Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Refugees Will Know We Are Christians by Our Compassion

(Image courtesy of Butler professor James McGrath)

In the days since the attacks in Paris, the conversation in the United States has taken a strange turn. Political leaders from Presidential Candidates, Governors, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and even a Tennessee State Legislator want to ban all refugees from Syria from entering the United States on the off chance that one of them might be a terrorist. (Our local official wants to do more than not let people in)

Others have weighed in on the process of vetting refugees, addressed the (still being investigated) rumor that one of the Paris attackers cross the border posing as a refugee, and compared leaders' responses to this crisis with their responses to mass shootings, so I won't rehash all that.

Instead I'll simply offer up a message I preached a few weeks back as part of a series at Christ called "They Will Know We Are Christians by Our ___". That week's theme was "Compassion".

I think it's particularly relevant in light of Rep. Ryan's statement- "we can't allow the terrorists to take advantage of our compassion", as if compassion is some kind of weakness. The word "compassion comes from the Latin compati, which literally means "to suffer with". My contention in the sermon is that compassion necessarily leads us to action because we allow the things that break God's heart break our heart. Failing to act is then, by definition, not "compassion".

You can listen to the audio on Christ UMC's site, or read the manuscript below. The primary biblical text is the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

(Quick note on the audio- after the scripture readers, the next thing you hear is one of our church members presenting a modern parable called "Information Please" that is part of the message. I come in at about 10:30 in the recording)

They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Compassion

A few weeks ago I came into the church office in the morning, grabbed my coffee, had a quiet few moments to center myself, and I opened my laptop to get started with the work day. At some point I opened up my Facebook page just to see what people were up to, and I saw a picture that I instantly knew I didn’t want to see. It was the image of a small child lying face down on a beach. I knew about the growing refugee crisis in Syria, and I guessed that it had something to do with that, but as I said, I instantly knew I didn’t want to see it, so I kept scrolling down so I could see a picture of someone’s dog or something else pleasant to focus on.

Over the next few days it seemed like everyone I followed on social media was reposting articles that contained this picture of the child lying face down on the beach, and every time I saw it, I clicked away as fast as I could. I don’t need to look at it. After all, I’m a pastor, I deal with depressing stuff every day, why go seek out more things that will bring me down. And this conflict is halfway around the world, there’s nothing I could actually do about it, so I avoided it.

After a few more days, this picture wasn’t going away and I was running out of excuses. Clicking a different web page is one thing, but when I’m watching the news and suddenly changing the channel to avoid it, something’s not right with this picture. So I took a deep breath, clicked on the article one of my friends had shared, and I promptly burst into tears.

The boy in the picture’s name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Aylan's father was trying to get his family away from the conflict in Syria to Turkey, so he bought a motorboat from a man who dishonestly claimed it was sea worthy, and by the time they found out it wasn’t it was too late. Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi did everything he could to save his wife and two sons, but he was the only one who made it.

After a while when I had stopped crying and could think straight, I began to realize why I avoided looking at that picture, why I avoided hearing their story and learning their names. It wasn’t because I had more important things to focus on, and it wasn’t just because I feel like there’s nothing I can do. I didn’t want to look at this story because I don’t want to face that the only difference between three year old Aylan Kurdi and three year old Claire Kelley is what part of the world they were born into, which they did not choose. I didn’t want to face that the truth that, had our unchosen, unearned circumstances of birth been reversed, I would be the unwelcome, grief stricken refugee in a foreign country, and Abdullah Kurdi would be the guy sitting on the couch with his family griping that the pizza guy was taking too long to get to their house.

I didn’t want to know that family’s story, because deep down I knew that if I did, it would break my heart. I know these things break God’s heart, but while I spent a few days avoiding it and making excuses, I wasn’t practicing compassion. I felt bad, sure, it’s not that I didn’t care. But compassion is more than just seeing someone in pain, feeling bad for a moment, maybe offering up a quick prayer and moving on, glad that’s not me. For followers of Jesus, compassion happens when we let the things that break God’s heart break our heart, and our heartbreak moves us to act.

This morning we read about compassion in Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a parable we’ve come to call the “Good Samaritan”. This is a complex story told in relatively few words. There are a lot of things Jesus doesn’t tell us, so we have to fill in the blanks, use our imaginations a bit if we want to understand what it’s really about. I think Jesus does that on purpose.

Here we have a guy, presumably a Judean like Jesus and all his people, traveling by himself along a dangerous road (not the smartest thing to do), when he gets mugged, beaten up, and left for dead. Then we see three other people- a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. We’re told that the first two guys see the injured man and cross over to the other side of the road, while the Samaritan saves the man’s life. That’s it. Pretty simple story. So we start to wonder, “Why did the first two men ignore one of their own, while a foreigner did something?” What made the difference?”

Well, we could decide that the priest and the Levite were just plain jerks who didn’t care about anybody but themselves. That’s possible, but it’s not a very interesting story if they’re one dimensional bad guys. We could reason that since the priest and the Levite have important religious roles, and since they’re going toward Jerusalem where the Temple is, that their chief concern is maintaining their ritual purity. If they go over to check on the guy and find out he’s dead, they become unclean and can’t serve the people who are counting on them, so it’s a theological issue. That’s also possible, but the rabbis who interpret the law make exceptions for acts of mercy, so that doesn’t really work, either.

We’re told that the priest and the Levite both see the man, and they cross over to the other side of the road. It may be that they see the man, feel bad for him, sure, they care. But what can they do? They might say a quick prayer and keep on going, glad it’s not them. We’re not told anything about what’s going on inside the priest or the Levite, but we do get a glimpse inside the Samaritan’s head. He sees the man and is moved with compassion. He doesn’t simply feel bad, he sees another human being who could have easily been him if he’d started his journey an hour earlier.

The Samaritan sees something that breaks God’s heart, and he lets it break his heart, and it moves him to act. Instead of saying “what can I do?” as an excuse, he asks, “what can I do? I can tend his wounds, I can get him to a safe place, and I can put his hospital bill on my credit card. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but if it was me there in that ditch I’d certainly want someone to try.” The Samaritan’s heartbreak moves him to act. He’s the hero of the story because he practices compassion.

Now the good news is that most of the opportunities you and I have every day to practice compassion aren’t quite that extreme. Jesus tells a story about a drastic situation so his point is very clear. And I shared about my experience avoiding the picture of Aylan Kurdi because that’s what has broken my heart recently. But most of the time it’s not so drastic or gut-wrenching. Our daily opportunities to practice compassion usually look more like the parable Mark shared with us, where the woman working the information line could have simply felt bad for the little boy, but decided there was nothing she could do. Instead, she saw something that broke God’s heart, and she let it break her heart just enough to see what she could do to make it better.

When we see how God’s heart breaks for someone without a home, we can pause long enough to buy a Contributor, look them in the eye, ask their name, and show them they matter. When we see God’s heart break over refugees on the other side of the world, we may not be able to do much, but we can donate money to UMCOR, and we can encourage our legislators to make space for more refugees. That’s what I did. When we see God’s heart breaking because someone we know is clearly having a rough day, we can stop for a few minutes to ask how they’re doing, to offer to pray with them, to let them know that they matter to us because they matter to God.

Whatever opportunities we may come across, big or small, may our eyes be open to see what breaks God’s heart. May we let God’s heartbreak become our heartbreak, and may it move us to act. For then they will know we are Christians by our compassion.

Amen? Amen.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Admitting I am powerless- Lectionary Readings for August 9

This post is late because I've been finishing my "statement of problem" for my DMin program. It's not a full blown proposal, but it goes a long way toward matching me with the right faculty mentor for the project. Once I find out if what I turned in is remotely coherent, I'll share it here and invite feedback.

This week's lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; and John 6:35, 41-51. They can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

This week's psalter begins with "out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord". In the 2 Samuel reading, David is crying out from the depths as he realizes that he is in the middle of a mess he can't fix, cover up, or ignore. His son, Absalom, has died in a rebellion against him, even though David told his soldiers to deal gently with him. Even though David's side has "won" the battle, he has lost.

David wishes he had died instead of his son, because that is the natural order of things. Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare. The very thought of one of my children dying before me makes my stomach clench up, and in my experience as a pastor, it is the hardest situation to walk with somebody through, because there's nothing you can say to make it any better. There are a lot of things that people can and do say that make it worse ("this was God's plan", "God needed another angel in heaven"). For David, knowing that it is precisely all his wealth and power that caused this situation that cost him his son makes his grief that much greater.

Not everyone goes through the pain of losing a child, but we all have horrible moments in our lives when we would give anything to make the pain go away, and realizing that there is nothing we can do only makes it worse. Friends in recovery from substance abuse call it their "rock bottom" moment, when they can't get healthy on their own. Admitting you are helpless to solve the problem and have to call upon a higher power is the first step in AA and other twelve step recovery programs.

The psalmist does the same thing, ending with "it is (the Lord) who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities". When we've really hit rock bottom, when we can no longer hide behind our see how powerless we are the only way to get through it is to let God work.

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells us how our grief, our pain, our hunger can't be satisfied by anything we can do, but only by the "bread from heaven" who happens to be Jesus himself. Some of his hearers don't like it because they're quite comfortable with the illusion of their own agency. But at the end of the day, following Jesus isn't all that different from getting sober. We recognize that we are in the depths, that we can't pull ourselves out, and look to God to meet the need we have to finally admit we can't meet on our own.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Getting Over Ourselves- Lectionary Readings for August 2

This week's readings are Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35. They can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary Page.

There is a pattern that runs throughout the narratives of scripture, both Old and New Testaments. God does something incredible, people are amazed and praise God for about five minutes, then they forget and either go their own way or ask for another neat trick.

That's what happens in the Exodus reading. The liberated slaves' feet are barely dry from crossing the seabed that God had opened up for them when they start complaining that there's no food out here in the desert. Instead of smiting a bunch of people because they griped (there's plenty of that later), God gives them the gift of manna, from which they make bread and are able to survive during the coming decades in the wilderness. The Psalter celebrates that story in a song about God's goodness.

The same thing happens in the gospel reading. Jesus calls out the people trying to find him because they were looking for another neat trick. Instead, Jesus asks them to see the signs he is performing not as cool things in and of themselves, but as pointing beyond themselves to the God who is engaged in the work of healing and restoration.

Read the rest of John 6 and you see Jesus "thin out the herd" by dropping some hard teaching on them about his flesh and blood being food and drink. If you want a sense of how crazy this sounded to first century people, our friends at South Park have recaptured it for us. Lots of Jesus' hearers really heard him and split. When Jesus asked those who remained why they were there, Peter replies, "where else are we going to go?" They didn't necessarily like what they were hearing either, but they were all in with Jesus.

Perhaps we gravitate toward neat tricks because they're easy to wrap our minds around. It's safer if those things are isolated happenings rather than signs of God's reign taking over our world. If God is in charge, we aren't, and that's scary!

A huge part of discipleship is getting over ourselves and letting God set the agenda for as long as we can before we start yanking control back. We're only human, after all. When we realize we've been pulling it back toward ourselves, we own up to it and trust that God will help us do a little bit better each time.

That's what Paul is talking about in Ephesians when he says we should strive to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called". I used to be uneasy with this passage because I thought it was about never messing up, which is an unrealistic standard to hold ourselves to.

We can spend all our time beating ourselves up over all the ways we fall short, or we can read Paul's exhortation as an aspirational statement. "Strive to do better every time, because that demonstrates your gratitude for the incredible gift of forgiveness you've been given."

If I can get over myself, my need to be at the center of things and exercise control, then I'll stop looking for neat tricks from God. I'll really be able to respond to this invitation to a journey where things more amazing than I ever thought possible will happen, because someone a whole lot smarter than me is in charge.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What Kind of God? Lectionary Readings for July 26

For those who have asked the audio from this past Sunday's message on the 2 Samuel and Mark 6 readings is available on Christ UMC's website.

This week's lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21.  They can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

The psalter begins, "fools say in their hearts 'there is no God'". In college I remember my evangelical friends quoting this verse as a way of scoffing at people who didn't share their theological convictions. I thought that was a strange attitude to have if your stated goal is to get everyone to believe the same things you do. I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard people in Bible study groups say things like, "I'd be a horrible person if I didn't have God in my life, I just don't know how other people make it!" Really? If your doctrinal beliefs are the only thing holding you back from harming other human beings, you may have bigger problems.

I've encountered many people who are professed atheists or agnostics who are wonderful, loving, morally grounded people. And some of the worst behavior I've ever seen human beings engage in has been in church. Belief in God can't be the deciding factor as to whether one is a moral or immoral person.

Actually, maybe we should make the distinction between belief in the idea of a divine being and commitment to the God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Let's take King David's story as an example. David certainly believes in God. God chose him to be king and was with him every step of the way on a very long journey to the throne. Right before this week's reading, David got the notion to build a Temple for God. The man was no atheist!

David's actions don't suggest that he stopped believing in the idea of God, but that he has a functional change in who he believes God is. He acts on a very base impulse, and does everything he can to cover it up when other people might find out what he's done. In other words, David acts like no one is watching. Or at the very least, that God doesn't care what David does once he's in power.

David may be operating with a belief system that today we call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. In this way of thinking, God is primarily there to solve our problems, to help make us "nicer" people, and generally to help us feel good, but isn't really all that concerned about how we live our lives. David may not have yelled out "there is no God!" in bed with Bathsheba (that would be creepy), but he's acting as if the God of his ancestors doesn't exist, preferring the god of MTD.

The God who is described in the Old and New Testaments wants much more for us than to simply feel good and be nice. God cares deeply not only about what actions we take, but how we feel in our hearts, how we view every other human being around us. When David looked over to the rooftop, he didn't see Bathsheba as a whole person created in God's image, he saw an attractive body and nothing more.

In contrast, when Jesus sees a large group of people who followed him out into the wilderness, he doesn't simply see a bunch of dummies who weren't smart enough to pack a lunch. Following the god of MTD allows us to shrug our shoulders at people without food and say, "not my problem". MTD god even gives us bonus points if we give someone a dollar or a PBJ!

The God who is made known to us in Jesus leads us to view every single person as our brother or sister, for our hearts to break when we see them suffering. Following the God of Jesus means feeling bad sometimes! Jesus sees people who are so hungry for God that they just went, not bothering to prepare for the journey. So he invites them to a miraculous meal instead of letting them go hungry as a lesson to "be prepared next time". Caring for those who don't have access to the basic means of life is a baseline requirement of the God of Jesus, not a nice extra.

Choosing the God of Jesus over the god of MTD or countless other ideas of God out there is a constant, intentional choice, and it's extremely easy to adopt other gods without even realizing it. We're not strong enough by ourselves to get it right, so we pray with Paul that we "may be strengthened in our inner being through the power of the Spirit" so we can choose to follow the God of Jesus, even when it doesn't make us feel very good.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Remembering Who We Are- Lectionary Readings for July 19

This week's lectionary readings- 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

I'll be preaching on the 2 Samuel and Mark texts this week, so if you're in the greater Nashville area, come worship with us at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin at 8:30 or 11am. Or you can listen to the message the next day on the website.

I am really drawn to David's story this week. He's entered Jerusalem as a conquering hero, the undisputed king of Israel, and now that he's on the throne, his mind starts to wander. It hasn't wandered across the street to a loyal soldier's wife just yet, though that one is coming.

David gets the notion to build a Temple for the Ark of God, because he feels guilty that he lives in a palace while God dwells in a tent. David's heart is in the right place, but God says "no, this isn't your job. I've got someone else in mind."

I can't help but wonder if this was tough for David to hear. After all, David is used to being the man, the guy who gets things done. David may have started to think that he was the only person God wanted to use to do great things. He may have started to forget that while he had done great things for God, it was God doing them through him. Jr. High kids don't slay giants on their own.

We human beings are a pretty self centered bunch. Even when our intentions are good, we find a way to make it about us. Maybe David's desire to build God a Temple came with the unspoken expectation that David's name appear on the masthead, too. His intentions are good, but as a human he finds a way to make it about him.

Paul is reminding the Ephesians that there was a time when they were far away from God, and to remember that it was God that fixed the situation, not them. They're part of this great redeeming work that God is doing, but they can't forget that God is at the center of it, not them.

In Mark's gospel, the twelve disciples Jesus sent out to preach and heal come back with stories about people being healed, demons being cast out, and all kinds of other things. "Great work, guys!" Jesus says. "Now come away and rest for a while."

The disciples, in the midst of their excitement, would have quickly found a way to make it all about them. They'd decide they were pretty awesome, and the world needed them so badly that they had to head back out there right away! Jesus tells them to rest. They're in this for the long haul, so they have to pace themselves. And if they're worried about what will happen while they're resting, they need to remember that they're not the only people God is going to use.

They get to be part of the work of God's Kingdom, but they're not the center. That's an easy thing to forget. David needed to be reminded. Jesus' disciples needed to be reminded. So do we.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Confoundingly Messy Mixture of Bad and Good- Lectionary Readings for July 12

This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29) can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary page.

We like things to be neat, to easily fit into categories. We want good news to be all wonderful, no "buts" anywhere. We want bad news to be total, as well. We might hope for a "but" in the midst of bad news, but if we're honest, it's easier to wrap our minds around something totally awful.

Scripture keeps confounding that desire by giving us a mixture of both. Sometimes the good and the bad balance each other out, but most of the time they sit side by side, somehow coexisting with no attempt to reconcile themselves. Only the most robust theological gymnastics can get us to a place where a passage fits our desired "all or nothing" mold.

In 2 Samuel 6, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. This victory parade marks his full ascension to the throne, the end of years of conflict where it looked like the end for him too many times to count. Yet in the midst of the victory parade, his wife, Michal, the daughter of the recently deceased former King Saul, looks at the parade and despises David "with all of her heart". And we know that David quickly gets complacent and bored on the throne, leading to misery for nearly everyone in his life. Good news and bad sit side by side.

In Amos 7, the news is mostly bad. Israel has been getting it so wrong for so many generations that it seems as if God has finally run out of patience with them (if that idea doesn't sit well theologically, it bears mentioning that like many other  Old Testament texts, Amos was compiled and redacted during and after the time of exile being foreshadowed- we simply have to consider the bias in the source). But we know that in time the people will return, that the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, that Temple worship will happen again, for a time. Good news and bad sit side by side.

The New Testament texts are similarly messy. Paul waxes poetic at the beginning of his letter to the Church at Ephesus about how what happened in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of what God has been up to all along, how this beautiful cosmic symmetry is good news for you and I, and how it all makes sense in the end. But the means by which we get there, particularly the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and to a lesser extent the trials that the early church is facing and their need for this kind of encouragement from Paul make a hard road toward the happy ending. Good news and bad sit side by side.

It's pretty much the same story in Mark's gospel. We're told in a flashback how Herod Antipas is freaked out by Jesus because of his lingering guilt over what he did to John the Baptist. His insecurity and itchy trigger finger overcame what tiny shred of decency he had. His very opportunistic wife/sister-in-law and stepdaughter/niece (ewww...) manipulated him into showing how weak he really was. But John's exit from the stage makes room for Jesus. In another telling of the story, John himself says, "He must increase and I must decrease" (John 3:30). John's martyrdom is a piece of cake compared to what Jesus endures, so part of being the lesser of the two ends up being the better option.

Sometimes the good and bad news that come to us in these readings balance each other out in a Zen-like way. But most of the time, just like in real life, they exist side by side, sometimes having very little to do with one another other than proximity.

That's why the Bible is so frustrating. That's why the Bible is so wonderful.

The Bible is so human and so divine at the same time. All these things that seem like they couldn't possibly coexist do, just like you and me. And mysteriously, unexpectedly, God is somehow in the midst of it all, somehow making sense of this giant mess we have made. It doesn't fit neatly into our preferred artificial categories.

It's confounding. It's messy. It's real. This is our story.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Different Kind of Greatness- Lectionary readings for July 5

I'm going to try blogging again. I never made the decision to stop, but for about the last two years I've been so stressed and overwhelmed I just never had enough energy to flesh thoughts out enough to post. But now I'm in a new ministry context, part of a great staff team, and I don't have to solve every single problem that comes up!

The Staff-Parish Chair here at Christ UMC (who, incidentally I went to seminary with) asked me what was I "worried about" going from a Lead Pastor role to being on a staff. Nothing really "worries" me per say but the biggest change at the outset is not preaching every single week. So to get back in the swing of blogging, each Monday I'll post thoughts on the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday.

The readings for Sunday, July 5 can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary site.

In 2 Samuel 5, David takes his place as Israel's king after Saul's death, and as verse 10 tells us, "David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him." God's favor and David's greatness seems intertwined. But what did this greatness get him once he was on the throne? He murdered one of his most loyal soldiers to cover up a fling with the soldier's wife, his children fought him and each other constantly, and he died alone and miserable.

Contrast that concept of "greatness" with what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, and how Jesus' hometown neighbors react to his teaching in Mark 6. Paul keeps asking God to remove his "thorn in the flesh", never elaborating on what it is, but God replies, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul is not impressing anybody on his own. Anything great that comes from him is clearly from God. It may be that Paul is the one who needs that reminder more than anyone else.

The same counter-intuitive definition of "greatness" shows up in this week's gospel reading. Jesus is astounding everyone with his teaching, but the people in his hometown can't get past the fact that he used to play baseball with their little brother, or that Jesus took their cousin to the prom (he brought her home before curfew, of course). In their minds a great rabbi should have his seminary degree from Jerusalem and wear fancy robes. The t-shirt and jeans guy I used to wrestle with on the playground can't possibly be a great teacher.

God's definition of greatness looks a whole lot different than ours. Great things from God come through the means we don't expect. It has to work that way because we human beings are so thick-headed we'll come up with any reason to explain why something happened. "That guy's just really smart." "Wow, what a crazy coincidence. You sure got lucky!" It's easier that way, because if it's all up to us, if our definition of "greatness" really is true, then we have some measure of control.

The scariest thing, perhaps the most faithful thing that we can do when something unexpected happens is not rush to explain it away, but to sit back, look around, and say "huh, maybe God's up to something here..."