Locked in Fear

This is pretty close to what I preached on April 8th…

On Thursday of Holy Week members of my congregation shared a meal together. It wasn’t an ordinary meal, but rather a worship service with a meal. Something I would like to do again, and like to call, dinner church. This night (Maundy Thursday), we re-heard the story behind Passover, we remembered our own sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and then we shared a meal. That was, for me, a highlight of Holy Week.

On this second Sunday of Easter we contemplate the disciples who locked themselves in a room… because they were afraid. They were afraid in spite of the news that Jesus was no longer dead. Approximately 2000 years later we might wonder about their fear. Like, how could they have not believed Jesus’ predictions of the events that would transpire? How could they not gather strength from the wonderful news that Mary and friends had reported? How could they cower in fear? Would we be any different?

I look around and I see a society in the grip of fear. We seem to have so much to fear…and sadly, those fears are being exploited in so many ways that we can’t really enumerate them right now or we’d be here all day.

Fear is an emotion that is mentioned frequently in our scriptures. Fear is an emotion that immobilizes us, so much so that a common command given to God’s people is, “do not be afraid.” Why? Because when we operate out of fear we do nothing or tragically, we are capable of doing pretty horrible things. Not just us…but all people, or groups of people…when driven by fear, are capable of the most atrocious behavior.

Which takes me back to our story behind the story of Passover. Most of us are familiar with the story of God’s deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The story usually starts with Moses and God’s calling him to deliver his people.

But how did they come to find themselves in such a precarious position? It wasn’t an overnight thing…or a kidnapping and forcing into slavery thing (like the shameful part of our own American history). The oppression of the people happened gradually and the root of it all was fear.

Yes. Fear. You see the Egyptians saw that their Israelite neighbors were growing in number. The Egyptians saw that their Israelite neighbors were prospering. The Egyptians began to fear these neighbors. Fearing that their growth would eventually cause them to take over…to displace them. I’m sure that demagogues were active in stoking this fear of Egyptian towards their neighbor.

But rather than build a wall to keep out the Israelites (since they were already there) or mass deportation of their Israeli neighbors, they decided to just oppress them. And when oppression didn’t work they opted for a horrible form of genocide in killing all the baby boys. The story of Moses starts with these attempts at genocide. People can do atrocious things when they are afraid.

God knows this. So not only do we have the continued call to “not be afraid,” we have the common instruction to remember the oppression of Egypt. Why? So that it never happens again. The Israelites were to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and thus to treat the strangers…the sojourner…the refugee…the non-citizens in their land with compassion, with care, with justice.

Jesus would double down on this command when he instructed his disciples – including us – that the law is summarized in the command to love God and to love neighbor. Who is our neighbor according to Jesus? Everyone…especially the stranger. This was so important to Jesus that he in Matthew 25 said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

These stories, and Jesus’ words are pertinent to us today. How do we, as followers of Jesus, treat the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger in our communities? What do we do when a story as old as time is so pertinent for today?

Do we give in to fear and reject the stranger? In doing so we are most likely rejecting Jesus.

Do we listen to the words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” but stay silent? I think of the disciples hiding in a room out of fear. They were afraid of those in power, they were afraid of being arrested, they were afraid to live as Jesus had taught them to live.

Then, into the midst of this fearful existence Jesus appeared.

“Peace.” So much in this word. Peace. Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry.

But also don’t stay here. Don’t stay locked up in this room. Don’t stay locked up in your fears. Peace… and go!

As the Father sent me, I send you. I send you out into the world to be bearers of the peace I give you. I send you out into the world to learn to love your neighbor and to teach others to do the same. I send you to counter the fear that divides and diminishes and destroys peace.

This peace, this call, this promise of the Holy Spirit, this sending is for us. It’s a great gift. It’s an awesome responsibility and thus scary. It is not hypothetical.

On Friday a couple that has loved here in Oxnard for 24 years was deported. They were pastors at a church in Colonia. They literally lived across the street from us…can’t be any closer neighbors. They are grandparents. Their grandchildren are students in our preschool.

So today a church worships…mourns… the loss of their pastors. A son and a daughter mourn the loss of their parents. And most upsetting, preschoolers no longer have their grandmother who cared for them while their parents worked. These children don’t understand why their grandmother is suddenly gone. How do you explain that fear of the stranger has resulted in the expulsion of their grandparents?

As I contemplate this I wonder how we benefit from all of this? I cannot see how we are anything but diminished.

I am also reminded of other words from Jesus. Words of love and forgiveness. And as I remember these words I hope and pray that they will empower us to go out into the world and combat the fear that leads to the oppression of the immigrant.

Peace be to you.

We Shall…

 

Can anything good come out of …? Today’s sermon

Can anything good come out of Oxnard?

I remember an encounter in my first days here at Our Redeemer. It was with Rusty Jackson, a long time (but not his entire life) Oxnard resident and founding member of the church. Upon our introduction, he looked at me, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “You know they say that nothing good comes out of Oxnard.”

Was he referring to this text in John’s gospel? Where Nathanael seems to initially reject Jesus because he was from Nazareth? Philip had invited him to come and meet Jesus, who just might be the promised Messiah. But this promised Messiah was coming from the wrong town, the town with the bad reputation.

We don’t really know why Nathanael scoffed at the idea of something good coming from Nazareth because we don’t know too much about the town except that it was small. And maybe that’s the point… sometimes we scoff at or are afraid of that which we don’t know.

Can anything good come out of Oxnard? Some outside of Oxnard would say “no.”

I remember being in a group of people in Ventura a few years ago. The leader was asking where everyone was from. Most were identifying some neighborhood in Ventura. I said, “Oxnard.” And the leader replied, “I’m sorry.” We’ve since become friends and I’m not sure he would respond in the same way today.

I think that all of us in Oxnard, whether we live elsewhere and worship here, whether we’ve moved here, or whether we were born here and continue to live here… I think that we all can say there is mostly certainly good that comes out of Oxnard. We can be proud here at Our Redeemer that we are known for our excellent preschool…good comes from here!

So maybe we are better prepared than others to not so quickly dismiss a place because we don’t know enough. I’ve told you stories of my once upon a time fear of parts of Los Angeles. In retrospect my fear of LA was a racist fear of others…or people I didn’t know. But then I went there and spent time and learned how ignorant I was.

Today, in our divided nation and even divided world, we may find ourselves asking the question more often…of places, of people, of affiliated groups.

All of my sermon up to this point was written before the news broke of the president using vile language to describe countries south of our borders (Haiti and El Salvador) and all the countries that make up the continent of Africa. What I had written after this point seemed so sadly connected and yet irrelevant…so an update was in order.

Today, with the gospel text in one hand and the news in the other, the question asked by Nathanael, ”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Becomes the questions:

Can anything good come out of El Salvador?

Can anything good come out of Haiti?

Can anything good come out of Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe?

Can anything good come from these countries whose residents have dark skins? Or does all the good stuff come from countries like Norway, whose residents are white?

On this weekend, when we honor the ministry and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are presented with these questions. Our faith gives us the answer.

The answer is not found in the stories of all the good that has been done by immigrants from these countries…and other countries. Certainly their contributions help to make America great, even as we remember that except for Native Americans we are all from someplace else. It’s also important to remember that the majority of our African American brothers and sisters trace their roots to people who were forcibly kidnapped and sold as slaves…and it was their work…unpaid work…that led to much of the prosperity upon which this nation was built. We are still dealing with the legacy of this racism… of this evil.

I digress… the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries is not found in the good things that people from these countries do…as appreciated and honored those good things are. But the problem with uplifting people who’ve done well is that we imply that they must earn the respect that is due to them as human beings.

No the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries…through our faith…is a resounding YES!

Yes…good can come from these places because God is good and God is there just as God is here. When we look at our world we remember that it is good because God created it and then said “it is good.” And on that ultimate day of creation, God made human beings, God said, “it is very good.”

It is very good… our created world and all the inhabitants. Because of sin, no place is perfect, including these United States. Because of sin, no person is perfect, including you and me. And that is why Jesus came… because of love for this big giant imperfect mess of a world. And his primary teaching to his disciples and to us is that the only way that we could make things better and that is to love one another as we love God.

It’s that simple and it’s that difficult.

Did you notice Philip’s response to Nathanael’s question? He didn’t argue. He just said, “come and see.” And with these words took Nathanael to meet Jesus.

Let’s go and see.

I have a friend who organizes a mission trip to El Salvador every August…who wants to go? I’d love to join him, while bringing others along. But maybe we can’t all travel to other countries. We can still make concerted efforts to learn about people of other nationalities, faiths, and political perspectives so that we can see the humanity and even the face of Jesus in those we do not know. Jesus loves them and invites us to love them too.

Where’s God?

Matthew 25- Jesus speaking: 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

For all those who kept posting the offensive meme, “put God back in the White House” while President Obama was in office, you should realize that your new president just signed orders to keep Jesus (who is God with us) out of our country. 

Today I am personally thankful for: our First Amendment and the ability to protest; the good news that my faith gives me clear direction in these trying times; and for mental health my ability to run and run hard.

Stay strong!

Blessings?

Yesterday I help with the Ventura County Homeless Count. The geographical area for counting that was assigned to me didn’t have too many people in it yesterday…maybe because it was so cold that people weren’t yet out on the streets. Yes, it was cold and we were counting (interviewing) people who had no place to sleep the night before. It is a sad state of affairs. There are many reasons for homelessness and thus need to be many solutions. I know that many people dedicate their lives to helping in any way they can. Participating in the count (for 2nd year in a row) reminded me that we need to do more and that we need to actually “See” the people who seem to be invisible as we go about our daily lives.

14364767_10154005598513775_7633342390373738549_nOne of the people I spoke with was a young man who was sitting in front of a fast food restaurant with a sign. You are familiar with this as we are all familiar with this. This young man told me that he wanted a job, but that nobody would give him a job because he was homeless. “So here I am (pointing at sign), I don’t want to do this, I just want a f—n job!” I had no adequate words while I also fear that things will get worse.

Sunday I will be preaching on “The Beatitudes” or blessings that Jesus offered at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. According to these, this young man is blessed, as are those who advocate for him and all the homeless. May we all begin to live and act as if he truly were blessed so that he would then know it in this day.

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” -Matthew 5:1-12

These “blessings” are radical because then, and now, to “be blessed” is often equated with having an easy life…having riches…having power. The blessings that Jesus pronounces here are for those who struggle in all kinds of ways.

In seeing the direction our country is heading I feel the “blessed are the poor in spirit” in ways I’ve never felt before. My faith tells me that we are to be advocates for the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the orphan, the widow, the prisoner, the outcast. These groups are explicitly mentioned numerous times in scripture. Yet, we as a nation are about to officially turn our backs on these people and I am saddened.

As the words of Jesus tell me, I am also blessed and it is that blessing received that is leading me to speak up, to march, to protest, to call, to write…the join the resistance to what betrays my faith as well as the founding values of my country. It is this being blessed by Jesus that will help me (and others) to stand strong even when attacks come and guess what…we’ll just be more blessed…Jesus said so!