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In my previous post, I mentioned the email conversations I’ve been having since Sunday’s sermon. Here is another I wanted to share. It comes from another friend. As you’ll see from the reflection, she is in a multi-racial relationship with an African-American man (whose name I have changed). They recently got celebrated their engagement.


At least from my limited experience of being 1/2 of an interracial couple in a state that, within our parents’ lifetimes, had miscegenation laws, a lot of what you said resonated with me. Jim is from the inner-city, from a neighborhood that with the recession became increasingly impoverished and dominated by drug trafficking and gang violence. He intentionally wears glasses most of the time when he’s in middle class white America to look intellectual and “safe” and also smiles a lot, while in the “hood” (his term, not mine) he wears contacts and scowls. His parents taught him early on how to interact with police officers. Where we live now, he’s cautious not to walk behind white women at night, especially not with a hoodie on. And the fact that he and I are together makes things more complicated. While being with Jim usually only earns me a few nasty looks and a couple of very confused pizza delivery guys, there are real risks associated for Jim. When Jim and I are together anytime, and especially after dark, it needs to be clear in every interaction that I’m there by choice and Jim isn’t hurting me.

Jim and I are hoping to have children within the first few years of marriage. When we have children, our society will never see them as white–the “one drop” rule still persists, de facto. I hope and pray that I have sons who are like Jim in the important ways. I’m scared that one day, lighter-skinned though they may be, they’ll find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. As a (future) parent, I want to prepare my children to face that possibility in a way that’s realistic and yet neither quashes their sense of the imago dei within themselves nor their hope for humanity’s fulfillment of God’s designs for it. Lucky thing I have some time to work on that. 😉

But at no moment of our relationship, from deciding to date to deciding to get married, have our races been a major factor. The challenges of being an interracial couple have always seemed secondary to what God is doing in giving us this love for each other. It’s an odd moment, I’ve found, going through this engagement process in the midst of everything happening in Ferguson and elsewhere. While my newsfeed on Facebook is full of people more informed than I am posting articles and expressing opinions about Ferguson and other instances of racialized violence, I’m busy posting engagement announcements and pictures. In a way, that’s perhaps my own internalization of the narcissism of our age, but in another way, it makes me think about our calling to live as hopeful people in this season of Advent. Yes, Ferguson is real, and ugly, and heartbreaking, and it’s part of a system of racial oppression we’re called to dismantle. But I hope and pray that in some small way, Jim and my relationship–and family–can embody the reconciliation God has already accomplished in Christ, the reconciliation that I believe is even now breaking in as the Kingdom of God comes closer at hand to us. It’s hard to see that hope right now in the world, but the love inside me tells me that it isn’t misplaced. (Or maybe that’s more narcissism.)

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This past Sunday, I touched on Ferguson as part of my sermon. More than most of my recent sermons, this topic has touched a raw nerve. Several other friends shared their own blog posts with me, which I will link here and also here.

I have also had an ongoing email correspondence with a friend who has given me permission to share his response to the sermon along with his own thoughts about Ferguson. He also happens to be something I am not, namely a young African-American man. Here it is.


At the end of the day a young man tragically lost his life a lot earlier than he should have. So regardless of the point of view, I think it’s important to try to see the world through the eyes of the marginalized, and at the end of it all return to God. I especially liked the story of Habakkuk, specifically the fact that God challenged him to change was he saw as unjust. When I read that, it made me smile.

The social implications of the Ferguson case frustrate me. I believe there is somewhat of a schism in America when it comes to the issues of race and racism. I have a feeling that many people believe that racism in America is dead and that we have finally reached the equality in America envisioned in the Constitution. In my opinion, we are far from that promise, and the Ferguson case along with the Trayvon Martin case prove that.

We, as a society, have moved on to subtle forms of racism that are a lot harder to explain, because the bigoted, overt forms of racism are no longer socially acceptable. One example is the St. Louis Rams players’ “hands up don’t shoot” gesture. On one side you have the players who believe in a cause and are standing in solidarity with the family of Mike Brown and society at large. One the other side you have the Ferguson/St. Louis PD who feel like they’ve been unduly scrutinized. The act itself was non-violent, and honestly I didn’t think it was meant to further scrutinize the Ferguson/St. Louis PD. I thought the act was meant as a show of solidarity reminiscent of the 1968 Olympic game’s “black fist” gesture.

I have done some limited reading of the evidence that was released following the decision, and one of the things that strikes me the most is Darren Wilson’s testimony, in which he refers to Mike Brown as a demon (or looking like a demon). I understand that the use of language could be deemed trivial in a case like this, but to me it is a huge point in the testimony. By equating Mike Brown to a demon, Wilson was able to rationalize and even, in a way, warrant Mike Brown’s death. His testimony, to me, reads like something out of a novel where the rampant beast needs to be put down or else the entire town will be in danger.

I’m not at all trying to argue the finer points in the case. Only Mike Brown and Darren Wilson know what actually happened. From Wilson’s testimony it does appear like he was in danger. I’m not sure if that danger warranted the use of deadly force, but he was in danger nonetheless.

The point I want to make is that time and time again with these cases a similar script is played out, in which (it seems to me), a young, black man is killed for acting exactly how America thinks we are supposed to act. We are seen as the thuggish, thieving “other” and that in itself warrants the use of deadly force. And still it seems like a majority of America does not care. I’m all for allowing the judicial system to work, but sometimes I believe it doesn’t work out to be as fair as it is intended to be. Maybe this case wasn’t the perfect avenue for catapulting the issues of race into the public spotlight, but I think it serves as a good measuring stick for where we stand in America today. If we want to even begin to heal these scars, we need to start having meaningful conversations about race and racism in America. Until we do, the divide in America will only continue to grow.

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Before we turn to our morning’s Scripture lessons, I want to take a moment of pastoral privilege. I don’t often focus on current events during worship – not because I don’t care, but rather because I don’t want to be in the habit of chasing ambulances. Our response to the world around us ought to be one of compassion, concern, and engagement. For people of faith, this engagement runs much deeper than taking a particular side on a particular issue on a particular Sunday.

That said, I think we have passed a watershed moment in our society this week with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, and I want to take this moment to speak into this space from my own perspective. I know that we have different opinions in our pews on the issue of same sex marriage. I know that many of you are pleased or even elated because of Wednesday’s ruling. I know that some of you are disappointed, even angry. I also know that we are a stronger community because we encourage a healthy diversity of perspectives. And if you hear nothing else I say today, I want to be sure you hear this: no matter your opinion, I am your pastor. And our relationship in that regard is unrelated to whether or not we agree on a particular issue.

As I have read commentaries and responses to the ruling from various church leaders, the one thing that I have seen again and again is a near-universal consensus that we are moving toward a national consensus in favor of same sex marriage. Even the most ardent opponents acknowledge that this writing is on the wall. It is my own observation that the real game changer in public opinion happened not Wednesday, but three years ago when the military repealed “don’t ask don’t tell.” The biggest gulf in opinion on this issue is not even between conservative and liberal, but between generations. For example: 51% of white evangelicals under the age of 35 support same sex marriage. That number represents a majority of those raised in churches that have been the most outspoken opponents of same sex relationships. We have passed the tipping point. The question now is: what do we do?

And here, I want to say that I recognize the fact that our worship space and service does not lend itself to two-way conversation. So after worship today, after we greet one another, I move to the Parlor in case anyone wants to continue in conversation. This is our strength as a church, our ability to talk honestly with each other, because we know that grace abounds, bridging gaps that might be impassable otherwise.

Back to the question: what now?

It must be said that just because something is popular does not mean that we as a church must go along with it. I think we have a responsibility to speak into places where our society has gone off the rails. We advocate for the most vulnerable among us, witnessing to the compassion of Christ. We speak against cultural tendencies toward excess and greed and drive, giving voice to deeper, holier purposes for life. This is one of those moments when churches will see this as just such an opportunity, to oppose the prevailing winds of culture. Speaking personally, I think resistance is a mistake, one that history will judge as a poor choice.

I choose, instead, to see this moment as an opportunity to live out the love of Jesus Christ in an imperfect world. We are, all of us, imperfect; that’s why we begin our worship service in confession. Our sexual desires are imperfect; that’s no less true for heterosexuality than homosexuality. It is because of this that we Presbyterians call marriage a covenant, not a sacrament. Ben Affleck was right (and that’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear me make that statement): Marriage is work. And because it is work, because it is imperfect, the marriage covenant is a public promise. We ask those who witness to promise their support to the couple. We pray for God’s grace, mercy, and blessings on the covenant of marriage.

By virtue of being an ordained minister, I have the authority of both church and state to play an official role in this covenant. It will not be long before I have the opportunity to do the same with same-sex couples. And it’s an opportunity I will likely take, because it gives me the opportunity to share the gospel with its promises of hope, redemption, and perfect love in the midst of imperfect relationships.

I know that many of you are already there, favoring full inclusion. You can even point to our mission statement where we describe ourselves as “an inclusive community of faith.” And I know that for many of you this is not an abstract issue of pros and cons, but one that has a face and a name…one that has to do with family members whom you know and love and support, desiring nothing more than their happiness. And yet, I know that this does not describe all of us. So whatever we do today and beyond, I trust that we will do it with the utmost grace – grace toward one another, grace toward all.

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What would Jesus’ prayer for us be?

This past summer, we spent a great deal of time looking at the Lord’s Prayer in detail. For me, the most meaningful takeaway was that we ought to pray, and pray simply. In his model prayer, Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray”, but “When…” And so the assumption is that we do pray. And for those of us that don’t, the most common barrier is being worried that our prayers aren’t interesting enough, or flowery enough in their prose. And so, when we peel away the centuries of tradition that have built up around this prayer, it is important to recognize what remains: a simple prayer with simple words. And that is all the model for prayer that we need.

When we pray to Jesus, the lesson is straightforward: keep it simple. But today, I want to flip the equation: what would Jesus’ prayer for us be? When Jesus looks at our lives, as individuals, as a church, what is it that Jesus desires for us?

I make no pretense to speak for God today. That’s a fool’s errand. And I make no attempt to address all that ails us. The best I can hope for is to glance off the world we live in by offering my own observations on this world. I do trust that the Spirit fills in the gap between preacher and congregation. And I trust that the still small voice within each of you will flesh out God’s desires for you in the here and now.

What would Jesus’ prayer for us be? Today, I want to touch on three things.

And the first is that we would see the Christ in others. In some ways, this is the lesson that probably undergirds all that we do as a church, and all that we do as people of God. Seeing the Christ in others is a call to compassion. It is a call to justice. It is a call to mercy and righteousness. We not only weep for the children of God that suffer; we not only reach out a hand to those who constantly live on the margins of our world; we also get angry for them, because the world can be such an unfair place.

When we learn that a close friend has been struck with an untreatable illness, or when we hear of innocents who have become casualties of war through no fault of their own, or when we see a political system that has become absurd in its theatrics and brinksmanship, our hearts break for those who suffer; and our anger rises against those who seem not to notice the result of their actions. If we ever lose sight of those who constantly live on the edge of our vision, may God have mercy on us. It was with such as these that Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry: lepers, prostitutes, murderers, children, widows, orphans. And for those of us here in Brookhaven, even though we may feel like it at times, we are rarely the ones the world has forgotten. Our own spirits are in danger if we live in a bubble with only those who are just like us.

At the same time, as hard as it may be to admit, we cannot lose sight of this: the faceless corporate CEOs whose chemicals unleash the cancers of the world, the soldiers whose bombs have taken lives they were never intended to take, the politicians who such easy fodder for mockery and revulsion, they, too, deserve the dignity of Christ within them. After all, we are not only commanded to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. That love may take a different form, but it is still love that is required.

Underneath all of this is the fact that we need to honor the Christ within us. Loving your neighbor as yourself requires loving yourself. And so, the first prayer: see the Christ in others.

The second prayer is that we would trust in God’s abundance. So often, we seem to live our lives as though we live in fear of scarcity when the Scriptures speak most often of God’s rampant generosity. Think of the sower who goes out, casting seeds this way and that. Some fall on good soil, most don’t. Beyond the question of what makes for good soil is the fact that God has way more seeds than there is soil to receive them. It reminds me of the image of the woman walking a worn path to the well from which she draws water daily. The pot she uses is cracked; so much so that by the time she gets home, half of the water is gone. And yet, as a result, the path itself grows with the abundance of well-watered earth. There is always more than we think.

When we launched our capital campaign this Fall, the biggest question we had was, “Can we do this?” And I was one of those asking the question. In the end, not only did our stewardship look exactly the same as the past few years, but we discovered an additional $350,000 out there – so far. Not everyone can give, I know. Each of our circumstances is different. Those of us on fixed incomes and with battered savings in a rough economy are doing what we can, I know. And at the same time, as a community, we clearly underestimated the riches of God’s blessings in our midst and how much more we had to share than we ever knew.

Where else are we living practices of scarcity? Where else do we keep our lights hidden away rather than letting them illuminate our surroundings? I have often heard it said that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is the best-kept secret in Brookhaven. Why is it a secret? Who ever told us that we shouldn’t talk about it? This isn’t Fight Club! When it comes to Jesus, is mum the word? Are we worried that more people will water down what makes this church special? If so, then we would do well to hear this prayer again: trust in God’s abundance.

And the third prayer is that we would rest in the presence of the Spirit. Or, to say it in a less churchy way, may we get some sleep.

As silly as that might sound, and as much as you might think my subtext is how much I hate springing forward, I’m actually quite serious about this. It’s my conviction that we are a sleep-deprived society, living with all of the dis-ease and disease that this deprivation brings. Whether it’s hustling between three jobs to make ends meet, or working our fingers to the bone at the one job that expects more of us than we could ever give, we are working ourselves sick. We get up too early. We stay up too late. We go on vacation, but we still answer emails and field phone calls. We are tired. We don’t think straight. And we still don’t manage to cross off everything on our “to do” list.

Make no mistake: I’m not speaking as one who has this figured out by any stretch, but rather as a fellow struggler. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we might not even realize it when it happens to us. Are we really trapped? Or are there choices we make that trap us: mixing up our priorities, confusing what we want with what we need, our inability to say “no”? And what example are we setting for our children? What are we expecting of them by giving them more to do in a day than is reasonable to expect? Their brains aren’t even fully formed yet. Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s the way God designed our bodies so that they can heal and strengthen themselves. Even Jesus slept. Right there in the boat, even when the storm was raging, Jesus slept. Friends, the storms are always raging. We can always find a fire to put out. We can always find more to do. But God created other people, too. The fate of the world is not on your shoulders.

May we see the Christ in others; may we trust in God’s abundance; and may we rest in the presence of the Spirit. What is Jesus’ prayer for you today?

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Well, friends, this is it. Friday is coming, 12/21/12; and if the Mayans are right, then this will be our last time together. So I just want to say, “So long, and thanks for all the good times.”

Why do we even know about things like this?!? Apparently, the ancient Mayan calendar was divided into eras, and the current era draws to a close this Friday. It wasn’t until the 1990s, one author/pseudo-scholar described the date as the Mayan apocalypse; and from there, it got picked up by conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements and spread into our popular culture. Mayan scholars have come forward to proclaim this whole idea as nonsense. NASA has made it clear that there are no extra-terrestial “events” afoot that might lead to some cataclysm. It’s all fatuous fantasy. And yet, almost every one of us here knows about the supposed significance of this date.

It’s clear that our 24-hour news culture is partially to blame. After all, they feel compelled to fill the airwaves with sound and fury. As much as we might like to blame “the media”, the truth is that they sell what we buy. And boy, do we buy it! Listen to the holiday blockbuster films coming out: Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, which takes place sixty years after earth has been evacuated; Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where aliens rise up from inside the earth’s crust to attack; Will Smith’s After Earth, where he and his son crash land on the planet 1000 years after it was abandoned; the next installment of Star Trek, where the Enterprise crew looks to defend an entire planet against destruction…do you see a pattern here? There seems to be a general sense of doom and unease in our world today.

Now, it’s important to note that we are not the first generation to feel as though everything is crashing down around us. Look no further than our text from Luke’s gospel. The spectacle of John the Baptist is gathering the crowds in the wilderness. And John is never one to mince words: there is a coming wrath; don’t just sit there and rest on your Abrahamic laurels; a tree that bears bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Or, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; look busy.”

Every era of humanity is convinced that we are the last. And in a sense, we may all be right, because our world seems so permanently fragile. As if we needed any reminder of our tentative ability to hold things together, this past Friday news began to trickle, then stream, in from Connecticut: another mass shooting, this one at an elementary school, where the heaviest casualties were, most cruelly, among the youngest.

It’s one of those moments in our national consciousness where we remember for years exactly where we were when we first heard. And in the 24-hour news vacuum, predictably, questions about gun control have arisen immediately. Advocates on both sides are citing the incident as evidence in their favor. I have my own strong opinions about that issue, which I will refrain from sharing this morning; but for my money, the most coherent, and frankly, theological, thought came not after this shooting, but two weeks ago.

You heard about this, I’m sure. During the broadcast of Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas spoke about the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City. Whatever you might think about the stance Costas took, or whether a football broadcast was the right place to do so, I personally think he nailed it with his first words. He talked about how the most common refrain we hear at moments like these is that tragedies put everything in perspective. Costas retorted:

…if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf-life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we supposedly again regained the next time ultimate reality intrudes…

In other words, when we bear witness to these events, even from afar, do we do anything about it? Do we strengthen our resolve to make the world a better place? Or do we chalk this up to yet another example of how broken our world is, and muddle on with life until the next chaotic moment intervenes, bringing us to church seeking some word of comfort or clarity?

Suddenly, it feels like we pulled back to the wilderness, standing with the crowds around John the Baptist, listening to his words of direct challenge. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am convinced that, in the face of violence and evil, our first act as Christians is repentance. We turn to God, searching our souls, and bearing it all before the one who creates and loves us. Then and only then, having turned and come face to face with judgment and mercy, only then can we turn back out and make sense of what comes next.

John’s audience heard his call. In response, they asked, “What should we do?” His answer was straightforward: share. If you’ve got two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you know what to do with, then pass along those blessings. To tax collectors and soldiers, his message was a little more details, but also simple: be honest. Do what you are supposed to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Share, and be honest. That may be the clearest and most thorough summary of Christian ethics I have ever heard.

But where does that leave us, here at OPC, in the wake of a school shooting 1,000 miles away? Is there anything for us to say or do that might echo of faithful repentance? Where does our obligation to share and be honest fit at this particular moment in our lives?

On Friday, at the very moment that this tragedy was unfolding in Newton, Connecticut, our Preschoolers were getting ready for their Christmas program. When their parents arrived at our sanctuary, I don’t know how many of them had already heard the news; I did not know anything about it until later that afternoon. But for half an hour, their children paraded through our sanctuary, singing songs of shepherds and donkeys and Mary and Joseph and a little baby Jesus. Their parents and grandparents were beaming and laughing and even wiping away tears of joy. It was a holy, holy moment on a day that needed more moments just like it.

You see, we may not have a close connection to an elementary school in the northeast; but we have a school right here in our own building! What are we doing, as faithful stewards of this place, to ensure that the children and their families who come here know that they are not only safe, but that they are loved to the core of their being by the God and Lord of the universe? How is it that we can embody the promise the prophet Zephaniah bore so long ago, that we shall fear disaster no more, that the lame and the outcast shall be saved, and that blessings are restored?

Friends, we often speak of the important role that our church plays in this community. But I don’t know if that role resonates within us. This morning, I came across these words from a student at Oglethorpe University, a young Muslim woman whom I have gotten to know through our interfaith partnerships there, words that I want to be sure we hear. She wrote:

After a much dreaded Friday full of deadlines and a final, I left Oglethorpe to head home. My heart was still heavy…and all I wanted to do was see my little seven-year-old sister. I knew what happened was senseless, but I was desperate to try to make sense of it all.

As I turned out of the school, I stopped suddenly because there were cars lined up and down the street…They were all parked in front of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. As I saw the light shining from the church, it took my breath away.

In a world where religion is becoming increasingly obsolete, it gave me a little hope to see a small beacon of light on such a dark night…When I finally managed to make myself drive away, I felt myself smile for the first time that day. As a Muslim driving home from school, my beacon of light that day came from a church.

What she saw was our AA meeting. And what they do, in bringing hope to those who get trapped in the despair of addiction, is just one way of living out John’s call to share and be honest. What we provide them is a safe and trusted place to gather, to heal, and to be healed.

This young woman indeed saw a light shining from the church. And the light she saw is not ours. It is not a light we hold onto. Instead, it is a light that we reflect, the same light to which John pointed: the light of the Christ child. We are not the light of the world; and yet, we have received the gift of that light so that darkness might be sent away!

I want to close this morning with a prayer written by Christian author Max Lucado, words that speak powerfully to this moment where we find ourselves, and the hope to which we cling this Advent and Christmas season. Will you pray with me?

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Hopefully,
Your Children

Amen.

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There’s something about us that makes us root for the underdog. It’s the way we tend to view our own origins as a nation, the under-funded and poorly-trained Minutemen up against the massive firepower of the British Empire. It is also how we tend to describe national triumphs over injustice: ending slavery, burying Jim Crow, championing equality for those who were once excluded.

The underdog stories, whether in real life or in fiction, are the ones we turn to again and again as evidence of the world we want to believe in, where anything is possible: Jeremy Lin leading the Knicks on a surprise winning streak, Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy from the Empire, William Wallace holding the British at bay, Frodo Baggins destroying the ring and sparing Middle Earth, the US Hockey Team taking the gold from the Soviets.

We may know that such stories are the exception, not the rule, but they seem to serve as a way to give us hope in a world that can often seem so unfair, where injustice seems to have the last word all too often. We want to believe that the worst team can beat the best team on any given Sunday. And while it’s theoretically true, the odds tend to be pretty stacked.

What’s most distressing is that there are losses that are about more than just team rivalries, losses with real life consequences.

On Good Friday, two men drove around northern Tulsa with intent to kill. Details are still emerging as the two suspects have been located and arrested, but this much is true: three people are dead because of their rampage. One of the victims was 49 year-old Donna Fields. Fields had battled some fierce demons in her own lifetime, including addiction to drugs and alcohol. But she had turned her life around, getting involved in her church and reaching out to help those who had fallen prey to the same problems.

What had seemed like a victory for the underdog, a broken life transformed into one of healing, turned quickly back to sadly predictable defeat. And rather than this being a loss in an otherwise winning season, such moments feel much more like part of humanity’s long-standing losing streak.

And yet, here we are, people of faith, walking in the footsteps of those who insist on telling us that hope has the final word, that life beats death, that the tomb is empty and the Lord is not here but risen.

Those messages of victory are the ones that we see again and again in Scripture. In the book of Acts, the plucky little band of Jesus’ followers picks up where the Messiah left off. Defying the odds, not to mention the strong hand of the religious leaders, they go on to spread the gospel and build the church in the most trying of circumstances. In the lesson we just read, we see the bigger drama in miniature. Peter and John are arrested. They have healed a man who lay at the gate of the temple, and have been teaching about Jesus and resurrection. In the midst of their defense, they cite the ultimate underdog text from the Psalms: the stone the builders tossed aside has now been used as the very foundation upon which everything rests. Despite the overwhelming opposition, they are freed with nothing more than a warning. The little guy wins. The favorite sulks away in defeat. And the drama goes on.

It begins to feel like disconnect, doesn’t it, between faithful hope and real life experiences? As Christians, we are asked to believe in the borderline absurd. On our best days, we might actually get close. And yet, much of the time, we tend to live as though such stories are just that: stories, myths, stuff that would be nice to believe if we could just suspend logic and reason and critical thought, not to mention experience. Either that, or we manage to survive with a kind of cognitive dissonance, putting our mental and spiritual trust in Jesus, but living life as though it all depends on us. Our faith tends more towards word and speech, not truth and action. What happens in Tulsa doesn’t just stay in Tulsa; it re-affirms our suspicions that the odds are stacked against us.

But maybe that’s the problem: we are so steeped in our culture of either/or, of win/lose, that we don’t even know that we’ve started out with the wrong question to begin with. If our options are polarized, if we can end up with either victory or defeat, with success or failure, then we will do everything in our power to be sure that we win. Because the alternative, well, it’s for losers, isn’t it?

But how is it that we define winning? What does success look like? Did Jesus succeed? By the standards of our society, absolutely not. He was born poor and remained poor; he was supremely gifted, but used those gifts not to amass wealth or power, but a small, committed band of followers. And when the going got tough, those followers fell away, one by one, until he was all alone. And that’s when he died: broken, humiliated, friendless.

Of course, we know the rest of the story: Jesus rises from the dead, goes on to encourage the disciples, ascends into heaven, et cetera; but that’s not success in the way we view it. It’s too ethereal, other worldly, metaphysical. It’s not nearly material enough. And so we end up crafting our visions of Jesus’ return to make sure that it conforms with how we view success: the master warrior, destroying his enemies, reigning as king forever and ever. Amen.

It feels like a visit to the eye doctor: better or worse? Number one, or number two? Maybe the problem starts because we’ve got on the wrong lenses to begin with.

Back to Tulsa. As Donna Fields’ pastor reflected on her life, one that had been ravaged by addictions but had become marked by hope and joy, he spoke of her this way:

“She stood for justice. She understood the streets…She has been an inspiration to us rather than us to her…to see what God can do with anybody.”

Do you notice the turn? Do you see how the script gets flipped? This isn’t a lesson of how the church saved her, or even of how good Christians ministered to her. As her pastor said, it’s about how she, the ex-junkie, ministered to them. It’s about what God, not the church, did to and through her; and how that stands as proof of what God can do with anybody.

The impact of Donna Fields’ change life becomes clearer the more we hear about the aftermath. Her brother is anxious to see justice for his sister. But when he was asked about the death penalty as a form of justice, his answer is clear:

“I don’t hate them. That’s not what God put us down here for, to hate.”

The principle that ought to underline all that we do is not winning or losing, not betting on the underdog or rooting for the favorite. The point is to recognize how God is at work, and to find out how we can get in on that action!

In our Acts’ lesson, our win-lose lenses show us a temporary victory by Peter and John. But the bigger story is that God used them for healing: the physical healing of the man at the gates of the temple, spiritual healing of the people who hear them speak and see them not backing down. And even though they know they have the true power, the power of God, the power of the risen Christ on their team, they don’t Lord it over their opponents. Instead, they give witness to the one who gave them that power in the first place. And once again, the script is flipped: the stone the builders rejected not only became useful, but became the cornerstone of the whole structure.

And in the lesson from John’s letter, the clearest sign of Christ’s presence within us is not victory or success. It’s love; the love we demonstrate with our words and with our actions, the way we put our money and our time and our talents where our mouths and our hearts and our faith reside. After all, as the lesson of Tulsa reminds us, God didn’t put us here to hate anybody.

Can we re-evaluate the rules of the game? Can we move beyond winning or losing into healing and loving? Is it even possible in an election year where campaigns are just barely getting warmed up?

Friends, God wants to work through us. Christ wants to live within us, and to let the world know who it is that motivates our love, our compassion, or desire to keep on, even when it feels like the odds are stacked against us.

Let the games begin!

Amen.

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Loving and perfect God, every time we gather at this table we repeat the words that have been handed to us from our Lord Jesus: “In remembrance.” Today, these words have added meaning, as so many in our nation gather today to remember the horrific and tragic events of ten years ago. So many bodies broken, so much blood poured out, so much life and promise cut short as so many of us looked on in fear.

And in the ten years since, there has more destruction – the numerous deaths of combatants and civilians, the countless wounds to body, mind, and spirit. What has become clear is that what happened in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania ten years ago were not an anomaly. If we are honest, we know that the one real difference was in their proximity to us.

It is true that we have come to this table in memory, yes; but we also come because we want to be close to you, closer than global agony, closer than national tragedy, closer than even our own breath. And so, O mighty and merciful Lord, may your body broken and your blood poured out for our sake be the very thing that fills our voids and heals our wounds, binding us close to one another, to all who share in this feast, to all those who have come before and surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses.

We pray all of this in the name of Christ our Lord, the bread of life, who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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