Sunday, August 31, 2014

a severe lack of enemy-love

Sermon 8-31-14
Romans 12:9-21
"Called and Sent"
Manassas Church of the Brethren

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There was so much goodness and grace that happened at National Youth Conference that it’s hard to pick out the best moment. It could have been all those swaying-together-in-worship songs;
or averting my eyes while all our youth climbed, untethered, to the very top of a tall climbing wall to get a fantastic group photo;

or the realization that the majority of the preachers for the week were WOMEN;
or the exuberant joy of thousands of people dancing to Mutual Kumquat;
or the classic youth group bonding activity of forcing someone (ahem, NICK) to consume some nasty dining hall concoction that you’ve created out of leftovers;
or the afternoon I took an hour off and headed with our friend Christine Engelen (who lives in Fort Collins, now) up into the hills, where the view to the East seems to stretch, flatly, all the way to the Mississippi;

or the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of embarrassing selfies we sent zinging all over the shuttle bus on the way back to the airport;
(the MOST embarrassing ones have been omitted for posterity's sake)

or the thrill of being invited to be one of the anointers during an evening worship service, looking person after person – especially our own youth - in the eyes and proclaiming that they are beloved, created and called;
or the evening when, walking into my dorm room for the night, I heard someone shout my name and turned to find four of our kids sitting at a table, bibles open, reading and sharing scripture together – and they invited me to join them;
But maybe the most enduring moment, the one where I felt God’s spirit on the move most powerfully and the one that I hope we who were there can keep alive, was during Jarrod McKenna’s sermon on the last evening.
Jarrod is an Australian leader, speaker, and community builder. He and his wife, Teresa, started the New Home Project – an outreach ministry that invites recently arrived refugees and immigrants to live with them until they can find their feet in their new home. And Jarrod, while not born or raised into any kind of Brethren faith, has been completely converted to the ways of our Anabaptist heritage and Pietist practice. He told the story of his friend, Kai, who left a life of street gang violence and joined the church there. Kai, having learned from Jarrod about our practices of footwashing and trine immersion baptism, decided that he wanted to stop fighting and killing his enemies, and start washing their feet. He decided he wanted to be baptized – dunked three times – and begin living the enemy-loving way of Jesus.
Jarrod told this story and said, “and that inspiration – that came from YOU LOT.” The way Jarrod describes our unique combination of Anabaptist practice and pietist spirituality is a strong emphasis on lived obedience to the commands of Jesus WITH an equally strong sense of the real presence of God always here amongst us.
When Jarrod ended his sermon, he issued a challenge. He challenged anyone who was feeling stirred to live this particular call to the ways of Jesus – a sense of real presence, a desire to obey Christ’s commands, the impulse to practice enemy-love – to stand up and join him on the arena floor. Thousands of people stood and joined him. The sense of God’s presence, and the desire of these NYCers to follow Jesus, was palpable.

Photo: Nevin Dulabaum, for the CoB

I think Jarrod was taken aback at how many people stood and came forward. He wasn’t anticipating the response, but he, too, was moved by what was happening. And his next words were perfect. “One of the beautiful things about your tradition is that you insist that discipleship is never a solo journey, but that it takes a community. If you are serious about this, you will need the people next to you…I want to thank those who are taking this seriously enough that stayed in their seats. You might actually understand what we’re actually asking of you more than some of the people that came forward. And God’s not done with any of us. So thank you for your courage.”  He prayed for us. We prayed for each other. And this moment of commitment – to practice obedience in the light of God’s presence, to live Christ’s way of enemy-love – this was, by far, my favorite moment from NYC. It’s how all that Dunker Punk stuff you may have been hearing about started.


The scripture passage from today – Romans 12 – has a lot to say about loving enemies. Paul is writing, like we talked about last week, to the Christians in Rome. He’s giving them instruction about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire. So the second half of this chapter is something of a list of Things Good Christians Do.
First, he says, you’ve got to learn how to treat one another in the church. Love one another. Outdo one another in showing honor. Be zealous! Be ardent! Serve God and one another. Care for those among you who are in need. Offer hospitality to strangers.
And then, Paul says, here’s how to live among people who are not YOUR people. Those people who persecute you for your faith: bless them. If the people around you are rejoicing, rejoice with them! If they are weeping, weep with them. Don’t pretend to be extra special. Do not repay evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. If your enemy is hungry: feed them. If your enemy is thirsty: give them something to drink. Don’t get sucked into the empire’s culture of polarization, political bickering, winning by force. Don’t stoop down to that level – overcome evil with GOOD.

This is HARD. Loving enemies is HARD. When I read this passage and think about people I know who have successfully practiced enemy-love, I appreciate Jarrod McKenna’s reminder that those who didn’t stand that night really might have been the ones who understood how hard the challenge is.
One person who seriously committed his life to enemy-love was Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’re looking for some ideas about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire, his sermons rank right up there with Paul’s letter to the Romans. In one of those sermons, preached in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, King sums up the enemy-love of Christ this way:
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
One of my favorite writers is Sarah Vowell. She wrote a newspaper article a few years ago about celebrating Martin Luther King Day, explaining how King’s great civil vision was drawn explicitly from the ways of Jesus. She quotes that sermon and then says:
Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Paul, in our text for this morning, is reminding the Roman Christians of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Your job, he tells those Christians in Rome, is to love your enemies. And Sarah Vowell is RIGHT: This IS the most beautiful, strange, impossible and radical thing a human being can say.
I think we all know something of how hard it can be to love our enemies. In fact, I know this congregation to be a place where we try – really hard – to be a place where the usual dividing lines of our culture, the lines of politics and ideologies that function so often as enemy-creators, don’t hold so much power. Sometimes, that’s because we avoid talking about serious things we disagree about. But most of the time, it’s because we take seriously Jesus’ commands and Paul’s instructions to love one another here in this place. I’ve heard multiple people say, in just the last week, how grateful they are for this church, a congregation that functions like a family especially for those whose families are far away. I also heard from someone this week that the way they’d describe this congregation in one word would be: GRACIOUS. That’s a high compliment, y’all.
This last year and a half, we’ve spent a lot of time working on our life together in this place. Some of that work has been about responsibilities: who plans worship? Who unlocks the building? Who’s responsible for keeping a watch on the finances? And some of that work has been about relationships: What do we do when we disagree? What does it mean to be a deacon? How do we care for each other when someone is sick, or sad, or lost?
This has been good, important work. I expect it will continue. Paul reminds the Roman Christians to rejoice in hope, patient in suffering, persevering in prayer. Surely we’ll need that advice as we move together into this new way of being a congregation together when Chris begins as our senior pastor this week.
But Paul didn’t write to the Romans just to give them advice on how to live together, and Jesus didn’t preach the Sermon on the Mount solely as a primer in community living. Paul is talking to Christians in Rome – Christians faced with living the way of Christ in the midst of an empire and a culture bent in almost opposite directions. This command to love our enemies doesn’t stop when we leave this sanctuary. We are called – individually, yes, but also as a body, as a community, as a congregation – to pray for those who persecute us, to feed our hungry enemies, to overcome evil with good.
I am not sure what that looks like for us, here, in this place, but here are some things I’ve noticed about this place recently:
When we went to House of Mercy during VBS with the Jr. Highs, we learned that 13,000 children in Prince William County aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
Just a few weeks ago, Jan Hawkins and the people at SERVE shared school supplies with 2,000 families who couldn’t afford notebooks and pencils.
This summer, at the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings, our leaders and our neighbors have been engaged in heated discussions about the presence and support of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant kids from Latin America being housed just down the road at Youth for Tomorrow.
Two weeks ago, a man was killed – 2 miles from here – by gang-related violence. This was Manassas’ first homicide in 2014 – a man killed at the hands of his enemies.
I am convinced that the conditions that allow for each of these things to happen here, in our town and in our county, are created by a severe lack of enemy-love, a belief that we have permission to stop loving when we reach some invisible boundary – of family or race or nationality or socio-economic strata or comfort. Those boundaries don’t exist. Our call is to love over and through every boundary, to love even those who we think of as our enemies.
And I’m also convinced that this congregation, in particular, has both the gift and the calling to share what we know and what we’ve received about loving our enemies.
It’s here, in scripture – in Paul’s letters and in Jesus’ teaching, in the prophets and in he gospel.
It’s here, in the example of Jesus, refusing to condemn anyone, by welcoming sinners and tax collectors and centurions and prostitutes and immigrants and minorities and criminals into his circle.
It’s here, in our own Brethren tradition that has formed us into a gracious people, people who serve, people who respond when need arises, people who invite others in, people who KNOW that following Jesus is beautiful and strange and impossible and peculiar.
And it’s here, in this place. We have been called into this beautiful, strange life with Jesus. And we are sent out into the world to share that life in all its beauty and in all its strangeness.
I am excited about what’s going to happen here in these coming months. I’m excited that Chris is starting as our pastor, and I’m excited that fall is here and we get to hang out together regularly again in Sunday school and at CAN on Wednesdays (Starting September 10!).  And I am also excited because I feel God moving among us, forming us into Christ’s people, into Christ’s church. I still can’t see the whole of what that means for us, here in this place. But I keep getting glimpses. Are you excited? Can you see the possibilities? Do you feel God moving among us, too?

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

dunker punk baptism challenge

Sermon 8-24-14
“Do Not Be Conformed”
Romans 12:1-8
Manassas Church of the Brethren

How many of you have seen the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that’s happening all over the internet this summer?

How many of you have DONE the “Ice Bucket Challenge”?

If you haven’t done or seen it, the Ice Bucket Challenge is an internet phenomenon that started back in May to raise money for research for ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Essentially, you are challenged to either dump a large bucket of ice cold water over your head or donate $100 to the ALS Association. You take a video of dumping the water over your head, and in the video, challenge several friends to either do the same or donate. Many people are choosing to dump the ice water on themselves AND donate.

As of Thursday, donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge have totaled over $41.8 MILLION dollars. That’s more than the Association’s total Revenue for fiscal year 2013. But it didn’t stop there. This phenomenon has gone viral. On Friday, Ice Bucket Challenge donations totaled 53.3 Million. And yesterday, the total was up to 62.5 Million. Talk about exponential power of social networking - 10 MILLION dollars each day!

Some people are wary of the impact that good works based on social media can have - they call it “hashtag activism,” or “slacktivism,” chiding others for not doing more, being more deeply invested, giving to organizations equally as worthy and perhaps more in need as the ALS Association. To be honest, I’m pretty skeptical myself about how well our online activities correspond to the rest of our lives: does tweeting about something really mean I’m invested in it? Does posting a silly video on Facebook make me a supporter of ALS research? But, financially at least, the Ice Bucket Challenge is having a very non-virtual impact on research for ALS. Something about the Ice Bucket Challenge has caught on and taken root. It went viral, grew exponentially for some REASON. There’s something to this combination of doing good, practicing joy, and challenging one another.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in a context of this kind of exponential growth. The gospel was spreading, like wildfire. And Paul, in this letter, was issuing his own joyful challenge - the challenge to live up to the adventure of baptism, to live a transformed life.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is different from most of his other letters. Paul KNEW the people in the churches of Corinthians or Galatians or Philippians - he had founded some of those churches, and visited them all. Those places were all on the far Eastern side of the Roman Empire, and the gospel was expanding westward from the backwater region where Jesus had lived and taught.

But the church in Rome was not familiar to Paul. He didn’t found that church, and he’d never visited them. The gospel was spreading so quickly and so exponentially that Paul, the original circuit-riding preacher, couldn’t keep up with it. He couldn’t get to every church community to encourage them and teach them and challenge them to live out the gospel in the way of Jesus. So he wrote. He wrote to the Roman Christians.

That the story of Jesus - his life and teachings and healings and trouble with the law, his death and resurrection - that this story had made its way all the way to Rome, the center of the universe, seat of government and capital of empire, well, that was no small thing.

The writer of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and the book of Acts describes this exponential spread of the gospel challenge all the way through Galilee and Judea, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece and right up to its arrival in Rome. The book of Acts ends when the gospel reaches Rome, as if to say: Finally. Legitimacy. The end.

But the storyteller of Luke-Acts doesn’t know - or, at least, doesn’t let on - what Paul knows: that to live out the gospel in the middle of Empire is a seriously difficult task.

I had dinner with Carl and Roxanne Hill this week, missionaries recently back from Nigeria who led us in worship last Sunday. They are great people, and we had really interesting conversation. We talked about Nigeria, and how hard it is for the people of the churches there, living with daily violence and persecution. And we talked about the US, how hard it is for the people of the churches HERE, living with so many opportunities for distraction and materialism and gluttony. “Living the gospel is hard,” Carl said, “EVERYWHERE.”

I think Paul knew about the ways living the gospel would be hard for these Roman Christians, living in the way of Jesus in the belly of the beast of empire - how hard it would be to:

To practice enemy love in the place where enemies are plotted against;
To refuse to build bigger barns and resist storing up earthly treasures in the place where the economy is burgeoning, where currency is created, where treasures are cheap and wealth is easy;
To welcome strangers, immigrants and aliens in the place responsible for the policies that regulate those people’s presence;
To practice forgiveness and radical grace in the place where systems of penal justice are created and maintained;
To live peaceably with all in the place where battle strategies and war departments are housed;
To not be haughty or claim to be exceptionally wise in the place that runs on knowledge and power.
To live the peculiar life of Christian discipleship in the place where blending in and falling in line are how to get ahead.

Paul knew that it would be hard to follow Jesus in Rome. So he wrote this letter, full of crazy theological twists and turns (which, I think, he knew those sophisticated Romans would understand in ways that his churches back in the Galilee might not), and then he moves on to tell them what all that crazy theology means.

“So, brothers and sisters,” he tells them, “because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice...Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is - what is good and pleasing and mature.”

“Look,” Paul is saying, “I know who you are, and I know where you are. You’re followers of Jesus. We both know what that means, we both know who he is. And you are in ROME. You’re right there where everything comes together, where the government is situated, where the military is commanded, where the economy is centered, where the thinkers and philosophers and writers and artists and temples are all furiously creating and writing spinning out new ideas and new possibilities. You are followers of Jesus and you are THERE. Let’s take a moment, together, to contemplate what that means.”

And then, Paul says, “don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.” Don’t let all that power and culture go to your head. Remember who you are, whose you are. Remember the example of Jesus, who did not consider himself better than anyone but knelt down to serve. And let that example transform you - so that you will be able to discern, even among all the noise of empire, what God’s will is. Not the will of the emperor. Not the will of the Pantheon. Not the will to power, not the will to riches. Let yourselves be transformed, let your minds be renewed, so that you will know the will of the God who brought you here - the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

And, here’s the thing, you guys: we live in Rome. We are followers of Jesus smack-dab in the middle of empire. The Washington DC metro area has eight of the eleven U.S. counties with the highest median income. It has the highest concentration of post-graduate degrees of any other area in the country. Concentrated power is harder to calculate, but just take a minute to survey the jobs of people you know - in government, in law enforcement, in policy-making, in intelligence. We are a powerful people. We’ve got cathedrals and universities and libraries to rival any other city in the world. We live in Rome.

We are the people Paul is writing to. We are Romans. So it is especially important for us to listen to what he’s saying. We are followers of Jesus. Paul says earlier in the letter, in the midst of all that theological intensity, that in our baptism we have died with Christ and been raised with him. That means that we are a different kind of people, called to live differently than the culture of the empire around us. Baptism into this kind of community includes that kind of challenge.

Back to that Ice Bucket Challenge. Did you notice how like baptism the whole phenomenon is? People getting dunked, people being challenged, the joy of community and mutuality and service spreading as quickly as wildfire? Maren Tirabassi, a UCC pastor and poet, saw the connection and wrote a poem about it. She shared this on her facebook page this week:

Ice Bucket Challenge
Maren Tirabassi, UCC Pastor & poet

Of course, they’ve borrowed
our sacrament,

the one we let become warm
and small and personal and private
and cheap.

They got it right –
a big splash in front of everyone,
for the sake of those
living with ALS,

a wild, re-jordaned,
cold compassion, soaking --
holy defiant dove and all
to heal
lou gehrig’s disease.

Amen to the
celebrities and CEO’s,
the politicians and techies
and ordinary folks
who may not be our go-to saints
but teach us something
about our fonts,

and our old three-holy punch –

a bucketful of icy and shocking,
of public and embarrassing,
a bucketful
of siding with the healing
of someone else,

a bucketful of awkward
possible rejection,
wet and turning
to someone we love saying –

I challenge you to live baptized.

That challenge of baptism,
to side with the healing of others,
to consider others just as important as ourselves,
to live a life that refuses to conform to the patterns of the age and the place in which we live and
to learn - through God’s transforming grace - to figure out the will of God and to respond by DOING IT -
this is not a challenge that comes to us once and for all when we leave those the waters. Living out our baptism is a constant challenge, something we get to aspire to and reach for in each moment.

Our youth heard that challenge recounted to them this summer at NYC, when Jarrod McKenna called us to live like “Dunker Punks.” Jarrod challenged us to find one or two other people and pray together daily, and he challenged us to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. These are ways to respond to the challenge. Maybe you’ll hear yourself being challenged in other ways. What does it mean for YOU, to refuse to be conformed to the world, the empire, around you and to BE TRANSFORMED?

In the spirit of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and in an effort to do good, practice joy, and challenge one another to live transformed lives, even right here in the midst of Empire, here’s your invitation:

Monday, August 18, 2014

what's up, midwifery?

A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend an evening with Julia Dinsmore, a woman full of grace and medicine stories whose book you should go buy, read, and share with someone else who can’t afford it. Julia talked about being poor, about living without safety nets, about the genius instilled and necessitated by poverty. She chastised those of us (me) who’d been apologetic about coming from a middle-class family. “Don’t be guilty about that! Middle-class is good! Use it!” Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her what that meant. What should I DO with all my privilege? Is there some way I get to use it to clear space for other people, to make way for those stories to get through? She thought about it for a while, and then said, “Yes. It’s a midwife thing.”

The week before that happened, I was with a bunch of my youth at a big conference in Colorado. In his sermon on the last night, Jarrod McKenna challenged all of us there to commit to radical obedience wrapped in sincere belief in God’s active presence – to live out our heritage as “dunker punks.” The sermon sparked something – or, maybe it’s more accurate to say tapped into some fire already ignited – and people have been working at being present, obedient Dunker Punks in a bunch of interesting ways these last few weeks. My friend Josh works (like I do, but only 1/4 time, you know, so I'm wayyyy less implicated, right?) for “the man,” in the denominational offices in Elgin, and we’ve been talking about what it means for an institution to support a movement. He wrote a blog about a conversation where we stumbled into the idea that the role of a leader in current power structures is to be a midwife, to help birth that new thing, to recognize which pain is the pain of new life and which pain is the pain of something amiss.

In the last week, I’ve had two more conversations about midwifery, neither of which I instigated, both of which caught me off guard. What's up, midwifery? Got something to say to me? And why are you such a fun word to say?

The old is passing away, y’all. Do you feel it? It’s happening in the church. It’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s happening in Gaza. It’s happening every place the cheap veneer of respectability is being torn away from the scarring realities of injustice, irrelevance, racism and greed.

We live in Rome. We live in the Capitol. We live in the center of power, distracted by bread and circuses, hunger games, institutional shuffling of deck chairs. We live in the center of empire, comforted by security systems, cushions of wealth, platitudes of certainty. We live in a constructed reality meant to coddle us into complacency.

When the fabric of these illusions begins to unravel, when something unavoidably horrific happens, we try hard to avoid it, to explain it away, to maintain our delicate balance of ignorance and avoidance. But those moments are irruptions of the real – slivers of what’s true breaking in, breaking through, reducing our arrogant cries of “peace, peace” (when there is NO peace) to what they actually are: pitiful cries for mercy, cowardly refusals to acknowledge reality.

We live among the ruins of every security system we’ve attempted to erect. And the thing is, I think: all this ruination is GOOD. All these lies getting burnt away are part of that process of refining. If we die with Christ, we will also live with him. 

I am not a midwife. I don’t understand childbirth. Heck, I’ve only got one remaining ovary and a rather shady uterus as it is. But I’m beginning to suspect that all this pain, all this destruction of certainty, all this ruination of worldview, all these painful revelations may in fact be the pain of new birth. Could it be? Could it be that we’re being uprooted and upheaved in order to usher in some tiny, screaming bit of new life?

That’s the hope I land on after this week of grief and lament. That God might, in fact, be doing a new thing. And this, this right here, is my pitiful attempt at being a midwife. God is doing a new thing. Do we not perceive it?