Friday, May 7, 2021

Jesus Walks on Water - Sermon for week ending May 8, 2021

Gospel Reading 

 John 6: 16-21

When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark, and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, and then, the boat reached the land where they had been heading.

Sermon

We are finishing our series on the signs and wonders of Jesus in the gospel of John  with, as we heard in the reading, Jesus walking on the water, using Doug Pagitt’s book, Outdoing Jesus. As we have seen, Pagitt reads the miracle stories as many of us do, not as breaking the laws of physics but as breaking open human hearts and human potential. Throughout, he compares the gospel of John to the book of Genesis. He compares this story to the creation story, which also uses imagery of the water and seas as “places of brooding darkness and chaos.” But into this, God brought new life. Unlike some other religions’ creation stories, ours doesn’t call people to live in fear of but in partnership with the earth and the sea. To care for and engage with them. Both the Genesis and the John stories let us know that we can set aside whatever fears, superstitions, and inhibitions we have about the water, the deep, the dark, and the chaos. Because there is also life there. I think the story in John has parallels to our experiences during the pandemic, so these verses have comfort to offer us, too, in our anxiety and inhibitions about coming back out into what has been a frightening, chaotic world. If we look at John’s story as being about how humans benefit from Jesus’ actions, we can see ourselves and all of humanity in the disciples. When the story begins, the text says, “It was evening. It was already getting dark, and the disciples got into a boat to cross the lake.” In a boat, on a lake, as its getting dark is not where anyone wants to be. One of the scariest times in my life was when my family was out on a boat, a motorboat, on lake Burton up in the North Georgia Mountains, when I was 10 years old, and just as it got dark, and it was drizzling, my father decided to take us to see the dam. The deepest part of the lake, with the choppiest waters. He liked to show off how brave he was, and he got way to close to the edge, in my opinion, and I was sure we were all going over. My brother and I spent our teenage years in that boat on that lake, but we never got anywhere near that dam. Also, a lot of people are just afraid of the dark. Almost all kids are. And 40 % of adults. Because we can’t see what’s out there. It’s unknown. We don’t have any control over it. Next in the story, we read, “Jesus hadn’t come to them yet.” So they were without their leader, the one they counted on to make them feel safe and secure, which  increased their uncertainty and fear. Then, “the water started getting rough because a strong wind was blowing.” The boat was now being driven by the wind. It wasn’t any longer on its path. They were 3 or 4 miles from shore, at the mercy of the waves. I imagine that’s when full-blown panic set in. And then they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was not being blown about.  He was the opposite of what was happening to them. After a little while, they felt comforted and cared for and safe. He didn’t even get in the boat. Next thing they knew, they had gotten to shore safely. Jesus’ empathy for them and his calm  made it possible for them to get to the other side. This, Pagitt says, was the miracle: “Not some empty demonstration of power or spectacle by Jesus.” But “The calming of fear and getting to the place you were headed even in the midst of the storms you can’t control,” which does parallel our story for the past 14 months. When the pandemic first started, it was strange and scary, but we thought it would only last awhile and be gone. We were gonna get in the boat and row to the other side.  But as it went on and on, we felt stretched way beyond our comfort and safety zones. As the world began to shut down, we were blown off course. Many of us went into survival mode,  buying up all the bottled water and toilet paper. Some of us were afraid to leave our homes. Nightfall brought pictures of bodies stacked on top of one another, and stories doctors and nurses dying while treating Covid patients. We didn’t have leaders to comfort us. We got conflicting and false information. We worried about our families, whom we couldn’t get to. Some of us lost family members. People lost their jobs and their homes and there was no more childcare for workers who had to go in. We felt rudderless.  It was traumatizing. For most of us, the vaccine was the greatest gift ever, but for others, there is anxiety about getting it. It has been a lot. And it still is.  But we can help each other get to the other side because we care about each other. I am looking forward to getting back together in person. To seeing your faces and seeing and hearing Jane play. It is not going to be perfect, but we will get there with the comfort and support of one another. Empathy is the antidote to fear. When the disciples first saw Jesus, they wanted to take him into the boat, not just because they were afraid for themselves, but because they were afraid for him. They had empathy for him and wanted to comfort him. As we begin this journey forward together, let’s follow that example. Let’s start making concrete plans] to expand our mission of comfort and care and empathy for all our neighbors who wear the face of Jesus even further, so that we can make it to the other side, to  this new life, together.

 


Friday, April 30, 2021

Jesus Heals A Blind Man - Sermon for Week ending May 1, 2021


Gospel Reading

John 9: 1-7   The Message

Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”  He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw.


Sermon

We are continuing this week looking at some of the miracles of Jesus, called signs and wonders in the Gospel of John, using the book Outdoing Jesus by Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s porch in Minneapolis, a church that focuses on addressing human needs in the community. The title comes from Jesus’ statement to the disciples at the last supper that they will do even greater works than he has done. Pagitt reads these miracles as many of us do, not as breaking the laws of physics, but breaking open human hearts and human potential, and he recounts ways that everyday people are doing the same. As I said last week, John is my least favorite gospel primarily because of its negative portrayal or all Jews who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, shown through his constant use of “The Jews” as a pejorative, which as we discussed in our book club this week, always becomes a problem when we separate people into a binary of ‘all in’ or ‘’all out,” when humans are much more complex than that. The miracle stories, though, if we read them as humans helping humans, can stand on their own, so I just skip the parts of John’s commentary that I don’t like. As we heard in the reading, this week’s miracle is when Jesus healed a man born blind. The man is sitting where he always sits, beside the busy street that goes to and from the temple. He knows that it is considered a good deed for religious people to give to the needy, so this is a great spot for him to sit with his bowl as they return from the temple with full and generous hearts. As Jesus and his disciples walk by, they see him, and one of them, in his arrogance and self-centeredness, instead of having empathy for the man, or even acknowledging him, uses his predicament for his own education, asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” This belief, that children pay the consequences of what their parents did, was held by many ancient religions, including Judaism, as we read in Exodus 20, verse 5, where Yahweh says, “I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation.” It’s also the main tenet in the fundamentalist Christian doctrine of original sin, first voiced by Augustine, using the writings of Paul, that says, since Adam and Eve, the first humans, sinned, all of humanity is born in sin. But Jesus says, it has nothing to do with sin. There is no one to blame for his blindness. Let’s focus on what we can do to help. Then he makes a mud paste out of dust and his own saliva and gently applies it to the man’s eyes. Saliva was thought to have medicinal qualities. (My mother sure believed it did.) The dust is literally dust and a reference to Genesis, which says, “Then God formed man from the dust of the ground.” So Jesus is not only giving the man sight. He is giving him a new life, which is what always happens with Jesus’ healings. They are a double blessing of physical healing and being restored to their proper place in the community.  He is no longer an outcast. Pagitt emphasizes that this is also a story about touch. Like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper, Jesus connects with this man through human touch. That is a lesson for all of us in how to connect with another’s humanity. I think not being able to touch each other Is one of the harshest things the pandemic has done to us. The man Jesus healed wasn’t the only blind person in the story. The disciples were blinded by their biases. They were sure that someone’s sin caused the man to be born blind. That’s what they had been taught, and they didn’t think to question it. They were also blinded by the sense of superiority they felt over this man because they had physical sight when he didn’t. Throughout the gospels, Jesus opened their eyes to their prejudices and gave them new perspectives and understanding of their fellow humans. In many of my sermons this past year and especially in our New Vision book club, we have been striving to enlighten ourselves about our own biases and long-held stereotypes, admitting that we all have beliefs that we have rarely questioned. And we are giving each other a safe, supportive space to do that now.  In the book White Too Long, The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, we gained insight into racism in the Christian church, not just in the past, but in the present. For example, the author cites a recent poll that shows 83 percent of white Christians say that confederate monuments are more a symbol of southern pride than of racism. I thought about all the white supremacists who stormed the capitol, destroying property, threatening and even taking lives, while wrapped in confederate flags and carrying crosses. Will they ever question their beliefs or actions. I hope so. Otherwise, we will never get anywhere near unity as a country. The book Caste helped us see that there is a whole system that stigmatizes those deemed inferior to justify their discrimination, like we saw in the way society treated the blind man and we see every day in America. And the book we just finished, Think Again, reiterated the importance of unlearning our biases and stereotypes, rethinking our long-held views, and freeing ourselves to see with new eyes. There is always more to learn, more insight to be gained. And, thankfully, God is still speaking. There is healing paste for us, in books and podcasts and conversations, to continue to open our eyes to new ways of understanding and connecting to all our fellow humans.


Friday, April 23, 2021

Water Into Wine - Sermon for Week Ending April 24, 2021


Reading: 

John 2: 1-10

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “What concern is that to you and to me?” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 


Sermon: 

If you have been at New Vision for a while, you know that the gospel of John is my least favorite gospel. Unlike the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that tell the stories of the human Rabbi Jesus, the 4th gospel mostly portrays him, a lot of the time, as a sort of cosmic super Christ, which is not how I see him. But even worse than that, to me, is John’s anti-Jewish bias, made obvious in his negative portrayal of all Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, through his continued use of “The Jews” as a pejorative. When I bought this book a couple of years ago, Outdoing Jesus by Doug Pagitt, a progressive Christian writer, after reading a synopsis, I didn’t realize it was just about the gospel of John. So I put it away until recently, and I discovered that it makes some really good points. The author looks at the miracles of Jesus, called signs and wonders in the gospel of John, not as breaking the laws of physics,  but breaking open human hearts, which is also the way I view them. The title comes from John 14: 12, where, during the last supper, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will do the same works that I do. In fact, you will do greater works than I do.” So I thought I would use it as a jumping off point to look at some of these signs and wonders as good deeds for fellow humans. The story for today, as we heard in the reading, is when Jesus changed the water into wine. Of course if you grew up Southern Baptist, Jesus changed it into unfermented wine or grape juice because drinking alcohol was a sin. This story isn’t about a cosmic super Christ. It’s about Jesus at a wedding with his mom. She was the first to notice that the wine was running low. And she told Jesus to do something about it. And after a little reluctance, he did, but not in front of the crowd like you would think a miraculous sign would have been done. The only folks who knew that it happened, Jesus, his mom, the disciples, and the servants, didn’t announce it to the wedding guests. Because Jesus did it for the guests, for the bride, and especially for the groom and his family, who were considered the hosts. Weddings in first century Palestine were multi-day affairs. The first two days were celebration days where the families met and got to know each other. The third day was when the vows were spoken, making it the most important day. And this, the text says, was the third day. They were about to run out of wine on the most important day, and because of customary hospitality expectations, this would have brought great shame to the groom in this honor and shame society. Pagitt says, “Turning the water into wine is not used to enhance Jesus’s reputation. It is used to save the reputation of the groom.”   We too live in an honor and shame society, although it’s not so obvious. People still ask what the rape victim was wearing, and get impatient at the person in the grocery line who is using food stamps. I’ve seen it my whole life in how we shame our homeless neighbors. Our actions and reactions make them ashamed of how they look and how they smell. Ashamed that they don’t have a home to go to and a bed to sleep in. That sometimes the only bathroom is a dumpster. Society blames them for their situation. But not everybody. I read this past week about a barber who has been giving free haircuts to homeless people for 5 years. He said that so many of them never have any human contact, and when he cuts and dries their hair and give them a head massage, he is honoring them. With the fresh haircut, they see themselves differently, and other people see them differently and so treat them differently. That’s what we did at the drop-in center, treated our homeless neighbors as equals. Tried to give them their dignity back. And some of us are still doing it on their own. I love to read Brenda’s updates about the community that forms around the picnic tables when she brings the snack bags.  Another thing about the story that Pagitt points out are the jugs Jesus used. The text says they were meant only for ritual purification. I believe that the gospel writer included this to further disparage Judaism and it’s practices, that the jars would have been made impure after they were used for such a non-religious purpose, and that Jesus was making a statement about how ridiculous that was. But I got a different message from it, which fits with something I have been thinking about for a while, as my theology has evolved to the point that it has been almost total replaced by ethics. The jars were considered sacred. The wedding was considered secular. I think those concepts are archaic and we should stop using them together. Sacred/secular. How self-righteous. Like what we do in church is so different from what goes on in the rest of the world. And so much better. It’s just not true. At New Vision, our music comes from Broadway Musicals, the 60’s, pop, Motown. We don’t change the words to make them about Jesus. The message is already there. And when we do Movies with a Message, we don’t then have to relate them to the bible. The message is already there. Do the right thing. Love your neighbor. Fight against injustice. Finally, since Thursday was Earth Day, I want to mention something in the story that we all know. They had to have wine because no water was drinkable. The only way to make it drinkable, so that people could survive, was through boiling, fermenting, or distilling, which is why wine and other alcohol were the primary source of drinkable liquid up to the 18th century. I remind us of that because today, over 2 billion people across the world still don’t have access to drinkable water. But thanks to humans helping other humans, there are now programs on the continent of Africa that turn sea water and dew into drinkable water, which not only keeps people alive, but also  benefits women and girls who typically spend their days collecting water from polluted rivers and boiling it. Now they can go to school. No matter how the stories of Jesus were told or interpreted, it seems obvious to me that everything he did was to benefit someone else, and he made his world a better place.  May we follow his example in everything that we do, so that we can help make our world a better place.

 


Saturday, April 17, 2021

Acts and the Kindom of Heaven - Sermon for week ending April 17, 2021


Scripture Reading: 

Acts 8: 26-40 (The Message)      

 An angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia. He was in a chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah.

 Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him. The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
   and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?”  Using this passage as his text, Phillip told him about Jesus.

As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, “Here’s water. Can I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. He went on down the road as happy as he could be.

 Philip continued north, preaching the message in all the villages along that route until he arrived at Caesarea.


Sermon: 

I thought that the book of Acts which portrays the earliest Christian community as a model of what Jesus taught the disciples about the kindom of heaven and demonstrated throughout the gospels deserved one more sermon. As you probably know, Acts was written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke, and it is sort of a narrative sequel, showing how the apostles continued the mission that they all started together. It wasn’t perfect. The best ideas, in the hands of naturally self-centered and greedy humans, can get messy. But they tried. The very beginning of Acts shows the point where they went from being disciples to apostles. As they are watching Jesus leave the earth, someone, perhaps an angel said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Jesus had already taught them what they needed to know. It was time for them to stop looking toward him and start looking outward. His spirit was with them. It was time for them to be Jesus to the world. To join together as a community of faith, to heal the sick and feed the hungry and care for the marginalized and the outcast. To spread the good news that everyone is loved, and everyone is included in the kindom of heaven. And they did. We saw last week how in this new community, no one claimed private ownership of anything, but everything was held in common and distributed to each as they had need. That came from Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Jubilee from the book of Leviticus, which the biblical prophets also used to denounce the nation when the rich grew richer while the poor grew poorer. And it’s also why Jesus told them in the Sermon on the Mount that they didn’t have to worry about what to eat or drink or wear, because everyone would always have what they needed. In chapter 6, So many hungry people joined the community that the apostles became overwhelmed and sometimes missed folks when distributing food. So they called everyone together, and as a group, they selected 7 people of good standing and wisdom and consecrated them to be in charge of the daily distribution of food. The first deacons. But as this idealistic community developed into the early church, it got a lot more complicated. What began as a group of followers of Jesus of Nazarethstarted to split into Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and Jews who didn’t. There were also gentiles or pagans and God worshippers or God fearers, pagans who rejected their Gods, embraced Jewish monotheism and had different levels of commitment to Judaism.  And there were arguments over whether these people had to be circumcised or just profess that Jesus was the messiah. Arguments about who was in and who was out that continue to this day. But to me, the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch clearly shows that no one is excluded from the kindom of heaven. Everyone is included. And that is one of Jesus’ primary teachings. The eunuch was a foreigner and a sojourner. We know that the Israelites were in constant tension with foreign nations, yet the Old Testament is filled with verses telling them to welcome the foreigner and the sojourner travelling through their land. Jesus reiterates this in the parable of the sheep and the goats. But the reality was, foreigners in Jewish lands were outsiders: geographically, ethnically, and socially. Eunuch could mean different things. Usually, it was a surgically altered male, the surgery done before puberty, so that he likely looked more female than male. Or he might have been born that way.

And in a statement made by Jesus in Matthew, It seems it could also refer to someone who has chosen to remain celibate. Whatever the particulars were, eunuchs had no family, so in the familial and patriarchal structure of the time, they were marginalized. Under ancient Jewish law, they could not participate in temple rituals or be permitted into the community. But the prophet Isaiah says that eunuchs who keep God’s covenant will be honored, admitted to the temple, and their sacrifices accepted. In the Wisdom of Solomon, part of the apocrypha, they are given special favor, including a place in the temple. We see in Matthew 19:12 that Rabbi Jesus is inclusive of eunuchs. And in this passage in Acts, we witness their inclusion in the early Christian community. It was Open and Affirming. Phillip doesn’t reject the Ethiopian eunuch because he is an outsider or because he is different. Like the prophets Elijah and Elisha, he reaches out to him and offers assistance. He doesn’t require any conditions for his baptism. He doesn’t talk to him about moral standards. He welcomes him. He affirms him. He declares him a child of God and a beloved member of the kindom of heaven. This lesson of inclusion is a reminder for us, in a world where Asian Americans are being attacked and killed and black Americans are gunned down by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Where brown children are still in cages and transgender children are banned from participating in sports for no reason except prejudice. Where churches still exclude people who don’t measure up to their moral standards. And the Pope, who we thought was more progressive than his predecessors, just last month said that priests cannot bless same sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.” Where in our own liberal, progressive denomination, only 1500 of the 4800 churches are open and affirming. There is more work for us to do to ensure that all God’s children are included and affirmed and cared for equally. May we not rest until we have done our very best to fulfill these words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did this to one of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me .”



Friday, April 9, 2021

Koinonia - Sermon for week ending April 10, 2021


Gospel Reading: 

Acts 4: 32-35
The whole group were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Sermon: 

Our reading from Acts is one of the lectionary texts for the first Sunday after Easter, as it shows the disciples who were so afraid that they abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, finally finding their courage and continuing the mission that they all started together. Now apostles, they formed what we refer to as the first Christian community, made up of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, probably all Jews at first, but not for long, as we soon see the baptisms of an Ethiopian eunuch and a Roman centurion. The apostles tried to model their new community on Jesus’ teachings about the Kindom of Heaven. These verses in chapter 4 are actually first found in chapter 2, which says: “They would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. They spent time together, broke bread and ate with glad and generous hearts.” The Greek word for this kind of communal living, shared possessions, and fellowship is koinonia. Koinonia is more than that, though. It’s togetherness, acceptance, interdependence, equality, encouragement, service, and radical hospitality. No good deed goes unpunished, though. The apostles were arrested several times because they were getting more and more followers, which, like Jesus and his followers, was a threat to the Empire, but also like Jesus, they kept going, kept spreading the good news, and some of them paid with their lives. We know that Jews and Christians eventually split, likely based more on practices than beliefs, but I like to think that for a little while, at least, there was something close to Jesus’ kindom of heaven on earth. In the late 60’s and early 70’s some of my fellow Jesus freaks joined communes that tried to follow the same principles we see in the earliest Christian community. I don’t know if they were successful or not. But there is one group that started much earlier, and is still around. You might know more about them than I do. Koinonia Farm, just outside Americus, Georgia. It was founded in 1942 by Clarence Jordan. After graduating from the University of Georgia with an agricultural degree and a mission to improve farming techniques for underprivileged farmers and sharecroppers. Then he got his PhD in Greek New Testament from Southern Baptist Seminary. He was influenced by the early progressive pastor and writer Walter Rauschenbusch, who said that faith was as much or more about the kingdom of heaven than it was about being saved or born again and that Jesus preached about this kingdom much more than he did about a personal relationship with God  (and that was in 1917). Inspired by this social gospel, which was inspired by the community described in the book of Acts, Jordan joined with a few others, bought 400 acres in Sumter County and started a farm based on this model, where “those formerly poor and formerly rich worked together hand in hand as equals, black and white families worked together as if part of the same family farm, and the principles of the kingdom were the guiding light for how the community functioned. Sharing all things in common, this community would be a strong and powerful witness to how the gospel of reconciliation would tear down the intense racial divide and systemic bigotries in this part of the Jim Crow South.” But like the Roman Empire, the Jim Crow Empire was very powerful. In 1956, after Brown vs the Board of Education threatened Jim Crow, Koinonia’s interracial summer camp was shut down by the health department, a boycott of all the products the farm sold was called, and a campaign of intimidation, which included violence, began. White Sumter county citizens started driving past at night, firing guns indiscriminately. They burned crosses on their property and dynamited their farm equipment and roadside stands. In 1957, an 80-car motorcade of Klan members visited Koinonia and told them to leave the state. When Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker Movement came to sit night watch, someone drove by and fired a shot gun into her car. But, like Jesus and the apostles, they kept going. They kept living the message. To circumvent the boycott, they started a nationwide mail-order business, shipping pecans and peanuts to sympathetic customers across the country. That kept them afloat, but they still struggled. And their membership dwindled, which is what the white citizens of Sumter county wanted. Help arrived in what could have been one of Jesus’ parables.  In 1963, Millard Fuller, a lawyer, businessman, and millionaire from Alabama, and his wife Linda, who were having a spiritual and a marital crisis, gave away everything they owned and moved to Koinonia with their children. Fuller found a mentor and partner in Clarence Jordan, and both believing the words from the bible that land and property should be available to all those in need, they began building houses for poor people in Sumter County. After 10 years, the Fullers left to establish a similar housing program in Africa, and in 1976, with the support and backing of the Koinonia members, Habitat for Humanity international was established. Koinonia has gone through many changes in its 79 years.  It became a non-profit in 1993. But in 2005 it returned to its original form of communal living. And it is still going. Its present mission statement is “to live an intentional, common life together, modeled after the description of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. While we might not be able to live in a physical covenantal community of fellowship, shared possessions and shared meals, we can strive always to live by its principles:  togetherness, acceptance, interdependence, equality, encouragement, service, and radical hospitality.

 


Friday, April 2, 2021

Easter 2021 - Sermon for week ending April 3, 2021



Reading: 

Our reading is from John 20: 1—16.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. Simon Peter went into the tomb and saw the linen wrapping lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head.

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 

Sermon: 

There are so many themes relevant to our lives in the stories of holy week and Easter, so many lessons that Jesus taught us through his actions that week. One of the main ones is courage; courage to risk our very lives to do what is right. Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire when he first entered the city of Jerusalem and was hailed as a hero by the crowds, while Pilate and his army were entering through another gate as a demonstration of Roman Power over the Jews. Herod had already had John the Baptizer killed because he feared a rebellion. Yet, Jesus rode straight into that fire. Even before that, Jesus had said, “If any want to become my followers, let them take up my cross and follow me.” “To take up the cross,” Amy-Jill Levine tells us, “meant to risk Roman capital punishment. To accept humiliation and loss, even death, in order to proclaim a vision of a better world, a kindom of heaven, and then to work for it.” The incident at the temple was extremely risky because so many people witnessed it, including the temple police and the Roman guards, who likely reported it to Pilate. Unlike what I learned growing up, Jesus didn’t turn over the tables of the money changers to show how corrupt the Jews of his day were. He was one of the Jews of his day. He did it to point out what the mix of church and state and human greed can lead to. It was a public disruption of business to try and get people to understand what was and what wasn’t part of this better world he wanted for them. It’s sort of like blocking the freeway with protests. It makes you unpopular, but sometimes it’s the only way to bring attention to your cause, so it’s a risk you take. The theme of empire is portrayed in the power that the Romans had over their subjects, including economic and political oppression and execution if they felt their power was threatened. In Judas’ betrayal, we saw how greed can lead someone to commit despicable acts. Love across social and political boundaries is evident when the woman from the street entered the house where Jesus was having dinner, poured perfume on his head and feet and washed him. While the host and the other guests expressed righteous indignation, Jesus was grateful and showed her compassion. A powerful theme is the acknowledgment by Jesus of his grief and pain, in the garden of Gethsemane, where he went to pray after sharing the Passover supper with his disciples. Jesus knew his time was short. He had been hearing the rumblings all week. The more he spoke out, the more followers he gained, the bigger threat he was to the Roman Empire. The text said he was grieved and agitated. He shared his feelings with Peter and James and John, and asked them to please stay awake with him, even though it was late. He admitted in his prayer that he didn’t want to face execution. And the disciples didn’t stay awake to talk with him. Then his friend pointed him out to the authorities, and everybody else ran away to save themselves, which brought him more grief and pain. But that leads to the lesson of forgiveness, which is a major tenet of the kindom of heaven. As hurt and disappointed as he was, Jesus forgave them all. Because there is no way to have a community of love and compassion without forgiveness. It’s also one of the most difficult things for humans to do. Evolution has programmed us not to let ourselves be exploited, so we are always on the lookout for it, and when it does happen, it is easy to close that person off forever. Participants in 12 step programs are asked to pray for and wish good things for those who have hurt them.  But this is in tandem with taking an honest look at themselves and accepting that we are all imperfect humans who make mistakes.  

We get angry or afraid or jealous or we don’t feel seen or heard and we say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And the only way we can back our peace of mind and peace of heart, is to forgive each other. The primary theme of Easter is Hope. Whether you read the story of the resurrection literally or metaphorically, Jesus’ mission and message did not die when he did. Those same disciples who were so afraid that they abandoned him in the garden somehow found the courage to carry on the work. Maybe knowing that he forgave them set them free. They became teachers with followers of their own, and continued to spread the good news about the kindom of heaven, that was available here on earth if we just love our neighbors as ourselves. And that gives us hope for our world, also a world of unfairness and inequity, where the power of empire arrests a black congresswoman for knocking on a white governor’s office door while he was signing a law making it illegal to give water to people waiting in line to vote. We need hope. And we need to be willing to take even a fraction of the risk that Jesus did to help make hope happen.  And to follow his teachings so that we too can be resurrected from our tombs of hatred and prejudice and self-interest. To free ourselves and everyone else from attitudes and actions that are keeping us from living the kindom life that Jesus wanted for us.


Friday, March 26, 2021

Palm Sunday - sermon for Week Ending March 27, 2021


Reading: 

Matthew 21: 1-11.                 

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey colt tied. Untie him and bring him to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The teacher needs it.’” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and put their cloaks on it, and Jesus sat on it. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


Sermon

One of the many things I love about New Vision is that we don’t check our brains at the door. We are always interested in exploring new ways to experience the mystery that we call God and new ways to read and interpret the stories in the bible. And much of the time, that means letting go of the interpretations we grew up with. Growing up, I was taught that just about everything that happened in the Old Testament was really a prophecy about Jesus, who would come to save the Jews from themselves, because they had gotten it all wrong, but they rejected him because he wasn’t what they thought he would be. He was too Christian for them or something. I know now, because I use my brain and read books, that the Hebrew Scriptures are about liberation from slavery, exile and return, covenant, and how we are supposed to treat each other. And that the gospels were written by Jews for Jews as communal memory, influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures, first century rabbinic Judaism, and oral stories about Jesus. And Jews during that time were a diverse group who had many choices. They could be Pharisees or Essenes or Sadducees, or become followers of John the Baptizer or Jesus of Nazareth. A few months ago, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount as the Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Torah, with the help of Jewish and New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine and I found her work so insightful that I bought the Jewish Annotated New Testament by Levine and Marc Brettler. I thought it would be interesting to use it for Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, which is often read by Christians as anti-Jew, with the Jews labeled as Christ killers, as it was written, portraying Jesus in the tradition of the biblical prophets, who also brought good news to the people. The end of the passage even says, “This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” From the beginning, it is Israel’s history that tells us what is going on and why when Jesus enters Jerusalem. The city is holy now as it was then. It’s the capital of Judea and the site of the temple. It’s Passover, the feast of freedom described in the book of Exodus that every Jew celebrated. Tens of thousands of people from the Jewish diaspora made pilgrimages to the city for the festival. The text says that Jesus entered the city from beside the Mount of Olives, riding on a donkey, a reference to the book of Zachariah, which chronicles the return from Babylonian exile and the restoration of Jerusalem, describing the coming of a great king, a king of peace. It says, “Rejoice greatly o daughter of Zion, sing aloud o daughter Jerusalem. Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious. Humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot and the warhorse from Jerusalem and he shall command peace to the nations.” What the NRSV translates as Triumphant, Levine says, really means, in Hebrew, righteous. The focus for Zachariah and for Matthew and for Jesus is the power of justice. And the word Humble, like the word Meek, as she explained in the beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” in Hebrew, does not mean gentle or submissive, but someone who will not lord it over others, who will take their place with those who are suffering, who will bring peace through compassion and understanding. In verse 9, the crowds shouted Hosanna, which in Hebrew means, “Save Us.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to psalm 118, one of the Hallel or Hallelujah psalms sung by the pilgrims as they came to Jerusalem and sung at the Passover supper. Levine points out that the salvation sought in most of Israel’s scriptures was not spiritual but physical. Save me from slavery. From famine. From exile. It’s the same for the people in this story. And for us. She says, “The crowd wants what we all want: political reform, compassion rather than conquest, a balanced budget, affordable healthcare, clean water, peaceful streets, and lower taxes.” This also describes the kingdom of Heaven that Jesus has been speaking about, that he told us in the Sermon on the Mount was already present, if we just do what he taught us to do. If we live the way he taught us to live. What did he say? Create a community of love and compassion and justice and equality. Help make a world where angry thoughts don’t have the opportunity to lead to murder. Be aware of our own privileges and work to help those that don’t have the same benefits. Realize that we are all in this together. Know that our value doesn’t lie in what position we hold, but in what we contribute to the world. Treat one another with kindness and dignity and respect. And share what we have with each other. That is what Jesus learned from his bible, and that it what he taught us, not just with words, but with the way he lived his life. May we follow his example with the way we live our lives. Amen.


Jesus Walks on Water - Sermon for week ending May 8, 2021

Gospel Reading   John 6: 16-21 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to...