “Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.’”[5]

Bearing false witness means to lie, to give false testimony, to mislead. It is speaking with the intent to deceive. Another form of lying – slander and gossip – also bear false witness, leading us to believe in stories that are fiction born in the heart of those who would harm. False witness breaks our relationships with others, and damages our integrity.

There is a story that tells of a man who spread gossip and lies about a neighbor. When she heard the stories, the victim confronted her accuser with the truth. The man apologized and asked if there was anything that he could do to right the terrible wrong that he had done. The woman walked into the bedroom and took a feather pillow from the bed. Taking out a knife, she cut open the pillow, and then, going to a window on the second floor, dumped the feathers into the breeze so they blew in every direction. “Yes,” she said. “There is something you can do. You can go out now and gather up all of those feathers and put them back inside this pillow.” The man protested, “That is impossible. I could never recover each of those tiny feathers.” “Yes, it is impossible,” the woman agreed. “It is just as impossible as it is for you to take back all the hurt and the pain that your malicious rumor and lies have caused to me. You cannot recover the suspicion that you have sown. The damage to my character can never be undone.”[6]

When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we deny our responsibility for our neighbor, we deny our duty to God, and we destroy ourselves as we become untrustworthy. The trust that holds the community together is broken, and without trust, we can no longer be a people. Bearing false witness brings us into the state of sin: separated from God, separated from one another, and separated from our own integrity.

We must do more than not lie. We must face the challenge of being witnesses to truth, creating a society where truth can be told, where our words are reliable, where we can trust one another. Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount about the Ten Commandments. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”[7] Jesus requires a level of truthfulness from his disciples that goes beyond taking an oath not to lie. It is a life of truth; a life lived with faithfulness toward God and responsibility toward others. The followers of Jesus were to be trustworthy, true, and faithful, a community of God’s people bound, not by oaths, but by love, trust, and responsibility for one another.

As Christians, we are challenged to do more than not bear false witness. We have a special call to be faithful witnesses. We are the people who witness to the work and words of Jesus Christ. We are the evangelists who are tasked with sharing the good news.

Evangelism is a word that tends to make us cringe. When I hear that word, I usually think of people who want to convert me to Christianity – at least their version of it – and my blood-pressure rises. But I’m not talking about proselytizing. I’m not talking about standing on a street corner shouting that judgment day is coming and we’re all going to hell unless we believe on Jesus. I’m talking about the evangelism of speaking our truth, the truth of how God is moving in us, and through us, and around us.

Now, let me stop to say that we must take care that we do not fall into the trap of thinking that our view of reality, of truth, of faith, of God, of what it means to be Christian, is the only way of seeing things. We don’t have a universal perspective. Bishop Spong warns us:
Words can point to God, but words can never capture God. Creeds can be formed to contain truths but creeds can never be formed that will exhaust the truth. God is bigger than the human frame of reference which tries to talk about him. God is bigger than any of the words of any human being about [her]. No matter how hallowed by the ages, no matter how thin or how gilt-edged the pages which we say contain the holy words, God is beyond the understanding of the Bible. God is beyond the understanding of our holy traditions, beyond the creeds, beyond the Church itself. No human system of thought can ever be ultimate. God, alone, is ultimate. Anything less than God will be destructive the minute we elevate it to the level of ultimacy.[8]
As witnesses to Jesus, we are evangelists. However, the evangelism I’m talking about does not make the claim that any of us hold the absolute truth for all time. God is, after all, still speaking. The evangelism that I’m talking about means being a faithful witness to the living Christ that is at work in our own lives. It means bearing truthful witness, speaking the truth, even though it may be hard, even though we may pay a price for it.

Evangelism means not hiding the values upon which we base our lives and our actions, but standing up for them. It means becoming representatives of Christ, ambassadors of God to the world. It means seeing other people, every person, no matter how strange or different, as a neighbor. It means loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It means being true to ourselves and our vocation. It means bearing faithful witness to our own identity as Christians, as the people of God.

Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

[1] Exodus 6:7.  The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] Deuteronomy 19:15.
[3] Walter Brueggemann. “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
[4] John Shelby Spong. “The Human Tongue – A Call to Responsibility” in The Living Commandments (New York: Seabury Press, 1977).
[5] Matthew 15:10-20 (selected).
[6] This story, from the Jewish tradition, I altered from Spong in The Living Commandments.
[7] Matthew 5:33-37 (selected).
[8] Spong.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Persistence

October 19, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 18:1-8

Those of you with children, even those of you who have only observed children, are familiar with the idea of persistence. A young person will ask over and over and over again for something that they want. They keep bothering you until you give in, or blow up. Now, there are times when I have given a firm no, and stood my ground, even though it may have resulted in tears. And there are also times when I have given in, recognizing that it is sometimes best to grant the request, if only so that I don’t get worn out by the continual asking.

Jesus tells this parable about the need to pray continually. The parable which begins, “there was a judge,” demonstrates the power of persistence. The widow only wants justice. The judge who refuses shows his character as he says to himself, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” He admits that he doesn’t really care. His disdain for God, for people, and for justice indicates that he probably shouldn’t be a judge, yet he has that power to grant or withhold justice. In the end, the judge gives the widow what she wants only because she keeps bothering him and he wants to be done with her.

By the time Luke wrote this Gospel, a generation had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early church expected Jesus to return, and they were beginning to feel discouraged. They faced persecution at the hands of Rome whose soldiers still sought the followers of that rebel who had been crucified. Their leaders encouraged them to remain faithful, to not give up hope. Luke frames this story as a message about waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart.

The judge in the story doesn’t seem like a good stand-in for God. When we think of God as a judge, we trust that judge to be fair, kind, caring. The judge in this story is the opposite of that. This judge can’t represent God. “the Lord your God… is not partial and takes no bribe. [God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving [them] food and clothing.”[1] We know that “The Lord reigns… righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne.”[2] The judge in this story is like the sons of Samuel, who “did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”[3]

Jesus – the great Teacher – here uses reverse psychology, taking the opposite of something, or someone, in order to make a point. Look, he says, if an unjust, disrespectful judge who's afraid of nothing and nobody will give justice to a poor widow just to avoid being bothered, how much more will God answer the prayers of God's own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need? How much more will the God of righteousness and justice, the God who loves us so much, grant justice to those who persist in prayer?

In the ancient Mediterranean world, it was only the men who were allowed to play a public role. Women did not speak on their own behalf; their husband or father was supposed to take care of her needs. A widow, one who has lost her husband, had no one to speak for her. So, this one without a voice acts outside the normal constraints when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. And because of her persistence, because she kept coming to the judge to plead for justice, finally she was heard.

The great preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes about the heart of this widow. Society is structured in a way that denies the widow a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that confidence in herself. “She was willing to say what she wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart.”[4]

There are people in our own time who normally don’t have a voice, no place at the table where decisions are made. And yet we have seen recently how the voiceless, particularly children, have begun to speak out anyway, have begun to cry out against injustice.

The 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, is a good example of how one without a voice can push past the restraints of the powerful and speak up anyway. The powerful, like the judge in the parable, are bothered, and may even feel threatened by protests of Greta and others like her who keep coming, keep crying out for justice.

The students from Parkland, outraged by school shootings, have marched and organized and spoken up about the risk young people take by simply going to school. People who live with disabilities have pestered lawmakers constantly for access and recognition. People who identify as LGBTQ continue to protest as progress made gets reversed. People of color continue to struggle with disrespect and violence long after the Civil Rights Movement shook the walls of power. The widows keep coming, trying to wear out the resistance of the powerful.

Jesus wants us to be this persistent, particularly in prayer. Can we be as persistent in prayer as the widow? Can we keep coming to God in prayer, not just on Sunday, but every day? Are we able to keep crying out for justice day and night? Is the shape of our hearts formed by prayer?

Our prayer life shapes us. Prayer helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It helps to keep us connected with the intentions of God. It helps to strengthen our faith, build up our courage, and prepare us to face another day and whatever struggles may come our way.

The passage ends with a question of faith. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Do we trust that God hears our prayers? Do we have a relationship with God that is based on trust in God’s love for us, God’s love of justice, and God’s power to heal and to transform? Do we have enough faith to find our voice, to work for justice and healing, to persistently try to make the world a better place for our children and all of God’s children?

Prayer sustains us even in the worst of times. Prayer keeps us connected to God. Persistence in prayer builds up the strength of our faith, so that we don’t lose heart. The story of the judge and the widow is about Jesus returning to find people who have kept their faith, through all the struggles, and have persevered in trusting God. With the persistence of a child, we keep coming to God, knowing that God hears us, loves us, and will grant justice to and through us.  Amen.


[1] Deuteronomy 10:17-18. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] Psalm 97:1-2.
[3] 1 Samuel 8:3.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Bothering God” in Home by Another Way (Cowley Publications, 1997).

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Healing and Divisions


October 13, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 17:11-19

This is a story about healing and gratitude. As Jesus travelled toward Jerusalem, his reputation as a healer had spread far and wide. We learn from earlier in Luke’s Gospel that as news about him spread abroad, “many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases.”[1] Even in this village, between Samaria and Galilee, he is recognized, and ten lepers come to him to be healed. One is so overcome by joy that he returns to express his thankfulness with exuberance.

This is also a story about borders, barriers, and the lines that divide us. This village is in the border region between Samaria and Galilee. The Samaritans were foreigners, and though they shared much history with the Galileans, were uncomfortable neighbors to the Jews from Galilee. And these lepers face another barrier due to their illness. They must keep their distance, as prescribed by the laws of Moses which labeled them ritually unclean.

Borders are dangerous places, filled with tension and fear. Wars begin in border regions, and the place between the battle lines is known as “no-man’s-land.” We know the danger of borderlands from watching what is happening in Hong Kong, which is neither China nor independent. The region in Syria that is now under attack from Turkey is populated by the Kurdish people, who don’t quite fit in the mainstream of Syrian culture. The northern part of Ukraine is being claimed by Russia. And, of course, our own border with Mexico is troubled with the fear of terrorism, drugs, and crime, along with refugees desperate to find a safe haven.

Maybe it’s in our nature as humans that we need borders, barriers which separate us from them. Clear lines, fences, and walls help to define what is mine and what is yours. They make us feel safe, but they come at a price. Too often, the divisions between us and them become the division between good and bad, right and wrong, and they harden until they become nearly permanent.

Jesus, as we have come to expect, crosses the borders, goes where others fear to go, steps across the line in the name of healing, and love. The disciples may have protested. They may have feared going near Samaria. But they are already on the way to Jerusalem, and Jesus won’t be turned back. Besides, there are people here that need healing.

The lepers in the story keep their distance. They don’t approach, they don’t cross the line that keeps them outcast from society. They know the danger of crossing the barriers. But even from a distance Jesus reaches out to heal. With a simple command, “‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.” The other nine go on to do what is expected, to show themselves to the priest and get their stamp of approval. And if that was all that happened, we probably wouldn’t know this story. One of them turns back. One of them understood that the barrier had been removed, the wall had been torn down, the healing had removed the danger. “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”

Once there were two farmers, and a cat. The cat spent time with each of them, and both of them considered the cat to be theirs. They became bitter, thinking that the other had stolen his cat. Eventually, one of them diverted a stream so that it ran between their properties.

One day a wandering carpenter came by looking for work. The second farmer said, “Sure, I’ve got some work for ya. I want a fence, all along the line on this side of that stream. You can use the wood that I have there to get started, and I’ll go into town to get more.”

When the second farmer returned, he discovered that the carpenter had built a bridge over the stream. And here came the first farmer, crossing that bridge, holding the cat. He said, “I didn’t think you’d ever want to speak to me again.” The second farmer replied, “Heck, I knew that was your cat.”[2]

What is surprising about the story from Luke’s Gospel is that only one came back. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And maybe that is it, right there. Though it is not explicit in the text, the other nine may have been Galileans. They can go to the temple and see the priests, having been cured. They can be welcomed back into society. But there is not cure for being a Samaritan. Even without the leprosy, this “foreigner” wouldn’t be welcome. That barrier remains. The borders still divide his people from the others. But this one recognized Jesus for who he really is, and found a bridge to reach across the divide.

Where do you find yourself in this story? What divisions do we wrestle with in the church, our communities, our nation, and the world? What borders have we drawn, what walls have we put up, and what lines won’t we cross?

Maybe we identify with the disciples. We’ve got places to be, and we’d rather not hang around in dangerous places like this. We’re following our leaders, and sometimes wondering if it’s a good idea.

Maybe we’re with the nine lepers. We're trying to be good people who obey the laws, follow the rules, and now we have a chance to get past what has held us back. We’re happy for the healing, but we’re ready to move on, even if that means that we forget to say thanks.

Maybe we’re that one that came back. After all this time, someone saw past our outward appearance, our social status, our identity as different, other, unclean, and saw the human being inside. Finally, someone took the time to speak to us, and not just pass by trying to not notice. How could we not praise God, and give thanks for healing and hope?

He may be a foreigner, one of “them” to the crowd around Jesus, but with a word Jesus shows him that he is worthy of compassion, a whole and loved human being in need of healing, and tears down the barrier that has kept him from being a member of any community except that of the lepers, exiled from society. We don’t know what happens to this person when he goes on his way. He is still a Samaritan, still living on the border between us and them, but at least this one wall has come down. His faith has made him well. His life will never be the same.

The barriers and borders remain for us as well. We still often see the world as us and them, insiders and outsiders. But Jesus shows us what is more important than our divisions. Jesus opens our eyes, our minds, our hearts to see the person despite the barriers. They may be an Immigration Agent or a refugee, Ukrainian or Russian, a Turk or a Kurd, a public servant or a protester, but beyond all of that they are a person, a beloved child of God, and worthy of compassion.

I read recently about a man named Daryl Davis. For the past 30 years, Davis, a black man, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. How does he do it? By simply sitting down and having dinner with people. He says:
If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.[3]
Change is possible. Transformation and healing can occur. The best way to bring down barriers and open borders is to build bridges. The best way to heal the divisions between people is building relationships. You’ll never know why someone thinks the way they do if you don’t ask. You’ll never be able to heal if you don’t seek to understand what is wrong. Jesus didn’t ignore the lepers. When they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” he saw them, he had mercy on them, and he healed them.

If you try to offer healing and hope, mercy and compassion, sometimes you’ll be rejected. Some times you’ll be thanked. Nine times out of ten it won’t seem to make much difference. But when it does, be thankful. When the difference is made in you, be grateful. Praise God for what God has done for you, through you, and all around you. Give thanks for all of the relationships that have opened the borders and removed the barriers between the people in your life. Remember the Source of healing. Then, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  Amen.
_____
[1] Luke 5:15. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] Adapted from David Wilcox, “Carpenter Story” from East Asheville Hardware © 1996.
[3] Dwane Brown, “How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes” August 20, 2017, from All Things Considered: https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The One in Whom I Have Put My Trust

October 6, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

2 Timothy 1:1-14

The Apostle Paul spent much of his life travelling, spreading the gospel of Christ Jesus. He was at times welcomed, often times not welcomed, but managed to spread the Christian faith to churches throughout the ancient near-east. He was imprisoned more than once, and endured much suffering because of the faith that he was teaching. Yet Paul, for all he endured, never lost faith nor gave up his mission. Though the message of Christ crucified and risen was strange, even scandalous at the time, Paul was never ashamed, never lost courage, and never failed to give credit to God.
Timothy, most likely a minister ordained by Paul, is faltering. Troubling times can do that to you. His mentor is in prison for preaching this same faith, and Timothy may be wondering if he is next. All around were people who took offense at this Christian idea of a Savior who died on a cross. Critics point to Paul and ask what kind of Savior allows their followers to languish in prison? If Jesus conquered death, then why hasn’t he come back to conquer Rome? Timothy is losing the fire, is beginning to doubt, and Paul calls him away from the brink: “rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” he writes. Don’t give up, don’t give in to shame or fear. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Remember in whom you have put your trust.
We certainly live in troubling times. The earth is heating up, the storms are stronger, and the Amazon burns. Violence fueled by racism and hatred brings death and destruction. Protests in Hong Kong and Iraq are met with harsh reactions. Our leaders shout corruption and impeachment at one another, and the foundations of our republic are shaken. We too may feel the doubt and fear that tugged at Timothy.
And yet, we remain faithful. We still rely on the power of God, “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to [God’s] own purpose and grace.” We have received sound teaching from Paul and John, Peter and Mary. We hold to the faith that first lived in our grandmothers and mothers, and which now lives in us.
This letter from Paul reaches out to us across time to meet our tears with a promise of joy. In the midst of the turmoil and struggles of his day, Paul does not spread anger, resentment, or anxiety. How does our mentor, a great teacher of the faith, respond in the face of difficult circumstances, hard questions, and doubt? With gratitude. With all that Paul has endured, despite discouragement and setbacks, Paul is thankful for Timothy and for us. Paul shares with us the confidence that our faith is sincere, as sincere as the faith that lived first in Lois and Eunice, the faith that lived first in Mabel and Jean, the faith that lives now in me and in you.
There have been times when my faith was shaken. There are times today when I feel anger at what is happening in the world. There are religious leaders that cause me to be ashamed of the Church and how the Christian faith is used to harm and dehumanize people. There are days when the mountain of challenges seems insurmountable. 
And yet, there are also days when my fire is rekindled. There are days like today when my hope is restored, when I am grateful for this calling and the gift of faith that has been given to me. There are days when some words written two-thousand years ago remind me that I have received a standard of sound teaching, the grace and faith and love of God in Christ, and I find that my tears are replaced with joy, and my fears are replaced by courage.
What are we to do, my friends, in these troubling times. We must carry on. Paul and Timothy are no longer here, but they passed on their faith. Our parents and grandparents passed on the faith that first lived in them. Now we must guard the good treasure entrusted to us. We must rekindle our faith, and take seriously our responsibility to pass it on. When we pass on our faith in Sunday School, in Confirmation Class, in Worship and Fellowship, we keep the flame of faith alive. We have our own knowledge and experiences, we have the scriptures, and these can help us to hold and transmit our faith. We have the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. And we have one another.

Remember. Remember your mentors in faith. Remember what has been passed on to you. Remember to pray for one another night and day. Remember the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus. Remember the one in whom you have put your trust, who is able to guard you with power and grace and love. Amen.