Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peace, love, and justice: a dialogue

[Dialogue written and presented for Community United Methodist Church of Naperville, IL for vocational discernment service on July 21, 2013. Also posted at Rich Experiences.]

Joe: This is Kacie. She is southern girl from just north of Nashville, Tennessee.

Kacie: This is Joe, He is a Pensyltucky boy from the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Joe: Kacie knows just about every country song on the radio and about every Nicholas Sparks-inspired movie in the theater.

Kacie:  Joe is not afraid of camping in the mountains where there are hundreds of bears, plus he is a big sports fan, maybe not the Chicago bears but definitely a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Joe: Kacie is an artist. She is very visual, very tactile. She sees scenes of color and texture and transforms ordinary things into works of art.

Kacie: Joe is very intellectual. He uses big words, mainly because his head is always stuck in a book. It’s a beautiful site to see him so concentrated on his reading. He reads books by authors like Paul Tillich and Alice Walker.

Joe: Kacie is also very passionate about justice for women.

Kacie: Joe is also very passionate about justice for workers.

Joe: And so it makes perfect sense—

Kacie: That we met in—

Both: Washington, D.C. at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Kacie: I feel that we both have a call to advocacy, which means joining with the voices of the poor, the weak and the marginalized to make change in our nation and world by speaking stories of truth in our communities to our local, state and national leaders.

Joe: We’ve both had strong religious experiences where we felt transformed by God—what John Wesley would call “justifying grace”—but we also continue to feel the Spirit move us toward acts of mercy and justice for people around us. Wesley called that part “social holiness.”

Kacie: One of the biggest issues we advocate for is poverty and food justice. We both help with a student and homeless ministry in the South Loop of Chicago. We have a community meal with students and people from the streets, make sandwiches together and walk the streets with our friends to pass out the sandwiches.

Joe: There’s this one community off Lower Michigan where about a half dozen homeless people usually sleep. Someone wrote a Bible verse on the wall there. We always drop off a couple of sandwiches for the folks there. Last week, they were all gone and the Bible verse had been painted over. We figure that the city had evicted them for the Taste of Chicago and a movie someone was filming.

Kacie:  This is community, and we feel like we are part of the community. We are all equal, and deserve equal treatment in our society. We go to our local, state and national leaders to remind them about our friends on the street. These are the stories of truth that make up our society.

Joe: Jesus and his followers also spent much of their ministry among the sick, the poor, the socially marginalized. As two followers of Jesus Christ in 21st century Chicago, we continue to practice ministry with our friends and neighbors—Black, white, Latino—

Kacie: Gay, lesbian, transgender—

Joe: Native born and immigrant—

Kacie: Rich and poor.

Joe: We are all one in Jesus Christ.
Kacie:  Last week I completed my internship with Bread forthe World, a national organization that works with churches to end hunger through advocacy. I am using this training to start a sewing ministry for homeless women.

Joe: And I’m in seminary, making my way through the process of becoming a United Methodist pastor. I’m finding ways to incorporate God’s call for justice in acts of preaching, teaching, and service.

Kacie: One thing I’ve done in response to my call to justice is write letters to my congressional representatives. I was able to do this through Bread for the World’s offering of letters program.  I invite you, too, to write a letter to your member of congress on issues dealing with food justice or just an issue you are very passionate about, especially if you cannot travel to DC or Springfield. Get a group of friends together and write an abundance of letters. This is definitely a way to raise your voice and speak for justice.

Joe: If you’d prefer a more direct action route for justice, I encourage you join with me and my friends at IIRON, a regional community organizing network. We’ve set up shanty-towns in Federal Plaza, had flash-mobs at the Apple store, and occupied abandoned properties to show how too much money is going to excessively wealthy corporations at the expense of our friends and neighbors.

Kacie: Even though Joe loves brown and his Carhartt jacket—

Joe: And Kacie loves pink and lace.

Kacie: Joe is very talkative,

Joe: Kacie is a bit more introverted.

Both: We both have a place at the Lord’s table with—

Joe: Peace

Kacie: Love

Both: and justice.

Kacie Greer and Joe Hopkins outside of Sen. Mark Kirk's office
 in Washington, D.C. They are now engaged and plan to marry in
June of 2014.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Brother Trayvon, Neighbor George

[This sermon was preached at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground on July 14, 2013, based on Luke 10:25-37.]

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

This is not the sermon that I expected to preach today. I was going to be creative and interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan in a way that I had never heard before. And it was good, yes’m. But to paraphrase Jürgen Moltmann, preachers today need to preach with the Bible in one hand and their New York Times app in the other. Recent events call for a different topic.

When the lawyer approached Jesus, probably indignant that his kind of folk weren’t included in the accolades that Jesus doled out to the seventy disciples, he wanted to be justified. See what I’ve done, Jesus? I’ve dedicated my life to knowing the Law of Moses, the covenant that makes our people different, more blessed, more exceptional than anyone else. I have all the right answers. If anyone is right, it’s me. So, Jesus, son of a construction worker, tell me this…

The lawyer got his chance to give his right answer, but that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to show his folks were the better than the other folks. After all, they sacrificed so much of their lives to know the law better anyone else, and everybody knows how much law school costs these days. It isn’t good enough to be right. I need to win, and that means someone else needs to lose. So, Jesus, son born out of wedlock, tell me this…

Well, shoot, the lawyer wasn’t expecting a story like that, and he didn’t expect a loaded question either. Who are my choices for neighbor of the year again? The priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan? But only the Samaritan, one of those less-than-half-breeds, one of those who refuses to worship the Holy of Holies where He resides, it’s only the Samaritan who helps an innocent man beaten nearly to death? How can I answer this without admitting that one of those people is my neighbor?

“The one who showed the man mercy.”

Didn't even mention who that one is. What a lawyerly move.

Dear friends, we gather today contemplating justice. The Greek word that shows up in the New Testament can either be translated “justice” or “righteousness”. I first learned this while reading a Spanish Bible that had one of the beatitudes saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”, instead of the traditional “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. In other words, we gather today contemplating who is right. We want the same thing that the lawyer wanted when he asked Jesus who his neighbor was: justification. We want to be justified. We want to look into the eyes of the people we love most, the people who trust us most, the people who depend on us, and we want them to think we were and are right. Right with them. Right with others. Right with God.

How can we be right, dear friends? Nearly a year and a half after a 17-year-old Black boy was killed in Florida, and much, much sooner after so many other young people’s blood have washed the pavement of our streets, how can we assert that we are right? When whole neighborhoods look like bombed out war zones, but those war zones far away, not here, dear God, how can it be here, how can we be right? When our choices are either to convict and lock up one more brother or to allow even more violence in our streets, how can we be right?

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

Dear friends, I grew up around guns. I grew up in rural central Pennsylvania where we got off school for the Monday after Thanksgiving because it was the first day of buck hunting season. There was one year that we did have school on that day, and forty percent of students, staff, and faculty were absent. I was part of that statistic. I was a pretty good shot with a rifle back then.

I’ve also grown up some more since I moved to the South Side of Chicago. There are guns there, too. On the first day that biked down to seminary last year, I came back to see the block next to where I lived. It was blocked off with yellow police tape. There had been a drive-by shooting. There was another one maybe two months later eight blocks away. I don’t like that there are so many guns around my neighborhood, and I don’t want more, either.

What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to be my brother’s keeper? Who is my neighbor? Who is my brother? Don’t you know the world is falling apart? Don’t you know that we have to get what we can while we can and then keep it for ourselves for as long we can? And don’t you tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property.

Dear friends, there are so many young people who grow up without an ounce of hope. In those bombed out war zones on the South Side, on the West Side, in Newtown, Connecticut, in Cairo, Egypt. Who is my neighbor? Who is my brother? Instead of being politically correct, instead of worrying about upsetting the biggest donors in the congregation, let’s be clear about who our neighbor is and who our brother is. Instead of referring to that Samaritan person as “the one who showed the man mercy”, let’s call him who he is. Let’s use his name.

My neighbor is Trayvon Martin. My brother is George Zimmerman.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!”

What have we done indeed? As Saint Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, no one is righteous, not even one. We are all convicted under the weight of the blood crying out like the shrieks on that 9-1-1 tape from that night in Florida. This is the world we live in, and in a nation which we just recently celebrated on July 4th, we must take responsibility for it. Even if a jury won’t convict a man for shooting and killing a teenager, we are surely convicted by a higher court, an infinitely better informed jury, a perfect justice.

But we praise God for God’s infinite compassion, perfect empathy, and most steadfast love. Again I must publically proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing can make God love us more or make God love us less; God just loves us. Period.

This morning we bear the mark of Cain, but we also bear the mark of the overcome cross. The passion story of Jesus Christ does not end on Good Friday in a tomb, but resurrection is the new beginning. We recognize that we are not holy like God is holy, but we also walk into the light with the knowledge that God is actively redeeming us and the world around us. As people who have been born again of water, fire, and spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus we move past the sin of Cain and to the mercy of the Samaritan. When we see Trayvon Martin sauntering around in our neighborhood, we, like the Samaritan, feel our hearts moved with pity and show him trust. When we see George Zimmerman cruising up behind us, we, like the Samaritan, feel our hearts moved with compassion and show him mercy.

So let us love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves. Through Jesus Christ, we are made right. Do these things, and we will live.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Gospel power

Sermon written for evangelism class at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and then preached at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground. It is based on the scripture Acts 3:1-10.

During the summer after my sophomore year of college I worked as an intern at a large United Methodist church in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I did mostly youth ministry, which was evident from a goatee on my chin, acoustic guitar strapped around my shoulder, and a couple Frisbees in the back of my ’96 Geo Metro. Ah, those were the days. The church was having a kids’ fair in their ample parking lot one night, and that’s when the news came. A young man who had grown up in the church had suffered an accident while doing gymnastics, and he had broken his back. The young adults and youth who knew him best gathered in prayer circles and called out for God to help Brian. Within a week, it was apparent that Brian would be quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Within a blink of an eye, he went from being the Eagle Scout who chose his college based on the rock-climbing nearby to someone who couldn’t even feed himself with his own hands.

And so the “Pray for Brian” campaign began.

I promise that I’ll come back to add to that story, but it’s events like Brian’s accident that really make the stories in the Bible true. It’s not just that the events of the ancient Hebrews, the prophets, and the New Testament apostles happened once upon a time; it’s that they happen in our lives over and over and over again. That’s how we know the Bible is true.

The story in the third chapter of Acts is like that. Peter and John, two of the leaders of the apostolic community in Jerusalem, walked up to the Temple with the intention of praying to God, as was their custom. It was a regular day, just like any other day, complete with the cripples and devastatingly sick people who had to panhandle to survive from day to day. The scene reminds me of the Catedral Metropolitana in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a holy place and a place of incredible political power, located only a quarter-mile away from the president’s office. And every time I went by there while I was studying in Argentina, there were always dozens of homeless people sitting in the neo-classical façade. People would walk by them to see the mausoleum of José de San Martín, the George Washington of Argentina, or snap pictures of the Casa Rosada where the president worked, or protest whatever the cause-du-jour happened to be. The homeless, the crippled, the sick—they stayed there even when everyone else left.

Back in Jerusalem, one of these homeless people called out to Peter and John and went through his well-rehearsed spiel about needing money because he is just SO hungry and could they help a lame man with only a few coins, God-bless-you-sirs. Peter was one of those few people who actually stopped, and he said with some funny, redneck Galilean accent, “Look at me.” I can only imagine what was going through the lame man’s mind at this point. Would it be another lecture about pulling himself by boot-straps, because that one is SUCH a hoot with his shriveled legs on display for all to see? Or maybe it would be some amateur rabbis who would debate who had sinned to make him crippled. Or, then again, they might just give him something useful for once…

Here’s what Peter says, “I don’t have any money (dammit!, thinks the crippled man) but I give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up.” And much to the man’s own dismay, he stands up.

Friends, we need more stories like this, not just because more cripple people should be able to walk given the amazing advances in medical science, but because the Gospel of Jesus Christ has this kind of power. My Methodist upbringing doesn’t usually lead me to believe in spiritual healing, nor does my seminary training to this point, but my life experience does confirm that faith in Jesus Christ is accompanied with POWER. It is power from the living God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen. It is power that breaks through systems of oppression that cripple as surely as a disease or gymnastics accidents. It is power that breaks through the apathy of a crystallized status quo. It is the power that strengthens sinews and quickens compassion of all that it touches. It is the power that raises an army supplied not with guns and tanks and Hellfire missiles but with empathy, solidarity, and a zeal for God’s holy justice.

See, the formerly lame man suffered not only his personal disability, but he was also caught in the social disability of his time. Anyone who couldn’t care for her- or himself due to a disability, whether in mind or body, had to survive on the charity of other people. Praise God, he was in a Jewish community that was governed (at least socially) by Mosaic Law which mandates care for those who can’t care for themselves. Of course, in desperately poor society where most people were just north of starvation themselves, it’s hard to imagine that panhandlers knew any kind of security, whether in food, lodging, or body.

Peter and John enter the scene with the knowledge and personal witness that the status quo is not the only option. They knew, not just with head knowledge but with the unshakable experience of an encounter with the greatest power the universe has ever seen or will ever see again, that pain, suffering, and death don’t always win. They knew that the new rule, the new reign, the new emerging reality is resurrection. Peter and John, empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, are two of the first evangelists, that is the heralds of the new reign of the resurrected Christ.

Before I go on and on about how earth-shattering and hell-harrowing this Good News really is, I feel the pragmatism of my Methodist upbringing surging up. You see, friends, Peter and John are able to be vehicles for God’s grace because they were prepared to do so. The passage that precedes this healing story is perhaps the most famous description of the first-generation apostolic community. Acts 2:43-47 tells how the believer shared all their possession in common so everyone would have enough to live well and they spent “much time together in the temple”, yes, that same Temple where Peter and John had the occasion to heal the lame man. Peter and John were evangelists in the traditional sense, proclaiming the Gospel to folks who had never experienced it before, but they were also living a life that made such proclamation possible. When Peter said, “I give you what I have”, that’s just what he had been doing since Jesus ascended into heaven some undisclosed time earlier. His reality was marked by sharing with the folks around him, including the power of the resurrected Christ, so the healing was simply the most natural thing in the world for Peter. Similarly, the practice of “going up to the Temple” where all manner of people would be, provided the perfect stage for sharing the Gospel. We don’t know how many times Peter and John passed by this group of panhandlers in the Temple before the miraculous healing occurred, but the discipline of being with people outside of their small, tight-knit apostolic community provided the opportunities to share what they had. In the Wesleyan tradition, I think that falls somewhere between personal and social holiness, but it is certainly sanctifying grace at work.

Of course, evangelism has its dangers as well. When Peter explains to the gathered crowd where exactly the power that healed the lame man came from, namely Jesus Christ of Nazareth, they got folks’ attention, and not only well-intentioned kind. They were proclaiming the power of the resurrection of a man who had been condemned and executed within a few miles of the very spot where they were standing. Oh, and all those people did the condemning and executing were still there. Um, awkwaaard. According to Acts, it was the Sadducees, a Jewish sect who had made a name for themselves by denying any sort bodily resurrection, who heard them first. Peter and John were threatening the power of the Sadducees by demonstrating the power of resurrection, and the Sadducees reacted in the way that people of status quo power often do: they had the apostles locked up.

I want to be sure that we recognize how common this phenomenon is. A lot people in our 21st world make an excellent living off of denying the resurrection, and they even go further by making record profits off industries of death. The military-industrial complex is giddy at the thought of selling more bullets and bombs to our government and government far across the ocean. Insurance companies fight tooth-and-nail to keep from paying their customers after catastrophe strikes. And corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats build up their Cadillac pension plans by using whatever means available to maintain the status quo. My experience tells me that locking people up is their preferred means to maintain the status quo. Walter Brueggemann, one of the preeminent Hebrew Bible scholars of the late 20th century, calls such a situation the “royal consciousness”.

Praise God, we are a people of a different consciousness! Jesus Christ has awakened us to the truth that death does not win the day. Instead the resurrection continually announces that life and love wins. In fact, in the presence of the redemptive power of the resurrection, death looks pathetic. When the court came together to judge Peter and John following their arrest, they had no choice but to release them because “all of them praised God for what had happened” (4:21). Not even all the assembled political power could quell the surge of the Good News to the masses!

So what does all this have to do with us today? I see three lessons that emerge from Peter and John’s evangelism: 1) preparation leads to perfection, 2) the Spirit will give us the power for and the opportunity, and 3) love wins the day. Dealing with the first lesson, Peter and John were empowered to share the Gospel with the lame man, the crowd in the Temple, and even the court because they were already living in a community where such sharing is natural and incarnational. We, too, need to create communities where the common good is held up as God’s preferred way of living. We also need to boldly go out as representatives of the resurrected Christ among people where opportunities abound. This means we must be missionaries every time we go out into the world.

Second, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will provide what we need when the opportunity arises. In the campus ministry where I work, we go out to Lower Wacker and that maze of streets that literally undergird downtown Chicago and hand out sandwiches to homeless people there. Opportunities abound to share the Gospel, and though I am often caught completely off-guard by the requests and stories I hear from folks on the streets, the Holy Spirit gives my comrades and me the power to minister to these folks. Sometimes the Holy Spirit kindles my righteous indignation at how our country, the richest in the history of the world, can allow such suffering. And you know what? The Spirit keeps that righteous indignation with me when I go and visit those corrupt politicians in city hall and at the capitol. Never box the Spirit in, friends.

Third, despite a menacing mountain of terror and intimidation, not so unlike Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings books and movies, God’s love wins the day. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The keepers of the status quo may not like it when we proclaim the resurrection, and they may even lock us up from time to time, but folks will be too busy praising the living God for the signs happening among them to keep us down too long. Our hope and faith in the love of God is so great that we can laugh and sing when they put the handcuffs on us. Dear friends, I know this is true because I’ve done it!

Brian with his three brothers and a producer from the show. 
So what about the “Pray for Brian” campaign? Brian’s friends originally set out to raise money for his medical treatment, which we did by selling LiveStrong-style bracelets, doing carwashes, and a variety of other fundraisers. However, after I left that church to continue my studies and eventually go to Chicago as a missionary, I learned that word of Brian’s story reached the producers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. They were touched by the tragedy of the accident and the faith of Brian’s friends, so they decided to do an episode at Brian’s family’s house. They raised millions of dollars to completely renovate the house so that it was completely wheelchair accessible. The story reached millions of viewers with the ABC broadcast. Now that’s evangelism.

Friends, I am continually dumbfounded by how God works in the world, both inside and outside the church. Sometimes all I can do is collapse to my knees with tears running down my cheeks and praise God for being so much bigger and better than I can ever humanly conceive. So how will you respond to God’s goodness? If you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, if you’ve fallen away from a relationship with God, I invite you to come to God and begin the journey of faith. If you are already a follower of Jesus Christ, then I invite you to reflect on how God is calling you to share the Gospel with the world. God gives us so many different gifts, and we can use all of them to join in the liberating reign of God! Finally, I invite all of you, as a body gathered together to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, to see how we can share the Gospel with our neighbors, all of together. We are bearers of Good News, and the most natural thing in the world is to share it everybody else around us. Amen.