Sunday 31 May 2020
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.
Sunday 24 May 2020
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
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.
Sunday 17 May 2020
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
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.
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
1 Peter 13:13-22
++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.
++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!
Sunday 10 May 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
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.
Sunday 3 May 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
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.
Good morning! If anyone would like a Daily Devotions booklet mailed to them, please let me know. I have about 8 copies each of Christ in Our Home and The Upper Room.
++May Newsletter Send in your thoughts, insights, or what you’ve been doing during this time of COVID19. Thanks in advance!
++Weekly Reflection Acts 2:23-24 In what ways is God freeing you from death or fear?
++Readings for April 26 Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
++Recent or Upcoming April Birthdays
Ruth Akiyama 20th
Esther Harris 22nd
Dean Kleinsmith 24th
Pastor David 29th
++Worship will be followed by Fellowship Time via Zoom
This can be accessed with a computer, an internet device, or a telephone. Computer, tablet, and smartphone users can use this link: https://zoom.us/j/92182379580?pwd=V0pUbGVramhaM0hKVEpnbFFzQWtQUT09 . Those with the Zoom App can join meeting 921 8237 9580 with password 020535. If you’re using your standard telephone, dial 1-669-900-6833, then follow the prompts to enter the meeting ID 921 8237 9580 and the password 020535.