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Gift of the Heron

blogpic heronI watched a great blue heron in the creek behind our house yesterday. It was fun to watch her movements through the water, the S-shaped curve of her long neck that straightened out as she stood still, the bending and peering into the water as she watched for minnows that might serve as breakfast. She acted completely like a heron—not an egret or an owl, not a squirrel or a snake. She behaved exactly as she was created, carrying out her morning routine with the surety of creatures oblivious to any possibility that they could be other than what they are.

The heron was also oblivious to the spiritual lesson she taught as I watched her from my kitchen—the practice of self-acceptance. While I wouldn’t give up the self-reflective consciousness that separates humankind from the rest of the creatures on our planet, it does come with its own traps of self-doubt, self-absorption, comparing ourselves to others, and needless suffering when we question the worth of our existence. I do seek to continually grow and mature as a person, which can be propelled by experiencing some of the afore-mentioned traps, but the gift of the heron was to bring me back to simple truths. I am created by a loving God to be who I am, not someone else; I am saved by this same God through Jesus Christ, who’s love redeems my brokenness and blesses me with the Spirit who makes me so much more than I can be on my own. It’s beautiful to behold any of God’s creatures who live with that kind of acceptance and grace.

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Hidden Figures Brings Us All into the Light

blogpic.hiddenfiguresmovieGo see the movie, Hidden Figures!

I was both inspired and disturbed as I watched this movie last weekend. It’s not difficult to understand the depth of structural and institutional racism that lingers in this country when only 60 years ago, Katherine Johnson had to run a half mile to find a “colored ladies” restroom at NASA; Dorothy Vaughan couldn’t access a computing book since it was in the “whites-only” section of the library; and Mary Jackson had to petition a judge to attend an engineering class only taught at a segregated white school. Neighborhoods were red-lined and schools were and continue to be under-resourced. In her blog, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, writes, “This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans—along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill—was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.”

And whites today still wonder why there’s a Black Lives Matter movement when the racist attitudes behind the segregation so clearly portrayed in Hidden Figures is still manifest in some of our institutions. It’s hard for us as white people to admit that an equal playing field for people of color feels like oppression to those of us who are accustomed to preference and privilege. The importance of the movie, Hidden Figures, is that it so clearly portrays that access for and full use of the talents and intelligence of ALL Americans does not create fewer opportunities for others; on the contrary, it benefits all of us—it got us to the moon! It’s hard to let go of the zero-sum approach to equal access and economic success, but having these three powerful women working in NASA in the 1960’s was a boon to all Americans, indeed, all of humanity. Far from diminishing others, their lives and work created more opportunity for so many, not the least of whom of was John Glenn.

We can still support our societal structures and those who work in them (e.g. law enforcement) and also hold them accountable to the hard work of eliminating prejudice and racist beliefs that manifest themselves in unequal treatment (and too often, death) of persons of color. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson succeeded due to their brilliant minds, their tenacity in the face of discrimination, and the support of their families, church and community. We all need to continue to work for a country where their counterparts today find even more support through fully funded schools, safe neighborhoods, access to healthcare, and institutions that advocate and celebrate their contributions to society on an equal playing field with all citizens.

 

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Abiding with Jesus and Dr. King

blogpic MartinLutherKingJrA Sermon Preached for the 2nd Sunday After the Epiphany and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday based on John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?” Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John begins with a question—not an exorcism as in Mark, not a sermon as in Matthew, not in the Temple quoting Isaiah, as in Luke. Today we get a question that Jesus asks two of John’s disciples who have heard that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “What are you looking for? Perhaps John wants us to be clear about our deepest needs before we encounter the Jesus he proclaims. 

Our culture will try to tell us that we need more stuff, a bigger house, more status at work, certainly more likes on Facebook, and more separation from those who are different from us. But Jesus confronts us with the deeper questions that get us beyond the superficialities of a consumer culture and an image of God as a cosmic Santa Claus and asks us, “what motivates you—not on the surface, but deep down in the core of your being?” If Jesus sat down next to you and asked you, as his disciple, “What are you looking for? What do you need?” What would you say?

Perhaps for some of us, it’s a larger sense of meaning, a bigger purpose or a deeper sense of being loved. Perhaps for others, it is strength sufficient for a difficult situation, healing from pain, comfort in our grief, relief in our loneliness, or guidance in a decision.

The two disciples, however, answer Jesus’ question with another question! “Where are you staying?” It sounds like they’re asking for Jesus’ hotel, or guest house.

But for John, their question is not just about directions and lodging. The disciples are really asking, “Where are you abiding? Where will you remain, where will you endure, where will you continue to be?” The Greek word that can be translated all of these ways (meno), is used no less than 44 times in the Gospel in the John. It’s a central theme that John introduces right away. Where can we dwell with you? How can we be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we abide in the very presence of God? To the question, “what are you looking for?” the disciples answer, “to dwell with God by abiding with you, Jesus.”

And isn’t that what we all want? To dwell in God, to live in God through Jesus’ presence, in every breath, in every cell of our body, in our words, in our action in our hopes and in our dreams? So Jesus said to them, “Come and See. Come and be with me. Come and abide with me.” For to abide with Jesus is to belong God. To abide with Jesus is to be saved. To abide with Jesus is to be forgiven by the Lamb of God. To abide with Jesus is to experience a real and committed relationship that lasts for eternity.

When we abide in Jesus, we receive the meaning and purpose we desire. We can hear the guidance we need, receive the strength we seek, the comfort that we crave, and the love that nourishes our soul. For Jesus abides with God and God abides with him. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth--to bring us into that same intimate relationship Jesus shares with God. For John, Jesus came to remove all barriers from us having a deep, abiding relationship with God.

And like any relationship the more time we spend in that relationship, the deeper it becomes, the more intimate the conversation, the more revealing the love, the deeper the bond. In my devotional reading this week, I read this passage:"When you go to your place of prayer, don’t try to think too much or manufacture feelings or sensations. Don’t worry about what words you should say or what posture you should take. It’s not about you or what you do. Simply allow Love to look at you—and trust what God sees! God just keeps looking at you and loving you center to center." This is what John calls abiding in Jesus.

But our faith and relationship with Jesus doesn’t end there, with our own personal relationship with God in Christ—it’s where it begins. Abiding with Jesus is a relationship that also gets lived out in the world. For to abide in Jesus is to abide with all beings that God has created. John’s Gospel begins with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

That means everyone belongs, every person, every nation, every ethnic group. We all belong to God, even our enemies, which is why Jesus told us to love them. In First John, it says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

Tomorrow we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spent his life and ministry holding us accountable to this truth, that everyone belongs. In a country founded on Christian principles, we have treated some of our citizens as if they don’t belong—as if they don’t belong to God and don’t belong to us, as fellow human beings, and sisters and brothers in Christ.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and The Struggle that Changed a Nation, King wrote: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [humanity is] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or we could say this is the inter-related structure of being created by the same God, abiding in relationship with God through the same Jesus Christ.

Today, Jesus also asks those who are oppressed, or disenfranchised the same question he asks us, “What are you looking for?” We could ask refugees and immigrants, people in the Black Lives Matter movement, poor rural whites and everyone who feels they don’t belong, “what are you seeking?” Like us, they are seeking meaning and purpose, love and comfort, strength and guidance; and they hope for what we assume: to be treated with justice and fairness by our institutions, to have equal opportunity, to belong as a full citizen. In an environment where divisions between us are exploited and used as the basis for hateful rhetoric and actions, how much more are we called by God to embody in our daily life, the unity we share with all people who have been created by the Word in the beginning, and are one with us abiding in Christ.

When we ground our identity, our well-being, our very life, in abiding with God in Christ Jesus, we do not need to over-identify with our own cultural group or class to feel safe and valued. On the contrary, we live from the security of our relationship with God and follow Jesus in embracing all people, and in advocating for policies that bring freedom and inclusion for all of God’s children.

As ones who abide with Christ, we attend to our individual relationship with God (the visual with this is that my right arm points straight up) and we live out this unity in just, open and equal relationships with all people whom God created (and my left arm moves horizontally across my right arm to form a cross). + This is the life Christ is looking for in us.

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God's Answer

blogpic.JesusBaptismA sermon preached on Sunday, January 8, 2017 for the Baptism of our Lord; Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10-34-43

"What is the question, that if you had the answer, it would set you free?" Organizational guru, Peter Block asks this question in the book, The Answer to How is Yes. Block writes,

It’s the mother of all of questions—it’s a question that can only be meditated upon. Each time you answer it, you begin a different conversation… It is like a laser beam into what matters. It brings the question of our freedom front and center. 

"What is the question, that if you had the answer, it would set you free?" I suppose the question and the answer depend on what we need to be freed from. It might be different for each of us. What freedom would change your life? From what do you need to be freed so that you might more completely, fulfill the purpose God has for your life? Is it anxiety about the future or worry about those you love? Fear of failing or self-laothing? Fear of getting older, becoming incapacitated, or dying? Being unloved or alone? Controlling everyone and everything around you so that you can feel ok?

For me right now, I need to be freed from anxiety about the future. Dan and I are both working as Interim Pastors; he is at 2 churches part-time and I’m at a church in Florissant. All 3 of our contracts end on August 31st of this year, the same month our youngest child goes off to college. What’s next? We have no idea, but living in anxiety about it does not add to the quality of our life, the productivity of our days, or our faithfulness to the work we have right now. Yet, the question looms large.

I wonder if this mother of all questions is also in the background at Jesus’ Baptism in our Gospel reading today. What is the question, if Jesus had the answer, it would set him free--free to fulfill his mission from God to save us, to bring in God’s kingdom, and to fulfill all righteousness? What does Jesus need to begin his mission and ministry?

Jesus no doubt understood his mission in light of the message of the prophets. Our Isaiah passage identifies the servant of the Lord as one who will "faithfully bring forth justice…God has sent him to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." Jesus’ mission includes reaching out to the poor and oppressed, healing those who are outcast, binding up the brokenhearted, and loving those who are rejected by society. Jesus’ mission will embody the values Peter preaches in Acts—that God shows no partiality regarding nation, culture, ethnicity or background but comes to save all people.

And if all of that weren’t difficult enough, there will be plenty of obstacles. People from his own home town will deride his authority. The religious leaders will be threatened by his teaching and his followers. Even the disciples will misunderstand the mission and try to derail Jesus from blessing children, feeding hungry people, spending time in prayer, and being faithful to his mission, even to death on a cross. His closest friends will compete for the top spots at his right and left, they will deny, abandon, and betray him.

So what is the question, that if Jesus had the answer, it would set him free to fulfill this purpose, to be ALL-IN, to completely commit himself to God’s mission for him in the world? Maybe the question is something like, Who am I? Am I in this alone? Can I really take this on? Is this really what God wants me to do? Whatever the question was, God’s voice boomed from the heaven after his baptism, giving Jesus the answer he needed to set him free: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Or a better translation would be, “This is my Son the beloved, I have chosen him.”

Jesus, who is the Gospel for us, had the Gospel preached to him by God at the beginning of his ministry! You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. God announces Jesus’ identity, affirms that he is precious in God’s sight and loved dearly, and is chosen for this mission in the world. There is no doubt about God’s presence with him as the Spirit of God alights upon him in the form of a dove. Jesus doesn’t have to earn God’s love by fulfilling the mission, Jesus receives God’s grace at the beginning in order to carry out the mission. It’s the answer to the question that sets him free.

It’s a pretty good answer! You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. It’s an answer that enabled Jesus to remain faithful to God’s mission of healing, teaching, touching and transforming. It’s an answer that kept him strong despite all obstacles, even when they put him to death by hanging him on a tree. It’s an answer that "raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear to those who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead," as Acts says. Jesus was set free to fulfill his mission because he didn’t have to worry about WHO he was or WHOSE he was or if he was loved or if he mattered. The answer was always YES, so he was freed to say, “yes” to God—yes to God in the faces of the hungry and outcast, yes to God in tax collectors and sinners, yes to God in the Samaritan woman at the well, yes to God in healing those with leprosy, demons and blindness, yes to God in all who needed the same Gospel preached to them that God gave to Jesus: You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you.

It’s a pretty amazing answer. It’s an answer that will work for my question about our unknown future, and for your question, whatever that might be. It’s an answer that sets us free, no matter what our question is. God says, You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you.” It’s an answer that sets us free to fulfill our purpose as God’s people in our daily life. We don’t have to worry about WHO we are or WHOSE we are or if we are loved or if we matter, or if God has a purpose for us. The answer is always YES! So we are freed to say, "yes" to God in sharing our gifts and resources so others hear the Gospel of grace. Even in the midst of obstacles and an unknown future, we can trust in God’s presence and power for us everyday.

No matter our questions, through Jesus Christ, God sets us free to love and serve in the mission of the Gospel. Hold fast to God’s promise to Jesus and to us: You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. It’s the answer that always sets us free to say YES to God.

Image: Baptism of Jesus by He Qi http://www.heqiart.com/

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