Sunday, May 29, 2016

Have Mercy

Preached at Church of the River/ First Unitarian Church, Memphis
May 29, 2016
Matthew 9:9-13

Any belief system that we call religion must engage humans in a journey that takes them deeper into the experiences of loving and being loved. True religion teaches us to become more merciful toward ourselves and others or it is not worthy of being called a religion. For religion is a way of learning about God, the creator and sustainer of life.

God is love. Love is merciful; love is kind. Love is patient. It does not keep score. Love crosses over and erases the boundary that separates sinners from God. To me, to be a sinner is to fail to recognize how much I am loved. We all tend to fail in that regard from time to time. I know I do.

Jesus was merciful toward all of us… beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, prisoners, ex-felons, homeless men and women, people with mental illness, foreigners, widows, orphans and people with contagious diseases. His inclusiveness was religious, racial, economic and political. He didn’t judge people and stamp them with a label: illegal immigrant, lazy welfare queen, unwed mother, promiscuous drug addict, hopeless bum.

Jesus sat with people considered outcasts and he ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them and enjoyed their company. This was outrageous to the righteous!  They criticized him and they criticized his disciples, insisting that they justify their behavior. “Get it right or get out!” the righteous demand. This has nothing to do with God, love or mercy. So what does it have to do with religion?

The early church took quite seriously the mercy of Jesus. The Roman world was amazed at the courage and mercy of Christians in the middle of plagues, war and persecutions. Jesus called “the least of these” into the heart of his redemptive love. And the early Christians were known for following Jesus’ example.

Followers of Jesus opened their hearts and their homes to others because it was their calling. They had been lovingly received into a new way of life, a fuller and freer way of living and being. They had no reason to shut others out of the experience that had embraced them with hope, eliminating their fears and healing their wounds. Faith hoarded is faith destroyed. True faith in the love of God crosses over and erases any boundaries that separate us from one another or from God.

Today’s church no longer seems as clear as it once did about following in the way of Jesus and growing more merciful. I am not sure where we would find Jesus eating today if he came for dinner.

Last Sunday morning, in downtown Memphis, an 18 year old girl (Myneishia Johnson) was walking on Second Street with two of her friends. A man drove by and fired a gun at them. All three were struck by the bullets and Myneishia was dead at the scene. She was due to graduate from Booker T Washington High School this week. Her one-year old son accepted her diploma for her yesterday. His grandmother carried him across the platform.

In reaction to the announcement that this infant would be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma, a Memphis woman named Kelly Griffin wrote to the principal of Booker T. Washington, Alisha Coleman Kriner, saying that Myneishia’s son should not be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma. It would be, in Ms Griffin’s judgement, a celebration of the sin of an unwed mother who was out with friends instead of being home where she belonged. And Ms Griffin went on to add that the father of the infant was not known and this somehow added to her disgust that the child should receive his mother’s diploma..

The principal, Ms Coleman-Kriner, was horrified by the woman’s self-righteousness and by all that Kelly Griffin assumed about this young girl. The principal wrote back to Ms Griffin and set her straight about many things. But some things cannot be set straight by an email. I fear that Ms Griffin, wherever she is and whatever her situation, will need more than an email to connect with the mercy in God’s love.

“I have come,” Jesus said, “to call not the righteous but sinners.” That is what he said. And his words leave us, you and me, Ms Coleman- Kriner, Ms Griffin and all of us, to determine where we are in that statement. Has he come to call us or have we put ourselves outside the sound of his voice, made ourselves too good, too clean, too educated, too wealthy to have him sit with us at the table?

Interesting… The word “sinner” here in the Matthew text can be translated to “outcast.” Jesus is accused of eating with tax-collectors and outcasts. The people at the table where Jesus chose to sit and eat were not morally corrupt or terminally broken people. They were people who had not pleased the rule-keepers, the righteous, the powerful.

They were called “sinners” because they were people who had been cast out of the in-crowd and its power. And Jesus’ strategy is a simple one. He eats with them. He goes where the culture has infused toxic shame and he renders the people there wholly acceptable. No, more than that…wholly favorable.

Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who started and is the executive director of a nonprofit called Homeboy Industries. He loves and supports gang members in Los Angeles and he has been loving them for many years now. He has a thousand stories to tell about the ways that being loved, being called and being included have transformed human lives on the streets and in the poor neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Gregory Boyle, this Jesuit priest, fights despair. His book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, is as inspiring and touching as any book I have ever read. I recommend it to you.

Boyle says that we have come to believe that people grow into being favorable with Jesus, with our creator, with perfect love. We have to work at it, according to popular opinion. We must do things to please God. We must sacrifice and atone for our waywardness in order to be loved and favored by God. We must live a certain way and the externals of our life must illustrate how much God loves us. It will be obvious that we are blessed: nice car, nice clothes, good job, orderly life. No shame.

But Boyle says it’s not like that. We don’t work our way into God’s mercy and love. He points out: The only thing we know about Jesus growing up years is that he grew in wisdom and favor with God. But, Boyle asks, did Jesus work at becoming favorable to God or did he discover, as time went by, that he was in fact wholly favorable to God and had always been so—even as you and I are wholly favorable even now? Even as we all are. Right now.

This good guy priest, Gregory Boyle, serves the Delores Mission, a church that has been vandalized, its walls spray-painted with the words: Wet Back Church. It is a place where gang members gather by the bell tower, homeless and undocumented men and women are fed, and folks arrive at all hours for AA and NA meetings.

One day a man drove up to Delores Mission in a fine car and he got out. He had on very nice clothes. He talked with Boyle, nostalgic for his early life in this neighborhood. He had been baptized in that building and had had his first communion there. He looked around at the people gathered. “Tsk. Tsk.” He said, “You know, this used to be a church.”

According to Boyle, it is now finally a church, a place where our culture’s toxic shame is washed away, a place where lives are transformed by love, a place where everyone has a chance to feel included. It’s a church, a place where people are called to give and receive mercy.

Perfect love passes by us as we go about our daily business, as we struggle to have faith and to sustain our hope. “Come with me,” Love calls us. “Follow me. Have mercy.” And be the church in Memphis.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

In One Place

Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. We lived right downtown, next door to First Church of the Nazarene, where my daddy was the preacher. Church was all I knew in my early years. The year that I was four, I was left alone and lonely. My brother, Stanley, who is one year older than I am, started kindergarten that year. My two older brothers, Kendall and Dale, were busy with school, band, sports and girls. My mother was the church administrator and pianist. My father was always busy in his study, visiting church members or attending meetings. I was left to entertain myself.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the front steps of our house, watching people park their cars and then walk down First Avenue to work. I knew everybody who worked downtown: Mr. Smith, who owned Smith’s Gulf Station, went to our church. Red, who worked at Kilgore’s Feed and Seed, was my pal. Mr. Johnson, who owned Johnson’s Home Hardware, was tall and handsome. I had a big crush on him. But they were busy, working. They had little time for me. I sat on the front steps and watched the world go by.
I remember the moment clearly when I first noticed the tin-roof shanties across the empty field. There were six of them. Once I noticed them, I couldn’t help wondering why I had never noticed them before. Straight across a weed-covered field, where houses had been torn down, there were six frame shacks in a row and, the most exciting thing, there were children playing all around them! I stood up to see more clearly. Children were running, chasing each other, squealing and laughing with delight.
I ran inside and found my mother at the typewriter. “Mama! Mama! Look! There are children playing over there! Can I go over there and play?!” She was busy and didn’t want to be bothered. I had to pull on her arm for a while. Finally she sighed heavily and stood to look outside. Her eye followed my eager pointing. Then she frowned and shook her head. “Oh, no!” She sat down and started typing again.
“Mama! Why not?!”
“Because!” She was annoyed. “It would just cause trouble. Now go on outside and stop bothering me.”
So I went over to the church and found my father in his study. “Daddy! Can I go across the street and play with those kids over there?”
“What kids?”
“Over there. Across the field.” He stood and looked out the window.
“Why not?!”
“Those children are negroes and you can’t play with them.”
“Why not?!”
“Because they have their own friends to play with. That’s why.”
“Their own friends?”
“That’s right. Negro friends.”
“Do they go to school with Kendall and Dale?”
“No. They have their own school.”
“Well, why, if they live right there, across the street, why don’t they come over here to church with us?”
“Because they have their own church, just like they have their own friends and school.”
And so I went back to sit on the front steps, all alone, wondering about this division, this separation, this difference between us and them. A year later, when I learned to read I would read the signs downtown: Colored Only and Whites Only on the water fountains. Colored Entrance at the back of the dime store. The signs were there and clear.
The church didn’t have any printed signs. It didn’t need them. The signs were everywhere: who was in and who was not. Depending on race, the language a person spoke, the kind of dress they wore, the level of education. All of it kept us separated and divided into our many places of worship.
And this week, the United Methodist General Conference met for its quadrennial gathering and voted once more to separate and divide people. Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are not to be ordained or included in the same way that heterosexual people are to be included in their way of doing and being church.
But how has it happened and what does it mean that the church has become a place that keeps people apart, assures that some people never get to meet, know and share life with others? Some people stay lonely and isolated on their front steps forever. Never knowing that God’s love is theirs. The Holy Spirit came to include them in the one place where love reigns for all.
What does it mean to be a church? Is it a building we claim, maintain and visit once or twice a week? Is it a place with an open door and signs of welcome for only a few or for all people? How do we live now as church people? I’ve spent my life asking these questions.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. I have worn a red dress today because the color of Pentecost is red. Red with passion. On Pentecost Sunday we remember when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of The Way. The Spirit came like a mighty rushing wind; flames of fire stood over the heads of believers and they had an experience of being able to speak in a variety of languages so that people from every nation who were present that day could hear and understand what the believers were saying. The "church" began to broaden that day, to widen its scope and include people of varying backgrounds, races and nationalities. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians in order to broaden our understanding of God's love for all people.
It was seven weeks after the resurrection. On that Pentecost Day, there were about 125 people gathered together with the disciples. There were people who had met Jesus, followed in his path and there were people who had heard about Jesus from those who had known him. All of them were finding their lives transformed by the stories, and the love that Jesus had shared.
Christianity is a love story. It is that simple and that broad. Pentecost happened to broaden the love, widen the spread of God’s promises for all creation.
Christianity has succeeded because it transformed the lives of people. It has brought us together and allowed us to discover meaning in the days between our birth and our death. Christianity has given us hope. The Holy Spirit has come to live in us and among us to make it clear that hope exists for all people, to make it possible for us to share hope with all people. The church is called and equipped to live differently than the culture around us.
In the first five centuries of the Christian faith, people understood that following in The Way of Jesus was to challenge the status quo. Believers infuriated the defenders of ancient Roman religions, who insisted that Christianity was an immoral sect with secretive rites and rituals that undermined the family values of that culture.
The Way was based on Jesus teaching recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
And Jesus replied with the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Christianity is a love story.
The Holy Spirit came upon us as a mighty wind, flames of fire and the capacity to communicate with each other and to be understood in a variety of languages. Christianity connects us to each other. The church belongs to a kind of love that brings us all together in one place and for one purpose: to be connected and transformed by love’s presence and power.
That first Pentecost Sunday brought changes. And people then, just like people today, were uncomfortable with change. Changing our understanding of who we are and how we connect with each other is challenging.
Shady Grove has its own challenges as you live out your love story together. The world is changing around you so quickly. It’s hard for all of us to keep up anymore. The ground seems to shift under our feet as we learn about new threats, new enemies and new challenges every day.
And here in this place, you have recently merged two congregations, two traditions, two sets of people. You are grieving the loss of your long time and beloved pastor. The winds of change are blowing you about. Blowing away the dust and awakening your passion to follow in The Way, to be the best love story this congregation can be together and in one place.
It’s the birthday of the church, a day when we recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit to broaden our understanding of God’s love for all people—all people in this place, in this city, in our nation, in all creation. May Shady Grove always be a place where people feel the passion of the Holy Spirit’s longing to share hospitality, to make all people welcome and included in the particular love story in this one place.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Chains Unfastened

Preached at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016 (Mother’s Day)
Acts 16:16-34
I’m Hannah, the slave girl you heard about in the scripture reading today. I used to be a slave girl. I used to be a lot of things that I am no longer. I thought you might like to know my story. I want to tell you what it took to save me and set me free.
You’ve been told that I was following after Paul and Silas, shouting as they walked along the street. “These men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” I knew who they were as soon as I saw them passing by. I’ve always had a gift, the power to see truth, to look at people and see through them, through whatever masks they put on or whatever pretense they adopt. I can see the center where their spirit lives.
And that’s what got me thrown out of the house—even as a small child. My father was unhappy with my boldness to speak, my gift made him feel exposed, threatened by me. He said I had a wild look in my eye, a demon in my spirit. So he put me out on the street. My mother sneaked a blanket and some food to me on that first night. But after that, she was afraid to challenge my father and his awful anger.
Lucky for me, I can sing. I started standing in the market place and singing, long, low laments, deep sounds of sorrow and pain. People threw coins in my basket. They recognized their own suffering in the sound of my songs. People in the marketplace began to come to me for my songs and for my ability to see into their souls.
“What do you see in my future?” they asked and I told them. Some days there was a long line, people waiting to have a moment with me.
Unlucky for me, the sound of my voice attracted two men who had no scruples but a love for profit. One night as I was sleeping on a side street, they chained me, beat me and claimed me as their slave. They could do that. There was no law against it, you know. Or maybe you don’t know that in my day and in my culture an unclaimed woman could be any man’s property. Any one’s slave. I was forced to tell fortunes during the day and the men pocketed the high price they charged for my gift. They chained me to a post every night while their dogs were free to roam. I sang myself to sleep at night.
Always the unscrupulous men were guarding me, making sure whatever I did was of benefit to them. They watched for crowds, dragging me to places where people were congregated and that’s how I came to be in the street when Paul and Silas came along. They were the kind of men who drew a crowd. I could see they had great power, they also had a gift. They told stories about a man who was love, nothing but love for people, all people. I heard what they had to say and I could see clear through it, down to the truth of what they had to say. It was crystal clear. Those men were telling us about something that could make a difference.
Something more had come into the world and they knew how to get in touch with that something more. I couldn’t help but shout! Over and over again! It was that important! I looked around at the crowd of people following those men and I could see how they suffered, how they were hungry for something more and I wanted them to know that something more was being offered! I kept it up for days. The men who owned me didn’t mind since I was drawing attention to myself and getting business for them.
But on the third day, Paul turned around and called out to me. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of her!” He was annoyed. His face was red and furious as he hollered. He looked and sounded just like my father. I felt crushed. I stopped hollering. I stopped seeing into the depths of him or anyone. That angry face robbed my spirit of something alive. I had hoped for something more, the something more that Paul and Silas were talking about. Paul’s anger chilled me to the bone. I just wanted to go somewhere and hide.
But the men who owned me weren’t about to let me hide. They hollered at me too. They insisted that I tell the fortunes of customers they brought to me. But I could not. And so they beat me, they beat me so badly I thought I might bleed to death. I didn’t die and when the men were convinced I could no longer tell fortunes, they put me to work as a prostitute, continuing to collect money for the work that I did.
I heard the men talking. They had accused the men, Paul and Silas, of robbing them when Paul had ordered me to be silent. It was hard for me to think of anything about me as belonging to me. The men took even the few coins people threw into my basket when I sang, low and mournful beside the road. What was left of my voice seemed to belong to them, not me.
I suppose I would still be working as a prostitute. I would still be under the control of those men if it had not been for the jailer’s wife. Sarah. Everybody should know Sarah. She’s thoughtful, smart, kind. And brave too.
Turns out Paul and Silas were beaten and they were thrown into jail for the losses my owners suffered. Sarah told me all about it. That “something more” those men have, that story about a man named Jesus who brought perfect and powerful love into their lives…they were singing hymns about all of that, praising God. The power of it all brought on an earthquake and unfastened their chains! Their chains came unfastened and they were free! The chains of all the prisoners in that jail were unfastened! Singing set them free! Wow!
Paul and Silas went home with the jailer. Sarah cooked for them, a big feast. And when they all sat down to eat, when everyone was talking about all that had happened, Sarah got to thinking about me. Her curiosity was awakened. She has two daughters of her own. Sarah wondered what had happened to that slave girl and she wondered where the girl’s home was, where her mother might be.
It took a few weeks. Sarah couldn’t stop thinking about me and worrying, the way mothers do, you know? And so she came to find me. I must have looked a mess, living like I was and being so mistreated. I was too beat up to work when she found me chained and lying by a trash heap.
But Sarah walked up to me and smiled. Smiled at me as if I were somebody special. She asked enough questions to be sure I was the one she was looking for. And then she found the men who owned me and asked them how much it would cost to purchase me. “What must I do to save her?” she asked.
I’m not sure what it cost to redeem me but Sarah found out and brought her husband back to pay whatever it cost to take me home with them. I am no longer a slave. Sarah adopted me as one of her own, a member of their family. And this is where I live now—washed, well fed and strong again. Gifted too.
There’s an entire community of us, a group of people who have come to believe in the power of something more. We trust the love of Jesus, the kind of love that lives and reigns in a mother like Sarah. Love that can save us all, set us free, unfasten the chains that hold us down.
I can see truth. I can see deeply and I can sing again. Not low songs of sadness but joyful songs of praise! I love to sing about the goodness I see and feel in Sarah, in this community of faith and in the hope I have that one day all of us, all people everywhere, will find their chains unfastened.