John 6:24-35 — Why do we look for Jesus?

Sermon delivered at Valley Mills Friends Meeting

Reading:  John 6:24-35

When I was a student at Barclay college, I took a class on missions. In this class, one of the topics that came up was that of “Rice Christians”. Rice Christians is a term for the people who call themselves Christians because they believe that they will receive bags of rice. It is the idea that people want to become Christians so that they can get something from the missionaries.

At that time, I really didn’t understand all of the conversation. While it was clear that “Rice Christians” were not a useful addition to the fledgling church, it is hard to see what the issues are. Even after graduating, it was somewhat hard to see what the issues were. You see, I have done some work with food pantries, and with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army in my home town has a huge building that is full every day of the week, except Sunday when only its small congregation is there. When I’ve worked at a church food Pantry, the days we hand out food attract far more people than Sunday worship.

It has been hard for me to figure this out, partially, because it is outside my experience. My experience with food relief is that Christians hand out food because people are hungry — and people accept the food, because they are hungry. I’ve never noticed anybody expecting those who hungered to be church members, or even Christian. I’ve even thought from time to time that it would be nice to see them some other time, such as Sunday morning.

When I think about it though, this means that I did not really know what it meant to have people coming to church, just because they wanted the church to keep giving them bread. The Christian organizations I worked with did not expect those who received food or other aid to be there on Sunday morning, so there was no reason for rice Christians.

More recently, I’ve been in a position where I could see that there are people who are around only for what they can get out of others — I’ve seen people who attend churches as long as the Benevolence fund helps — but leave angrily when it runs out. I’ve seen people who try to assert their power and control the work of their local churches instead of seeking God’s will together. I’ve even come to realize that when people talk about networking, some of them actually do mean that the purpose of forming relationships is to promote ourselves — that we ‘win friends’ and ‘influence people’ in order to increase the sales volume — and the church becomes merely a place to make more contacts.

I find it interesting how the people who came to Jesus just came because they received bread. The bread that they received was distributed miraculously. When Jesus asked them to believe, they asked what signs he’d demonstrate so that they might believe — as if feeding 5000 people out of a boy’s lunchbox was not enough of a miracle. The feeding of the 5000 was at the start of this chapter — a crowd that could not be fed with 6 months wages, even if so much food could be bought at the last moment. This passage is literally the next day.

When Jesus preached, he preached that people should be generous to those in need, and to feed the hungry. Jesus went so far as to miraculously feed those who came to listen to him because he knew that they must be hungry.  Jesus cared about the physical needs of others, but he cared about more than just the physical.

I am amazed at the idea that the people were so focused on their stomachs that they missed the miracle that fed them. They also completely missed out on the message. Jesus told them: “I am the bread of life.” They were so focused on their hunger that they had no interest in their starving spirit.

The result of this exchange, which we see at the end of the chapter, is that the crowds left Jesus. When Jesus spoke of something other than healing the sick, and when he offered spiritual food, but did not hand out food for the body, the crowds left him. Even the bulk of Jesus’ disciples left him. In a day, Jesus went from having thousands of people following him, hoping to find healing or food to having his own disciples leaving him. When he asked the twelve: “Will you leave us too”, Peter had a rare moment of getting it, answering: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”

Jesus, in a matter of days saw his ‘congregation’ drop from several thousands of people and nearly 100 leaders to the point where he asked the twelve if they would leave him too. After the church growth movement, churches everywhere are seeing many of the people who were brought in leaving again — many churches don’t know how far this decline will go. How many wanted food, or health? How many really were not willing to go to Jerusalem and possibly die with Jesus?

Sometimes, I am pretty nervous about numbers — right now, every church I’ve been involved with seems to have fewer people than they once did, and the people who are there seem to have less time and energy for church. I remember how the church growth movement taught us that if we were not growing the church, we were failing to live up God’s calling to make disciples.

What this passage reminds me is that the crowds might not be disciples. Those who come for the services that are offered, may not have any interest in the bread of life. Those who come for fellowship might not be willing to stay if faith is no longer respectable. Those who came for connections might leave when they see that there are other ways to network. Those who seek power might leave when they realize that the church isn’t supposed to be about power and control.

Unfortunately, this kind of growth can make us forget who we are. Growth can distract us, causing us to worry so much about the logistics of all those people that we forget to make disciples. Growth can be great crowds of people who are neither disciples, nor have any idea that there should be disciples. It seems that Jesus needed to chase away the crowds, and focus on just a few people who knew he brought words of life. Jesus fed the crowds, healed the sick, preached good news to the poor — but, he needed time and space to make disciples.

Perhaps we have an opportunity to refocus, and experience personal growth as disciples, and into the name Christian. Perhaps when people talk about the need for spiritual revival, they are confused. Maybe, right now, we need to become small enough that we can rediscover a devotion to Christ. Maybe we were so distracted by having a real influence on the world around us that we put our trust in politics rather than Christ. Perhaps we have an opportunity to discover that our faith is not about winning, but about being faithful and walking with Jesus

Hebrews 4:14-5:10 — Ministry and Christology

Sermon delivered at Raysville Friends meeting

Reading:  Hebrews 4:14-5:10

When we come right down to it — this passage gives us a view of salvation, gives a hint of who Jesus is, and gives me a lot to think about when I think about what it means to be a minister of the gospel. The passage is terse, there is very much to flesh out, and it is almost impossible not to read our own theologies into the passage — which is true of all brief readings with many theologically full words. It is impossible to see words like salvation without bringing in our own ideas of what this means.

If we go back to the first chapter of Hebrews, we see that Jesus is God and Human. We further see that Hebrews differentiates how God used to speak to humanity, and how God now speaks to humanity: Before, God spoke through prophets, now that Jesus came, Jesus is God’s voice to us. Hebrews starts by telling us what it means that Jesus is both divine and human: Through Jesus, God can talk to us. Today’s reading tells us that through Jesus we can also talk to God, Jesus can pray for us, seek forgiveness for our sinfulness, and that Jesus offers us salvation — and this salvation comes from the humanity and the Deity of Jesus

As I said before, Salvation is a somewhat theologically loaded word. When we see this word without a great deal of context, we have to guess things such as from what are we being saved? Very often, we will guess something rather simple, something that we expect. For example, the disciples knew that Jesus came to offer salvation — but they assumed that he would save Israel from the Romans, and that this salvation would come through some sort of armed insurrection. At least some of the disciples maintained this idea of salvation until Jesus was taken up into Heaven.

When I was younger, I always assumed that the salvation mentioned in scripture was salvation from hell, or more specifically, salvation from the punishment of sin. I’ve read several essays suggesting that without hell, there would be nothing that we needed saved from — which seems rather strange to me as scripture talks about Jesus saving us from sin. Even without hell, we still need salvation from sin.

When I read the gospels, I see that Jesus heals many people, and when he speaks to them, he often says: “Your faith has saved you.” The most obvious reading of this implies that Jesus saved them from physical disabilities, chronic illness, and in some cases death.

This passage connects salvation with the very nature of Jesus. For many centuries, Christians have tried to figure out what exactly that means. One of the oldest views is that we are saved just because Jesus was both God and human. Second Century theologian Irenius said that Jesus made human life holy by being human. He lived out life as a human, and died as a human, sanctifying the whole of human life. The basic idea is that Jesus participated in humanity and that makes humanity special. We are invited to participate in the miraculous — if we live with Christ, if we die with Christ, we will be raised with him.

When I took theology at Friends University, my professor Christian Kettler spoke about Salvation in terms of “The vicarious humanity of Christ”. He spoke of a Christ who lived life better than any of us could. He told us of how there are times that we cannot pray, so Jesus prays for us. There are times when we lose our faith, but Jesus is faithful for us. Kettler is a Presbyterian, and his book really expands the idea of substitutionary atonement to go beyond the cross to cover Christ’s whole life. I think that this is a good way to understand this passage.

In the past, this passage tells us, the priest would approach God for the people: The priest would vicariously pray for the people. The priest, however, was just another one of the people who had no real right nor ability to approach God. The priest needed to atone for his own sinfulness first. In the end, we rarely read of a priest bringing God’s word or assurance back to the people — as Hebrews 1 states: “In the past, God spoke through prophets”. The people had to both approach God, and hear from God vicariously through others, and vicariously through people who approached God clumsily, and never quite reached God.

Christ has brought us a long way. Jesus replaces the priest when we need somebody to pray for us, vicariously. In the words of George Fox, Christ has come to teach us Himself. Scripture teaches us that even after the Ascension, God has not abandoned us, but given us a Holy Spirit. We believe that we live in a state where we have access to God without the need of a priest to approach God for us vicariously. Jesus is our priest — Jesus is our pastor.

This is a rather challenging truth for me. I recognize that when I say that Jesus is, ultimately our shepherd, I name myself as one of the sheep. It is too easy to fall back on a model of ministry that is made obsolete by the work of Jesus: That is, it is very easy to fall into a model of ministry where a designated person learns the Holy things, prays vicariously for the people, and believes vicariously for the people. It is very tempting to fall into a model that grabs an Old Testament priest, and ignore that our faith is built on the incarnation.

When I say with George Fox: Christ is our teacher, what role is there for me? I know that whatever I am going to be, I am not Jesus. Whatever my ministry will be, it is not my job to do what Christ has already done — so, what does it mean, if I am to take on the role of pastor, to be both sheep and a shepherd under the Good Shepherd?

The problem that we face here is explained fairly well by an observation that Carlos Moran once made when he told a parable:

When a farmer plows his field, he sets up a reference point, and keeps his eye on that reference point. Once there was a lazy farmer who looked in the distance, and saw something that was white that he could use. He set his plow to his ox, and he kept his eye on the white thing, and he plowed a row. When he got to the end of the field, he saw clearly what he set his eye upon, a sheep. When he looked back, he saw that the row was quite crooked, because the whole time he was following a sheep.

Carlos was speaking of some dysfunction he observed in churches, and the sheep that he was talking about happened to be pastors. He noticed that people were getting so involved in pastors arguments that they were more interested in taking sides than keeping their eyes focused on a real reference point. This is the danger of being a pastor — that people will look to the pastor when they should be looking to Christ.

The truth is, I can’t be Jesus for anybody — and I don’t want to be. That means while I can and I should pray for people — I cannot pray for people vicariously when they cannot find the words that they want to say. I can, and I should do my best to interpret scripture, and share what I have learned and studied — but, unlike Jesus, I am not able to speak with the authority that comes from being the Word of God. In fact, even with all my study, I am no more than one interpreter in a community that seeks to discern God’s will. I grew up an Evangelical, and I have learned to have a personal faith, and to interpret scripture for myself. A more difficult lesson is that everybody around me has their own faith, and their own interpretations. I offer my voice, I listen to the voices of other interpreters.

Ok — I’m not Jesus, I can’t save you. I can’t stand before the Father in your behalf, I cannot offer you salvific grace. I cannot believe for you — if you have a crisis of faith, my faith will be of little comfort. And, if it comes down to it, I cannot be convicted of your sinfulness: If I were, it would do neither me nor you any good. Ministry is hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes, because the whole ancient role of priest seems removed. My ministry has to be something else — what can I do? Sometimes I think there is nothing left to do. Part of me thinks there is no need for pastors.

But, when I think about it — there is much that I can do. Making space for community takes deliberate work, and I can put work into community. If you give clear direction, I can represent the community. I can be your communities voice, and I can work to make sure that you stay connected to what is good in our wider community. There are some areas, such as hospitals, where only an official representative can go sometimes. I know that these are places we cannot afford to abandon. I know also that in order to share our faith with one another, we need somebody to hold a safe place where we can be deliberate about this. I can do my best to hold this place where we share our faith and make a space for a worshiping community. At this point all I can do is pray that we are gathered and ready to meet our true Shepherd.

Jeremiah 29:1-14: Advice for heaven’s expatriates

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

Last Sunday Donna asked me what I was going to speak on.I told her that I’d not decided yet, and she suggested that there were a lot of things that we spoke about that could be built on. I’ve thought about that, and also what is continuing to be on my heart — and the one thing that stood out the most was that we had a special guest representing Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation.

The last time I spoke to you, I lamented that our society is at times heartbreakingly and frighteningly evil. I unfortunately had no answer to give on how to make the evil go away. When our guest introduced herself, I could not help thinking that lobbying for a more just Indiana must be an exercise in frustration. As far as I can tell, she calls out for something which just is not a priority in our state legislature. It really does not matter if it is at the state or the national level — I cannot imagine the patience that it must take to proclaim a message of justice and respect for human life, and see that message ignored every day congress is in session. I have a lot of respect for people called to this ministry; it is the same ministry as the prophets who spoke God’s truth to the kings of Israel. The frustration must be like the frustration of Isaiah, when God told him that the people would hear, but never understand. We often quote Isaiah 6 to talk about God prepares us to be called — but, we stop before God tells Isaiah what this looks like — utter frustration, nobody listening and nothing changing until Israel is desolate.

This is the problem that we face. Yes, we want, we pray for, and we beg our government for a more just society — a world that is more like our faith teaches us that the world should be, but justice is elusive. As one of my politically conservative friends joked on Facebook: “The real reason that the 10 commandments is removed from government buildings isn’t that they are especially religious. It is because these buildings are filled with politicians and lawyers. Commands not to bear false witness, steal, or commit adultery create a hostile work environment.” I would add that other commandments such as not coveting likely condemn many who compete for political power.

The joke is funny, because we have a sense that it is true. We live in a nation that is devoted to the concept of liberty and justice for all, but even with our idealism, the truth on the ground is often disappointing. I know that for some people, it is tempting to seek a theocracy — but that has been tried before, and the results are nothing anybody wants to see repeated: The results of a theocracy are leaders claiming to speak with the absolute authority and blessing of God — the cry of the theocracy is: “God is on my side” — and the pre-exile prophets said again and again: “No, God isn’t — God is on the side of justice.” Israel failed to follow the laws on justice in the Torah, and those times when Christians created theocracies, they didn’t live up to the teachings of Christ. It does not matter how good the ideals of a government are — the government is filled with greedy, power-hungry, unjust, sinful people. No government is good enough to correct corruption in the human heart.

And this brings me to what Donna suggested — Rex talked about the question: “Who is Jesus?” There are many ways to build on this, but I’d like to point out who Jesus is not. Jesus is not the person who came to kick the Romans out of Israel. Jesus did not come to overthrow an unjust government, and to restore David’s throne. I believe somebody in this meeting pointed out that if we look for good kings, we find nobody. Even David, who has the most praise for being a king after God’s own heart did not come close to living up to the standards of justice that we find in Torah. Jesus did not come to replace one deeply flawed government with another flawed government.

Christianity grew and prospered in a state that cared nothing for Christian morals. Jesus built his kingdom on Earth through transforming human hearts and minds. It was something more enduring than government — and less corruptible. I know corrupt people find leadership positions in churches and denominations — but ultimately, Christianity informs how we can do good in a corrupt, and sometimes downright evil society. The Kingdom of Heaven offers a standard of justice that we all aspire to, even as we live on Earth.

I don’t mean to downplay those who feel a calling to improve the government and the society we live in. It is a hard prophetic calling, and I want to honor it — but even as I honor it, I want to remind us that most of us are not called to personally change the world. Christianity has always been a faith of ordinary and unremarkable people. Most Christians have very little power to change society, or call the government to change — how should the rest of us live?

Our reading is the advice Jeremiah gives to those who live in captivity. For those who don’t know, Jeremiah is traditionally considered the writer of Lamentations. He was a prophet who spoke to an exiled people — and in this reading we hear the advice that he gives to those who live in a less than perfect society. Out of all the prophetic writings, I think the truth spoken to God’s people in exile is closest to the advice the Church should take — our situation is very similar.

Jeremiah tells the people that the Babylonian captivity will last for 70 years. What this means is that the people he is speaking to will die in captivity. The will spend the rest of their life under another government, their grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren will be born in captivity. The reality that they have to live with is that of long term residence as foreigners who will not live long enough to go home. Those of us who claim citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven are in a very similar place — we were born here, and we will spend a lifetime here.

Because of these similarities, I think about this passage after almost every election. I think of this passage when I see injustice. I think about this passage when I see political arguments descending into point where they break community. I remember this passage when I see friends who feel such distress over what the government recently said or did that they lose hope for the future. I am grateful for Jeremiah’s letter to those in exile, and while we never have it so bad, it is still great advice for most of us: even if the advice goes against what I learned as a child.

I grew up with people talking about potential and the need to change the world. With everything that I learned, and the heroes that I learned about — one would think that the advice to those in captivity would be to violently overthrow Babylon’s government — and then return home with Jerusalem as the capital of a new world empire. We were often taught that freedom is won, and heroes win it, but the advice is not to be a hero.

Jeremiah writes the Jews in Babylon advising them to accept that they live in the foreign place, with strange customs and limited freedom. He advises them to live normal mundane lives — but he does more than this. Many of us see an enemy as something to be torn down and destroyed. Jeremiah tells the Jews in captivity to be extremely good neighbors to their enemies. They are to adopt Babylon as their home — pray that there is peace and prosperity there — and work to maintain both. The Jews are told to work so that their Babylonian neighbors are prosperous because: “As they prosper, so you shall prosper.”

Like many in the United States, I grew up surrounded by people who had an interest in partisan politics. The more I listen, the more I realize that many of these people wish the other party failure. Many would cheer a mild economic downturn, or an increase in crime, or a higher school drop-out rate because these things demonstrate the wrongness of the other party. This advice is meaningful to me, because I realize that no matter how wrong headed the people in charge may be: I still must pray that my neighbors prosper. I should pray that the nation I live in does well; not seek ways to tear down my own home out of spite, nor to celebrate a crumbling infrastructure.

Even more, this corrects the hero-worship I grew up with. It is not so bad to be a ‘nobody’ as I grew up believing. Almost everybody lives a normal life, which passes by unnoticed. We have many opportunities to do good things — and the good things that are done by those of us who are never remembered are far more than the great things done by our heroes. Growing up, thinking I should change the world was too much — and it causes me to despise the good that I can do. This passage helped me realize that living a normal life is enough for God — God even blesses normal. This helps me accept that normal is good enough for me — and that that the good things that my hands find to do are not below my dignity.

Finally, I am reminded to pray for my government — even though I might have chosen a different one. It does not matter how much I might disagree, I should pray and hope for the good of my community and my nation. Whether I pray and hope that my city will prosper because it is well governed, or if I pray and hope it will prosper in spite of bad governance, I must pray and work for the good of my neighbors, knowing that I have a share in the community.

Great is thy faithfulness: Lamentations 3:22-33

Sermon delivered at Irvington Friends Meeting

Reading:  Lamentations 3:22-33

I love poetry, there is something about it that speaks to my heart. One thing I love about the prophets is that their writing is full of poetry. Lamentations is a small collection of poems.  The prophets speak of destruction, devastation and feelings of abandonment. The prophets also speak of hope when there seems to be no reason to hope. For me the prophetic writings are writings of those who truly believe. No matter how bad things are, there is a believe that God’s goodness is better. The prophets see destruction and they expect restoration.

Lamentations was written mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple. The kingdom of Judah was destroyed, the people were moved out of their homes. Judah no longer existed as a nation. All of God’s promises to David’s line seemed to end. God’s promises to preserve and keep the people of Israel seemed to have failed. Evil won, and nobody would live to see Israel restored nor the temple rebuilt. When people thought of God’s promises, it looked as if God had abandoned the people and the promises were worthless.

These times have been very important. God’s people had to search their relationship with God, and carefully ask themselves what God said. God’s people had to ask why there was a change, and whether or not they lived up to their side of the covenant. When David’s kingdom was strong, nobody asked if they followed Torah, or created a just society. God’s apparent blessing seemed a tacit endorsement of behavior which was not only against justice, but against Torah. Over and over again, the prophetic writings observe that Israel neglected the social justice commands. Perhaps Israel fell because Israel was too much like the other nations.

Today, I feel drawn to the poetry of the prophets who wrote about the fall of Jerusalem. My mind is filled with doom and gloom. Hope seems far away. The Wednesday before last, a young man went into a bible study and murdered nine people at Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal church. Since that time, I’m aware of 4 churches that have burned. While I see people arguing about pieces of cloth, people are dying and churches are burning.

When I look even further back, I see over 200 school-girls from Nigeria, many of whom are members of the Church of the Brethren, kidnapped, raped, and when they returned home most were pregnant. I see all of the talk about ISIS, and the gruesome images of beheading. Since I’ve come to Indiana, I’ve learned of local violence, such as a car crashing into a church, a murdered pastor in Southport Indiana, and an Indiana resident driving to Ohio to set fire to a Mosque. The ugliness of hate is not as distant as I would like it to be — and sometimes ugly things happen that are not news.

The world has become a violent place, a place where many people are afraid. I’ve said before that much of the fear I’ve seen is misplaced — no terrorist is likely to notice our church, but still, it is something that has infected our community. I identify with the writings of the prophets because like them, because this feels more like captivity than the promised land. Like them, I look, I doubt, and I wonder what it is that we are doing wrong.

This is one reason that I like the prophets: when Jerusalem burns, the prophets express faith in God’s mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Even the scripture passage we call Lamentations includes the words that we sing is the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”. Lamentations tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning, even mornings where Jerusalem is desolate, or in more recent cases where Sunday morning comes, and either familiar faces are gone, or the building itself is rubble and ashes. How is it that Jeremiah sees God’s mercy in the wake of destruction? How do we see goodness when everything is bad?

One thing that I notice when I read the prophets is that nobody sees the badness when everything is good for the people in charge. The Babylonian era prophets mourn the fall of the kingdom and the cities, but they also observe that the kingdoms themselves were not Godly, nor just. They suggest that the reasons that the kingdom fell includes God’s wrath, mostly at their failure to live up to their responsibilities to care for orphans, widows and aliens.

What I realize when I read the prophets is that the reason nobody sees how unfair things have become is because the people in change have made their world unfair in their favor. A paradise for the king might not be so wonderful for the king’s servants. When Judah is conquered, and the elite are carried off to Babylon, suddenly those who were the oppressors that did evil in the sight of the Lord became among the oppressed. Sometimes it takes something devastating to make us see that there is systemic evil. Sometimes the broken systems have to be torn out so that there can be restoration.

Part of what makes the prophets so amazing is the promise of restoration. There is the suggestion that not only does God have a plan to preserve and restore God’s people, but there is a suggestion that when God restores them, things will be different this time — they will somehow do things better than they did last time.

Paul tells us that it is a faithful saying that if we are faithless, God remains faithful, because he cannot disown himself. This is why we believe in restoration, because we believe that God remains faithful, even as we fall away. We believe that God is a just God, even while we fail to live a just life, and often do not even realize the areas where we fall short. Sometimes I think the reason that the restoration happens is that when the unfairness finally touches our lives, we finally realize that it exists — we finally repent.

We have a lot to repent for too. We live in a society that puts profit ahead of people. We place more value, as a society, on acquiring wealth than we do on enriching the whole nation, and this is just what is on the surface. If we want to talk about fairness, we judge the people around us not only by their skills and education, but also by their names and their place of origin. We assume that we know the person’s story and value without much more information than a name and a zip code. This prejudice means that some people are always at a disadvantage — the wrong name, wrong address, and a resume is not considered for employment.
More than that, we live in a society that scapegoats. Whatever ills we see in our communities, we seek somebody to blame and punish. It is not important whether the person is guilty or not, what is important is protecting the system. Often the people who are blamed are the very same people who are exploited by the system. Our society is unjust as it first exploits, then blames the victims in order to protect the system of exploitation.

What I see is that I live in a society that is very much like the society that is condemned by the prophets. I see that we are far from being a Christian nation, nor a Godly nation. We are unjust, and the prophets warn that the unjust are under divine judgment. We are like ancient Israel, condemned and unrepentant,  until conquered, yet I have so much hope in the prophets. Even when we fail, God’s mercies are new every morning.

I really don’t know what to do, nor how to change the world. Right now the only thing I know to do is pray — and keep praying until prayer changes me. There are so many things to pray for — today, I pray that God forgive my failure to love perfectly, that God will teach me to love, and I pray that those who have lost so much due to violence will somehow find peace. I also pray that those who were torn down will soon find a way to rebuild. I pray that God will show me God’s mercy when I am blind to all but the suffering.

Paul finds a welcome: Ephesians 2:11-3:6

Sermon for Williamsburg Friends Meeting

Reading:  Ephesians 2:11-3:6

You will find a welcome here.

I chose this passage because of the sign that is outside. I cannot think about your meeting without thinking about this sign and a little bit about what it means that you put it up. Churches everywhere have signs that say “Everybody welcome” — those signs are so common that they mean nothing except that there is no bouncer to throw the wrong people out, however, far too often when a stranger walks through the doors of the church, the stranger feels anything but welcomed.

A couple years ago, I was an intern at Muncie Friends Memorial. At the time I was also a student at Earlham School of religion, taking classes from professors such as Phil Baisley. Every time I drove between Richmond and Muncie, I saw this sign. There were some points in class where our professor and your pastor told us about your commitment to welcome those who were not always welcome in other places. I was personally impressed, as I personally have more experience with people talking about welcome than actually doing the work of offering a welcome.

Currently, I am involved with Irvington Friends meeting in Indianapolis. About two weeks ago the co-pastor Rex Jones mentioned your meeting and your sign — a sign that he knew from when he was pastor at West River Friends. He spoke about how much it meant to say: “you will find a welcome here”. It really does place the responsibility on you, as you must make sure that there is a welcome that is obvious enough for someone to find. Offering a welcome is hard work, You likely know this because you publicly committed yourself to this work. I want to remind you that it has always been hard work, and this work is why I like Paul so much. Paul devoted his ministry to finding a welcome — and welcomes were no easier to find in the primitive church. Even those who saw Jesus in the flesh had a lot to learn about welcoming humanity into Christ’s kingdom.

Paul learned how hard it was to find a welcome as soon as he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. As you might remember, Paul was one of those who persecuted the Christians. When Paul claimed to be a Christian, people remembered his past and were afraid for their lives. People did not want to include Paul in the community, so from the start he knew what it was to be excluded. Fear makes it difficult to believe in redemption. Welcoming those with a past is an act of faith, and a call to the whole community to share in this faith. I know this from personal experience, as I know a few churches that make it a point to welcome those who have a criminal past. It truly seems that sometimes when we welcome one person, another person feels it necessary to leave.

Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were another group that was excluded — they were systematically excluded because they were different — there were of a different culture and had different customs than Jesus and his disciples. The Gentiles did not share in the stories of Israel, nor did they share in the covenant that God had with the Jews. One of the first major challenges of the church was to decide what to do when outsiders started calling on the name of Jesus. There were many among the Christians called them names, and had no desire for them to find a welcome: Paul’s ministry was to find them a welcome.

This argument started before Paul’s ministry. Many thought that in order to become Christian, a person must become culturally like the first Christians. This called for such things as a change in diet, an adoption of somebody else’s story, and as we read alteration of the body itself. The thing is that even after hiding every difference and trying to force a welcome, the Gentile would remain an outsider. The stories of Israel might be inspiring, but they are always somebody else’s story. No matter how much we try to become good enough for the community, we are always tainted by a past when we were not good enough. The complete welcome never comes by our effort.

Before Paul’s effort, it took a miraculous act of God to convince the disciples that there was a need for welcome. Peter needed a prophetic vision to accept the Gentile Christians. There had to be a second event like Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came on the Christians of Antioch to show that God gave them the same spirit. Even with these miraculous events, the best of the disciples had trouble living up to what God showed them. Peter, the disciple that worked hardest to welcome the Gentiles still snubbed them at Antioch when people who looked down on them were there — and at that point Paul’s ministry of welcome included standing up to Peter, and correcting him because he failed to live up to the gospel that he preached.

Even after miracles and prophetic visions, the church had great difficulty finding a welcome for those who were different. Paul’s ministry required him to be a theologian — somebody who explained how Christ’s ministry made him more than a Rabbi who taught a deeper understanding of Torah, and more than a prophet who brought the message of God to God’s people. For Paul, Jesus was God’s revelation to all Humanity — and Jesus was the new Adam, somebody who changed God’s relationship with all humanity. Christ was God’s way of making a welcome for us all. Whatever conflict there was that lets one person in, and keeps another out — Christ corrects it.

When I look at the welcome Paul offers, I see one thing clearly — I can identify with those who were once unwelcome. No matter how much I identify with the sacred history of Israel, I still have no claims to that story. I am a Gentile, and my culture is Gentile. Paul’s ministry is what created my welcome — however, I see that it remains a challenge to share that welcome. It is too easy to confuse culture with faith. It is too easy to expect others to first conform to our culture, then allow them to be under the grace of Jesus Christ. We have the same problems welcoming as the first Christians — we are afraid of the stranger — and we are afraid of those who have a past.

Not only is it easy to not give a welcome because of fear — but pride also prevents a welcome. In this passage, the Jews (or more accurately, those who said salvation was only for the Jews) felt that they had a uniquely special connection with God. If we believe that God’s grace is limited to people who look like us, talk like us, eat like us, and vote like us — we will feel superior as we lock the doors and make sure than only a select few find a welcome. Paul addresses this here — but he really elaborates on it in the first couple chapters of Romans — where he points out the cultural sins of the Gentiles, such as worshiping false gods, and then goes so far as to name the sinfulness that goes on in the Church. He tells the Church people: “You are no better!” He addresses this issue of pride by deflating it, and pointing out that we are all in the same boat. The only reason we have to go to Church is that we all believe that we need Jesus: We all need God’s grace.

One thing I’ve learned is that pride is a terribly hard thing to overcome. It is so easy to compare ourselves to others, and think we are doing better — but, as Paul pointed out, those who judge are no better. It is so easy to judge individuals and groups, and forget that the church is a community of redemption. We who judge risk shutting the doors to those who need God’s grace the most. It was difficult for Paul to find a welcome for himself — and it was also difficult for Paul to call people to a faith in God that invited those who were different.

In the end, the only reason you can say: “You will find a welcome” is not because you are wonderful, welcoming, and understanding people. I’ve heard good things about you — but, you are still people. Like it or not, humanity finds it difficult to offer such a generous welcome. The reason you can say this is because Jesus welcomed all of Humanity into grace and redemption. In the end, the welcome we offer isn’t about being better than those who cannot offer such a welcome — it is about faith that Jesus offers grace to everyone. It is also about living in that grace ourselves, because some days the strength to offer a welcome requires a miracle.

Romans 8:22-27: What is our story?

Presence in the Midst:  John Doyle Penrose

Presence in the Midst: John Doyle Penrose

Sermon for Irvington Friends Meeting, May 24, 2015

Reading:  Romans 8:22-27

For the past several weeks, Rex has given some rather excellent messages. We don’t often think about it, more liturgical churches have a whole Easter Season where they focus on the reality of Christ’s presence. Rex has honored this season by sharing what we believe and experience about the risen and present Christ. From Easter to Pentecost is 7 weeks. About 6 of these weeks have Christ so present that the disciples sat and ate with him, could touch him, and listen to him continue to teach. We should be grateful to Rex for continuing to remind us of this very real presence.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that sometimes stories really grab onto us. We feel like we are characters in the story. The stories convey some truth that we experience in our lives. I’ve said that Friends are an Easter community before, and Rex has connected us with Jesus’ promises to be present, in a very real way. Last week Rex connected us with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit and this week churches all over the world will be reading Acts 2, and talking about the powerful way the spirit connected with the Church.

Instead of reading Acts 2, I want to point out that Pentecost is just the end of a crazy, exhausting 2 months. Easter, Ascension day and Pentecost are not so much individual events as different points in the same story. I would like to give a summary of the story, and some thoughts about how Friends have seen themselves as part of this story.

When Jesus was crucified and buried, the disciples were scattered. A few women, mostly named Mary remained. There was also the disciple Jesus loved, Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus a burial place, and of course Peter who had to watch, but tried to hide any connection with Jesus. Even though Thomas said “lets go die with Jesus”, when it came time, nobody seemed willing. On the day before the Resurrection, there was no community, just isolated people who were without hope.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he met with individuals, he ate with them, he showed them that he was actually with them, for real. He managed, in less than a month to rebuild the community — Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that Jesus got together a group of over 500 disciples after he died. These 500 were all together with him. At the end of his ministry on earth, (as Paula reminded us last week,) the disciples were saying: “Is it time to overthrow the Romans?” Jesus ascended into heaven, and told this group of over 500 to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.

The group had a business meeting where they elected an officer to replace a vacancy, then they waited. Ascension day was the Thursday before last: This means that the group waited for for the Holy Spirit for 10 long days. By the time the waiting was over, the group of 500 that Jesus gathered after he resurrected was reduced to 120. “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Holy Spirit descended upon them like fire”. Pentecost is exciting, powerful, and explosive. Pentecost is the day when the 120 suddenly become three thousand.

Right now, I want to ask, where do we connect with the greater story of Easter and Pentecost? Rex kept reminding us that we identify with the real presence of the risen Christ — and, we do. Many of you have seen the painting by John Doyle Penrose: “The presence in the midst“, where Jesus is standing in a Quaker meeting. This painting is a powerful visualization of what George Fox said so many times, that “Christ has come to teach the people himself.” Quakers have always identified with the resurrection community where Christ is present in a tangible way.

As Rex reminded us, we also sometimes exist in the time between the Ascension and Pentecost. Sometimes we are waiting, and it feels like we are waiting forever. Sometimes we even go about our daily business, knowing that we have to do something, but we have no idea what to do. We wait, and it seems like we are alone and God has abandoned us. We have a promise, but sometimes that promise feels empty. When people cynically describe Quakers, our story is the story of last week. Sometimes, we wait for the Spirit to come, and it seems that the silence is never broken. Sometimes it feels like we live in the empty time between Jesus being taken up to heaven and of Pentecost.

One thing that we rarely do is think of Friends as living in the spirit of Pentecost. When we read scripture, Pentecost was almost unique. The spirit descended this way once in Jerusalem, then again (to prove that God’s spirit was for gentiles too) onto Antioch. The biggest reason that few us us identify with Pentecost is that it is not at all respectable — so much so that people were speculating that the people were all drunk. The funny thing is that in 1658, at least one Friend: Edward Burrough did associate the Friends movement with Pentecost, writing:

After waiting upon the Lord in silence… we received the gift of God’s eternal spirit as in the days of old, our hearts were made glad, our tongues were loosed, and our mouths were opened, and we spoke with new tongues”

And, like the early apostles, the first generation of the Friends movement both grew rapidly, and its leaders (including Edward Burrough) spend much of their time in prisons. Edward Burrough was an important Friends minister for a very brief time, as he died while imprisoned in Newgate Prison in 1663.

I identify with these stories. My faith is affirmed by the present Christ — but, when I think more about this I have to admit that these are not exactly my stories. Unlike the early Christians, and the early Quakers, I don’t expect to be imprisoned nor die because of my faith. If I feel that Jesus is absent, nobody says: “Touch my wounds.” While I believe I’ve seen the Holy Spirit active in people’s lives, I have never experienced anything like Pentecost. These stories demonstrate the reality of my belief, but they are greater than my experience.

Even though I look to these stories at my best and my worst moments, and I see them as true to my own experience, my story is somewhat more mundane. When I am most deeply discouraged, I still know about Easter and Pentecost. I do not feel abandoned in the way the disciples must have. The greatest thing is that when I hear these stories, I laugh at Peter and Thomas, and the others. I love how close God is to them, and they still don’t get it. No matter how close these stories are to my heart, and how true they ring — I am far enough away to know what is next, and much of what the disciples were supposed to learn. Today we remember Pentecost — but, if today were Pentecost, there would be quite a bit of confusion.

I chose the Romans reading, because Paul was speaking to people who lived after Pentecost, yet this description of the Christian life is true both to those who had these sudden world changing experiences, and those who have lived with a quieter faith with a much more subtle realization of God’s presence. Paul spoke of living in a world where Pentecost was a reality, where Christ’s teachings are known, and when we have the experience of seasoned Christians, yet times come when we groan and don’t even know how to pray.

I love how this passage shows that God is generous and graceful. God gives us what we need. Christ promised, as we heard, an advocate — and Paul describes an advocate perfectly. When we don’t even know how to represent ourselves, when we don’t know how or what to pray, we have an Advocate that will pray for us. I thank God that even in the worst of times, I have an Advocate. I have never experienced the devastating absence that the disciples endured on Holy Saturday, and between the Ascension and Pentecost.

Also, it remains easy to identify with the Disciples who wait, because both life and faith are about waiting. As Paul writes, we hope for what we do not see, and wait for it in patience. We might laugh at the disciples who Paula quoted when she pointed out the disciples wanted the Risen Christ to conquer Rome, but do we not ask the same question? Those who pray the Lord’s prayer pray for God’s Kingdom to come. I know many who pray that it may come quickly, and speculate on the nature of it’s coming. Like the disciples before Pentecost, we wait for a new miracle — and if Pentecost teaches us anything, when new miracles come, they are entirely different than expected.

The prayer of Noah

When we think about Noah and his prayer life, we remember that God talked to Noah quite a bit:  God gave instructions to Noah before the Flood, and God made a covenant with Noah after the flood was over.  When we read God speaking to Noah, we imagine responses for Noah, but the odd thing is that we imagine them.  God speaks to Noah, but scripture does not record if Noah responded to God with anything except obedience.

Genesis 9:25-27 is the only prayer of Noah that is recorded, and like the first two prayers, it hardly seems a worthy example:

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.

Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
May God enlarge Japheth’s territory and numbers!
May he live in the tents of Shem
and may Canaan be his slave! (NET)

The only recorded prayer of Noah is a prayer that one of his grandchildren be cursed, and that two of his three sons be blessed.  The prayer is odd in that Canaan is cursed, and Ham is not, even though Ham was the person who shamed his father, why would Noah want to curse the son for the sin of his father?

One thing that this prayer does is it sets up the ongoing story of Israel.  Canaan meant something to the people of Israel.  The Hebrew people moved to the land of the Canaanites, and conquered most of it.  Over time, they intermarried with the Canaanites and adopted the language of the Canaanites, so that the Hebrew scriptures are written in the language of the Canaanites.  Not unsurprisingly, this assimilation included (at times) the adoption of the Canaanite gods.

Shem (Israel) and Canaan lived together for thousands of years — while there was integration, the fact Jesus mentions the final judgement of Tyre and Sidon (as light compared to the final judgement of various Jewish cities) shows that even at the time of Jesus a distinct Canaanite culture (and whole cities of Canaanites) still existed.

Noah’s only recorded prayer was a curse: and this curse did describe the way of things throughout the kingdom periods, but in many ways, Israel became Canaanite by conquering.  When we read the genealogy of Jesus, we see several women named — three of these women were Canaanites.  Noah’s prayer might have shown things the way they appeared, but over time:  Canaan might have been Shem’s slave, but over time Canaan became Shem’s family.