Sermon: A Matter of Perspective

Sunday 21 June 2020
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Father’s Day

A huge section of Genesis—from chapter 12 all the way to chapter 23—is devoted to Abraham. He is the hero of the story. He receives a message from God. He follows God to a new land. He receives a promise from God that he will be the father of a great nation. He is the person of the covenant. It is Abraham’s story. He is the hero.

And so we get the story more or less from Abraham’s perspective. The story is about God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled, the promise that he would be the father of a great nation, the promise that his children would outnumber the sand on the shore or the stars in the sky, the promise that his descendants will be a people holy to God. It is assumed that the reader will identify with Abraham, because it is Abraham’s story. It is written by and for a people who identify themselves as children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But of course there are other people in the story. There is Abraham’s wife, Sarah. They try and try to have children, but Sarah never becomes pregnant. And as years stretch into decades, it seems clear that God’s promise is not going to come true. Abraham and Sarah die childless. It is a disappointment for Abraham, but it is a shame for Sarah. In the ancient world, a woman’s worth was judge on her ability to provide children, specifically heirs, to her husband.

So when Sarah is about 75, and Abraham is about 85, Sarah comes up with a plan. She is desperate, and she knows very well that 75 is too old to be becoming pregnant. So she tells Abraham to have sex with her Egyptian slave, Hagar. But she doesn’t use Hagar’s name. She just says, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abraham does it. And she becomes pregnant.

And this is the point in the story when we usually focus on Abraham and Sarah’s relationship. How could she come up with such a terrible plan? How could he agree? Couldn’t they just trust God’s word? Couldn’t they keep the faith? Look what a mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Because Genesis tells us that after she became pregnant, Hagar gets uppity with Sarah. And Sarah takes offense. She complains to Abraham, and he tells her that it is her slave, not his. She should deal with it. So, Genesis tells us, Sarah treats her harshly, and Hagar runs away.

An angel meets Hagar out in the wilderness and convinces her to return to Sarah. The angel promises her that she will have a son, that she should name Ishmael. The angel says that Ishmael will be wild and antagonistic, getting into fights with everyone.

Hagar returns to Sarah. She has the child. Abraham names him Ishmael.

But then, years later, Sarah does become pregnant. She’s 89 and he’s 99. The promise is finally fulfilled for them. At age 90, Sarah finally gives birth to a son. They name him Isaac, and everyone celebrates. Sarah is overjoyed. Abraham is overjoyed. The promise is fulfilled.

But later, Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and she becomes jealous. So she tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” My son will not be a rival to the son of that Egyptian slave.

Abraham is upset, because Ishmael is his son. But God speaks to him. God says, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for your son with the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

So Abraham takes the two of them, gives them some bread and a water bottle, and drops them off in the wilderness. For Abraham, that’s story over. And for most readers that’s story over, as well. 

Did you notice that the characters hardly ever use her name? They just refer to her as the slave-girl, and they refer to Ishmael as the slave-girl’s son. Hagar and Ishmael are on the edges of the story. They are instrumental. They are mostly there to move the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac along. They are a problem to be gotten rid of. They are the annoying reminders of a mistake. After all, this isn’t their story. It’s written by and for Sarah and Isaac’s descendants, not for Hagar and Ishmael’s. No one is meant to read the story from their perspective.

But if we were to read the story from Hagar’s perspective, we might notice a few things. From Hagar’s own perspective, she is not a problem to be gotten rid of, she is a victim. First, she is a slave, a slave that Abraham and Sarah squired while they were in Egypt. Second, it is not her choice to sleep with Abraham. She has no choice in the matter. She is forced to do so. Think of the slave women in the American story who were forced to sleep with their masters, to raise their children. Third, Genesis mentions in passing that Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a wife, but she never actually holds the status of wife. She still remains Sarah’s slave. They do not even refer to her by name. Abraham just calls her Sarah’s slave. Fourth, Sarah thinks the problem is that Hagar is uppity, behaving above her station, but Hagar seems to want nothing more than common decency. In fact the word that describes how Sarah treats Hagar is the same word that describes how the Egyptians treat their Hebrew slaves; she oppresses her. Fifth, when Hagar is out there in the wilderness and the angel comes, Hagar gives God a name. She calls God El-Roi: the God who sees me. There are many times when God gives people new names. This is the only time I know of when a person gives God a new name.

And of course, I left out Hagar’s last scene altogether. After Abraham has abandoned them in the wilderness, their water runs out. Hagar is in distress. She is hopeless. She knows that they are going to die out there in the desert, so she leaves Ishmael under a bush and goes off a little ways by herself, because she cannot bear to see her son die. But an angel visits Hagar and tells her not to be afraid, that God will make her son a great nation. God reveals a well to her, and they fill up their water bottle and go on their way, never to be heard from again.

Because, of course, even when we are trying to read from Hagar’s point of view, the author is not. The author is telling the story from the Israelite perspective, giving us an origin story for their great rivals, the Ishmaelites. This story justifies why Israel is the chosen people, even though the descendants of Ishmael are also Abraham’s children. They don’t inherit, because they are just the children of a slave. That’s why the wildly, irrationally, violently. They are just like their ancestor, Ishmael: a wild, irrational, violent man, the son of a foreign slave. The authors of Genesis have an axe to grind.

There is another version of this story out there. There is the version of this story that is preserved by the people who call Ishmael their ancestor. There is the Arab version of this story. And in it, Hagar is not an uppity, conniving, simpering coward. In this version of the story, Hagar is the hero. Let me share it with you. It is attributed to Ibn Abbas, the uncle of the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, and I’m paraphrasing a bit.

One day, Abraham woke up and asked his wife Hajar to get her son and prepare for a long journey. He started out with his wife Hajar and their son Ishmael. The child was still nursing and not yet weaned.

Abraham walked through cultivated land, desert, and mountains until he reached the desert of the Arabian Peninsula and came to an uncultivated valley with no fruit, no trees, no food, no water. The valley had no sign of life. After Abraham had helped his wife and child to dismount, he left them with a small amount of food and water which was hardly enough for 2 days. He turned around and walked away. His wife hurried after him asking: “Where are you going Abraham, leaving us in this barren valley?”

Abraham did not answer her, but continued walking. She repeated what she had said, but he remained silent. She asked him many times, but he did not look back at her. Then she asked him, “Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She then said, “Then He will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham went on. After reaching the thaniyah where they could not see him, he faced the Ka’bah raised both hands, invoked Allah, and said the following prayer:

“O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Ka’bah at Makkah) in order, O our Lord that they may offer prayer perfectly.” (Al-Qur’an 14:37)

Ishmael’s mother went on nursing him and drinking from the water. When the water in ran out, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She looked at him, tossing in agony. She left him, because she couldn’t bear looking at him. As-Safa was the nearest mountain to her. She climbed it and started looking carefully at the valley for somebody, but she couldn’t see anyone. She went back down to the valley, tucked up her robe and ran until she reached the mountain of Al-Marwa. There she stood and started looking expecting to see somebody, but she couldn’t see anyone. She went back and forth between As-Safa and Al-Marwa seven times.

This is why pilgrims to Mecca go between As-Safa and Al-Marwa. When she reached Al-Marwa for the last time, she heard a voice and she became quiet, listening carefully. She heard the voice again and said, “Whoever you are, you have made me hear your voice; do you have something to help me?” And behold, she saw an angel digging the earth with his heel until water flowed from that place. She started filling her water skin, using her hands to scoop the water up.

Then she drank and nursed her child. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.”

You can tell it’s the same story, right? But it’s told from a different perspective. In this version, Hagar is at the center. When Abraham abandons her, he doesn’t have the courage to tell her why, but she has the faith to understand. When she is left alone, she does not give up and wait for death, she runs back and forth between two mountains, searching for help. And her son is not some wild man who cannot control his temper and has only a secondary birthright, because she is a slave. No, she is a wife of Abraham, and the place they travel to is Mecca, the very place where Ishmael will build the Kabah, the holiest site in all of Islam. It makes a difference who tells the story. It makes a difference whose perspective we see.

It makes a difference when we are reading the bible. It also makes a difference when we are interacting with our world today. When we hear stories about what is happening in our community, when we hear stories about what is happening in our country, when we hear stories about what is happening in our world, who is it that we most identify with? Just naturally, without even noticing it, we will tend to identify with the people we think are most like us.

A husband and wife watch a romantic comedy together, and nine times out of ten the wife will identify with the female character and the husband will identify with the male character. And they will both tend to think that the character they identify with is in the right, and the character they don’t identify with is in the wrong. People tend to identify with and believe people who are the same gender as they are.

But of course gender is not the only marker that defines and divides us. Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual identity, immigration status, political alignment, age, profession, education, dialect. When we hear stories, without even thinking about it, we’re going to identify with and believe the perspective that seems most like us. I will likely to identify with Abraham, while a Muslim woman will likely identify with Hagar.

We know that’s true. Just think about when the Ducks play the Beavers. Ducks fans will be upset whenever a call goes against their team, and Beaver fans will be upset whenever a call goes against their team. No matter what the ref says, one of them is going to think it’s the wrong call. Even with instant replay and 27 different camera angles. We can all be looking at the same footage but seeing different things.

And what about when there isn’t just one account of what happened? What if there are multiple accounts of the same story? Whose do we listen to, and whose do we ignore. Whom do we suspect and to whom do we give the benefit of the doubt? Perspective matters. It makes a difference whom we identify with, and it makes a difference whose version of the story we hear.

Friday night is movie night at our house, and this last Friday was Juneteenth, so we decided to watch Harriet, the 2019 movie about Harriet Tubman. I’ve seen quite a few films featuring American slavery. The acclaimed ones tend to focus on the brutality of slavery. The villains are white, but the heroes are also white. Black characters tend to be portrayed as relatively helpless, as the objects of white punishment or the recipients of white salvation. They’re made for someone like me to identify negatively with the evil white characters and identify positively with the good white characters. But I usually feel I’m meant to just feel sorry for the black characters.

Not in this movie. Harriet is the hero of her own story. She drives the action. She does what she feels called to, even when people try to stop her. She carries a gun and she isn’t afraid to use it. Her motto is Be Free or Die. I’m sorry, there is no other word for it: Harriet Tubman is a badass. Did it make a difference that the story focused on a black, female character? Absolutely. Did it make a difference that the film was written and directed by a black woman? You better believe it. Perspective matters, and it matters who’s telling the story.

And there is something you can do about it. It takes some intentionality. You can choose to identify with a perspective that is not your own, with a person or character who is not much like you. You can use your imagination to place yourself in that person’s mind. It’s amazing what things you will notice that you had never seen before. You can practice while you’re watching a show or reading a book. And you can try to do it in real life, too. It makes a difference.

But imagination can’t get us farther than halfway, because it doesn’t just matter which perspective we center, it also matters who tells the story. So the second thing you can do is seek out diverse voices. Seek out the voices of people you know don’t share your perspective, and do your best to hear them from within their own context. Commit to it. In the end, you don’t have to agree, but you won’t learn much if you don’t take the time to try to see it from their point of view.

It is imperative that we try. Because every person is made in God’s image, not just the people who look and think like me. Every person is God’s child, not just the people who share my background. And if I don’t even try to see things from perspectives other than my own, then I will have such a feebly narrow understanding of God.

Because our God is the God of Abraham and of Sarah, and of Ishmael, and of Hagar. Our God is the God of black and brown and white, Hispanic and Anglo, female and male and nonconforming, lesbian and gay and straight, transgender and cisgender, old and young and in between, poor and rich and in between. Our God transcends any division we can erect between us. Our God is the God who sees; not just me, but everyone. And if we cannot hear each other, how can we hope to hear God?

Sermon: Throw Out Demons

Sunday 14 June 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 9:35-10:8

In the Gospel of Matthew, the author organizes most of Jesus’s sayings into 5 compact, thematic sermons. The Gospels of Mark and Luke contain a lot of the same material, but it’s all sprinkled here and there around the gospel. Matthew edits Jesus’s words together into five big speeches. The first, and best known of them is the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up chapters 5-7, and covers the basic ethics of Jesus.

The second one starts here in the passage we have assigned today. It sends out the twelve apostles and gives them instructions for how they should do ministry. “Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirit to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness.” Jesus is about to send them out to do exactly the same things that he has been doing for the last two chapters: announcing good news, healing people, and casting out demons. They’ve been learning by example; now it’s time for them to try out what they have learned. It’s time for an internship, for some experiential learning.

Both Mark and Luke contain a version of this same story. They all say that Jesus sent the apostles out two-by-two, so they’d have a partner to help them. Matthew, though, actually tells us who went with whom. As Matthew names the apostles, he presents them in two-person mission groups. The first group is Peter and his brother Andrew. Then another set of brothers: James and John. Philip and Bartholomew go together. Then Thomas and Matthew. Thaddaeus goes with the other James. Finally, Simon the Cananaean, elsewhere known as Simon the Zealot, and Judas, Jesus’s betrayer. I sometimes wonder how the practicum went for that last pair. One of them came from a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government, including through targeted assignation; the other one conspired with the governing authorities to arrest and crucify Jesus. I’m curious what that pair was like in the mission field.

Jesus sends them all out with some instructions: “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.” Proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.

Again, it’s all the things that Jesus has been doing himself. Healing, crossing social barriers, casting out demons, and announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom. Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven. Both Mark and Luke say the kingdom of God. Matthew seems to have a special reverence for God’s name, and so chooses a different word, heaven. But it can be confusing for readers. By the kingdom of heaven, Matthew does not mean something that is far away or something that we enter after we die. The kingdom of heaven is the way that God’s realm is invading our world, the way that heaven is being made manifest right here on earth. When we talk about the kingdom of heaven, we are not talking about something that happens in heaven. Instead, we are talking about something that the forces of heaven do on earth. We are always speaking of the “on earth as it is in heaven.”

And so, when we talk about the kingdom of heaven, we are talking about precisely the things that Jesus sent his apostles out to do. The kingdom of heaven is characterized by the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the breaking down of social barriers, and the casting out of demons. It is those things that build up the human spirit and the human community. It is those things which draw the world toward God.

And the one I want to focus on today is the throwing out of demons. That’s not usually what I would focus on. In fact, the casting out of demons is usually the part of the passage that I would just gloss over. Because we don’t tend to believe in demons, do we? At least not in the way that the ancients did. They thought that the whole world, and everything in and around it, was animated by spirits of various kinds. Good spirits, evil spirits, even someone indifferent spirits. But they thought of nearly everything as being possessed by spirit. It wasn’t just Christians and Jews who thought this way, it was many others as well. Just as real as the physical world was the spiritual world, maybe even more real.

But that is not how we tend to understand the world. For us, it is the physical world that constitutes the real world. Most objects are inanimate—that is, they don’t have any spirit. Most phenomenon are explained by scientifically measurable processes, not through the work of invisible beings. When we sin, it is the result of a bad choice, not the temptation of an evil spirit. What the ancients called demonic possession, we understand as a chemical imbalance in the brain, and instead of treating it with exorcism, we generally recommend medication or talk therapy.

Demons and demonic possession are generally not part of our modern understandings of the world. Except for the occasional horror movie, in which demons are always battled by Roman Catholic priests, we hardly use the language or imagery of demons at all.

References to the devil or demons aren’t very common in our prayers or liturgies, either. The closest we usually come is in the baptismal vows. The Lutheran version includes the words, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” The Methodist version says, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” Spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world are pretty broad terms. One could imagine what they actually mean in a number of different ways. I’m guessing that most of us don’t imagine them as actual spiritual beings, called demons, who move about and act in our world.

That is certainly not how I tend to imagine the world. I suppose I am usually agnostic when in comes to the devil. I don’t tend to think that it is necessary to think that the devil exists, nor is it necessary to think that the devil doesn’t exist. But either way, the devil does not take up an important place in my faith or its practice. It seems like it is enough to renounce evil and to resist the forces that defy God. I don’t generally find it interesting or useful to speculate about whether those forces are actual spiritual beings or something else. It sounds a bit fanciful, and I don’t see how it is particularly necessary. After all, isn’t the idea of the devil just a way of excusing my own bad behavior.

Or perhaps the line from French philosopher Charles Baudelaire, made famous in the movie, The Usual Suspects, is true: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. Because there may be a negative side-effect for those like me who tend not to believe in a devil or demons. It can lead us to forget that there are in fact spiritual forces of wickedness at all. It can lead us to believe that sin and evil are really just the direct result of sinful or evil human choices. And I wonder if that can provide a rather naïve notion of sin and evil. Because perhaps evil is bigger and more cunning than just the automatic result of human choices.

What I mean to say is that—whether or not there are really demons out there—there are some forms of evil that function as though they were demons. That is to say, they function on a scope much larger than conscious human choices. They act as if they have their own consciousness. They behave as if they could plot and plan and scheme for themselves.

And one of those demons is the evil of racism. Until recently, when many white people heard the word racism, we thought of hooded klansmen or swastika-waving Nazis. We thought of racism as an intention act, motivated by racial hatred, that was designed and intended to inflict harm on someone because of their race. In other words, unless someone was willing to say that they in fact hated other people because of their race and that they were actively working to harm or hold other people back because of their race, then it was not racism. A cross-burning in front of the house of a black family is racist. Using a racial slur is probably racist, but maybe not if it was intended as a joke. But the fact that black and brown students are 10% less likely to graduate high school than white students isn’t racist, because it doesn’t proceed directly from an act of hatred. That was the logic.

And so it was easy to imagine that racism doesn’t exist. I, as a white person, don’t see overt acts of racism happening. I don’t think of myself as being racist. And after all, we had a black president. Doesn’t that mean that racism is over and done. Yeah, there might be a few ignorant people out there still waving the racist banner, but surely that’s a small minority. It makes me wonder if the greatest trick racism ever pulled was convincing white people that it doesn’t exist.

In the wake of the public deaths of so many black and brown people in the last few years, some of us have begun to see things differently. The death of George Floyd has seemed to be a turning point, after which the majority can no longer pretend that racism doesn’t exist. Many white people are only now coming to terms with our own whiteness and the ways that our whiteness privileges us and harms others. We are learning about concepts like white normativity, white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility.

White normativity is the assumption that many or most white people have that our lived reality is not white, it’s normal. It’s the assumption that the white way is really just the normal, American way. We don’t think of ourselves as white, but just as people, or just as Americans. And it means that when people deviate from the white “normal,” they are seen as somehow not fully American. The American melting pot means that “new” people should abandon their old culture and conform to mine. But I never have to think of myself as white, because I don’t acknowledge how my whiteness makes me different than others. I don’t have to acknowledge my whiteness at all. I just think of myself as normal. That’s why we can talk about ethnic food, but we don’t really talk about white food. That’s white normativity.

White privilege is the idea that because of my whiteness, I am afforded certain privileges that are not afforded to people who are not white. Doors open for me that don’t open for others. I am given the benefit of the doubt when others are not. And here’s the deal, I don’t have to ask for that privilege; I get it whether I ask for it or not. I don’t even have to accept the privilege. In fact, most of the time I can’t even tell that I’m receiving that privilege. Our society is sufficiently segregated that I may never see a person of color not receiving the privilege that I think of as just normal. And in fact, the person who is dealing out white privilege may not consciously acknowledge that that’s what they’re doing. No one on the hiring team thinks that they’re being racist, but somehow those résumés for Jerome and Antione and LaKisha never seem to make it to the interview stage. That’s white privilege. It happens even when the white people involved don’t think they are being racist or prejudiced.

White supremacy. It sounds like something that only exists in some militia camp in Northern Idaho, but it isn’t. White supremacy is all of the systems and structures in society that ensure that white people remain in control of society. Even if we got rid of all of the people who actually admit to being white supremacists, white supremacy would still be there, because it’s been baked into the system. White supremacy isn’t even all that threatened when a few people of color achieve great things or take on positions of power, because then it can claim that system really isn’t racist. We have a black president. That must mean racism is over. But that hides the fact that white supremacy is still very much intact.

Think about this: we have the most diverse Congress ever. In fact, the way some news outlets report it, you would think the entire Congress is made up of just women of color. 31% of the US population is white men. 31%. In the most diverse US Congress in history, what percentage of US Senators do you think are white men? Got that number locked into your head? It’s 69%. White men are 31% of the population, and we’re 69% of the senate. That means we’re getting 223% of the representation that we should have, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal. When you look at men and women across all of Congress, it’s not quite as bad. White people are 61% of the population and 78% of Congress. We’re getting 128% of the representation we should have, all things being equal. The numbers are about the same in the police force: 77% white. White supremacy is the system and structures that keep white people in power to a greater degree than our numbers would warrant.

Finally, white fragility. If you haven’t already, pick up the book by Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. It’s really good for helping us unpack our dysfunctional relationship with race. I’ll quote just a small bit. Diangelo notes that “After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist.” This meant that racism was defined as only overt acts of racial hatred. Good people weren’t racist. Only bad people were racist. She continues, “While making racism bad seems like a positive change, we have to look at how this functions in practice. Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism. The good/bad binary made it effectively impossible for the average white person to understand—much less interrupt—racism” (72).

White normativity, white privilege, white supremacy, white fragility—this is what I mean by saying that racism acts like a demon. It is working even when we don’t notice it and even when we don’t think we’re a part of it. It causes harm while simultaneously convincing us that no harm was committed, or if it was, it’s just an outlier, and certainly I am not a part of the problem.

But in the last few years, and especially in the last few weeks, racism’s camouflage has started to fail. More and more white folks are beginning to see it for what it is. We are beginning to be able to acknowledge its presence and call it by name. We are beginning to allow ourselves to hear the stories of the lived experience of people of color and to actually listen, actually believe. Footage from a cell phone has forced us to acknowledge what was there all along, but we refused to see. We can see the demon, and we can name it racism. And it is time to cast it out.

It won’t be easy. After all, it’s been possessing this country for more than 400 years. And people have tried to exorcize it before, but it keeps coming back, more clever, more subtle, more crafty, pulling that greatest trick of convincing us that it does not exist.

It is not something that white people can do for people of color, as some kind of gift or charity. A benefactor still holds on to the power. But it isn’t something that people of color can do without white people changing, either. Somehow, someway, we must do it together.

For me, as a white person, that means acknowledging my own whiteness and learning about the ways that it effects how I perceive and move through the world. It means acknowledging and pointing out the very real harm that racism does—it’s a matter of life and death. It means going out of my way to listen sympathetically to the voices of people of color—not by demanding answers to my racial guilt or shame, but by doing my best to hear people speaking from their own contexts. It means decentering myself to allow space for others. It means doing what I can to acknowledge and renounce my privilege. It means doing the hard work of self-reflection to see the ways that I am racist and the ways that I participate in racism even when I don’t actively intend to. And it means accepting that it is going to be messy, and I am going to screw up over and over again. I’m going to feel uncomfortable, and even when I try my best to do the right thing, it won’t always be the right thing. Sometimes when I try to help, it will hurt. And just when I think I have escaped it, I need to be willing to see where it still has hold of me.

And as our baptismal vows tell us, it means accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. It means renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, and repenting of our sin. It means renouncing the devil and all the forces that defy God.

Jesus gathered them and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. He told them to proclaim the presence of the kingdom of heaven, to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.

We have seen the demon of racism. We are beginning to name it and to recognize its features. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out. By the power of Jesus Christ, let us cast it out.

Sermon: Many Gifts, One Spirit

Sunday 31 May 2020
Pentecost

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. There is, of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in the US, made 40 million unemployed, and kept all of us sheltering in place, unable to live life as we have known it, unable to make even the simplest of human connections. There is even a new outbreak of the disease in Hood River County.

 But now the nation is also reeling in the wake of the death of yet another unarmed black person at the hands of police. Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Tatiana Jefferson, Eric Reason, Dominique Clayton, Breona Taylor, among many others. And now George Floyd.

 George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis for allegedly using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill to pay at a local convenience store. Footage shows a Minneapolis PD officer kneeling on the neck of Mr. Floyd for nearly nine minutes while he is handcuffed and pinned face-down to the ground. Floyd can be heard begging, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” in a haunting echo of the words of Eric Garner almost 6 years ago. Two minutes later, police call for an ambulance, but Officer Derek Chauvin continues to press his knee on Floyd’s neck for another 6 minutes. Floyd is unresponsive and apparently unconscious as bystanders plead with police to get off of Floyd’s neck and to check for a pulse, but Officer Chauvin continues to kneel on his neck, pressing his face into the ground for another 5 minutes, while Floyd lays completely motionless. He only gets off of Floyd after an ambulance arrives. Fire Department reports say that medics in the ambulance were working on Floyd, who was unresponsive and pulseless. George Floyd was declared dead in the emergency room an hour after he apparently lost consciousness. In response, four officers involved in the incident have been fired, and Chauvin has been charged with 3rd degree murder. Their actions have been nearly universally condemned, including by the National Association of Police Organizations and the Fraternal Order of Police.

In a time when anxiety is already heightened, most of us are already on edge, and people of color are disproportionately dying from coronavirus, protests have been staged across the country. And in some cases, those mostly peaceful protests have escalated into violence. Even in Portland there has been vandalism and violence. And while I don’t condone violence, I recognize the tremendous frustration that apparently leads some to it. All of these deaths with hardly any justice, virtually no consequences for those responsible. And I know the ways that when people have protested nonviolently for an acknowledgment that black lives do in fact matter in this country, they have been systematically villainized, characterized as unAmerican, been fired from their jobs. It cannot be surprising that injustice has bubbled over into violence.

Fear of being unjustly accused, unjustly detained, unjustly arrested, unjustly brutalized, and unjustly killed is a reality that African Americans and other people of color have to live with every moment of every day. It is a reality that parents of children of color have to teach their kids about. And it is terrifying and overwhelming and exhausting. And yes, our family has had the police called on us because some of us are black. I am grateful to the Portland Police Officer who quickly realized that nothing was wrong and let us go on our way. And that encounter was still terrifying and humiliating, and quite frankly, enfuriating.

And I really do not want to have to talk about this today. Because today is Pentecost. Today is supposed to be a day of celebration. It’s the day we celebrate our new confirmands. And so here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pray right now. And we’re going to hand this over to God for right now. We’re going to need to come back to it. But for right now, we’re going to pray, and then I’m going to start again.

Holy and gracious God, we confess slavery as the original sin of this nation, and we confess the continuing shadow that it casts across us. We confess the ways that African Americans and other people of color have been systematically disadvantaged through unjust Jim Crow laws, through redlining and other practices that denied black and brown Americans the advantages enjoyed by white Americans, and through recognized and unrecognized prejudice. We confess the sin of lynching, an organized campaign of terror that lasted more than 130 years, killing 3446 known African Americans between 1882 and 1968, the perpetrators of these crimes almost never being brought to justice. We confess the continued presence of racism in our society—overt racism, systemic racism, and unconscious racism—and we confess the ways that we participate in systems of oppression even when we don’t intend to. We confess the alarming rate at which African Americans continued to be killed and the fact that so many of their killers go unpunished.

We pray today for the family and friends of George Floyd. We pray for the City of Minneapolis, and for its African American community. We pray for the Minneapolis Police Department and for the officers accused. We pray for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. We pray for peaceful vigils and protests. We pray for those committing acts of violence and those who are victimized by that violence. We pray for emergency service workers. We pray for mayors and governors. We pray for the National Guard. We pray for our President. We pray for communities across this nation. We pray for all who long for justice and peace.

Holy Jesus, bring your justice, bring your peace. Transform us. Bring your kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Today is the great festival of Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter, the day when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. This day is often called the birthday of the Church. It is when the still grieving, still confused followers of Jesus were forged together with a new sense of purpose. It is when they were brought together across boundaries of difference, across boundaries of ethnicity and language. It is when they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is when they were sent to go out into the world.

And so it is a good day for us to welcome new members among us. Colin Gerald, Miyuki Gerald, Kaylah King, Kiahla King, and Jack Siekkinen come before us today for confirmation. Each of them was baptized into the faith as a child. Others made promises on their behalf. And today it is time for them to affirm those promises for themselves. Today it is time for them to confirm the promise of their baptisms, to accept their place in the family of God, to acknowledge their role in the Body of Christ.

The reading from 1 Corinthians this morning talks about the Body of Christ, and how it is made up of us—you and me. Not all of us are the same. We have different roles, we have different interests, we have different abilities. But it takes all of us to make up Christ’s Body. The Body couldn’t function without the gifts that each of us have to give.

And, the Apostle Paul tells us, all of the various gifts that help the Body of Christ to function are granted to us by the Holy Spirit. We don’t all have the same gifts, but each of us are gifted, and we can use those gifts for the work of God. Paul gives a list of some of those spiritual gifts. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and several others, but it’s not an exhaustive list.

The five confirmands who come before you today each have their own spiritual gifts that they can use for the common good, things that they can use to help the Body of Christ achieve its mission in the world. And while this will not be an exhaustive list either, I thought I would share some of their gifts with you. Among other things, Colin is gifted with inventiveness and imagination. Miyuki is gifted with leadership and kindness. Kaylah is gifted with persistence and creativity. Kiahla is gifted with authenticity and enthusiasm. Jack is gifted with critical thinking and curiosity. These are but some of the things that they bring to the Body of Christ and to this congregation.

Each of these inspiring youth have spent time in study and discernment over the last year. They have spent time exploring the Christian tradition and wrestling with the deep questions of faith. And hopefully they have had some fun along the way, as well. I am proud of each one of them, and I am excited for the gifts that they have to offer the world.

We are all having to learn to adapt these days, and so we had to make some adaptations to the service of confirmation. Last Sunday we met over Zoom and went through the ritual together. In just a moment we’ll play it for you.

But remember, baptism and confirmation are not solitary acts. These youth have promises to make, but so do you as their sisters and brothers in the faith. This is a covenant amongst us all, and it binds us together. So  when it comes to your part, speak it out loud. And I encourage you to use the comments to affirm your support of these confirmands and offer them messages of love and encouragement.

Let us share in a service of confirmation.

………..

In addition to offering support in the comments, I encourage you to reach out to our confirmands by other means, to encourage them and to share with them the gifts that you see in them. And may we all be bound together as one family, empowered by one Spirit, united by one Lord, saved, forgiven, and loved by one God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Throw All Your Anxieties on God

Sunday 24 May 2020
The Seventh Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The Season of Easter lasts 50 days. Do a little math, and you’ll figure out that that’s 7 weeks, with one day left over. So today kicks off the last week of Easter, which will culminate next Sunday on Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. On Pentecost we’ll also be welcoming our confirmands into membership in the church, so I encourage you to be back here next week to show your support for them.

In this last week of Easter we turn to the First Epistle of Peter. As I said a few weeks ago, the books of 1-2 Peter have never been favorites of mine. Before this year, I’ve probably only ever preached from them 2 or 3 times. But this season, in this particular context, they’ve spoken to me in a new way, and this is the fourth time in 4 weeks we’ve turned to tiny 1 Peter, near the back of the New Testament.

In the first week we talked about the divine grace that is expressed when someone suffers for doing the right thing. The next week we saw how God is bringing us together, like living stones, to construct a spiritual temple, the church, that is bigger and more lasting than any human building. Last week we considered how God calls us, through baptism, to be a people of hope.

In this fourth and final week, our message comes clearly in verse 7: “Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares about you.” I’m guessing I’m not the only person who needs to hear that today, right? Some of the rest of you are feeling anxious too? Maybe one or two of you?

I had my anxiety turned up a bit this week trying to prepare worship for you. We got some new guidance about how to be church during COVID-19, and it meant that it made more sense to produce worship from home rather than from the church building. But of course, that meant lots of preparation and lots of decisions. Where could we find nice backdrop to film in front of that was uncluttered enough to share with the whole world? And it needs to be a spot where there’s room to set up the camera, and room to set up a microphone, and room to set up the keyboard, and room to set up the computer, and room enough to set up all of the little gadgets that help them talk to one another. And how would we set up the sound? Which microphone should we use? Should we use the piano or a keyboard? And how could we get a clean audio signal from the keyboard to you but in a way that we could still hear it to sing? Lots of questions. Lots of decisions. Lots of fiddling and tweaking. And a fair amount of shift and packing in order to make the proper space for everything. In short, a lot of anxiety.

It really is remarkable how all-consuming this COVID situation is. On the one hand that’s obvious. After all, it is called a Global Pandemic. There’s not much that can be bigger than a Global Pandemic. But on the other hand, it should theoretically be possible to focus on something that isn’t very affected by COVID and to be able to temporarily put the health crisis out of your mind.

I’ve heard some people say they can do that when they’re gardening. Spending time outside, with your hands in the soil. You could almost forget that anything strange is going on. Except, of course, when a neighbor comes over to compliment you on your flowers and you have to be sure to stay 6 feet away. Or maybe you need to run down to the garden shop to pick up a few things, and you have to wear your mask and plan your visit so that it isn’t too crowded.

It seems to impose itself in every corner of my mind, in everything that I do. I want to pick something up at the grocery store. Can I wait a few more days? It would be safer to take fewer trips. I want to do some research for the sermon. I’m not supposed to go into the office, so can I get by with the books and resources that I have at home?

I can’t even read a book or watch a movie without it popping into my mind. The other night Melissa and I were watching the sequel of To All the Boys I Loved Before, a pretty standard high school romantic comedy. And then the bell rang in the movie, and suddenly everyone was out in the hallway passing from one class to another. I almost had a panic attack. What  do you all think you’re doing crowding together in that tiny little space? I could actually notice my heart beating faster, my chest feeling ever-so-slightly tighter. And that’s from watching a movie. It’s silly.

I’ve been wondering for a while now how long it’s going to be before I can preach a sermon that isn’t focused on coping in the time of Coronavirus. This is the eleventh Sunday since the shutdown. I’m not sure when we’ll be ready to talk about something else, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t gotten there yet.

Now the worry is about when and how to reopen. And that really is a no-win choice at the moment. The United States has not had a very organized response to COVID-19. We haven’t done many of the things that would be necessary to make for a relatively safe opening. We still haven’t started producing enough protective gear for our medical workers. We haven’t started manufacturing enough reliable COVID tests. We haven’t developed a reliable system for contact tracing or hired enough contact tracers to do the job.

And so we are left with two completely untenable options. We could open things up now, let people get back to work. But if we do, cases and deaths are going to start increasing exponentially. If we just let coronavirus sweep the country, then we need to be ready for something like 3-7 million deaths. That’s not a cost that I’m willing to pay.

But the only other option, at least at the moment, seems to be perpetual quarantine. Unemployment is already up to 14.7%, the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Calls to the federal emergency hotline for emotional distress are up about 1000% over this time last year. The coronavirus crisis is not just a communicable disease crisis, it is also a mental health crisis and a poverty crisis.

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” And that is precisely what we are enduring right now. COVID is an event that is already here but is continually unfolding. It is simultaneously present and imminent. And it definitely has an uncertain outcome. And the uncertain outcomes of COVID touch nearly every part of our lives. It is a perfect recipe for anxiety.

First Peter tells its audience, “Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares about you.” Throw all your anxiety onto God. When our worries and our troubles and our anxieties are too big for us to handle, we know that they are never too big for God. God carries the cares of all creation. God wrestles the worries of the whole world. God is bigger than our doubt and stronger than our fear. And God can be counted upon to share any burden that we cannot bear alone.

First Peter continues: “Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your adversary, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your brothers and sisters are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.”

I’m not usually one to talk much about the devil, but it certainly seems like evil is on the prowl. And it’s not just the presence of illness and death. The adversary is eager to find ways to divide us. To convince me that my wellbeing is more important than someone else’s wellbeing. To persuade me that some people are expendable. To assure me that the people at fault are precisely the people I always blame for everything else. To get me to turn on my neighbor. To make me the predator, turn me into the one who devours others. The adversary is on the prowl.

Resist. Stand firm in the faith. Throw your anxieties on God, because you know that your sisters and brothers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. These words have probably never been more true than they are right now. When has the human family ever been more united in enduring the same trauma, all across the world? Check your local paper. Coronavirus is on the front page. Check the national news. Coronavirus is on the front page. Check the news in China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Korea, France, Mexico, Australia, Egypt, Germany, Afghanistan. Coronavirus is on the front page. People are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.

And people around the world are working to bring healing and comfort to that suffering. People around the world are doing their part. Medical workers are putting their lives on the line, some even coming out of retirement to help. Researchers are working as fast as they have ever worked. People are following public health protocols, even when it is difficult or annoying or inconvenient. Essential workers are putting themselves at risk to keep all of us alive. Other workers are going without work and struggling to find a way to survive. Food banks and other charities are finding ways to fill the gaps. Students are going without graduations. Musicians are going without concerts. Athletes are going without games. The grieving are going without funerals. We are all going without gathering. We are all going without what is normal. We are all doing our part. We are all in this together.

Throw your anxieties on God, 1 Peter tells us. But how do we do that? Throw your anxieties on God! Do it! Now! That doesn’t work, does it?

How do we throw our anxieties on God? It’s not something that can be done on command. You can’t just snap your worries away. It’s not something that takes skill. You don’t have to be a trained, spiritual professional. It doesn’t take any special secret.

What it does take is intention. It kind of has to be on purpose. It’s not exactly that you have to try to throw your anxiety on God. It’s not exactly that you have to decide to do it. But to throw your anxiety on God is intentional. It doesn’t happen without you.

Throwing your anxiety of God often takes time. You have to spend some time actually doing it. That might be time spent in prayer. It might be time spent in silent meditation. It might be time spent on a walk, time spent in nature, time spent singing, time in conversation with someone else. Throwing your anxiety on God takes intention, and it takes time.

It helps if you can name your anxiety. For some reason, a giant, nebulous blob of angst is much harder to throw than several neatly-packed balls of worry. Gather some of it up, pack it together, clearly label it, and throw it over to God. Then repeat. Throwing your anxieties on God takes intention, it takes time, and it’s easier if you can name your anxieties.

Finally, in order to throw your anxieties on God, you have to let go of them. You have to release them. You have to unclench your fist. You have to submit to God. Submission can be a problematic idea, but you know what I mean. You have to give over control to God. Throwing your anxieties on God takes intention, it takes time, it’s easier if you can name your worries, and God can only take them when you let go.

Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares for you. Throw all your anxiety on God. Will it make all of the problems go away? No. Will it make it so you’re never anxious again? No. But it will give God a chance to transform you. It will give God a chance to heal you. It will give God a chance to offer you grace and assurance. Which is what God wants to do, because God cares for each and every one of us.

So let us all have the courage to cast our cares on God, the serenity to release them, the faith to accept God’s gift of grace, and the compassion to share that grace with others. Amen.

Sermon: Ready to Defend Hope

Sunday 17 May 2020
The Sixth Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 3:13-22

We are returning this week to the First Epistle of Peter. Today is the third in a four-part series on the book. In the first week we talked about the divine grace that is expressed when someone suffers for doing the right thing. Last week we saw how God is bringing us together, like living stones, to construct a spiritual temple, the church, that is bigger and more lasting than any human building. Today we consider how God calls us, through baptism, to be a people of hope.

As we have heard before, the Book of 1 Peter is written to a church under pressure, a church that is dispersed, a church that feels under threat. It’s not entirely safe to be a follower of Jesus for these people. While there may not be inquisitors roaming the countryside hunting for Christians, being a member of a Christian community can still get you into trouble. Occasionally it can get you into trouble with the government authorities, even get you killed.

More often it gets you into trouble socially. And in a world in which one’s social connections were absolutely necessary for survival, even a social problem could be very troubling indeed. We are used to thinking of people as independent economic actors. Under normal conditions, I can wander into any store and buy whatever I want, assuming I have the money or the credit to pay for it. I don’t need to have a relationship with the store owner in order to buy something there. In fact, that is somewhat unusual. Especially in a small town, you might know some of the owners of the stores that you shop. You might know some of the salespeople there. But unless you are very rooted it one particular place, it is more likely that most of those people are strangers, or at least little more than acquaintances.

The ancient economy was much more dependent on relationships. Everyone was bound to other people in a series of patron-client relationships, master-slave relationships, trade guild relationships, familial and clan relationships. And those relationships tended to last for multiple generations. Becoming a Christian upset the equilibrium of those relationships. It meant refusing to worship the traditional gods. People would have seen that as sacrilegious, disloyal, unpatriotic, and downright suicidal. The word often used to describe Christians was atheist, because they refused to believe in the gods that everyone else knew were very real. Becoming a Christian meant not taking part in all of the social festivals and holidays, because those were all connected to temples and gods. This meant that Christians were antisocial. They often didn’t participate in what everyone else thought were just normal customs. So you can imagine that even when there wasn’t active persecution going on, it could still be very uncomfortable and alienating. Just imagine that everyone in your town thought that you were an untrustworthy, atheistic, antisocial, unpatriotic, foreign-influenced, family-hating weirdo. That’s going to be disruptive to your life.

At the beginning of the passage we read today, we hear about how these early Christians should react when they suffer for their faith, or when they suffer for doing good. It’s always better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil, Peter says. Christ suffered in the same way.

And Peter has some advice for how Christians should react when people question them about their faith, about the seemingly strange way that they live. He says that when people question them, they should always have a defense ready. The Greek word is απολογια, from which we get the English word apology. But the meaning of that word has shifted a lot over time. Most of the time, when we talk about an apology, we mean saying you’re sorry, admitting that you were wrong, accepting responsibility for doing something wrong. But of course, that word has an older meaning, even in English, and it’s pretty close to the opposite of its common meaning. It means to make a defense. In the older sense, making an apology for something is trying to defend its worthiness to a hostile audience, to try to make that thing seem better than people generally think it is. If I make an apology for corned beef, I’m trying to convince people that corned beef is better than they think it is. If I make an apology for curling, I’m trying to convince people that it’s better than they think it is. If I make an apology for Christianity, I’m trying to convince people that it’s better than they think it is.

And 1 Peter tells its readers that they should always have an apology ready for their faith. But Peter doesn’t actually use the word faith. It says that you should have a defense ready for anytime someone demands an accounting from you, whenever someone questions you. But Peter doesn’t describe the thing being defended as faith. That’s what we would usually say. We would describe our Christianity as our faith or our religion. But Peter describes it with another word. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you. Be ready to defend your hope.

And I find that very interesting and very powerful. Because we are not just a people of faith; we are a people of hope. We are a people of expectation. According to 1 Peter, it is hope that defines who we are as followers of Jesus. It is hope that drives us. The hope for something better. The hope for reconciliation. The hope for healing. The hope for renewal. And it is our hope that we should defend, not arrogantly and meanly. Peter says that we should defend our hope with respectful humility.

Karthik’s birthday was yesterday, and as part of it, we spent a little time watching the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who. I hadn’t watched it in a while, and I was reminded of just how much I enjoy the ethos of the show. The main character, known simply as The Doctor, tackles every situation with a sense of optimism, a strong desire to help others, and a belief in the general goodness of most people. In other words, The Doctor approaches the world with hope. So much of our media is cynical, focused on gritty realism. And there’s a place for that too. But there is certainly a place for hope.

Especially in times like these, there is a place for hope. Hope endures hardship, but it also finds reasons for joy. Hope believes that improvement is possible and works to make it a reality. Hope looks for the good in others rather than the bad. Hope is aware of the struggles in our world and it meets those struggles with deep compassion, dedication, and persistence. Hope plans for the winter because it has faith that the spring will follow.

Peter tells us that we are a people of hope, and that hope is grounded in our baptism in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In baptism, we die with Christ, and we rise again with Christ. Baptism, we are told, is like Noah’s ark, because it carries us over from death to life. It is a vessel of hope. Because we have seen Christ defeat death, we have hope that God’s gracious gift of resurrection will carry us through, as well.

We have a long way to go. We have much more to endure. And during that time, we will have disagreements and frustrations and arguments. There is no easy way through this crisis, and every possible course of action has serious negative consequences.

And in order to endure, we need to live in the hope of Jesus Christ. That hope gives us endurance. That hope helps us to recover from disappointment. That hope allows us to see the best in others, to forgive, and to collaborate. That hope helps us to reject what is destructive and to embrace that which builds up. That hope leads us to make sacrifices for the sake of others, especially for those who are most vulnerable.

That sense of hope is something worth defending. It may seem strange to others. It may seem out of step. And if it does, be ready to explain. You belong to a people of hope. The example of Jesus Christ teaches you to treat others with respect, to consider not only your own needs, but also the needs of others, to endure hardship with the expectation of transformation. You belong to a people of hope. And the hope of God in Jesus Christ will see us through.

Notes-N-News

Good morning!  Happy Birthday this week to:  Carol K(14th) Sharon Pantely (15th) Karthik K(16th) and Erica G(17th).

++Have you weeded and nurtured everything possible in you gardens at home?! If you need more to do, Spirit of Grace’s roadside garden beds are in desperate need of weeding. I have found great peace and comfort for myself in weeding the garden beds closest to the church building. My son Ethan did a great job of getting the nasty weeds that were growing from between the pavement at our front entrance. I normally weed on Tuesdays and some afternoons Mon, Wed, or Thurs; we can social distance easily or come at your own leisure. Just bring your own tools and gloves. Any weed piles can be left and I will wheel them to the pile behind the back shed (there is a wheel barrel in our shed).

Weekly Reflection  1 Peter 2:10What part does God’s grace and mercy take in forming our identity as a Christian community?

Readings for Sunday May 17th  Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:22-31

Psalm 66:8-20

1 Peter 13:13-22

John 14:15-21

++FISH Food Bank. If you wish to support FISH monetarily, mail your check to FISH at 1267 Twelfth Street # 147, Hood River, OR 97031. (You can also include a donation for FISH in your offering to the church but this money is only mailed out once a month). Monetary donations allow FISH to purchase what is needed. If you prefer to donate food, you can drop it off at FISH.

++Never Give Up! The film by Holly Yasui about her father, Hood River native Min Yasui and his fight for justice during the time of the Japanese internment, will air on OPB this week.

The history of the Yasui family is told in Lauren Kessler’s “Stubborn Twig.” Minoru Yasui died in Denver, Colorado on November 12, 1986 and is buried in Hood River, Oregon. An endowed chair at the University of Oregon was named in his honor in 2002, the first in the nation for a Japanese American. Yasui posthomously received the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian award in the country, from President Barack Obama in 2015. The next year the Oregon Legislature designated March 28 of each year as Minoru Yasui Day.

Either link below will bring you to the OPB Schedule.

https://www.opb.org/television/programs/never-give-up-minoru-yasui-and-the-fight-for-justice/

Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice episode

++EcoFaith Recovery is a faith-based leadership development effort grounded near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and reaching out to other parts of the Pacific Northwest for the purpose of revitalizing congregational ministries to participate in the healing of creation. EcoFaith has a page dedicated to composting. Follow the link for articles on why compost, many how-to tips (some more complex and some simple), and what to do with your compost after you have made it!

Web Worship: A Living Stone

Sunday 10 May 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 2:2-10

This Sunday we are in the second week of a four-week series on the Epistle of First Peter. Last week, we talked about 1 Peter’s call to endurance, to the ways that God’s grace changes underserved suffering into to something inspiring and transformational. This week we will talk about how God works to construct Christian community.

First Peter is a letter written by the apostle Peter or by someone else in his name and addressed to remote Christian communities in what we now call Turkey, but was then part of the Greek-speaking, eastern half of the Roman Empire. These Christian communities feel themselves to be under some kind of threat. They have a bit of a siege mentality. There is a cost to pay for their faith in Jesus. They have in some ways alienated themselves from the world around them. They have marked themselves out as strange, peculiar. It is to this church-under-siege that 1 Peter is addressed.

In the passage we read this morning, the author provides a new twist on a familiar image from the Hebrew Bible, the image of a stone or rock. Stone symbolizes strength, sturdiness, unshakability. The sturdiness of a stone represents a sure foundation. This image gets used throughout our tradition. The wise man built his house upon a rock. A solid rock that cannot be moved.

Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures had shared stories about a foundation stone being present at the beginning of the universe. In these stories, the first act of creation was to set a stone that would be the center of the universe and the base upon which everything else was built. The foundation stone was set as a cap over the chaos of the waters of the deep.

First Peter references this understanding of creation as it is found in Isaiah 28:16. “Thus says the Lord God, Look! I’m laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a valuable cornerstone, a sure foundation: the one who trusts won’t tremble.” It’s actually quoted here in 1 Peter 2:6. And the author identifies this foundation stone with Jesus. Jesus serves as the foundation upon which the rest of the universe is built.

This foundation stone can be simultaneously a source of strength and an obstacle on which to stumble. Again, 1 Peter is referencing Isaiah, this time 8:14. “God will become a sanctuary—but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on.” This foundation stone is strong to build on, but it can really get in the way of those who try to work against it. As Psalm 118:22 puts it, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

First Peter references all of these bits of biblical stone imagery, but also creates a rather strange variation to them. Peter describes Jesus as a living stone. A living stone. That’s a pretty tough image to get one’s head around. A stone is pretty much always an inanimate object. It’s the very fact that it doesn’t move, it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t speak, that makes it stone-like in the first place.

So what is a living stone? I was surprised to find that there are actually several things that are called living stone. There is an African succulent plant that looks a bit like a stone. LivingStone is also the brand name of a line of acrylic solid surface countertops designed to look like stone. Apparently Palestinian Christians are sometimes referred to as living stones. There’s a filter-feeding, invertebrate sea animal found off the coast of Peru and Chile called a living rock. It looks like a rock filled with organs. Fans of Marvel may remember a character named Korg from Thor: Ragnarok. He describes himself as a pile of rocks, waving at you. “I’m made of rocks, as you can see, but don’t let that intimidate you. You don’t need to be afraid unless you’re made of scissors.”

Referring to Jesus as a living stone establishes him as the foundation of the faith, but it also emphasizes his victory over death. Jesus was not only once alive. He was alive, and then he died, and then he came to life again. To bring a dead body to life is like bringing a stone to life. It works against the commonly understood nature of things.

I find this reference to Jesus as a living stone quite interesting, but it’s not nearly as interesting as what 1 Peter does next. Immediately after calling Jesus a living stone, the writer tells the readers that they are also living stones. That is to say that they have a life that is beyond normal life. They share in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ. Through their connection to Jesus, they too will conquer death.

But 1 Peter draws out the metaphor even further. “You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.” We are not just living stones on their own. We are brought together to build something. The Greek is a little vague. It’s not clear whether these scattered Christians are being built together by an outside force (presumably God) or whether they are building themselves together. In either case, they are coming together to create something, to build something, something that is strong, built on a sure foundation, and will last the test of time.

What is being built is also a little unclear. The translation we read this morning says that it is a spiritual temple. The Greek word is οικος. It gives us both the word ecumenical and the word economy. The most common definition for it is house. It can also mean household, that is, all of the land and people that go into the operation of a large estate. And it is a word that is sometimes used in reference to the temple.

And so these Christians are being built, like living stones, into a spiritual house, a spiritual household, a spiritual temple. Even if there is no physical temple left to worship in, the people themselves become the temple. The people themselves become the priests, the altar, and the sacrifice. The people themselves become the sacrament.

Right now there are a lot of temples standing empty and unused. There are a lot of churches and synagogues and mosques that are essentially vacant. We cannot gather together in the spaces where we usually gather, to sing the songs, to speak the word, to share the meal.

There are five of us here in this sanctuary right now. It seems very empty. It is much different as the set for a video program than it is as a space for communal worship. In a very real sense, this building is not the church right now, because this is not where the people are.

And it is a good reminder to us that church is not and has never been a building. Like the old Sunday school song, the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. Even the most glorious of cathedrals is built from lifeless stones. The church is built of living stones.

It is a good reminder to us that church is not what we do between these four walls. Church is what we do everywhere that we go. Church is the way that we hear the Word of God and also live it out. Church is the way that we ask for forgiveness and the way that we forgive. Church is the way that we share food and fellowship. It is not this building, it is our Christian community. Even if this building, or many others like it, is vacant, that does not mean that there is no church. You and I are the church. We are the church together.

And yet, we must also acknowledge that that is a bittersweet realization. The church is not a building, the church is the people. But the church is supposed to be the people gathered. It is, literally, the congregation, the coming together.

And it’s not just the building that we’re being deprived of right now, is it? No. We’re being deprived of the gathering, of the coming together, of the congregation, of the communion. At least here in Hood River, we are being deprived of even the smallest of gatherings. I can’t even visit you in your home right now.

And we know why that is. And we know that it is the right thing given the current circumstances. But that does not make it any easier.

In some ways we are experiencing something like the early church, because we know that sometimes it was difficult for them to gather. When they experienced persecution, they could not come together openly to worship. Sometimes they met in catacombs, in underground graveyards, because that was the only place that they could find that was safe. Gathering in a place of death to celebrate the transforming power of resurrection life.

And I have to say, sometimes the internet feels like a graveyard. Sometimes Facebook and Zoom seem like catacombs. Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad that we have this digital space to gather. But it certainly lacks the life of actually being together in the same room, doesn’t it? Meeting through a screen is always meeting through a shroud. But right now, it is one of the best places we have to come together. And like the early Christians, we will make the best of what we have as we look forward to a time of more perfect fulfillment.

Whatever the circumstance, whatever the barriers that we may face, we know that God is still drawing us together, across space and distance, as living stones into a spiritual temple. Even when it is hard for us to feel that communion, it is still present and real through the grace of our God. We the people are the church, and God makes us one.

May we make use of all of the means that we have to connect with one another. May we hold one another, and all of God’s children in prayer. May we live out the reality of a living temple, brought together by God. And may we build it all on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ.

Web-Worship: Called to This Kind of Endurance

Sunday 3 May 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 2:19-25

I have never much cared for the Book of 1 Peter. I don’t think I’ve preached on it more than 3 times in my career. I’ve certainly never taken a class on it or led a study of it. And yet, this week, as I was picking out texts to preach during the month of May, I kept coming back to 1 Peter again and again. In fact, whenever 1 Peter was one of the available options, I ended up choosing it. And so, without it ever really being my intention, between now and Pentecost Sunday, we’re having a series on the First Epistle of Peter.

1 Peter is one of what we call the Catholic Epistles. The New Testament starts out with four gospels. Then it has the Book of Acts, which is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and tells the story of the early church. Next we have all of the letters that claim to be written by the Apostle Paul, although scholars are now pretty sure that some of them were written by other people after Paul’s death. After the letters of Paul, but before the Book of Revelation, we have all of the leftover writings of the New Testament. Hebrews, James 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude. They are all titled as letters, though some of them don’t fit the letter form very well. Rather than being written to a specific church in a specific circumstance, they tend to be written with a wider audience in mind. That’s why they’re called Catholic Epistles. Catholic means universal or general. The Catholic Epistles or General Epistles, are thought to be addressed to a general audience.

First and Second Peter both claim to be written by the Apostle Simon Peter, one of Jesus’s closest disciples. Scholars are pretty much certain that 2 Peter isn’t written by Peter. In fact, even in the ancient world there were serious doubts about its authorship. 1 Peter is a little less clear. It’s possible that it was written by Peter. However, it has a lot more familiarity with Greek literary conventions than one would expect from a Galilean fisherman. Perhaps he had a really good ghostwriter. Or perhaps some of Peter’s disciples wrote a letter in his name after he died.

In any case, the first letter of Peter is a general epistle, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have context. It is addressed to a particular group of people. “To God’s chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora, who live in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The geographical regions that are mentioned are all in modern day Turkey. You might remember that a lot of Paul’s missionary work was in this same part of the world. But Paul was mostly active in the cities and coastal areas. The areas mentioned in 1 Peter are much more rural and isolated. This letter is addressed to Christians who are not as connected to the mainstream of Roman imperial society. They live more on the margins.

And in addition to coming from marginal areas, they are described as marginal even within their own context. 1 Peter says that they are from the diaspora, from the dispersion. Diaspora is a term that most often refers to Jews who have been forced to leave the Holy Land for one reason or another. Wars, forced migrations, and persecution meant that Jews ended up being scattered all over the known world. By the time of the early church, there were Jewish communities all the way from Spain to India.

Peter also describes his audience as strangers or exiles. We might say immigrants or refugees. These are people who do not feel completely at home where they live. We don’t know exactly what has brought them to the backcountry of Turkey. They may have been part of Jewish communities that then became followers of Jesus. They may have been Jewish or Gentiles Jesus followers who migrated because of persecution against Christians. We’re not sure.

What we do know is that within these many communities, there is a sense of isolation. To some degree, there is a sense of powerlessness. There is a sense that they are trying to live their lives under cover. They are trying to follow Jesus in an empire that does not look kindly on Christians, and they are try to do so from a place that keeps them somewhat isolated from other Christian communities.

I’m taking some extra time with this because it has some unexpected connections to the situation we are in now. In the Pacific Northwest, we already know a bit of what it means to be a minority religious group. The largest and fastest growing religious group in our area is those who claim no religion at all. There are certainly still ways that Protestant Christianity exerts a kind of cultural privilege. Increasingly, though, being a Christian marks us as being peculiar. It is become countercultural to be a follower of Jesus. Which, of course, makes our experience have more in common with the early church.

But the COVID-19 crisis is actually making us even more like the early church. It’s giving us that experience of isolation. Our church activities seem more like they’re a kind of underground operation.

And in fact it’s not just our religious life. Everything we do right now seems like it’s underground. It feels like I’m some kind of jewel thief when I’m just going to the grocery store. I have to put on my mask. I have to be sure not to touch any surfaces that I don’t have to. I’ve got to keep a proper distance from everyone I might come near. I want to get over to that display of bananas, but there’s someone coming around the corner from the apples, so I need to wait until they pass or I’ll get caught. Maybe I can sneak around behind the grapes, and… phew… I made it without anyone breaking my six-foot security perimeter.

In the section of the letter that we read this morning, Peter is talking about enduring suffering because of circumstances that are beyond your control. He makes a distinction between suffering that comes from doing evil and suffering that comes from doing good. It is not commendable, we are told, to suffer because you have done something wrong. And this is something every parent understands. If you ignore the direction to wear a coat to school and then you get rained on, there is nothing noble about your wetness. If you fail to do your chores and then you don’t have time to play later bccause you’re stuck working on the chores that you should have done already, no one is going to praise you as a hero or a martyr. If you get detention because you started a fight on the playground, that is not commendable.

However, if you see someone getting beaten up on the playground and you intervene to protect them, but you end up not only getting a bruising but also being sent to detention, then there might be something noble about that. If you miss the chance to play because you are doing chores for your sibling who is sick, that might be commendable. If you get soaking wet in the rain because you gave your coat to someone who needed it more, there might be something praiseworthy about that.

Enduring suffering for the sake of someone can be commendable. A civil rights activist who is put in jail. A first responding who is injured while responding to a call for help. A parent who catches a cold while tending to their sick child. We would prefer that these people not have to endure that kind of suffering at all, but when they do, we can acknowledge that there is some sort of worthiness to their suffering.

In the translation we read today, it says that kind of suffering is commendable. The NRSV says that it is a credit to the person who endures that kind of suffering.. The old King James says that it is thankworthy.

I was really curious about how this word read in the original Greek, and when I looked it up, I was really surprised. I was expecting to find a word that I didn’t recognize, but what I found was a word that is very familiar. The word is χαρις. It’s the word for grace. It’s used over and over in the New Testament. It is a grace if, through mindfulness of God, someone endures undeserved pain. It’s not that it’s about about scoring points for suffering, it’s that in those moments of undeserved suffering, there is an expression of God’s grace.

Peter says “You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps.” Jesus’s suffering on the cross was underserved. It wasn’t that he did something wrong or sinful. He suffered for the sake of others. And through God’s grace, that suffering was transformed into something beautiful, into something that is commendable.

No one is being crucified as a result of this health crisis. But a lot of us are having to endure some form of undeserved pain. I know that I have things pretty easy. I still have my job. I don’t have to put my health at risk to do it. I can get food and anything else that I need without too much hassle. On the scale of suffering, it’s not very bad. But there still is some pain. I didn’t get to visit my dad for his birthday. I can’t visit parishioners in their houses. I can’t meet with anyone face-to-face. Those are the sorts of things that pretty much all of us have to endure. And the reason that we are enduing those things is sometimes not for our own benefit. We are all enduring social distancing for the sake of the most vulnerable in our communities, for those who are older or medically fragile. And that is an expression of God’s grace. It is the Christian thing to do.

But I am very aware that there are others who are enduring much more than I am right now. I think first of medical personnel who are actively putting their own health at risk in order to care for those who are sick. That is an expression of God’s grace. But it’s not just people in the medical field and first responders. I’m thinking about people like grocery store workers, restaurant workers, postal employees, agricultural workers, all those people who are still out there working, providing the things that the rest of us need to survive. I’m thinking about small business owners who are enduring great strain and risk right now. I’m thinking about those who are unemployed and without their normal means of supporting themselves. I’m thinking about those who don’t have a safe place to stay home. All of these people are having to endure pain that they don’t usually have to deal with. And it’s not because any of us have done something wrong. It’s undeserved suffering.

And in all of this suffering, there is the presence of God’s grace. God’s grace transforms what seems pointless into something that has meaning.

We are called to this kind of endurance, Peter says. Christ has set an example for us. I know that I need God’s grace to be able to endure what is going on right now. And I know that there are many people who are having to endure much more than I am.

But we have a God who sets an example of enduring for the sake of others. We have a God who was willing to take human and suffer even death on the cross for our sake. We have a God who knows our pain and who strengthens us to face whatever it is that we have to face.

And God’s grace is in all of it. There is grace that gives us the strength to endure. There is grace in the ways that one person’s suffering can serve to help and protect others. And there is grace also when we fail to endure, when we slip up, when we fall. There is grace and forgiveness.

That’s what I try to remember. We are all going to need a lot of grace to get through this together. We are all going to need to receive grace, and we’re all going to need to share grace. Thankfully, we follow a God who has no shortage of grace to spare. We follow a God who is defined by loving-kindness, mercy, generosity, self-sacrifice, and yes… grace. We can do this together. With God’s grace, we will endure. Thanks be to God.