Sunday, May 29, 2016

LOVE YOUR ENEMIES by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Who is your enemy? Is it the terrorist who lives halfway around the world? Or is your enemy closer to home? Your neighbor who wronged you, is that your enemy? A family member who broke your trust? Is your enemy someone who stole something precious from you? Is your enemy your ex-husband or ex-wife? Is your enemy the sports team who is your rival? Perhaps your enemy is the person you live with. There are so many possibilities for who our enemy can be. But Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I wonder what Jesus might have meant by that. He sure must not have known MY enemies. 

We tend to see the world in absolutes, don’t we? Good or evil; cold or hot; with us or against us. “If you’re not for us then you’re against us,” so the saying goes. If you’re not my friend, then you are my enemy. But today’s story breaks those categories wide open. You see the land where Jesus lived was under Roman occupation. The Jews did not live in freedom; they lived under Roman rule. The centurions were among the Roman guards who were present to “keep the peace.” They enforced Roman law over the Jewish people. The Romans collected taxes and ruled over Galilee and Judea with an iron fist. 

So you see it was an odd thing that day when a centurion had a slave who was sick unto death. The centurion sent some Jewish elders to Jesus and asked Jesus to heal the slave ( Luke 7:1-10 for those following along on the internet).

4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” [That was strange enough. That a centurion was considered a friend by these Jews.] 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. 

This was unheard of. A centurion of the Roman occupation army – the enemy, would ask Jesus for help. And he had a deep faith, so deep that he believed Jesus could heal even without coming into the house. And he was right. Jesus healed the servant. The people must have been shocked. How could Jesus heal the servant of their enemy? 

But you see Jesus does not see good or evil; cold or hot; with us or against us. Jesus sees people. Jesus sees people in need of God’s healing and in need of God’s love. Jesus has no enemies, can you imagine? Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And Jesus saw in this man a person of deep faith. He said in Israel he had not seen someone of such deep faith. Their enemy was being lifted up to them as an example of deep faith.

“Pope Francis reminded us of this in a sermon. During a homily at mass at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that the Pope included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.” (source: David Lose,

We all know people who either profess to be atheists or who do not practice an active life of faith. We might consider these people, like the centurion, to be enemies of Jesus. We might expect them to be the last people to show faith. They are not moving forward the mission of the Christian faith. However, we just never know how God might use them in the same way that God used the centurion. Might our friends or relatives who seem far away from God, be the ones who will show deep faith at any moment, like the centurion? We just don’t know how God might be at work in their lives. 

I, for one, want to pray for my friends who seem far away from God. If God can bring a Roman centurion to trust Jesus then I believe God can bring anyone into a trusting relationship with God. I invite you to think about the people you know who seem to be far away from God. We don’t know their stories. We don’t know what is separating them from God. They may be good people doing good works but they have not made the connection that their good works are of God. Let’s pray that God might surprise us in the same way that God surprised Jesus with the centurion. 
But then let’s make another bold step. Let’s pray for our enemies. We don’t have an occupation army in the United States. But we all have people we would consider enemies. It might be someone we have been close to, that we’ve had a falling out with. It might be terrorists who threaten the well-being of our country. Who is your enemy? Someone who has wronged you? Someone who has stolen something precious from you? Someone who has hurt you? Get a face in your mind of someone you would consider an enemy. Now imagine that person turning to Jesus like the centurion. Wouldn’t that be a surprise? Wouldn’t that be a blessing? It could happen. 

You see, we see things in sharp categories: good and evil, hot and cold, with us or against us, but Jesus breaks down those categories. There are no enemies when it comes to Jesus. We are all one in Christ. We are called to love our enemies. We trust them to God. 

When it comes right down to it, there are things about us that make us unlovable. But God loves us. I’m going to let you in on a little secret, someone else may see US as THEIR enemy. But Jesus loves US. And that other person, the one we see as the enemy? He or she is loveable to God. Deep inside we are all loveable to God. No matter what horrible things we have done, God will still forgive us and love us. And if God will forgive us we can forgive one another. 

This is what it means to follow Jesus: to love and forgive one another. No one expected Jesus to heal the slave of that centurion. The Romans were the enemy. But Jesus did not see enemies; he saw only beloved children of God, in need of God’s healing love. That’s what he sees when he see us, and that’s what he invites us to see. 

So Friends love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. It’s a Jesus thing. Remember that you are loved and your enemies are loved by God too. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Courage to Tell Our Story by Rosie Best (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Pray with me.

How are doing in spreading the good news about Jesus?  Have you had opportunities to share what Jesus is doing in your life? Would anyone like to share? What about those of you who haven’t shared? What’s holding you back? (there may be a spontaneous response to what is said that follows!)

What holds you back?  Usually it’s fear. I want to say to you that it’s God’s job to show up; you don’t control him or tell him what to do; you invite him in. He will always show up, perhaps not in the way you thought.

I was in Atlanta last weekend. We went to visit a former student, at least that was the plan. Unfortunately, a medical emergency had pulled the student back to Toledo and she is currently looking after her mom in Toledo Hospital. More on that in a moment. So Linda and I traveled to Atlanta and had a great time, but instead of visiting with people, we got to see the Museum of Human and Civil Rights, and also the birthplace of Martin Luther King. We heard sound tracks of his preaching, and saw photos of him standing up for civil rights, intense pictures of him sitting in prison, and then photos from the assassination site. I bought a book of MLK’s sermons, because I find his oratory so inspiring. When I look at someone like Martin Luther King, I wonder what I have to offer the world. I wonder whether any of you have felt intimidated like that by someone? Here’s the good news though, Jesus does not require or expect us to be anything but the person that we are in order to be witnesses. I need to say that again… Jesus does not require or expect us to be anything but the person that we are in order to be witnesses.

So what is your story? I used to think that I would like to have a bolder testimony. You know, I was a mass-murderer, but Jesus saved me… Can anyone relate to this? I mean, the fact that I became a Christian as a result of a school Christian Club week away in Cornwall just doesn’t sound very BIG. But again, BIG isn’t the point. So, let’s look at what leads up to today’s reading.
It was a day like any other. The beggar was sat at the Beautiful Gate at the entrance to the Temple. It’s 3pm service time and Peter and John arrive and the beggar asks for money. This is when the narrative changes, suddenly it’s not a day like any other day anymore because Peter and John don’t have money and in the words of the children’s bible song Peter said,
 “Silver and Gold have I none, but such as I have I give thee, In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”

Now back to the bible version for a moment it says “Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And AS HE DID, THE MAN’S FEET AND ANKLES WERE INSTANTLY HEALED AND STRENGTHED.

The song goes on to say “he went walking and leaping and praising God, walking and leaping and praising God, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”
It’s interesting the details that are put in the story isn’t it? It’s the right hand… interesting… Peter then seizes on the opportunity in front of him and calls on the people around him “Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. Then the Lord will provide a season of relief from the distress of this age and he will send Jesus Christ” (Act 3:19-20). By the end of that day, it says, their number was increased to about 5000 but Peter and John spent the night in prison.

So our reading for today starts the next day. Peter and John are brought in front of the Leaders, elders and legal experts… and Caiaphas and Annas (the high priest) and others from the high priest’s family (details again… we have the names John and Alexander). And what does Peter do? He simply states what it is that is going on. “It’s because a sick person was healed that we are here.” You see, Peter, has turned everything upside down. No longer will the people walk in to the Temple and see this man (a man crippled since birth). He is now up and walking and leaping. What a sight that would be to see!

And again Peter INSPIRED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT says “Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene.”

And this speech, was so impressive to people, THEY COULDN’T TAKE THEIR EYES OFF HIM. They were so confident, so sure of themselves! And why? They recognized them as companions of Jesus. They weren’t trained in any formal manner, nor were they educated, but they had a relationship with Jesus.

And this is still the confidence which we are asked to be bold in today. I stand in the same faith that I acknowledged when I was 12 years old. When the older student asked if we were willing to commit our lives to Christ, and at that age, I said, “Yes!” I cried, and understood that I was forgiven. It’s an ongoing act, I fail so many times, and yet I get back up to try again. My confidence can never be in the degrees that I hold, or in any training that I do. My confidence is in Jesus – the risen Lord.

So, what is your story? What are the ways that you have seen God at work in your life? What are the areas where you need to see hope at this time? I know that there is a young woman in a hospital room that is praying and believing for her mother to be healed. I also know that miracles do happen and that it is not impossible for God to intervene and raise someone up. I am standing with my sister in Christ, knowing that what God has done before God can do again. As I stood in the hospital yesterday, I prayed. I would have loved for her mother to stand up and start praising God, but that has yet to happen.

It takes courage to stand up. It does. It takes fighting back the fear. The fear of feeling foolish, the fear of being laughed at, the fear of being rejected. But God asks us to stand up for what we believe. If God used the disciples who are described as:
Common English (CEB) uneducated and inexperienced
Contemporary English (CEV) ordinary men and not well educated
English Standard (ESV) Uneducated, common men
Jubilee Bible (JB) unlearned and ignorant men
Living Bible (LB) uneducated non-professionals
Modern English Version (MEV) illiterate and uneducated men

Then God can use anyone of us --- not because of what we know --- but because of WHO we know.

WANTED: Unschooled, ordinary people who have spent time with Jesus. It’s the same criteria for service that was in place for the disciples whose stories are told in the Acts of the Apostles.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

FROM FEAR TO FREEDOM BY PAUL NIXON (with an assist by Kurt Young)

When have you ever been afraid?  I came here this weekend to come to Kaleidoscope at Toledo School for the Arts.  And it was great trip.  But we came via Train trip this weekend. We took Amtrak from DC to Toledo, and got in very early Friday morning (5:30 AM), about the time that the rooster crowed good morning.  (Not a casual thing to catch a train in this town, or others).

Twenty-years ago, I went on an overnight train trip to Russia. We went with a church group to get a hospital going and start an Alcoholics Anonymous group.  It should have been a great trip. But our guide had lived under communist rule.  And they we were dealing with paranoia over the rise of the Russian mafia. 

And with her paranoia began mine and my group’s descent into irrational fear of the Russian mob.  We became convinced our conversations were being recorded, so we started passing notes that we then burned.  A person took a polaroid picture of us and we thought it was for the hit man, etc. 

Fear has a life of its own.  And when it gets out of bounds, it can suck all of the goodness out of life.  Fear becomes dread.  It moves in like bad relatives, and just throws its baggage and dirty underwear all over the house.

There are fears we have as kids, some less grounded in reality than others.  But as adults we have it too, and it can become dread on adult things.  For instance, dread of upcoming job loss.  I have a friend who knows the grant for her job runs out Nov 30, 2016.  She is not supposed to know, but she knows.

It can be a parent’s dread of a teenager’s bad choices, and the tragedy of lost dreams and also the attending shame.  It can be a young person’s dread of failing a class, or of not being able to complete a degree. I teach a master’s level course in DC at one of the schools in town. It’s crazy watching grown people turn as nervous as cats over a silly exam.  I have a student, we’ll call her Samantha, who has a ton of obstacles to overcome including learning disabilities.  We knew she would flunk my written exam, and she did.  But, working hard, she passed my class.  And she will do amazing things in life, when it’s not about passing written tests.  But you know, she was the calm one taking the exam.   

This year in politics, we have seen the politics of fear played more shrewdly than in any time since I was a kid.  Back in the day, there was a political ad for President Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater that showed a mushroom cloud (follow this link if you want to see the actual ad, Kurt who has a degree in campaign management had that one handy -  Basically Johnson was telling us about his opponent, “Vote for him and we all die.”  Johnson won that election by a landslide.  This after an era where we were all encouraged to fear that the guy or gal cutting our hair, was a closet communist.

Fast forward fifty years, and the fear of the other is still a major strategy in motivating voters and potential voters.  Fear of the Chinese person, who is going to get your job.  Fear of the Muslim person, who just might be a terrorist.  Fear of the Hispanic person, who is ostensibly going to rape and pillage your neighborhood.  Fear of the gay scout leader, who is really only there in order to recruit your future Eagle scout to literally spend his weekends at a bar called The Eagle.  (You knew that, right?)  Just plain old fear, is what many use to motivate us. 

The Bible teaches us a lot about fear.  We are told more times than I can count, “Be not afraid.”  It’s no new issue.  The week that Jesus was executed, you recall.  The disciples all wilted in fear, with Peter being the classic.  Before the rooster crowed early on Good Friday (just about the time that Amtrak gets into Toledo), Peter had denied three times that he had ever been associated with any dude named Jesus of Nazareth. Now what was that all about except fear gone amuck inside Saint Peter?  

Fear had just gone wild inside the guy who was supposed to be the Rock.   Some people think it was kind of a joke, that he was a cowardly guy.  But I think he was a pretty solid, talented guy whom Jesus could count on, and build a church. And even he turned to mush in the fear. 

It has been noted that by the time Jesus died, there were four of his friends and family with the wherewithal to show up at the feet of the cross and to be associated with him, 3 of whom were women.  Four is not a statistically valid number for a survey, but it does lend some support to the idea that women often handle fear differently than men – and despite all of those damsel in distress images handed to us by Hollywood, women may be more likely to get a grip than men when life gets really scary.  Especially when life gets scary at home.

It was those same women who had the guts to come back to the tomb on Easter, and who also, then became the first witnesses of Easter. 

Fear gone amuck… rips us apart.   It rips apart friendships.  It rips apart churches.  It rips apart families.   It is currently being carefully manufactured in order to rip apart our nation.  It’s a challenge.

After all those Easter appearances, Jesus basically disappeared.  A few reported seeing him rising up into the clouds, but for most folks it was more like, “Last week we see him, now we don’t.”  

Now, today we remember Pentecost.  It had been ten days since his last appearance, and 120 of his followers were huddled in an upstairs room in Jerusalem, overwhelmed with fear, and the dread that the Romans would be coming for them any minute.

  Eleven of the twelve disciples were there, so far as we can tell.   But there was no script as to what happens next, no manual, no template, no relevant Bible stories to read as the New Testament would be written by them or about them.

All they knew that the same people who killed Jesus might want to kill a few more of his followers to make a statement once and for all, that you really do not want to be publicly associated with anything having to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

And that is where our scripture comes in.  For those reading along from afar, get out your favorite translation and read Acts 2:1-18, 37-38.  It’s an amazing story of how they overcame fear and performed amazing acts this day, a few millennia ago.  

One moment they are afraid, and locked away in a safe house.  A couple hours later they are out in public, not just freed from fear, but unleashed and they are proclaiming Jesus. 

Peter, the one who fell apart before is preaching boldly in the street.  I guarantee you that soldiers and officials hear his sermon.  And it’s a pretty good sermon, if you want to judge it by the three thousand who decided right then and there to be baptized into the Christian movement.

What happened exactly?  A group of people, who had been cowering and living in fear became great, bold leaders.  There was a rushing wind in a room with closed windows, a holy wind that seemed to correspond to the indwelling of people with a fresh experience of God.  The Spirit of God came upon them.  Literally. 

I am not a Bible literalist.  Because I know the Bible is a library of many books, and different kinds of literature.  Some things in the Bible are metaphors.  Some things are poetic.   A few things are remnants of earlier, primitive, understandings of God, which were corrected by Jesus.  But some of it is just literal, “And then that happened.” 

Pentecost is not a poem, folks.  It is literal.  First in the room, then in the streets – and then three other times documented in the first few chapters of the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit came down and was on them.   Teaching us that Pentecost was not just a single event, to launch the church, but a classic part of the whole process of the faith’s expansion. 

And when the Spirit came upon them, all of the sudden, they found their mojo again.  Two hours earlier they were cowering, but then they started a church we worship at today. That was then, but that Holy Spirit still comes to us today. 

It was scary to follow Jesus in the first century Roman Empire.  It was a scary time to be alive period if you were not in the one percent of that time.  And the Spirit came to empower people to live lives where joy, peace, and love could triumph over fear. 

 The 11 apostles, plus friends and Christian family, as we track their lives from Pentecost forward, best we can tell, they all died.  Well they all died.   Don’t we all, but the traditions strongly suggest that they all died in the hands of the Romans as martyrs.  All 11.  The Romans got them after all.  Every one of them.  Which is not a great moment for encouraging you today.

You see, they were right to be worried in that Upper Room.   History proved that their fear was justified.  The Romans killed them, one after the next, until they all were dead.  It is said that when Peter found out that he was to be crucified in Rome, he could not bear the thought that he would die in the way that Jesus had died, after he had denied him.  He felt unworthy. 

One of the amazing miracles of the Bible narrative is that people facing that real fear and threat, found their mojo. There are a lot of amazing things that occur within the Bible narrative.  Easter is pretty amazing.  But seven weeks after Easter, that still did not change the game significantly for the Christ followers in terms of a miracle inside of them.  They were still bogged down, still off-balance, still locked up in fear.

Pentecost changed them.  The coming of the Holy Spirit is about my transformation.  It is about our transformation.  It gives us amazing fruits or talents.  It allows us to be world changers.  If you read the Village Statement, we are called to change the world. 

It’s not like there are not real threats in our world, like there was in their world.  There are legitimately things to be afraid of. 

I know this, there are people in this room who feel fear, real fear.   How is fear screwing up your life?  Where is dread stealing from you the peace and joy that God wants you to have from day to day?  Where are you feeling overwhelmed by the stuff out there?  The people out there?  Naming the fear to ourselves, and articulating what is the worst that could happen as we imagine it – that is a good exercise, and will get you part of the way home.

But God will take you the rest of the way to the place of peace and poise.   Where we all want to be.  Those disciples in the Jerusalem marketplace after the Spirit came.  They were poised, they had their act together.   I want my act together.  Don’t you?

In the Christian tradition, the way to get there, to get to the deep beyond, is to welcome the inflowing, the indwelling of God reality into our hearts, and minds, and into our lungs.  Whatever there is haunting you, bugging you, messing with your life, there is good news.  The Holy Spirit is here to help. 

Pastor Cheri then led us into a simple exercise, Breathing, and it really can be this easy to let go of fear:

Breathe out fear.  Breathe in Holy Spirit.
Breathe out anxiety.  Breath in peace.
Breathe out death.  Breathe in life. 

Visualize the one thing you fear most in life, whatever it is.  See it and I want you to pick up what you see.  With your hands and look at it.  I invite you to pick it up, and lift it up and give it to God. And breathe in Holy Spirit and say I’m free.