Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reclaiming Stewardship

In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings there is a remarkable set of characters known as the Stewards of Gondor. The Steward administered Gondor on behalf of the absent king, swearing an oath to do so "until he shall return."  The did not sit on the throne, but on a simple chair of black stone on the lowest step of the dais which surrounded the throne.  Though the characters, and citizens of Gondor, in Tolkien's work had difficulties which we would do well to remember, this is an image that I believe we might want to capture for our own use as communities of faith.

Part of the reason that pastors, including myself, have come to hate "Stewardship Season," preaching Stewardship Sermons, and, frankly, anything to do with the word "Stewardship," is that it's been diminished to being simply about some cash.  Tolkien's image can help us reclaim both the word and our own role as Stewards.

The biblical image of stewardship begins in the Garden when Adam is given dominion over creation.  This stewardship is responsibility on behalf of creation's True King.  We have been tasked with the care of ALL creation.  It is a responsibility to care for this creation until the joining of heaven and earth takes place; til God's Kingdom comes and God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  It is not a license to abuse, pillage, or drain the resources of creation.  Further, we are given Stewardship of a particular Power.  Acts 1:8 say that we, "shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And in this power you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and to the ends of the earth."  That power, of which we are Stewards points to another Stewardship role: that of being Stewards of the Story. 

When Peter and John, in Acts 3:1-10 heal a man who has been lame from birth, they are exercising their Stewardship of the power given to them by Christ through the Holy Spirit.  It is a power we are expected to use to fulfill our job as God's people working to set the world to rights on God's behalf.

What if we were to apply this overarching image to our yearly focus on Stewardship.  What would change?  Could we begin to see everything that we have and do through this lens?  The money we give; the time we commit to various ministries; the way we use the resources of the world around us; even the way we chose to vote....could these become an expression of our care for the King's domain "until he returns?"

The lame man who Peter and John heals then becomes the recipient of a gift from God of which he has now become the Steward.  What will he do with this new life he has been given?  How will he shape this healthy being that he now is?  We too, as those redeemed and reconciled by the love of God in Christ Jesus are Stewards of a gift.

In Mark 10 Jesus tells a rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, "then come follow me."  Jesus held up a mirror for him about what was interfering with his being a good Steward, someone using the gift of Torah to change the world on God's behalf.  What he heard in Jesus' invitation was that his riches were blocking his understanding and ability to relate to those he was supposed to be treating as family: the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  Faced with this invitation, he went away; shocked and sad, because he had lots of stuff.

Stewards.  Not kings on the throne.  Stewards.  That's our call.  Our task.  The care of God's creation.  The love of God's people (which is all us). Using every single gift we've been given to care for this creation until the day it is joined to the Kingdom of Heaven when Heaven and Earth come together.  What would happen if this was our definition of Stewardship?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Picking Up Our Cross; It Isn't What We Usually Think

This post is a follow up to my "Screaming Match" post.  If you haven't read it, please do.  This will make so much more sense (at least I hope so).

I ended my sermon this past Sunday talking about Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold or silver.  As a philosophy, it treats the damage, the brokenness, and its repair as part of the history of the piece rather than something to be disguised.  The art uses the repair to create a new thing of beauty out of the old.  The jar below is an example of this.

In my sermon, and in my last post, I talked about the need for Christians to be involved in bringing our broken, divided nation together with acts of love and peace.  I believe that we will not do this by trying to ignore or deny the brokenness.  However, I do believe that in owning that brokenness the "gold" of the Gospel, of the Holy Spirit working through us, of the love of Christ alive in us, we can create something new and beautiful.

This week, I did some more research on Kintsugi and discovered how long this process is.  This isn't a matter of super gluing things back together.  It is a painstaking, time consuming process.  As it will be for us.  There have been two examples that have moved me lately:

The first was my police ride-along a couple of weeks ago.  I've spent a good deal of my life working in some form or another, in, or with, the criminal justice system.  I have friends I love who are law enforcement officers of one kind or another.  I am also an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and have deep concern over the systemic racism within the justice system.  Working as a volunteer Chaplain with the local Police Department is my way of holding those two things in tension.  Of denying neither the reality of the national problem or racism in policing, nor the needs and challenges of the officers I try to pastor.  It will be a painstaking, time consuming process.  There will be people (on both sides) who do not understand what I'm trying to do, or why.

The second example is, in some ways, more personal.  I was as a clergy luncheon for the Mid-Atlantic CBF this past week.  At the table with me was an African American clergyman with a last name that I recognized from my childhood.  I asked him if he had family is Spartanburg, S.C.  "Yes, but most of my people came from Union." (Union and Spartanburg are separated by about 30 miles).  I responded that my father grew up in Union and that my people came out of the mills there.  I mentioned a particular Sheriff who, in the early 1900's had a name identified with racism and the KKK.  This pastor responded with a story of how his grandfather had been forced to move north after an encounter with this Sheriff.  I, with some embarrassment, said, "I believe that my grandfather was this man's deputy sheriff."  The silence at the table was palpable.  The wounds in our nation run deep.  I am not responsible for the sins of my grandfather (which were many); but I ache for the pain caused to this man's family-pain that passed through generations.  I am shamed by the fact that someone in my family might have been part of creating that pain (though I will probably never know).  This pastor and I talked.  We will talk again.  What we create out of acknowledging the brokenness in both our stories will be an act of the Spirit.

All of this brings us to Jesus' commandment that we are to "take up your cross and follow me" that we find in Mark 8:34-37. 

This passage is NOT about some personal burden in our lives, though this is how it is most often used and quoted: "I guess that's just my cross to bear."  Now we could have a good discussion about how we continue to follow Jesus in spite of the burdens of our lives: an addiction from which we struggle to recover; a seriously ill child; a troubled marriage.  The Apostle Paul writes about following Jesus in the face of hardship, and it's an important topic.  But it isn't what Jesus is talking about here.

Even before His own death, Jesus is using an image that wasn't used in polite society to explain the potential cost, the inherent risk, of following Him.  It is a risk that He demands we take if we're going to follow.  "Deny yourself" isn't a phrase we like to hear.  Leaving ourselves that vulnerable isn't in our playbook.  We prefer to hedge our bets, to hang back just a the disciples who watched the crucifixion from afar.

Jesus says to us, "You can't hold on to yourself and follow me.  You have to be willing to risk it all.  What will it matter if, by holding back, you gain everything you ever thought you wanted, but loose yourself in the process?"  See, it's in holding on that we "forfeit their life" or "lose their soul."  Coaches call this kind of living, this denial of self, "leaving it all on the field."  That's what Jesus wants from us.  And that is what it will take to heal our world.  Christians committed "leaving it all on the field."  No holding back.  Willing to die, to go to jail, to be abandoned by friends and loved ones.  As I heard someone say once about the depth of these demands, "This ain't aroma therapy we're talking about." 

This demand to take up our cross; to find ourselves in loosing ourselves; to risk everything to follow Jesus in the task of healing the world makes me very uncomfortable.  It should make us all uncomfortable.  It's extremist talk.  It does not leave us much wiggle room at all.  We are to put it all on the line.  It is here, we are told, that we will truly find ourselves. It ain't aroma therapy.  But it is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Jesus In A Screaming Match

I had coffee this week with a friend who is retired career military and a man of deep and committed faith.  Our conversation revolved around how we, individually and as congregations, were supposed to be part of putting our nation together again in light of the deep divisions that we're currently facing.  I've been turning this question over and over in my mind ever since.

I think that there is a way that we see a reflection of this in the passage from Mark that will be our focus at FBCH this week.  In Mark 8:27-33, Jesus has asked His disciples who they think He is.  Peter has said that he believes Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the one that God has sent to set things right.  The problem comes when Jesus begins to tell the disciples that the way God is going to do that is for Jesus to suffer and die. 

Peter isn't having any part of it.  You can imagine him taking Jesus by the arm and pulling him away from the rest of the group.  The word used here has been translated, "rebuke," "admonish," "speak sternly to," and "ordered."  I have also heard it translated, "screamed at." You don't have to have much imagination to realize that minimally there were some voices raised in this conversation.  Peter "rebukes" Jesus.  Jesus "rebukes" Peter.  Peter, Jesus tells him, is voicing the viewpoint of humans, not of God. 

There are a series of passages in the book of Isaiah referred to as "The Suffering Servant" passages.  It appears that these are the passages Jesus believes are most reflective of how His role as Messiah is going to be lived out.  It will not be as a military leader.  It will not be as the head of a revolt.  It will be by putting Himself on the line to suffer with and for God's people.

What if we took our cue from Jesus here?  What if we decided that the way we were going to engage in trying to help put our nation, our communities, back together was by being willing to suffer with, and for, them.  It would mean refusing to take sides; but understanding that there is truth in the experience of all involved.  It would mean trying to understand the fear that has drive some people to the extremes of ideology.  It would mean risking being vilified by both sides of many conflicts while continuing to try to love and maintain contact with them.  It would be to live a "cruciform life" as we try to imitate Jesus in the here and now.

I keep coming back in my thinking to the prayer of St. Francis:

"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."

I believe that 2016-2017 is going to be a difficult time.  Our country (and our world) is deeply wounded and divided.  We will not heal....or even survive.....if our solution is to move to the extremes and throw rocks, or worse, at one another.  Nor will we help the healing by sitting out the conflict.  We're going to have to risk, and risk big....sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large.  But this seems to be the way of the Gospel.  It is the way of the healing of the world.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Following The Trail Of The Pink Bunny To Jesus

Last Saturday my friend Maren sent me an email with a comment and a picture.

The comment was about the fact that Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte had said how happy he would be to slaughter the 3 million drug addicts in his country. This was not an idle comment.  Duterte has been linked to the vigilante killings of some 1,400 drug addicts, petty criminals, and street children while he was mayor of Davao City.  When the United Nations human rights experts noted that "extrajudicial killings" had increased since his election to the presidency of the Philippines, Duterte threatened to withdraw from the United Nations.

The night before, on Friday evening, I had done a Ride-along with the Hyattsville City Police Department.  The invitation to local clergy to become more active and to provide Chaplaincy services to the officers of the Department and to develop ways to assist with certain kinds of calls (mental health, death notifications, etc.)  is part of the Department's attempt to improve the quality of their community policing.

I need to be clear that I am an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement and am deeply concerned about the inherent racial bias that permeates the criminal justice system at all levels as well as our entire American culture.  I've also spent a good deal of my adult life working in that system; as a therapist in prisons and  residential treatment centers, collaborating with Probation and Parole around treatment for sex offenders in the community, and being honored to have friends who serve as Police Officers whom I admire and respect.

So it seems to me that holding those two realities in tension and attempting to support ways of improving community care for the marginalized and community relations with law enforcement is a difficult, but imperative position for me as a Christian and as a Pastor.

I rode with an impressive veteran of 13 years on the Hyattsville Police force.  He answered every question I had with thoughtfulness.  I noticed that every time we got out of the car to respond to a situation, I could see the little green light on his body camera. It was a natural move for him.  Everywhere we stopped (and this was a rough section of the city) people came up and spoke to him, told him how they were, made contact.  He commented at one point when we got back into the car, "you know, I've had to arrest most of those people."  His connection to the beat he drives was remarkable. What I saw (and mind you, it was just one 8 hour shift) was community policing at its best.

This week I've been working on Sunday's sermon.  It's on two passages from Mark.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.  In Mark 8 He heals a blind man; but He has to touch him twice because the first time the man sees people "but they're like trees walking around."

Now First Baptist Hyattsville has been in a two week period of prayer when we have committed to praying daily that Christ would allow us to look at the community around us through the eyes of Jesus.  That we would ask ourselves how we would respond to the need we see if we were responding to Jesus Himself.  The goal is that by engaging in this spiritual discipline we will discern our call as a congregation moving into the new year and would frame our efforts and our budget accordingly.

So the scriptures for Sunday take us naturally to the questions:  "Who am I blind to?"  "Who am I not hearing?"  "Where do I need a "second touch" so that I can see those around me clearly?"  And "once I have seen and heard, how do I learn to speak the truth about what I have seen and heard?"

Which brings me back to the Ride-along.

Toward the end of the shift, I accompanied three of the Officers on a walk through of a car lot attached to an auto body shop.  It is known to be a place where drugs are dealt and where addicts and/or homeless folks will crawl into one of the cars parked on the lot for a place to sleep or get high, or both.

One of the men who was removed from a vehicle claimed that the car he was in belonged to him.  Though obviously intoxicated (the bottle was placed on the roof of the car) he said he was "working" on his car.  The Officer I was riding with asked one of the employees of the body shop about this and was told that, indeed, it was his car.  Apparently, when reasonably sober, this man does good body work.  So he's allowed to keep his car on the lot, and work on it on his own time, etc.

The car in question is older.  Patches of Bondo mark it like leprosy spots.  As we walked by on our way out of the lot, I looked in to the vehicle.  The inside was gutted.  There were no seats.  There was no gearshift in the floorboard.  A crumpled blanket was pushed back into the area that would normally be the trunk.  And where the gear console would be was a small, pink, stuffed bunny.

This car was this man's home.  He lives here.  He drinks/gets high here.  He sleeps here.  All under the eye of a small, pink, stuffed bunny.

Oh.....and the picture my friend Maren sent me?  Here it is

I guess we should be careful what we pray for.  When our eyes are opened, we might see a pink stuffed bunny that leads us to Jesus.