Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love Wins! By Cheri Holdridge with an assist by Kurt Young)

“Let justice roll down like waters,and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The prophet Amos preached those words (Amos 5:21-24 for those having to follow from afar) in ancient times to a people who had fallen away from the ways of God. They were God’s people but they were not following the ways of God. Amos looked into the future and saw that they were going to lose their Promised Land. They were going to be taken into exile. They were going to fall on hard times because they were not listening to God.

But Amos saw a vision, a vision of a just world. He said: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.” We got us some justice on Friday. Can I hear an “amen”? Forever in our nation’s history, gay and lesbian persons have been treated as second class citizens, denied the same rights as straight persons. And on Friday, the Supreme Court granted marriage to all persons. Love wins. 

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of that ruling: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of the civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. IT IS SO ORDERED." 

They ask for equal dignity. This is about dignity, dignity for all persons. On Friday I stood outside the Lucas County Courthouse as the first few couples started to arrive. One couple, Tobi and James said they had been together for more than twenty years. They rushed down to the courthouse because they wanted to get married before anything could happen to reverse the decision. We assured them that the Supreme Court is the last stop on this train of justice. This decision will not be reversed. 

I read about Jack Evans and George Harris who were the first couple to get married in Dallas in my home state of Texas. They have been together for 54 years. They said a lot of their friends went to another state or to Canada to get married but they “Wanted to hold out for Texas,” Harris said, “I said, well, I hope we live long enough.” Evans walks with a cane and had a rainbow flag tucked in his lapel, and Harris carried red roses for the ceremony. They said they kept their relationship a secret for the first twenty years. I’m sure they did, being in Texas in the 1960s. Can you imagine, waiting 54 years to get married? 

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing-stream.” I wonder if some of you would like to share your reflections on what marriage equality means to you.   Pat Groves “Cindy and I never thought we’d live to see this day”.  Karen said she needs to work now to help the wider community loose it’s fear and so that this blessing can be fulfilled.  Rosie reminded us that this is a legal relationship now, it comes with some fantastic rights, but also has responsibilities.  Employment and Housing discrimination are still legal in most states and we’ve got work to do that, but this was a giant leap forward.   Another Rosie, yes we have two, reminded us we have much more work to do, on race, on income, on so many issues.  And, that it’s been a hard week for those how oppose us on this and many other issues, and we need to show them love.   Deb and Jenny, who have been together for decades and decades, celebrated with their children, who have the rights so many already had.  

Kurt (who is taking his privilege as blogger) wanted to share his text to his friends and family he sent from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 but couldn’t say the words fast enough.  “As someone who is or loves someone who has been treated as a 2nd class citizen because of who you are or who you love, I wanted you to know I just voted (with a unanimous convention) to make it our party’s stand to end that NOW!”.  I and thousands of my fellow Democrats first screamed second to making it a plank of our platform and then screamed YEA and cried as we passed it.  We, the many allies at the Village, have waited for this day, with almost as much anticipation as our LGBT brothers and sisters.     

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Marriage equality was a long time coming, but justice will always come. It is only a matter of time.

Today is a day for celebration. But our work is not done. For one of our two partner denominations still has not recognized marriage equality. Yes the United Church of Christ has marriage equality (and at our General Synod in Cleveland, OH, right now they are celebrating by holding MANY marriage celebrations of all wondrous forms)  but sadly, the United Methodist Church still does not. So even though it is the law of the land, the United Methodist Church law states that gay and lesbian unions will not be held in our churches and that our pastors may not preside at them. The Village, like many United Methodist Churches, stands in opposition to this church law and works for the day when it will be changed. A General Conference happens every four years and General Conference is where the church law can be revised. The next one is in Portland in 2016 and we pray that at that General Conference the elected delegates will see the light and change this unjust policy. Perhaps this change in US law will be enough to move the United Methodist Church into the 21st century. 

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing-stream.” Today is a day for celebration. But our work is not done. We do not yet have protections in housing and employment for LGBT persons. In Ohio and in many other states, you can be fired or denied a job because you are gay or even perceives you to be gay. You can be kicked out of your apartment or denied the opportunity to rent a house because the landlord does not like the fact that you are gay or perceives you to be gay. We have protections against this sort of discrimination based on categories such as race, gender, age, or religion. But we don’t have protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. So our work is not done. Equality Ohio will be calling on us to work on getting non-discrimination laws passed through the Ohio General Assembly. We must answer their calls. We must write letters. We must make visits to our legislators. We must go to lobby days in Columbus. Now is not the time to get complacent. Now is the time to work harder for justice. 

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing-stream. Today is a day for celebration. But our work is not done. Racism is rampant in our country. On the same day that we celebrated the ruling on marriage equality, Pastor Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest. He and eight others were the victims of a hate crime, gunned down during a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. The perpetrator, when he committed the crime, stated that he had to do it because the blacks are taking over our country. His act is a symbol of the racism that is a cancer in our society. We don’t really don’t understand how deeply embedded racism is in our culture and until we deal with our racism, none of us are free. Those of us who are white must deal with our privilege. We must understand how the systems of privilege contribute to the oppression of persons of color. It’s complicated, but we must take the time as a nation to unpack the complexities of racism so that we as a nation can heal. 

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” But today is a day for celebration. We have seen some justice thanks to our Supreme Court. And justice feels good. We have waited long and worked hard to get to this day. And God has blessed us. Today is a day to give thanks to God. We have marriage equality. All children can grow up in families where their parents’ relationships are acknowledged by the state. Partners don’t have to worry about what will happen to their assets when they die. Spouses can visit their loved ones in hospitals without fear of discrimination. All means all. 

So let us give thanks to God who is a God of justice and a God of love. For those who have waiting so long, let the wedding planning begin! In the end Love wins. Thanks be to God. Love wins. Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Our Strength by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

On Friday morning, in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina, a little bit of heaven stooped down to earth. As you know, on Wednesday night during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, nine people were murdered. On Friday morning, family members faced the accused murderer, Dylann Storm Roof.
One of the family members, Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, her voice choked with sobs, said: “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you” (The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, June 20, 2015, p. 1).  
Another family member, Bethane Middleton Brown said:  "I acknowledge that I am very angry." She said her slain sister, DePayne Middleton Doctor, would have urged love. "She taught me that we are the family that love built," Middleton Brown said. "We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive."  ( One after another, the family members offered forgiveness to Dylann Storm Roof. Heaven came down to earth as they bravely forgave the man who has confessed to killing their loved ones.
We don’t know what happened in his life to fill him with hate and racism. He is a broken child of God. He represents the racism that is rampant in our society. He is a symbol of our collective brokenness as a society. Deeply embedded in our culture is a racial hatred that we have not addressed. We cannot write off tragedy to mental illness of one individual. He was schooled in a society of hatred and bigotry. We must all do our part to put an end to racism in our country.
But on Friday morning, those most intimately affected by hate in this instance did a miraculous thing. They offered Dylann Roof forgiveness. They gave a powerful witness to the power of God in their lives. I want to be part of a church where people have faith that strong. I humbly pray that I would have the strength to forgive a killer. I honestly wonder if I would. These people inspire me.
I believe the people of Emanuel AME Church are Isaiah 40 people. You see, Isaiah 40 is a passage that calls us to be strong in our faith. Let me explain. You will recall that I have told you of the time when the people of God lost their homes and their temple. Jerusalem fell to Babylonian invaders and many of the people were taken to live in exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah worked during that time. He was preaching and prophesying to the people who were living as slaves in exile. These were desperate times for the people of God. They had lost their homes, their temple, their priests, and they wondered if they had lost their God. People worshipped multiple gods in Babylon and the people of God were tempted to worship these other gods rather than the one true God, Yahweh.
This is when Isaiah comes along with our scripture for today. He asks them hard questions:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is God who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
He reminds them that God is the one and only Creator and they are like tiny grasshoppers compared to God. God is their Creator.
Then Isaiah promises them that the Babylonians will be defeated. This exile is only temporary. This is what he says: 

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when God blows upon them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

He is promising that the Babylonian take over will not last. They will wither. Their strength has not taken root. This is comforting to the people of God who are living under control of the Babylonians. Isaiah is promising that they won’t be in exile forever. One day, they will be free. 

Then Isaiah asks them a question again:
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Sometimes we human beings have to be reminded of who God is. We fall under the illusion that we are in charge. But we are not. God created the earth. It all belongs to God. And so that means we need to trust God. We need to relax and realize that good days and bad days come and go, but God is always with us. Isaiah is reminding the people that even though they are in exile, there is a bigger picture and God sees the big picture. God will see them through. God will see us through too. Even though we have bad times, God will see us through.
Next comes the poetry of this passage. I imagine you have heard at least some of this before. Isaiah reminds the people of the strength of God. Close your eyes if you will and listen to these words: 

God does not faint or grow weary;
    God’s understanding is unsearchable.
29 God gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.

When we wait on the Lord we shall have strength. Isaiah told those people living in exile, to be patient. I am not a patient person. I don’t like to be told to be patient. But sometimes that is the message from God. Strength will come when we wait for God. There is a freedom that comes with this strength.
Isaiah promises us that God gives power to the powerless. Even youths will be weary but those who wait on God will have renewed strength. We will be strong like eagles. We shall run and not be weary and walk and not faint.
These words must have been powerful to people who were living in exile, wondering if they might ever return home.
I wonder how these words might be heard by those family members in Charleston, SC? Those faithful Christians whose loved ones were gunned down while attending Bible study. Isaiah says to them “You will run and not be weary; you will walk and not faint.” I think these words gave them strength to forgive Dylann Roof. They are Isaiah 40 people. Isaiah 40 is about putting our trust in God. It is about remembering that our strength comes from God. It is about remembering that God is in charge and God will restore justice in our world.
What about us? What makes you weary? What has you worn down? What is going on in your life that has you discouraged? We all have bad days. Sometimes we have bad seasons. We have worries. We face injustice. We have bills to pay. Children that concern us. Troubles at work. Health concerns. Relationship problems. The list goes on.
Isaiah has a word of grace for us. First of all: God is in charge. You don’t have to be God, that job is taken. Since the beginning of time, God has been watching over creation. When we take the long look at things, it makes our problems seem not quite so huge.
Second, God gives us strength. When we are weary, God gives us strength. God is the source of our strength. We are not alone. So, lean into God. Rest in God.
Finally, put your trust in God. You don’t have to go this journey alone. Pour out your heart to God in prayer. Let God know your concerns, and God will respond.
God did not abandon the people in exile in Babylon. God will not abandon the family members in Charleston, SC at Emanuel AME Church. Emanuel means “God with us”, by the way. God will never abandon us. God promises to give strength to the weary. Those who wait on God will renew our strength – so put your trust in God. God is our strength. God gives us freedom. Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Golden Rule by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Pastor Clair Sauer tells the story of “Dorothea Hertzberg who served a term as a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny, impoverished African country of Burkina Faso. One swelteringly hot day she was riding her bicycle along a cattle trail, when she felt something in the machinery snap. The wheels of the bike still turned, as did the pedals, but pumping the pedals accomplished nothing.

“Dorothea resigned herself to pushing her bike the seven miles she had yet to go. The temperature was 115 degrees, and she had only half a bottle of water. It wasn’t long before an elderly man came toward her on his own bike. He asked what was wrong, and when she told him, he stopped and rummaged in his belongings until he found a long rubber strap, the sort of thing that could be used to tie packages onto the back of a bike. He attached one end of the strap to his bike, and the other to Dorothea’s handlebars. Turning around to go back the way he’d come, he began to pull the Peace Corps worker on her bike, toward her destination.

“Dorothea described it this way, “It turned out to be one of the most hysterical yet touching moments of my life. What a scene we must have been. This poor man vigorously pedaling and dripping with sweat as he towed the American princess through the barren desert. Every villager we saw along the way shrieked in surprise and called out, ‘Good morning!’ After a while, I began to feel terribly guilty, posed on my bike, waving like a Rose Parade float queen…

“An hour later we arrived at my destination. He was exhausted, I was giddy and in awe of his generosity. I took a long look at his face and those kind eyes, and I told myself never to forget it, because this man is the heart of Burkina Faso. This man is not an exception to his culture. He is the very essence of it. Burkina Faso means ‘the land of the upright and courageous people.’ It is one of the poorest countries in the world, but a place where I learned what giving truly means.””

The elderly man lived out heart of our scripture for today (Matthew 7:12 for those following along from afar), known as the Golden Rule. “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” Jesus said, that is the sum of the law and the prophets. Right there, treat others the way you want to be treated.

Jokes are often made about this scripture which turn it around. “Do unto others just like they have done to you.” That is not the same as treating them the way you want to be treated.

In many religions a version of what we call our Golden Rule appears, but in the negative, rather than the positive.  Pastor Matthew Rogers writes about “an event that took place in 20 B.C. That is, around 50 years prior to Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount where the Golden Rule appears. The tale was told of a Gentile (a non-Jewish person) who approached Rabbi Hillel and his rival teacher of wisdom. The Gentile promised each that he would convert to Judaism if one of them could teach him the entire Law while standing on one foot.

“So Rabbi Hillel said this: “Do not do to your fellow what you hate to have done to you. This is the whole law; the rest is explanation.” (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S. Keener, p. 249)  “That incident would have been legendary by the time of Jesus…just 50 years later. Every Jew would have heard about that and probably even repeated it a few times.  “So Jesus takes a very familiar statement and turns it around – so that it is no longer stated negatively, but positively.”

Let’s imagine for a moment what the difference is between this rule as a negative or a positive. This is the negative way. Don’t do to you fellow human being, what you hate. Imagine at the end of your life it is said of you: “She did nothing to others that she would have hated to have done to her. She did not kill, did not steal, did not lie, and she did not cheat.” Those would all be good things. But she would be being praised only for the negative things she DID NOT DO.

How much better does this sound? Do to others what you want done to you. “He forgave others, he fed the hungry, he was generous with his money, and he helped others when they were in need.” This describes someone who made the effort to live his life actively DOING THINGS to make the world a better place for others, like the old man on the bike in Burkina Faso. It makes all the difference when we turn the rule into a positive, because it instructs us to move and DO something positive. We create positive energy in the world.

Who do you know who lives out The Golden Rule? Someone who always gives? Do you know someone who will come visit you when you are sick, or go to the grocery store for you? Who do you know who you call when you are low and they will listen?
Who can you call when your car is broken down and they will give you a ride or take you to the car repair shop? Who will go sit with your partner while you are in surgery? Who do you know who will help you pack up when you need to move? (That is a giving friend!) Who do you know who will forgive you when you mess up? Who will sit with you when your mother dies, not saying anything trite but just being with you?

Now, ask yourself, when are you that person?  This is what it means to follow Jesus. To live the Golden Rule.

In the movie, Pay it Forward, the teacher, played by Kevin Spacey gives an assignment to an elementary class. He tells them that by the end of the school year they are to do something to change the world. Haley Joel Osment plays the little boy that takes on the challenge in a vigorous way.

The boy, Trevor, decides to do good deeds for people and to challenge them to pay it forward – to do positive things for three more people. With the law of multiplication, he shows how his action will spread exponentially and truly can change the world. It gets really big really fast as the goodness multiplies  He lives out the Golden Rule. He helps a homeless man who in turn helps someone else and so on. The good will spreads.
We can do the same. Just like the boy in the movie. Just like the old man on the bike in Burkina Faso. We can do this, because of the grace of God. The grace of God lives inside of each one of us. It was the grace of God that gave that old man the strength to pull Dorthea Hertzburg and her bike the seven miles along the road in Africa. The grace of God living inside of us is what gives us the power to do good. Grace is what gives us the power to treat others the way we want to be treated, rather than, perhaps, the way they treat us. Not an eye for an eye, but rather, turning the other cheek with compassion. Jesus came to show us what it means to show compassion, to treat others the way we want to be treated. Oh, my, what the world would be like if we all lived out the Golden Rule every day in all our actions!

What can you do? How will you change the world? I want you to think about that right now. Let’s start with one thing. Think about one person whose life you want to change. Maybe it will be something big like Trevor suggested in the movie “Pay it Forward.” Or maybe your act will be something small but powerful. Maybe you will call or visit someone who is lonely. Maybe you will help someone with a task that you know they need help with. 
I want you to think of one person you will help. Who is one person whose life you can change this week? Decide who that person will be right now.  Now decide on one thing that you would like to have done for you, that you will do for that person this week. Make a commitment to yourself to do this one thing. And now, if you choose, as a way to be accountable a find a person and tell them what you are going to do this week and get them to commit to it for someone else as well.  And watch how that plays out.