Finding Rest Today

Thanks to Richard Rohr who wrote this on September 19, 2020:

I awoke on Saturday, September 19, with three sources in my mind for guidance: Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), the young Jewish woman who suffered much more injustice in the concentration camp than we are suffering now; Psalm 62, which must have been written in a time of a major oppression of the Jewish people; and the Irish Poet, W.B.Yeats (1965 – 1939), who wrote his “Second Coming” during the horrors of the World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

These three sources form the core of my invitation. Read each one slowly as your first practice. Let us begin with Etty:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.

—Etty Hillesum, Westerbork transit camp

Note her second-person usage, talking to “You, God” quite directly and personally. There is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.

Then, the perennial classic wisdom of the Psalms:

In God alone is my soul at rest.
God is the source of my hope.
In God I find shelter, my rock, and my safety.
Men are but a puff of wind,
Men who think themselves important are a delusion.
Put them on a scale,
They are gone in a puff of wind.

—Psalm 62:5–9

What could it mean to find rest like this in a world such as ours? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. 

It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline! We have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize we are living with the catastrophic results of several centuries of what philosophers call nihilism or post-modernism (nothing means anything, there are no universal patterns).

We are without doubt in an apocalyptic time (the Latin word apocalypsis refers to an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs). Yeats’ oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” then feels like a direct prophecy. See if you do not agree:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out, no matter who wins the election or who is on the Supreme Court. We cannot abide in such a place for any length of time or it will become our prison.

God cannot abide with us in a place of fear.
God cannot abide with us in a place of ill will or hatred.
God cannot abide with us inside a nonstop volley of claim and counterclaim.
God cannot abide with us in an endless flow of online punditry and analysis.
God cannot speak inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit.
God cannot be found when all sides are so far from “the Falconer.”
God cannot be born except in a womb of Love.
So offer God that womb.

Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses for these coming months, so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul.

If you allow it for too long, it will become who you are, and you will no longer have natural access to the “really deep well” that Etty Hillesum returned to so often and that held so much vitality and freedom for her.

If you will allow, I recommend for your spiritual practice for the next four months that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to—hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.

Instead, I suggest that you use this time for some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading from the masters, prayer—or, preferably, all of the above.

 You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all. 
 And the world—with you as a stable center—has nothing to lose.
 And everything to gain. 

Living God’s Will

View the sermon here.

TEXT: Romans 12:9-21
TITLE:  Living God’s Will
THESIS:  God’s will is about how we treat people.

Introduction

  • This may have been the first scripture I read at UCP – the night I interviewed with the Church Council. They invited me to help with the conflict going on at the time – and this is one scripture I often read in that context. Conflict is always about relationships between people, and that’s what this is about.
  • This chapter begins with a call to Jesus’ followers. … Refuse to conform to the patterns of the world around us, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And when we do that, our lives will show to other people what God’s will is. Our lives will now conform to what God wants.

Scripture

  • LoveLove must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 
  • Passion11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
  • Generosity13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.
  • Nonviolence17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[b] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[
c]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Conclusion

  • The way I described this life in the children’s time was this:
    • Care about people.
    • Be excited about God.
    • Share everything with others.
    • Do good to others. (“Do no harm.”)
  • Whatever words or phrases we use to summarize this way of life, it is about how we treat people. It is about relationships, whether with people we’ve just met or people we’ve known all our lives.
  • God is love. What God’s life – and God’s will – is for all of us can be captured in that one word … if we understand it. We don’t fully understand, but we can live into it as a mystery and come to understand it more and more.
  • Some people say this scripture is addressed only to the Church – to Christians – and that it doesn’t apply to all our relationships in the world. They say that it is only about personal relationships and not about culture or society or a nation. That it has nothing to do with how we as a people, as a nation, live.
  • But I remind you of John 3:16 … God loved the world. – Or 2 Cor 5:19 (God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself) – Or 1 Tim. 2:2 – that God wants everyone to be saved. — Everyone is included in God’s love; none are excluded. If we are going to pass God’s love to everyone, it means choosing to live in that love – with passion and generosity and nonviolence toward everyone.
  • The patterns of the world too often are the ways of fear, anger, hatred, racism, violence, and exclusion – dividing up into groups who see each other as ‘the enemy’ to be destroyed. – Do not conform. Reject it all! – And be transformed in your whole being to live in the ways of love, passion, generosity, and nonviolence. And in this way, you will show what God’s will to the world.

Change the World!

Watch the sermon.

TEXT: Romans 12:1-8
TITLE: “Changing Our World”
THESIS: Live a transformed life and change the world.

Introduction

  • All I want to do is change the world before I die. – That’s been my desire for 50 years, and the time is getting shorter for me. … Not everyone wants to do that. Some never did. Many people have given up. I understand that feeling as I read the news – the tragedy and desperation and grief – the poverty, violence, abuse, death.
  • We can never give up the desire! God’s desire – and God’s continuing work in this world – is a new creation, with the old gone and everything made new. … That’s what the kingdom of God is all about – and that’s what we are called to do as followers of Jesus – to make the kingdom of God a reality here and now by the way we live and the work we do.

Scripture

  • V.2 of our text says: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. – That’s the kingdom of God. That is to be the life of those who follow Jesus. … And it leads to change in the world around us.
  • An older translation by JB Phillips says:  Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold… and Eugene Peterson, in The Message says it this way: Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out… And unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you.
  • This is a continuing work of change within us. And as we live this way, year after year, we give ourselves to a life of serving God with all the gifts God gives us. That’s the rest of the text. … Begin with internal transformation and serve God in external mission – beyond ourselves – to change the world.
  • We have different gifts, he says – faith, speaking for God, serving others, teaching, encouraging, leading, generous giving, and showing kindness. God’s gifts are far more numerous than that, but we get the point. Whatever gifts – or resources – we receive from God, use all of that to live this transformed life so it changes the world – so we make a difference in our world every day.

Conclusion

  • In 2020 our nation faces four major crises at once: (1) a pandemic worse than anything we’ve experienced in 100 years – (2) an economy worse for most people than anything since the Depression – (3) deep divisions, with heightened anger and fear, caused by the deep-seated racism in our country – and (4) raging fires, destructive hurricanes, and rising sea levels and flooding all caused by rapidly-escalating climate change which we refuse to stop by changing the way we live.
  • It’s almost too much for any of us. Most of us want to shut it all out and enjoy what we can of life. – And many people do. – Yet as Christians, as those who follow Jesus, we cannot. We are called to change the world by the way that we live.
  • This is our calling – refuse to be conformed to the world around us, and be transformed within ourselves. The prophet Ezekiel spoke for God: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you.
  • God does not give us a new heart – a new life – new wisdom, strength, and power – for ourselves alone. God gives it to us so we can make a difference, so we can change the word, so we can help bring about a new creation.
  • Our mission statement says that in all we do, we seek transformation in our world. – An inclusive community of hope and love – serving, caring, and learning together – bringing transformation. … May we live into our mission every day. – Refuse to be conformed to the patterns of this world, the culture around us – Be transformed in our mind and heart so that God can bring the best out of us. And use every gift and resource from God to make a difference and change the world!

Looking Back

View the sermon here.

TEXT:  Genesis 45:1-15
TITLE:  “Looking Back”
THESIS:   … can we choose forgiveness, love, and a generous spirit?

Introduction

  • I will be 72 in a couple weeks, coming into that time of life where we spend more time “looking back” – reviewing our accomplishments, relishing some memories and trying to forget others, wondering “what if” as we remember so many life decisions we’ve made.
  • In today’s story, Joseph “looked back” at a specific time in life – a seemingly tragic, certainly abusive time, in his life – and saw something different than his brothers did. – What he saw was not their complicity but God at work to bring something good out of something so wrong.

Scripture

  • Joseph’s basic story (from Genesis) is familiar to most people – one of 12 sons, most-favored by his father – jealous brothers who wanted to kill him, but who chose instead to sell him into slavery. They thought they would never see him again.
  • Long story – God gave Joseph a gift to interpret dreams, and he moved from being a slave to being a prisoner to becoming Pharoah’s second-in-command. His job? To prepare for and supervise everything during a 7-year famine. The second year into the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to buy grain (all except the youngest, Benjamin – Joseph’s only full brother). They don’t recognize him, of course, and he doesn’t reveal himself on the first visit.
  • When they returned the following year – so much more in the story – they bring Benjamin as requested. When Joseph then tries to keep Benjamin with him, he finally reveals himself to his brothers. (That’s what we read.) … The brothers who had wanted to kill him and all who sold him into slavery are now afraid he will take vengeance on them.
  • Joseph has already looked back on his life and realizes that God had been at work in the midst of all the suffering and sadness everyone had endured. And he says these 3 things to his brother:
    • Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
    • God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives.
    • It was not you who sent me here, but God. 

Conclusion

  • The invitation and challenge of this story for us is to look back on our own lives. – Who did what to whom? What decisions or actions or other people made life more difficult for us? What decisions of our own led to difficult situations?
  • It was not you, but God – do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves or others. …. Looking back, Joseph could see how God had been at work in his life and theirs and in their world, to prepare for a hard time of famine. [Rom. 8:28 – not that God caused it to happen, but that God works in all things for our good.]
  • If God had done this – or brought good things out of bad – how could Joseph hold anger in his heart toward his brothers, regardless of their intention?
  • A phrase I’ve come across recently is “not intention, but impact.” When someone says or does something that has a negative impact on someone else, it is not that person’s intention that matters, but the impact it had on the other person. It doesn’t really matter what the intention was; it matters the impact – the result – of the words or the action.
  • That’s a good model to learn and follow in our relationships. – Except, sometimes we need to look past both the intention and the impact to see what else was or is happening as a result. … The brothers’ intention and the impact for years was terribly wrong. Yet looking back years later, Joseph could see that in the midst of it all, God had been at work and brought something good out of it. So Joseph chose forgiveness and love and a generous spirit.
  • That’s the invitation of this story – and the challenge. … Looking back on bad times, troubled and difficult situations, can we see how God was and is working to bring something good out of it? And can we now choose forgiveness, love, and a generous spirit?

The Antiracist Jesus #2

[This is one in a continuing series of posts on Jesus being antiracist.]

The concept of race (people being “white” or “black” as a critical part of their identity) was unknown in Jesus’ day, but what he taught and how he lived supports this statement: Jesus was antiracist. Anyone who actively works to create a culture of equality and justice for all people is antiracist, and Jesus came to do exactly that. He called it the kingdom of God – where what God desires governs the way we live together.

Every religion includes a similar statement to Jesus’ words: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” [See Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12.]  These deceptively simple words destroy the foundation of racism. No one wants to be treated badly for no reason other than skin color, or because of our physical appearance to…

  • Be someone’s property, to be owned by someone else
  • Be considered lazy, worthless, evil
  • Be thought of as “less than” other people
  • Be denied the right to own property or get a job or go to school
  • Be assaulted, brutalized, murdered by a mob or a police officer

No one can consciously choose to be racist who has decided to live as Jesus taught. We can do none of the above to any other person and think we are doing God’s will. Would we want anyone else to treat us this way? Of course not. Then we must choose to treat all people, whatever the color of their skin – whatever their “race” – in the way we would want them to treat us. It really is that simple.

Being antiracist includes challenging the structures and systems of our culture. That’s what Jesus’ words – “the golden rule” – do. Americans, especially, think individually. Freedom and responsibility have become an individual reality – what I do or you do – and not a communal reality – what we do together. Jesus was always communal. What we call The Lord’s Prayer is about what we do together. And this “golden rule” must be lived out in community. Jesus was not talking to individuals, but to his disciples, perhaps to the crowds of people who were there that day. He talked to them about how to live together, how to be a community. Perhaps the kingdom of God is best thought of as a community of love – where we all treat each other the way we want to be treated. Racism can never – ever – be part of that community.

The Antiracist Jesus #1

[Today I begin a series of posts on Jesus being antiracist.]

The idea of race is only 500 years old, created by white people to keep people of color under control in a white society. Yet Jesus encountered similar structures and irrational bias toward people who were considered not only “different” but “untouchable.” He told a story (see Luke 10:25-37) which we know as “The Good Samaritan.” If the story was told 100 years ago in a white church in a Southern state, with the Samaritan being a Black man and the man attacked by robbers and in need of help being a White man, perhaps a wealthy white man, the congregation would have been offended and angry. The same was surely true when Jesus told the story.

Jewish people in Jesus’ day had nothing to do with people from Samaria. The region of Samaria lay between Judea in the South and Galilee in the North, and Jews would go across the river and travel to the East to avoid it. If they thought about the at all, they despised them, perhaps hated them. For Jesus to tell a story making a Samaritan man “the hero” of the story must have offended and angered many of the people listening that day.

Jesus told the story in response to a conversation about the Law which governed their whole life and which they believed came from God. An “expert in the Law” agreed with Jesus that to have eternal life, what God wanted most was for people to love God and to love their neighbor. So the man asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” … Who am I supposed to love? To love as I love myself?

Jesus answered with this story making a hated Samaritan their example to follow. Be like this Samaritan, Jesus is saying, and you will live. Among White people who despised and hated Black people, the story rightly understood says to be like the Black man who helped someone like you when he was in need. In another place, Jesus said to love those who despise you, those whom you consider to be your enemy.

Jesus was antiracist. He challenged the biased structures and society of his day. He turned everything upside down – “the first will be last and the last first” – love your enemies and do good to those who hate you – be like this “Black man” (he said to the “White” people of his day).

Get out of the Boat!

View the sermon here.

TEXT: Matthew 14:22-33
TITLE:  “Get Out of the Boat”
THESIS: We have to take the first step. 

Introduction

  • We’ve all seen young children dare to take that first step. Then another, and then another – then they run – and climb – and watch out! They’ll try almost anything. … But the children have to take the first step.
  • As a parent, it was always hard to let go and let my children do that first thing – let go of the bike they’re learning to ride – let them leave the house with friends (and no adult) the first time – go on the first date – get behind the wheel of the car the first time – go off to college – get married – have children ….
  • Taking the first step is hard – whether it’s my step or someone I care about – but we never grow and learn and change in life without it.

Scripture

  • In our story today, that “first step” for Peter was “a doozy.” 😊 A strong wind created high waves on the lake at night. The disciples struggled to row against the wind. It had been a long day – an exciting day of challenge and mystery as thousands of people were fed with only a little food. Jesus had sent them in the boat while he had gone off to pray by himself.
  • In the darkness, and the waves and wind – they saw Jesus walking on the water. A ghost? What? They were afraid until they heard Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” …. And Peter blurted out, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” – “Come,” Jesus said.
  • “Now what? What was I thinking? That was dumb!” … What will the others think of me if I don’t go out there? But how in the world can I do that? Walk on the water in the wind and the waves?
  • Then he got out of the boat! And walked on the water. – When he took his eyes off Jesus and looked around at the danger of his situation, he grew afraid again and began to sink, and Jesus had to rescue him. – But he DID walk on the water!

Conclusion

  • Peter took that first step. He didn’t lose his fear. His faith overcame his fear that held him back, and he got out of the boat and walked on the water.
  • I doubt any of us will literally walk on water, but we all face situations that feel almost as if that’s what we have to do. – We are afraid, anxious, paralyzed. We don’t know what to do, but “know” that we cannot stay where we are.
  • Peter’s situation wasn’t even a storm. Just wind and high waves. It may even have been a clear night and warm. But the danger of getting out of the boat kept everyone in it. … Peter was impulsive in his words, and probably regretted immediately that he had said, “Tell me to come to you.”
  • But he got out of the boat. He took the first step. He did what no one else did, except Jesus. He did the “impossible.”
  • It’s not “impossible” for children to take their first step, ride the bike on their own, go out safely on a first date, get married, and so on. … And whatever your situation may be today is not “impossible.” [With God, all things are possible.]
  • Jesus could not get out of the boat and take the first step for Peter. Peter had to do that himself. – When Peter got in trouble, Jesus was right there and helped him. – Will this be our story?
  • What is daunting in your life today? What creates anxiety and fear about what will happen? What do you have a sense that God is calling you to do – telling you to “come”?
  • Get out of the boat. Take the first step. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and do the “impossible.” You can do it.

“Rugged Individualism” is not the Gospel

View the sermon here.

TEXT: Matthew 14:13-21
TITLE: “More Than Enough”
THESIS:
Be a gracious and generous people as we follow Jesus. 

Introduction

  • I’ve often heard people say – “Nothing in this life is free!” They mean well by encouraging personal responsibility and hard work. Those things are good – but this idea of “rugged individualism” goes against the gospel of grace.
  • Grace is found in our story today. Grace – and generosity – God’s gift of abundance beyond anything we do.

Scripture

  • According to the story, Jesus took 5 loaves and 2 fish … and they all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
  • There was more than enough for the people. Not “just enough to go around.” No one had to fight at the table to get enough. I can imagine the joy and laughter and grateful surprise of the people as they kept passing around the food and finding there was always more – more than enough – with leftovers to spare.
  • We call this a miracle story – usually because it is “impossible”… beyond human possibility – to do such a thing. But “miracles” are more than “impossible” events. They are mysterious events, beyond our understanding. They are mystery itself – not a puzzle to figure out like a mystery novel, but something we cannot understand. …. Yet we can believe it and experience it.

Conclusion

  • That’s what grace is. True grace is a mystery, beyond our understanding, yet to be experienced and believed. Something to be received with deep gratitude.
  • I invite you to consider this story as an example to us – a calling for our own lives. We are called to grace, not just to receive it, but to give it. We are called to live in the mystery of believing there is always more than enough for everyone in this world – and to stop clinging to what we have, afraid it will be taken away – proud in what we have done to have so much, but protective of what we have so we don’t lose it to someone else. That’s “rugged individualism” – a major cultural characteristic of America – but it is not the gospel. It is not grace. It is not generosity.
  • Jesus said to his disciples: You give them something to eat. And they said, “But there’s not enough to even start feeding so many.” And Jesus took what they had and began to feed them – and gave away what was there so that there was more than enough.
  • Many problems in our world could be solved if we lived with grace and a generous spirit. People of wealth are afraid the poor will rob them of what they have. People with power fear the powerless and losing what they have. People who are white – and Christian – are increasingly afraid of losing what they thought made America great. Our nation is afraid of other nations challenging our power, and so we keep spending too much on wars and fighting too many of them.
  • We are called to follow Jesus, and Jesus was a man of grace. A man who knew there was more than enough for everyone. A man unafraid to live simply and give away even the little he had. A man who taught us to live in the mystery of grace – holding nothing back, sharing what we have (even giving it away).
  • American Christians have far more than “5 loaves and 2 fishes.” How much could we do with what we have if we were not afraid to share it – even give it away – so that people with less could have more? And so that we could all have “more than enough”?
  • Could we not do “miracles” if we move beyond what we believe is possible into the mystery of grace? If we stop protecting what we have and being generous with others out of pure grace and not because they “deserve” it or have “earned” it? If we give up our “privilege” of color or wealth or education or zip code and be truly gracious, generous people with everyone?
  • I dream of such a world. I am committed to being part of that world. Will you dream with me? And be part of it with me? Come, let us follow Jesus.

What can I do about racism?

“We can challenge our own racial reality by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can take action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions. All these efforts will require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and the misinformation we have learned about people of color. We can educate ourselves about the history of race relations in our country. We can follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color and work to build authentic cross-racial relationships. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. And most important, we must break the silence about race and racism with other white people.”

DiAngelo, Robin J.. White Fragility (p. 148). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

NOTE: Please read this excellent book, especially if you are a white person like me.