Love is our resistance.
They’ll keep us apart
and they won’t stop breaking us down.
Hold me.
Our lips must always be sealed.
The night has reached its end,
we can’t pretend,
we must run…

“People who say they follow a poor, itinerant savior who came to bring good news to the poor and freedom to captives have elected a president who speaks contemptuously of women and people of color, and whose election has sparked celebration by the Ku Klux Klan and outbreaks of violence and harassment against Muslims, Jews, Latinos, women, immigrants and LGBT people.

Christians who voted for Trump may claim policy or economic reasons for having done so. But by electing a man whose words and actions support and incite hatred and violence, the church has failed the country, and we have a lot of soul searching to do.” -the Rev. Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, the Episcopal Church

Click here for more details on how this resistance will look for the next 4 to 8 years, from Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church.

The Face of Humanity in Libya

Many of us are horrified by the awful news and images of Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, being assassinated and dragged through the streets.  As happens so often in this world, rage begets rage begets rage…

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said: “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.”

However, there is always more to the human story.  I know that the Sacred Spirit still lives in our hearts, working miracles of reconciliation.  I can hear the joyful laughter through Her tears when I see pictures like the ones I found on Facebook.  If you are angry about what has happened, meditate on these images and let the peace of God reign in your heart:

Elements of Worship: Relationship

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  Part 5 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 5:23-26.

I saw a thing online this week that was kind of funny and cynical all at the same time:

“Marriage: Betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever.”

Kind of harsh isn’t it?  It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  That hasn’t been my experience of marriage (for the most part).  Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.  I think most of us would probably agree that any person who takes that sentence as his or her main idea about marriage is probably pretty confused about what love really is.

Then again, I think it’s more than fair to say that you and I live in a society that, as a whole, is also pretty confused about what love really is.  The evidence you can gather in a single hour of primetime television or pop radio would be more than sufficient to demonstrate what I’m talking about.  We might all laugh at the idea that marriage is “betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever” but there are some other fairy tale proverbs out there that people in our society buy into hook, line, and sinker without even thinking.  At no time of year is this insanity more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

For example, when two people are in a relationship (let’s just assume they’re young) and one of them says to a parent, “Mom/Dad: how will I know when I’m really in love?  How will I know when I’ve found the one?”  What do people usually tell them?  “You’ll just know.”  What kind of malarkey is that?  I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide about asking Sarah to marry me, I was a nervous wreck!  I didn’t know anything!  On the one hand, I had this great relationship with someone I really cared about.  On the other hand, I was so scared that I couldn’t even see straight.  And it’s not like one outweighed the other or one canceled the other out.  Love in one hand.  Fear in the other.  Both existing in the same place at the same time.  “You’ll just know”?  There was no “knowing” about it.  Just a choice: Love or Fear.

Here’s another crazy one that you hear sometimes: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Who in the world came up with that?  Well, I did a little homework.  As it turns out, that line comes from a 1970 movie called Love Story.  The main character (whose name just so happens to be Barrett), played by the actor Ryan O’Neal, says it at the very end of the movie.  What I find particularly funny is that this same actor, Ryan O’Neal, was in another movie called What’s Up, Doc? With Barbara Streisand.  Barbara repeats the line and Ryan O’Neal, in a beautiful moment of self-parody, responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”  I couldn’t agree more.

If anything, real love should make us more ready to say “I’m sorry.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  It’s a choice that we make once, accepting the reality that we will have to make that same choice again and again for the rest of our lives.  A big part of choosing love over fear (in marriage, church, work, or family) involves our willingness to seek and offer forgiveness when things go wrong.  It’s easy to talk about love when everything is going great, but it’s something else entirely to love someone when everything has gone wrong.  The process of seeking and offering forgiveness is more broadly referred to as reconciliation.  Reconciliation is love in action.  It’s what happens when the rubber meets the road in real life and real relationships.  Anyone who has really experienced it can tell you that reconciliation is the single most miraculous event that can happen in any human relationship.

I have a hunch that that’s why the ancient Jews and Christians zeroed in on reconciliation as their primary metaphor for describing what happens in the relationship between God and creation.  They called it redemption or salvation.  The early Christians thought of this relationship as taking place in and through this person named Jesus.  Jesus was more than just an inspirational philosopher to them.  They saw something unique in him that they identified with the God of their Jewish ancestors.  This identification was so strong that the early Christians would say that to look at Jesus was to look at God.  If you want to understand what God is like, they said, just look at Jesus.

They used all kinds of poetic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus: it was like being healed from a sickness, raised from the dead, or freed from captivity.  It was like being blind, and then being able to see.  It was like being hopelessly lost, but then finding your way again.  These were all valid metaphors for describing their experience of the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus.  But the mental image they used most often was that of reconciliation.  It was the most amazing and miraculous thing that could happen between two people, to be at odds with one another and then make peace, so it made sense for that idea to quickly rise to the top and become the dominant metaphor for describing what was happening in their new and growing relationship with God.

This was and is a beautiful thing.  Christians to this very day tend to think of their relationship with God in the same way.  The only problem is that, when forgiveness and reconciliation becomes the only metaphor for describing our relationship with God, it can easily become twisted into something it was never meant to be.  The sole emphasis on forgiveness as a metaphor for salvation led, over the centuries, to an obsession with guilt and sin.  Salvation, they thought, was all about getting your sins forgiven.  In other words, it’s all about getting back on God’s good side so that nothing bad will happen to us after we die.  Christians began to think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  Theirs was an unhealthy obsession with guilt and fear that, I think, led to a gross distortion of who God is and what salvation is really all about.

I don’t think we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  I think our ancestors in the faith took the most beautiful moment in a human relationship and applied it to their relationship with God.  If we’re going to recover reconciliation as our primary metaphor for salvation, I think we need to let go of our baggage of guilt and fear.  We need to remember that reconciliation begins with God, whose love is unconditional.  Our trust in that love is what gives us the strength to be honest about who we really are and what we need to work on.

That’s why we confess our sins at the beginning of worship each week.  It’s not about guilt and fear; it’s about honesty and trust.  Knowing that we are loved (no matter what) is the key to owning up to our faults.  We have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of.

As this great love gives us the power to make peace with ourselves, we are also commissioned and ordained as peacemakers in the world.  Once we have experienced that love for ourselves, we are called upon to pass it on.  Have you ever noticed how the passing of the peace in our service is supposed to happen right after our prayer of confession?  That’s no coincidence.  We receive God’s love and then we immediately give it away.  Love begets love.  Grace begets more grace.  Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus took the idea of reconciliation quite seriously.  For him, it even trumped the importance of a worship service.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  This call to peacemaking and reconciliation is so important that Jesus was even willing to interrupt a worship service for it.  Real love should be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”.  This is love in action, not just feeling.

It’s worth mentioning that this peacemaking is not always easy.  It gets complicated.  Nowhere is it more difficult than it is for those who find themselves in physically or psychologically abusive situations at work or home.  The call for forgiveness can too often be manipulated by abusers who merely want to maintain power over their victims.  “C’mon,” they say, “can’t you just forgive me?  Don’t you believe in forgiveness?  What would Jesus do?”  They might even quote scripture to back up what they’re saying.  If you’re dealing with that kind of person: get out of the relationship.  You can’t work toward forgiveness and reconciliation if you’re still in a position where you or others are in danger of being hurt.  You can’t forgive that person until you’re safe.  Get to safety first, then work on forgiveness.

What’s more is that forgiving does not mean forgetting.  I don’t know where “forgive and forget” came from, but I can guarantee you that it’s not in the Bible.  God would never want you to put yourself or your dependents back into a dangerous situation.  Sometimes, the best way to forgive is from a distance.  Don’t put yourself in jeopardy.  Make peace in your heart as best you can.  I promise you: it still counts.

Real love is able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  Each week in worship, we re-enact a powerful ritual of redemption.  In our prayer of confession, we are empowered by God’s unconditional love to honestly face ourselves (warts and all), trust that we are loved anyway, and then go back out into the world as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.  God is not concerned about guilt and fear-mongering over what particular sins you may have committed last week.  The quality of our relationship with God is measured by the quality of our relationships with one another.  One surefire way to measure the actual quality of our relationships with one another is to look at how willing and able we are to say things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to one another.  This is love in action.  It raises us above our culture’s twisted ideas about love and brings us back to a place where we can experience what real love between people is all about.  And that, of course, points us right back to God’s infinite and unconditional love, in which we live, and move, and have our being.

“My Feet Is Tired, But My Soul Is Rested”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 18:15-20.

Someone once asked the famous author C.S. Lewis why he thought it was necessary for Christians to go to church.  Lewis, with his usual wit and candor, had this to say:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

The “solitary conceit” that Lewis mentioned is one of the hallmarks of trendy spirituality in our culture.  Spiritually-minded Americans, from Transcendentalists to Evangelicals, have often emphasized individuality at the expense of community when it comes to their devotional lives.  Lillian Daniels, a United Church of Christ minister from Illinois, minces no words as she calls this kind of spiritual individualism “self-centered” and “boring”.  She goes on:

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

One’s relationship with God is always personal but never private.  One does not simply wander off into a cave to commune with the Divine in total silence and solitude.  Even ancient hermits in the desert maintained practices of hospitality toward wandering beggars and spiritual seekers.  One cannot be a Christian by oneself.

We find this counter-conviction to American individualism all through today’s gospel reading.  Here we see Jesus teaching the people about spiritual community.  Specifically, he’s talking about those times when community gets messy.  He starts with the words, “If another member of the church sins against you”.  This is Jesus giving advice about conflict resolution.  Rather than getting bogged down in the procedure that Jesus lays out, I’d like for us to focus our attention this morning on the underlying values and beliefs that undergird Jesus’ message to us in this passage.  I say “values” and “beliefs” but really there’s just one of each: a value and a belief.

The value that Jesus was trying to communicate is the value of reconciliation.  Reconciliation was a major theme in the ministry of Jesus and the early church.  Notice how it comes up again and again in this passage.  Jesus says repeatedly that the goal of this conflict-resolution exercise is to persuade people to “listen” to one another.  That word, “listen”, appears four times in three verses.  Meanwhile, there’s no “eye for an eye” or “hellfire and damnation” language at all.  Even in the worst-case scenario, where the “sinner” will not “listen”, Jesus recommends that the church should “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  This might sound like punishment at first (remember that tax collectors were the most hated people in ancient Israel), but remember how Jesus treats tax collectors and other religious outsiders?  He welcomes them and affirms them!  He goes out of his way to make sure that these people know they are loved by God.  It seems like Jesus is saying that the point where negotiations fail is the point where real love begins.  This is so different from our world where justice is associated with punishment and vengeance!  For Jesus, real justice is the restoration of harmonious relationships.

The theme of reconciliation that resonates through this passage is related to the core belief that Jesus is trying to instill in his followers: the belief that God is love.  As the people of the community of faith work together to reconcile their differences, Jesus tells them that they will begin to discover a mysterious divine presence working in and through them.  Decisions made in this spirit of reconciliation will have the weight of spiritual truth.  This is what Jesus means when he says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Likewise, the community of faith that is committed to reconciliation will see God working impossible miracles through them.  Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  Reconciliation and love are important values to embody because they most accurately reflect who God is.  God is present wherever this process of reconciliation is going on.  Don’t look for God in the sky or in magical rituals, but in the genuine love that is made manifest through us, the people of the church.  This is why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love.  It’s all about love.  Love is what Jesus calls us to.  Love is who God is.

This belief runs entirely counter to our culture’s punishment-oriented individualism.  In that sense, it is truly “counter-cultural”.  People who believe in love, as Jesus presented it, are crazy by this world’s standards.  Yet these people see things that others can’t see.  When they speak, they speak with supernatural clarity and conviction.  When they stand together, they sense that there is “something more” standing with them, empowering them, and holding them up.

One of my favorite examples of this power at work comes from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place in 1955-56.  For over a year, the African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama  stood together against the demonic spirits of racism and discrimination.  These prophetic activists were made the subjects of constant harassment from local citizens, government, and police.  Walking together along city streets, many of them described a feeling of divine empowerment.  Wherever these few were gathered in the name of Jesus, he was there among them.

One particularly elderly woman was stopped on the street one day during the boycott.  The interviewer asked whether her feet were exhausted from all the walking, perhaps hoping that she might give up soon and take a bus.  Her reply resonated with exactly the kind of spiritual authority and divine presence that Jesus was talking about:

“My feet is tired,” she said, “but my soul is rested.”

As we go out from this place today, may our lives reflect that same kind of divine glory.  May we sense that same spiritual presence among us, especially in this sacrament of Holy Communion.  May our church be known to this community as a place where reconciliation happens.  May we all be able to say as we reach the end of our earthly pilgrimage, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”