Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Who is Jesus to you?


Back to Rendall

It’s my last Sunday at Rendall and it’s been good. I appreciate their generosity of spirit and hospitality. I am thankful to Rev. Dr. Flora Bridges for sharing her congregation with me. I’m happy to look out and see my friend Rabbi Steve Blane and his wife Carol in the congregation this morning…
Steve, Bob and Carol

So….here was my reflection….

Last night was one of those nights when I know I’m not in the Upper West Side anymore.  I’m coming home from an event in midtown, I pass by the Harlem Tavern. They’ve got big black curtains hung up all around so that  no one can grab a peek at the Mayfield-McGregor fight  they’re showing for $40 a person.  So as I start down my street, 115th, I see that there’s a big crowd gathered and a big screen on the side of Wadleigh High School  and coolers and food tables  and everyone’s watching for free…and no one’s asking how….later the police will show up…any time hundreds of black people are together on any street they figure something must be going on..after heightened tensions, the captain shows  up, agreements reached, cheers go up and after a slight reboot delay, the fight tis back up and the street party goes on. 

Bear with me. This is not about a fight…it’s about what I was talking about our first Sunday..capacities assessments, not needs assessments. This neighborhood is blessed with people who with ingenuity and creativity in the face of all adversity can figure out how to solve a problem. Someone figured out how to capture the broadcast and share it with hundreds who could never have afforded to see it. Creativity and generosity. That is a valuable community member. Someone I’d want in my church!

Yeah, it’s been a week. Again. Houston has beennhit by a hurricane. And flooding. The President decided to double down on his “both sides” comments regarding Charlottesville and white supremacists. And actually signed an order banning trans people from the military even when they’ve already risked their lives, called again for building his wall, pardoned a hard as nails sheriff from the Arizona-Mexico border and threatened to kick out immigrant children  born in the US, the ones president Obama called “the Dreamers…”   I think what bothers me the most is what feels like picking on the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Like my parents raised me not to do that. Anyways, just saying…..

So my question for you this week is Who is Jesus to you?  And the second is, Have you seen him around lately?

The first is the question Jesus asks his disciples…Who do people say the Son of Man is?
And they answer, John the Baptist (remember he was recently killed by Herod…may be literal or like Jesus is taking his place..) or Elijah, the one who comes before the Messiah…..Jeremiah or the one of the prophets…eg, the Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet….not a bad  calling, but…

Who do YOU say that I am?
And it’s Simon Peter who says, “You are the Messiah, the Son the Living God…”
And Jesus tells him no human reveled that, but God…so this emotional and impulsive fisher, one who will later abandon Jesus at his moment of greatest need, is the first to see and understand the truth, and so gets a new name, no longer Simon bar Jonah, but Peter, or the Rock…(not Sylvester Stallone or Dwayne Johnson) and this all too flawed human vessel will be the ROCK on which the church will be built..and for that we should be thankful…and also that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it…. I know we think of that as HELL, but for Jesus it was more the abode of the dead…what he was saying, friends, was that you no longer need to fear death……

Like Archbishop Tutu said….
Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

Then as always, we get some difficult things….
 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What does that mean?  I have to be honest with you…we are not completely sure…BUT…let’s have a try…..

What you hold close here stays with you…if you are open and loving and connected to other people, that stays with you…if you cut yourselves off from others (Like the rich man in Matthew 25) you will have already created your own ‘Hades”….

But here’s a thought…the most powerful way we can loose and bind is through our power to forgive others…when we forgive, both of us are freed…but think on this…Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber say that the church’s most important task is the forgiveness of sins…that most of us (not all) have a harder time forgiving ourselves than others…most of us have  a hard time believing in our own forgiveness…I thought about that and realized it was true….we need to help people believe that their sins truly can be forgiven…set free….loosed on earth, and loosed in heaven

Now here’s the really strange part…he sternly orders them not to say anything to anyone…why?   He didn’t want his identity to get in the way of his message? The time wasn’t right? Or was it that he knew the best way to get them to talk was to tell them not to?

So who do you say that he is?
Where have you seen him in the last week?
Next week, you will celebrate communion….Zwingli said that when we celebrate communion, it is not the bread and fruit of the vine that become transformed into the body of Christ, it is us…we are transformed…we are called to be the living body of the risen Christ in the world….how amazing it would be if people who knew us could see him in and through us….who do YOU say he is?

Let those with ears to hear hear….

As the service ends, we say our thanks and goodbyes. There are invites to come back. I would like that. Now of brunch at the French-African patisserie, Des Ambassades….

Pastor Bob and Clerk of Session Marietta Chisholm

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Is there more to learn?


With Jonathan Bell at Rendall

I arrive at Rendall for my third Sunday and take the time to rehearse my song “Rest Awhile” with music director Jonathan Bell. AN discover that Jonathan has been a student of my friend Milica. We sing  the song right right before my sermon to resounding “amens.” 

Some even singing along. So here’s my reflection:

God bless Dick Gregory….who died yesterday at 84… I was remindenof one of his early stand-up routines where he sat act launch counter. The waiters said, “ I’m sorry, ee don’t serve negroes.” To which Gregory responded,  “That’s ok, I don’t eat them anyways. Just bring me fried chicken.”  Confession: he was my first Presidential vote in 1968. Another giant. 

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what happened last week. And the response to it. And I’ve got to say that it’s not about “both sides.” There is a difference. The pain of the one excluded is not the same as the one who has pain because they now have to include. DO you understand what I am saying? The pain  of the people who couldn’t bear having a black president was not the same as what President Obama must have felt when people kept challenging his birth certificate and all kinds  of other crazy things. 

And before I go deeper, we’ve had to experience another terrorist attack in Barcelona. And are you aware that in Sierra Leone, there are over 400 dead and 600 missing from deadly mudslides in Freetown. Adding to the sadness is how little we ever hear about what happens in Africa. 

And I mention these things because God’s word always comes to us in a context, in the midst of what’s going on in the world, and we need to be aware of what’s going on around us as God’s living word lives among us. 

So to go back for a moment, I said last week that we’re not going anywhere until we wrestle with the legacy of slavery in our country and be able to speak the truth. That healing and reconciliation begins with the TRUTH. And that means having to speak the truth as Presbyterians. About being Presbyterian. That means ultimately telling our stories as New York City Presbyterians.  And I hope soon we will do that. 

But it also means that for our denomination. I had a conversation in which an African-American author questioned me about  our denomination. How in 1861 we divided over slavery. That the southern part of our church had provided a  theological defense of slavery  and that when we reunited in 1983, we never talked about that history. And this week I learned that it was common in Virginia for churches to own slaves and that they paid the pastors by renting them out for a year. They were called endowments..As their slaves had more children, their endowment grew.

We have to talk about these things. Confess these things. 

We’re going to have to be open to growing, learning changing…which of course, brings me to Jesus…
There’s a lot in our gospel lesson today and I just want to stop for a moment and say that its first part about what comes out of your mouth  being more important  than what goes in is classic Jesus….

But let’s go to  another of My favorite stories…the Canaanite woman with a deeply troubled daughter.  At first, he doesn’t her answer at all. And the disciples want to send her away because she keeps shouting after them.  (If it was anything like the guy on the crowded 2 train night, i don’t blame them..)  But she won’t go away…

( As Mc Connell said of Elizabeth Warren, Nevertheless she persisted…)

They go back and forth 3 times…
At first, Jesus says he’s come only for the lost sheep of Israel…(It’s good to have a clear sense of your mission and it limitations…)

It gets worse, he tells her the children’s food should not be given to dogs…(It’s good to set boundaries..) ( and here he’s using a common insult for Canaanites…)…and she responds…but even dogs get the crumbs…(like leftover loaves and fishes?)…and Jesus finally feels her and her daughter is healed…

OK…hold on…what’s going on here?

Is it uncomfortable for you to hear about Jesus acting in upsetting ways?
For centuries, commentators have tried to explain this…like, he was just testing her…like when you try and convert to Judaism, you get turned way 3 times…maybe it was like that…

Or maybe it was just like it says…Jesus has been working VERRY hard…he still hasn’t got that break he’s been wanting ….. like last week he tries to take a break and immediately his disciples get in a jam…out in the boat…in  the middle o the lake…and he’s to to do a rescue mission and pull Peter out of the water..

So maybe he’s tired right? And this woman has been loud and annoying…
Look, here’s the thing….what do we believe about Jesus? that he was BOTH fully divine AND fully HUMAN…not half human, not a little bit human, not human on the outside, but  human, FULLY human….

And if that’s so, then he will be subject to tiredness and irritation and human emotions, passions and feelings…and he doesn’t have every awareness of his whole life in his mind…or he wouldn’t be fully human,…OK?

And THAT means, ( according to Jill Duffield)  
but fully human, and being fully human encompasses grief, frustration, desperation, fatigue, love, compassion and indifference. And I find this messy display of Jesus' complex discernment a relief. If Jesus has these feelings they are not only allowed, but sanctified and holy.

And that God can use them to teach us new things, take us to new places….

Like one of Jesus’ leanings, growth points, was that he wasn’t just come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel…but for everyone…and thank God for that….that persistent annoying Canaanite woman helps get the door open for US.

And Jesus was able to be moved with compassion by someone form the very margins of the margins…

check this out… If a Canaanite woman, a double outsider with no power other than tenacity and persistence, can expand the vision for Jesus' mission, then our prayers and groans, shouts and screams aren't in vain. (Duffield)

Hear this… Therefore, don't be afraid to kiss and weep, screech and beg, show some righteous anger because Jesus will listen and JESUS WILL BE MOVED…..

  1. Don’t be afraid to feel what you feel….feelings are NOT right or wrong, it’s what you choose to do with them that is…
  2. Never doubt that Jesus hears and will be moved
  3. And the toughest one…who has Jesus put in your life to challenge you, annoy you, help you discover your true call? Who is YOUR Canaanite woman…?
Let those with ears to hear, hear….

Saturday, August 12, 2017

You give them something to eat


Rendall Church

Today is the first of  my four August Sundays that I will spend as the guest preacher at Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church  in Harlem, about a mile or so north of where I live.
Today's preacher
Although I have heard that they are growing again and beginning to attract young people, today’s congregation is mostly older people. Everyone in attendance is African-American save for the music director, his wife, and of course me.

There are a number of unique touches, like all the women elders of the church wearing white. Including, of course, hats. And gloves. I am moved watching the ice of the tall, dignified elderly elder who brings the offering and makes his prayer eyes looking heavenward as the plate is extended to me. And the women coming forward with a wash basin for a hand washing ceremony before handling the communion elements…something I’ve never seen before. 
The Rendall Sanctuary

After the  reading of scripture, Matthew 14: 13-21, this was my reflection:

Good morning. We are Into that last third of summer. When it gets quiet around here. Lots of folks gone. August. If you’re like me and really haven’t gotten away, you feel like you want to. And today we find Jesus wanting to get away. It’s all in one of those so familiar Bible stories, the feeding of the 5000. I’m certain I could ask anyone of you to tell the  story and we’d get a pretty good rendition.
The table ready for communion

SO let’s take a closer look.  I said that Jesus wanted to get away….do you remember why? He has just received the news that his cousin John the Baptist has been killed. This following on the heels of being rejected after preaching in his home town of Nazareth.  Let that sink in a minute.  Try and imagine what he must be feeling….to see the faces of the people he’d grown up with turned against him…unable to do any works there because they couldn't believe  in him..and then to get word that his cousin has been put to death by Herod the King.  Is he wondering what might lie ahead for himself?  Is he dejected? Depressed? Questioning?  This is not a summer vacation break he’s looking for here….Let’s feel that with Jesus for a moment…

SO he wants to get away….to a deserted place…but what happens?  People follow him….Lots of people…and what happens?  He could go, man, can’t they leave me alone for just a little while? He could feel annoyed, exhausted, like he’s got nothing left.  But as he looks at them, he sees their need and he is filled with compassion. In the King James Version, it says he was moved in his bowells, ie moved in the deepest part of his guts…and he cured their sick. Maybe when he looked at them, he saw in the what he was feeling. maybe seeing their pain, their seeking, drew him out of his own sense of desolation….and his power returnslooking beyond himself his power returns…

As it gets late, his disciples come to him with a very reasonable, practical idea. Send them away so that hey can buy food for themselves…a very good idea…

BUT…not for Jesus …They need not go away he says….. you give them something to eat…

Just note that…when the practical solution people say, send them away, Jesus says bring them near….to the chorus of voices all around us saying about so many people send them away….Jesus says NO…bring them closer…

But that second part is equally  important …you give them something to eat…

To which  we get the expected reply…we don’t have enough resources….just five loaves…and two fish….and hear this carefully….Jesus says Bring them to me….

and he blesses them and they pass them around and there are 12 baskets of leftovers (one for each disciple to take home, I guess…)

How often are we tempted to send people away because we just don’t have enough? Jesus says you give the something to eat…he doesn’t want to hear about how  little we have…he doesn’t want to hear about scarcity….he says Y’all have enough to do something…
as individuals
as a church
as a city 
as a country
we have enough…….

A few thoughts…when i was learning to do community ministry, i was taught how to do needs assessments….remember those?  Until someone realized that as long as that’s where we focus our energy we will always be depressed and defeated…because we will never have enough…and we will always be looking  for the answer to come from outside…so instead we started to think about beginning  with capacities assessments…what do we already have? what can we do with what we’ve already got?

But here’s the thing…he says …bring them to me…we’ve got to offer what we have up to him for HIS use for it to work…that’s when miracle making happens …when we offer up what we already have to him for his use…

People have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened here…
Some say, Jesus used his powers to multiply those loaves  and fishes, created more food  out of thin air
Others say he knew the disciples had more food stashed away or that in starting to pass food around , people would open up and share what they had brought…’s all interesting but in the end doesn't matter…

The real miracle here is not production, the real miracle  is one of distribution….perhaps the real miracle is in the  sharing

We hear a lot thee days about the deserving poor…like  there’s undeserving poor? Like If you can’t afford health care, it’s your own fault…about deserving immigrants vs non deserving….send them away….the chorus says…NO says Jesus let them stay…and YOU give them something to eat…

I recently heard a Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, ask what would happen if we knew our church only had 5 years to live? That we no longer had to worry about survival?  Would we give it all away? Risk wildly in love and extravagant generosity? Live without fear? His point is that if we lived that way NOW, we wouldn’t have to worry abut survival because people would be so attracted to who we are…

Let’s review what we’ve got here…

  1. See in others what we feel in ourselves…look with compassion
  2. Don’t send then away, bring them near
  3. Take what God has already given us and offer it up to Jesus for HIS work…and then
  4. Watch the miracle happen

I have heard that you all have had a bit of a miracle yourselves…that you have taken what God has has given you and offered it up…that’s what I’ve heard…and that God is blessing  this church community…if that’s right, don’t stop NOW!

And let us as well be bold enough to call our city and nation to moral accountability…and show our neighbors what righteous living in Jesus name is all about..

Jesus said…you give them something to eat…

and let those with ears to hear, hear….

After the sermon, we end our service with the sharing of communion, in the old passing of plates and mini cups style. Holding each element until all have been served and taking it together. We sing our final hymns. Maker final prayers. Say our farewells. And go out into the Harlem streets.