Sunday, January 13, 2013

Can you Be Mistaken for Jesus? By Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Les Miserables, is a film based on a musical by the same name, based on a French novel written 150 years ago by Victor Hugo. It was an epic story before the word “epic” became popular. In the story, the main character, Jean Valjean has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  This was a time in France of great poverty and great misery.  He breaks his parole, and spends the rest of his life evading a police inspector named Javert.   Everything is about the law with Javert.  There is much more to the story, but for those of you who still want to see the film, I won’t share any more details, except for this one.

Jean Valjean, the man in the film who over and over makes the choice for compassion, but who has to avoid the police because of the one crime of stealing bread, has an opportunity to kill the police officer. There is great poverty and unrest in France at the time. They are on the verge of a second Revolution. At one point the rebels have captured the police inspector and are holding him hostage. They do not know of Jean Valjean’s long time battle with Javert. His personal troubles would be over if he could just kill the police inspector and the revolutionaries give him a chance to do just that. But when the men stand face to face, the goodness in Jean Valjean’s heart prevails. He cannot kill an unarmed man – even his mortal enemy – and he sends Javert on his way, unharmed.
Javert, for his part, is flabbergasted. Because he has given his life to the rule of law, he cannot comprehend that Jean Valjean grants him mercy. You get it, don’t you?

Jean Valjean has experienced love and mercy in his life, so he is able to show love mercy to another person. It’s as simple as that. Love is contagious.  You know that, don’t you? God’s love is contagious.

Long, long ago, in another place, a man named John was telling people about the way of God’s love and mercy. He was urging them to turn away from their lives of sin and turn to God’s love. He told them to have generous hearts and to take care of the poor. He told them to stop cheating one another. He gave words of strength to the people and he spoke words that spoke to their hearts.  You know the words, don’t you?

The people were waiting for The Messiah – who we now know was Jesus. And they began to ask themselves – is this man, John, The Messiah? Could he be the one we have been waiting for?
He must have heard them because he told them, (Luke 3:15-22 from the Message paraphrase for those following along online) “No, I am just a stagehand in this drama. I am pointing the way. I am baptizing you in the river here but the one who comes will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and will ignite a fire in you and change you from the inside out!” He knew that Jesus would change the world through them.

I love that part where John says “I am a stagehand in this drama, pointing the way to Jesus.”  Jesus is the one.  My sister studied theater in college. She did the behind the scenes work: the costumes, the sets, the stage managing. Those folks don’t get noticed, but they hold the project together. I mean, think about it, what would a Broadway show be without all the people behind the scenes making sure the lead actors look and sound great? Without the fabulously designed scenery and lighting, and the great music, the shows would not be nearly as moving and effective and magical.

Well, we are Jesus’ stagehands in the world today. Jesus is no longer physically present. But the MESSAGE of Jesus is still here and alive. We are the ones who have to point to the message of Jesus and make it some alive for people. And I wonder. . . I just wonder, if anyone might look at us, AND MISTAKE US for Jesus, the they mistook John for Jesus.

Could our actions be so compassionate, so generous, so full of mercy, so out of the box outrageous in our love, that people might say – you are acting JUST LIKE JESUS!!!!

          What might that look like in Toledo and Maumee and Waterville in 2013 for us to be mistaken for Jesus?  Our leaders had a retreat this weekend and came up with some ideas about how we might go out into our community and engage people and maybe, just maybe give them a glimpse of the love and mercy of Jesus.

Community Festivals are really popular in the summer. Why do you suppose that is? People are looking for something fun to do. They want to get out of the house, have some good food, and do something different. People are also looking for a sense of community that they can’t get sitting at home in front on the TV watching the home shopping network and reality TV.   We are looking for connections.

One of those festivals is a tiny little one that happens on the 4th of July morning over at Harvard circle.  It’s only a few hours on the morning of the 4th of July.   It is like stepping back in time. They block off the circle and have a little bike parade. There is the band that plays old music from about the 1940’s. It’s a hoot! They have kids games.  We went there about 3 or 4 years ago when we were just getting started and I had my office at Park Church. We set up corn hole and we gave away candy or something. Jodi Haney, Kiki’s mom, met us there. Jodi wanted a church. She was not going to church anywhere at the time. When we opened a few months later at Monroe and Central she did not come, even though she read about us in the paper.   But she didn’t come.  She heard about us a couple of more times. And she didn’t come Finally when we moved into the Maumee Theater, near where she lives, and she saw another article about us, and finally she came, and now Jodi and Kiki are two of our most active members. They were looking for a spiritual home. But we had to get out there in the community. We had to widen our reach, so they could find us, and we could find them.

That’s what it looks like to be Jesus – we go out into the world, and interact with people –we have some fun, and we are available to people who are searching for a spiritual home. People are longing for community, but they don’t know how to find it. And for many people, church is the last place they will look for community.  Some of you have told me that.  But yet, here you are.  You’ve found it. 

But I wonder, when they see a group of us, having fun, and treating one another with respect and compassion, might just mistake us for Jesus? Could they possibly even mistake us for Jesus?

Another place we want to go is the “Take Back the Night Event.” This is an event for anyone, but it is especially for women who have been affected by violence, and people who care about them. There is always a program and then  woman march around a neighborhood chanting,  carrying signs and saying that we are “taking back the night” because we want to feel safe walking outside in our city.

What better place for us to go, as The Village church, to be the face of Jesus, than an event called “Take Back the night”? What better place to go and offer love and compassion?   To support fellow women who have been through violence, or as people who care about others.  I’m going to go, and I hope you will to.  Maybe, people will mistake us for Jesus.

One more project I want to mention is this. We’re going to ask you, (those of you who have these skills) to help repair a house for a family who needs our help. You’ll hear more about that in coming weeks. I am sure we all have projects around our own homes that need to be done.  We live in an over hundred year old house and we’re not handy (Kurt nods very vigorously). But as followers of Jesus, this is what sets us apart. Sometimes we put our own needs aside, in order to help others who really need a hand up. Our church is going to help a family that really needs our help because the house where they are living is not warm. They need drywall and then they need painting and electrical and flooring. We are going to get some other folks to help with some of this. But we have folks who can do this. And if you’re like me and you are not handy then you can cook for the workers or donate money. We are going to start this at the end of February. 

You see when we do all these things we are being the stage hands in the drama that of being a loving community of Jesus’ followers. We are pointing people to Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, they might mistake us for Jesus, like they mistook John the Baptist for Jesus. Wouldn’t that be something?

You see there is really only one thing we need to do in order to be mistaken for Jesus. We need to love one another. We need to be generous and radical in our love. We need to love people who don’t deserve our love, because there are times we don’t deserve that love either.  In the story of Les Mis, somehow, Jean Valjean, is able to be generous with the police office Jalvert.  He is able to show mercy and compassion on a sad man who knows no love in his life.

The most powerful line in the show, to me is this one, at the end when Jean Valjean comes to the end of his life and he says to his daughter: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s true. I believe this is how we can be mistaken for Jesus. When we love, we are God for one another. So, I pray that in our life together this year, we can do this: let us love one another and others out there in such a way that someone might just mistake us for Jesus. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jesus Comes for Them by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

We have some friends who are moving next month from Toledo to Jerusalem. Angela and Marty Zimmann are both Lutheran pastors. You may remember Angela as the woman who ran for United States Congress a few months ago. She lost her race. But because she ran such a good race, the leaders in the Lutheran church noticed her and thought she would be a good candidate to serve one of their mission churches in the Middle East. She and her husband Marty will be the co-pastors of the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and she will be the assistant to the Bishop there, working to educate people in America and negotiating issues in the Middle East for the church. They have two children, just the same age as our two. To be honest, Kurt and are a bit horrified that they are taking their children to such a dangerous place.   But we know they are smart people who have looked at the risks versus what their children and the world will get out of this opportunity. 

You see, for thousands of years (back to Biblical times), two groups of people, have been fighting over the same land in what we know as Israel and Palestine. Some of you know much more about this than I do. It is an extremely complex history of relations. At its heart, there are the Jews, the people who are ancestors of Jesus. They are the ones we read about in our Old Testament who know themselves to be God’s Chosen people. And then there are all these other people who have lived in that part of the world for just as long. We call them Palestinians now. Some are Christian Palestinians. Some are Muslims. 

Some have roots back to the ancient Samaritans in the Bible – you remember them.  The Jews had a long standing aversion to the Samaritans. You see, from ancient times, The Jews understood themselves to be the Chosen people of God. They believed it was their calling to keep their religious rituals and culture pure and so they stayed to themselves. They were the insiders and everyone else was an outsider. The called the rest of the world Gentiles.  We are Gentiles.    And so were the Three Wisemen, or Kings, or Astronomers (from Matthew 2:1-12 in the Message paraphrase for those following along at home).   But they traveled so far to bring those gifts.  And they were the them of the Jewish culture of the time.   

Let me remind you of the story of Epiphany. Today is January 6th the last and 12th day of Christmas, the day of Epiphany, also called “Three Kings Day.” Epiphany refers to the appearance of Jesus to the Kings from a far away country in the East. The word means that we have a sudden realization of something. On this day, we learn that God sent Jesus not only for the Jews but for the whole world. This was huge. Because, you see, up to this point, the Jews thought that the Messiah was coming only to save them. And as I have just described, because the Jewish people had an understanding that God wanted them to keep their religious rituals pure and holy, it was part of their tradition to stay separate from anyone who was not a Jew. So they called all the rest of the world: Gentiles. 

They had what they believed to be a God-given destiny, to remain separate. There is “us” and there is “them.” When the Magi (the Kings) came following a star from the East, and came to bring gifts and worship Jesus – suddenly the story was out.   The story shows us that Jesus was not coming for one set of chosen people, but for all of us.  The whole world knew that God had sent God’s own child to the world. God’s love incarnate in a human being was being shared with the whole planet. God’s love cannot be contained. God’s love cannot be limited to any country, or to any one group of people, it is for everyone. This is the gift of Epiphany. There are no insiders and outsiders. Everyone is included in God’s circle of love.

I want to tell you a story that illustrates what happens when this message gets through to us.  Last weekend in Columbus, a man named Joel (who happens to be a friend of mine) was walking to a late night pizza truck, one of those hip, upscale neighborhoods, in the Short North in Columbus, Ohio. It was cold and he was standing in line with his friend Ethan. They were cold and they were holding hands. A man in line in front of them saw them started harassing them because they were gay. I won’t repeat what he said but it was clear that he was put off by the fact that they were gay.

The Short North is usually a very safe place for people like Ethan and Joel.  It’s an upscale, arts neighborhood of Columbus.  The man continued to harass them continuing to say negative things about gay people. Someone in the crowd told the man he was out of line. And the whole crowd joined in. It was not just the gay folks in the line, but the straight folks too. They all said, this is our neighborhood and our city and these two men are not doing anything wrong. In fact the owner of the Pizza Truck realized what was happening. He asked them man to stop being so hateful and said basically that we don’t tolerate that around here. When the man would not stop, he told the man to get out of line. 

We will not stand for bigotry. The story has gone viral. It was all over Facebook, and was the highest trending story on Huffington Post earlier this week. We like to hear a story where people who have been oppressed are finally surrounded by others who will stand up for them. It was victory for the good guys.

I love this story. And I am thankful that we have come to the day when gay bashing is no longer socially acceptable in so many circles.  However, the neighborhood was the Short North in Columbus. It is an identifiable gay friendly neighborhood. The man, who was doing the gay bashing was really the “other” in this crowd.  He was the them. 

But I have to ask a couple of questions. Because that’s what I do.  I wonder, what if a couple of young African Americans, a man and a woman, the woman with tight jeans and a low cut shirt; and the man with saggy, baggy jeans, had been in the line and well, you know, they are kind of sneaking a kiss or two in line, and what if someone had said to them: Cut it out, get a room. We don’t want any gang bangers in this neighborhood . Do you think the crowd would have defended them and said, they are welcome here? Because I’m guessing they might have been seen as the “other” in that trendy upscale urban neighborhood.

Or what if there were two older people from Mexico with a thick accent, talking in Spanish and someone said, “We don’t want any more illegals here taking our jobs away. You are not welcome here.”  Would the crowd have spoken up if those people were in line? Would the Pizza Truck owner have refused service to the person who was harassing them? Maybe he would, and maybe not.

But here is the last question. Why do we cheer when the Pizza Truck Owner refused service to the one who was the hater? Now I know that I am tired of the Joels and the Ethans of the world being harassed. It has gone on for too long. They deserve a little urban street justice. That mean guy got his due. He went home hungry for that great pizza. He was mean and mean guys don’t deserve pizza. But I heard what happened and the pizza truck owner gave him a chance to calm down. He would not and so he was refused service.

But I just wonder what could have been an Epiphany moment in that story for that man? A moment of sudden realization. What might Jesus have done had he been there?   I hate it when Pastors ask me these kind of questions.

Now, of course, there were times when Jesus cast judgment.  But there were many time that he used conflict as a teaching moment.  I wonder if it could have been a sudden moment of realization if somehow the man who was being harassed might have been moved to say to the pizza truck owner, “You know what, let the man order, and I will pay for his pizza.”  I don’t know if I could have done that.  And I am certainly not judging Joel & Ethan for not doing it.  But imagine the realization that might have occurred. 

There is no more sense of “us” and “them” when that sort of generous mercy takes place.  God sent Jesus in order to show us there is no more “us” and “them.” Whoever your “them” is, Jesus says: “I came to love them too. I love you, and I love them. And I want you to love them too. That is how this works.”  That is how it works.  I love them and I love you God says, and I am challenging you to love the them too. 

1 With thanks to The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), for his sermon “Us” and “Them”,