Sunday, December 4, 2016

Real Religion by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Karen Shepler)





 

 REAL RELIGION
Matthew 3:1-12  (3b, 9, 11)

3b  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

9   Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham. 

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.   

            I, and many of my colleagues in pulpits across the nation today have a lot of nerve to be speaking from this text.  It’s one of those passages that reminds a lot of people why they don’t like clergy folk in the first place; judgmental know-it-alls.  Well we might be.  Nevertheless, we press on.  Our sermon titles will be different, but what the text suggests is pretty much the same: the texture, depth, and tenor of our Christianity as a movement of people:  that’s what matters.  The point of Christianity, our Christian lives, is to open up to God - God’s joy, God’s peace, God’s purposes.  For us and all people.  And the point of churches like ours is to help us understand that learning, praying, and acting is how we open up to God.  And I am persuaded that this irritating text points exactly to that: that church is a learning and praying and acting body. 

         But first, to talk about a “real religion” suggests that there is a “fake religion”, or a “pretend religion, and, that there is a pure, untainted religion out in the world somewhere.  The trouble with the idea of a “real religion” lies in who’s doing the judging, what’s their criteria, and, why in the world does this matter anyway.  There are millions of Christians around the world, coming from cultures older than our own, practicing Christianity in a variety of ways; in ways that may seem strange to us.  And to top it off, within all these communities there are millions and millions of Christian experiences.  So, who’s to say which experience is authentic, more real, the correct one, the one that Jesus taught?  John the Baptist says so. 

         John the Baptist, that larger than life gospel figure stomps into our lives this Advent season as loudly and obnoxiously as he does every Advent season.  This larger than life man tells us, “Repent!  Repent!”  He pisses off the Temple priests and lawyers and scribes in Judea by claiming that being linked to God via Abraham was not enough to be considered a righteous person and gain entrance into God's heaven.  John said that deeds, works of righteousness, being in right relationship with others in matters of justice as well as piety was what God really desired.  He gets himself killed by the Romans, maybe with the help of the Temple elites, by baptizing people who came to hear him preach of a “new way” to be in harmony with God; the coming of Messiah.  This went contrary to, and undercut, the position and voice of the Temple. People were listening to him instead of them.

         The way that the gospel writer Matthew remembers it, John the Baptizer does not mince words drawing a distinction between true followers of God and the pretend ones.  John refers to them as stones and then the true children; the repentant and the un-repentant; the wheat and the chaff; the living and the dead.  Talk about a man who is no shrinking violet.  He said it as he saw it.  For John the matter is settled:  you are either ready and worthy of the kingdom of heaven or you are not.  You will either get in or you will not.  The only way to be sure is if your profession and your behavior match up.  He says: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Bear fruit worthy of your own baptism.  Remember your baptismal vows.  Baptism is essential to the Christian life.  It is our touchstone, the seal of our initiation into the family of the God of Jesus Christ.  But, it is only the beginning.  Our faith needs to be worked out in the joy and the laughter of life as well as and particularly in the rough and tumble of everyday life.  John lifts up the imagery of a tree, a branch that produces a blossom.  That’s the quintessential way we know that the tree is alive - it bears fruit.  And the same is true for us.  We need to bear fruit.  I ask myself, what kind of fruit am I bearing.  How am I growing from one season to the next?  How am I moving from one season to the next?  And I ask you what kind of fruit are you bearing?  Is there anything about us that suggests that we are alive and producing not only the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - but also the fruit that specifically looks and tastes and smells like mercy, grace, welcome, support, healing, advocacy, and justice?  Are we producing that?  I think we are.  Sometimes we can’t see it but others remind us.

         I do not, cannot, and won’t ever presume to set in judgment on anyone’s faith and religious life.  It’s all I can do to keep myself facing forward and on track with the Spirit of God.   But, as far as I can tell, for this moment we have together, the gospel writers recalled Jesus’ ministry as real religion because it was not sectioned off from his everyday life an the everyday lives of those around him.  It has to be the same for us.  Real religion for Jesus and for us has to be about two things.  First, it has to deepen and mature.  It can’t stop at the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer.  It has to go beyond church membership.  It has to reach for substantive learning and being.  It surpasses a craving for happiness that prizes our self-preservation at the expense of others.  It has to be more than craving for happiness.

         The second thing that real religion must be about is pushing against the narrative of scarcity: not enough security, not enough purity, and not enough resources.  Real religion rejects the mantra that we are being invaded and we must close ourselves off from the world.  Instead real relition welcomes the stranger, the refugee, the disenfranchised.  Real religion rejects the doctrine of polluting bodies; that difference in language, religion, skin color, nationality, sexuality, and gender and politics are threat to "our" existence.  Real religion realizes that God and the life of the world are infinitely more complicated than the narrow boxes and ideologies we have been conditioned to believe are fixed and unchangeable. Real religion pushes back from that.  Real religion works to dismantle policies that impoverish the many for the enrichment of a few.  Who around us needs to be gathered up in our arms and led to know that there is more to life?

         Real religion is about transformation, not self-preservation.  As generations of Christians before us who saw the world of their day as being on the brink of disaster and ripe for God to step in and intervene, we most certainly could do the same.  We could hide our heads in the collective cultural sands of our time, even do just enough for the Kin-Dom of God just to make ourselves feel good that we've done something.  We could be a church within two denominations focused on our own needs and desires.  Or, we could go for broke.  Go for the real.  Cultivate the soil in which we stand and open ourselves up to God and God’s purposes so that God will produce in us fruit worthy of our calling as one’s who have been water washed and Spirit-born.

         In this Advent season, this post-election season, particularly as times are stressful - many of us would like to point to a time when life was not so complicated, full of voices and perspectives that differ from and challenge our beliefs.  As frustrating and tempting as it may be to find comfort and security in an earlier time, regardless of the search, there is always the need to be clear about the thing one is seeking to preserve.  Searching for that which is worth or worthy of preserving…is the point of faith and religion.  As much as we are waiting on Jesus, to return to earth, to return to us again everyday of our lives  - sharpening our vision, inspiring our imagination, enlightening our understanding of the scriptures, maturing our prayer life, strengthening our resolve - the God of Jesus of Nazareth is waiting on us to be available, to be shaped, to be filled, to be used - to live into a “real religion” that is as audacious and infectious as John the Baptizer’s.  We are being called to open up to God and what God is doing. Are you willing?  How are you preparing?









Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Heads Up! by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)


42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Matthew 24:36-44

         In 1693, George Keith, formerly a Quaker, wrote a pamphlet entitled “An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying and Keeping Negroes.”  It wasn’t until 1781, 88 years later, that the Quakers in the New England colonies prohibited their members form slaveholding.

         During the Second World War the villagers of Le Chambon in south-central France hid over 5,000 Jews from the Nazis and smuggled them to Switzerland when it was safe.

         As of today, over 24 Christian denominations and organizations have submitted public statements in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the other native nations that have joined in a confederation with them.  And, many of their members of these denominations have gone to Standing Rock and lent their physical and material support in numerous ways, including being water-hosed in freezing temperatures and arrested. 

         These are just three instances where the Church of Jesus Christ has been alert, watchful, and engaged.  Without a doubt there have been others.  It may not be feasible or desirable for many of us in this fellowship to be at Standing Rock, or at any of the several post-election protests being held around the country.  Nevertheless, this passage of scripture is for us today.  “Keep alert”, “Be ready”, Jesus tells the disciples who had been following him for almost three years, learning, serving, growing a small meeting of several men into a small community of women and men of all sorts that had come to irritate the Roman government in the region of Palestine.  Jesus’ words come as a ‘“heads-up.”  Why?  Because something big was about to happen, to the Jewish community and the Jewish-Christian community.  The Roman government would bring all its power down on their heads and send them scattering to the four winds.  Sow seeds of doubt and dissension among them.  Have them work at cross-purposes.  Then they will destroy their own community.  Take over their institutions, dismantle key ones.  Disperse them among the nations of the world and no one would ever remember that they existed.  Those were dangerous times in the first century of this common era.  And these are dangerous times that we live in.  They are dangerous not simply because of cryptic prophecies, but because we see corruption, greed, despair, and complacency with our own eyes, in the wider world, and in our churches themselves. 

         Even so, these are fantastic times to be alive just as much as they are dangerous.  Life is always a mix of both.  Our lives, the lives of people around us, the life of the world always seems to be teetering on the cusp of falling headlong into some crazy chaos.  Nevertheless, Jesus’ words to us to stay vigilant, poised, to wake up and act is for us in our time.  If the Quakers (Society of Friends) in the 18th century did it, we can, too!  If the Protestant villagers in Le Chambon during WWII did it, we can, too!  If our sisters and brothers at Standing Rock can do it, we can, too!  If we are unsure about our mission - how to carry out our mission - we need only to take a look at these witnesses and follow their example.  Open your eyes!  Look up!  Take a second look, because what you may be looking at is not what needs to be seen; there’s something deeper to understand, to hear, to wrestle with, to commit to.  

         We live by our devices, our clocks, bells, schedules, Post-Its, and coffee.  Some of these we ignore and our lives are not so out of gear.  We can usually find our footing and then we’re off and running again.  But, one thing we can’t afford NOT to do is to be awake, alert, and watchful, as engaged Christians.  24/7 Christians.  Why?  Because so much is at stake.  Had the Quakers, the villagers of La Chambon, and the protestors at Standing Rock been asleep, think how worse our society would be.  It matters that we are awake.  It matters that we are engaged.  It matters that we reconcile ourselves to the fact that being Christian is a forever calling that is costly.  It’s a calling that is sharpened every time we stand up, stand with, speak out, speak with regarding any kind of destruction of lives, of communities, of the ideals of justice, equity, and peace.  And that’s not easy; it’s not always convenient, because we are subject to get hurt in the process.  

         On this first Sunday of Advent, we sit with many congregations in the Christian community, listening, singing, and watching in hopeful expectation of Jesus’ arrival among us.  Yes, we hear again the story of his arrival almost 2,000 years ago.  But, we await his arrival - again - in our clock-driving lives, in our church, in our homes, at our workplace, in our halls of justice, in lives and homes that are in chaos and needing a deep and abiding peace.  His is a continual coming, because we are continually in need of being reminded that God is with us - lighting our way, bearing us up.  God is with us catching our attention and strengthening us to go and do what we think we cannot do, for the sake of the good news of God’s Kingdom.  

         Heads up!  This Advent season, and any other season we get to be alive, we get see God calling us to embrace the implausible: an angel, a star, a pregnant teenage girl, a poor father-to be, a feeding trough in a barn, a cooing baby.  Head’s up!  Be alert!  Get ready!  Something wonderfully dangerous is about to happen, and we’re invited to participate in it.  Are you ready?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

OPPORTUNITIES TO TESTIFY by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)


Luke 21.5-19
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

         My words are spare this morning because I feel it’s needful to give space for some “holy venting.”  By that I mean expressing our confusion and dissatisfaction to God, and asking God what God is up to from here on out.  I’m persuaded that God can take it.  Also, this morning I’d like for us to hear from each other about what we’ve heard God say to us these last few days regarding how our nation can move forward.  As much as venting can be cathartic, I’d like for us to embrace the ministry of accompaniment: how we come alongside and support each other in our various ministries and causes without losing sight of our common struggle.  Remember, we are one body, with various gifts and callings, yet, one body in Christ. 

          But first, I want to share a few thoughts with you.  And believe it or not, this is a passage I chose back in September.  Three things I want us to think about now and remember as we move forward: (1) the end is not near, (2) we need to make up our minds now, and (3) be encouraged.

         The first, the end is not near.  With all due respect to my Dispensationalist friends, the world and the Church are always getting to to the end of something and starting the beginning of something else.  Life sometimes seems to be one big Mobius strip; the beginning and the end just folding into one another – ending and starting all at the same time and you can’t distinguish one from the other.  The world and the Church are full of so much turning and changing and shifting; so much troubling of the waters.  Depending on the issue at hand, you may be head-over-heels glad about the change, or, you may be as mad as you know where and not gonna take it anymore.  The reflex on either side of the divide is to cry doom and destruction; that our culture, our nation, the world is coming to an end.  I tend not to read scripture that way, but, I’m only one person and who cares?  But, I’m persuaded that our passage this morning is nearer to the “don’t panic” side. 

         When all hell seems to break loose - like it seems to have broken for all of us, some more than others this week – Luke simply says brace yourselves.  Don’t break ranks.  Don’t go frenetic.  Remain in place.  There is work to be done.  What we’re experiencing is not the end of democracy in the U.S.  But, it is the beginning of an ever-new recycling of upheavals about our national community, and what dignity looks like in that community.  This is not the end.  The U.S. will go on.  We will have successes.  The world will go on.  The Church will go on.  And, our call to stand in place remains the same.  Stand still and struggle until, because it is not over.

         The second thought I offer this morning is that we need to make up our minds right now.  We need to make up our minds – get it straight in our minds – that while civil rights for (1) LGBTQ folk, (2) black, brown, red, and yellow folk, (3) women, (4) gender fluid and gender non-conforming folk, (5) persons with disabilities may be our passion, our central calling as believers in the God of Jesus of Nazareth is this:
 
see to it that…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”   

          Now this is tricky.  Many in the Church apply this injunction to literal tragedies.  That’s a sermon for another Sunday.  But, I do know that (1) many people who can see are still blind, (2) many people who have full use of their legs are not mobile, (3) many people who have received a clean bill of health are dealing with terminal illnesses, (4) people who do not wear hearing aids or cochlear ear implants are still deaf, and (5) some people who are walking around among us are “dead-er” than a doorknob.  Indeed, we move among them on our streets, on our jobs, in our families, and without a doubt in our churches.  We need to make up our minds that the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is not about our personal salvation, but for the deliverance, transformation, awakening of all people; that we are all to be reconciled to God and to each other…as a species of people who share this planet and a common destiny.  That’s it as far as I can see.  And, this leads me to my final thought which turns all of what I’ve said, and what you’ve been thinking this morning, on its head.

         Be encouraged.  “Our Father, who art …”  Part of the conversation we had at last week’s Bread of Life took up that question.  What is God’s will when two parties are praying this prayer -  for God’s will - and they hold competing concerns and hoping for different outcomes?  I believe we saw this play out last week in the elections.  I don’t know the answer to that question.  And, I don’t think anyone knows the answer.  Maybe there’s more than one answer.  But, what I do know is what Luke tells us in today’s passage: (1) make up your minds in advance – not to use and be held by the weapons of hate and fear and panic, and, (2) stay focused because “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  This is a moment to testify to God’s power to tear down walls of hostility, to sow and harvest the seeds of justice, and to re-create all our hearts as well as our world.

         Remember, the end is not near, make up your mind in advance, and be encouraged.  This is what I heard the Spirit of God say to me this past week.  What have you heard?  Come forward and take the mic as you are willing and able.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

TAKE COURAGE - by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)





Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.

            Douglas P. deSilvey lived in Gulfport, Mississippi all his life.  He lived there with his wife, daughter, and his in-laws.  To him, they were his world.  They did everything together, and he considered himself a blessed man.  In an interview he said of his wife, daughter, and his mother-in-law, “These three women in my family have steered my life for the past 59 years, to the man that I am today."  So, when Hurricane Katrina hit, they did what they had done for all the other storms – they went to his in-laws’ home because it was on higher ground.  They would ride this one out and get back to normal.  Shortly after arriving at his in-laws, Douglas looked out at the bay and realized that the waters were rising fast.  Hurricane Katrina had made landfall.  Just as he tried to warn his family of the danger that was imminent, the roof collapsed killing his wife Linda, Donna his daughter, and his in-laws, Nadine and Ted.

Months later in his StoryCorp recording, Douglas reflected on that event and said that he’s asked God many, many questions about why he lost his family like that.  He says that he hasn’t gotten any answers.  He just gets up every day and goes to his job. But now, he has no one to work for, to plan for, to save for.

 We don’t have to have experienced Hurricane Katrina or any other natural disaster to know what devastation feels like; to have one’s world turned upside down, the focus of our life taken away.  Maybe it was a death, a divorce, an unfavorable diagnosis.  We’re left like Douglas deSilvey asking questions and waiting for answers.  And we’re also faced with the demand of “moving on,” picking up whatever pieces we can find and rebuilding.  ‘Moving on’ can be painful, almost unconscionable to entertain, particularly when our memories act like floodwaters that never seem to ebb.  Birthdays and holidays.  Purchases and promises.  Meals shared and plans made.  What do we do with them?  What are we to do with the stuff of loss and how do we go forward?  

“God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.”  “Time heals all wounds.”  “Hang in there, you’ll get over this.”  You’ve heard these statements and others like them.  And while they each may have a grain of truth in them, they sting and ring hollow upon a grieving heart.  But those were similar words of support Haggai offered to the people of Judah.  He was trying to stir them up after they had been displaced by war. He says, “Take courage.”  “Be courageous.”  Start rebuilding the Temple.  We can do this!  Wow, how flat that must have fallen on some of their ears.  “Easier said than done, Haggai!”  How were they supposed to do that when the center of their life had been destroyed – The Temple?  The Temple was the center of their religious, cultural and national life.  All the markers that told them who they were, what they stood for, and what was possible for them had been smashed to smithereens.  Where was this courage supposed to come from?

Nerve.  Pluck. Valor.  Daring.  Audacity.  Mettle.  Resolution.  Guts.  It goes by a dozen or so names.  But, one thing we would all probably agree upon is that courage only surfaces when we are afraid.  It usually doesn’t come when we ask for it. It has come to me when I’ve been terrified; when I’m doing the thing I’m afraid to do…to face…to say.  Looking back, courage has come to me in hushed tones, never in a lion’s roar; telling me to stay with it just five more minutes.   Courage has come to me in moments when standing up was the only right thing to do; to stretch and expand my horizon and re-examine how I define myself – by what things I define myself?  The tears and suffering that accompany courage ask me “What’s driving my life?”  “What’s driving your fear?” 

Maybe the way to understand Haggai’s words to those refugees of war was not Get a stiff upper lips, folks, but as an invitation to see that our life in this world which is centered in the heart of God is about soulwork – that sharpening of the inner ear, deepening our capacity to
sense and see beyond our current frames of reference.  This kind of being doesn’t happen overnight, but over a lifetime.  This is the work of God; drawing us by the Spirit’s tether into the deeper life of God.  A life that is not full of pat answers and quick fixes. Who knows what life will be like after Tuesday? But take courage, we will wake up the next day and God is in control. We are open to hearing what new thing God will do in our life, and in the life of our nation and our world.

As high-handed as it may sound, pain and ruin do not have to be the last words about our life.  Loss and starting over are opportunities to give birth to something new; a chance to recognize that it is the Spirit of God who keeps us, and it is the people of God who help us capture a vision of God’s plans for us.  Village Church, take courage.  Accept the invitation to discover what God wants to do in your life, in the life of our congregation.

Response:
            Are there reflections or impressions that any of us would like to share in response to the topic, the passage of scripture? 
           

Sunday, October 30, 2016

CURIOSITY SAVED THE CAT by Hafidha Saadiquah (with an assist by Karen Shepler)

Luke 19: 1-10

1He/Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he/Jesus was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
~~~
Friends, it wasn’t a mistake that this story happened in Jericho.  Stuff like this always happened in Jericho, or on the Jericho Road.  Remember the Good Samaritan?  Same location.  The Jericho Road, yeah, that seventeen-mile stretch of road between Jericho and Jerusalem during Jesus’ time where anything could and did happen, especially the bad stuff.  Jericho, not a good place.  Thieves.  “Business people.” 
The innocent.  The guilty.  The dead and the half-dead.  Sex workers and their pimps.  And yes, an assortment of priests and Levites.  Let’s not forget the Samaritans.  God bless the Samaritans, at least that one.  Oh, did I mention tax collectors? 
Nevertheless, you had to travel the Jericho Road if you lived in a village along it; or, if you wanted to get to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem!  Now there was the place.  That’s where you wanted to be.  It had it’s share of troubles, but at least you had a better chance of finding the help you needed, not getting accosted, not getting fleeced.  Seeing something
different, becoming something different.  And that’s what happened to Zacchaeus…on the Jericho Road.
         He didn’t become the chief tax collector by being a shrinking violet.  Zacchaeus, he probably started off poor like any other Palestinian Jew of his day.  He had a family that he had to take care of.  And over time, the opportunity to be a tax collector and move up the ladder just…presented itself to him.  A “deal” one he just couldn’t refuse.  One he didn’t want to refuse because of what it would mean for his family, his reputation.  No more groveling, no more hand to mouth/paycheck-to-paycheck.  The people of Jericho would look up to him, and see what a big man he had become.  They had to answer to him now.  Not “Zacchaeus, but, Mr. Zacchaeus!  He knew that the people of Jericho and the nearby towns didn’t like him.  He knew what they called him: sellout, traitor, conspirator, robber.  Sinner!  Yes, he was all those things.  No, he wasn’t all those things.  There was much much more. Whatever!  “A job was a job”; at least that’s what he told himself. 
         When he was alone, at his desk doing his accounting, he probably scratched his head and sighed thinking about the new young rabbi.  That
rabbi from Nazareth was different, not like the others.  It had been a very, very long time since he went to synagogue.  He wasn’t allowed to on account of his job with the Romans.  But, several times he had heard Jesus speaking.  He was in the streets more often during the week than in the synagogue; going here and there, talking to people, making some pretty bold statements.  Jesus was in the streets, along the Jericho road where anything could happen.  Same texts, but Jesus talked about them in a way that was different from the other rabbis.  The way Jesus talked there seemed to be room in God’s house for people – people like him; room for the poor who were innocent, and room for the rich who were guilty.  So, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho, that’s when he knew he had to do something.  He had to make a decision.  That’s when he decided to make his decision.  Throw caution to the wind.  Expose himself to ridicule and above all make himself look like an idiot as opposed to remain as the self-assured insider that his profession and government connections afforded him.  Get to Jesus and make a connection.  So he runs ahead of the others, climbs up the tree, and concurs with Jesus that he should take him to his home for a meal and conversation.  He climbs down the tree when Jesus comes and before too long the words are running out of his mouth, telling what he has already done, what he will do, what he was going to give.  He probably surprised himself.  It probably sounded like gibberish to everyone else who was listening.  I am persuaded that often our prayers are no more than gibberish as we pour out our hearts to Jesus.  The people around him thought he was a joke, and that Jesus was a joke for going to his house.  But, as they say, “There’s no time like the present.”  And every decision has its day.
There are many Jericho Roads.  They are everywhere.  And we will necessarily go down a handful of them in our lifetime.  There’s no
getting around it.  And there’s a Jericho Road and a Jericho with your name on it; a road where you will have to make a decision, or reconfirm a decision you’ve made.  A decision to be, or not to be.  A decision to stand and be exposed for what that decision entails.  A decision to be Christian – with all of its baggage and all of its blessing.  A decision to be a part of something bigger than us. 
There is a Jericho Road that we have to go down.  A decision to make as we travel it.  And there is sycamore tree for all of us to climb that will signal to others that we have aligned ourselves with something and someone bigger than us.  A cause bigger than our plans for ourselves, our particular church; bigger than what politicians, scientists, and average geniuses like you and me can discern for this world.  But that’s just the initial decision.  The decision to be a follow of the God of Jesus of Nazareth…to do the work of the Spirit of God inspired is a decision we have to reaffirm and recommit to everyday. We have to recommit.  Our experience on the Jericho road can change us, to make us turn away from the outside and turn to the one who can help us.  The actions on the Jericho road can change our hearts. The goings-on on the Jericho Road can lead us to change our mind, “re-evaluate” our decision, leave off the decision we’ve made because, because, because.
Jesus calls to us over the serenity as well as the tumult of our lives just as he called out to Zacchaeus.  “Hurry and come down.  I need to come to your house and share with you what God had planted in my heart.” Jesus and Luke tell us that we, no matter who we are or what we have done, are called to come down and be with Jesus.  Friends, let’s come down from wherever we are in our hearts and minds that would keep us from going up our sycamore trees in the first place to see what Jesus has to say…has for us to be and do, because we, too, are children of Abraham, “pure ones” like Zacchaeus.  Beloved of God.
You may remember this song from your Sunday School days; its still good.  Sing it with me if you know it.
         I have decided to follow Jesus.
         I have decided to follow Jesus.
         I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back.  No turning back.
The next to the last verse says,
         The world behind me the cross before me,
         no turning back.
And then there’s another verse:
         Though none go with me.  Still I will follow.
         Though none go with me, still I will follow.
         Though none go with me, still I will follow.
         No turning back; no turning back.
Let that be your heart’s prayer each day, even not as we make our
way to this table which has been prepared to support our decision to follow in the way of Jesus of Nazareth…one more day.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Pharisee In Me by Hafidha Saadiqah (with an assist by Patti Lusher)




9Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

         What a jerk!  Seriously!  But, I get his point.  I don’t do the stuff he mentioned, and I don’t abuse drugs, cheat on my spouse, abuse my children, lie on my tax return, and I haven’t robbed or defrauded anybody.  Isn’t that the point of the Christian life, that we sin less and less; that our lives are guided by God’s transformative ethic of truth and justice? And a hard, radical love.  Indeed, it is.  But the Christian life is more complicated than we think.  Confessing faith in the God of Jesus of Nazareth and living into our baptismal vows of turning away from sin are essential.  But, the knottier work that we will be doing until the day we die - after the confession is made and the water wiped from our head -  is attending to our shadow selves. 

         Shadow selves?  What’s that?  Some in the Church call it our “sin-nature.”  Others, “human nature.”  Still others, the Devil.  Here’s another image to work with.  The American author and activist, Robert Bly describes shadow as those aspects of ourselves that we find embarrassing, disgraceful, and achingly brittle; things like our temper, our jealousy, our conceit.  These are traits we like to think that are not part of us, or that we have overcome them.  If this last description offers more clarity, then you’ve just confirmed scripture when it says: “the children of the world are wiser than the children of the light.”  Be that as it may, our shadow informs how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to others.  They have direct bearing on our choice of words and action.  And they can contribute to the quality of our lives and the health and longevity of every community of which we are a part.

         Where did our shadow-self come from?  Our families of origin.  Our culture.  And institutions like this one.  We’ve all learned and internalized them; how we can be pleasing, how to be acceptable. Our shadow came into being when as a child someone said we were too noisy.  Or, as an adult when we were told that we were bossy, touchy, bitter, cruel, an attention whore.  So, we spend all our time ignoring, denying, or covering it up.  And, it’s in religious contexts like ours where we try to pray this shadow stuff out of us, and be extra, extra nice and mindful to be on our P’s and Q’s.  Not a bad idea, but this is also the space that can feed our shadow self. But it can also help us come to grips with that side of ourselves we need to work on. Hence, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

         The Pharisee: a blue-collar Jew.  A rule-follower.  Strict prayer life and attendance at the synagogue.  Very clear about wicked people being
punished, and righteous people being rewarded in the afterlife.  The Tax Collector: could be a Jew or a Gentile.  Middle- to upper-middle class. 
Made his living collecting taxes and fines for the occupying Roman government.  If Jewish, not a synagogue attender because of his employment. The Pharisee.  Self-righteous?  Yes, hands down.  The Tax Collector.  Self-righteous?  I’m sure at some point in his life he was.  But, here he’s just honest about who he was.  Brittle.  Broken.  An opportunist.  Sometimes delusional, if not demented. 

         Now, this is where biblical interpretation is not so clear.  I refuse to choose between the two.  I will not name the Tax Collector as the “hero” of this story because I know that just as there is a Tax Collector in me, there is also a Pharisee in me.  And, the two extremes of being a Tax Collector and a Pharisee are within me, too.  The colluding Tax Collector, and the penitent, humble Tax Collector.  The holier-than-thou Pharisee, and the desiring-to-follow-after-God, the trying-to-get-it-right Pharisee.  And all four are in you, too.  In this church and in the Church universal.  

         The word shadow may not have been in Luke’s mind when he penned his gospel, but the idea of that human dilemma was definitely there.  As Luke gives his accounting of the ministry of Jesus, he emphasizes the Kingdom of God; this wide open, alternative, culturally and spiritually revolutionary real-time community.  In the preceding passages he warns of the threat to the witness and survivability of this society: threats from outside of it, like the Roman government.  But, he also warns of threats from within, like the Messianic Pharisees who thought life in this new community was all about dos and don’ts; comparisons and contrasting.  So, Luke includes Jesus’ warning about:
*being extra vigilant in caregiving and offering mutual support,
*the need to be prayerful for one another, always,
*keeping the faith during times of disruption and chaos, and,
*the critical importance of being persistent in advocating for
         justice and equity – fairness

“Hold on” is one message I hear him saying in this text.  “Don’t fall apart.  Don’t let your shadow selves destabilize everything that the Spirit of God has given birth to through you.”  Don’t let jealousy, selfishness, possessiveness, anger, lack of initiative, timidity, and grand-standing destroy the community.  Even so, God’s intentions will not be derailed. What’s that verse, “…don’t think more highly of ourselves than you ought.”  Life in Christ is not a competition; it’s not about any one of us.  It’s about all of us.

         So, what’s the good news in this text?  What can we do with this constant struggle between the Pharisee and Tax Collector in each of us?  What can we take with us into this new week full of promise and possibility?  First, come to realize that resolving to rub out forever the vicious, selfish, and reptilian aspects of ourselves is a futile course to pursue.  Why?  Because we are fighting against ourselves, and sometimes we are our worst enemies.  We won’t win.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I do believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, but I also believe that our wrestling with the flesh will not end until we leave this earth.  Even so, God’s work continues now.  We are part of the Church of Jesus Christ – the Church Militant; the community of believers who have not left this earth yet, but carry on God’s work of reconciliation.  We are human beings with every frailty and limitation you could possibly name.  Yet, God uses us just as we are to do incredible things that bring life and joy and hope.  So, sinner we are, sinners saved by grace.  This ministry belongs to God.  God is in control, yet we are blessed to be a central part of it.  Even in most problematic moments, God still chooses to use us.  So, let’s take the high road and live into the worst parts ourselves.  None of us are finished products. 

         The second piece of good news we can take from this text is sitting next to you.  The person on your left and your right; the ones before you and behind you.  How ironic; the place that can incite our spiritual bigotry and acting out can also be the place to bring about our spiritual maturity and awareness.  We all need a small host of friends who will help us own our shadow self; to help us hear what they can teach us.  Maybe that’s why we don’t become instantly sinless at our confession of faith and baptism.  What better teacher can we have in brokenness?  What a way to learn how to hold these two parts of ourselves in tension, to take responsibility for our actions, make peace with them, and allow the Holy Spirit to unleash in us our untapped talents and gifts; that there is power in gentleness and meekness!

         Many Unitarian Universalist congregations sing a hymn at the beginning of service inspired by Rumi, the 13the century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic.  It goes like this:
Come, come, whoever you are:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!
Ours is no caravan of despair; come, yet again, come.
Though you’ve broken your vow a thousand times,
broken your vow a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come.
Come to this place because you are welcome.  Come to this place because we are all wrestling with the Pharisee and Tax Collector inside of us.  Come because your stories of defeat and victory, gifts and strengths, as well as your faults and foibles, can inspire and teach and build up someone else where they are weak.  Come to this place because you’ve broken your baptismal vows one thousand times since last we gathered.  Come to this place because our stock in trade is grace.  Come, just as you are, and expecting more.  Just come!

RESPONSE
Sing with me if you know this song:
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.