Thursday, April 2, 2015

Risking Everything

24 "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
Called to Division??

                This summer, I attended the 221st meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Presbyterians from all over the world gathered in Detroit for eight days to do the business of the church.  We had, as I’m sure you can guess, committee meetings.  We had worship and communion.  We had fellowship.  We came together, from near and far, to try to discern the will of God for the PC(USA).  And, at the end of our time together, whether we were happy about the results or not, we worshiped again. 
                I arrived home about 10:00 that Saturday night, exhausted and longing for my bed and my pillow, and still reeling from the events of the week.  It’s an intense week, during which it is not unusual for meetings to go past midnight.  My job as a student assistant meant dealing with IT issues and assisting the organizers with whatever they needed, and required me to arrive early and stay late, so most days were upwards of 16 hours. 
                There were many tears that week.  Some of them were admittedly my own, but most of them came from supporters on all sides of issues.  There were tears of joy, tears of grief, tears of exhaustion and tears of gratitude.  Even though this is the “business” of the church, I want to be clear that it is deeply spiritual work, and faithful Christians from across the ideological spectrum often break into song and prayer together.  They reach out to one another, grieved by their separation, but firm in the belief that they are proclaiming the Gospel to the best of their abilities.
                I cannot tell you who is on the right side of God in our debates.  I can tell you who I believe is on the right side, but I’m not sure that would be helpful.  Because these are good, faithful people working their tails off to the glory of God, and that is to be celebrated.  AND, in the end, no matter how “right” we are, we all fall short, and that is what we must remember when we begin to talk about those “other” people as “wrong.”
                In our text for today, Jesus has just finished talking to his followers about discipleship. Then he tells them this: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
                Honestly, I struggle with this text.  I’ve looked at it over and over, read commentary after commentary, prayed, written, done all the things a preacher is supposed to do while writing a sermon.  But this one phrase is so entirely contrary to everything I have ever been told about Jesus.  After all, Jesus is the one who brought us a new commandment.  In John 13:34 Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  It doesn’t even sound like the same Jesus. 
                Perhaps some context will help…
                The book of Matthew is written to a group of Jewish Christians.  So, let’s stop and think about what that means.  The Gospels are often read to portray the Pharisees as the “bad guys.”  They weren’t really bad guys, they were Jews practicing strict adherence to Torah, the law that God gave to the Jews.  They were genuine religious people engaging in genuine religious practice.  And Jesus himself wasn’t trying to portray the Pharisees as “the bad guys,” but his ministry often violated their interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees were charged with upholding this Law that had guided their religious practice and relationship with God for centuries. Yet clearly, Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Law could appear to be complete disregard for that Law, and as such posed a significant threat to their approach.
                So the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community still practiced Jewish traditions and considered themselves Jews…and they were, ethnically, nationally, geographically; everything about them said Jew…but they were also followers of Jesus.  That meant they didn’t adhere to the same law they once did.  They were following Christ at the risk of everything.
                And what does Jesus tell them?  He says, “Don’t worry; this is how it’s supposed to be.  I’m not here to make your life easy.”  Gee, thanks, Jesus, that was super inspiring.
                These Jewish Christians are, once again, wandering in the desert.  They are in exile.  They have become the scourge of society, meeting in secret in order to preserve their lives and, especially, the lives of their families.
                But Jesus tells them not to do that.  Because being a disciple means being willing to give up even their families.
                They were following Christ at the risk of everything.
                And that, I believe, is what the PC(USA) is doing today.  We may not be meeting in secret (it definitely was NOT a secret that two thousand of us were in town) and we may not be fearing for our lives simply for being Christian, but our family is breaking apart because of our will to be followers of Christ Jesus.
                Four years ago, at the General Assembly in Minneapolis, we removed the restriction which denied ordination to our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers.  The issue of homosexual ordination has been a divisive one from the beginning, and has spawned a new Presbyterian denomination…the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians…or ECO.  That one change to our polity literally split the church. 
                But friends, I believe it is too simple to view the ECO and other Presbyterians with whom we disagree as ‘Pharisees,’ or even to claim that either side is wrong. Though painful and deeply sad, our disagreements are not entirely destructive.  We are all doing discipleship.  We are following Christ at the risk of everything, even the destruction of our church family.  It gives me hope, and great joy, to know that our love of Christ is greater than our love of anything else.  So much so, that in order to be faithful followers, we are finding ourselves divided.
                There will, undoubtedly, be more churches and individuals leaving this year.  The issues that divided us ranged from clergy being allowed to marry same-sex couples, to divestment from fossil fuel companies and companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to our official position on drones, guns and the death penalty.  These are hot topics, and we considered them all.  Faithfully, prayerfully…we considered them.  Votes were cast, tears were shed, cheers were heard, songs were sung, hugs were given and received, communion was taken. 
                And now here we are, standing on the edge of a new reality, one which sees the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the ECO Presbyterians, one where we must take seriously what is written in our own Foundations of Presbyterian Polity: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” 
                We are divided as followers of Christ.
                This, my friends, is kingdom seeking.  Let us be determined to discern the will of God, God alone, and “let the chips fall where they may.”[1]  If we find ourselves divided as a people, let it be because we are following the Christ we confess as Lord.  Because “the demands of the prince of true peace may very well feel like a sword cutting through lesser loyalties and making quick work of our flabby, commonsense morality.”[2] 
                You see, Jesus knew, when he instructed his disciples, that the work he was preparing them for would be treacherous.  Discipleship is costly.  He deliberately used violent imagery, to prepare his followers for what was to come.  So we cannot say that we didn’t know, because we did.  We were told that we would be risking everything if we were to be followers of Christ.  And yet, here we are, risking everything.
                I’m sorry to tell you this, but Jesus’ values are not family values.  Jesus’ values are kingdom values.[3]  It’s hard for us to comprehend what that means, because his teaching has become so commonplace for us.  But it was totally radical.  There’s a reason the authorities wanted him dead. 
                I want badly for our church family to be in unity with one another, but more than that, I want to follow Jesus.  I want to be a disciple.  I want to be radical.  I fail most of the time. 
                I’m human.  I fail at kingdom seeking.  That’s not to say that we should be seeking out hardship or things that will cause us to be divided, no.  In fact, Jesus tells us only to pick up his cross, not to create our own.  What we should be doing, though, if following what God is calling us to do, rather than doing what makes us most comfortable.  For example: My fiancĂ©e, Matt, and I would really like to go west when we get married and graduate.  We want to be close to my sister, who just had our first nephew, Moses.  Our great desire is to be near our family, to do ministry where we can be comfortable and where our kids can all grow up together.  We know it won’t be easy, but it’ll be better if we’re close to family.  If we’re comfortable…
                How’s that for risking everything?  For kingdom seeking??  I told you most days I fail. 
                I overheard a similar story at General Assembly.  A woman prayed for God to send her west so she could be with her family.  As she put it, “God heard “west” and sent her to West Jersey.”  This terrifies me.  Aside from simply not wanting to live in New Jersey, I hate the thought of being so far from my family.  I hate the thought of my kids not growing up around their cousins.  Julie, my sister, sat down next to one of our cousins at a family gathering a few years ago and he said, “Who are you?”  I don’t want that for my family.  Unfortunately for me, Jesus’ values are not family values and at some point I will have to realize that our dreams of waking up to a Pacific view may not be where God sends us. 
                All this for a Church whose savior brings a sword of division?  All this for a church that may ultimately perish?
                The Gospel shakes up values.  The Gospel rearranges priorities.  The Gospel reorients goals.[4]
                But I trust that when Jesus tells me not to fear, I shouldn’t.  Okay, I mostly trust that.  It’s what he says though.  Three times in this passage, Jesus says “Do not be afraid.”  He promises that, despite the hardships of discipleship, God goes with us. 
                So I implore you to pray, to discern the will of God.  And at the risk of everything, follow.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Monday, August 5, 2013

I'm a Pain-in-the-Butt Passenger

This was written on Saturday as I waited for my flight from D.C. to Atlanta.  I'm just now posting because a) there was no wi-fi there and b) I'm lazy.  Enjoy!

I’ve learned two things about traveling from my family.

1     1)      From my parents: NEVER say the word “bomb” in an airport.
2     2)      From my sister: ALWAYS pick an aisle seat.

Okay, I’ve learned a lot of other things about traveling from my family, but these two are particularly important today.  Don’t worry, Dad, I didn’t say “bomb,” but I may as well have…and NO ONE CARED.
Let me back up just a bit.

I left Cape Town last night at 11:20 PM Africa time (I’m not sure of the name of the time zone, but I know it’s not Eastern).  Africa time (by my estimation, all of Africa, but I’m sure Kate will correct me) is six hours ahead of real time.  Don’t ask me how that works, but it does.  I arrived at the airport a solid three hours before my flight, and that three hours counts in my travel time, so as of this writing I’m at 27 hours of traveling, and 40 hours of wakefulness.  I still have at least four more hours of travel ahead of me, so as you can probably guess, I’m a bit delirious.  This post promises to be either awesome or awful…or both.
In the CPT airport, I hassled the lady at the check-in counter about checking all three of my bags (I went with three, I left with five).  She wanted me to check all of them, I wanted to only check two and then check the third at the gate.  We argued for a good 37 seconds (it was brutal) until she informed me that I got two checked bags for free.  Wait, what!?!?!?!  That wasn’t in the brochure!!  I smiled politely, paid her my R760 (760 Rand = $76) and bounced away, cheerful as ever. 

At this point, I was sweatier than a fat guy in a fat suit.  Seriously, I hadn’t even done anything yet and I was already regretting my choice of “plane clothes.”  But, with no other option, I flung my puffy jacket over my shoulder and headed for security. 

In a rare moment of forethought, I had the presence of mind to pack deodorant, face cloths, toothbrush, toothpaste and medicine in my carry-on.  Now, it should be mentioned that I almost always have one of my carry-on bags flagged for a search.  Leaving Atlanta back in May, it was for a jar of Nutella (I’m still a little sore about that).  But I am nothing if not cooperative with security and I told the nice TSA guy to “go for it.”  He pulled out my deodorant and stared at it for a few minutes.  One the inside I’m thinking, “Please God, don’t let him take my deodorant away.”  On the outside I smiled politely and said it really wasn’t a big deal if he wanted to toss it, and that I understand how this stuff works.  I’m sweating on the inside AND the outside now, desperately hoping he won’t throw out the precious commodity which I was only just beginning to grasp the value of.

He let me keep my deodorant.

Once on the plane, I settled into my aisle seat and informed the mother and son sitting with me that I likely wouldn’t sleep so not to worry about needing to get out.  The mother, Carol, looked at me like I was crazy, sure that an eleven hour flight which departed at 11:20 PM would warrant sleep from even the pickiest sleeper.  It did not.  I even took a sleeping pill.  Nothing.  So, I was grateful for my aisle seat because I got up, I’m sure, about two dozen times.  At one point, in a desperate attempt to sleep, I took my pillow and my neck pillow and discreetly found myself a spot on the floor outside the bathrooms.  I mean, no one is using it, except those greedy, greedy guys in the front of coach…as if their feet need more room than mine.  Anyway, like I said, I did it discreetly.  First I stood as if I were waiting for the restroom.  Then I sat, as if the wait was WAY too long (there was one person in line, and I sat down after about fifteen seconds).  Then I said screw it and just sprawled out on the floor.  Unfortunately, I knew it was against the rules, and my scoff-law ways were likely to get me thrown out the emergency exit I was so fitfully attempting to sleep in font of.  I didn’t sleep for fear of missing it when they started opening the emergency exit.  When I felt the tap on my shoulder, I didn’t even wait for an explanation; I just gathered my pathetic pillows and headed back to my seat.  The flight attendant gave me sad eyes and apologized, which I thought was sweet.  I spent the rest of the flight with my legs flung over the side of my seat, not caring that I was obstructing the cart path.  A cart hit me in the foot and then I cared a lot.

I had been feeling kind of sick leading up to my departure and had drowned myself in Vitamin C.  The plane, however, gave me a serious case of the icks.  I haven’t enjoyed anything I’ve eaten for two days now (which, admittedly, could just be the airplane food) and I’ve been coughing a lot.  So as the plane was landing, one flight attendant asked me how I was feeling.  Seriously, kudos to the KLM flight attendants.  They’ve been wonderful start to finish. 

I got off the plane in Amsterdam and, with two hours before my flight for D.C. was scheduled to leave, I began to meander in that direction.  I slowly made my way from D7 to E17, pausing at coffee shops along the way to peruse their hot tea selections.  I didn’t ever get any, thinking I would get some closer to my gate, that I was really hot and may not actually want hot tea, but my throat was killing me and I definitely needed it, but did I really want to pay with a credit card for a cup of tea because I have no Euros???  It was a serious conundrum.  I got to E17 and, spidey senses tingling, quickly noticed that something wasn’t right.  I looked at the board and it said nothing about D.C. in the next hour.  I asked a gate attendant, who told me I needed to go back to D57.  It was a long enough walk between D7 and E17, but then I had to go back to D7 and then past it?!  Hearing my complaints about my heavy bags, she offered me a cart.  Why had I not thought of this?!?!?!  It made the trek back to D57 much more bearable, and faster.  And that was when I decided, again, screw it.  I stopped at Starbucks.  It was at D50, and I knew I had a few minutes before I absolutely had to be at the gate (I was wading into dangerous territory here because I’m kind of neurotic about being at the gate at least an hour before departure…thanks Dad).  I stopped at the remarkably slow Starbucks and ordered a grande iced chai latte (OMG THANK YOU JESUS FOR ICED CHAI LATTES) and a giant bottle of water.  The barista asked me my name, as they’re wont to do at Starbucks and when I said, “Bethany,” she head, “Becca.”  She asked me, “Becca?”  I thought for the splittest of split seconds about correcting her, and then I realized the opportunity the aforementioned Jesus was giving me for comedy gold.  I let her think it was Becca and watched with self-satisfying amusement as she wrote it on my cup.  Then I took a picture, which proves that it’s not just an American Starbucks thing.  Score.

At this point, however, it’s way past time to get to my gate and I’m hauling, sucking down my glorious iced chai latte.  As soon as I stumble off the moving sidewalk (I seriously suck at those things), I see a line forming before the gate sign.  Not ever having seen this before, I just figure the crowds obviously know best and I should fall in line.  So I did.  It was the right decision.  That’s always an iffy thing with me, because I’m more likely to blindly follow everyone else than go ask.  Sometimes it goes my way, sometimes it doesn’t.  This time, in a foreign country, it went my way.  Thanks again, JC.

I’m waiting in line and I notice something peculiar.  I did not notice it at the SEVENTY-THREE gates I passed (TWICE), but in Amsterdam, each gate has its own individual security check-point.  This did not bode well for my giant bottle of water I had just purchased for $5 at the amusing Starbucks.  I certainly couldn’t chug it, mostly because I don’t chug, but also because by the time I noticed, it was too late.  I hoped they wouldn’t notice…because that always works.  They noticed, and took it.  I weighed my options.  I could either give my best “you just kicked my puppy and I’m both mad and sad about it” eyes, or I could understand that TSA doesn’t give a crap about my puppy.  So they took my water and I sulked in a corner for a little while…sure I was going to die from dehydration before my plane for America took off. 
How much would that suck??  I made it this far, and then I die before getting to America because of the TSA which I have the utmost respect for…  I guess that will teach me to have respect for the people working tirelessly and thanklessly (seriously people, they have a terrible job) for the security of us all.  Never again, I tell you.

Once I was through security, I sat by the window looking out at the plane.  Now, I’ve seen planes.  I’ve seen a lot of them.  It’s like that time I was talking to boyfriend about going to a Braves game and he asked if I wanted to go early to see batting practice.  It was very sweet, but oh my goodness have I seen batting practice…  So I’ve got my back to the window.  The gate attendant comes on the P.A. system and says we’re delayed because they’re replacing the front tires.  I look up just in time to see every head in the joint turn and look (some in utter dread).  I can’t help but laugh because, come on, tires need replacing.  But people literally watch the whole process.  Some even take pictures of it happening. 

Okay, I took a picture.

Once we got on the flight, I once again thanked my sister and her neurosis that led to my neurosis about aisle seats.  My seatmate said not one word to me the entire trip.  As we were getting ready to land, I looked over at his claims form and saw that his home country is Kenya.  My guess is that his Swahili is much better than his English.  He also slept most of the way, and covered his face with a blanket.  I wanted to take a picture of that, but decided that would probably be a very ugly thing to do.  I don’t want to be ugly.  I’m very self-conscious (give me compliments).

We landed in D.C. and the only reason I didn’t kiss the ground is because I haven’t actually been outside yet.  Despite the fact that I’m on American soil, I still have yet to see any soil.  Georgia red clay, here I come!!

I breezed through passport control and customs (and by “breezed” I mean trudged through like cows being herded in an hour long process which I am thankful didn’t take any longer).  With all five of my bags precariously perched on a cart much smaller than I needed, I headed to the Delta counter to re-check them for the final leg of my flight.  Walking up, I noticed a bag just sitting there.  That’s not the kind of thing that is generally considered okay in an airport, and I must admit, I was nervous.  It’s the first time I’ve ever been nervous in an airport.  I mentioned it to the check-in agent by asking, “Does this bag belong to someone?”  She responded, “That would be the assumption.”  I still kind of want to report her to the Delta gods or whomever handles that kind of thing.  Whether or not she knew the bag was there, and whether or not she knew who it belonged to, the appropriate response to my genuinely concerned inquiry about airport safety is NOT, “That would be the assumption.”  I let it go, though, because, again, fatigue.  I told her my bags had already been tagged and paid for, all they needed to do was put them on the plane.  She called a guy over, telling him I had three bags.  I pulled them off my cart and put them on the scales.  He pulled them off the scales and put them on the conveyor belt.  Then they both looked at me expectantly, waiting for their tip.  Normally, I’m one of the best people for this because Dad and airport decorum and whatnot.  But after her response to my question and his lack of actually doing anything at all, I was less than inclined to offer them a “way to go guys.”  Dad confirmed for me that I had made the right decision. 

And now, here I sit, waiting for my flight to Atlanta.  As I made my way to the gate, I recalled a conversation I had had with my friend Patrick, the American at Bellville Presbyterian outside of Cape Town.  He asked me what my first meal back in the States would be.  Without hesitation I answered, “Chick-fil-A.”  I had to eat crow on that, however, because it was dinner time and I was hungry, and this being D.C., there wasn’t a CFA in sight.  So I settled for a day-old Turkey BLTA (avo) wrap.  It was less than stellar for my first meal back, but it gave me a good excuse to make jokes.  Unfortunately, I think I failed at the jokes.  I’m le tired.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Trayvon Martin and Desmond Tutu

This morning, I got an invitation to take Eucharist from and then meet and have coffee with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Yesterday, I learned of the verdict in the case against George Zimmerman.

These two events are inextricably linked for me.  I am so unbelievably excited to meet the Archbishop, but I am acutely aware of my status and how I have come to have this opportunity.  I'm not black.  I'm a white girl from the suburbs of Atlanta with a good education and access to funding for cool things like traveling to South Africa.

When I was in high school, some of my friends made me an honorary black girl.  Looking back, I'm pretty sure that's a terribly offensive thing and that it highlights the differences between us simply for the color of our skin.  My parents taught me that we are all created equally, and when I brought home black friends, they treated them like people.  I don't say "they treated them the same as they treated my white friends" because it again makes a distinction between the races that I simply don't believe is there.

My dad told me one time that he was concerned about my lack of patriotism.  I can't remember the context of the conversation, but this stuck with me as a particularly egregious thing to say (sorry, Dad) coming from a fellow historian.  I remembered them teaching me that we are all equal, and I cannot look at the founding of our country as a positive then when it meant the destruction and death of a people who were already here.

Then, another time, he asked me why it was that I never had a problem with gay people, when he and Mom struggled with it for years (sorry to rip on you Dad, but you've taught me many valuable life lessons).  I reminded him of what they taught me, that we are all created equal.  It is at the core of who I am, and apparently always has been.

So then, in the course of 24 hours, I was outraged at something as terrifying as the upholding of a law that is basically legislating and legalizing lynchings, and then was invited to have an audience with the man who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his fight for the equality of all people in South Africa.  It's like being kicked in the face and then being reminded that peace, love and justice do ultimately prevail.

I'm praying for my home right now.  I often forget to pray for my country, because somewhere in my belief that we are all created equal, I have a hatred of certain people and groups who don't believe the same things I do.  I sometimes think we are beyond help.  I'm reminded today that isn't true.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Whales are Stupid

I went to Hermanus yesterday.  Guess what's in Hermanus...

WHALES!!!!!!  We went to see whales.  

I saw no whales.

As I'm standing on the cliff, waiting to see a whale, I turn to one of my people and say, "Where are the whales?  Why aren't they entertaining me?"  She laughed.  I still can't figure out why.  I was totally serious.

So, I guess technically whales aren't stupid (I mean, they're no dolphin, but still), and I may have expected more out of them than they were able to give yesterday, but how many chances am I going to get to see whales in South Africa?  My  This was my only chance.  

I should maybe pretend I did see them.  Though my imagination really isn't all that great.

But because I didn't see any whales, here's a picture of something I did see.

Okay, I didn't really see a tiger.  But I had to do something to make you laugh.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Sermon: The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 9:51-62
A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
Would-Be Followers of Jesus
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Prayer: Oh Lord, uphold me, that I may uplift thee.  Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

                There’s nowhere in scripture where God calls us to be comfortable.  In fact, in this passage, Jesus reprimands would-be disciples for attempting to follow him and go about their daily lives at the same time.  It’s not that he doesn’t want them to honor their families, but it’s a demonstration of what it truly means to be a disciple.  Jesus is on his way to the cross, and he is moving with a quickness.  It won’t be an easy journey, nor an easy thing for disciples to witness.  And it is after Jesus’ death when the real work will begin.  It is when the disciples, without the physical embodiment of God standing next to them, must strike out on their own and continue his ministry.  These are heavy responsibilities, ones which will lead to the deaths of many of them.  Stephen is stoned to death.  Peter is crucified upside down.  James was beheaded.
                The Good News has often been referred to as the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And the scandal of particularity forces us to pay attention to the details of Jesus’ life and ministry, rather than focusing all our attention of his birth and death.  It is in these details that we find the model for our own lives, and the model that the first disciples were being asked to follow.  Jesus didn’t come to reign on high as a ruler of all the lands, which was what was expected of the Messiah.  He came as an ordinary man, one who spent his time with sinners and unclean people.  The things he did flew in the face of authority because he was not in line with their expectations. 
                When they choose to follow Jesus, to be his faithful disciples, they know it will be an arduous task.  Jesus doesn’t mince words with them, particularly in this passage, when he tells them it’s going to be hard.  He says they’ll have to leave their families without saying goodbye and that there will be nowhere to sleep.  Doesn’t sound like a terribly enticing offer.  But Jesus, knowing what lies in store, is simply giving them a taste.
                When we choose to follow Jesus, we have to understand the complexity of the relationship between us and him.  Yes, it was a wonderfully loving relationship, one with the promise of salvation and eternal life in the kingdom of God.  But it is so easy to get sucked into that side of it and forget the rest.  We are called to imitate Jesus.  And Jesus emptied his whole self so that we may have that eternal life. 
                Empty your whole self.  It’s a strange phrase, but it carries a ton of weight.  It means we, as disciples of Christ, are to be living examples of the beloved savior.  We don’t just go to serve at the soup kitchen.  We eat with the men and women who come.  We learn their stories.  We develop relationships with them.  We speak of them with kindness, love and respect.  We open our lives to them, and discover commonalities.  We open our homes and our hearts. 
                I will admit I’m terrible at this.  I would much rather hang out with the youth and young adults, teaching them, preparing them, equipping them to be disciples, and let them go out and do the actual serving.  And there is certain value in knowing what you’re specific vocational calling is, but the danger is that we will hide behind whatever that is.  I've been doing it for years. 
                The church that I attend is in downtown Atlanta.  We have a night shelter for men during the winter months and an outreach center which serves the homeless population of Atlanta.  Next door is the Catholic church which has a soup kitchen.  A block over is the Methodist church which serves breakfast every day.  Homeless men, women and children congregate on the sidewalks of these three churches in order to obtain services.  And directly across the street from my church is the state capitol building.  We call it the corner of power and powerlessness.
                It is not unusual, as is often the case here as well, that we will step OVER someone sleeping on the ground in order to get into church.  As I was on my way inside to a session meeting one night, I was joined by a friend, and as we walked up the steps, a man sitting in a corner caught my eye.  He called out and we both stopped.  He began to plead with us, saying over and over again how tired he was.  At one point, in between tired complaints, he said he needed food.  As a habit, I almost always have a granola bar on me, and so I pulled it out and gave it to him, hoping it would be sufficient and we could go.  But he kept talking and I was suddenly compelled to listen.  I never actually said a word to the man, I just sat on the ground and held his hand as he tried to make sentences through his tears.  My friend kneeled down, asked his name, and asked if we could pray with him.  He nodded, and she began to pray for this man, Rodrick.  It was deeply moving, and yet, in order to get to our meeting on time, we had to leave him there.  As we walked away, he called out to us, “You don’t know who you just talked to.”
                It haunts me, though for different reasons now than it did then.  As I walked away, and after hearing his parting words, I felt like I had accomplished something.  I had just held the hand of Jesus.  I patted myself on the back and went off to play with Robert’s Rules of Order.  All in a day’s work.  But now, reflecting back, I wonder what that cost me.  A granola bar?  A few minutes of my time?  Or will it haunt me forever, because I really didn't do anything?
                I don’t know what became of Rodrick.  I probably never will.  And that’s likely why the experience has changed from one of self-congratulation to self-flagellation.  I could have stayed and talked to him.  I could have invited him inside to have dinner with the rest of us.  I could have called my best friend who places people in night shelters and found him a place to stay.  But I didn't do any of those things.  Because my meeting was more important. 
                In this passage, Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  Rodrick had no place to lay his head that night, or any night.  I may not have encountered Jesus himself, but Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)  It may not have been Jesus, but it was certainly a member of his family, and all I had to give was a granola bar.
                As South Africa, indeed the world, has been preparing to say goodbye to a leader in the anti-apartheid movement, I have spent the week reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s life and work for the emptying of himself that it was.  I am mindful of the cost of his discipleship.  His form of discipleship was expecting, and fighting for, equality for all people…a principle that fills the pages of scripture.  Because Paul, in his letter to the church in Galatia, says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Equality among the nations, equality among people of all races, equality among people of all classes.  And the cost of his discipleship?…27 years in prison.  He sacrificed.
                The cost of discipleship is high.  We won’t always find ourselves locked away in prison for 27 years, but I know that the haunting feeling I have after my encounter with Rodrick is my heart’s way of telling me, “You’re doing it wrong.”  Because, really, what would it have cost me to miss one meeting and help this guy find a place to stay for the night?  But my outlook is still wrong when I think I could have just taken him to a shelter for the night.  Because even then I’d have patted myself on the back and walked away, never to return.
                True discipleship would have been taking him into my home, giving him my bed and making him meals.  True discipleship would have been taking on the broken system that has kept him oppressed.  True discipleship would have been sacrificing my meeting, my schoolwork, my comfortable life in order to provide for him.
                God does not call us to be comfortable.
                God calls us to discipleship.
                Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve.
                And Jesus calls us to serve.
                Even if we don’t want to see it, we must look outside of ourselves and look for the suffering of others.  We must reach out and touch the hands of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick.  We must look injustice in the face and say, “No more!” 
                Jesus took the journey to Jerusalem, knowing full well what lay ahead, so that we may all have eternal life.  Jesus sacrificed for us.  For God’s people.
                We don’t know if the men in this story wound up following Jesus, because Jesus asked a lot of them.  What we do know is that the disciples, both past and present, who have been the most faithful followers are the ones who have given up everything in service of their fellow man…in service of God’s people. 

I Probably Won't Die

I have finally moved from ohmygodgetmeoutofherenow to "I probably won't die in the next three weeks."

Among other things, homesickness and culture shock finally set in about two weeks ago and I've been a bit of a basket case since then.  However, now that I'm getting toward the end, I can't believe it's going to be over so soon.  Don't get me wrong, I'm ready to get home, but I'm far less ohmygodgetmeoutofherenow.

Of the things keeping me sane, the most significant has been sermon writing.  I had one week without a sermon to write and seriously didn't know what to do with myself.  Also, the pastor was out of town last week (and this week, but I'm writing a sermon this week) so when I couldn't lose myself in researching and writing, I had no one to process all my stuff with.  And holy crap, there's a lot of stuff.  I've been fortunate, though, to have wonderful parents, a wonderful boyfriend, and wonderful friends who have let me cry on their virtual shoulders.  Trust me, last week was a hard week to know me, but my people persevered and for that I am eternally grateful.

The people here also persevered, though I was far less forthcoming with my struggles.  However, when I asked, they stepped up.  Some of the youth leaders, being the awesome people that they are, invited me to have a game night and to play frisbee (a very welcome piece of home).  Getting out into the sunshine and running and sweating made me unbelievably happy.

This past Friday, I went to Robben Island, which I still haven't fully processed.  It was a full day of information being thrown at me, and I think it may take some time for me to really understand everything I saw and learned.

Oh, and I made it up Table Mountain.  I went by myself, which I really didn't want to do, but again I was really proud of myself for driving to Cape Town all on my lonesome.  I posted a picture on the Facebook with the caption "Dreams don't come true!"  My friend Lisle was very confused by this statement, which means she hasn't been reading the blog (ahem).  I explained the dream (if you also haven't been reading, I had dreamed twice that I went home without going up the mountain) and now it's a funny joke.  Plus, it's really good to know that dreams don't come true because I've had a few doozies lately (including a lost sermon manuscript on Sunday morning...that qualifies as a nightmare, right?).

Thanks for sticking around, though I was sad not to get another "where you at?" email from my Grandaddy.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sermon: The Devil We Know

Luke 8:26-39 
Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Prayer: Oh Lord, uphold me, that I may uplift thee.  Amen.
The Devil We know        
                I grew up in a medium sized church in a medium sized town just south of Atlanta, Georgia.  It was the only Presbyterian church in town, and my parents were faithful servants of this church.  Dad was an elder, Mom was the church secretary for many years.  It was where most of our friends were.   We all sang in the various choirs.  We played hand bells.  We went to every event the church held.  When they decided to build a new building, my dad was a leader in the capital campaign and in the design and building process.  My mom started small groups at this church.  I’m not overstating it when I say it was our home away from home.
                When I was in ninth grade, all that changed.  My mother had been nominated to be an elder, and this was a church that didn’t have women as elders.  But, we Benzes are movers and shakers, and decided it was high time this church came into the 90’s.  Well, they decided we needed to take our moving and shaking somewhere else.  Now, my parents are both very pastoral people, so it wasn’t a coup.  And the church truly was a lovely place, they just weren’t quite ready for us and our feminist ideals.  So, we parted ways.  It wasn’t an easy separation, but it wasn’t unwelcome for my parents. 
                I, on the other hand, was not pleased.  I have been a feminist all my life, so I knew that women should be afforded the same opportunities as men, particularly in the church, but none of that mattered when I was being ripped away from my church that I had attended since before I could remember.  And it wasn’t my fault.  I hadn’t been a part of the conflict.  All I knew was my parents came home one day and said we were done at that church. 
                Now, I know I said last week that I’m a person that thrives on change, so you’re probably thinking this is going to be a story about how I did so well at my new church.  I wish that were the story, but it’s not.  I was still a teenager, entrenched in my own brooding adolescence, and mad as hell at my parents and my church for being so stupid.  So when we found a new church, one my parents were thrilled with, I resisted.  They, being the faithful people that they are, dove in the deep end.  Dad was on committees, Mom taught Sunday school.  I snuck out windows in order to escape the agony of not knowing anyone.  I did attend worship, but only as a conscientious objector.  This change had occurred without my consent and I was, to put it mildly, miserable.
                And that was only one level of the anger I harbored.  I had never been new anywhere in my life.  I had no idea how to integrate myself into a new community of young people.  I was a stranger in a foreign land.  And, being teenagers, we were all reluctant to make friends with one another.  I was reluctant because I simply didn’t know how and was sure they wouldn’t like me.  They were reluctant because their group was set and there was no room for new people.  So I never became a part of the youth group at this church and spent three and a half terrible years sneaking out of windows and frowning at the preacher during worship.
                The Gerasene man wouldn’t and couldn’t integrate himself into society.  His situation caused him to stay on the periphery, because he was so unstable and he never knew when his demons would become someone else’s problem.  And he certainly wasn’t welcome.  Everyone knew he was there, somewhere, but no one bothered to talk to him.  In fact, when things got particularly bad, they would bind him so he wouldn’t cause too much trouble.  He was a stranger in his own land.
                When Jesus showed up and exorcised this man’s demons, he suddenly became an acceptable member of society.  But, even with his newfound freedom, the Gerasenes still didn’t accept him.  They were afraid.  The Gerasene man begs to go with Jesus when he leaves, but is refused.  So now that he has been healed, when you might think he would become a productive, contributing member of society, he is also afraid.
                Change can be so difficult, even change for the better.  But often, I think we prefer the devil we know.  It’s clear in this story from Luke that the people are more comfortable with the possessed man to continue to be possessed.  Perhaps even the Gerasene man is more comfortable being possessed.  Everyone knows their place, and this change will cause everyone to have to reevaluate their place and their relationships.  That can be a frightening prospect. 
                I imagine that the plea of the Gerasene man to go with Jesus is kind of like sneaking out of a church window.  He is surely afraid of this new thing happening in his life.  Despite the healthy change, he no longer knows how to be a healthy person.  Asking to go with Jesus, the man who healed him, is avoiding stepping back into life and finding his place. 
                The Gerasene people are just as afraid.  In fact, they demand that Jesus leave immediately, which he does.  But the text doesn’t indicate that they are afraid of Jesus.  It says “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”  They are afraid of this intruder.  They were used to the demoniac who lived on the outskirts, occasionally causing trouble.  They knew that devil, and were comfortable letting him be.  But this guy, this healed man, was altogether foreign to them. 
                The worlds of both the Gerasene man and the Gerasene people have been disrupted, without their consent, and now they have to deal with the consequences.  They aren’t excited about it, they are actually afraid, but we know, and I hope they came to know, that it was for the betterment of all.  Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so while we can see from our vantage point that this change in their lives was positive, but we will never know how it turned out.
                I have now been a member of the new church for almost 17 years.  It has been a place of tremendous growth for me, both personally and spiritually.  I have experienced healing there.  I met some of my best friends there.  My call to ministry has been nurtured there.  And all this from the place I wanted nothing to do with when I was 14.  This was the place I asked Jesus to take me away from. 
                But while all that is true, it has been a difficult road.  Things didn’t just magically get better one day.  I suffered a lot.  I cause my parents a lot of grief.  It took a lot of time before I was able to say I wanted to go to this particular church.  And it started with one activity.  I joined the hand bell choir.  It was all I did for many years, and once I became an adult, no longer living with my parents, I only went on Sundays when the bell choir played.  I began, slowly, to be more comfortable, to develop relationships, to extend the hand of friendship to my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Eventually I found myself fully integrated into this community, and thriving.  I relished the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday mornings.  I saw all my friends, sang amazing music, listened to one great sermon after another.  It truly became my home.  It’s the kind of resolution I hope for for the Gerasenes. 
                Fear is a natural reaction to change.  But it’s how you respond to the fear that truly opens you up, or shuts you off, to all kinds of possibilities.  The Gerasenes had a real opportunity with their fear.  They could either let it cripple them, or they could embrace it. 
                Jesus tells the healed man to go and tell what God has done for him.  He is being told to go evangelize.  And if the rest of the Gerasenes are able to embrace the opportunity they have been given, they’ll go with him and proclaim the Good News as well.
                Because it’s when we accept the healthy change that we grow. 

                There will be critics.  There will be cynics.  There will be moments when you want to sneak out the window or ask Jesus to take you away.  But if you stick around, you just might find that someone is extending the hand of Christian fellowship, and if you sneak out the window, you’ll miss it.