Romans 12:9-16 CEB
Right now my daughter sits and watches Sesame Street while she slowly drinks her milk. She is 19 months old. From her birth she has lived in two states, and four houses. Unlike my 6 year old son, she has never received a baby dedication because we never had a physical church to call home. My heart breaks a little each time I see the dedication outfit, now too small for her to ever wear. It breaks a little more when I realize I can always pinpoint how far I am from my most tragic moment of faith based on how old she is.
Twenty months ago I was a full time minister in a small rural church. During my 1 1/2 year tenure I had spent months without my son and husband by my side, I had broken my ankle, and 20 months ago was pregnant. I can still remember the exact thought that kept crossing my mind twenty months ago: "Now I can really get things done. I will not be broken or pregnant. I can go and do more than I have done before." I so wanted to give all I could to the church, I had finished two months of sermons in advance, working through them on my day off. I had only a little vacation time because I had to use some the previous year so we could sell our town home, and I was saving four days for Christmas break. I was pregnant, tired, and I was not taking maternity. No one had offered and I never felt it was my place to ask.
Then, a week after my daughter was born, I was pulled into a room with a few of the Elders and told it just wasn't working out. I had done everything they had asked of me, but it just wasn't a good fit. As the weeks continued many in the congregation were surprised. It seemed everything was working well. They came to me upset and wanted me to personally know they had nothing to do with the decision. There were even a contingent who left. The story concocted to justify my departure continued to change as the Elders realized their reasoning really wasn't sound. My favorite comment was said by someone unrelated to the church who will remain anonymous, "Usually a church has a little more grace." With the help of the Church Secretary I did research, sifting through decades of board notes, to see the awful truth: This congregation had a history of exploding, and asking for resignations of ministers since 1978.
Matthew 23:37-39 rang in my head and I wept: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted. I tell you, you won’t see me until you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” In the beginning, there were days I was rolled up into a ball mourning and crying. I always kept my faith in God but my faith in humanity failed. More importantly, my faith in the congregation had failed. It was my ultimate crisis of faith. When I struggled with family issues as a child, I ran to the congregation for support. When my 21 year old friend died from cancer, I ran to the congregation for support. When other friends suffered the same fate, I turned to the church. During spiritual famine, it was the church who became the well I could run to. So it had been until 19 months ago.
Nineteen months ago the well was poisoned. Now, there are some awesome congregations out there. After everything happened I served at an extremely small congregation who normally took student pastors. Their theological well dried out when Lexington Theological Seminary closed their doors to physical students. This tiny group of people were so loving and caring. I wanted to give them more than two months of my life. I would have if I stayed in the area. Yet, as more churches suffer loss or are damaged, the pool of good churches will start to dwindle. The people who really could heal the issue will just leave. There was one couple I begged to stay at the church. Even as the congregation had hurt my family and myself, I wanted the congregation to find restoration. Restoration could only happen with dedicated Christians to lead it. This couple still left. They could not do it.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. As y'all know I have felt a different kind of call. It has been through the above experience God has stepped in and given me an option. A little over six months ago I began this internet ministry. I felt called to reach the people who have felt the pain of the institution of church in a real way. To reach those who are not going to easily step into a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. As you already know, I have been struggling with what a true internet ministry looks like. Through prayer I believe Fig Tree can't look like a worship service. It can't look the way it has looked for the past 65 years.
Well, two weeks ago I was invited to join a group: The Despised Ones. It is a rather new group. It is filled with bloggers and online writers who feel set apart from what church has been. Members have been posting to their community, sharing what it means to be part of it. My time to share has come.
The first obvious truth is in the face of my 19 month old toddler. She is a happy child who smiles and laughs all the time. The first truth is, there is hope. Despite what we are and what we have been through, there is always hope that tomorrow will be a better day with better choices made. There is also always knowledge that something good can be taken from the muck given to you. I left with a daughter. I would go through the entire experience again if it gained me that precious life.
The second truth, one of the key reasons I accepted my place among the 'Despised,' is realizing I am a despiser. When I left the aforementioned church I heard congregants say, "Well, it happened again." There were those who knew this thing happened in the church and they were the silent group who were against it but did nothing to stop it. It crushed me to know status quo was more appropriate than what was right. It crushed me even more because on further reflection I could pinpoint in my past where it was easier for me to stay silent than fight for what was right. I was part of the problem when I chose to do nothing. There were people from my past who needed someone to be their voice when so many were voiceless. Nineteen months ago I swore, never again. Never again will I remain silent while others suffer. I am despised because it took being the one in pain to see how I have hurt others in pain. I was part of the problem.
The third truth lies in Paul. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in jail. His time was nearly up. He was going to be executed. If anyone knows what it means to be despised, it was him. In his darkest hour I hear his words, "Bless the people who harass you- bless and don't curse them." At the eve of his death love was the answer. I can live in this internet wilderness because this wilderness takes on an almost scandalous version of love. We should love the ones who despise us. We should love our despised brothers and sisters. We should love ourselves, as despised as we are. We are called to be lights when the world darkens. We are called to be salt to bring out the goodness in our existence. We are called to this at the edge of a sharpened pen. With great humility I accept my place in this community. I am a despised one. As a member of this group I shall end with this:
To the church I served. I know there are some of you who quietly follow what I am doing and so I write this to you. On a cold February morning I forgave you. I still forgive you. Every day I feel my heart harden I soften it with forgiveness. I call you out by name in my prayers and say I forgive you. So, I do not wish to do that today. I wish to share my hope. I hope you find the person God is calling to you and listen and learn from that person. I hope with that special person, a person you do not call but God does, you will find the healing your church has needed for 3.5 decades. I hope your healing spreads like a wildfire to other hurt congregations. I want the best for you so you may be gathered by God like a hen gathers her chicks. No matter how everything went down, you are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Beyond death, that truth remains. I love you.
Like what you are reading, consider subscribing at the top right of the page. Also, consider participating in our Bible Study- An introduction to the bible using the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is currently underway, under the Bible Study Tab.
Romans 5: 1-5 CEB
One of my favorite stories as a child was the Old Woman and her Pig. It is about a woman who wants to get her pig into it's stile but the pig would not go. She then goes on a vindictive journey to strong arm different items, creatures and people into helping her out. Eventually, it is a cat who pushes the plan into action:
As soon as the cat had lapped up the milk,
the cat began to kill the rat.
The rat began to gnaw the rope.
The rope began to hang the butcher.
The butcher began to kill the ox.
The ox began to drink the water.
The water began to quench the fire.
The fire began to burn the stick.
The stick began to beat the dog.
The dog began to bite the pig.
The little pig in a fright jumped over the stile, and so the old woman got home that night.
Vindictive, right? It took years before I could see just how vindictive it was. There are two sides of the story that make the whole thing uncomfortable. First, no one wants to help an old woman. She is in need and at every turn she is told no. What happened to helping the least of these? Also, the old woman wants to terribly hurt sentient life in order to get what she wants. Only the stubborn pig, who doesn't want to be held captive, appears as the innocent in the story.
So we talk about Romans 5:1-5 and I can't help but think of this tale. A story I used to love but now furrow my eyebrows the second the cat begins to kill the rat. In the same way I used to love Paul's words of encouragement as our problems and pains lead to hope through the Spirit. When this scripture comes up in lectionary I used to live it's message. My pain leads to hope. Yet using this scripture this week feels cold and heartless in light of the tornado that ripped through Oklahoma. You don't tell people in pain that their pain is good in the long run. Yet, I fear, this being the week Romans 5:1-5 comes up in lectionary, it will be used to plaster hope over a clear tragedy.
Before the finger pointing starts and it becomes a moment to call me a hypocrite for using the very text I am suggesting we avoid, let me qualify my avoidance. We should avoid praising pain and suffering for the sake of what that pain and suffering could bring. I don't believe, what I just shared, was the intended point Paul was trying to make. I do fear it will be used in that manner on Sunday morning. It seems natural disaster leads to ignorant statements from Pastors and groups like Westboro Baptist Church who think a tornado gives them reason to talk about understanding sin and how everyone is living in it.
This is where I would go with this scripture: Sometimes we get off track, and sometimes we are derailed by tragedy. In a Godless world that is where the story ends. The spiritual train goes off the bridge and that is that. Yet God, like the good parent, steps in and cleans us up, fixes us and gets us back on track. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need our pain to produce endurance, our endurance to produce character, and our character to produce hope. In a perfect world our life exists without pain and suffering. The focus is not on whether God causes the pain and suffering, but what God does once pain and suffering happens. The answer is in this scripture. God does not leave us. The reason character leads to hope is because hope is what one has when they believe they are not left alone. The only way to maintain hope is in knowing God was present the entire journey in getting back on track.
While this is hopeful, after tragedy it might sound like the Old Woman and her Pig. Realize this scripture is here when people are ready to get back on track. Right now let's mourn. Right now let's weep. There will be a time for healing. Right now, we are here for you.
Like what you are reading? Consider subscribing to the right.
Also, consider participating in the bible study currently in progress. It can be found under the Bible Study tab above.
Acts 2:1-21 CEB
There is a gift to waiting. It is during our time of waiting we need to prepare for the work God is going to give us, and God isn’t going to give us anything we cannot handle. We, on the other hand, apart from God, often give ourselves tasks too difficult for our current state in life. Call it impatience. Call it stubbornness. Call it selflessness to an unhealthy extreme. Whatever you call it, it happens when we choose to take control over and beyond God. If we can honestly live in the waiting period and use that time to prepare, we can expect God to allow great Pentecost type moments to occur. Otherwise, we will only be setting ourselves up to be put in our place. These are moments that look and feel like the wrath of God but is actually God’s love keeping us from taking more than we can bear. Let me explain:
First of all, how do I define ‘wrath of God?’ I believe, in my innermost being, that God is a God of love. I do not think love is always an action that feels nice or comfortable. True love for someone or something means wanting the best case scenario for that person or thing. From a parental standpoint, sometimes that means punishing your child, the one you love, so they hopefully learn a lesson and become a better person for it. Sometimes love means keeping someone away from something because they are not mature enough to deal with it correctly. I can remember when my son, Aeden, was a toddler. We were in a small room and I saw him staring at the door knob intently. Curious myself I turned the knob while he was watching and pushed the door open. Closing it again I watched as he put his tiny hands around the knob and opened the door for the first time. At first I was ecstatic that such a young mind could comprehend the mechanics of a door. Then, a moment later I realized we had to finally use the door knob covers. Putting the door knob covers on the doors wasn’t punishing him for his early discovery, but protecting him from the harm that a really young toddler could get into behind those unprotected doors. That is how God is to us. The wrath of God is not a bad thing; it protects us when we are not ready for our own creative ingenuity.
One of my favorite ‘wrath of God’ moments happens in Genesis 11:1-9. I am talking about the tower of Babel. In this scripture you have the people of the world working together, being innovative, and just plain being successful. In Genesis 11:1-9 there is nothing negative about what the people are doing. Just like, there was nothing negative about my toddler opening a door. Are you starting to see where I am going with this? What the people were doing wasn’t inherently bad, but what they could do could be catastrophic. Listen to the word of God, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will be impossible for them.” Now there are two ways to look at God’s reflection: positively and negatively. You could see the people of the world, working together, would be able to cure all disease, end world hunger, and bring about world peace. You could also see how working together the people could bring desolation, destruction, and the complete end of all things. You had to look at what God was saying in its entirety. It is one thing to have power and it is completely another thing to know how to use it. The people of Babel were apparently not ready for the power they had. Humanity was not ready to handle that kind of power and God saw it. In an act of love, language was confused and the peoples were spread out all over the earth.
Now, what I find interesting about this ‘wrath of God’ moment is its similarity to Pentecost. No, Pentecost is not a ‘wrath of God’ moment, but both appear extremely easy to compare to one another. In both scriptures we have a group of people who all speak one language. In both scriptures God chooses to give them multiple languages. In both scriptures, God acts in love. These similarities leave me to believe that the Pentecost story is a restoration of Babel.
This wasn’t a complete restoration of Babel. The story does not conclude with every person on earth being able to understand one another’s language. Therefore, this isn't a story where the Apostles are given the gift of one language. God knew, and probably still knows today, we are not ready for that extreme kind of restoration. What is interesting is the Apostles already speak one language for they are all Gentile. Apparently the Gentiles were not ones to pick up on other languages. We should compare these people to ourselves. Most of us don’t take the time to learn anything but American English because even if we go overseas on vacation we would probably find someone who spoke our language. It might not be for lack of want. I am sure many of us would love to know a second or third language. Awhile ago I saw a movie filled with German. I know a decent amount of German and it was nice to follow the actual dialogue without following the subtitles too closely. (But don’t throw me in Germany. I would look for an English translator.) So naturally we are mocked by other foreign countries for only knowing one language. In the same way, Gentiles were also ridiculed.
Overall, language is an exclusive thing. Even if we were only to focus on English, what you say and how you say it can determine what social status you hold and what groups would be more likely to include you. Steven Colbert, from the Colbert Report, actually unlearned his Southern accent in order to sound more intelligent. “Y’all,” “You all,” “You guys,” and “Yus Guys” all mean the same thing but each one makes a statement about who and what a person is. Just as “Hello,” “Hola,” “Gutentag,” and ”Bojurno” all mean the same thing but clearly show a national preference.
Pentecost begins the path to restore unity again among the nations but doesn’t do it at the cost of individuality. This inclusive group, that all spoke one language in one dialect, was given the gift of diversity. Instead of God making everyone else like them, God made them like everyone else. I read one commentary that suggested Pentecost was a unifying event because the gift came to everyone present and not to specific individuals. While I believe that is the case, I also believe it is an individual event because each person was given the gift of different languages. The scripture never says they all spoke the same alternate languages. It doesn’t specify what languages they were speaking. I believe individuality is directly tied to diversity and through the diversity of the Pentecost moment they were each given individual gifts of language.
Maybe I get around to it a different way than some of the most learned Rabbis, but I think the biggest threat God saw in the Babel event was the loss of individuality. God said they could accomplish anything and anything could include the ability to lose the self. A group of people would become mindless robots instead of thriving individuals. The trick to true unity lies in being willing to work with a bunch of individuals. The act of unity requires the inclusion of diversity. So it makes sense that the gift the Apostles receive is further diversification. They are given the gift to be able to reach more people; not the other way around.
This week leads up to Pentecost and we need to realize our own Pentecost moment. God is not going to change the world outside so that they can fit in with us. God is not going to make everyone the same so it is easier to get along. Each of us is unique and that is a blessing from God. It is our job to learn their language and go to them. It is our job to include them through their diversity not our own. We have to be the ones who step outside our comfort zone, not the other way around. This is the house of God and this is not just about having the proper welcome mat for our guests and visitors. It is not just about moving the welcome mat to the world wide web so it is easier for guests to learn our language. This scripture should blatently show it is wrong to require others to learn our language of worship in order to learn about God. Instead, God is giving us the ability to learn their language in order to set fire and light up scripture in a new and brilliant way. I think we are done waiting. I think God has a Pentecost moment just for us. Let’s be the Apostles, the ones who go and do.
Like what you are reading? Consider subscribing to the right.
Also, consider participating in the bible study starting May 20th. It can be found under the Bible Study tab.
Acts 1:1-11 CEB
As someone new to the video world, I try to be off the cuff as possible. I had mentioned that the tip didn't matter in regards to the good ministerial table. I wish to amend that statement. The tip, and how you tip is the most obvious way to show the person serving that they did a good, decent or bad job. It is always important. Restaurant servers makes between 2-4 dollars an hour, with many paying part of their tips to the kitchen and hostess staff. When evangelizing to your server remember the famous words of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words." The Gospel is alive and we show it in all things that we do, including tipping.
John 14:15-21 NRSV“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Evil. What is it? Does it have a name? Does it have a face? Whether or not we believe in physical evil our collective understanding does give evil a name, and a face. Some call this character Beelzebub; others use the term devil while still others say Satan. Even early versions of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin made the repulsive little man pure evil with multiple versions naming the creature the local name for “devil.” It seems our imaginations are much more creative when personifying this character. Besides the obvious view of the devil as a red creature with a pitchfork, pointy tail, and horns, we also have movies where the devil is a child, a normal man, a bald lady, and even a sexy woman. If you ever visit North Carolina there is a place named The Devil’s Courthouse. It is a location, believed by local legend, where the devil holds court to decide the fate of human souls.
Now I try to keep from personalizing evil. I think it mainly takes away from our accountability to only focus on the personification of evil. If there is a devil out in the world trying to turn us from God we still have the freewill to listen or to turn away. This, ‘the devil made me do it,’ mentality only means something if we lack the freewill. Also, we have to be more intentional about giving and taking credit where it is due. Sometimes life is about calling someone out when they make a mistake or do something intentionally wrong, even if that person turns out to be ourselves. A devil has no power over a person who does the right thing to begin with.
So I don’t like personifying evil but I have to do it today to make my point about scripture. (Life is like that sometimes.) I turn my attention to one of the earliest biblical representations of evil: Satan. A few of you might know where I am going with this. The book of Job introduces Satan as ‘a man who walks to and from the earth’ looking for humans to accuse. The name itself, Satan, is Hebrew. It is pronounced Say-tawn. It actually means accuser. The name has legalistic ramifications. This makes sense in light of the whole book of Job because Job in many ways is a legalistic book. Continually throughout the scripture Job wants to bring God to court. Job wants to rightfully defend himself. Yet, there is a problem. Or actually, there is a realization. Job understands there is no possible way to defend yourself against God. Who wins every time: the all-knowing all-encompassing creator of heaven and earth, or a human? God hands down. Not to mention the accuser, Satan, is basically the prosecutor. In this scenario it is impossible to win because the prosecution has four star legal support while you only have you, trying to defend yourself.
OK, putting all that aside for a moment, Jesus introduces an idea to the disciples: the spirit of God. Now the Spirit was not a new realization for the time. The Spirit breathed over the waters in Creation. The Spirit dwelt in the prophets and with the Israelites. It might not have been a really radical idea for Jesus to remind the disciples the Spirit was going to be present after he was gone. It’s just; the diversity of the spirit following Jesus is a radical transformation from Old Testament understandings.
First there is the elemental concept of Spirit. In the Old Testament this was mostly understood as breath or wind. The word for spirit in Hebrew is ruach, which literally translates as breath. How does the spirit dwell among and in the people in the New Testament? Of course we can also say breath as Jesus literally breathes the spirit on the disciples. But, it is so much more complex than that. The Spirit can be seen as water as we look at the baptism. The Spirit can be seen as fire as it lit upon the heads of the followers in Acts. All three are life giving and destructive forces in their own right. It also expands how we can see God in nature and ultimately our lives. Wind-fire-water.
Second, the New Testament expands this idea that the spirit will draw us together. It makes me think of one of my favorite hymns, They Will Know We are Christians. The first line of the song reads “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” This unifying nature of the Spirit is amplified by the connection it has to Jesus. What used to be termed, almost solely, Spirit of God is also labeled Spirit of Christ and Spirit of the Lord in the New Testament. It gets pretty specific in Galatians which names the Spirit the Spirit of the Son. We are unified in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, and what is going to bring this sermon back around again, is the legalistic introduction of the Spirit in the New Testament. The word Jesus uses to describe the other, or the Spirit, is Paraclete. In Greek it literally means “called to the side of.” Different versions of the bible choose different English words to define Paraclete. The NIV uses Counselor, while KJV uses comforter. The NRSV uses advocate. The most recent translation, the Common English Bible, chooses to define the word as companion. It’s not an easy Greek word to define. I am going to lean towards the NRSV use of Advocate. I tend to move in this direction because Paraclete has clear legal history behind it. Advocate sounds like a legal term. By definition it means a person who pleads the cause of another in a court of law. Advocate is the legal term for someone who is called to the side of another. In my mind, it fits perfectly. The Spirit that Jesus is going to send, in short hand, is our defense attorney.
When the disciples discovered Jesus was going to leave them they did not want to know about fire, water, or air. They were not terribly concerned about their personal unity within the group. They wanted to know they were not going to fight the fight alone. Evil, in whatever form it takes usually seems to have the higher ground, the bigger guns, and the better offense. The disciples knew what was coming their way because they saw what happened to Jesus. They were scared and they were about to embark into their ultimate human trial. They feared they would be doing it alone while the other side had four star accusers.
Jesus introduces the Spirit in a new way as a counselor, a companion and a comforter. But, most importantly, Jesus introduces the Spirit as a reminder that the disciples would not be fighting alone. God was with them and was their advocate.
Today, we do not have to do the work alone. As Jesus said prior to this scripture, he will bless any endeavor done his name. Part of the way those endeavors will be blessed is through the Holy Spirit. We have the best defense attorney out there standing behind us! And, with God standing with us, what in the world could we possibly fall for? Nothing.