Sunday, February 13, 2011

13 February, 2011: "Choosing Life"

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

Choosing Life

It is hard sometimes to take the words of the prophets to heart because they ask so much of us. We wonder at times whether the clear instructions for choosing life that we have been given were perhaps sent to the wrong address, and do we possibly have way out?

At the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam Gamgee is standing on the shores of Middle Earth unexpectedly saying farewell to not only the beloved wizard Gandalf, but to his life-long friend Frodo as well. These companions have done their work, supposedly the enemy has been vanquished, and they are departing for the world that awaits them. Sam and the other inhabitants of Middle Earth are on their own now, they need to sort out whatever they need to sort out without the help, the love, the guidance of these friends who have been walking with them. I wonder how Frodo and Gandalf felt as they stepped off the dock onto the boat that would carry them away. Did they wonder if Middle Earth would survive? Did they wonder if they had imparted enough wisdom for those they were leaving behind?

If you’ll excuse the analogy, the Book of Deuteronomy is perhaps the Biblical version of this scene. Moses must say good bye to the band of Israelites who have traveled with him for the equivalent of nearly three generations. Through the Exodus from Egypt, through forty years in the desert, and finally to this place above the River Jordon – overlooking the land that God has promised to them - he has shepherded them, spoken God’s words to them, held them together. But he cannot go further with them. This is his last chance to instill in them for now and all future generations all that he knows, and all that they need to know to maintain their identity, their faith, their fate as a nation and people of God. This is the last time he can communicate to them the story of both their past and their future. And in the particular passage we hear today, Moses tells his people that their literal survival in the future depends on them keeping the commandments. If they choose to follow the commandments it will mean choosing life over death.

We hear in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount echoes of these commandments, as well as an exhortation to go beyond their literal words to the spirit in which they were written. Jesus is setting before his listeners a new bar: a measure that says that the intent behind the commandments is now what is most important. Therefore, we hear that it is not enough to prohibit murder, but we must adhere to the life-giving spirit of justice and mercy beneath this commandment: that we should only do that which is love. It is not enough to say we should not commit adultery but we must not indulge in it in our hearts. It is not enough to say we cannot swear falsely, but we must now be careful what words we do use when we are sincere.

I imagine that it got quite hot for the hearers of Jesus’ sermon that day. No doubt many of them wondered if they were on the road to perdition given the number of quarrels they had at home. They were probably astounded to hear that their understanding of adultery and divorce were turned upside-down and opened many of them up to judgment. Many of them were probably questioning now even the words they spoke when they felt strongly – were they convicting them? Could they even imagine watching their speech so closely?

I’m guessing that some of them, before Jesus had gotten much past the second “You have heard that it was said…But I say unto you” would have suddenly remembered the nets that needed mending at home or the bread they left out to rise. This kind of truth telling can scatter good-hearted people like a loud noise scatters a flock of pigeons. We are told there was still a crowd at the end of his sermon two chapters later, but they must have been made of strong stuff.

I wonder how such words, such re-making of the rules that we hold dear, might sound to us today?

You have heard that it was said…
That we must be environmentally “sustainable” by carefully choosing the food we eat and spending our resources wisely but I say unto you as long as we think of Creation as something “out there,” as a commodity either to be exploited or preserved, until we think of Creation as an ongoing miraculous unfolding and the very web of our existence, until we know Creation in our bones as sacred and beloved, then we will continue to destroy it and ourselves.

You have heard that it was said…
We are not to participate in racial discrimination, but I say unto you…as long as we continue to benefit from a system that unfairly punishes those who are not white, that is biased against those who are not educated as European Americans, until we dispel the very notion of race and dismantle the way we think of our privilege as white European Americans as one we have somehow earned, then we continue to say “yes” to racial injustice and oppression in our country today.

You have heard that it was said…
We shall not discriminate against women, but I say unto you if we as women continue to accept lower pay then men for the same work, if we wake up every morning and struggle to find our self worth and we discount our contribution to this world as inadequate and inferior, if we spend one more day comparing our physical appearance to an objectified, profit-oriented, dehumanizing ideal of feminine beauty, then we are continuing the legacy of pain and suffering that sexism brings to the world and for our sake and our sisters’ sake and our daughters’ sake we need to stop.

Do we feel the heat yet? Are we uncomfortable yet? Are we thinking of something at home that suddenly needs our urgent attention?

Jesus believed that to understand the life-giving spirit beneath the rules of the time: the spirit of mercy and justice and compassion, was so important that it was almost better for us to lose a physical part of ourselves that makes us sin than to have our whole selves condemned to hell. By using hyperbole he made this sound quite gruesome. I daresay Jesus would have been horrified if someone had actually come up to him with a bloody stump for their arm having just cut off their sinful right hand. He was exaggerating to make a point. He wanted to convey how important it was to acknowledge the parts of us that continue to place us on the path of good intentions pointing directly to hell.

Many of us are put off perhaps, by the seemingly overly pious admonition not to have adulterous thoughts. Few would argue today however that adultery does not start with the act itself, but with the thought, and that if we observe ourselves having the thought we might be called to act in such a way that we avoid that well-paved road to what could hurt ourselves and those we love.

We also might have forgotten that in Jesus’ time a man could divorce his wife over something as trivial as a burnt meal, particularly I am assuming if the husband had found someone else he might fancy as his wife. Because divorced women were vulnerable to a life of social and economic hardship, Jesus was striking a blow against a system that was fundamentally unjust toward women. His statement taken as a whole made it much harder for men to frivolously divorce their wives. It was a statement that spoke out for justice and mercy.

And today we might translate this justice and mercy to our institutions of marriage and divorce by treating marriage not as a means to secure financial and legal stability for some while denying it for others, not a way to further segregate our society into those who are in and those who are out. You have heard it said, “thou shalt not commit adultery” but I say unto you, we violate the bond between us and our fellow humans whenever we bestow privilege on some and not others, when we structure the rules around marriage such that the benefits are not available for the full spectrum of what it means to be human. As far as I know there are no laws on the books today against swearing falsely or insulting our brother or sister. That we have attempted to freeze this one part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount into law is to miss the point, the point of justice and mercy.

Likewise, when we look at Jesus’ objection to the innocent act of quarreling or holding a grudge, we are called to look to the deeper meaning beneath the commandment against murder. We are called to the deeper way in which to choose life over death. You have heard it said “thou shalt not murder…” because to murder is not only to take away the life of someone who is made in the image of God but to deny the inherent dignity and worth of that human being. When we quarrel, when we hold a grudge, when we belittle even in the most hasty and innocent of ways, we act in a way that denies the dignity and worth of that human being. Though far apart, these two very different acts, to quarrel and to murder, are both ones that cannot take place if we simultaneously believe that that person is a son or daughter of God. It is impossible.

And how might we translate this to our world today? Understandably we find it hard to hold the dignity and worth of every human being in our hearts. But if we see that it is possible in the most intolerable of circumstances, we might think twice before we deny it of our irritating neighbor, our in-law, our micro-managing boss. In a book that explores the nature of forgiveness a woman writes about her journey after her seven-year old daughter was abducted from a Montana campground and murdered. She talks about the night, one year after the abduction, when she still does not know what happened to her daughter, that she talked to the murderer on the phone for the first time. He had called her in the middle of the night to taunt her. Because of her faith she had been working for an entire year on trying to see this person as someone who was also a son of God. She knew that her torment would not cease until she could find it in herself to see this person, this person she wanted to wring the neck of with her bare hands, the murderer of her daughter, first and foremost as a human being. Awakened from a sound sleep, her heart pounding with adrenaline, barely able to remember to turn on the tape recorder she remembered this: that he was a human being. His taunting ended abruptly. He broke down on the phone. They talked for an hour. He revealed enough in that conversation that the FBI was able to later find and arrest him. When the time of his sentencing came, this mother asked that his sentence be reduced from death to life in prison without parole. Only then did he confess to his crime, and that of three others. This mother wrote:

“The God [of Scripture] is a God of mercy and compassion, a God who seeks not to punish, destroy, or put us to death, but a God who works unceasingly to help and heal us, rehabilitate and reconcile us, restore us to the richness and fullness of life for which we have been created."

This, now, was the justice she sought for the one who had taken her little girl.

God has already reconciled with us. God is more interested in us reconciling ourselves with one another. We leave our gifts for God at the altar and address our grudges, our quarrels with one another first. This mother felt that she could only honor her daughter’s memory by becoming not what she deplored, “but by saying that all life is sacred and worthy of preservation.” She also knew that the only way she could get her own life back was to heal her rage and bitterness and to forgive. It is not an easy task, and never to be taken lightly. But if there is one message that we must hear if we are to survive as a species, it is this one. It is the most important calling we have as human beings on the planet.

God has given us instructions. We have heard them through Moses, through the prophets, and through one of the greatest teachers of all time, Jesus of Nazareth. Will we, can we, take these instructions into our hearts? Can we, as children of God, remember them? Can we choose life?


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rich in Tucson

Greetings from Tucson. I am talking with representatives from churches that have started or are thinking about starting a volunteer community of young adults at their church. It is a good group to be with and I am learning about how we might join in this brand new national effort. I look forward to talking with you more about this in the coming weeks.

It is nice to see the sun but I'd rather be surrounded by wet spruce than dry cactus.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Nickelsvilles Pancakes Breakfast Fundraiser

Nickelsvilles Pancakes Breakfast Fundraiser

The Nickelsville Pancake Breakfast fund raiser is this Saturday,

February 5th at Keystone Congregational Church, 5019 Keystone Place

North, that's 51st and Keystone in Wallingford. Come join us for

delicious pancakes and coffee from 8am to 11am. Any and all donations

will be appreciated. We look forward to seeing everybody on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Christianity: Is It What You Thought?

Don't Forget!! The next three Thursday evenings...Everything you ever wanted to know about what Christianity says about Wealth, Forgiveness, and Non-violence! Explore the myths and countermyths around Christianity's teaching on these important and timely topics.

Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8:30pm
20 January – 17 February, 2011

This series will provide an opportunity to challenge what we think Christianity says about Creation (& Science), Wealth, Women, Forgiveness and War/Nonviolence in a series of five evenings. As a group we spend time identifying what some of historical understandings of Christianity are: the so-called “myths” that have become tools of oppression and exclusion over the centuries. Because so much of what we know about Christianity is based on the written tradition, we will look at how some of these myths originated in the Bible. We will then explore these passages in such a way as to invite a different vision, a “counter-myth,” that understands Christianity more as a faith based on radical inclusion and love.

Join us for engaging discussion, hands-on exercises, and myth-busting dialogue with the 2000 year old tradition of Christianity!

This series will be led and facilitated by Sophie Morse, Associate Pastor at Keystone United Church of Christ. 5019 Keystone Place N. Wallingford. We will be meeting in Battson Fellowship Hall (downstairs from the sanctuary).

Call 206.632.6021 or email for more information.

February "Reminder"

Reminder Newsletter
February, 2011
Keystone United Church of Christ

From Rich

As I see it the work of the church is three fold:
1. To understand and claim our identity as people who see ultimate meaning (God) in terms of self-giving (agape) love.
2. To work to move this faith into our way of thinking, and way of understanding and experiencing reality.
3. To effectively promote this way of understanding ultimate meaning in the world around us.
We mirror this work each Sunday in our worship. In worship we claim our faith, use our heads and hearts to experience and grow in this faith, and then prepare ourselves to carry this faith out into the world.
The world’s foundation is largely based on an understanding of ultimate meaning based in authority. This is what I call the “Domination System.”
More and more I am coming to understand that what we are doing at Keystone is not only sensible but essential. Worship is important. By regularly orienting ourselves in a community and sharing a value system in opposition to domination, we strengthen our ability to oppose the tidal wave of messages in the world around us which come at us in support of domination ways of thinking.
It seems that the human brain creates thought pathways. The more an idea is thought the easier it will be to think that way in the future. The more powerful the pathway the more we think in those terms even on a subconscious level. By thinking about what it means that God is love and not domination we are making such thoughts easier. By acting on those thoughts we reinforce them.
The more time and energy we invest in thinking and acting out of a foundation of agape love, the easier such thoughts and actions will be in the future. And the more we strengthen the neural pathways of agape the weaker the hold of fear and greed have over our thoughts and action.
In other words, the more we do, the more we pray, the more we study our faith and the implications of our faith on every aspect of our lives and community the stronger we become in our capacity to love.
So we have weekly worship, regular classes, and many opportunities to participate in doing the work of compassion and justice. This makes us more rooted in the power of God’s love.
So much for one and two on that list, we are now at the point to start thinking strategically about how we extend God’s love into the world. Part of this will be this will call on us to think about what resources we have, and how best to use those resources. Our task in the world is much bigger than winning a particular piece of legislation. It is about strengthening the influence of the power of God’s love on the thinking of the people around us.
Agape love is experienced in the world by actions which we call education, charity, justice and symbolic expression. All of these are important and the more our witness to the world utilizes these forms the more powerful our witness to this alternative way of experiencing existence.
All of this may seem a bit technical and probably downright boring but I think it is important that as we talk about the direction of Keystone we talk about why we do what we do.

See the Upcoming Schedule for Friday Night Meaningful Movies:

Scripture readings
6 February: Isa 58:1-9a; Matt 5:13-20
13 February: Deut 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
20 February: Lev 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
27 February: Isa 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34

Reader/usher schedule
2/6 Rich Voget/Gloria Bollens
2/13 Becky Hutton/Dorothy Richey
2/20 Kaaren Mills/Gus Wall
2/27 Jo Winston/Janet Stillman
3/6 Steve Bauck/Rita Peterson