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Nevertheless…

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Mark 5:21, 24b-34

Heroes!  This month you all have been looking at Heroes in the Bible.  Today we are going to take a deep dive into this story of one who hero whose name is never mentioned.

As the boat that Jesus is on approaches the shore the crowds gather.  The rock-star is back in town.  Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, who did not oppose Jesus, approaches Jesus and pleads with him to come and heal his dying 12-year-old daughter.  As they make their way through the dense jostling crowd towards Jairus’s home – an interruption occurs.

This is not just any interruption, it is a woman.  An unnamed woman.  A woman who had been bleeding, hemorrhaging, suffering for twelve years. The same amount of time as Jairus Daughter who is now dying.

In the first century it was believed that a woman’s body monthly menstrual cycle demonstrated her inability to control her body, which left her susceptible to illness.  The porousness of the females leaking body made them inferior to other bodies.

This woman’s disorder most likely had significant personal and perhaps social consequences for her. Her inability to bare children made her inferior even to other females.  Thus, she was probably isolated within her own social community.

Plus, she had spent all she had on seeing physicians, many physicians.  Not just being seen by them, Mark tells us, but endured their treatments.  Their poking, their prodding, their scorn, all to no avail.  Twelve years of bleeding, cramping no doubt, living with constant pain, smells and weakness.  Now she is destitute.  Desperate.  Just as desperate as Jairus is for his daughter.

In her desperation she boldly, yet secretly, winds her way through the crowd towards Jesus.  Having internalized the scorn her society projected on her, she doesn’t even desire to speak to Jesus – for she realizes she is not worthy of being seen or noticed.  Instead she thinks to herself, “if I can just touch him – even just touch his clothes, that will be enough to heal me.”

Yet it doesn’t work out that way.  She is healed, however when she touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, something unexpected happens.  New Testament scholar Candida Moss notes that while many translate the Greek as saying, “the power went out” of Jesus, more rightly it could also be translated as “the power leaked out of Jesus.”  In other words, Jesus’ body becomes leaky, porous and inferior – just like this unnamed woman’s.

Over 140 years ago – in the 1860’s – 2 missionary wives – came back from serving abroad in India.  While there they saw that due to India’s cultural norms male doctors could not treat women.  Therefore, Indian women who were ill had no access to healthcare.  They also were concerned that schooling for girls was almost non-existent.

Desperate to respond to the spiritual and physical needs of these women in India they came back to the States, the two wives of missionaries called a meeting with their friends, shared their story, organized, wrote a constitution and raised money that eventually sent Isabella Thoburn a teacher and Clara Swain, a doctor – to India to serve and care for women.  And thus, the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society was born.

That is the short – very short version of how eight women began what is known today as the United Methodist Women.  This all occurred at a time in our history – when women in the United States were LEGALLY classified as chattel.  Chattel? That’s a word you don’t hear very often or used any more.  What does that word – chattel mean?   Well it means – movable property, movable personal property.  Women and children were movable property.  Legally.  The law classified them as person without their own agency.   This meant they could not act of their own free will.  Life was determined for them – by men.  First by their fathers, then husbands…even their own sons.  It also included their brothers or uncles who could governed their lives.

In the 1800’s women had no voice in the larger society.  They could not vote (yet), but they did have the United Methodist Church… and there they had Jesus…and there they had each other.

The United Methodist Church has a rich, rich history of affirming and empowering women.  Not all the time and not everywhere and not even every woman…but we do have some key important female voices leading the way.

  • Susannah Wesley, John Wesley’s mother, in the 1700’s began leading prayer meetings in her husband’s absence and reading sermons to the flock. Her husband told her to stop.  Nevertheless, she persisted. 
  • John Wesley was chastised for allowing women to preach in his revivals. Nevertheless, he persisted.
  • When Methodist leader and abolitionist Harriet Tubman was warned about the risks of her work, she
  • When Methodist preacher Sojourner Truth was threatened by an angry mob. In the face of danger, she persisted. 
  • When feminist evangelist Frances Willard was elected to the General Conference in 1888, she was told only men could be delegates, nevertheless she persisted.

Bringing us into the 21st century:

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton was told she would never be thee candidate for the highest office in our country, nevertheless she persisted.
  • When Methodist raised, Beyoncé Knowles Carter was criticized for using her art to expose the pain and injustice in the deep south, she nevertheless persisted.
  • And of course, we all know of the United Methodist Senator Elizabeth Warren who was silenced on the Senate floor from reading a historical letter of Coretta Scott King, nevertheless she persisted.

You see my brothers and sisters in Christ – United Methodist Women – some of whom are men – have a rich, rich history of persisting in the face of adversity.  Now more than ever our world needs our voices…our agency…our action.

Sociologists tells us that if we don’t care for the well-being of those in need in our society – we as a society, all, will suffer.  How?  Well they say that when people are desperate they do desperate things.

The Levitical codes which we read in the Bible are not just a nice charity option or some suggestions for us to consider – just “leave a few potatoes behind for the poor,” or every seven years forgive the debt of those who have not yet been able to pay their debt back.” No, they are intended to guide and nurture us to be attune to the needs of those who live on the margins of society. Why? So that those who are living on the margins of society do not become desperate.

When we neglect to keep in mind and pay attention to the needs of those on the margins we bolster – yes even enable – their desperate behavior.   Leaving them no other option but to steal and to break laws in order to survive.

The desperate unnamed woman in today’s story understood the change that immediately occurred in her body.  So, did Jesus.  While Jesus did not play an active role in healing this woman, the drying up of her hemorrhaging was due to the permeability of Jesus’ body.  No one else – not even the disciples – recognized what had leaked out of Jesus.  Yet, Jesus was unwilling to allow the leakage from his body to occur without acknowledging it.  He could have.  But he didn’t.

She too did not have to step forward, she could have tried to disappear into the crowd.

Nevertheless she came forward, even though she had no idea what would happen to her now that she has interrupted these two powerful men.  In her fear and trembling she falls down before Jesus and tells him the whole truth.

What does the mean?  She tells him the whole truth? Does she tell him the whole truth of the past twelve years of her life?  The suffering? The disappointment? The humiliation?  All the failed treatments, the shame and the isolation.  To tell her whole truth would not have been easy.  She would have been under great pressure to keep herself and her story invisible from society as the culture had expected her to.

This, I believe, is why Jesus is unwilling to let her go without acknowledging her. It is NOT that he is mad at her or that she has stolen a miracle (that is bad theology). Instead, Jesus desires to make her – and all untouchable, scorn-filled, marginalized people; seen, acknowledged and validated.  Not to shame her- but to restore her to health and make her whole.

It takes great courage to do what this unnamed woman does.  All of it.   It takes courage to wind through the crowd, to touch Jesus’ cloak, and then to tell her truth.  Her whole truth.  That is why she is my Super Hero.   In sharing her truth – her whole painful, shameful truth – her healing is validated, and Jesus calls her Daughter! She is noticed, affirmed and restored.

Over a year ago we heard the painful stories of abuse and sexual harassment that came out under the hashtag #MeToo.  I was one of those who posted. And while some have criticized the #MeToo movement, it has created solidarity that comes from hearing the stories of your real-life friends.

Men are chiming in, in shock, wondering what they can do differently.  Men and women, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers are all learning things about their female daughters, sisters, friends, and colleagues, that they did not know before.

More than half of American women say they have been on the receiving end of “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.”  More than 50%!!! And of those 30% report that they came from their male colleagues.  When asked, they report that the top emotions they felt from these humiliating advances are anger and intimidation.

Intimidation that, up until now, has kept them from telling their truth.

Now that women are feeling supported, more and more are speaking up.  And that also includes men, children and many others who have experienced the humiliation and intimidation of unwanted sexual advances. Having one’s truth heard is the ultimate validation for one’s personhood!

In today’s scripture we learn that Jesus stands in solidarity with all bodies – not just those who are male.  And in doing so Jesus negates the justifications we make to place people into categories that ignore their own voices.

This story today challenges us to relate to people rather than categorize them.  It asks us to be willing to acknowledge their right to their own narrative to tell their own truth.

So, I have homework for you – I always give homework – after all I am an educator at heart.  The good news is I will not be here next week to collect it or check and see if you did it.  Or to give you a grade.  You’re welcome.

But our homework is – and yes, I am including myself in this – I always do.  I confess – I mostly preach to myself.  Our homework is to sit open-handed and open-hearted with someone.  Even if it is just for one day.  To listen with our heart and not our mind.  To really listen – deeply – and not to judge or think about what to say next, but to listen really listen.   Be silent and to be open – open to new ideas, new experiences, new insights and acknowledge their story.

Can we do that? Can we be interrupters in a society that wants us to categorize people as deserving and undeserving?   Can we persist in the fight for justice for all, in the face of fear?

The challenge for us is to become our own Super Hero.  To weave into the fabric of our communal life the stories of all of us – no matter how painful they might be or how uncomfortable they might make us feel.  Why? Why are we called to this?

Because this is how we become whole.  This is how we are healed.  When we can integrate everyone’s story into the narrative, there will be no more suffering and pain – for all – all people – will have become restored.  Amen.

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In This Moment

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Moments of Crisis show us what we’re made of…. In every hero story there is a moment when the crisis is seen and the choices are clear…
 
FIRST: We must see the current reality clearly. Only then can we see possibilities.
SECOND: There is a choice to make. Every choice bears a risk…
 
I. Literature of Resistance. The Book of Esther is a novella, a work of fiction that carries a heavy purpose. It is a story about a country torn by prejudices, where ethnic difference can mean loss of life. Although Xerxes/Aheseureus was real – his actual queen all of his life was Amestris. He couldn’t have married a woman named Esther because Persian kings were limited by law to marriage with one of 7 noble Persian families. This is a story – not a history.
  • NOT just to entertain, although it does. Rich irony and adventure. Ironic reversal plus.
  • Not just to explain the celebration of Purim, although it does – transforming what was originally a pagan holiday into a Jewish context.
  • This story reminds the Jews of who they are: the people of God, followers of Yahweh. A people set apart – even if persecuted, protected by God in some way.
Elements of the story are hugely significant:
Attempt by a Gentile to exterminate the Jewish people — that is turned upside down and the Jews survive and their persecutor is put to death. Western Christianity is rife with anti-Semitism…a pattern of denial of personhood that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. But before it ever reached the rise of the Third Reich, this story had been told again and again. Power wreaks havoc on the lives of the powerless. Jews run out of England, torture in Spain, forced in ghettos, concentration camps, internment camps for Japanese Americans, exterminated or forced onto reservations, prisons for profit…. Power wreaks havoc on the lives of the powerless.
 
Even as far back as the 4th century BC when this story was written, Jews understood that there were people who wanted to exterminate them…and Esther’s story has resonated with Jewish people and oppressed people ever since . Survival of the marginalized in the face of a threat by those in power – it is an old – and a new story.
 
A marginalized and oppressed woman, a Jewish orphan without public power. She took care of her household for her uncle Mordecia, visiting stall at the market for food, cooking and cleaning. All she has at the beginning of the story is her virtue. And then – she is one of 400 girls ripped away from their families and forced into the king’s harem. Like child brides around the world and victims of sex trafficking, Esther knows the story. And she uses the male power structure around her to make a change. Esther is a human heroine in an all too common situation for women – for powerless women. She is one of the oppressed people and she speaks for the oppressed, through the centuries. Esther is the voice of the minorities fighting for their survival in a majority culture. Esther is the voice of women captured and trafficked for men’s pleasure. Or the women through millennia who have been forced into marriages, prohibited from careers, and traded as property.
 
The story of Esther is part of resistance literature – telling the story of the saving of the Jews, even against powerful kings and leaders – and the instrument used by God to save the people is an unlikely person: a woman, an orphan, of an oppressed people who was taken into the king’s harem, and elevated to be queen. But she is beautiful…and clever in survival. And therein lies the tale.
 
II. NAMING GOD IN THE STORY. Where is God in this story?
“What is called chance is the instrument of Providence.” (Horace Walpole, 1777) There are a lot of quotations with this idea – that God remains anonymous in what we call chance or coincidence. Walpole’s is the earliest. Scholars have said that although God is never names in the Book of Esther, God’s fingerprints are all over the story. That is likely why it is included in the Bible – despite no mention of God by name, no prayers or directions for sacrifices.
  • Mordecai tells Esther that is SHE doesn’t act, that there will be some other means of deliverance for the Jews (implying God will save them.)
  • Esther FASTS – which implied “and prayed,” in the Jewish tradition — and asked her people to fast with her. (Explain fasting – way to focus on God’s will, to turn attention to God.)
  • God behind the scenes. God in partnership with the human actors in the story who are free agents – not pawns. God works through human action. Unlike so many of the stories in the Bible, in this one there are no miracles. There are no incidences of the VOICE of God speaking, giving instructions. There are no clearly designated religious leaders. In this story we have people without God-given authority doing the best they can and God uses THEM – uses their mostly well-intentioned efforts – to save a people. But God is not named, and isn’t seen in the story.
STORY: 4 year old Jordan was playing on a wooden picnic table. He got a splinter in his finger. He ran to his mother and told her of his hurt. Mom volunteered to take the splinter out, but Jordan didn’t want her to. “I want God to take the splinter out,” he announced. And hour later, the splinter was still there – and the finger hurt even more. His father removed the splinter, explaining that God MOST OFTEN uses other to do the things God would like done. We work together as a part of a team with God.
 
Consistent messaging…
 
Raises a question about the moral basis of law.
Odd requirement that the only way to reverse the law is to create another law, even if the first law was immoral. It is as if the moral ground for law is not significant – only the law itself. A more recent example of this was seen during the Holocaust. The Nazis passed more and more stringent laws regulating the rights of Jews from second class citizens, and then death. And during all this, most Germans, even those who would say that they were not racist or prejudiced against Jews, continued to obey the law and cooperate with the authorities. Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust, argued in his trial that he was just “following orders” and obeying the law of the land. The immorality of the law which resulted in the deaths of millions of people was not his responsibility. We now have a similar question about following the letter of the law regarding those seeking asylum at our borders. And similarly, the matter may be as simple as the ethnic purity grounds during World War II. If the person at the border is a person of color, they may be described as animals, separated from their children and thrown in cages.
 
In contrast, in Judaism the law is not considered good in and of itself. It is good because God gave the law. And Jewish law emphasizes caring for the widow, orphan, and alien in their midst.
 
The second issue dealt with head-on is Esther is racial hostility. Haman decides to wipe out the Jewish people, in part because he feels that Mordecai isn’t honoring him sufficiently. Haman demanded respect, whether or not he deserved it. And if Mordecai wouldn’t honor him – well, he would deal with him! A 50 foot high gallows ought to do it! And his people – those Jews were different – they just couldn’t be trusted! Let’s wipe them out – it’s not as if they are human!
 
Similar: Apartheid in South Africa was a system of caste based solely on race. People with darker complexions were considered inferior to those of lighter complexions. Archbishop Desmond Tutu denounced that argument with these words in The Rainbow People of God:
“The Bible declares right at the beginning that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. I showed why this fact endows each person with a unique and infinite value, a person whose very hairs are numbered. And what makes any human being valuable therefore is not any logical characteristic. No, it is the fact that he or she is created in the image and likeness of God. Apartheid exalts a biological quality, which is a total irrelevancy, to the status of what determines the value, the world of a human being. Why should skin color or race be any more useful as a criterion than, say, the size of one’s nose? What has the size of my nose to do with whether I am intelligent? It has no more to do with my worth as a human being than the color of my eyes.”[i]
Difference seen as a threat or dangerous by people in power leads to systematized oppression. Bigotry (like Haman) or indifference by the king) destroys human beings. God challenges us. The oppression of people based on a racial or ethnic group is evil. People so oppressed have God’s presence and protection – so says the book of Esther.
 
And that is where God shows up in the story. God calls people who were not expecting that call, who no one would expect God to call, and expects them to do something that is risky and stretches their abilities. It is a pattern through the biblical story. Miriam, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, David, Abigail, Isaiah, Elizabeth, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul……story after story. God calls unlikely partners to be heroes. And God remains behind the scenes.
III. A matter of choice. Esther is included among our heroes because she took the risk to stand up for her people, even though this meant that her own life was at risk.
 
Consider: The king in this story is more of a buffoon than a wise leader. He seems to be ruled by the whims of the moment. He turns over authority to his courtiers and doesn’t even seem to know what he has signed when he has signed over a whole people to death. He banished the first queen for refusing to show off her beauty for his friends. He could easily let this queen die – after all, he hadn’t sent for her in a month. Perhaps his roving eye was moving in a different direction than his queen. This king seem to value his own self-importance, love drink and beautiful women, and he listened to his sycophantic advisors. Within the confines of the story, Esther took a risk.
 
And perhaps even more of a risk than we see at face value. In telling the king of Haman’s treachery, she put herself at risk again. She exposed the king’s vanity and lack of attention to the business of his kingdom. And Haman was in his inner circle. This king might have kept Haman and let her die. It was a real risk within the story. Only Haman’s stupidity in throwing himself on her lounge gives the king a different reason to dispose of Haman – not his plot against the Jews, for in that the king was complicit, even having received a large amount of money – but Haman was condemned for accosting the queen.
 
US. And so the story challenges us. What choice will we make at our moment in history? Will we dare to stand up to the powerful leaders who seek the destruction of our vulnerable brothers and sisters? God is at work in the world today largely to the degree that we allow God to work through US.
 
Esther has done a lot of marching lately. Esther has been seen as marches for families separated at the border, immigration reform, women’s equality, and gun violence.
At the Women’s March, one child asked his parents why they were there. His father told him that the boy’s grandparents hadn’t gone to the March on Washington, even though they supported Civil Rights. It seemed so far and not very practical. “But son,” he continued, “we have to stand up for what we believe. Even when it is inconvenient. Even when it costs us something.”
 
Last weekend, Esther walked down the Dan Ryan. Father Michael Pfleger organized a march down the Dan Ryan a week ago Saturday to express frustration and protest the problems in the city of Chicago. More than just a protest against violence, they pointed to the underlying causes of violence: people are out of work, public schools are blatantly unequal in offering a quality education, politicians don’t listen, police violence and young people without hope . “Now is the time for both immediate and serious action… Now comes the solution.” Father Pfleger. Violence, poverty and education…NOW.
 
Very few of us are in positions of power. We would find it hard to get an audience with a world leader. And yet, this book suggests that we are still a part of God’s plan. God works through us – invisibly more often than not – to make a difference right where we are.
 
WE can keep our eyes open to see what may be a “pivot point.” Where there is a high potential for change.
 
WE can pray and open ourselves up to God for wisdom and strength.
 
WE can become a community and advocacy and resistance. ACTION and ADVOCACY go together.
 
WE can plan very carefully to develop strategies to lift the cause of the oppressed in ways that leaders can hear.
 
WE can. God wants to use US to change the world. And this is our moment. All we have is now. As Professor John Keating told his students in Dead Poet’s Society – all we have is NOW. NOW is OUR moment to be a part of God’s team to make a difference.
 
When we read the story of Esther, we hear the message whispered, “Carpe Diem – Seize the Day.” This story of resistance and partnering with God for justice haunts us with possibilities. After all, Haman the Agagite is not the only character seeking the destruction or elimination of a racial group. Our world seems eerily similar to that of Persia in 5 centuries BC – with racial prejudice and power struggles against the backdrop of a palace more concerned with rules than right and favoring sycophants over leaders. What will our choice be IN THIS MOMENT? “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to this place in life for such a time as this?”
The moment is ours….
[i] Desmond Tutu, The Rainbow People of God (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 64. (Quoted in NIB, vol. III, p 895)
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

“Blessed are the Vulnerable”

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Matthew 5: 1-12
A word of warning: These words from Matthew’s gospel which we call the Beatitudes are some of the most difficult for us to understand – and to hear – once we do understand. The hearers of these words for centuries have rejected them, shaking their heads and saying something like, “I’m just going to be a good person and let Jesus take care of the rest.” Most of us really DO NOT WANT to follow Jesus if this is what it means. These words go against our cultural wisdom. They challenge our deeply held beliefs. And they are hard to follow. That’s the warning!
 
I. Blessed are…
If someone told us that they were going to share the key to happiness, they would have our attention. The word used here that is translated “blessed” also means fortunate and happy in the original Greek. [i] So listen, and Jesus has a few words to tell us about how to be happy in life.
 
Those who are poor in spirit on earth are happy – for the kingdom of heaven will be theirs. They are happy now, for in the future, those who are poor in spirit – who know they are dependent on God – are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The implied imperative is “Be poor in spirit – depend on God for all things!”
 
Those who mourn are happy – for they will be comforted in God’s kingdom. Those who lament the present condition of God’s people, who grieve for the state of God’s program in the world, who weep over families torn apart with no plan to reunite them, for those whose hearts break over the homeless in the streets, who suffer over the lack of a living wage and basic healthcare in one of the most affluent countries in the world – these are the lucky ones – for in God’s kingdom they will find comfort.
 
Those who are meek are happy – for it is to them that the earth will be given. It is to those who are not powerful, who renounce the ways of selfishness, profit and violence to others who will be God’s heirs in the future.
 
Those who hunger and thirst for what is right, who long for what is right, for God’s kingdom and who focus their lives on doing the will of God – these are the ones who will receive their hearts’ desire.
 
Happy are the merciful – for they will receive mercy. And the pure in heart – those who devote their hearts to God alone. Happy are the peacemakers – for these are God’s own children. Happy are those who are persecuted – for they are so out of step with the value systems of this age that they already belong to the coming new order of God.
 
Do you see? Blessed/happy are those now who are already aligned with God’s in-breaking and coming kingdom. Happy are those who are already disciples, who follow the way of Jesus. Blessedness, happiness is knowing that we NEED God. It is an alternative wisdom that looks like foolishness from the perspective of the world’s values.
 
II. Blessed are the vulnerable….
Blessed are the vulnerable, who know they need God, for they have the capacity to be filled. This is the opposite of pride… those who are open to God and to others. AND It is the vulnerable who can experience a different kind of community – a community that reflects the kindom of God.
 
If thou could’st empty all thyself of self, Like to a shell dishabited, Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, And say, ‘This is not dead’, And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou And hast such shrewd activity, That when He comes, He says, ‘This is enow Unto itself – ’twere better let it be, It is so small and full, there is no room for me.’
 
Blessed are the vulnerable – for they have an emptiness that is open to God and others. Contrary to what we might think, vulnerability sparks cooperation, group interaction, and trust.
 
Arthur and Elaine Aron did research on the link between vulnerability and connection using 2 sets of questions. The first set encouraged sharing of information: who is your favorite actor and why, etc. The second set of questions involve answers that are a bit more risky. They create discomfort, break down barriers, and encourage authenticity.
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
 
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?[iii]
 
Answering these questions creates closeness because they share vulnerability.
Jesus’ words are an encouragement to let ourselves be vulnerable – to be open to God to lead us, to others to be a part of a different kind of community. Christian faith is “a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness is the way of God, that righteousness and peace will finally prevail, and that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty. So blessed are those who live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish, for they will, in the end, be vindicated by God.”[iv]
 
Vulnerability draws us together as a community.
 
So here we are…we bond together over grief, our struggle, over doubts. But where there is no connection, it is because we have not yet shared risk and vulnerability. We are a bit divided – several groups without much connection. And we need to draw closer to support each other.
 
BOAT. Look up for a minute. Our ceiling is shaped like an upside-down boat. We gather here – together in a boat, perhaps a lifeboat. Like refugees – refugees from the world hoping for a better place. And we share a different kind of life together. We share food together – both the sacred meal of Communion – and our fellowship meals and snacks – because we’ve been through some traumas together. And we are still open – to others who may want to find that kind of community. God continues to open us up… pouring more of Godself into us, giving us the courage to be….vulnerable. For it is then that we find we are indeed blessed.
 
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
[i] Makarios = fortunate, happy and in a religious context, blessed.
[ii] Sir Thomas Browne was an English polymath (learned in many areas) who wrote poetry, was interested in science and medicine, religion and philosophy. 1605-1682.
[iv] IDB, Matthew, 181.

Miriam’s Story

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Have you ever had a dream that was so powerful that it took hold of your life and settled in your heart?  From the time I was a small girl I remember my parents prayers with a longing plea, “O Lord, Deliver us!”  The prayer took root in my heart and became its song.  That prayer may have been a part of why God chose me to be a prophet , and my call to help DELIVER my people. I AM a prophet!  My name is Miriam.

Called to help DELIVERER

One night, after prayers, my parents – Jochebed and Amram to you – told me that I would have another little brother. They were excited and afraid at the same time – I could tell.  But he was to be a secret.  And I asked them, “Is he the Deliverer?” They were shocked and surprised at my question – but my heart sang with joy because I KNEW.  I KNEW he was the Deliverer for whom my people had prayed for 300 years.

When he was born, the midwives kept the secret to save him and my mother hid him in the house.  He was a good baby – (eye roll) not rowdy like 3 year old Aaron. NO ONE could EVER hide him!  But this baby stayed quiet and we hid him for three months.  Then my mother was afraid that we couldn’t hid him anymore and so she made a little ark – a special basket woven tightly and lined with pitch to keep it waterproof and a tight-fitting lid to keep him inside when it moved.  She put the basket in the shallows with the reeds and told me to keep watch.  I watched – and prayed for my brother, the Deliverer– and sang to him so he wouldn’t cry, singing the song of my heart. Pharoah’s daughter came to her usual spot to bathe, and I prayed and sang – (Pause) and nudged.  She saw it, as I had hoped, and opened it up.  And she was charmed by my little brother and decided to keep him.  To save him. She was still figuring things out – that he was a Hebrew child and his life was at risk – and I ran up and offered to find her a woman to nurse him and care for him while he was young.  She smiled and said that she would pay the woman to care for him.  So I ran and got my mother, who came to get my brother, now named “Moses,” and take him home.  So our family was together and we were safe and had more money now.  And my parents taught little Moses about God and God’s promise to deliver us from slavery and take us to a new land. And the song in my heart was strong.

Called to help in the DELIVERANCE.

You probably know the next part of the story.  Moses went to live in the palace when he was old enough to have basic manners – and old enough to know who he was and where he came from.  He learned the customs of Egypt and how to lead.  But he never forgot who he was and when he saw an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave, he killed him and buried his body in the sand.  That meant he had to flee from Egypt – and I wondered, how would God save us?  Moses was gone for 40 years – and while I prayed still every day for God to DELIVER US, I wasn’t so sure that Moses was the DELIVERER.  Maybe I was wrong…maybe it was pride that made me think he was the one, and that God would deliver us in my lifetime.  The song grew fainter in my heart, but it was still there.  And then Aaron got a message to meet Moses in the desert – that he was coming home. And the song in my heart grew strong again.  God was going to act for us and Moses was his instrument.

Moses returned and he and God battled Pharaoh over our freedom.  That was hard, but we could see God at work through Moses.  And after the Passover, the time came and we left. God was delivering us!  Imagine our fear when we realized that Pharaoh had changed his mind and was pursuing us with chariots and horses.  We were a large group, many hurt or old, with children.  We couldn’t possibly outrun an army.  And then the Reed Sea was in front of us.  I know you have heard it was the Red Sea – but that’s too far south and too large.  It gets confusing when ancient Hebrew writing doesn’t have vowels – people tend to make things up and the Red Sea is bigger and makes a better story, I guess.  But the location probably doesn’t matter to you – it’s what God did.  God told Moses to hold out his staff and we could walk through.  When we reached the other side, the waves washed the army of Egypt away.

I looked around at the faces of our people and saw ALL the emotions. Fear at what they had seen, anger that they had been afraid, grief at losing the land they had known, and perhaps the beginnings of hope.  I also saw the beginning of the protest.  I understand that now it is called a “back to Egypt committee.” There are always some folks who want things the way they once were – they remember the leeks and meat – but forget the whips and hard labor. Moses was tired.  He couldn’t deal with an ensuing rebellion.  So I grabbed my tambourine and began to sing and dance.  Everyone joined in the celebration – we needed a party right then!  And in my song I reminded them that GOD brought us here. GOD delivered us – and GOD would be leading us to a new home, caring for us on the way, protecting us from armies. Glory to God!  God is greater than the armies of Egypt! Glory to God! God is greater than the might of Pharaoh!  AND WE WERE DELIVERED by the HAND of the LORD!  The song burst out of my heart through my voice and my hands and my feet!  And the people all sang with me.

  • But not all of the days were like that. Deliverance isn’t as easy as you would think.  There was a lot of grumbling and complaining and my song wasn’t always the answer.  The desert burns a lot out of you – and there were moments when it was a toss-up on which was harder, desert wandering or slavery.  And I lost my song.

Without my song, without my focus on God – I stumbled. I was wrong. It was my pride that was the problem. I am a prophet, but Moses seemed to be the only one talking with God. It was hard to hear my song of deliverance when we seemed to be endlessly wandering.  I was wrong.  I hurt Moses with my rebellion.  (pause)

And God judged me. God called the three of us before the Shekinah —  the presence of the Lord – and afflicted me with leprosy for my failings. Moses and Aaron were shocked, and pleaded for God to heal me. And God is merciful and did heal me – but I was forced to live outside the camp for a week until someone, not Aaron or Moses, but another priest would say that I was free from leprosy. Everyone knew I had failed them – failed my brother Moses, and failed my people. Pride – it distracts us from what God is doing and focuses us on ourselves. And we make bad choices then.

I was a humbled prophet the rest of my days. Still one of the three leaders of the Deliverance: Moses, Aaron and Miriam, as mentioned by the prophet Micah. But never again would I challenge the leadership of Moses.  I held on to my song.  I sang it every day to myself and to the children. Because my song was also the song of the LORD. A song of deliverance not just for the Hebrews, but for all people.  It is a reminder that God is greater than governments and armies.  It is a reminder that God seeks justice for all people, and especially those who are abused or downtrodden.  It is a song of hope. And I will sing it all my days.  This is the song of God, the song of deliverance and freedom – for the people of God. 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Moses: The MOST Reluctant Prophet

biegun-wschodni-8636-unsplash.jpg“I am not Enough”

The actions of a hero are only understood within the context of the grand sweep of God’s story.  Heroes aren’t really heroes until they move out with God to serve God’s purposes.

Our first hero is Moses –= an unlikely hero on many fronts. He was born the child of slaves, a disempowered and oppressed people with little control over their lives and destinies.  He was adopted into Pharaoh’s family, but likely understood himself as an outsider.  Other people might have seen him as a collaborator, even though he was adopted as an infant – again with no choice or control. He had a temper and murdered an Egyptian when he saw him abusing a slave.  He became a fugitive from the law and ran away to the hill country.  His second career was as a shepherd.  Anything in there say “hero” to you right off the bat?

  • A shepherd in the wilderness. Moses was fortunate in discovering the daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian.  His character helped too, since he chased away the men who were bullying them and helped them water their flocks.  This earned him a dinner invitation, a job and a wife.  And for 40 years, approximately, he lived his second career in the wilderness.

Time in the wilderness changes people. Story after story in scripture, other literature and in religious history tells of the impact of the wilderness on the spirit of a person.  For forty years Moses was away from the splendor, power systems and social stratification of Egypt.  In the desert, ego is burned away.  From Prince of Egypt to nomadic shepherd. Artifice is burned away – there are no power dynamics herding sheep.  It is a game of survival, leading flocks all over to find scant bits of vegetation enough to keep the flocks, and their herders, alive.

And Moses is a husband and father.   He and Zipporah have two sons.  Moses has made a new life in the desert of Midian – until his life changes.

  • The Call. While minding his business, the sheep, Moses is distracted by the sight of a bush in flames without burning up.  While I could tell you that in scripture flames are a common image for God – Moses didn’t know that.  I burning bush that wasn’t burning up with be something to investigate, particularly in the dry climate of the desert. When he does to investigate, he is told to remove his sandals, for he is on holy ground. This is a call narrative – a story where God calls a prophet.  But it is also a theophany – an appearance of God.

What is at stake? Liberation is at stake. God’s promises to God’s children: freedom, land, well-being are at stake.  God is faithful to God’s people including aliens, immigrants and the oppressed. BAM. Mic drop.

“I have heard the cries of my people enslaved in Egypt, and you will go and bring them out of slavery to a land of their own.”

This isn’t just a matter of liberation as a one time event – it is God’s structure of relationship. Covenant with God is the alternative to Empire and oppression. God speaks a challenge to Egypt and Domination systems everywhere (Babylon, Persia, Rome….) It is a critique of those who want absolute power – a reminder that only God is God, and we are at our best in God’s service. Contrasts the Glory of God with the Glory of Pharaoh, who considered himself to be a god. There are three themes to this story: Liberation, Covenant, and Presence.

Back to Moses…  God is calling a prophet of liberation to go to Egypt and confront a world ruled by Pharaoh.

 Moses resists. Of course he resists.

— Never mind that there may still be a price on his head. He fled this country – was it already 40 years ago?

— Never mind that he is 80 years old (roughly) at this point.

— Moses is a different person now, and his identity and very life would be at risk in Egypt.

— He has every reason to fear rejection by his own people. We’ve read the Bible stories – we know that’s a real thing.

— Moses apparently stumbles over words too, not helpful when speaking with those in power. Not good for a person called to be a prophet.

But of course he resists.  All prophetic call narratives include resistance.

 It is a given when we experience the holiness of God that we would cry like Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am a person of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” God shows up, interrupting our lives with a new way to serve God and our first instincts are “Whoa.  I can’t do that. I’m not good enough, holy enough, talented enough to serve God.” It is a normal reaction. Moses’ struggle is real. He isn’t ambitious, power-hungry or egocentric.  He’s a shepherd.  “I can’t.   I’m not enough,” he says.

And God replies:  Of course you’re not.  I never said you were.  But I AM!  I will bring Israel out of Egypt – I need a human partner. I will be with you. I will be WITH you – you aren’t going alone. So GO!  (‘ehyeh ‘aser ‘ehyeh= I am who I am; I will be who I am; I will be who I will be) Either first or third person imperfect or future tense…..(footnote in NRSV)

But  there is another thing happening here. 

God spoke to an 80 year old shepherd and told him to get moving.  But not just ANY 80 year-old shepherd.  One who spoke Egyptian, and knew the culture and the ruling family – one with righteous indignation and a passion for justice.  Where our particular talents meet a point of need……a God opportunity, perhaps even a call.

“God’s usual way of working in the world to alleviate suffering, injustice, and pain is not to intervene miraculously, suspending the laws of nature, violating the principle of human freedom or sending angles to make things right.  No, God works through people…..”[i]

God CALLS US!

We don’t usually get a burning bush, or winged seraphim, or even a pillar of fire or cloud.  We get a burning desire to make a difference, an unexpected opportunity, a nudging in our spirit….

— GLOBAL MIGRATION: Special offering because…

— IMMIGRATION/DETENTION CRISIS

And that’s the story. God calls Moses away from the sheep on the hillside to trust him with an urgent task: to set free people in bondage and conditions of oppression. And Moses did – he partnered with God, which made him a hero. 

But there are still people who are oppressed.  God is still calling heroes to partner with God to set them free. Imagine!  God may seek us – call us – with this urgent task too.  In the middle of our everyday lives, despite our shortcomings, regardless of our inadequacy to do what God is asking of us – God calls us.  “Get moving!  I have heard the cries of my people, and seen their suffering, and I need a liberator again….”

[i] Adam Hamilton, “Moses,” p.59.
Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash

A New Day Dawning – Memorial Day weekend & Peace and Justice Sunday

josh-felise-2951-unsplash.jpgDeuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21 and John 14: 15-21

 There is an ancient Jewish story about the crossing of the Red Sea.  God and the angels were all watching the events with tension and excitement, perhaps as we watched the Cubs in the World Series.  The angels  were cheering and shouting for the Israelites to hurry and enter the water of the Red Sea, even while booing at Pharaoh with his horses and chariots and army who were chasing the children of Israel. When Israel had crossed the divided waters of Red Sea and the waters turned against Egypt and its armies and they were swept away, a loud cheer erupted among the angels and great rejoicing, as they congratulated each other and slapped each other on the back.  At some point they noticed that God was stunned and silently weeping. “God, why do you weep?  Your children the Israelites are safe on dry land!  This is a day to celebrate!”

“Ah yes,” God replied.  “But I cannot rejoice. For you see, while my children the Israelites are safe, my children the Egyptians are all drowned.”  (Pause)

  • There is a similar many-sidedness to our remembrances of Memorial Day. We want to honor those who gave their lives – their sacrifice should not be forgotten and they should be honored.  We acknowledge the VERY HUMAN LOSS of not only those who died, but also their families and friends.  But in our honoring, we grieve. And for some of us, we had family and friends killed who were fighting on the opposite side of the US. We remember them too. It’s complicated.

The Deuteronomist asks, “What does the Lord your God ask of you?” And then answers the question: to honor God by walking in God’s ways, loving God and serving the Lord your God with all your heart and being.

This advice, written down around 700 B.C.E. in Jerusalem, likely during the reforms of King Josiah by scribes of the Levite order, is staged with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. In Deuteronomy chapters 4-11, the events surrounded the giving of the Ten Commandments are shared with the people of Israel, and Moses instructs families and leaders on how to encourage everyone to keep the faith.  This morning’s reading is a part of a scribed construction of a sermon by Moses to the Israelites on what really matters  — what must be shared before they are separated and on their own in the promised land.

For those in King Josiah’s time (641-609 B.C.E.), recalling those earlier events likely reminded them of something that mattered.  Something so important that the stories came from the Northern Kingdom with the refugees after it fell to Assyria:  that YHWH was not only the most powerful divinity, but the only one and that worship and service of YHWH – translated “The Lord” was to be with all of our being. In the middle of the confusion of cultures mixing and an eight-year old king, this was something to hang onto.

In a sense, our honoring of those who died in service of our country is a similar recollection to that of the writers of Deuteronomy.  We weren’t there.  We didn’t experience what they did.  But we have parts of the stories. And more, there is something compelling in the act of remembering. It is more than simply the tragedy of lost life, although that is worth remembering.  As we remember, we connect with war’s devastating losses and perhaps provide some space for healing. This is especially important when we are so insulated from the tragedy of war. Today, we do not often hear the reports of those killed in service, and their bodies are brought home quietly with us unaware unless we happen to be on that plane flight.  We are insulated and perhaps even a bit numbed to the human cost of war. Perhaps by remembering we may also learn something of the importance of the moment. Of their moment – when there was something important at stake worth dying for. Perhaps even worth living for.

During the Vietnam War, Rev. Hayes Fletcher was doing draft counseling here at First United Methodist Church.  People disagreed and took sides.It split the church and the church struggled financially and with morale. Bob Burchill tells stories of mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms to get ready for worship because there was no money for a custodian. The church remaining hung together despite a range of opinions, and those who remained practiced tolerance – because they understood that views on the war were many and the answers were not cut and dried. Even the government understood it was complicated – and they are often the last to know – and exempted members of Peace Churches from combat.

It is said that in combat, soldiers can focus on their task only as long as they remember what they are fighting for.  They carry pictures of their families, sweethearts – one soldier from the very small town of Ferrisburgh, Vermont – population 2,467 at the time, was sent a picture of the entire population of that town gathered on the Fourth of July holding a sign saying, “We love you, Stuart. We are praying for you.” In combat, the rhetoric of political leaders doesn’t matter. Nor do arguments about right and wrong – there is one focus: doing what you must to save what you love.

This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who died by honoring the complexity of remembering.  We can avoid the too-quick solutions of grabbing either a flag or a cross and insisting on our opinions – for as Reinhold Niebuhr said in The Irony of American History, “…the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own.” [i]

And the very real cost of war and death is faced by families and communities. Novelist Wendell Berry describes the experience well as Jayber Crow reflects on the death of Forrest Junior in WWII.

I thought a good deal about Forrest Junior and wondered where he was buried, and if anybody even knew where.  I imagined that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed.  Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember.  Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle?  They die at home – in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses like Mis Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever.”[ii]
Yes, it’s complicated. Loss. Admiration. Remembrance. Honor.  Our many-sided view of Memorial Day.

  • What can we do with our troubled consciences? Our unclean hands? As people of faith we learn to live differently – out of our faith values – by the power of God’s Spirit living in us. 

It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to help us get over our self-interest and cultural expectations.  It takes the presence of the living God to move us past denial and excuses to confront our own participation in the machines of war. It requires divine intervention to move us to act differently.

Memorial day began. You may know that Memorial Day observances began with the decoration of graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. In many southern towns, women began decorating the graves of soldiers from both north and south before the war even ended.  The practice spread after the war. On May of 1865 as more than 1,000 recently freed slaves along with members of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry and other soldiers from regiments of what was known as the “U.S. Colored Troops,” as well as a few while Charlestonians entered a former prisoner camp in Charleston, SC near the city’s Citadel. They sang hymns, prayed and shared readings over a mass grave behind a racetrack grandstand where more than 250 prisoners were buried, dead of exposure or disease. They also distributed flowers around the newly decorated cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Part of the original observance of Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, seems to always have been a recognition that the life of each individual, no matter where they died or what uniform they were wearing, has a kind of sacred worth.  Every human being is a child of God.  This thought challenges our desire to make those we perceive as our enemies out to be less than human, some kind of “other,” or even “animals.”  If we deny them their sacred worth we don’t have to feel so troubled in our consciences. END.This kind of reasoning leads on internment camps in time of war as with the Nisei in this country during WWII, or ethnic cleansing as practiced by the Nazis in Germany, or holding camps for children whose parents are citizens.  We deny that they are created in the image of God so we can justify whatever dehumanizing treatment we want to perpetuate on them. Dehumanizing for us.

What do we do when we recognize our participation in the evil?

Our hands are not clean. We people of faith have voted in leaders who consider personal profits above human lives.  We people of faith have ignored the practices of the military which target the poor and put them on the front lines. We act as if it doesn’t matter that lives are lost daily in places we cannot pronounce and change the channel when the reports become graphic.

— We step back from positions or verbalizations of power.

“Power,” Neibuhr  wrote, “always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.” 
― Reinhold NiebuhrThe Irony of American History

As people of faith, we do not dare turn away. As we honor those who DIED holding to some ideals of our nation, it is laid upon us – their benefactors – to LIVE according to those ideals.

We remember beyond the rhetoric. — They died to protect the rights of all people – so we may march in the streets or defend the rights of those in court who are being objectified whether through sexual assault or racially-biased violence.

They died to set free captives overseas being put to death because of their race and religion – so we may defend freedom of religion and freedom of speech in our time.

They died believing in an America that was the land of the free – so we can protest unjust sentencing that leaves us with the highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world, disproportionately citizens of color.

They died – so we…have the chance to make this country, this world, a more safe and more just place for ALL people, all made in the image of God no matter where they come from or what they look like.

In the TV show M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahey comments that there were songs that encouraged soldiers in every war, except for the Korean War and decides to write one.

          No one’s singing war songs now, like people used to do

          No “Over There,” no, “Praise the Lord,” no “Glory Hallelu,”

          Perhaps at last we’ve asked ourselves what we should have asked before – With the
          pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?

— We need God’s help to stand up – and not just a simple prayer in which we give lip-service to God as the source of power and goodness!  No!  We need the opened up, roiling passion of the day of Pentecost blazing inside us to stand up to the world’s version of truth and speak God’s truth to it.

— That every human life has sacred worth.

— That all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, are precious children of God and our brothers and sisters.

— When the cost of war is touted up it cannot be simply profits for the military-industrial complex that are considered, but the poverty in our nation that is unaddressed while we wreak destruction on other nations.  And the families who mourn because their world is forever darkened by loss.

And then, maybe then, we can honor our dead in the way so many of them would wish – by stopping the violence. Challenging those who urge us towards war.

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”― att. Teresa of Ávila

We need to BE EMPOWERED by the Holy Spirit to live out God’s values.  Don’t just shake your head over those lives lost, perhaps shedding a tear or two. MOVE! Be a part of this NEW Day Dawning where God’s people raise their voices to pray and demand peace.  To live differently with our neighbors so that A New day of love and justice is dawning among us.  To allow the presence of God to be visible in us, imperfect us – until God’s Kindom comes among us. Amen.

[i]  Reinhold NiebuhrThe Irony of American History.
[ii] [ii] Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

Pentecost Power

ian-stauffer-578276-unsplash.jpg Ephesians 2: 11-14 and Acts 2: 1-14

The Walls Came Down in Jerusalem

Listen to this account – it was an extraordinary day!  People were again gathered in Jerusalem from many nations for a major Jewish festival. This time Shavuot (shoo-us), or Festival of Weeks, held 7 weeks after Passover as a celebration of First Fruits and also of the law given to Moses. And again, into the ordinary patterns of celebration, God intervenes.  This time the presence of God comes with the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon all of Jesus’ followers empowering them to speak in ways that all those gathered with many languages could hear.  And the walls that separated them by language, by nation, or by ethnicity came down in Jerusalem that day as they all heard the story of God’s mighty acts in Jesus.  The walls came down.

It must grieve God that even after Pentecost, the church has continued to build walls. We are silo-ed in our denominational houses over differences in belief and practice, even in a country where our congregation comes from many different denominations and faith traditions.  Jesus prayed that we would be one.  The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us.  And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we focus so much energy on the things that divide us rather than living and loving as followers of Jesus together.

SEGREGATED HOUR. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.  Dr. King confronted the church on that 50 years ago – and yet it is still true. Even in congregations like ours, which value our diversity, we find subtle barriers that separate us. Tribalism infects us with fear of those who appear different from ourselves. Race is a social construct – certainly not something that God thought should divide us or we wouldn’t have Ruth in Jesus’s genealogical line.   Jesus prayed that we would be one.  The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us.  And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we instinctively focus on the 1% of genetic makeup that is different instead of the 99% of our genes that are common among all human beings.

UMC. In the United Methodist Church there are conversations right now over differences in belief about full inclusion that may lead to a division into different strands or different denominations within the Methodist Church in America. Seventeen Conferences in Africa just rejected an amendment to our denominational constitution that would value all persons regardless of gender and name them as created in the image of God. But so did the Annual Conference immediately South of us – The Illinois Great Rivers Conference, and quite a few conferences in the US. And the attitudes behind this division may split the church.  Even among Methodists, who a group founded by the Wesleys to bring more inclusivity and revival in the Church of England, we ignore or set aside Wesley’s words from his sermon, “Catholic (Universal) Spirit.”

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.[i]

Jesus prayed that we would be one.  The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us.  And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we Methodists still seem so clueless about living as people of faith together in the world.

  • We seem to have forgotten that Day of Pentecost. Forgotten the power of God that blasted down walls that day.  Forgotten that barriers of language were overcome, barriers of national allegiances were overcome as fellowship was restored once the walls were torn down.

Even with reminders in many of our own lifetimes.

Berlin. Do you remember the tearing down of the Berlin wall? In 1989, the wall that had divided families, a city and a country came down.  It had stood since 1961, an ugly concrete scar across the city of Berlin.  And on November 9, 1989 the wall began to be torn down.

South Africa. In 1994, Apartheid, a harsh system of repression and separation by race, ended in South Africa.  Three years of negotiation led to a point where the barriers were removed, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and in a democratic election, Nelson Mandela was elected the President of South Africa – their first black president.

That Pentecost Power set loose in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago is still running loose in the world, tearing down walls.

You have probably noticed that there are still walls. We keep finding them blocking our way. Even with the power of the Spirit, Sophia in the original Greek, doing her utmost to destroy those walls – there are still walls. And part of our calling is to TEAR them down. KNOCK them down. And we can’t do it without the Spirit.

If we had read the next part of the 2nd Chapter of Acts we would have heard Peter preaching. Remember Peter? The guy who promised to never desert Jesus by denied him three times because he was afraid of the accusation of a maid that he had been with Jesus.  THAT Peter is now standing up in front of God and everybody telling the story of Jesus and defending the acts of the Spirit that they had just experienced.  THAT Peter has changed – is empowered and unafraid because of the presence of the Spirit within him.

FOR US. The presence of the Spirit alive and at work in us can give us the courage to follow the path of Jesus in the challenging moments – the courage of a Peter or Andrew, of Chris Gueffroy – the last person killed trying to cross the wall, of Ronald Reagan who challenged Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace–if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”[ii] Or of Nelson Mandela who never gave up on ending apartheid saying famously, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  We can have that kind of moral courage – the presence of the Holy Spirit helps!

If we read the rest of the book of Acts, we find a deeper truth.  The power of the Spirit is multiplied when we work together to break down the walls. The early church had people who did things individually, but  together they changed Rome.  Together Christianity was tolerated and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Together they spread across the world.

And together, we can tear down walls. That’s what love does, especially when we work together.

HYMN. “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no south or north – but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

Together we can create a diverse community where all people, all languages, all cultures are celebrated. Diversity makes us healthy.  It’s proven in biology.  It’s proven for communities. Diversity makes us healthier as a community. The churches that are vital in their communities are almost all churches that are diverse in many ways.

Actually, this Pentecost Power is about relationships.  Relationship with God as we are brought closer to the holy as the Holy Spirit dwells in us.  And it is about relationships with others as the presence of the Holy tears down walls that divide, and gives us the wisdom and strength to continue that work in our lives.This is our church – with the Holy Spirit in the middle of the family circle – in the middle of us all.

Our prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit,” which we will share in as many languages as are among us at this moment, is a prayer for the Spirit to come to empower us as individuals to speak out against injustices and tear down walls.  It is a prayer to let God fill us so we can push past our own prejudices – a prayer to change US. It is a prayer for power as community to respect and protect others—a prayer to change the world..

Veni Sancte Spiritus. (Latin)
Viens, Saint-Esprit.  (French)
Komm heiliger Geist.  (German)
Ven, espíritu santo.  (Spanish)

[i]  https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit
[ii] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/reagan-challenges-gorbachev-to-tear-down-the-berlin-wall
Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash