The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
February 28, 2021
Psalm 4; Luke 11:5-8
This parable is sandwiched between two more popular sections of scripture. Just before this parable Jesus teaches the prayer we now call the Lord’s prayer and directly after is the well loved section about God giving us whatever we ask for in Jesus’ name. It’s obvious why people love these other sections. One is a foundational prayer that we teach our children as soon as we can and say every time we worship together. The section after this parable about asking for things in Jesus’ name just feels great. Anything we ask for!? Really!? It’s like Christmas-morning levels of serotonin.
And between these highly lauded sections of the Bible is a little parable about knocking on a friend’s door when we’re in need. Like all good parables this vignette is supposed to teach us something about God and how we are being asked to behave in the world. These stories help us better understand God and through that understanding better live our lives. We are God’s stand-ins in this world and a big part of our purpose here is to express God’s essence to others, so when we learn something about how God acts, we can also assume God is asking us to do something similar. Therefore, we listen to parables to learn about God and about ourselves.
The parable goes like this: A traveler is heading to a friend’s house. For some reason they are late arriving, maybe the sun was too hot that day and they had to rest, or they got turned around on the road. Whatever the reason, they get to their friend’s house in the middle of the night.
This friend immediately panics. Hospitality is highly valued and the homeowner will seem rude if they do not have something for their traveling friend to eat. This homeowner is not rich, so they do not have extra food stored up to care for the traveling friend. This friend is embarrassingly unprepared.
Fortunately. this homeowner has another friend nearby who does have some wealth so they have extra stores of food. Better yet this is a good friend whom they believe will understand their situation and help. The homeowner goes to the nearby friend and knocks on their door.
The parable asks the listener to decide what is the best way to respond to the knock. Either the person inside will reject the knock and stay in their comfortable bed (it is, after all, the middle of the night and the door is closed which means the family is not receiving visitors anymore) OR maybe the sleeping, comfortable friend will hear the knock and recognize that only someone who is in real need would disturb them and get up to help.
Jesus’ tone gives away what God’s response would be. Jesus says, “Who among you would curl tighter into your cozy bed if you heard a friend knocking and crying out in need, Or (wink wink) would you get up (wink wink) and help them (wink wink). It is obvious in the way Jesus tells this parable that the correct action is to get up and help the friend.
Jesus says praying to God is like this scene. We are the friend who has found themselves in need. God is the one cozy in bed, but is such a good friend that God always gets up to answer a knock at the door. All we need to do is knock and ask for what we need in prayer.
That is what the parable and the following passages say: God answers prayer. We go on to read, “Knock and the door will be opened to you, ask and you shall receive.” This is actually hotly debated about what that actually means. Not many people are comfortable saying ANYTHING we ask for in Jesus’ name will be granted to us. We have a sense that at times people pray for things that should not be given to them.
I have heard people say God does answer all prayers with one of three answers: “Yes,” “No,” and “Wait,” however I’ve always had a problem with this. “No” just does not seem to line up with what scripture says about praying to God. It says in the bible, knock and the door will open, seek and find, ask and you shall receive. That is what we are told. Jesus is telling us God gets out of bed to help when we knock and make our needs known. “No” doesn’t add up with what scripture is describing to us.
A truly loving God would never say “no” when we are in need. And when we pray, even when we ask for frivolous things there is something inside us that is registering it as a need -- a need enough to ask God, to knock on the door and disturb God from their comfy bed. If something inside us feels it is need enough to ask, then how can a loving God just say “no” or even “wait?” Those answers don’t feel loving or even line up with the God we meet in scripture.
But we have all experienced a prayer that seemingly goes unanswered. If God did not say yes, and we see God answers all prayer, how did God answer in these times if not with “no” or “wait?”
I think God gives us one of two answers: “yes” and “tell me more.”
We all want the yes, of course. Yes gets the headlines. Definitively answered prayers are what we want when we pray. We want to get answers, we want to experience miracles, we want to receive the things we are asking for. And sometimes we get “tell me more.”
Tell me more means God HAS gotten out of the comfy bed to come help. Tell me more means God can’t really say yes to our request yet, for some reason, but God wants to problem solve with us to become a partner in the solution. Maybe in the course of telling God more we find something better to meet our need, something God will say yes to. Tell me more allows us to understand better what we are truly in need of.
Take, for example, a child asking for ice cream. We could just say yes or no depending on the situation or we could say tell me more. Tell me more. Are you hungry? Does your throat hurt? Do you just see an ice cream store? Tell me more about why you want ice cream. We may find out the child is hungry and can talk about a better way to fill that need. If we only ever say yes or no, the child never learns when ice cream is appropriate and when it is not. With yes and no, the parent holds onto all the knowledge and regulation of ice cream. BUT if you ask the child to tell us more, it leads us into a conversation that can teach them how to better see and meet their needs.
We can get huffy when God says tell me more. The lack of an immediate yes is a bit of a let down, but the reality is God is more invested with the tell me more option. It means God is not just getting out of bed to throw loafs of bread at us. God is joining us, sitting down with us, listening to us, asking questions of us. Tell me more means God wants to get to the bottom of our needs so that God can say yes to exactly what we need.
God is the friend who will get out of the comfy bed every time when we come knocking in the middle of the night.
To learn this about God encourages us to be fearless in what we ask for. Sure, praying for a snow day may not feel it is on the same level as asking for world peace, but God does not rank prayers. God will get out of bed for you no matter what the ask is. And here is the best part: ask and it will be given to you! Will it be exactly the first thing you asked for? Maybe not, but God will stay up with you as long as it takes to figure out what you and God can agree will meet the need.
To learn this about God also means this is how God wants us to engage when others make their needs known to us. I will advocate for the use of “no” on our part. We don’t have the patience and time and bigger picture perspective like God does to always say yes. We have limits and so “no” has to be a part of our answering options. AND we need to understand the power of “tell me more” and utilize that power as often as we can.
Tell me more can sort out some pretty sticky situations. During World War 2, President Roosevelt was on board the battleship USS Iowa on a long voyage to North Africa. Attached to the USS Iowa was a protective convoy, and one of the member ships was the destroyer USS William D. Porter. To put it mildly, the William D. Porter had not performed well as protection and made some terrible mistakes along the journey.
At one point, President Roosevelt requested an anti-aircraft drill by shooting at balloons. During the exercise, the William D. Porter wanted to clear its shameful name and perform well to prove themselves, but they accidentally fired a ready and armed torpedo right at the USS Iowa.
To make matters even worse, the captain of the William D. Porter didn’t radio the USS Iowa about the torpedo because he wanted to stick to the rules of the drill and use light signals to tell them a torpedo was on its way. When they realized the USS Iowa didn’t understand their signaling, they broke radio silence and warned the battleship of the incoming torpedo. Fortunately, they managed to avoid the torpedo.
Instead of asking tell me more, the USS Iowa assumed this maneuver was an assassination attempt. The USS Iowa pointed all of its guns at the William D. Porter. Thankfully the captain of the USS Iowa did ask for William D Porter to “tell them more” and they sorted out the mess. Afterwards, the William D. Porter was always greeted with “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!”
Tell me more is an option we need to utilize. When we cannot say yes, we flip too quickly to thinking no is the only other answer we can give. When we disagree with someone we can too quickly assume they are out to get us. Even when someone is sending torpedoes your way it may be worth asking “tell me more.”
Tell me more allows us to answer the door for more friends than just the ones we can say yes to. There are friends knocking on our doors. Friends scared they will be separated from their children, Friends afraid to run in their own neighborhoods, Friends who are not able to be themselves in their workplaces. Friends who are worried about the policies of this new administration. Friends who stress over their profession being completely upended. They are in need and we might not agree with how they want to solve the problem, yet if we can’t say yes right away we don’t need to reject them and curl up tighter in our comfy blankets in bed. We can ask them to tell us more.
When we seek to understand the needs of others we can partner with them to find solutions. We might not be able to say yes yet, but in the course of the conversation we may find something we can say yes to. We can, and I believe God’s example tells us we should, get out of bed and at the very least ask them to tell us more about their needs.
It is what God does for us with every prayer we pray. When God cannot tell us YES, God says tell me more and encourages us to continue in prayer. And eventually, we, along with God, find a way to YES.
May we be persistent enough to ask “tell me more.”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 21, 2021
Leviticus 19:13-118; Luke 10:25-37
He is famous. His name is everywhere. It is on hospitals. It is on long-term care facilities. It is on businesses. It is on organizations that serve the poor and the hungry. It is on websites and counseling centers. It is associated with a particular set of laws. Newscasters regularly refer to him. So who is this famous man about town? He is the Good Samaritan. Yes, that’s right, the Good Samaritan. There are Good Samaritan hospitals, hospital systems, retirement communities, rehabilitation clinics, organizations that serve the needs of the poor and counseling services such as Samaritan Counseling which operates in our own building. In addition there are Good Samaritan laws which protect passersby from being sued when they help someone in need. And on news broadcasts whenever someone stops to assist another person, they are called good Samaritans. What is fascinating about these associations of the Good Samaritan name is that they are made by or to people who probably don’t know the Samaritan’s origin story. They have no idea he is a character in a parable once told by Jesus. But just so that we are all on the same page this morning, let’s return to the story and remind ourselves of the purpose of the parable.
The story begins with a religious lawyer testing Jesus as to the rules for gaining eternal life. Jesus, being Jesus, asks the lawyer about the Torah’s requirements for entry. The lawyer replies correctly that it is to love God and love neighbor. Jesus agrees. But then the lawyer asks a second question, a question that was in fact always under debate in Judaism - who is my neighbor? This is when Jesus tells his parable which begins with a rather foolish man who walked the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho by himself. This road was also known as the bloody road because of the crime and violence that occurred on it. The foolish man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Over the course of time a priest, going home from his annual duty at the Jerusalem Temples, passes by the man in need. Next a Levite, someone who is sort of support staff for the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, walks by the beaten man and does nothing as well. Then a foreigner, an enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, stops, has pity on the beaten man, and then takes care of the man, both on the site of the robbery and then later at a local motel. As the story concludes, Jesus asks, which of these men was the neighbor? The answer given by the lawyer is, the one who showed mercy. Thus, the Good Samaritan passes from parable to legend and becomes the prototype for caring.
The conclusion that has been drawn over and over again from the story is the correct one, that we are to be Good Samaritans, helping those in need because everyone is our neighbor. But what if Jesus is trying to tell us more than who is our neighbor? What if this parable contains more than that simple, yet powerful lesson? I ask that because I believe that Jesus is indeed trying to teach us a second valuable lesson, which is, how does someone become our neighbor? To understand this let’s take a second look at the story and the location of the three travelers who come across the man who has been beaten. First there is the priest. He passes by the beaten man on the other side of the road. In other words, he does not get close enough to see who this man is or what is wrong with him. Next comes the Levite. He too passes by on the other side of the road and so cannot see the exact condition of the man lying just off the road. Finally, the Samaritan arrives. The language Jesus uses to describe him implies that he too is initially on the other side of the road, but then “he came near.” In other words, the Samaritan moved from the other side of the road to be close enough to the beaten man to see his condition. It was in this near proximity that the Samaritan’s pity is evoked for this man who was in need. Next, the Samaritan “went to him,” meaning the Samaritan moves even closer, so close in fact that he treats the man’s wounds, bandages them, places the man on a donkey, carries the man to safety, checks him into a Holiday Inn Express, gives the Clerk a credit card saying, this man’s stay is on me. This is how the Samarian made the foolish man his neighbor.
Your response might be something like, “Well, John, that’s all well and good but I know that everyone is my neighbor. Why should I need to know how to make someone my neighbor?” My response would be that we usually do not cross the street. We stay on our side of the road because that is the natural human tendency. Or, to put it another way, we segregate. And let me be clear that this tendency to segregate is not just an American tendency, or a Detroit tendency, but a human tendency. After all, birds of a feather…right? Think about it, we tend to want to gravitate to people who are like us; so, we segregate according to language and ethnicity. We segregate according to wealth and class. We segregate according to race and religion. We segregate by ability and disability. And though we truly believe that everybody is our neighbor, because we are walking on one particular side of the road it becomes hard for us to make people on the other side of the road our neighbor. I would argue that this is why Jesus tells this parable, because crossing the street to care for others was as difficult in his day as it is in ours.
But this is what Jesus challenges us to do, not just to intellectually agree that everyone is our neighbor, but to cross the road. So why did the Christian cross the road? To get to the other side to make someone our neighbor. And I have to say that this is one of the gifts of Everybody’s Church; we try to offer opportunities to go across the road. We have done so through our work at Alcott where we go and make a difference in children’s lives. We have done so through our Rejoicing Spirits community and our work with Angels’ Place homes. Many of you who have been delivering food to families in Pontiac are crossing the road because you have come to know the families you are assisting. We crossed the road with our hosting of the South Oakland Shelter, where some of you befriended those who stayed as our guests. I believe we have done this in our work in Kenya, where we drew near, saw, and worked side by side with our brothers and sisters there to build a church and a school. And many of you are crossing the road in ways the rest of us are not even aware. The challenge for us is to keep at it. It is to remember that we are not called by God to walk on the far side of the road, but to cross over, to listen, to see, to love and to serve. So the question I would like each of you to ask yourselves this week is this, how am I crossing the road in order to make someone my neighbor?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 14, 2021
Jeremiah 29:10-14; Philippians 2:1-13
In 2015 the book, The Purpose Driven Church was, according to a poll of pastors, second only to the Bible in popularity. Initially written as a Doctor of Ministry Project by Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, it influenced and continues to influence thousands of church leaders and church planters. It contains nuggets of wisdom on how to focus a church’s life and work so that a church can develop active and faithful members. This morning though I want to focus on one chapter and that is the chapter on recruitment. At the heart of that chapter is the advice, backed up by years of research, that a growing, successful church can only be built upon a homogenous community. In other words, a growing church requires recruiting people who look alike, think alike, live alike, and share a common view of the world. Any attempt to create a church that is heterogeneous, meaning where not everyone looks, thinks, and acts alike is bound for failure. The reason being that people only like being around people like themselves.
I have to say that this chapter and the research on which it was based was in the back of my mind as the session (the board of ruling elders of this church) adopted our moniker of Everybody’s Church. When we adopted Everybody’s Church as our statement of identity, we tried to be clear as to what it meant. It meant that our doors were open to everyone as our inclusion statement makes clear. “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” We also knew what being Everybody’s Church didn’t mean. It didn’t mean that we believed anything and everything, or that everybody would want to come to our church because not everyone would approve of or appreciate our inclusion, our worship, or our witness. And that was fine. But we adopted this statement of our identity because we believed that a church ought to reflect the entirety of the kingdom of God, rather than one small slice of it. We believed that it was possible to bring together people who didn’t think, look, or act alike and create a dynamic Jesus community. What none of us could have foreseen, however, was 2020.
Each of us carries within us our own particular impact of this past year. It was the year that put this nation in a pressure cooker that had the potential to break down our political, economic, relational, and religious connections. The Covid-19 pandemic with its deaths and lockdowns, continuing racial strife in our streets, a political campaign and aftermath unlike any I have ever experienced, have stretched the bonds that have held families, communities and churches together to the breaking point. We carry around within us fear, anger, frustration, depression, loneliness, and foreboding. And these events have taken a toll on teachers, students, peace officers, pastors, doctors, nurses, first responders, communities of color, small businesses, and on this church. The question before us is, has the pressure cooker of 2020 proved the research right and that we cannot be a heterogeneous church? Or is it still possible for us to be Everybody’s Church? I would answer the latter because we are of “the same mind.” Let me explain.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he was writing to a church in which there were divisions. Unlike the church in Corinth where Paul made us aware of the causes of that church’s division, we are not sure what was tearing the Philippian church apart. What we do know is that there were people dividing the church and Paul took great pains to urge the church to remain united. In his efforts to do so he wrote, “Be of the same mind…being in full accord and of one mind.” What is interesting about this phrase, having the same mind, is that over the centuries since Paul wrote, this phrase has come to mean that all people are to believe the same thing and that same thing is dictated by either the church or a pastor. In other words, to have the same mind means to be a homogeneous church, without dissention or discussion. Everyone does the same line and believes the same things. While this understanding may still be true for many churches today, it is not true for us Reformed folks. First, it is not true theologically because we believe three things about anyone dictating to us what we must believe. First, we believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience…meaning that no one can dictate what we believe. Second, we believe that councils do err…meaning that sessions, denominations, and church leadership can be mistaken. Third, we believe that Christians can disagree and still be faithful…meaning that there is often no one, right answer and so we embrace those with whom we disagree as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The second place where this belief in being of the same mind meaning everyone agreeing on some set of doctrinal principles falls apart, is in the passage itself. I say this because in the passage Paul told us that the same mind we are to have is the mind of Christ; a mind of humility and sacrificial service. As I have noted before when speaking on this passage in Philippians, the passage is not intended as a statement about Christ’s divinity, but about the mind of Christ as an example of where our minds ought to be and where unity can be found. Our minds are first to be found in humility. Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” What this means is that we are to approach everyone we meet as an equal worthy of our attention, our love, and our compassion. One way to think about humility is that it calls us to be willing to engage in active non-judgmental listening, even when we disagree with someone. And we engage in these active non-judgmental relationships because they reflect the humility of Jesus Christ, who “being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” In other words, to have the mind of Christ is to humbly sacrifice ourselves for those around us, even though they, like we, are less than perfect people…even though they may be people with whom we may disagree.
And my friends I know we are of one mind because over the past twelve years I have watched us have a mind of humility and sacrificial service. I have watched people who fundamentally disagreed on issues, listen, and love one another. I have watched people who fundamentally disagreed sacrificially serve each other and serve others together. And so there are several things that I passionately believe. I believe passionately in what we are doing here at Everybody’s Church. I believe passionately that the world needs to see that it is possible to be a church in which there is loving disagreement lived out in Christ-like humility. I believe passionately that the world needs to see that there can be a church with people from all walks of life, all political and theological viewpoints, all genders, all races, all sexual orientations and all abilities and disabilities that exhibits Christ’s mind of humility. I believe passionately that we are fully capable of humility, sacrifice, and service, because I witness it week after week here in our church. My friends, we are a gift to the world.
My challenge for you this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I living with the mind of Christ, both inside of and outside of Everybody’s Church?” And allow this question to continue to make you and us a gift to the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 7, 2021
Exodus 12:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
Once every quarter it would pass in front of me and I always wanted it. Once a quarter plates of bread and cups of juice would be passed by my parents one to another and then to other adults down the pew. After each quarterly communion service, I would ask my parents why I couldn’t have any. They patiently explained to me that I would need to go through a communicants’ class to partake. When was that I would ask? They would reply, “When you are in seventh grade.” Ultimately, I wore them down and in fifth grade I was allowed into the communicants’ class. We had to memorize The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Beatitudes and the first question and answer in the Westminster Confession. Then all of us stood in a line in front of the pastor who had us recite our answers. I managed it all pretty well except the Beatitudes, but I think the pastor thought it was so cute that a fifth grader wanted to be in the class that he let it slide. Then, I was ready. I wish I could tell you that taking communion that next Sunday was a life changing moment…but it wasn’t. I suppose because in the end, it was just bread and juice.
The first question before us this morning is, why has the church, and why do most churches, still insist on some sort of communicants’ or confirmation class before children can come to the table? Why aren’t children welcome all the time? The answer can be found in two places: tradition and scripture. The tradition of only allowing older youth or adults at the table is an ancient one. In the early church, which was continually under threat of persecution, it was important to weed out any spies who might be in the community’s midst. The way to do this was to have a three-year process of catechesis, of teaching on the mysteries of the faith before an individual was allowed to partake of the sacred meal. Second, there were Paul’s words in his first letter to the church at Corinth. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The understanding of these words slowly became that to examine one’s self was to examine one’s self over the meaning and purpose of the meal; that if one didn’t understand what one was doing at the table, then one was bringing judgment against one’s self. Thus, this interpretation of Paul’s words reinforced the tradition that only adults, or adolescents, were capable of understanding communion, so children were not welcome at the table.
This then leads us to our second question of the morning, which is why do we in the Reformed tradition and here at Everybody’s Church, not only allow, but invite all children to the table? The answer once again comes from two sources: scripture and tradition. First scripture. We too point to Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians as support for a fully inclusive table. We do so because the context of Paul’s words was a situation in which the wealthy in the Corinthian Church were not sharing with the poor in the community. What would happen is that the wealthy would arrive at church early with a picnic lunch and wine, then eat and get drunk. Then when the poor would arrive, they would have nothing. So, when communion came around, the wealthy would still have bread and wine aplenty, but the poor would have nothing for the meal and the wealthy wouldn’t share. Thus, only a part of the community could partake in the sacred meal. And while that sort of behavior might be acceptable in Roman society, Paul says it is not acceptable within the Jesus community. Thus, Paul castigates the wealthy for this, telling them that they needed to examine their actions in the light of Christ’s love for all.
The tradition portion of the answer is also Biblically based in the Jewish understanding of Passover. As we read this morning, Passover was the meal of remembrance of God’s freeing the Israelites from slavery. And the tradition of Passover is that it is a family meal. Passover is not only shared by old and young alike, but children play an essential role in the meal. In fact, it is such a family meal that children ask questions during the meal and receive answers from the adults. In a sense it is real-time catechesis. I would argue that it is this tradition of Passover that would have informed Paul’s understanding of communion; that it is a family meal in which men, women and children are all not only welcome, but ought to have a learning place at the table. And for those of you who have joined us since the onset of the pandemic, this is tradition we have here at Everybody’s Church, that the children participate at the table, as an integral part of our sacred meal.
One of the ways to understand this meal is through the term, the Eucharist, another name for communion. The meaning of eucharist is “thanksgiving” meaning this is a thanksgiving meal. So for a moment think of a good Thanksgiving meal you have attended…not one in which people fought about politics, but one in which everyone ate and laughed and gave thanks together. At my family Thanksgiving meals there was often a children’s table where children were allowed to eat everything the adults ate, without having to explain all the details of the original Thanksgiving feast. All were welcome to eat…and the same is true for us.
This morning then, know that all are welcome at this table. It is a family feast in which Jesus sits at the head and the rest of us gather. It is a family meal in which we learn through participating. It is a family meal in which old and young and in-between are welcome. It is a place where those with questions as well as those with answers are welcome. I hope today you will partake of this family meal, as together we remember the height, depth and breadth of God’s love for the world.