The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 4, 2021
Exodus 14:21-27; Matthew 28:1-10
It was just after 5pm when the earth began to shake. The earthquake lasted for only twenty seconds, but the damage exceeded $10 billion. The epicenter was near Loma Prieta, 50 miles south of San Francisco. Eighteen-thousand homes and twenty-five-hundred businesses were damaged. Roads were torn apart and a portion of the Bay Bridge in Oakland collapsed. While some of the damage could have been expected, the extent of the damage was exceptional. What made it as bad as it was, was a process called liquification. Liquification is what happens when loosely packed soils are shaken so violently that water that is normally trapped in the soil, is suddenly released and pushed upwards causing the ground to lose its cohesion…and the earth becomes like mud, or perhaps like the beach when your feet sink into the sand. In some ways this is more frightening than the shaking itself because it is a reminder that the one thing we believe to be solid in our lives, the earth beneath our feet, can in fact give way and we can sink down into it. This geologic phenomenon kept coming back to me again and again this week as I read this resurrection story. The giving way and the liquification of the ground seemed to be the perfect metaphor for what the followers of Jesus had experienced on the day of his death. Let me explain.
The disciples had followed Jesus for three years. During that time, they knew he was the one dependable person in their lives. He was their leader, their teacher, their healer, their exorcist, their everything. He was fulfilling ancient prophecies. He was gathering larger and larger crowds. He was creating a new community in which all persons were accepted, loved, and cherished. And in their unpredictable world, a world in which one never knew what Rome or the leaders in Jerusalem might do, they knew that they could depend on Jesus. He was their rock and their fortress. But then the earth shook. Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and buried. It was as if the very ground beneath their feet had liquefied. All their hopes and dreams were as shattered as those homes in the Bay area. There was nothing solid in their lives. And even when they came to the tomb and were told by an angel that Jesus was alive, they were still shaking. I say this because they were filled with “fear and great joy.” Think for a moment when you have been filled with this mix of emotions…you shake…you tremble. And so, they ran. They ran through soil still not yet solid.
It was in their running that Jesus met them. Note carefully, they were not looking for Jesus. They were not expecting to see Jesus. All they were trying to do was to get back to their friends with some unbelievable news, that perhaps Jesus might meet them later in Galilee as he had promised. But then suddenly, out of nowhere it would seem, Jesus meets them. It was Jesus who knew they were shaking. It was Jesus who knew that they needed something solid on which to cling. It was Jesus who loved them too much to allow them to fear. And so, he meets them. Their reaction is instantaneous. They fall down and take hold of his feet. They take hold of the one thing that once had been, and was once again, the only solid thing in their lives. They took hold of Jesus and offered him their words of praise and amazement. They took hold of the physically present feet of their risen friend. They grabbed hold, stopped shaking and gave thanks.
I don’t know about you, but this past year has seemed like one in which the world shook and life liquified under me. The ground shook with a pandemic that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It shook with calls for racial justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others. It shook with an election and election aftermath that starkly divided our nation. It shook with an attack on our capitol. It shook with lockdowns and lost jobs. It shook with mass shootings and the deaths of Peace officers. And in the process of all that shaking, the ground beneath us liquified. All that we thought of as normal vanished. We were isolated. We fought over toilet paper and cleaning supplies. We could no longer visit family, friends or our favorite places to eat. We had to wear masks everywhere as the invisible virus lingered in the air. The earth beneath our feet had liquefied. Yet there was one in whom I knew I could trust. There was one thing I could remember every day, that my redeemer lives; that Jesus Christ comes to meet me every morning saying that life and love win; hate and death lose.
Jesus was and is the one solid thing on which we can all cling to because in him we know that love and life win. Love and life win because God refused to allow hate and death to be victorious. Love and life win because Jesus is raised. And so we too can cling to him because he is not dead but alive. We can cling to him because he is not simply an ancient teacher but a living Lord. We can cling to him because he is not simply a spirit but a resurrected human being. We can cling to him because he lives…and in his living we know that we can and will live as well. So this Easter Sunday, allow Jesus to stop our shaking and remind us, that in him, we are on solid ground.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
March 28, 2021
Psalm 19; Matthew 21:12-17
Palm Sunday often gets put into the joyful celebration category and I totally understand why. We are heading into a week where everything Jesus does is shadowed by what will happen on Good Friday. This feels like our last chance to celebrate with Jesus. While Palm sunday is a triumphant celebration, that focus can blind us to the full magnitude of this day. While the crowd was celebrating, anger, distrust, and unease began to arise within Jesus’ closest circle. While the crowd was celebrating, fear, anger, and self-doubt plagued the religious and government authorities. Palm Sunday is a day where celebration was the overwhelming mood but if we zoom in a little closer we find remarkable clarity to Jesus’ mindset in these final days before the cross.
The crowd’s joy was bubbling just under the surface. It was Passover which meant celebration was in the air. The city was packed with people who had traveled from their homes to be in Jerusalem. Part of the Passover tradition is to make the pilgrimage to the Temple. These people have made it! Their journey is over and the festival is about to begin. And to top it all off a Rabbi who has been getting lots of buzz is arriving. It does not take much more to convince the crowd to give Jesus a grand welcome. Palm branches come down, coats come off and a spontaneous “red” carpet is laid out for Jesus.
While the crowd celebrated the emotional spectrum inside Jesus’ circle was diverse. Some were probably bursting with pride and joy to be seen with Jesus in this moment. Peter probably smiled and nodded to the crowd. There were probably some introverted disciples that were petrified that the spotlight had been turned on them. And we can be pretty sure Judas at least had an inkling what this kind of attention meant. He probably saw through the happy smiles in the crowd and picked out the angry faces of the priests and soldiers. A riled up Passover crowd was not good news to local authorities. Judas may have even tried to convince Jesus to take a side alley to avoid instigating anything riotous.
Jesus knew though there was nothing that could be done to stop the events that were about to unfold. It was time to put all the cards on the table and let the game play out. There was one thing he needed to address in the Temple so he headed there first.
Now let’s back up to Moses for a second and look at some realities about the temple. In Moses’ time the “temple” was a tent of worship. Sacrifices are common practice because for a people who tend herds of livestock and have many animals, sacrificial animals make sense as a religious practice. They gave from the resources they had.
As Israel gets established as a nation the tent of worship becomes a more permanent structure aka a Temple. The jobs also diversify, a nation that lives in a more developed city needs some people who have other trades than just tending livestock. To provide sacrificial animals to people who do not tend animals for a living a practice began where animals could be bought in the market and taken to the Temple for religious sacrifices.
As time goes on the sacrificial animal sellers get closer and closer to the temple. Anyone who has worked in retail knows the power of cross selling. Ever wonder why those cute sandwich containers are hanging in the bread aisle? Its because sales people have realized when you need bread you may be making sandwiches and you may also need a cute container for your sandwich. They put the bread and containers close together hoping you will buy both. Same thing happened in Ancient Jerusalem, the animal sacrifice sales people figured out the closer to the temple the more sales you get. And they eventually push into the courtyards of the temple itself..
The sellers who have the best relationship with the religious leaders even get permanent store fronts. They get this special treatment because they give a portion of their sales to the religious leader of course. If you are giving a cut to someone else you raise your prices a little. The prices climb and climb and climb.
This is the system Jesus walks into. A warped unjust system more convenient to those making a profit than to those trying to connect with God and practice their faith. A system where the poor can not afford to maintain their relationship with God. This makes Jesus Angry.
Jesus destroys the stores set up in the temple and shouts at the sellers as they leave the courtyard. Most Biblical scholars pinpoint this action as the spark that angers the powerful leaders to turn against Jesus. Before this Jesus was just an annoyance but of no threat. The moment Jesus attacks their income though, they plot to get rid of him for good.
As important as it is it is hard to not be shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Our calm collected Jesus turned rioter!? and store smasher!? Our discomfort with this scene is possibly another reason why we like to focus on the celebration in the streets, rather than what is happening in the temple. We gladly join Jesus in celebration, happy to be at the table for maundy Thursday,, we don't even mind being at the foot of the cross, but an angry shop smashing Jesus is often left out of our holy week stories. And yet it is the moment that sets the whole week on its path. Jesus gets angry, acts on that anger, and those in power plot to end Jesus’ influence forever.
Anger is a complicated emotion. Many of us have been hurt by another persons anger or even found ourselves in regrettable situations because of our own anger. It is natural for us to want to turn away from anything motivated by anger. Anger can easily get out of hand and fog our judgment. Yet here is Jesus angry and acting on that anger. Somewhere there is a line between holy anger and dangerous anger.
We actually see both kinds of anger develop in the story of Holy Week. We have Jesus’ anger in the temple and we have the anger of the local authorities against Jesus. Jesus represents holy anger, and the authorities represent dangerous anger. The difference between the two are in patterns of behavior and who the anger serves.
The first difference is a difference in behavioral patterns. The behavior of the local religious and government leaders is following a predictable pattern. They get angry, they lash out. They get angry, they use their power to smash the offender. We can see this play out over and over again.
When someone's anger causes them to have repeated or predictable outbursts this is damaging anger. It exists for the purpose of keeping control and exerting dominance. When someone develops a pattern of angry behavior even when they allow time for repentance and forgiveness it is a sign they have lost their ability to express themselves in other healthier ways. They never try to ask questions to get to the bottom of the offense. They don’t allow time to calm down and talk a compromise through. Their anger always leads to a swift outburst and dangerous behavior.
When we see someone developing this pattern we can help them see their need for other coping mechanisms and we may need to set up boundaries to keep ourselves safe. Someone who has a pattern of angry behavior is dangerous no matter how long it has been since their last outburst. The pattern will return.
This is not the pattern we find in Jesus. The reason every gospel tells this story is because it was out of character for Jesus to act this way. The people around him suddenly sat up and paid attention because this was not his normal response.
We can see that Jesus tried to express his anger in lots of different ways first. The issues Jesus sees in the Temple are the issues he has been talking about for years. It’s the same issue of people using religion to exclude people from God’s love. Jesus tried calming expressing his anger in sermons and discourse with those who disagreed with him. Jesus tried painting images of the problem in carefully crafted parables. Jesus even showed solutions to the problem through his miracles and healings. He used every other way he could to communicate and create space to discuss before he came to this moment in the Temple. His message had not changed; with every ignored urging he doubled down on the message hoping someone would finally listen.
When we see the connection between Jesus’ outburst and the message he was trying to teach it should be no surprise that he got to this point. There was a pattern, it wasn't a pattern of angry behavior but a pattern in the message. His message was the predictable pattern that grew into flipping tables and property damage. If they wouldn’t listen to his calm words and public demonstrations maybe they would listen when he threatened their economic holdings.
Another difference between the anger of the authorities and the anger of Jesus is who the anger serves. Who the anger puts on the pedestal and gives power to.
The religious leaders are angry because they think they will lose their position. They convince the government authorities to be angry because they too could lose power if Jesus kept teaching. Their anger served themselves. It was there to maintain their position and power over the community. Self serving anger is dangerous anger.
Jesus’ anger serves those most in need. In fact this outburst turns into a literal representation of how Jesus wants the system to work. It literally flips the Temple courtyard. I’m not talking about the tables this time I’m talking about where people were. When Jesus walks in the sellers and the rich are at the center of the activity with the poor and needy sneaking around them on the edges in the shadows to try and get a moment with God.
Jesus chases those in the center out of the courtyard and in Matthews' telling of this moment those in need rush in. Jesus’ anger serves others by making a space for them to be heard and get their needs met. The people who were cast into the shadows and prevented from full participation in the Temple rush to Jesus finally having a place to be heard. Even little children recognize that Jesus’ anger is something to be praised. This act of anger reset the courtyard in the way God intended the community to behave. The young and weak at the center getting cared for while the stronger more powerful move to the outside to protect them and support them. Jesus’ anger serves and lifts up those most in need.
Holy anger is anger that is out of character when expressed but can be traced back to messaging and communication that has been ignored in the past. Holy anger serves those least served and puts those in need at the center to be heard while the powerful listen into the center.
Anger does not have to be an emotion we reject as wrong. Anger can be the fuel that realigns our world with the Kin-dom of God. When we get angry or encounter anger in our world we can assess whose anger it is more like. Is if like the authorities who had a pattern of angry reactions and outbursts. Anger that served to maintain their power and keep the microphone for themselves. Or is it anger like Jesus. Out of character but rooted in a message long ignored. An anger that serves those most pushed to the edges of our community and lifts them up to be better heard.
Let us take a moment to assess the anger we have encountered recently and ask God for ways to support the Holy Anger in our world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 21, 2021
Jeremiah 31:1-9; Luke 15:1-10
I want to begin this morning with Presbyterian Final Jeopardy. There is a single question for which I am looking for the correct question. Unfortunately, you are not playing for any prize money or the opportunity to return and play again tomorrow. And since we have no buzzers and are not supposed to speak loudly, if you know the answer, simply raise your hand. So here is the answer. “This two-word phrase describes the phenomenon or practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting, or ending support for particular people or groups because their views or actions are considered to be socially or morally unacceptable and are thus disapproved of by a particular segment of society or a particular culture in its entirety.” Ok, so the few of you who know the question have been reading and watching the news. The correct response is, “What is cancel culture.” The phrase has been used to refer to everything from Dr. Seuss to Colin Kaepernick. It has been bandied about by folks on the right and on the left. Though I had never heard this phrase until recent times, according to one source it was coined in the 1970s. But, it has been around a lot longer than that. It is in fact what the Pharisees and the scribes were trying to do to Jesus.
Before we move deeper into the stories for this morning, I want to say something about the Pharisees and the scribes. Though these two groups of people have often been described as if they are villains like Darth Vader or Voldemort, they are not. The Pharisees and scribes are persons who take their obedience to God’s law with utmost seriousness. Their one desire is to be completely faithful to God and to God’s Law. The way in which they strived to be faithful was by building what commentators have called fences around the Law. In other words, if one was not supposed to work on the Sabbath, then they had to create a wall of rules and regulations that insured that one did not even come close to working on the Sabbath. The problem with Jesus, from the point of view of the Pharisees and scribes, was that he was constantly breaking down those walls. He was breaking down the walls by eating and drinking with and healing and inviting into God’s presence people whose lives were not lived inside the walls built around God’s Torah. These were the “sinners and tax collectors” mentioned in the story. These actions by Jesus were the reason that the Pharisees and scribes wanted people to publicly reject, boycott and end public support for Jesus. This is why they wanted to cancel him.
That being the case, we might think that if there was one community that would refuse to be involved in cancel culture, it would be the church. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, the church has been one of the great instigators of cancel culture. In the church’s earliest years, it wanted to cancel Roman religions. Then the church at Rome wanted to cancel the church at Constantinople and vice versa. Then the Roman church wanted to cancel the Protestant churches, who wanted to cancel the Roman church, and everyone wanted to cancel the Anabaptists and the Jews. Two more recent examples: When I lived in Pampa, Texas there was a couple who joined our church and afterward the leaders of their former church made it clear that no one in their church should ever speak with them again. Our new members had been canceled. And recently a church that was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention welcomed some LGBTQ members and the church was immediately disfellowshipped or canceled by that denomination. In other words, cancel culture is alive and well in the church.
What fascinates me about all of this cancel culture within the church is that Jesus never created a cancel culture within his sphere of influence. Instead, he created a compassion culture. Before we move forward, I want to say a word about compassion and how I am using the term. Often in our society we use the word compassion in the same way we would use the word pity, meaning to feel sorry for someone. This way of understanding compassion is hierarchical, meaning someone “up here” has pity on someone “down there.” It makes the one showing compassion greater than the one receiving compassion. This is not how the word was originally used and not how I am using it. Compassion is the act of loving deeply with another. “Com” refers to the act of being with another. “Passion” refers to the act of loving deeply. There is no hierarchy in compassion. There is only a communion of love and connection. With that definition in mind, let’s see how God and Jesus create cultures of compassion instead of cancellation.
We begin with the passage from Jeremiah. For those of you who were with us for last week’s episode of Parables to the Cross, hopefully you remember that Jeremiah, on behalf of God, was warning the people of Judah that they were headed toward the iceberg of the Babylonian Empire. And if the people did not return to being a people who bore the fruits of peace rather than the ways of violence, Judah would be sunk. Well, the people did not listen, and their ship of state and religion crashed and sunk, with a disturbing loss of life. At that point we might have expected God to have canceled Judah and its people; to have found another people who might listen. Such is not God’s way. God had infinite compassion which we can hear in these words. “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. The Lord appeared to them from far away and said, I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you…again you will take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers…again you shall plant vineyards…” God does not cancel but comes alongside those whose lives seem at an end and restores them to fullness and joy. This is compassion culture.
We hear echoes of this same story in Jesus’ parable. Jesus speaks of a sheep and a coin that were lost. The shepherd and the woman could have written off the sheep and coin. The shepherd and the woman could have canceled the sheep and coin, but the shepherd and the woman would not do so because the sheep and coin were loved; they were valuable. The sheep and coin were valuable enough, loved enough, that the shepherd and the woman insisted on taking any risk, meaning leaving the other sheep in the wilderness, or expending any amount of energy, meaning sweeping and sweeping, until these beloveds were found and made whole again. Then, just as Jeremiah described, there was to be a party for the sheep and coin who had been found and welcomed home. This is compassion culture. This is the culture Jesus created when he became one of us, when he came alongside us. This is the culture he created when he broke down the walls others had put up around God’s love. This is the culture he created when he reached out to those society had canceled, had labeled as sinners, had pushed to the margins. This is the culture he learned from the one who sent him; the one who loves with an everlasting love. This is the culture we are to create.
We live in a world in which the church has canceled people because of the color of their skin, because of their national origin, because of their gender, because of their sexual orientation or perhaps even because of their political affiliations. This is not the world Jesus came to create. Jesus came to fulfill God’s desire for a world in which compassion culture is at the heart of all that the people of God believe and live. The challenge I want to offer you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I creating a compassion culture, that welcomes all in the name of the compassionate Christ?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 14, 2021
Jeremiah 8:8-13; Luke 13:1-9
The date was April 10, 1912 and the world was excited. They were excited because the largest and fastest ocean liner ever conceived and built was pulling out of port. The papers were abuzz about the wealthy socialites among the 2,224 passengers and crew. The ship was the crown of the White Star Line and was thought to be unsinkable. It was unsinkable because of its construction that would prevent more than a single watertight compartment from flooding in case of an accident. The confidence, or should I say, overconfidence of the owners and operators of the HMS Titanic led to removing half of the lifeboats and the captain to move at top speed through the north Atlantic, even on moonless nights when the lookouts in the crow’s nest would not be able to see any icebergs ahead. We all know the rest of the story. On the 15th of April the Titanic struck an iceberg; its compartments flooded; the few lifeboats on the ship were launched half-full; and more than 1,500 people went down with the ship. Why is this story germane to us this morning? It is because both of our stories concern moments in Israel’s history when the nation was moving full speed toward an “iceberg” that would doom thousands. Let me explain.
Jeremiah’s words are directed to the nation of Judah. The “iceberg” that Judah was quickly approaching was the Babylonian Empire. Judah had narrowly escaped another iceberg about 200 years before when the Assyrian Empire allowed Judah to pay tribute rather than be destroyed. On this occasion, about 600 years before the birth of Christ, the nation was once again facing a large and powerful foe. At first, Judah agreed to pay tribute to Babylon and escape their sinking in the same way they had before. But for reasons we will discuss in a few minutes, the leadership of Judah decided that they no longer needed to pay tribute. And so, they declared their independence. Jeremiah the prophet was appalled. God had made it clear to him that if the people waited, God would eventually save them. He accused the Temple scribes, prophets, and priests of lying about what was ahead. He made it clear that people were saying “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. His declaration was, “Therefore I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors.” Jeremiah saw the danger ahead, but no one listened.
Jesus’ words were directed to his audience in Galilee. The “iceberg” that his audience and the rest of the Jews in Judea were facing was the Roman Empire. In the past six-hundred years the Jews living in Judea had only been independent for perhaps a hundred of them. In the time of Jesus, the nation was ruled by the Romans through people like Pilate and a few pseudo-Jewish princes. The people had freedom of movement and their religious shrine, the Temple, stood proudly in the middle of Jerusalem. Though there were occasional Roman atrocities, such as the one mentioned in our story, an ordinary Jew barely felt the presence of the Romans. Yet, there was a restlessness for freedom. There was a restlessness in Galilee to throw off their overlords. Jesus could see this coming and he warned the people of the consequences. He warned that if they continued on the course of rebellion, they would suffer the same fate as their ancestors had under the Babylonians…destruction and exile. So why wouldn’t the people listen?
If we are to believe Jeremiah and Jesus, the people of Judah and Galilee refused to listen because they forgot who they were. They forgot that they were supposed to be those who produced the fruits of peace and not the desolations of war. We can see this call to be people producing the fruits of peace, in the use of the fig tree, by both Jesus and Jeremiah. The fig tree was emblematic of peace. It represented times when people could sit in peace and partake of the sweet goodness of the land. And as a reminder, peace in Hebrew is shalom, meaning not merely the absence of war, but the fullness of life. The people of God then were intended to be those who brought the fullness of peace, of life, not only to themselves but to those around them. Unfortunately, the people forgot that peacemaking was their charge. Jeremiah chastised the people for rejecting the word of the Lord, dealing falsely with one another, and even doing things for which they should be ashamed. They had come to believe that because they were the chosen people, God would protect them regardless of their behavior and the choices they made. These same two concerns were regularly expressed by Jesus to the point where he agreed with Jeremiah, that the people of God were like trees that merely took up space and produced no fruit. The people were not being the peace-bearing people of God and the icebergs were right in front of them. Disaster awaited.
The question before us this morning then is what kind of tree are we? I ask this question for two reasons. First, I ask because our tendency as human beings is to assume that we are ok but others…well we’re just not sure. We look around us, point fingers and say things like, “Look, those people over there are not producing any fruit.” We do this because it is easier to point fingers “out there” than to take a look “in here.” This was what the people around Jesus were doing. They were pointing their fingers at those who had been massacred by Pilate and those on whom a tower had fallen and essentially saying to Jesus, “Boy those folks must have been some bad sinners to have had those things happen to them.” Jesus refuses to be taken in by that kind of speculation. Instead, he refocuses their attention back on themselves. He tells them that unless they turn around and move away from their relentless push toward violence and not peace, that they will suffer the same fate. In the parable he reminds them that they are empty trees because they have forgotten who they are supposed to be, people who bear the fruits of peace, of shalom.
The second reason I ask us to look out ourselves is that it was a year ago today that the pandemic was declared and that we closed the church to in-person worship. And it has been quite a year; isolation, lost jobs, half a million people dead…and we have been separated. Perhaps then it is time to take stock of what kind of a tree we have become during this pandemic season. So again, what kind of tree have we become? The answer this morning is one bearing good fruit. We are a tree that continues to bear the fruits of peace, of shalom. We bear these fruits in our work at Alcott Elementary school, with our AAIM program, with our Rejoicing Spirit’s community, with our food distribution to families in Pontiac, through those of you who are packing food in Pontiac. We bear fruit through our support of Reverend Kate and the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care. We bear fruit through our continuing work at being a fully inclusive congregation, through casserole club, through our support for Faith Kasoni in Kenya, where she works to prevent child marriage and Female Gentile Mutilation. We bear fruit through the work of one of our families, who in conjunction with the Bloomfield Township Police Department, organized a Black Lives Matter walk to protest racial injustice and finally through our Matthew 25 Workgroup and all of our other committees that are prayerfully seeking God’s leading in making our tree even more fruitful.
I believe that we have been able to do these things because Jesus has been and continues to be fertilizing us with his Spirit. I believe this is what Jesus desires for us…to be those who produce the fruits of peace …which is what is exciting about being part of our community, that Jesus always has more fruit bearing plans for us; more ways for us to bring peace; more opportunities to not simply to avoid the icebergs, but to sail full speed ahead into God’s amazing future.
The challenge I offer you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I bearing the fruit of peace not simply through this church, but in my sphere of influence so that God’s shalom shines on the world in which we live?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 7, 2021
Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; Luke 12:13-21
I want to begin this morning with a confession. That confession is that I have never particularly liked this parable. I haven’t liked it for two reasons. First, I haven’t liked it because even though I know better, what I have always perceived in it is a bias against those things I was taught by my parents; hard work, frugality and saving. Which is what it seems that this farmer is doing. The farmer is trying to make a go of it. He has several good harvests, stores his excess, and celebrates. Rather than celebrating his success the story seems to justify punishment for a person who has done well. The second reason that I haven’t like this story comes in verse 20, when the man appears to be punished for saying, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” After a lifetime of work, he was contented. He had found that elusive gift of contentment and then it is taken from him. No offense to Jesus and Luke, but my goal is to one day retire and find some contentment; to be able to relax, eat, drink and be merry. Any of you want that as well? So, the question becomes then, where can we find contentment?
Before we delve more deeply into the passage, I would like us to consider this idea of contentment. As far as I can discern there are two basic theories for finding contentment. They are accumulation and renunciation. First accumulation. The accumulation theory is that human beings find contentment in the accumulation of things. These things can be money, power, tech-goodies, friends or around here, classic cars. In fact, we have so much stuff that we need to rent storage places to put all the things we have no room for in our homes. The theory is that when we accumulate enough of the right thing then we can finally be content. The second theory of contentment is in renunciation. Simply put, renunciation is the practice of giving up the things of this world. The belief is that by people attaching themselves to the things of this world (accumulation), it only creates more desire, more greed and more unhappiness. To find contentment we must renounce the things of this world…we must detach ourselves from the desires that make us restless and discontented.
Returning to the story it would appear, at least on the surface, that Jesus is asking people to choose renunciation as the method for finding contentment. Afterall, the man in the parable has accumulated enough to retire and then God takes it all away from him through death. But I don’t think that is what is really going on here; meaning I don’t think Jesus is preferring renunciation over accumulation. I say that for two reasons. First, because Jesus, as a good Jew; he would know that the blessing that was given by God to God’s people included not only spiritual blessings but material blessings. As the prophets declare, every person should be able to sit under their own vine and fig tree. It is this sense of accumulation that allows the writer of Ecclesiastes to say, there is nothing better for human beings to eat, drink, and take pleasure in all their toil; and if anyone enjoyed life it was Jesus. Second, I don’t believe Jesus has chosen renunciation, because Jesus makes this cryptic closing remark, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” What does this mean? In order to understand it, we need to translate it as, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in God.” I do so because what I believe Jesus is saying is that we find contentment when we are “in” God; meaning when God fills us, when we allow God to fill us with what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. The man in the story was filled only with himself and his stuff, not God. If he had instead been filled with God, he would have been content long before he accumulated enough to fill bigger barns. He would have found contentment in the planting, harvesting, and sharing of what he had. He would have found it in the presence of God throughout his life, regardless of his successes or failures. Contentment in God would have been his constant companion and allowed him to eat, drink and be merry for a lifetime.
This morning we are offered an opportunity at this table to be filled with God. I don’t mean that the elements of bread and wine are God, but that they are symbolic of the love of God poured out for us. And that when we partake of the elements we are partaking of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and faithfulness of God. We are holding them in our hands. We are seeing them with our eyes. We are allowing them to remind us that regardless of how big or small are our barns, how successful or unsuccessful we have been in the eyes of the world, how old or young we are, or where we are in life, we are valuable to God our creator, to the Son who gave his life for us, and to the Spirit who fills us now and always. This, my friends, is contentment. This, my friends, is contentment that we can have now and always. My challenge to you for this week then is to ask yourselves, how am I being in God and finding contentment.
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.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 31, 2021
Jeremiah 31:1-9; Acts 10:9-33
1946…...1946 gave us the first meeting of the United Nations. The Philippines gained independence from the US in 1946. and the New York City Ballet was established in 1946.
It is hard for me to imagine a world where these institutions don’t exist. New York without its own ballet company. The Philippines as a territory. Yet they are all only 75 years young. The world I find hard to imagine was exactly how the world was until recently.
There is something else that happened in 1946 I want us to recognize today. In 1946 a new translation of the Bible was published. The Revised Standard Version, RSV. This translation was the first time the word homosexual was in the Bible. Let that sink in. Seventy-five short years ago was the FIRST time ANY Bible included the word homosexual.
As hard as it is to imagine the world without the United Nations. It is just as hard to imagine Christianity without its theology around homosexuality, and yet they are both only 75 years young.
We have been using these first weeks of 2021 to remind ourselves of how far the church has come, how we have followed the urgings of the Spirit to reform into a better understanding of God. This sermon feels a little different. It is a confession that sometimes we fail at this task. That sometimes the changes are not Spirit led.
Before I get too far into this I want to invite you all to a Facebook Live I will be doing tomorrow at 7pm. It will be on the church’s Facebook page. During that time I will be answering questions. If you have any questions throughout this sermon please email them to me email@example.com. I will keep them anonymous. I will go through the questions I receive the best I can and you can ask live questions in the chat. Even if you don’t have questions, join us!
I will also be loading up my manuscript with extra resources. Lectures about the history of homosexuality, websites with more Biblical support than I have time to give today, and news information about a documentary coming out later this year about the RSV translation. There will be tons of ways for you to continue learning on this topic. The Spirit is talking to US about this issue so let’s listen and take action.
The section of scripture I just read to you is a great place for us to begin listening. It’s an incredible story about Peter, the rock of the church, learning who the gospel is meant for and who God calls worthy. This is a story about God calling us to be in community with those who other Christians would turn their backs on. This is a story of radical reformation and stunning inclusion.
In this story Peter takes a moment to meet with God in prayer. During this time he gets hungry and God sends down a picnic blanket of animals for Peter to eat. Peter is shocked to see animals the Torah forbids to be eaten, unclean animals. He refuses the heavenly meal three times. Every time he refuses, God says, “How dare you call what I have made clean, profane.” These things are God given and yet Peter cannot break free from the theology and rules he has learned from other people. Peter’s stubbornness wins out and the picnic blanket is taken back up to heaven.
Peter is then interrupted and told someone is looking for him. As he gets up to go see who it is, the Spirit stops Peter and urges him to hold off judgment. She says, “No matter who this is, I want you to at least go and hear them out.” Peter agrees to do this and immediately regrets it because the people looking for him are “unclean;” they are Gentiles. They are outside of God’s salvation; they aren’t God’s chosen people, but the Spirit’s words ring in Peter’s head and he agrees to go see why he is being summoned.
When he arrives at the Gentile’s house it gets worse. A whole crowd of Gentiles have gathered and they beg him to tell them about Jesus. The picnic from God finally clicks for Peter. Do not call profane that which God has made clean.
Peter thought he knew the mind of God. He thought he had interpreted scripture correctly to exclude Gentiles. There are scriptures that speak about excluding foreigners, so Peter’s theology is not an ignorant one. What Peter’s theology does is neglect to include the wholeness of God’s word. He forgets that in the first chapter God creates all of humanity and says it is very good. Not just good, which is what everything else in creation is called, humanity is very good.
So if God says humanity is very good, it would also track that humanity would be put into the clean category and not seen as profane by God. To God, humanity is very good, clean, and to prove even further which category humanity is a part of we get a special gift, the image of God is given to all of humanity, not just some, all of us.
The image of God is expressed through our unique identities. God has many interests and each one of us expresses a different part of God’s image. God is not bound by gender so we express the vastness of God’s gender in our own individual identities. God is extrovert, introvert, ambivert, all in one, but we express God’s image in one of those ways.
I express this part of God’s image in my identity as an extrovert. This past year has made it painfully obvious how much my health depends on my ability to be among other people. I tried to change this part of my identity. I tried to revel in the solitude: to read more, to call more people. I even tried taking walks in parks where I knew I would at least see another human, but nothing I did made me feel like I do when I am with other people. I cannot change my identity no matter how much I want to because it is wrapped up with God’s image in me. I am made to express this part of God to others.
If being an extrovert became unacceptable in our culture, the pain I went through last year would become my life. Sure, I could cover it up. I could claim to be an ex-extrovert. But when we suppress a part of our identity it makes us rot from the inside out. When we deny the image of God to shine through us it festers as shame and guilt.
This is because we are calling something profane which God has created clean. Humanity is created very good with God’s image printed on our identity. Sexuality is a part of our identity. Part of the gift God gives us when we become image bearers. Doubt me? Spend the next week trying to not love who you love, not being attracted to who you are attracted to. No, don’t do that, it is painful and futile. We cannot change our God given identities because they are the image of God we have been entrusted to carry, and our God given identity is very good. Our identity is something God has made clean.
Peter’s understanding was wrong. By offering Peter animals that would be classified as unclean, God wanted Peter to see there is nothing inherently profane about what God has created or gifted to him. And when God sends Peter to the Gentiles, God makes Peter put this into practice. Peter gets it right this time, including the people who everyone else had declared profane because God had shown Peter they are created, and very good, and clean too.
For the past 75 years we have been falling into the same hole Peter was stuck in. Peter could only see the verses about excluding Gentiles until God reminded him about the rest of scripture. Christians have been ignoring stories like Peter’s revelation about inclusion to instead focus on other verses that have all been influenced by a bad translation of ONE verse.
The mistranslation happened to 1 Corinthians 6:9. In that verse there are two words that appear next to one another, but were combined by the RSV translators to make it say homosexual. The two words are malakoi and arsenokoite (Are-seno-koi-tie). Malakoi literally means soft and is widely used in reference to self-control and cowardice. Arsenokoitai means…….well we have no idea. This is a word Paul makes up. It is not found in any other Greek writing ever, nor does Paul ever use it again to clarify what he meant. He derived the word we think from two words, arsen, meaning “male,” and koites, meaning “bed.” Paul pulls these two words from Leviticus where it talks about a male not laying in a bed with another male, but what we see in Leviticus is a power imbalance. The words translated into “male” are not the same word. The first time it is a word meaning an adult man and the second word means boy. So the best translation of Leviticus, the scripture Paul is referencing is, “A man shall not sleep with a boy.”
I hope we can all agree that pedophilia is very different than two adult homosexual men in a loving, mutual consentual relationship. The writer of Leviticus knew the difference because he clearly chooses the words man and boy to explain the abomination. And no one knows what was going on with Paul when he made up this new word.
But when English translators sit down to translate they have to make choices that make sense. In 1946, the translators thought the word that made the most sense was homosexual.
This chouce could have been influenced by an implicit bias slipping into their work, but the more realistic reason is that they wanted to make their fear and prejudice against homosexual people something God agreed with too. Anne Lamott has said, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Shortly after the RSV translation was published a seminary student wrote a letter to the translators saying that their word choice in 1 Corinthians 6:9 could be used by “misinformed and misguided people to be a sacred weapon.” That student received a letter back saying, “There may be something to what you say,” and then the exchange was filed away.
It breaks my heart every time I think about this. That a group of people who claimed to love the Bible so much they wanted to retranslate it would knowingly allow their translation to continue to be published with a mistake. Their pride or their agenda against the LGBTQ community outweighed their faithfulness to God. They ignored the urgings of the Spirit in the letter from the seminarian and stuck with the claim that homosexuals were profane, which in reality was something God had created clean.
This is one verse, one word in one verse, but because we are supposed to use scripture to interpret scripture this one mistake impacts our understanding of other verses. Since 1946 anywhere from 6-12 other verses have been used to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality. I do not have time to unpack them all, I will do that tomorrow night on Facebook live. But I will say they all fall under one of these categories. They are either mistranslated, not meant to apply to us anymore since Jesus’ sacrifice, or talking about very specific circumstances. I will also say NONE of them talk about loving, mutual consensual relationships between adults of the same sex.
There is a wrong assumption out there that people who argue for LGBTQ inclusion are twisting scripture to make the gospel appease our culture, when in reality we are the ones who have truly wrestled with these words. We love scripture and know its power to change lives.. When we see a disconnect between stories like Peter’s revelation about what is clean and what is profane and 1 Corinthians, we ask questions of the Spirit.
Those questions have caused a whole generation of Biblical scholars to dig and pull on strings and argue and reveal the truth. The ones who sought to appease the culture were the ones who literally twisted a word in scripture to create a legacy of terror for LGBTQ people. One word has caused parents to turn their children out on the streets, caused people to die by suicide, and turned scores of people away from a church pew.
The damage it has done is immeasurable. And it has only been 75 years. Which means we can turn this around. For the majority of the existence of Christianity this has not been our way. This theology is fresh and new and can be thrown out just as quickly as it has infested our churches. And that is what we will do.
We no longer will allow our sacred scripture to be used as a weapon of terror. We will educate ourselves. We will root out the toxic theology that lives inside us. We will not pass this on to our children and it dies with us. This toxic theology and all beliefs that do not produce the fruits of the Spirit need to be removed so the Church can get back to producing more good fruits. We will stop calling profane that which God has created clean.
Lord, in your mercy, help us make it so. (Resources below)
Video: The Bible: A queer positive book | Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo | TEDxToronto
Video: Kathy Baldock: Untangling the Mess - The Reformation Project in Los Angeles
Article: Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion from the Reformation Project
Article: Has 'Homosexual' Always Been in the Bible?
Website: Documentary (not yet released) 1946: THE MISTRANSLATION THAT SHIFTED CULTURE
Website: More Light Presbyterians’ Resources (Books, Bible Studies, and more)
Website: Queer Theology (Books, Bible Studies, Message Boards, Online Groups, and more)