Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Roll Down Justice - God Has Work For Us To Do: Faithful Disciples" 4/2/17

4-2-17 Sermon   “God Has Work For Us To Do: Faithful Disciples”

   The Kmart near our home closed this week. 
There used to be 10 Kmart stores in the Columbus market - there’s now only one. I managed in 13 stores in the 19 years I was with Kmart. I left 16 years ago, so I’ve been a “recovering retailer” almost as long as I was active. I think I have sufficient distance for some perspective. That said, my own version of post-traumatic-stress-disorder, the one consistent source of my nightmares, is Kmart.
   There are things about that part of my life that I value: the people I worked with, the opportunities I was given, even the grace - not a word one might think of in relation to Kmart - that was shown me as a young store manager as I made early mistakes. Likewise, there are aspects that sadden me, and that frankly, I regret. 
That said, I don’t see Kmart as a particularly generous company by any measure, which speaks to both their current situation as well as to some of the issues that caused me to leave the company in 2001. 
It became increasingly clear to me that what I was being asked to do as a store manager, as well as some of the decisions I was making on my own, were not consistent with my faith or who I felt I was called to be.
   Two examples, one kind of funny, the other rather tragic. One day I was paged to come to the service desk. I called there first, and was told that there was a customer who wanted to return an item without a receipt that didn’t come from our store. Seems pretty simple, right? So I went to the service desk, a “de-escalate-the-situation” smile plastered on my face. 

I stood and listened as the woman, Ramona Cooper, lied straight to my face about having bought this item the day before, right there in my store, having lost her receipt, and demanding a refund. I explained to her politely that she must be mistaken, that Kmart had never carried that item or even that brand name, and that I couldn’t give a refund for an item that we don’t sell. Well, she didn’t let up, becoming more aggressive and increasingly louder, hoping to either badger or embarrass me into giving a refund. I wasn’t feeling that generous.
   Now, if you’ve gone through any kind of conflict mediation training you know that you’re told that if you feel yourself beginning to grow angry, you should excuse yourself and walk away until you can calm your nerves. Well, that’s exactly where I was so I politely excused myself and walked away…and Ramona Cooper followed me. 
She trailed right behind me, yelling even more loudly. The more I tried to distance myself, the louder she became. I could feel my blood pressure rising, my face flushing, my heart racing. Finally, in a threatening tone, she proclaimed, “You’ll regret the day you ever heard the name Ramona Cooper!” At which time, I spun around, looked her straight in the eye and responded loudly enough for all to hear, “Lady - I already do!” 
   Now, I was kind of pleased with myself for my quick wit and cutting response, and that I had saved the company from being the victim of an obvious fraudulent refund attempt. Ramona Cooper…not so much. She just donned a self-satisfied smirk as she moved to the payphone in the lobby. I had been played. A few minutes later I received a phone call; it was my district manager letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was to apologize to Ms. Cooper AND give her a refund.
   It was another event years later, though, that precipitated my resignation. It’s common at the holidays to hire a number of seasonal employees to work up to Christmas. Well, in the week leading up to Christmas in 2000, we were told that the after-Christmas staff reduction would extend beyond the seasonal help. 
The decision about who would be released was made, not at store level, but corporately. Those persons effected were full time, and could not be transferred into “safe” positions. It would be brutal. My store was to eliminate two people and I was given their names. 
Both were middle-aged women. Both single. 
Both lived alone and needed their full time health benefits…because both had been recently diagnosed with cancer. I protested. 

I presented our corporate human resources people with several different alternative scenarios that would accomplish the same or even greater salary and benefit expense savings without possibly costing these two women their health or even their lives, but they refused. I asked what would happen if I refused, and was told that in that case my district manager would be in my store within the hour to fire me, and then HE would terminate these two women. Suffice it to say, sacrificing myself would do nothing to help their cause and it certainly wasn’t going to help my own. So, I let those women go on the day after Christmas in 2000, and began formulating my own exit plan, which occurred eight months later. 

   In these two events, neither I nor Kmart had exhibited a particularly consistent generous outlook did we? 
And having said that, we can probably observe more broadly as well, that our society is not what we could call consistently generous either. Oh, as a nation and as a people we’re very generous when it comes to giving money to good causes, to fight diseases, to battle hunger. As a congregation you’re very generous as well - funding our Food Pantry, the West Side Free Store, supporting the Shalom Zone Freedom School and Legal Clinic, a Community Meal, the Mustard Seed Street Outreach ministry, the Helping Hands Fund and all of the other ministries we do, giving to UMCOR and Imagine No Malaria, and paying 100% of our apportionments for 43 straight years, even in the midst of some very challenging, shall we say, financial times in the life of the church.
 As a congregation you’re a very generous group of disciples, and I don’t just say that because the Bishop is with us - I’ve applauded your generosity many times. 
At the same time, a recent national survey I read about said that, according to servers and wait staff in restaurants nationwide, the people who are the least generous tippers are the Sunday-after-church Christian diners. Hmmm. 

   Generosity is a fickle thing, and more inclusive than just finances. Generosity of spirit is important, as well as a generous attitude toward others; people of other races or ethnicities, other faith traditions, socio-economic status, nationalities, people of different sexual orientations or gender identities or different political affiliations. 
We struggle to be as generous as a society, as a nation, when it comes to people or groups who are somehow different than our own particular identity group. 
   We’re often a people who are rushing around, trying to get ahead of everybody else, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line for fear that there won’t be enough to go around. It seems like we’re a people grabbing to get what’s ours before “they run out.” 
But that scarcity based outlook on life goes against the grain of what it means to be truly human, and what it means to be a beloved child of God. When I read our Scripture lesson for today, one thought that comes to mind is that what the prophet was trying to encourage in the people of his day was to recover a spirit of generosity in order to recover their own humanity and restore their community.

   At least that’s what I believe Isaiah is up to in this passage. Isaiah 58:1-12 stands in the middle of a four chapter section that stresses the need for the people of God to engage in spiritual practices that will create in them a generous spirit that will, in turn, lead to just social actions. The passage reflects a time somewhere after the return of the exiles from Babylon in 538 BCE, having been held captive by foreign oppressors. Jerusalem was in ruins, their temple was destroyed, and the people felt overwhelmed, defeated, and abandoned by YHWH. They complain that God has deprived them of justice. God responds by demanding that they stop depriving those around them of justice and righteousness! Even though Israel has been attentive to the ritual requirements in the Law, they’ve completely neglected the ethical demands of it. 
The people believe they are the victims, when in fact they are the victimizers.

   The section opens with God’s charge to the prophet and the statement of the problem: these people are very “religious,” but it’s all a mere “show,” routine and empty, what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a kind of “pseudo-holiness.” “Don’t you see, God? 
We’re fasting! We’re putting on our sackcloth and ashes, just like it says in the Law, and we’re praying at the right times with the right words.” 
But the prophet, speaking for God, points out, “Sure, you’re putting on a good religious show - BRAVO! 
But while you say you’re fasting and praying for me you’re also cheating your workers, and getting into arguments and fist fights with one another. You say one thing and do another! Why should I believe you?”
   So, in response to their complaints, Isaiah highlights the hypocrisy in their humility, and perhaps ours as well. 

In many churches, the work of justice and the preaching that can awaken and drive that work has been pushed aside in favor of a “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” kind of praise music, a rock concert style worship show, and a religious consumerism that asks, “how good is the band,” and, “does this church “meet my needs?” And “do they serve Starbucks coffee?” Music is judged as though church was an episode of “The Voice” or “American Idol.” And the sermon needs to be funny - but not too funny - make us think - but not think too hard - or make us feel anything but good about ourselves because honestly, we can stay home and watch Joel Osteen because he always makes us feel good and we don’t have to DO anything but wait for the truck of money to arrive! And if this church doesn’t “work for us,” we’ll shop for another!”

   The scriptures are clear on the point that people who are anxious to raise their holy hands but slow to offer a helping hand to their neighbors in need will not enjoy God’s favor. Many churches have in their worship bulletins the same words we have emblazoned above our main entrance: “Enter to worship – Depart to serve.” Isaiah 58 warns against allowing those two tasks to be separated. We do not enter to worship as entertainment or as an end in itself. Fasting, prayer, or any other spiritual discipline, is not an end in itself. Instead, our worship and our disciplines should transform, equip, empower, and then convince us of the generous service we must offer in pursuit of a just and equitable society. That is the work of being disciples of Jesus Christ.
   Isaiah rebukes the people of Israel for saying they love God but who refuse to obey the most basic of God’s commands - caring for their neighbors. 
He employs a kind of snarky humor that, if he worked for Kmart probably would have gotten him a call from his district manager, when he describes those people who wonder why God seems to care so little about and pays such little attention to their playing church. 
The truth is, God is far more concerned that people of faith develop a gracious, generous spirit that inspires, even compels them to work for justice that benefits others, than about people of faith who try to impress God with their religiousness. He proclaims that God does not want, did not request or require, and will not honor or be pleased with, people who offer religious rituals that are divorced from a deep concern for the neediest within their own community and beyond. 

And then Isaiah says, speaking so eloquently on God’s behalf:
Is not this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them…

   Caring, feeding, clothing, sharing, setting captives free” sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? Jesus’ mission statement, as shared with us in Luke 4, came in part from his reading this passage. In Matthew 22, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for the same thing - being careful about observing every tiny detail of the religious law, but “ignoring the weightier matters of the law; justice, mercy and faith.” 
And that same message is at the heart of Amos 5, Micah 6, and of the sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25 that we talked about last week. It’s a consistent thread throughout all of Scripture, because it’s a consistent problem throughout all of history.

   We can’t read the paper or watch the news these days and not be alarmed by the polarization in nearly every segment of society. But nowhere is this more painful than in the church’s implosion over cultural issues and the sad tensions among Christians, Muslims, and Jews on a national and international level. We who believe that we have much to offer the world must find a way to reject the battle to occupy the ground on the right or the left and instead seek to occupy the higher ground. 

In light of the larger church’s current battles, fears, and accusations, it should give us pause when we read Isaiah’s message: “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists.” 
A call to a new kind of fasting oriented to “repairing the breach” of our differences could carry a powerful challenge that would make Isaiah’s 2500 year old prophetic voice especially relevant. 
   Isaiah equates a disregard for justice with selfishness. And as the questions of the people indicate, they were clueless. Rather than the repentance that might cause God to listen, the people were caught up in outward signs…they didn’t recognize their need for a basic change of attitude. And that kind of hollow, self-focused fast, Isaiah warns, will not be heard on high.

   And Isaiahs’ message to Israel could just as easily be spoken to our world today. To cease from oppressing others is not enough. To be a people of justice and righteousness means to be actively engaged in social and economic reform. We’re to be agents of liberation, generosity, and compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah urges, “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” calling for a full conversion of the soul of the community. 
Fasting and prayer are not means of earning favor from God; they’re tools of spiritual transformation, means to align one’s priorities to the will of God. He calls for a new fast, not from food, but from affluence, indifference, and privilege so that the community of faith might live in harmony with God, who “dwell[s]…with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.”  (Isaiah 57)

   Those who have experienced oppression, like Israel, Isaiah suggests, should not allow or participate in the structures of society that oppress others. 
His words reflect what we talked about a couple of weeks ago when we considered the commitment we make, the vows we affirm before God and one another, in the baptismal liturgy that we repeated today. Vows to: 
renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.
   As I said then, to repeat those words of commitment with a wink-wink-nod-nod attitude of mere recitation is to thumb our noses at both God and the community of which we are a part. 

We’re called, in those vows and in this passage, to reflect, repent, and re-engage in what should be an inseparable relationship of personal spirituality and intentional works of justice aimed at undoing and overcoming the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world, wherever we find them - even in ourselves.

   It’s clear that the salvation God promises is conditioned upon the people’s response to the fast God demands. 
All the promises of Isaiah 58:8-9 are introduced by the word “then”:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am.” 
The promise in 58:10 comes as an “If, then” clause:
If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
   That’s where this passage leaves us, promising of all things that those who keep the fast God chooses will indeed be set free, that is, will be able to call upon God, to cry for help and hear God say, “Here I Am.”

One thing I find striking in our reading for today is the clear and concrete way in which the prophet defines living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity! Isaiah says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”; “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isa. 58:6-7). Practicing generosity in all things is the heart of what it means to live out God’s justice in our world. 
It’s about lifting the burden, and lending to the destitute, and helping those who cannot (for whatever reason) help themselves! This is the message throughout Scripture, from the Law, to the Prophets, the Gospels, to the Letters - it is a consistent message of generosity leading to justice.
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to take a different approach toward the destitute, the downtrodden, and the just plain different in our world—especially those who challenge our sense that the world is an ordered and predictable place where if we follow the rules and obey all the laws everything will turn out alright. 

When we feel threatened by the destitute, or the immigrant, or whomever we’ve labeled as the “other du jour,” we tend to fall into the pattern of judging them— and assume we know why they “fell through the cracks.”
When we see others as a threat to our well-being — whether it’s the poor who challenge our false assurances about life, or simply the neighbor whom we fear might get there first and “they might run out”— it’s impossible to practice generosity. Rather than opening our hands to share God’s abundance, when we live out of that kind of fear we tend to close our fists tightly in order to protect what’s ours. And we have all kinds of ways of closing our fist, from gated communities to “vagrancy laws,” from border walls to budget cuts, and by simply assuming that we have a right to judge another human being, another beloved child of God.
So how can we find a way to unclench that fist and open our hands generously to the people around us? Well, I think it starts with faith. In order to learn to practice generosity toward others, we have to overcome our fear of scarcity, of loss, and of the other, and trust that the God of abundance has provided enough: enough food, enough water, enough love. And generosity is seeded from a spirit of gratitude. When we overcome the resentment of insisting that we somehow were short-changed, that some “illegal” or “immoral” took what was rightfully ours, and instead learn what it means to approach life from an attitude of gratitude, that we have received far more than we could expect, then we can relate to others with generosity. And I think it also takes a good dose of humility, something that doesn’t come easily or naturally to many of us. When When we recognize how many times we have failed and instead of getting what we deserved God’s grace came to us and let us off the hook, we’ll be more likely to extend that grace as well.
Generosity isn’t easy to learn, especially in a society that urges us to grab all we can and forget everyone else. And it can be even more challenging to practice. It’s hard to know when someone is truly in need or when you’re being played. And it’s hard to know how much you should give a person who is destitute. And it’s risky, because you can’t control what others will do with the help you give them. But I believe practicing generosity is worth the risk. It holds out the hope for us to hang on to the compassion and gratitude and humility that help us preserve our humanity And And it holds out the hope that we can restore our community—perhaps only in small ways, but they are meaningful ways nevertheless.

   At the end of the day, we who profess faith in the God of the Exodus and the Exile, who compassionately comforts the afflicted, and perhaps, afflicts the comfortable, are called to practice that same generosity. We who have time and again received the gift of being let off the hook are summoned to extend that grace to those we encounter who fall short. We who have experienced the open hand of God giving us all that we need and more, answering our cries for help with “Here I am,” can do no less than to open our hands and extend them to the people around us—our neighbors, all our neighbors, with that same response, “Here I Am.” God has work for us to do - let’s get to work. Amen.

"Roll Down Justice - I Choose Love: Communities of Forgiveness" 3/26/17

3-26-17 Sermon “I Choose Love: Communities of Forgiveness”

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Those very words could be spoken about each and every one of us on nearly any day of our lives. “Forgive us, Lord, we don’t know what we’re doing.” We don’t know. We think we know. We want to know. We pretend to know. But we don’t know. Like the so-called “butterfly effect,” the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia becomes the ultimate cause of a hurricane in the Atlantic, we don’t know what the ripple effects of our actions, or our inactions, might ultimately be. “Lord, forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing.” How could Jesus forgive those who were killing him, in the midst of the killing? How could he forgive those who betrayed and denied him, while each strike of the hammer on the nails that pierced his body reminded him of the betrayal, the denial. As he hangs on the cross, his body ravaged by beatings, life slowly ebbing away as each successive breath becomes harder and harder to take in, he is mocked by the soldiers and the on-lookers, the voyeurs of death and dying. On either side of him hang what Luke describes as two criminals, also crucified this day. Crucifixions weren’t rare - they happened nearly every day - thousands each year. They were the officially government sanctioned death penalty of the day - the equivalent of our modern day injection chamber. The intent of these public executions was to be a deterrent, to scare or shock people out of committing crimes, out of standing up against the government that wielded such deadly power and authority. We’ve heard that argument before, haven’t we? It’s one of the arguments that modern day death penalty advocates make when advocating in favor of an even broader application of capital punishment. We could learn a few lessons from the Romans, though, when it comes to the deterrent argument. The fact that they executed thousands of people each year in spite of the very public and humiliating way in which crucifixion was carried out shows that its deterrent effect was minimal. And besides, Jesus was innocent, wasn’t he? That’s what the Roman centurion says at the end of this longer passage, “Surely, this man was innocent.” Note the difference in what Luke reports the Centurion saying, and Mark’s version, where the Centurion proclaims, at last revealing Mark’s Messianic Secret, that “Surely, this man was God’s Son.” Luke need make no such declaration here, he has made it throughout his telling. No, the important thing for Luke, is the proclamation of innocence. Luke is all about the justice aspect of Jesus’ ministry. And so in the end, despite all the wrong, the corruption, the lying, and the injustice piled upon Jesus, his prayer to God is simply, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” And as human beings, with all the emotions we carry with us, we have to imagine that for the human part of Jesus, this had to be as difficult for him to do as it would be for us. At the same time, that part of Jesus which we call divine, knew that forgiveness is what had to happen.

Forgiveness might be the hardest thing we’re asked to do in our faith. It might be the hardest thing we’re asked to do in our life - harder than dying for some of us. Some of us swear we can never, will never forgive the wrong that has been done to us, or to our family. And that seems noble, it seems loyal, but in effect we’re locking ourselves in a prison of our own making and handing over the key to the person who wronged us. In the midst of our pain and our grief, though, that is so hard to see. It was nearly two years ago, in June of 2015, that Dylan Roof walked into a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and after sitting in the study for a little while, finally pulled out a gun and shot and killed nine people, all but one person in the group - leaving that one alive to tell what had happened. Roof did it, he said, because they were black - and he hated black people. Nadine Collier’s mother was one of those killed, and she became famous two years ago for three words she said to Dylan Roof at his bond hearing: “I forgive you.” With those words, Collier set off a global debate about forgiveness. And while her grief remains heavy, Collier said that she learned in that hearing that forgiveness is not weakness. It’s not resignation or a duty done begrudgingly. And it is not easy. Collier is trying to move on, but progress is slow. But her initial words, two days after the horror, hang powerfully in the public conscience and conversation. “I forgive you,” she told him. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.” That’s what her mother would have wanted, she knows. “I know she would have said, ‘That’s my baby. I taught her well.” It was in that hearing that she learned about forgiveness, its power and its challenge. “Forgiveness is power,” she said. “It means you can fight everything and anything head on.” The world has heaped praise on Collier and others for their acts of faith and forgiveness, and they have been sustained by the support and prayers of well-wishers from around the globe. But the shadow of grief remains. Most days, the home that the Rev. Anthony Thompson shared with his wife Myra, who was leading the Bible study at Emanuel the night she was killed, seems too quiet. There are reminders of Myra everywhere: fresh flowers on the table, just the way she liked them; a photo of her on the wall; her Bible, with the text marked for that night — the parable of the sower from Mark 4:16-20, along with the notes from the Bible study. When he last saw her, Myra was finishing up some last-minute notes, just before she left on June 17. She seemed to glow, he said, as if everything were right in the world. Then she walked out the door before he’d had the chance to say goodbye. Thompson had hoped to attend the Bible study that night, but Myra told him not to. His church was kicking off vacation Bible school that night, and he was needed there. He had finished up at church and had dinner waiting for her on the table when the call came. Even today, he has a hard time believing she is gone. He hadn’t planned on attending that bond hearing at first. But something prompted him to go. In the courtroom, Thompson said he felt God speak to him, telling him to forgive Roof. “I wasn’t thinking about him,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on going. But God put it in my head. It was like he was speaking through me.” After the hearing, Thompson felt a sense of peace. He told another, ‘Oh my gosh, that was for me,’” he said. “That was for my kids, and me, so we could have peace.” Not all of the Emanuel AME families have gotten to forgiveness yet, but they’re working towards that goal. They know that’s the only way they will ever be free from the grip of this tragedy, this evil, but they realize that it will be long, slow, hard work. Which is why they all have continued to be in community with one another, supporting one another, in a community of love and forgiveness. Our feature song this week, “I Choose Love,” was written as a response to the horrific events in Charleston, South Carolina and the remarkable choice of forgiveness made by so many of those families. But to forgive, is not to forget. That pithy little phrase is found nowhere in our Scriptures, nor anywhere in our faith traditions. To forget would be to deny, or to even block, the transformation or the redemption that can come out of the tragedy of events such as these. In our reading for today, Luke spares us the gory details of the gruesomeness of crucifixion as a means of execution. He simply says, “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals” (vs. 33). Typically read on Good Friday, this is the story of individual and corporate sin, betrayal, and abandonment - of the priests, Pilate, the soldiers, the blood-thirsty crowds, Peter, Judas, and the other disciples. Theologian Craig T. Kocher writes, “This text is not for the squeamish, but the world we live in is not for the squeamish either. Too often the prevailing theology in much of the church is that God is a God who doles out blessings to the faithful, materials riches to the devout, happy families to the pious, wealth and success to the prayerful. Luke’s good news lives in stark contrast to any prosperity gospel, any reading of Scripture that privileges the well-off, healthy, or esteemed. The theology of Luke’s gospel begins in the poverty of a stable and continues to describe a world in which the mighty are knocked from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry filled, and the rich sent away with nothing. Luke grounds the story of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ with the forgotten of the world. Indeed, Luke ends this grisly Good Friday passage with a condemned and dying thief entering the paradise Jesus goes to prepare.” And he continues, “God does not reward the pious with blessing, but enters into the pain and hurt and horror that we see and experience all around us; a world where so often there is little reason to hope or dream. Good Friday is the account of God’s passion, the word “passion” usually thought of in terms of God’s suffering.” But he then suggests that the other way for us to think of passion is connected to God’s love. “As much as Good Friday holds a mirror up to humanity’s bent toward sin and death,” he says, “it also reveals God’s unending love for God’s broken world filled with evil and violence. God’s love is patient and kind and passionate. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things to the end. Love does not go gently into that good night. On Good Friday, God’s heart in Jesus Christ is torn between the passion of sin-induced suffering and the passion of grace-filled love.” And to make his point, he reminds us that Jesus refuses to give in to the meanness and arrogance all around him. In the face of evil and despair, the passion of his love remains. To the cries for blood from the crowd, he does not respond. To the clubs and whips that beat him, he does not fight back. To the soldiers who have torn his body to shreds, he offers forgiveness. To the thief, he whispers the hope of eternity. “On the cross,” Kocher writes, “the passion of Jesus’ suffering is surpassed by the passion of his redeeming love. Good Friday reveals that only the tenacity of God’s love is greater than the tenacity of humanity’s despair.” And it is God’s love that we affirm, for ourselves, for the world, and for the beloved child of God receiving the sacrament, in our baptismal rites. Each time someone is baptized, the whole church body gathered also makes vows. One of the things we promise is to be a community of love and forgiveness. With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life. So each day, in those thousand decisions we make about how we will be - will we follow Christ’s teachings or will we go our own way - each day we choose between letting the difficult things about life create resentment in us or allowing the work of forgiveness to make way for love. And love, too, is a choice. More than a mere emotion, more than the topic of a song or a poem, love is a choice. Love is a decision that we make about how we act, how we live, how we respond. Too often, we think of forgiveness as simply that which the pastor or priest proclaims at the end of a unison prayer of confession during the order of worship. We hear the prayer, written by someone else and that may or may not touch on the things which we as individuals need to confess, we wait through the time of silence in which we are allotted a brief - never long enough - time to confess our own personal sins, and then we move right on to the Assurance of Pardon because the service has to keep moving if we’re going to beat the Baptists to Bob Evans! But, is forgiveness as simple as reciting a prayer during worship? And some might wonder, is forgiveness really available to someone like me? Theologian Edward A. McLeod, Jr writes, “The answer to the first question is no; forgiveness is not simple, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer would also want us to be clear that it is not “cheap” either. The forgiveness we sometimes glibly invoke involves a God whose grace exceeds our imaginations and whose [passionate] love challenges our notion of how a God would behave. So it is not simple. It is profound and mysterious and deep, and when we turn it into a simple formula, it loses its power to transform and reform us.” “The answer to the second question, the one that emerges from anxious hearts all over any given sanctuary, is yes; forgiveness is available even for someone like you.” In Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they’re doing,” are words of good news to people every where, to people who are troubled by unbelief, and uncertainty, or confusion by all the conflicting messages that are spun out of the gospel. “We can be thankful that Jesus’ use of the word “them” is broad and nonspecific. Who are the “thems” for whom he is seeking God’s forgiveness? Who gets included in this sweeping show of compassion and mercy?” “Does “they” include, for example, Pilate, who knows the right thing to do, but is swayed by the clamor of the people, and in an act of political expediency sends an innocent man to die? “Does it include the crucifiers, those who actually carry out the mechanics of this cruel execution, who can hide behind the excuse that they are “just following orders”? “Does it include the chief priests and the other temple authorities who lead the effort for Jesus’ crucifixion, those whose position and prestige are dependent on keeping the religious landscape as it is, and who see in Jesus a threat to their status quo? “Does it include the people who find themselves carried along by a sort of mob mentality, shouting things they might not shout on their own, but who, in following the crowd, now find their hands stained with responsibility for injustice? Are those who turn on Jesus, so quickly after they have welcomed him into town, are they included among “them” for whom Jesus prays for forgiveness?” “The answer,” McLeod insists, “must be yes, yes, yes, and yes.” And if these persons are forgiven, then the good news to the church must be Jesus’ prayer from the cross - [forgiveness] for “them” who do not know what they are doing. This text also challenges our understanding of how forgiveness works, as we assume that forgiveness comes to those who confess (as in that order of worship mentioned before). Luke gives no record of Pilate, the religious authorities, the soldiers, or the people, gathering at the cross, seeking forgiveness for what they’ve done. On the contrary, Jesus petitions for divine forgiveness (rather than divine retribution) for a people who are still hopelessly entangled in a great conspiracy of evil - who still literally have blood on their hands. Paul saw this as the gist of the good news, “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). No, forgiveness isn’t easy. Love isn’t easy. It’s a choice. We must choose love, because Love chose us. In the book, “The Shack,” there is a very powerful passage that I want to share with you about this very subject. Now, as you know, I rarely if ever recommend what are considered “religious movies,” especially from the pulpit, because honestly, I have found very few of them to be theologically sound, historically accurate, or for that matter, even well made. I do recommend “The Shack,” however, even though it is very clearly intended to tug at your heart strings and play your emotions, because it does have some very sound theology, especially around forgiveness and redemption. So, there’s your endorsement for both the book and the movie and a shameless plug for the discussion we’ll be having on the Wednesday evening after Easter - see your announcement folder for more information on that. To set this up, and to not be too much of a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it but intend to, Mack is the main character, and while on a family camping trip the youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted and then killed in a shack in the mountains. Some time later, Mack finds a note in their mailbox, an invitation, to come meet God at the Shack, and it is signed, “Papa,” which is the pet name that Mack’s wife has always used for God. Against his better instincts, he goes to the shack, where he encounters God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and has the opportunity to confront God about why God allowed this tragedy to happen to Missy and to their family. So, in this scene, Papa/God has begun to build relationship with Mack and has assured Mack that God didn’t bring about this tragedy, and that in fact, was with Missy the entire time. But now God needs to help Mack deal with one more thing… READ FROM "THE SHACK" - excerpts from pages 225-229 Love, faith, and forgiveness do not mean we forget either our pain or our grief. Rather, they mean that we choose to live free of hate, that we free ourselves from the prison of anger and bitterness that our inability or unwillingness to forgive builds around us. Forgiveness allows us to experience the passion of Christ, the passionate love of God, in ways that we simply cannot when we seek to keep that poison inside of us. Luke’s message for us today, and Christ’s example for us for all time, is simply this: choose love. Amen. Let us respond in song with the words of our focus song today:

"Roll Down Justice - I Dream of a Church: Christ’s Representatives" 3/19/17

3-19-17 Sermon                by Rev. Jay Anderson  
“I Dream of a Church: Christ’s Representatives”

   That scene is a classic one in the genre of horror films, to the point of being cliche. That which is haunting or threatening the protagonist is actually coming from within their own house.
Bishop Easterling pays homage to that scene when she uses that same line of warning in the poem we just read. “Before it is too late,” she warned, “may we understand that the call is coming from inside the house.” The Bishop’s warnings about the use of fear, division, hatred, harassment, neglect, hate, and oppression in the world does not exclude the church of which she, and we, are a part. It is a damning warning that will cost us our spiritual lives in horror-movie-slasher-style if we do not heed it -   
“the Stench, Rot, Brokenness, Emptiness, Insecurity,  Woundedness, and Disease, is from within and not without,” she declares. They are part and parcel of the spiritual forces of wickedness that I shared with you last week that we vowed to renounce and resist, but that we allow to incubate within us, as well as within the church.
   How do we as the church recover from Bishop Easterling’s diagnosis? What are we to do to stem the flow of blood, to stop the oozing of life that has led to decades of decline in the church? What will it take to make the church relevant again in the eyes of now two generations who find this whole endeavor a bit suspect?

   I don’t pretend to have all the answers - that’s beyond my pay grade, as they say. Hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on the subject. But I have a couple of ideas, and Jesus gives us some clues as well. Here’s something that many of us believe is a good place to begin: Let’s start by not preaching hate in all its subtle forms in the church anymore. That is, let’s allow the Good News given to all nations and all peoples to actually be good news, to all nations and all peoples. The theology of division, just like the politics of division, does nothing to help and everything to hurt. It’s not working - not in the world and not in the church. Dividing people into “us” and “them,” along political, theological, racial, ethnic, or sexual lines, is unChristian, it’s unbiblical, it’s sin. It just won’t work. 

   Threatening people, judging people, blaming people, placing ourselves above people, scaring people is not going to bring people into a relationship with God, with Jesus Christ, or with the church. In fact, it’s driving them away in droves. Understand, Christ is not going to let us grow his church using sin as a tool, so it just has to stop.
   I know, I know, some people think that this whole decline in the church, this decline in the world, would stop if preachers would just preach about Hell more! I know some of you think that about me. Well, do you ever watch the Rod Parsleys and John Hagees and the other hellfire and brimstone preachers on TV? They and others like them have been preaching messages of condemnation and damnation for an awful long time, and look where it’s gotten us. 
It’s gotten them big congregations, big houses, big fancy cars, but the larger church has been devastated by it, and many of the young people who are outside the church think that all churches are just like that - and they have flatly rejected it. Yet, something has to change. What the larger church has been doing for the past 50-60 years isn’t working, at least not in the U.S. It is said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well…

   It’s easy to preach a message that blames people. It’s easy to point fingers. It’s easy to play God and do our own separating of people into sheep and goats based on what WE think is the right way to think, to pray, to worship, to believe, to vote, to love. There’s a very important scene in the film, “The Shack,” that addresses our human desire to play God when it suits us. Many Christians, in other churches of course, not here I’m sure, like to think that because they’re members of the church that they’re somehow special snowflakes, or maybe Cinderella, and that the glass slipper of salvation fits only on their foot. And some preachers like to preach that because it gets them a captive audience, and big house, and big cars… 
But Jesus had something to say about that in our passage from Matthew 25 today.

   Matthew 25 gives Jesus’ summation, near the end of his ministry, of what it means to be a disciple, a true follower of Jesus Christ. He shows us, on three levels, what living a Christ-centered life looks like. At the first level, Jesus directs his followers to obey his commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself, what Jesus said summed up the heart of the law. Where Luke’s Jesus uses the unlikely Samaritan as an example of what this looks like in practice, Matthew’s Jesus lists the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned among the neighbors his followers are called to love. 
   On a second level, disciples are called to imitate the vision of Jesus, who dined with those labeled “sinners,” those on the outside. And it’s important that we understanding what is happening in that act. Jesus is offering forgiveness to them in his willingness to dine with them, EVEN BEFORE any repentance on their part takes place. There is no repent-first-forgive-later transaction going on here. The grace is on the table already. Seeing others as God sees them means embracing in grace those we would call sinners. It means not judging them, but inviting them into redemptive relationship and the fellowship of grace, and not excluding them simply because they sin differently than we do.

   On a third level, Jesus tells his followers to perceive “the other” as though he or she were Christ himself. Serving the needy should be approached as though one were serving Christ himself. More succinctly, they were to see in each person they encountered, Jesus himself. 
In some traditions this ideas is embraced in the term, Namaste, which says that the holy in me sees the holy in you. In our context it would mean “the Christ in me sees the Christ in you.” If Christ is present in us, if we are Christ-centered people, then we are to acknowledge Christ in the other. That, Jesus says, is what it means to be his follower.
   So, in this last of Matthew’s parables of Jesus, Jesus redefines righteousness for his followers in all ages. He doesn’t tell them that their salvation comes because of what they thought or believed about him, but by how what they thought or believed led them to act in his name. Righteousness doesn’t come by following rituals or obeying legalistic mandates; it comes in embracing the way of the kingdom, which is to share love and grace to all the nations and all the peoples. God always favors those who are most vulnerable and invites us to come alongside those most at risk, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. That is the grace of the kingdom of God. 

   But isn’t this just “works righteousness” you might ask? Isn’t this saying I can earn my salvation by the things I do? No, it’s not, and for a couple of reasons. First of all, Matthew had no concept of this idea of “works righteousness,” that was a Paul thing and nowhere does Matthew even suggest that that’s what’s happening here. Second, remember, in the parable neither the sheep nor the goats realized it was Christ they had encountered. Both of them asked Jesus “when was it that we did this, or didn’t do this?” The point is that the action was not done out of any expectation of reward or punishment. The righteous cared for those in need because they saw need, and the unrighteous saw need and failed to do the same. The righteous loved God by their love of neighbor, the unrighteous denied God by their lack of love for their neighbor. The righteous, in the spirit of namaste, saw Christ in the other and responded as they would to him. The others denied the Christ, the holy, in those labeled as other, and in turn, denied care.

   Jesus’ parable tells us that grace is given freely without regard to merit, but that obedience to the law of love is still demanded of the faithful. Our care for the least is our care for Christ himself. It is a natural outpouring or response to the love shown us. If we do not provide care for Christ in all his many disguises, then how can we expect him to judge in our favor?

   Let’s approach this idea from a different angle for a moment. I invite you to take a good long look at this image. This is an icon created by Robert Lentz titled “Christ In the Margins.” An icon is a picture or image used as a meditation tool to focus, in this case, on Jesus. We’ve shared before the practice of lectio divina, where we read a passage of scripture three times and listen for different things within the reading. Well this is similar to that, it’s called visio divina. And you’re invited to simply look closely at this icon, consider the details, and then think about these things as you take it in:
-What resonates with you most strongly about this picture?
-What word, phrase, image, or emotion does this image trigger in you?
-What surprises, excites, or disturbs you about this representation?
   One interesting thing to consider: the icon doesn’t make clear which side of the fence Christ is on does it? Is he imprisoned or are we? Through both our cultural institutions and our personal lives we all place barriers between ourselves and true happiness. We and our institutions, including the church, also try to imprison Christ in various ways, to tame him and the dangerous memories he would bring us of our goals and ideals, of what we aspire to, of who we say in our baptismal and membership vows that we want to be. So, consider how meditating on this icon might impact our understanding of this scripture before us today.

   Theologian Robert McClellan asks an intriguing question in considering this passage. “Why,” he asks, “are so many ‘recovering Christians’ walking the earth, carrying with them painful scars inflicted by the churches of their youth?” Recovering Christians…didn’t even know that was a thing did you?
   Our reading of the story today didn’t go to the end of the passage as it is written in Matthew, because that ending is the part of the story that is so often abused. “The story of the sheep and goats is a story about us,” McClellan says, “but it’s not faithfully told when it is told to incite fear. Fear, [as in “turn or burn theology,”] doesn’t move anyone into vibrant discipleship. To make that part of the passage, that image, the [focus] of the passage is a mistake and is to misrepresent what Jesus is calling us to do and to be.” 

   And he goes on, “Fear causes people to fixate on the many things they have not done or cannot do, obscuring their ability to see the innumerable essential things they can do. With discernment comes clarity about the simplicity of the tasks before us and our God-given ability faithfully to fulfill them. Food, water, clothing, hospitality, companionship: these are not only the most necessary elements for communal life; they are also the most readily available gifts to give. The lesson of the sheep and the goats is good news, because it asks each to share precisely what each has. That is the true center of this passage. Whether it is food or water, a compassionate ear or an open heart, everyone has something to share.” 
   And we know that, right? In our food pantry ministry we give food and drink and hospitality. Our free store ministry provides clothing, hospitality, and companionship. In our community meal, we supply all four of these - as we do in our Mustard Seed Street Outreach and perhaps in the others as well. In our tutoring ministry, we provide companionship and guidance. In our visitation ministries we bring caring hospitality, a listening ear, and companionship. And we could go on with each and every thing we do - this idea is not new to us as a church. This is what we do. And that, McClellan suggests, should make all of us - longtime members, casual attenders, and first-time visitors alike - feel enlivened, not threatened by this passage, because it calls us to serve in ways firmly within our grasp. These are things that each and every person in the life of a church, young or old, rich or poor, mobile or homebound, can do. This is a reassuring lesson from a story that is so commonly portrayed as frightening and threatening, and that is used to divide. 

   McClellan also suggests that that’s not the only good news in this parable. The most frequent question he receives from parishioners, he writes, is about belief. “What if I am not sure what I believe?” they ask. “Christians have long concentrated on right belief, good teaching, and proper theological understanding of how God works in the world. Councils have been formed, creeds written, and wars fought to determine how we are to believe in God,” he reminds us. And we know that is true when we consider that there are, I think I read, over 10,000 denominations within Christianity itself who can’t agree on what is right belief. 

   To be sure, what we believe is important, but probably not in the way you think. It’s important, not so that we can be right and someone else can be wrong; it’s important in that how we think about God is inextricably linked to how we live our lives and interact with the world around us. When we think of God as an angry, vengeful, judgmental God, then our faith and our living tend to become angry, vengeful, and judgmental at worst, or timid and fearful at best. When, on the other hand, our belief about God is that God is loving, inclusive, and grace-filled, then we too tend in our faith and our lives to be loving and inclusive and grace-filled as well. What we believe matters, not because there's some theology test upon which we have to have a certain score to get into to heaven, not because we will be judged on whether our answers are correct, but because what we believe shapes how we live, and how we live shapes how we represent Christ in the world.
   McClellan offers, “Doctrine can be helpful for guiding our lives, and shaping our beliefs. However, belief can…be a stumbling block as well. Often people feel somehow less Christian because they have trouble with one of our tradition’s positions or statements. They feel somehow left on the outside because they are not sure of their beliefs. As a result, they feel less suitable for the work of the church, less likely to engage in it, and thereby less likely to have the very experiences that will inspire the faith they feel they lack.”

   “What this passage provides is a relief from the pressure to have all of the answers before being able to act. Where people [might] hesitate at the sight of doctrine, they are quite willing to jump into action when they see someone in need. Think of those who might be on the margins of any worshiping community who spring to life when it is time for the [big yearly mission or outreach event]. Consider the longtime attendee who refuses to join on the grounds of theology, but who leaps into action to organize meals for someone in need. 
This too, is faith, and according to this passage, is perhaps more blessed than someone who believes all the right things, but then fails to put that faith into actual practice. Moreover, in the same way right belief can lead to faithful action, right action can also nurture and provide context for our belief. [We all have] plenty of unsettled theological questions - I do, you do, and we always will -  but it’s in the moments of the kind of service Jesus describes that I know that I feel God closest and my faith most unwavering.

   If you look at the full context of this passage, Jesus seems to be saying that if there is any sort of “Final Judgment,” then the criteria on which we will be judged will not be what we know (or think we know) or what we say we believe, but rather what we have actually done (or neglected to do) for the less fortunate — specifically, whether we’ve helped feed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. To adapt Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, however you treat the least of my sisters or brothers is how you have treated me.”
   Jesus seems to be promising — to those of us born centuries too late to meet the historical Jesus in person — that the closest we can come to a transformative face-to-face encounter with Jesus is to aid and be fully present to the poor and the marginalized. What we do or don’t do for them, is what we do or don’t do for him. 
The scornful glance at the panhandler on the corner becomes a scornful glance to Jesus. The taking away of assistance to hunger programs for the poor is literally taking food out of Jesus’ mouth.
   Our action and our belief become so intertwined that the faithful move through life, not as those afraid of a vengeful king doling out eternal punishment, not as those riddled with guilt about what they can or cannot profess about God, but simply and wonderfully as those changed by the transformative Spirit and Word into Christ-centered followers who feed, share drink, welcome in, and clothe the naked, and care for the stranger, the sick, the hungry, the immigrant, the refugee, the other. That’s the church that Christ dreams of - those are the people who truly represent Christ in the world. 

   So how do we recover from that diagnosis found in Bishop Easterling’s poem? One disciple at a time, one ministry at a time, and one church at a time. Christ defines living faith as faithful living, and invites believers to put into action the Prayer he gave us: that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is those who respond in that way, he says, who are truly ready to inherit the kingdom of God. 
   So, with all of that said, and with some of your minds blown, I want to conclude with this blessing:
   May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
   May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
   May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
   May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
   And will you now turn to the neighbor on either side of you, and bless them, saying to them, “The Christ in me sees the Christ in you.”
(wait while this happens)
Reprise of Song
Make it so, make it so!
We pray for that day, make it so.
We dream of a world where Love reigns among us
and your will is done, O God make it so!

"Roll Down Justice - How Long: Renouncing Evil" 3/12/17

Sermon 3-12-17  “How Long: Renouncing Evil” by Rev. Jay Anderson
(The third in our series "Roll Down Justice!")

    “Are we there yet?” we asked as children, usually barely into a journey. As a child, time seems to be interminable. The time to reach a destination, regardless of the distance, is unfathomable. The school day will NEVER end. The school year goes on FOREVER! 
Next Christmas, the next birthday, might as well be in the next century, it’s so far away. “How much longer?” children lament about, well, just about everything. 

   As an adult, on the other hand, it becomes more and more clear that, from our perspective, time is fleeting. Each year, each birthday, each Christmas, comes at us at breakneck speed. And as we get older the idea that “time flies” is proven out every day of our lives as the measure of our time lived greatly outpaces our time left. 
The question, “how long,” takes on a completely different meaning.

   A large number of the songs and poems that make up the Book of Psalms are writings of lament or complaint. The writers lay out their complaints to and against God in the form of song and verse. Our scripture today, Psalm 13, is a short and simple prayer for help and presents a textbook example of an individual lament. The complaint appears in vs 1-2, the petition in vs 3-4, and the expression of trust and praise in vs 5-6. Simple as that.

The complaint: 
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
    agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

The petition:
Look at me!
    Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
    Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
        and my enemy will say, “I won!”
        My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

And the expression of trust or faith:
But I have trusted in your faithful love.
    My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
    because the Lord has been good to me.

   As people of faith, we will always find it necessary to pray, “how long, O Lord?” even as we simultaneously profess our praise mantra - God is good…All the time…All the time…God is good!
   All the time, God is good! Even when we don’t get our way. Even when our prayers aren’t answered as we want them to be. God is good, even when we aren’t. Even in those times when, if being a Christian was a crime there wouldn’t be enough evidence to convict us…even then, God is still good.

   But if God is good, we ask, why is there so much bad in the world, why is there so much evil in the world today? Why doesn’t God do something about all of the sin and evil that seems to be everywhere? How long, O Lord, must we put up with this? That’s our modern day lament.

   And that lament is heard from all corners of the globe: 
   How long, O Lord, will people die of starvation when there’s more than enough food to feed everyone many times over? How long?
   How long, O Lord, will children in poorer countries die of preventable diseases like malaria, HIV/Aids and others, when the medicines are plentiful in first world countries?
   How long, O Lord, will people be killed over natural resources so that a few profit from the lives of the many?
   How long, O Lord, will African American citizens have to keep fighting for equal rights legislated decades ago?
   How long, O Lord, in this week in which we celebrated the International Day of the Woman, will women continue to do equal work for lower pay than their male counterparts?
   How long, O Lord, will access to affordable healthcare be a benefit given only to those people who, by worldly standards, are among the wealthiest?

   And our laments could go on and on. These are the same kinds of lament raised from biblical times, throughout the psalms, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There’s a story in the Book of Numbers where Moses takes his complaint directly to God. Moses and the people of God were on a journey, both physically and spiritually, just like we are today. They were challenged with crisis. They struggled with transition and change. We know what that’s like; we're right there with Moses and the people. And the passage reads:

Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you would say to me, ‘Carry them at the breast, as a nurse carries an unweaned child,’ to the fertile land that you promised their ancestors? Where am I to get meat for all these people? They are crying before me and saying, ‘Give us meat, so we can eat.’ I can’t bear this people on my own. They’re too heavy for me. 
If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then don’t let me endure this wretched situation.” (Num 11:11-15, CEB)

   “How long,” Moses asks God, “How long must I endure these people, this situation?” If that sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus asked the same question in Luke 9. 
It was the day after his Transfiguration on the mountain, when the passage says, 
A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child. Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”  Jesus answered, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? (Lk 9:38-41a, CEB)

   Maybe you’ve had a conversation with God, like Moses had; “Just kill me now, Lord! This is too much!” Or like Jesus, born out of frustration with both this people and with his disciples. Maybe you’ve found yourself lamenting a life circumstance. You’re on the edge. From your perspective, God is not solving the problem. You feel like you’re on the verge of a meltdown, or that the world is on the verge of breakdown.
   Whatever the source of your distress, whether it be fear or frustration, sadness and sorrow, or complete life exhaustion, it’s important to identify it. Often, our frustration mounts when we focus too much on our, or worse, what we perceive as the sins (plural) of others, and don’t pay enough attention to the presence of sin (singular) in the world. What’s the difference? It’s huge.

   Our sins are those things that we do - and we all do them - that go against the will of God. The acts for which we bear total responsibility and for which we’re personally called to repent. Our sins are our own, and it’s not our place to judge others’ sins because, as Jesus said, don’t try to remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you have a plank in your own. Amen?
   Sin, on the other hand, is different. Sin, in the singular, is that in the world which brings harm. 
It includes what you’ve heard me refer to in many instances as the “isms:” racism, sexism, consumerism, militarism, as well as greed, exploitation of people and resources. All of these are sin. These are things present in our society that have even become systemic or institutionalized. For example, Jim Wallis, evangelical pastor and writer calls racism America’s original sin. Racism is the great sin, he suggests, that has tainted so much of American culture for its entire history. I shared last week the study that was done on racism in rental housing through Airbnb. That we, as a society, discriminate in that way is systemic or institutional sin. That people of color are imprisoned at a higher rate for the same crimes committed by white people, is an example of systemic, institutionalized sin. 
And while racism is institutionalized sin, our individual racist acts or thoughts, are our personal sins. 
   The fact that people in other countries die of starvation while people in developed countries waste over 40% of our food, is sin. The fact that first world nations would rather export weapons and ammunition to third world countries than food and medicine, is sin. Do you see the difference here? Yes, it’s important that we honor our mother and father and don’t take the Lord’s name in vein, but the spiritual forces of sin and evil are much bigger, more insidious issues in the world than how we often think of or portray them. 

   So, our lament might be rooted in something personal, or maybe it’s source is something larger, like the recognition of institutional sin in the world that up until now we’ve been blind to. Whatever the source of the pain that brings our lament, it’s important that we take that lament to God. Only after we’re honest with ourselves about our own complicity can we begin to have the honest conversation with God that leads to conversion in our souls. 
   We see how Moses did that and we can learn from him. Moses expressed his emotions unhindered. He told God what was going on, exactly how he felt about that, and he did what for many would be unthinkable: He questioned God’s motivation and power.
  And you know what? God can “take it.” 
God’s Spirit can shoulder our burdens and our questions. God’s feelings won’t be hurt by our anger. But, we have to name them. Bottling up our doubts and hurts accomplishes nothing. God wants to hear our hearts and to heal our hearts and our world. God may not “fix things” the way we think they should be fixed (as the story of Moses shows), but God will act out of God’s infinite wisdom, love and power. We can trust God, because God is good…all the time…all the time…God is good.
   So to return to the question I asked earlier, why doesn’t God do something about all of the sin and evil that seems to be everywhere? I would suggest to you that God did do something? God named you! And all the saints before you. And here’s what I mean. 

   When you were baptized, or when you witnessed a baptism, or when you professed your faith, you were asked three simple questions - each and every time - and I would bet that you answered them in the affirmative, each and every time. What were those questions?

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
 Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? To which you answered, I do.
 Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? To which you said, I do.
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
 To which you responded, yet a third time, I do.
   And later in the liturgy, the pastor asks:
Do you, as Christ's body, the Church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ?
To which we all answered, We do.
And then you were asked:
   Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?
And you replied, and you can read it along with me:

With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
 We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

   I hope we take these questions, these vows, very seriously. Some though, take them for granted, treating them like those User Agreements or Terms and Conditions pages we encounter when we go to a new website or download a new app on our phone - we just click “I Agree” without reading them. In this case, do we just say “I do,” without really thinking about it? Because these questions are hard. What they ask of us is hard stuff. We’re confronted with this stuff every day, and most of us, maybe even all of us, fail miserably at it - every day!

   And we fail by accepting the presence of this institutional sin in our society when we vowed to renounce it. We fail when we look the other way, or say nothing when we witness sin in action in business, in government, in education, in healthcare, anywhere. 
That’s how we fail, or refuse, to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, or reject the evil powers of this world. We’re all too busy trying to place the blame for the evil in the word on some scapegoat caricature we call “the devil,” -
when in fact the evil in the world resides within us and our institutions and it thrives and flourishes only because we allow it to.
   For over a hundred generations, Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, have said these words, have claimed this responsibility, have taken these vows before God, in front of each other, and in the name of Jesus Christ. 
Did we do that with a wink, wink, nod, nod?

   By the 4th century, some three hundred years after Christ’s baptism, the church had instituted a powerful symbolic act of the transformation of candidates for baptism, away from evil and toward good. I invite you to stand as you’re able, and join in this symbolic action. 

   Before going into the water, the candidates for baptism would face the direction of the West (the direction of the setting sun) and renounce evil. So turn to the west, and hear and respond to these words:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
 Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? If so, answer I do.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? If so, answer I do.
   Then they would turn away from that direction to face the East (the direction of the rising sun) as a sign that they were leaving behind or turning their backs on the forces of evil and facing the rising Light of God in their lives. 

   So I invite you to turn and face the East, and hear these words:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
 If so, answer I do.
I pray that you were sincere. You may be seated.
   The language of the renunciation of evil has come to us through the ages as our rites of baptism invite us to renounce evil in all its forms - the ones that rise up within us and the systemic oppression inherent in our societies. We affirm that we have both the freedom and the power to do so and that it is God in whom we put our trust.

   The Rev. Dr. Carol Miller, a retired clergy and writer, suggests that this renunciation of sin and profession of faith found in our baptismal liturgy is “rich in meaning and calls [all of us..] to a new way of living.”
   And she goes on, “The first question strips [us] of power; the second replaces that power with new power, and the third throws [us] totally on the power of Christ and makes [us] members of the power-filled community.
   “Every six year old,” she writes, “knows how to wield ‘the evil powers of this world.’ What are they? They’re the things that made us tell our mothers when we were six that we never wanted to go to school again. The evil powers of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness are the powers of prejudice, exclusion, gossip, mockery, hate, violence, extortion, [self-centeredness,] and the like. Even though children may not know these words, they know the power of these things and how to use them. They’re the powers we use to tear down others.
   As adults, we become more subtle, but no less dependent on these powers. They give us a leg up in competition with others. We feel the power of gossip, the satisfaction of being able to exclude someone, the usefulness of “me first.” But when we get to the church, ready to be included by way of baptism, we’re told that we can’t come in until we “renounce” those ugly and evil powers that had served us, we thought, so well. The liturgy demands that we renounce those powers, drop them, refuse to use them. A-N-D, we must repent of all the times in the past when we did use them.

   So, the first thing the Church does when we come for baptism is strip us of our power. The world may continue to hate and reject, and pre-judge others; but we cannot.”
   “By the second question, Miller says, “things are looking up. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you…” Having been stripped of the “evil powers of this world” we’re invited to accept a new kind of power, given to us by God. This, in fact, is the only kind of true power, power that lasts. All power belongs to God. 
If it’s in our hands,” she offers, “we’re to give it to God. At the same time, in baptism we not only agree, we commit to accept the power God gives. 
Never again can we as individuals, or as Christ’s Church say, “I can’t do it. I don’t have time; I don’t have enough money; I don’t have the abilities.” 
Those kinds of answers didn’t work for Moses and they don’t work for us either. To suggest that we or the church don’t have the power to do what God calls us to do denies the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our answer to the second question in our liturgy is our admission that we do have the power from God. The Church is specific about how we’re to use that power: “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” That is, we promise to work against, to resist, those people-crushing things we first fell in love with on the playground as children. 
“Resist” doesn’t mean simply “dislike;” it means to “push back.” It’s not passive, it’s active.”
   “And finally,” she concludes, “if we’re still standing [after all this,] there’s question 3. “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…” 
It’s Christ who saves us from idolizing the evil powers—bowing down to them, using them to make us powerful and important. We can’t save ourselves by a powerful personality, good looks, money, or racial or gender superiority or anything else we think gives us power.” We’re saved by God’s grace. Period.”

   So, to answer the psalmist’s lament, how long, O Lord, must we endure the evil in the world? 
Only as long as we accept it. 
Only as long as we embrace it rather than reject it. Only as long as it takes for us to live into the vow that we’ve made over and over again, to renounce and reject evil and wickedness in all of its forms - even when we see it in the mirror. Because you see, in these vows, God completes a bold and powerful transfer of power, from God’s hands into ours. 
God gave us dominion over this world, God gave us free will, to make choices, to live our lives, either by embracing God’s desire for us or by rejecting it - either by embracing evil and injustice, or by renouncing it. Evil exists in the world, not because God allows it but because we do. The choice is ours, and ours alone. So our complaint to God must be turned back on us: How long? Because in the end we know that despite all other things we may find in the world, all the sin and evil and injustice we allow to persist in this world, that God is good…all the time…all the time…God is good. Amen.