Tag: systems

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

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Caretakers of Love & Knowledge

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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I like reading websites full of weird facts, stories, and research. This week I fell down the internet rabbit hole of the Smithsonian Magazine online. I read about the Herero Genocide. Never heard of it? Me either until now. But it was where Germany perfected genocide, and tested out the methods used in the Holocaust.

 

The same arguments of social Darwinism and cleansing the world of inferior ethnicities appear in period debates about the Herero and the Jews, Rroma, and gays. The same methods of collecting into death camps and using the captives for labor, their bodies for experiments, and their bodies for profit occur. Indeed – when you look at the names of people involved in the Herero Genocide… those same names appear in the Holocaust.

 

So who are the Herero? They are a cattle herding people in West Africa. They joined with their neighbors in the early 1900s to try to expel the Imperial Germans who were raping their women and girls, stealing their cattle, and taking their land. The Germans debated what to do about the Herero problem, and their general decided the issue the decree,

 

“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

 

Their neighbors the Nama and the Herero themselves had their wells poisoned. People were driven into deserts. People were fed to sharks. Those that were captured were turned into labor slaves, or “comfort” slaves, or used as human guinea pigs in the name of medicine and science.

 

Why were these articles coming across my screen this week? Because the grandchildren of the few Herero who survived approached the American Museum of Natural History in New York and asked for hundreds of bodies. The largest collection of bones the museum owns are the bodies of the Herero who were sold for science and curiosity after the victims were murdered. The bones had been cleaned of flesh and muscle a hundred years ago with glass shards given to the still-living captives in the camps. They had to cut apart, desiccate, and then sell their loved ones away. These grandchildren came to ask for the bodies so the Herero story could be told, and funerals finally held. The museum and the Herero are in talks now about how best to tell the story and honor the dead.

 

You and I, everyone, we like to say we’re an advanced society.

 

The Herero, and later the Jews and Rroma and others, were considered ‘lesser’ societies. Backwards. “Sh*thole” societies, if you listen to some American leaders.

 

But it is our advanced society that has perfected mass murder. And recently perfected it.

 

Rev. Fred Craddock uncomfortably writes that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”

 

Evil is real. Evil is happening. Genocide is STILL happening today. What I described? Change the dates and the names, and it is happening in Dafur this very moment and 250,000 have died. It is happening in Syria, and Ethiopia, in the Congo and in Burma. ((genocidewatch.org))

 

We don’t really believe in demons much. When we read Jesus expelled a demon from the man in the crowd, we think ‘well, they thought it was a demon. But it really was just mental illness.’ Or Epilepsy. Or some other thing. Demon possession isn’t real.

 

Demon possession doesn’t need to be real. Evil is real. Evil is happening. And evil doesn’t care if we believe in it or not.

 

In Jesus’ encounter, we see what evil does. “People who suffer the effects of being occupied or “possessed” by demons lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively” ((Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge))

 

The Herero were possessed by demons. Demons who were driving them into deserts, death camps, and slavery. Demons who stole their movements and their voices.

 

The soldiers who listened to their leaders were possessed by demons. They were immobilized, and thought they had no other choice than to follow orders. They were scared to speak up, scared to look weak, scared to lose their own lives.

 

The leaders were possessed by demons. They dreamed of money and cattle and land. They feared the natives. They were compelled to move destructively.

 

Evil has a way of being ‘the norm’ and that is when we get possessed – taken over – and lose our freedom and agency. Sometimes we give this up willingly. It is easier to say you did wrong because everyone else was doing it. Sometimes freedom and agency is stolen from us. And sometimes we don’t even realize we’re captives.

 

My voice is stolen when others speak at me, instead of listening. Who listens to you? Right now, plenty in my local and national government are speaking to the world for me, but it is not my message – a Christian message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and welcome. My voice is stolen and I am possessed.

 

Immobilized. Are we immobilized? We feel powerless, feel unable to really change things. Feel tired. Feel helpless. Feel as through there is too much pain in the world for us to actually do anything… we’re demon possessed.

 

The norm is evil. The norm is we’re compelled to be destructive. To ourselves – harming our health, our communities, our peace. Destructive. To others. Harming the balance of the world, and damaging the world whether we do nothing or we act. Compelled to destroy just by being.

 

Consider the lights here – we have clean electric energy, but it is only clean for us because down on the Ohio River are people living in the shadow of a coal plant, breathing its smoke, and taking the toxins for us.

 

We are captives to demons. Captive to evil systems.

 

When Jesus appears in the synagogue, it is a normal worship day like any other. People are there to hear the hope that their present world doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Jesus appears in as normal of a place as if he were to walk into Saint Michael’s right now. And those in the crowd were just like us here today – gathered in hope, in prayer, and carrying on the love and knowledge of God.

 

We’re caretakers. Safe guarding a treasure for generation to generation. We share with all our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim siblings the knowledge that God has revealed God’s self to us, and the way the world is — with present evil – with entrapping systems that bring us to violence after violence – this is not how things HAVE to be.

 

Today, just as that time 2000 years ago, we’re gathering in hope, while aware so much destruction has occurred and is occurring. But we have hope. We have love. We have knowledge God is working with us and will not let the divine dream die.

 

Whenever I think about hope, and Jesus, I like the image of a new sprout from the root of Jesse. The idea is that the tree, the lineage, of King David (Jesse’s son) has been cut down by the ancient Romans. But God will cause a new tree to grow out of the roots, out of a cousin or distant relative. It’s why the New Testament spends a lot of time tracing Jesus’ genealogy. Those are his roots back to Jesse to fulfill the prophecy.

 

You may picture a grand oak or maple.

 

I picture in my head a hybrid poplar. Okay, not any hybrid poplar but THE hybrid poplar named The 4th of July Tree. Picture a mulberry with poplar leaves and you’ve got the look of this tree. This little foot long stick was planted on year on the 4th of July, and by the 4th the following year, it was now two feet large. The third year it was up to my shoulders. The fifth year it now spread about nine feet high and wide. Year five it was a story large, and year six two stories large. In six short years it went from a foot to taller than the farm house. In six short years its roots went from its hole fifty feet away from the house to coming up through the house toilet. We cleared out the roots, but year seven… once again they appeared in the toilet bowl.

 

You know what we had to do. The 4th of July tree had to go.

 

So my family cut it down. We stacked the wood so it would season and chopped the base of the tree to the ground so we could mow over it.

 

One week later, there was a strange patch of grass. I went out to look and found that the stump had grown eight little six-inch trees. My dad said – don’t worry – when I mow, they’ll be cut down. Sometimes trees have a little bit of energy stored up in their roots, and they come back after the main trunk is cut.

 

So he mowed.

 

And mowed all summer.

 

And every week the tree came back from its roots.

 

This really befuddled all of us. How much energy did this tree store up in its roots? How long could it keep living without leaves and sunlight?

 

In fall, we went to split wood. But the woodpile was missing. In its place was a little woods of hybrid poplars. Each and every log had not just shot up on BOTH ends with new branches, but had also placed ROOTS. Long roots grew all over the seasoned wood and tall new trees shaded the green wood.

 

Dad decided it was time to gasoline burn all this hybrid poplar.

 

The pyre over the stump burned all day long as we split wood and tossed the bad into the blaze. Inside the hybrid poplar logs and stump roasted.

 

And the following week they all sprouted up from the ashes. The following spring, new hybrid poplars appeared in the grass everywhere a branch had fallen from mowing down the tree over and over and over again.

 

How much energy did this tree have?! It’s been twenty years and my mother is still finding bits of this tree growing.

 

When I think about the root of Jesse, I think about this tree. God’s has way more energy than we can even begin to fathom. Horrible things happen – genocides, murders, possessions of evil of all kinds big and small. We mess up. We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other. We hack and chop and burn and poison the life of the world… and yet… the tree comes back.

 

The ancient people in the synagogue were waiting for the tree to grow again. Jesus said — it is growing now!

 

We modern people in the church are waiting for the tree to grow again. And Jesus tells us – it is growing now!

 

It is always growing.

 

We are the caretakers of this knowledge. It’s our job to guard it, and pass it with love to the next generation. It’s our job to look evil in the face and say ‘not today! Not ever!’ We’re to speak with the authority gifted to us to “heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners” When is the year of the Lord’s favor? Now. Immediately.

 

Paul reminds us not to get puffed up with what we know, because there is always more we don’t know. Maybe demons are real. Maybe there are many gods and many lords. There is much we don’t know… what we do know is love. And love knows us.

 

And love — God– wants the world to know it is loved.

 

And that God can raise up new beginnings even out of stones, cut down trees, and desolated people.

 

Amen.