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Back to Basics

This week, our scripture quote takes us back to basics. To the center. To the heart.

When all else falls away, one main thing remains about Christ’s message: love.

Not the fancy or feeling we get for our significant other. Not the way we feel about our family and friends. It is actually something much deeper than either of those.

The love of which Christ’s speaks is God’s love.

It is the kind that cares for the other before one’s own self. It is the kind that seeks to build up a broken world with God’s life, justice, and peace. It is the kind that opens eyes and ears and hearts to the sin, pain, and prejudice at work among us and within us. It is a love that excels beyond all others. It is the way that God loves us.

And here, Christ says that we are to give the same love to one another.

Not just those close to us. Not just those who look or think or live like us. But every single other human on the planet.

Everything else we do and think and say flows from this. It is our compass. It is our lens. It is how we are to be in this world.

That is Christ’s command. The question is – will we follow?

Not About Us

Christ asks us to take the golden rule to a whole new level. Rather than simply treating others as we would want to be treated, we are to consider life from their shoes, their walks, their experiences. We are to offer aid not as a condescension from our abundance, but as fellow fallen sinners on God’s long road…

This week, our scripture quote comes from one of the New Testament books other than the gospels. It is still a quote from Jesus, but comes through one of Paul’s early letters from the book of Acts.

At the heart of what it means to be a Christian is this mantra: deny yourself and follow.

This does not mean that we must give up self-care or every other thing in our lives. What it does mean, however, is that it is our job to put others first.

Because that is what Jesus did. It’s what he taught. It’s what he died for.

Christ asks us to take the golden rule to a whole new level. Rather than simply treating others as we would want to be treated, we are to consider life from their shoes, their walks, their experiences. We are to offer aid not as a condescension from our abundance, but as fellow fallen sinners on God’s long road.

It really is quite simple: it’s not about us.

That is what Christ asks us to remember when considering everything we feel, think, say, and do. Not ourselves. But how will this effect my neighbor. All of my neighbors.

For Jesus has told us that whatever we do to another, especially those considered the least, we are doing to him. We are doing to God.

So give your love, your resources, your time away. That is what Christ asks of you and God calls you to do. Each and every one of us.

All That Matters

At the end of the day, all that matters to God, ultimately, is that we are loving God by loving our neighbors…

This passage is one of Jesus’ teachings that appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). Though in different contexts, Jesus draws out the key message from the Hebrew laws (Deuteronomy 6:5 & Leviticus 19:18) and summarizes everything down to these two commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

There are any number of reasons that Christ might have done this. But here is a rather obvious one: we tend to get so caught up with the rules and the rights and the regulations that we miss the point.

At the end of the day, all that matters to God, ultimately, is that we are loving God by loving our neighbors.

All of our neighbors – every race, creed, class, sexuality, gender, even political party.

It is not that those differences do not matter to God. Quite the contrary. God has often shown us that our diversity is something to celebrate and that those labels that are used to denigrate, decimate, and subjugate others are unacceptable. God always sides with the “little guy” or girl, so to speak.

But if you are unsure where to begin with following Jesus, here is where you start: love others. All of them. Period.

Don’t let them trample you. Do call out hateful behavior and language. Don’t trample anyone yourself, even for vengeance’s sake. And do everything you can to empower those who have rarely had a validated voice.

God’s love is everything.

Let it flow out of you like a river cascading God’s purposes for life, justice, and peace.

Let it be the lens through which all other parts of our lives, including the scriptures, are examined.

And as Mr. Rogers said, Love is not a fancy or a feeling. “It is an active noun like struggle.”

It is not easy, but it is quite simple. Just do it.

So, whatever you are doing, or thinking, or saying, ask yourself this question: does this decision show love to my neighbor(s)?

Because if we are not loving our neighbors, Jesus has told us, we aren’t really loving God, either.

 

A Time to Act

This is the Gospel made tangible. And we are to go and do likewise…

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn… (Isaiah 61:1-2)

This week, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has called for a Week of Action in light of recent events. It is meant to serve as an essential reminder to all Presbyterians in our country that God has called us to seek justice for the marginalized in our world – just as Jesus himself did. The long-term goals our leaders have lifted  up this week are eradicating white supremacy and dismantling systemic racism.

This is the denomination of the church where I serve. Though the denomination does not automatically speak for all of the churches, nor for the people therein.

I, however, as a pastor, and therefore no longer a member of any church, wholeheartedly support this call from our denomination. Why? Because I believe it is what my Lord Christ would call me to do. I believe that, at this time and place, addressing the insidious and rampant racism within our systems and society is an essential way we proclaim the Gospel. And I know for a fact that previous generations of the church have made the same decision.

The passage above is the original Isaiah text that the gospel writers paraphrased in Jesus’ first appearance at his home synagogue during the beginning of his ministry. Both versions have their own unique expressions. However, the overall message is the same: Jesus came to turn this world upside down. He came to serve and lift up those who the world keeps in their place.

What does this mean for the church of Jesus Christ?

This is the Gospel made tangible. And we are to go and do likewise.

We are to bring good news to the poor (and help, too). To bring good news to the oppressed and work for their freedom. To bind up the brokenhearted. To proclaim release and freedom to the captives (def. a person who has been imprisoned or confined). To give recovery of sight to the blind (physical sight, too – not just the ones who have been spiritually blinded). To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee, when all debts (yes money) were to be forgiven. For everyone. And to proclaim the day of vengeance for God – a comfort to those who mourn now.

Just as it was Christ’s mission, so it is also ours.

We are called to be actively making a ruckus in this world whenever we see people getting hurt. And make no mistake – white supremacy and systemic racism are hurting people. Daily. They are also sins of the highest degree.

And like every other sin, they have the propensity to live in all of us. No exceptions.

So, ask yourself this: is Christ’s mission something I can get on board with? Am I willing to put my voice, my reputation, my life on the line in service of the God of love? Even if it means standing with the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the sick, the indebted, and those who mourn vengeance never received? Even if my family or my friends will think I’m nuts, or worse, disown me…

The truth is that the call of Christ upon our lives requires no less than the willingness to sacrifice everything we have and are to serve those whom Christ came to serve – the weak and the lowly, the overlooked and the ostracized, the different and the intentionally ignored.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us… so do the work the Spirit commands.

 

Breaking Patterns

…the fires of God’s justice do burn. Especially in this world.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

This refrain comes from one of my favorite Advent hymns. It is based upon the Magnificat, or Mary’s song, from the gospel of Luke (and some of the scriptural words, from Luke 1, are in the photo above).

Before the Savior is even born, his mother can feel Christ’s purpose bubbling up inside of her the way many composers can hear the strains of melody simmering in their soul long before they are ever on paper. It is a powerful theme – God’s message to the world, that is. It speaks of toppling those in power from their thrones and finally giving equity to the oppressed and forgotten of the world.

Indeed, the fires of God’s justice do burn. Especially in this world.

In the beginning, those who followed Christ’s were an unlikely band of misfit outcasts. They stood for everything that the structures of the world stood against – radically inclusive love, giving voice and value to the world’s downtrodden, and the infinite potential of God’s life-giving grace. Those in power when Jesus was alive stood for commanding strength and wealth for a few, keeping the rest of the people in their place, and maintaining the status quo.

When the church began, as the followers of One who stood against such constraining rule, and who had actually been killed because of that stance, it lived behind the scenes. It sought to make the world better from the ground up, rather than the world’s method: from the top down. And the church remained close to Christ’s radically loving heart.

But then, the world changed. Those in power converted. Perhaps due to a true change of heart, but more than likely, as history has proven, because with only a few people knowing Christ’s actual words and deeds, those in power could use cherry-picked scriptures and traditions as a new method to maintain the status quo. The church went from being run by the lost and forgotten, to being commanded by the rich and the powerful.

Across the centuries of two millennia, this pattern recurred.

Those who sought to live into Jesus’ actual words and actions would rise like God’s own phoenix jumping out of the grave. First, the powers of the world would attempt to squash them. To kill them. To decimate them. But like the prophets of old, they would find it difficult to stamp out God’s messengers. So, when that wouldn’t work, those in authority would lay claim to a part of the message that was not-too-messy and relatively comfortable. They would affirm that small section of what was God’s radical message meant to shock us from our complicit slumber. They would preserve the prophet’s memory on a pedestal, and wait for the people to forget what really happened.

And then the process would start all over again.

This goes for both the church and worldly powers. All were guilty of crushing those who would dare to challenge the status quo – as Jesus, and God, have always done.

It is an ancient pattern. One predating Jesus’ human life on earth. It is a human pattern. A fallen pattern. One that will keep returning until Christ’s own self arrives on the clouds.

To follow the true Jesus, the one we see in the gospels, it is not an easy path. It means walking in his footsteps. It means standing with the “little” people who the world likes to keep under foot. It means calling out false prophets and martyrs whose only trouble is having their long-held-hate-filled beliefs questioned. It means loving with a reckless abandon that seeks God’s life-giving justice and equity for all people. And yes, it absolutely means challenging the status quo of a world bowling-over in frenzy, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, bigotry, classism, self-righteous indignation, domineering vengeance, corruption, suppression, and oppression, among many other things.

Listen to the barely-wed, teenage mother’s voice as she cries out across the years. Penniless and considered property, she sings the words of God’s chosen people – not just the descendants of Israel, but the orphans, the widows, the foreigners, the maimed, the forgotten, and the oppressed. Hear her strain rising above the cacophony of the world’s madness again…

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for God’s justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

The real question is: will you join her song and break the pattern?

You Should Care

Being asked or told to wear a mask is not trampling your rights. It’s asking you to do what you always should have done in the first place: care about people…

Real strength has to do with helping others.

Fred Rogers

Are you tired?

I am very, very tired.

No, it’s not my twin three year old boys with all their crazy energy. No, it’s not my husband recovering from a near-fatal encounter with sepsis last month. No, it’s not working for the Gospel in a conflict-ridden world. Though all three have their moments that make me weary and worn, that is not the fatigue to which I am referring.

I am tired of people politicizing whether or not people should care about each other.

It is not a political issue. Stop making it one.

It is a human issue. It is a faith issue. And, since I am a Christian minister, it is a Jesus issue.

Actively caring about our fellow human beings is our job as humans.

Full stop.

That’s it.

At the end of the day, everything else pales in comparison. Money, success, prestige, ambition, power, beauty – none even begin to compare.

It is our human right to live and breathe. To live free. And to thrive.

For far too long, in human history, we have intentionally chosen who deserves to be free to live and to thrive. We have systematically removed rights from humans that were born looking different than we do. Who were born with different realities. Who have this body part instead of that one. Freedom has long been denied to our neighbors of different race, sexualities, and genders – and that’s just talking about the differences we are born with in our bodies. That does not even mention the differences in thought, belief, and resources. Oh yes, we have a problem with keeping people from being truly free in this world.

But a little piece of cloth has nothing to do with your freedom. What is more, studies have shown that it has little to nothing to do with your safety.

That little piece of cloth has to do with your neighbor’s safety and their right to live and breath, to have freedom, and to thrive.

That little piece of cloth is a statement that you care as much about others as you do about yourself.

Of course, there are some who are facing real health issues – from COPD to PTSD – who should not be forced to wear a mask. That is reasonable.

The problem is, there are far more people not wearing masks than those who legitimately shouldn’t. There are far more people more concerned with their comfort than another’s life – because, again, that mask does not protect you. It protects everyone around you.

And yes, this is a very personal issue to me. My husband is extremely high risk. He already nearly died three weeks ago of something else. If you expose me, then you expose him. If you expose my children, you expose my husband and me (with my own moderate to severe asthma). If you expose my nanny, you expose all of us – and remember that children and healthy people are still being brutally maimed by this virus that we do not fully understand.

I am tired of people not caring.

I am tired of people telling me that I am afraid for no reason, when we’ve lost over 165,000 people in this country alone – with some amount of mitigation. Those numbers would have likely quadrupled if we had done nothing these last six months.

This is not a hoax. It is serious. Deadly serious. And life-long maiming serious (because this disease appears to be more dangerous to those who survive than to those who do not).

Required discomfort to help out your neighbor is not the same thing as having your rights trampled. Having your rights trampled is being held at gunpoint  when you were the one originally in danger. Having your rights trampled is being run over by cars and hit with tear gas (which is a war crime) when you are using your right to protest that people’s rights are not being upheld. Having your rights trampled is dying in your own bed at the hands of those who should be protecting you when you did absolutely nothing – and then to have your killers never be brought to justice.

Being asked or told to wear a mask is not trampling your rights. It’s asking you to do what you always should have done in the first place: care about people.

So wear the piece of cloth. Care about your neighbors – because, yet again, that mask protects them. Not you. It is not about you.

It is about all of us surviving this with as much health as possible. Only then can we truly live and breathe fully. Only then can we continue to fight for freedom. Only then can we find the flourishing that God desires.

More Than Words

Sometimes, for someone to truly know they are loved, it takes not only active intention, but also concrete actions…

Mr. Rogers once said that “love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now – and to go on caring even through times that may bring us pain.” A good Presbyterian minister, he was trying to point us toward that intentionality that is meant to exist in all of our relationships. Be they romantic, sibling. friend. neighbor, or even a stranger or enemy.

But sometimes, for someone to truly know they are loved, it takes not only active intention, but also concrete actions – as Extreme’s 1990 classic loves to remind us.

There is more to love than simply words. Or feelings. More than hugs and kisses. It takes standing with someone when trouble comes. It means being the silent worker behind the scenes so that those without a voice might finally sing. Its deliberate purpose to see others flourish, even when the world says they shouldn’t.

The first step is to work for these things in our relationships with those we love who are closest to us. Easy enough.

The next step is to do this work to bolster and support our neighbors and communities, most of which we also love with great camaraderie and energy. Especially for those of us who live and work with people we have grown close to, this should not be too far of a stretch.

Now here is the hard step: doing the active work of love for those you do not know.

Jesus taught us that if something should not happen to him or one of his disciples, then it should not happen to anyone. Put it another way: if you don’t want a certain thing done to you, then you should not only not do it to others – you should work so that no one ever has it done to them. Period.

Christ took the golden rule and put it on steroids.

Because it’s not just about what you do as an individual. It is also about what we do as a community. The choices we make, the leaders we support, the ways we structure our lives – all of it is our responsibility.

So, to follow a bit in the footsteps of my favorite Presbyterian pastor, let’s put this in the simplest of terms: all the world’s a playground and here are the rules…

  1. Treat each other with kindness.
  2. Wear clothes that the given season calls for: if summer, enjoy your shorts. If winter, don’t forget your snow boots. If hurricane, bring an umbrella. If Covid, wear your mask.
  3. Throw your trash away and recycle everything you can. We only have one home, so take care of it.
  4. Don’t throw stones and don’t call each other names – it’s just bad form.
  5. Do use your voice to ask questions and raise up problems that need to be addressed.
  6. Do stand up to bullies. Stand together and they cannot break you.
  7. Remember that our words have power, to heal and to hurt. Choose them wisely.
  8. Most importantly: you already have the strength inside you to make the world a better place. A kinder place. A more loving place. The world God desires to see.

Simple enough. Now go and do likewise.

Which Jesus…?

Jesus is not who much of the church pretends he is. He would not even recognize himself in the portrayals that are often given…

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

Mahatma Gandhi

Have you ever considered the question: which Jesus do you follow, worship, serve?

Whether we want to admit it or not, Christianity in this world has quite often been coopted by the world around it – leading Christians to look nothing like the Lord they swear to serve.

Why?

Well, there are numerous reasons. But a key one is that the real Jesus does not fit the mold we want for our God.

We want a God that is all-powerful and takes advantage of it like we do. We want a Jesus that is meek and mild, upholds the status quo and the religious practices we love because that will make us comfortable. We want a Holy Spirit who tells us we’re doing everything right and never bothers us with things like pushing us into real work for the kingdom. We want Jesus, and God, to look like us.

But we creations are responsible for all of the evil in the world. Our Creator is not. We are complicit in structures that allow a few to thrive while most remain crushed. Our Savior did what he could to overturn them. We are so focused on the splinter in everyone else’s eye that we never see the log in our own or the tweezers sitting in our hands. Our Sustainer is a holy fire consistently working to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and hands.

Jesus is not who much of the church pretends he is. He would not even recognize himself in the portrayals that are often given.

So who is this Jesus – the real One?

Jesus was the brown-skinned child of an unwed (or barely married-in-time) teenage mother. He lived as a refugee and foreigner in another land for much of his childhood. He cared for the sick. He touched the untouchable and reviled by society. He empowered women and children and those without resources, to learn, grow, teach, and change the world. He said that he desired profligate mercy and service to others, rather than self-righteous prayer or sacrifice. He spoke truth to power, like his mother did before his birth. He called out the religious establishment for supporting the status quo. He also called out numerous systems for perpetuating injustice. He welcomed foreigners with open arms. He embraced the guilty with grace. He taught non-violence, but he still caused a riot when there was no other way to make people pay attention to the harm they were causing. He died because of the life he lived that displayed justice-filled-love with every breath.

That is the Jesus of the gospels. And he is worth getting to know, because that is the God we are meant to serve when we say we are Christians.

Our God chose love, rather than domineering power.

Jesus consistently displayed a ministry of justice for the oppressed, rather than comfort for the powerful.

The Holy Spirit’s fire is meant to refine us and push us out into the world to continue Christ’s ministry, not to do what we tell it.

So which Jesus, which God do you serve?

Be careful how you answer, because God might just turn your whole world upside down from your answer.

The Long Wait

…don’t give up. You are not alone. You are loved. You can do this.

Waiting.

It’s something that all of us have to do at some point in our lives.

Sometimes it’s waiting on a difficult diagnosis. Other times it is waiting for a loved one to return home. And still others it is waiting for an answer that may never come.

Throughout history, God’s people have often had to wait. (Remember the forty years in the desert?) Much to the disquiet of some, God rarely gives quick fixes for much of anything. However, God’s promise was never that God was going to make everything better right now. Now now.

God’s promise is that God will be present. God will give us the strength to face what we must. God is in this for the long game and though we will always receive momentary respite (whether a laugh, a hug, or a helpful stranger), we may not see the results we think we want right away.

Part of the reason for this is that God wants us to actively wait.

Yes, sometimes we do need to wallow for a bit. However, the rest of the time spent waiting is an opportunity to do something. To look for others who are hurting that we might aid. To see the people who are often unseen and unthanked. To open our hearts for a broken world that needs more love in it.

Our world is waiting right now. It’s not easy. It’s incredibly frustrating. And yet, look at all the opportunities we have now to look and see the world through new eyes. Think of all the ways we have been opening our hearts to one another. That is God giving us a wondrous variety of chances to make a difference, even on the days we feel ready to give up.

So, don’t give up. You are not alone. You are loved. You can do this.

 

Whom do you serve?

What are the modern gods we choose to worship in our world?

A few years ago, I came across a daily devotion calendar that had this as an inspirational quote: “if thou therefore will worship me, all shall be thine.” It’s pretty obviously from the King James Version and the gospel of Luke. And on its face, it sounds nice enough.

In reality, however, it is the words of Satan to the Word of God made flesh. It is bait, some that Jesus does not take. But let’s put this in a modern context.

What are the modern gods we choose to worship in our world?

Money. Power. Superficial beauty. Force-filled strength. Blind comfort. Simple answers. And the list goes on from there.

We make our gods whatever we find most appealing to us.

However, that is not who our God is.

Our God is one who has revealed God’s self throughout history. In the scriptures there are countless times God sets the priorities God truly desires: caring for the unwanted, poor, and oppressed. Welcoming the stranger and the alien with open arms. Standing up to the systems in this world that keep the powerful on their thrones and others under their footstools. Seeking justice for the silenced. And using love as our constant lens through which we check every decision.

Not romantic love. God love – self-sacrificing, abundant, radical, willing to do anything to serve another love.

Anytime we choose to believe or do something that is in direct or indirect conflict with the purposes God has made abundantly clear, we are choosing the gods that look like us. We are choosing to worship something else. And our God will have no other gods before God.

So, I ask you – choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, to quote Joshua and Micah, we will serve the Lord by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.