Sunday, February 22, 2015

February 22, 2015--Truth & Titus: What About Your Friends

By: Rev. Emily Joye Reynolds
Koinonia, FCCBC

John 19:25b-28
Many of you were here on last Wednesday night when we did the "Imposition of Ashes" as is customary for the beginning of Lent. AshWednesday is a time of observing our mortality, the fact that we are finite beings, that we come from dust and to dust we shall return. It's an important day in the liturgical calendar year, because whereas Christmas and Easter connect us to stories about God and God's great, miraculous self, Ash Wednesday connects us to the very human dimensions of this here thing called life. One of the things that I most appreciate about Ash Wednesday is the reminder that I am going to die. I am going to die. I am. I don't know when, but it'll happen at some point. That reminder helps me get clear about what is important, what I want my lasting legacy to be, and how to get busy living at those intersections. But it also reminds me of something else, which to be honest, has greater urgency for me: the fact that every single person I love on this planet is going to die too.

<I want you to sit in your pew right now and think about the people you love most. Take just a few minutes, I'm going to give you some quiet. And think about the fact that your time with them is limited, that it will come to an end, in some cases, probably sooner than you think.>

Now there's a lot of youngish type people in Koinonia, and so I reckon that many of you, many of us, haven't had as many encounters with our mortality and the mortality of those we love as some of the elders in here. And so in some ways we are at a disadvantage. Because one thing I've noticed is the more people you lose, the more honest you get about the frailty of life. Now sometimes that can lead to a kind of paranoia and hyper-vigilance where you flail around fearing the death of everyone all the time. But more often than not, compounded losses result in holding life even more sacred because one understands time isn't guaranteed. And that, my dears, that holding life most sacred, and acting on that sacred in relationships because you know you don't have forever, is a gift.

One of Sojourner Truth's best friends was a woman by the name of Frances Titus. She was native to Battle Creek. She lived at a home on 113 Maple Street. She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. Like Sojourner, she was an ardent Abolitionist and Suffragist. Mrs. Titus was a fiercely loyal and diligent friend to Truth. As we close our study on Sojourner Truth's life today, as part of our celebration and honor of Black History Month, I want to focus on the relationship she and Titus had throughout but especially toward the end of Sojourner's life.

The two first met in 1856 during a Progressive Friends Meeting and while it's speculated that it was BFF at first sight, they wouldn't come to work closely together for another ten to fifteen years. During their mid-lives they came together on Abolitionism though those efforts looked very different pre and post Civil War. Sojourner Truth circulated all over the country giving lectures about the necessity of ending slavery as a former enslaved woman. Titus often supported her travels and even gave her help with a loan for her home during that time so Sojourner's family (kids and grand kids) had a good place to stay while Truth was lecturing across state lines. Later after the war Truth and Titus went to work in trying to help freedmen resettle and find work. Truth made every effort to seek out places for home-steading and employment all over the country, but mostly in Kansas, and the "West". In tight correspondence with Truth, Titus worked locally to make Battle Creek a place where freedman could resettle. She also eventually set up a school, in the old city hall building, where freed persons could learn basic writing, reading and arithmetic. She taught on Friday nights and on the Sabbath.

During the 1870s Titus worked mostly on Women's Suffrage emerging in Michigan. Francis was called to serve several national organizations hoping to get women the right to vote. She rubbed elbows and set stages for Susan B. Anthony and Kady Stanton. In 1874 an amendment to the Michigan constitution was drafted for women to vote thanks to the organizing of Titus and her many allies. It was sorely defeated state-wide but the margin of defeat was lower here in BC than other places. At that time, Truth was in Kansas trying to implement strategy for the great Exodus when she believed Black people would leave the South in droves in hopes of greater economic opportunity. That migration happened later, after Truth had grown ill due to age, and despite all of  her spirit-filled labor, she was not able to see the fruits. Truth and Titus reunited, both with their hearts in their hands, in Battle Creek after this sense of political and social defeat, to find each other anew. They were huge sources of comfort to one another in the midst of what felt like massive grief at the state of cruelty and injustice around the nation and here in Michigan.

Sojourner fell ill at some point later that year and became confined. Frances Titus took that time to edit and re-write certain parts of Truth's autobiography. During that time writing and story-telling became a huge part of their bond. Eventually Titus would bind and print those books and use them to support Sojourner financially. When Sojourner got well again and hit the road to speak around the country, Frances went with her as business manager and personal secretary. Eventually they would reengage the work of getting food, shelter and jobs to refugees resettling out of the South. Titus used her privilege to influence the affluent in Battle Creek to send resources to where Truth organized in the West. But right as their efforts started making real impact, Truth got sick again and returned home. From there out Frances took care of her bodily and correspondence needs. After Sojourner Truth died in November of 1883 Titus, as a dear, life-long friend will always do, amped up her loyalty to Truth by raising money for a beautiful, specialized hand-crafted marble tombstone. She then commissioned a special painting of Sojourner to be mounted at Albion College. And republished a posthumous edition of Sojourner's autobiography which included a memorial chapter and her favorite song entitled "We are Going Home."

Yall, let me tell you something profound. Sojourner Truth's funeral was right here in this Church. We worship on Holy Ground. The Rev. Reed Stuart--who I consider a spiritual ancestor--officiated Sojourner's funeral and would officiate Frances' funeral in 1894. They are known in Battle Creek history as giants of abolitionism and women's suffrage. But today I want us to think of them, and call upon their names, as spiritual giants.

What we are able to do for each other at the end of life has everything to do with the foundations we lay with each other throughout life. Sojourner and Frances were activist colleagues, Quaker companions, financial partners, literary pals, citizens of the same city, women who loved each other, across racial lines, loved each other body and soul, over decades, in the midst of an era when women were supposed to be wives and mothers and nothing else. Even when they didn't live in the same state or serve the same exact cause, they remained in contact. They returned to each other throughout their lives. They lived and died with and for each other. Their relationship was transgressive, non-normative, beautiful and holy. Glory be to God.

In the final chapters of John we see a similar relationship between Jesus and "the disciple who Jesus loved." In the 26th - 28th verses of Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John it tells us that in order for everything to be finished, Jesus needed to know that his most beloved disciple and his mother would take care of each other after he was gone. Upon seeing the beloved disciple and his mother standing side by side, watching him die, he says "Woman, here is your son" and "Here is your Mother" to the beloved disciple, basically informing them that they would have to love him now, after his death, by loving each other. Jesus entrusted that continued work and bond of love, a posthumous love, a resurrective love, a spiritual love to those two because they'd earned it during his lifetime. They were called upon for his ministry after he was gone because they saw to his ministry while he was alive.

It begs the question of all of us: are we living into the love of friends and family with such profound, abiding loyalty? I bet Frances didn't question whether Sojourner loved her after Sojourner was gone. I know Mary and the Beloved Disciple didn't question Jesus' love for them. How could they? The active, fidelity between them during life layed the question to rest.

So much of the time when I do funerals for families and loved ones there is too much left unanswered, too much left unsaid, too much left undone. Don't let that be your story, my flock. Don't let that be your truth. Let the relationships of Jesus, the Beloved Disciple and Mary, let the relationship of Sojourner Truth and Frances Titus remind us all that we are from dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime, the work of love--long-standing loyalty, affection, service, support, body and soul love--is calling.


Feb 22 2015--Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

How pure are your best motives? Are there strings attached to even your most altruistic gestures? Here are some reflections on Jesus' blessing the pure in heart:
Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Let’s face it, no one in this room is going to see God. Not in our lifetimes anyway. If purity in heart is the prerequisite, then I’m afraid we’re all out of luck.
I certainly don’t meet the criteria for seeing God. When I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that everything I say and everything I do always has mixed motives. Even in my most unselfish moments, I can’t ever get away from myself. I can’t not be mindful of the impact that I anticipate the things I do for others will have on my life. And those mixed motives end up influencing my behavior. I say and do things that I believe will win your favor. I like to be liked. I don’t like having people upset with me so I don’t always tell people the things I know they don’t want to hear. I tell them what I think they can handle.
When I do good things for people, there is always a part of me that expects some favorable treatment in return. Even if the terms of the exchange haven’t ever been spelled out, my expectation always involves reciprocity. I do something nice for you and you return the favor by doing something nice for me.
Even when I do something altruistic, when I give money to a stranger who asks for help, I have some agenda attached to the gift. I have some expectation that the person who received the gift will be grateful, will express appreciation to me for my generosity, will use it only for things that would meet with my approval (after all, it was my money).
I like to believe that my heart is pure at least in my most intimate relationships, but these last few weeks have reminded me that even when I’m at my best, there is always a self-serving motivation behind what I do. My love for Patrice is far from selfless. She’d been battling a nasty cold for the past few weeks and I tried to be sympathetic to her. I made her some soup, encouraged her to stay in bed and rest and I picked up some extra chores around the house: I cleaned up the supper dishes, I emptied the dishwasher in the morning, I even folded a load of laundry without being asked. But as much as I love Patrice and as sympathetic as I was to her feeling stuffy and run down, by the end of the second week I was starting to feel pretty resentful. The balance in our relationship had shifted and my compassion only carried me so far. By the end of the second week I was brooding, sullen and ill tempered.
I’m not going to see God because my motives are never pure. And neither is my interior life. Even though I am pretty disciplined in my spiritual practices, even though I begin most days by reading scripture, journaling, spending time in prayer and reading some inspirational writing, by the time I’m out the door on my way to church I’ve got all kinds of unholy sentiments swirling inside of me. I carry doubts about my own suitability for doing this work, anxiety about the future sustainability of the church, resentments over the petty squabbles that entangle us in our life together, frustration over the slow pace of progress as we work to expand the scope and reach of our ministries. I carry feelings of failure when the sanctuary is half empty on Sunday mornings. When people leave the fellowship of our faith community, I feel responsible for failing to give them what they needed. When people complain about things they don’t like in our church, I begin to question my own judgment and my own leadership abilities.
My devotional life encourages me to live with faith, hope, patience and perseverance, but those things are always in tension with my own inner feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, doubt and despair. Some days it is wonder that I manage to make it out the door.
I know I’m not the only the person in this room who won’t be seeing God any time soon. None of us can truly claim to be pure in heart. Lust, greed, envy, anger, jealousy, resentment, hostility…we all carry these things in our hearts. The reason we are constantly warned against the impure vices is because they are constantly corrupting the purity of our hearts. No one is ever exempt.
And yet Jesus taught his disciples saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” He said those words to the very people who would betray him, deny him, and abandon him in his hour of need. He said those words to the people who argued over which of them was the greatest, who lobbied for the privilege of being seated in places of honor at Jesus’ side, who-after three years of traveling together through the hills of Galilee-still weren’t sure who Jesus was or what he had come to do. Even the disciples, whom Jesus hand-picked to mentor and train and send out as witnesses of the kingdom of God, even the twelve people in Jesus’ inner circle were far from being pure in heart. They doubted, they wavered in their faith, they got into petty arguments, they got caught up in politics and power struggles. The first disciples of Jesus Christ struggled with the same mixed motives that color everything we say and do.
So what hope do any of us have of ever seeing God? The answer, I think has everything to do with community. Jesus didn’t share the beatitudes with the disciples during private, one on one conversations. He didn’t send them out on their own to embody the values commended in the beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the disciples coming to Jesus on the mountain. It was only when they were together that Jesus began to teach them.
The beatitudes were given to the gathered community of believers. They are values that form the covenantal relationship that bind our lives together in faith. They aren’t practices that any of us can live out on our own. They are the ideals that community calls us to return to every time gather in the name of Jesus.
Our individual hearts will always be filled with pure and impure motives. From moment to moment will we vacillate between saying and doing things that inspiringly altruistic and in the very next instant saying and do things that are shamefully self-serving. Jesus said, “…it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. (Mark 7: 21-22).”
But when we come together to worship as a community of faith, we hear the values of Jesus proclaimed and we sing songs that inspire us to rise above our own self-interests. We learn from the collective wisdom 10,000 years of recorded experiences of our forbearers as we study the lessons recorded in our sacred texts. We inspire and encourage one another as we share the challenges of living faithfully in the world through our small group conversations. We stand together in common witness, common service, common cause in order to more fully embody the values of our faith in the life of our city, our country, our world.
Our individual hearts are easily corrupted when we are separated from each other, but our hearts are purified by the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit moving among us whenever two or more of us are gathered together in the name of Jesus. Here we listen to each other’s confessions and remind each other of the redeeming power of God’s mercy and grace. Here we acknowledge our struggles, our doubts, our frustrations and fears and find comfort, strength, courage and hope. Here we step out of the myth of ever being on our own and instead rejoice in the ties that bind our lives in authentic community.
We live in a culture that idolizes superstars. We elevate individuals to super human status. In sports, one player’s success or failure dictates the success or failure of the team. If the Lions don’t re-sign Ndamukong Suh they won’t have a chance of making the playoff next year. If Cabrera or Martinez don’t recover from their injuries in time for opening day, the Tigers won’t have the hitting they need to compete in the American League Central Division. Our culture idolizes superstars. Their individual abilities and performances make or break a team’s chances for success. But here in the church, we know that just the opposite is true. Christians know that community shapes the individual. That’s why we can stand to be apart from each other for longer than a week at a time. That is why the idea of trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus without being connected to the community that he founded is absurd to us. That is why we spend so much money building and maintaining gathering places where communities of believers can come together and have their hearts renewed through worship, study, fellowship and service.
The Bible isn’t a self-help guide. It is written to the community of believers for the sake of building up the community of believers. We don’t have books written about individual superstars. We have books written to inspire communities of faithful people gathered in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessalonica.
None of have a chance of seeing God on our own. Our hearts will never be pure. But here in Christ’s church, God is incarnated in the faith, the love, the wisdom, the fellowship and the service of the gathered community and the face of God is constantly being revealed in the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ join in common witness.
It is to us collectively, to the whole community of believers, that Jesus promised, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

February 15--Mercifully Secure

The Pope gave the green light for parents to spank their children last week. How do mercy, discipline and punishment fit together? Here are some reflections on mercy:
Matthew 5: 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
In my entire lifetime, I can never remember a single political candidate campaigning on a platform of mercy. The American electorate has consistently supported leaders who promise to be tough on crime, who vow to be uncompromising in executing the war on drugs, who support zero tolerance policies for violence in public schools and mandatory sentencing guidelines for judges.
Mercy is not politically popular. The merciful get played, the merciful get taken advantage of, the merciful are enablers, the merciful coddle criminals.
The only time it is ever politically expedient to be merciful is during an elected leader’s final days in office when a president or governor executes their power to pardon. It is at the very end of their last elected terms, when the backlash of the voting public and their financial backers no longer constrains them that political leaders dare to be merciful. Doing so earlier in their term of office is political suicide. When President Ford pardoned former president Richard Nixon one month into his presidency, he forfeited his political future. After losing to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, Ford quickly disappeared into political obscurity.
The truth is, mercy frightens us. We believe that punishment is a necessary deterrent to prevent people from doing bad things. It is a concept that we begin to internalize at an early age. Last week, Pope Frances authorized parents to spank their children when they misbehave, as long as they do it in a way that preserves their dignity. The objective is not to humiliate children but to correct their misbehavior. We seem convinced that the aversion to pain is the primary motivation for good behavior.
Mercy removes the threat of punishment. If people aren’t made to suffer the consequences of the decisions they make and the actions they take, there is no deterrence for misbehavior. If you commit the crime, you must do the time.
Hardheartedness, not mercy, is what gives us the greatest sense of security. We don’t want mercy, we want people to be held accountable, we want them to pay for the injuries they have caused, we want them to suffer in proportion to the suffering they have inflicted on others. Vengeance and the threat of retribution is what keeps us safe from harm, it is what prevents others from exploiting our weakness and our vulnerabilities. If people believe they can get away with it they will take advantage of us. Vengeance must be sure and swift.
But it turns out that hardheartedness isn’t a very effective deterrent. Homicide rates haven’t fallen in states that have re-instituted capital punishment. States without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates. Children raised by controlling and punishing parents have higher rates of delinquency than children raised by supportive and affectionate parents. Zero tolerance policies in public schools haven’t lowered the incidences of violence. What they have done is create a school to prison pipeline. Criminalizing drug possession or distribution hasn’t lowered drug use or addiction rates (a lesson we should have learned from the failure prohibition in the 1920’s). What the War on Drugs has done is expand our penal population from about 300,000 inmates 30 years ago to more than 2 million inmates today.
The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world and a disproportionate percentage of inmates are people of color. Today we imprison a larger percentage of our black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Yet annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.
In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that “once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination - employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunities, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service - are suddenly legal.”
We believe that mercy threatens to undermine the public safety, but our hardheartedness actually makes our lives less secure.
Even here in Christ’s church, many of us have developed a theology that reflects our mistrust of mercy. We proclaim the good news that, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” but we believe that our favor with God is maintained by our good works. For centuries the church has used threat of eternal damnation to frighten people into living obedient lives. If you divorce your spouse, if you marry outside of our religious tribe, if you fail to adhere to the fundamental principles of our creed, then we threaten you with ex-communication. You will be banished from the Lord’s Table, cast out of fellowship with the communion of saints and excluded from the saving grace of God.
We like to sing about God’s amazing grace, but the threat of eternal damnation lurks deep within our hearts even here in the church of Jesus Christ.
One of the fundament theological questions that each of us must come to grips with is whether or not we believe in redemption. If we don’t believe that God has the power and the will to redeem all people from aimlessness and sin, then by all means we are justified in withholding mercy. If God is without mercy, than we should be too. We are justified in throwing away people who disappoint us, who betray our trust, who fail to honor their obligations, who do things that hurt people, who get convicted of felony offenses.
But if we believe that God has both the power and the will to redeem all people from aimlessness and sin, if we believe that Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety nine sheep to find the one that is lost is more than just a clever story but a mandate for how we are to live our lives, then no one is ever disposable.
If we believe in redemption, then seventy seven must become a sacred number to us. “How often should I forgive? As often as seven times? I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times (Matthew 18: 21-22).”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Since mercy is not a value embraced by our culture, how do we, as followers of Jesus, hold mercy at the center of our hearts?
One of the most familiar stories that Jesus shared about mercy is a parable known to us today as the Prodigal Son. It tells the story of a young man who demanded his share of his family’s inheritance and then went off and squandered it all on self-indulgent living. When his money dried up, a severe famine afflicted the region where he was living and he was in want. He could no longer feed himself and no one would help him. Eventually he decided to return to his father’s home hoping to be taken on as hired hand.
But Jesus said, “…while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15: 20).” The father wasn’t persuaded to show mercy because of the sincerity of his son’s remorse or his promise to make amends or his plea to be treated the same as a hired hand. Before any words had passed between them, the father was moved by compassion. Mercy always flows from compassion.
Compassion re-humanizes the people we encounter. Instead of seeing them as failures or felons or adulterers or embezzlers, instead of defining them by their misbehavior, compassion redeems their humanity. Compassion means literally to “suffer-with.” It moves us beyond sympathy and beyond empathy and inspires in us a desire to alleviate another’s suffering. Compassion allows us to imagine what another is experiencing, it gives us a glimpse of what life is like from their perspective, it enables us to consider the circumstances that have shaped the decisions they made and the actions they took.
Mercy begins with compassion. Unlike hardheartedness, it relinquishes our power over another, it sets aside our entitlement to retribution, it surrenders our claim to the moral high ground.
Instead of holding the threat of punishment over another, mercy invites us to stand with each other, to recover our shared humanity, to recognize that we are all redeemed from the sins of our past by the mercy of God. It is not politically popular, but it is one of the foundational tenants of the Christian faith. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they will receive mercy.” Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 8, 2015--Blessed Right-us-ness

From Pastor Tom Ott

Do you find yourself exhausted trying to keep all of your relationships in "right-us-ness?". Good. It is really hard work. Here are some thoughts about Jesus'beatitude blessing righteousness.
February 8, 2015
Matthew 5:8
Blessed Right-us-ness
Finally we get a beatitude that seems to make sense to us! “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Up until now, all of the qualities that Jesus has blessed in the Beatitudes are qualities that we don’t typically consider sources of blessing. He blessed the poor in spirit when we typically bless the confident, the self-assured, those with a positive, can-do outlook on life. We diagnose the poor in spirit as depressed and start them on medications and talk therapy. Jesus blessed those who mourn but we treat grief as something harmful to the soul, something that we need to get over and put behind us as quickly as possible. Jesus blessed the meek and promised that they would inherit the earth, but we equate meekness with weakness and expect the meek to get trampled on by those who aggressively pursue the things they want for themselves.
Up until now, all of the beatitudes we’ve looked at contrast with the values of our culture, but today’s beatitude makes sense to us at face value: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Blessed are those who “do the right thing,” who don’t lie or cheat or steal. Blessed are those who obey the teachings of the bible and the laws of the land.
We are a country that is organized by the rule of law. That is what has made us a great nation. We don’t have one set of rules for royalty and another set of rules for peasants. We don’t have one set of rules for the wealthy people and another set of rules for the poor. We don’t have one set of rules for white people and another set of rules for black people. We are entitled to equal protection under the law, and even if those equal protections are not always equally enforced, they remain a cornerstone of Democracy.
Whenever a dispute arises between us, we appeal to the law; whether that law is written in the church bi-laws, or the city building code, or local, state or federal statutes. We don’t settle disputes with duels, or mob violence, or rock/paper/scissors…we appeal to the authority of agreed upon laws and when we can’t agree on the law, we entrust its interpretation to an impartial judge or jury.
This past week member nations of the NATO alliance have been struggling to come to consensus over how to deal with Russia’s unrighteous behavior in eastern Ukraine. One of the obligations that nations accepted under the Geneva Convention is to honor the autonomy of sovereign nations, but last year Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and now is fueling violent revolution in other areas of eastern Ukraine. It is unrighteous behavior to be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation and the US and its allies are trying to decide how to intervene. Should we seek diplomatic solutions, impose stronger economic sanctions against Russia or supply Ukraine with weapons and finances to strengthen its defense against Russia’s aggression? Bad things happen when people and organizations and governments ignore the rule of law and behave in unrighteous ways. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
But in the Bible, righteousness isn’t simply behavior that complies with an external list of commandments, laws, norms or expectations. Righteousness in the Bible is always relational. It is behavior that brings us into right relationship with each other. Righteous behavior preserves our covenantal obligations to each other and to God. Instead of thinking of rightness as following the right rules, the scriptures challenge us to think of righteousness as right-us-ness. They always press us to consider what behaviors are necessary to make things right between us?
Sometimes right-us-ness means exceeding the requirements of the law. Right after the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes through a list of the laws of Moses and insists that they don’t go far enough to attain the righteousness of God. If we truly want to be in right-us-ness, then we have to be willing to “go the second mile, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Sometimes right-us-ness means setting aside the requirement of a law in order to preserve a greater good. When Jesus was challenged about healing on the Sabbath he argued that the urgency of restoring person to wholeness was greater than that of preserving Sabbath rest: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
All of this makes righteousness much more complicated than it first seemed. It means that righteousness is always contextual. What is right in one instance may or may not be right in another instance. The question is always, will the behavior bring us into right relationship?
On Friday afternoon, David Schweitzer and I made plans to go out cross country skiing on Saturday morning. The snow conditions were perfect. The trails at Binder Park had been groomed and track set. We had some cold days earlier in the week to form a good ice base but there was enough powder on top to give the edges of the skies enough grip to steer. Saturday morning’s conditions were the best I’ve skied on since we moved Battle Creek seven years ago.
But Saturdays are the only days when Patrice and I have off together. I work on Sunday’s when she has off and she works on Monday’s when I have off. I’m usually pretty careful about protecting time to be with Patrice on Saturday.
But righteousness isn’t about following a rule for what is and is not acceptable behavior on weekends. If my relationship with Patrice is in a good place, if we are both feeling appreciated and cared for by the other, then spending a Saturday morning skiing with a friend is perfectly fine. But we haven’t had enough time together recently, if we’ve been too busy with work or have been away too many nights during the week, then going off with a friend to ski on Saturday morning can be hurtful. Righteousness isn’t a hard and fast rule about how I schedule my Saturdays. What is fine on one Saturday may not be on another.
And, just to make things even more complicated, no one relationship can be considered in isolation from all of our other relationships. If I ignore my friendship with David in order to spend more time with my wife, then I’m not in right-us-ness with David. If I always say yes to David and neglect my time with Patrice, then I’m not in right-us-ness with my wife. Righteousness is about behavior that honors all of the covenantal relationships that we share.
The righteousness that Jesus blessed is rooted in a deep hunger and thirst for being in right relationship with others. It isn’t about playing by the rules, it is about being mindful of how our words and decisions and actions impact the people with whom we are in covenantal relationship.
For the past month, Jeanie Reid has been leading a group of us through a racial justice study using the book, “Waking Up White,” by Debby Irving. One of the lessons that the author passes on is covered in a chapter entitled, “Intent verses Impact.” Sometimes we imagine that as long as our motives are pure, our actions are justified. If I say or do something that you misinterpret, that is your problem, not mine. You are being overly sensitive, or overly defensive, or allowing your past experiences to cloud your perceptions of the present circumstances. Sometimes we dismiss the injuries that we cause when the impact that our words or actions have on others doesn’t match our intentions, particularly when we engage people of a different race. Because race has shaped our histories in profoundly different ways, the risk of our words and deeds having an impact that is different than what we intend is much greater.
But righteousness isn’t about purity of intent. Righteousness is about the relationship between us. It is about right-us-ness, and right-us-ness requires that we take responsibility, not only for the intention behind what we say and do but also for the impact that our words and deeds have on others. Asking someone what they do for a living might be intended as nothing more than a way of initiating polite conversation, but if that person interprets the question as a way of measuring their social status in order to judge their worthiness, then we need to accept responsibility for the detrimental impact that our inquiry had on the relationship between us.
Right-us-ness is really hard work. It requires our constantly checking in with each other to make sure the impact has been what we intended, it means holding the right boundaries in all of our relationships with each other, it means discerning what rules to apply and what rules to set aside in order to remain in right relationship. Only those who truly hunger and thirst for right-us-ness will ever be filled. Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Pastor Tom Ryberg February 2015 Congregationalist

During my junior year in college, I became enamored with the fiery presidential candidate Howard Dean and even had the opportunity to spend the month of January in New Hampshire volunteering for his campaign. During his speeches, he often used a humorous illustration in support of affirmative action. One day while walking around his campaign headquarters in Vermont, Dean realized that he was surrounded by mostly women and that the executive campaign leadership was almost exclusively women. He mentioned it to his chief of staff (a woman), and she said, “Well, if I knew any men who were as well qualified, I’d be happy to hire them!”

Dean’s point was that when it comes to hiring practices, we tend to stick with those who are most like us. This is why we need measures like affirmative action, which can help provoke us to think - and act - beyond only that which is most familiar - so that those who have been historically excluded on purpose don’t remain excluded by default.

One of our church’s strategic priorities is to
embody difference faithfully across lines of race, dis/ability, sexual and gender identity, income level, political affiliation, worship preferences, and so on. But even here, we tend to “stick to our own kind”—sometimes purposely, sometimes by default.

As I look back at the content and authors that comprised our worship themes in 2014, I notice something. Nearly all of our worship content came from white people. This wasn’t on purpose; surely we weren’t trying to exclude any other voices or perspectives. The content was excellent but there is a myriad of resources created by theologians of color that would serve our purposes extraordinarily well. But without intentionally seeking them out, it would seem that we, too, have had a tendency to “stick to our own kind.”

I’m not bringing this up in order to heap shame or blame on any of us. Indeed, as one of our worship leaders, I assure you that we do our very best to cultivate powerful, transformative worship and adult faith formation opportunities and I am proud of what we were able to offer last year. But even with the best of intentions, we also acknowledge that without that nudge from beyond ourselves, we have a tendency to primarily focus on only ourselves and those most like us.

May the cultural opportunity of Black History month (each February) provoke us to explore new truths and relationships and deepen our commitment to embody difference ever more faithfully in 2015.

Pastor Emily Joye February 2015 Congregationalist

Happy Valentine’s Day!
This is one of my favorite poems about love.—Emily Joye

“I have been in love more times than one, thank the Lord.
Sometimes it was lasting whether active or not.
Sometimes it was all but ephemeral,
maybe only an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway beautiful people to me, of which there are so many.
You, and you, and you, whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe missed.
Love, love, love, it was the core of my life, from which, of course,
comes the word for the heart.
And, oh, have I mentioned that some of them were men
and some were women and some—
now carry my revelation with you—were trees.
Or places. Or music flying above the names of their makers.
Or clouds, or the sun which was the first, and the best,
the most loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into my eyes, every morning. So I imagine such love of the world—its fervency, its shining, its innocence and hunger to give of itself—I imagine this is how it began.”—Mary Oliver

Pastor Tom Ott February 2015 Congregationalist

Our current worship series on the beatitudes has made me think more deeply about the importance of “blessing.”  “Beatitude” is the Latin word for blessing and I think it significant that Jesus’ ministry begins with naming blessings instead of complaints, threats or curses. Before any other teachings are shared, in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke nine different blessings and then he followed them with some very flattering words about the people he was speaking to: “…You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…You are a city on a hill….”

Jesus began engaging people, not by being critical of the ways they were behaving, or by demeaning their limited knowledge of scripture, or by condemning their shallow faith. He began engaging his followers by blessing them and naming the things that are commendable about them.

I think that is something we should all take to heart. Often times, our first inclination is to notice what is wrong, what we don’t like, what offends us or disappoints us or doesn’t measure up to our expectations. Even if we don’t say them out loud, we make lots of negative judgments about the people we observe and encounter every day, and those judgments shape the way we interact with them.

But imagine what might happen if we took Jesus’ practice to heart. Imagine the impact it could have if we disciplined ourselves to begin the encounters we have with everyone we meet by blessing them. What if, before we spoke a critical word, we acknowledge how the other person has been a source of blessing to us?  The blessing might come in the form of an expression of appreciation for something the person said or did, or admiration for something you observed in the person, or respect for a quality that you see reflected in their life.
Since our natural inclination is to notice what is wrong or what we don’t like, it will take some discipline to implement this practice.  But let’s commit ourselves to being beatitude honoring people.  Let’s be people who always begin with words of blessing.  And when we do, let’s pay attention to how that impacts our relationships with the people we encounter.  I suspect it will leave us feeling better about ourselves, better about each other, and better about the relationships we share.

Jesus didn’t only speak blessings.  He had critical words to share, both to his
followers and to those who opposed
his ministry.  But he began by blessing. 
That feels like an important practice to follow.

February 1, 2015--Blessed Are the Meek

From Rev. Thomas Ott

Today is all about establishing the greatest football team in the world by watching to see who can impose their will on the other. But Jesus commended a different form of power, one that is dedicated not to dominating but to serving. Today at FCC we pause to remember that Jesus blessed meekness. Here are my reflections on the third beatitude:
Matthew 5:5: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
The Strength of Meekness
It seems a bit ironic to be talking about “meekness” on Super bowl Sunday. Meekness is always in short supply in the media hype surrounding the National Football League’s championship game. Tonight’s contest provides the ultimate stage for establishing bragging rights to being the best of the best. The team that is awarded the Lombardi trophy at the end of tonight’s Super Bowl will hold the title of being the greatest football team in the world for the next twelve months.
All week long, the media has been saturated with stories of players trash talking their opponents, analysts arguing over which team will dominate which aspects of the game, commentators speculating over which players are most likely to win the Most Valuable Player awards. Today is all about establishing the best of the best: who is the best quarterback, the best coach, the best receiving core, the best pass defense, the best offensive line, the best running back? Earlier this week Patrice and I watched a program that even rated the best television commercials from past Super Bowls.
There is a reason that the Super Bowl has become the premier television event of the year. Last year 111.5 million people tuned in to watch the game. Professional football players have become our modern day gladiators. We revel in the battles they fight, we claim for ourselves the victories they win and we vicariously live out our own conquest narratives through them.
It is ironic that we are focusing on meekness today, on Super Bowl Sunday. Here in America, we idolize power, control and dominance. We live in a culture that divides people into winners and losers. In every arena of life we are preoccupied with the question, “Who is strong enough to impose their will on others?” Who has the votes, who has the wealth, who has the social influence, who has the seniority, who has the inside knowledge, who has the physical strength to get what they want?
The desire to dominate permeates our political culture where collaboration has become a sign of weakness and compromise equated with betrayal. It pervades our corporate culture where hierarchical levels of authority and compensation reward those who are the most effective power brokers, who curry favor to win influence, who put their own advancement ahead of the welfare of their colleagues. It suffuses our school classrooms where pecking order is established through social alliances, fashions designate tribal loyalties, and hallways divide territory into friendly or hostile turf.
In our culture, we divide people into winners and losers. We view life as a zero sum game. One person’s gain is another person’s loss. One group’s advancement is another group’s decline. One team’s victory is another team’s defeat.
But today, on Super Bowl Sunday, we were reminded that Jesus commended meekness as one of the true sources of blessing in life: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Meekness doesn’t get much air time on Super Bowl Sunday. In our culture, meekness is associated with weakness. The meek are those who are too intimidated to speak up for themselves, too accommodating to stake their claim to what they want, too timid to impose their will on others.
But the meekness that Jesus blessed is anything but weak. The meekness of Jesus was powerful enough to feed five thousand hungry people, to cure seven quarantined lepers, to raise Lazarus from the dead and to launch a movement among Galilean peasants that has persisted for 2000 years and has changed the course of history.
The meekness that Jesus blessed isn’t weakness. It is strength devoted to serving the welfare of others. Meekness isn’t the absence of power, it is power placed in the service of others. The meek use power not to dominate but to serve. The meek engage others, not as competitors or rivals, but as brothers and sisters created in the image of God. When confronted with difference, the meek respond not with fear or animosity but with curiosity. When faced with competing interests, the meek seek not to dominate or coerce but to find common ground. When forming coalitions of influence, the meek seek not to advance their own self-interests but to serve the common good.
In order for any of us to claim the blessing of meekness that Jesus promised, we have to opt out of our culture’s win-lose mentality. Meekness requires a willingness to exert power on behalf of the powerless. It is about being salt and light and leaven for the good of others. It is about living with the awareness that our welfare is tied to the welfare of those who have the least. It is not about trickling down. It is about bottoming up. It is about making sure everyone has enough and no one takes too much.
The strength of the meek comes from knowing that “love does not insist on its own way.” It comes from praying the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” It comes from heeding the prophet’s call to, “seek the welfare of the city.”
Meekness isn’t weakness. Meekness is power dedicated to serving the common good. When we embrace the meekness that Jesus commended, then we inherit, not just our own piece of the pie, not just a place to call our own, not just our own little corner of the world; we inherit the earth. When our strength and our influence and our power is directed towards the welfare of the whole world, then the whole world becomes our world. There is no longer us and them. There is only us. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Today, on Super Bowl Sunday, we are taking a moment to honor a person in our faith community who embodies the strength of meekness. Wes Kimble is a nurse anesthetist who is leaving this week on his 20th trip to Guatemala as part of medical missionary team through an organization called HELPS International.
For months now, Wes has been busy behind the scenes organizing a team of 96 physicians, surgeons, nurses and volunteers to set up, equip and staff a temporary surgical hospital in the rural highlands of Guatemala. In Guatemala, half of the population lives in poverty and those who can afford medical care can only find it in the large urban areas. For twenty years Wes has been organizing medical teams to provide care to people who otherwise wouldn’t have any access to the help they need.
When Wes was asked why he travels all the way to Guatemala instead of helping poor people right here in his own country, his answer was people here will receive medical care. It may not be the same level of care as those who have good health insurance or the financial resources to pay for their treatment, but they won’t be turned away. In Guatemala people die because they don’t have any access to medical care.
I don’t know anyone who would call Wes week. He’s a big guy, so even if I didn’t know him I wouldn’t call him week. But those of us who are blessed to know Wes know that over the course of his lifetime he has made a tremendous impact on our community through his work as an anesthetist in the operating room at the hospital here in Battle Creek, in this church as one of the principle leaders of the six and a half million dollar renovation project that transformed our gathering space, in his family as husband, father, grandpa, in his volunteer work with HELPS International. Everywhere his life is invested, Wes makes an impact. But never out of a desire to control, coerce or co-opt.
That is what has made Wes so effective in organizing medical care for impoverished people in Guatemala. He doesn’t dominate, he doesn’t assume he knows what people need, he doesn’t impose his knowledge, skill or expertise on others. He offers what he has to share in service. He doesn’t go down to Guatemala to convert people. He goes to be a servant in the service of those who come to him in need of healing.
Today’s Super Bowl contest is all about establishing who is the greatest. But Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23: 11-12).”
This morning we are honored to commission Wes Kimble for his 20th medical mission trip to Guatemala. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Amen.