Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In ALL circumstances?

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
April 23, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-22
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

Our scripture today is a letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. And let me tell you: Paul LOVES the Thessalonians. When you read through this whole letter – and you should because it’s only five chapters – you get a clear sense of Paul’s affection for the small community he established in Thessalonica, this ancient city on the Aegean Sea. Early in this letter, Paul writes about his time with the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”

Here Paul is thinking of himself as a nursing mother to this infant church. He is pledging commitment to sharing both the good news of Christ and his very self with them. He LOVES them.

Now I’m not sure entirely why these Thessalonians receive so much more verbal affection from Paul than many of the other communities he writes to. Maybe it’s because this is the first existing letter we have from Paul in the scripture – the earliest one -- and maybe he’s all idealistic and hopeful and hasn’t been beat down in his ministry yet. And maybe it’s because the Thessalonians do sort of sound like the teacher’s pet of all of Paul’s churches.

He has received word from Timothy who went back to visit them that they have been firm in their faith and love despite persecutions. And Paul proclaims “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”

So Paul loves these plucky little Thessalonians, which makes me think that it probably grieved his heart to hear from Timothy that they were experiencing sorrow and disappointment. In the fourth chapter of this letter, Paul addresses their worry. You see, some among the Thessalonians have died, and the community is saddened by it. Of course, grief is normal when people die, but it is especially a problem because Paul had told them that Jesus was going to come back to fulfill all things, to solidify the triumph of good over evil, within their lifetimes.

And so the Thessalonians are waiting, and people start dying around them. I imagine they were heartbroken. They believed that the resurrection was proof that God’s total triumph of good over evil, of life over death had begun, and they believed in the promise that Jesus was coming back any day now to finish the job. And yet they had to watch their loved ones die, and their community was suffering persecution.

We in this community have also just celebrated Easter. We have just celebrated the proof and the promise of resurrection; the proof and promise of God’s ability to take whatever evil the world can muster and transform it into good, whatever death the world throws at us and breathe life into it.

But yet life keeps throwing so much evil and death at us.

We are the heirs to the Thessalonians. We are their heirs writ large. If months after hearing the gospel, the Thessalonians are disappointed that Jesus has not returned, how much more disappointed are we that 2000 years later Christ has still not returned to restore all things to paradise!

How much more disappointed are we when churches are bombed in Egypt. When children are assaulted, when world leaders are all bravado and bluster and within reach of nuclear weapons, when millions of people live in poverty, when racism still limits the opportunities and health and very lives of people of color, when health care is a commodity rather than a right, when there is discrimination against gay people and violence against trans people. When we continue to lose the people we love to death and broken relationships. It is beyond reasonable to be disappointed and grieving.

And what does Paul have to say about this to the Thessalonians? In the midst of their grief and disappointment, and out of his deep love for them, he says “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoice? Give thanks in all circumstances? Why would Paul possibly say this? If we read it in context, we realize that this is not some trite “well, this is your cross to bear” or “God has a plan” response.

It’s because Paul believes. And though Paul concedes in chapter 5 of this letter that no one exactly knows the day or the time, he believes that in fact Christ will come again in fullness. And the triumph of good over evil, of love over hate, of life over death will be total.

Paul believes that the resurrection of Christ is both proof and a promise of God's ability to overcome every last shard of brokenness in our world.

And I believe that, too.

Because even amidst the brokenness of the world, I have seen proof of resurrection and glimpses of the coming kin-dom of God.

I have seen proof of Good overcoming Evil in the long view of history. I can see the long arc of progress: the end of slavery, women respected as persons not property, diseases treated and cured that used to mean sure death. Nearly one billion people were taken out of extreme poverty in just twenty years from 1990 to 2010.[1] But do not get me wrong. This arc has not been without severe and serious setbacks. We are perhaps in the midst of one of those setbacks right now.

But I can tell you that I believe that no narcissistic world leader, or populace acting out of a last gasp of white supremacy, or church scapegoating queer folks is anything more than a blip in God’s cosmic movement toward good and love and justice.

Because even as the global narrative seems dire, the kin-dom is here and coming in a million tiny ways. We can hear it in the story that our guest preacher Gee told on Good Friday – of her work starting schools for girls in rural Afghanistan. We saw it this past Thursday in the photographs displayed here at the Abbey, and the hundreds of people who showed up to learn about the people with abilities in those photos.

I tell you, I saw it at the immigration vigil in February – not just in those hundreds of supporters lining Dodge Street, but more than anything in the thousand-watt smile of a hijab-wearing mother as she drove by in a mini-van. The kin-dom is here and coming when 170 queer clergy come out in a letter in open defiance of an oppressive church.

So I say to you: rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances.

Because the sufferings of our time are real. And because in God’s cosmic narrative, they are temporary. And because as we live and breathe and love each other, we are participating with God in the restoration of the world.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim 


Monday, April 3, 2017

It’s Hard to be Humble

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey

Matthew 18:1-5 

Jesus asks the disciples to become like children, this is not the first time children have served as an object lesson for his stumbling, bumbling disciples. This moment harkens back to another time when the disciples were having just as much trouble understanding what the whole Jesus  movement was about....the time when Jesus rebuked the disciples for keeping children at bay  and says, “Let the little children come unto me.” (In proper King James English, of course). We have seen the photos or perhaps been in a church parlor or library with a framed yellowing print of Jesus surrounded by a group of delightful children. They are listening, they are attentive, no one is crying, everyone seems cool and into sharing. There are no stains from lunch, no one has their finger in their nose ready to wipe the booger on Jesus....which is a reality I have seen when you find yourself surrounded by toddlers. Jesus wants us to become like children, and while I’m not sure it has much to do with boogers, I am sure it has something to do with vulnerability and a lack of control. Jesus points to children because, once again, his disciples have forgotten the point of living like Jesus. Becoming like children means losing control. It means losing any status you might have in the regular order of the world. It means not having authority, limited choices and real vulnerability.

Early Christians approached this with a notion of transformation with love and humility. Love was the goal, the outcome that ordered all things. To love as God loves was the goal and humility was the vehicle. It was, for early monastics, the path that paved the way to love as God loved. It was the key of total transformation and it was a tough road to travel. And while we can understand perhaps love, or get closer to it, I’m not totally sure we can get close to the sense of humility that Jesus was inviting. 

When I was in Seminary, one of my friends had a party. She invited our classmates, her friends from church, and artist friends to her amazing home in Dallas. During the party, I saw a guy walk in with a bright red t-shirt and the state of Nebraska across his chest. I walked toward the door, not believing my eyes...did that say Humboldt Nebraska? Arriving in front of him, I smiled and with considerable enthusiasm, I asked, “ARE YOU from HUMBOLDT, Nebraska?” He looked confused, I looked back at his shirt, and it actually said, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Nebraska.” I quickly said, “I’m sorry. I misread your shirt. I’m from Plattsmouth, just south of Omaha, where are you from?” He looked confused again and then looked at his shirt and looking back at me he said, “Oh I’m not from Nebraska. I just thought this shirt was totally ironic.” I had about 50 follow up question; like, was he one of the many Texans who assumed we didn’t have running water, street lights, and shopping malls or did he really think everyone from Nebraska was a model of humility, thus rendering the shirt “totally ironic?” I didn’t really want to ask so I just said, “Oh, ok....Thanks I’m going to get something to eat.” 

It didn’t feel good that he would think Nebraska was humble. We don’t handle humility very well. Basic definitions from various dictionaries offer descriptors like, lack of pride, lack of self- worth, a low view of one’s own importance, low self-esteem or not valuing self highly. The synonyms can link you into words like shy or unassertive or unsure. This sense of humility is so far from the model Jesus and his followers embodied. Jesus wasn’t shy when he fed 5,000 people on a hillside. He gave clear directions and didn’t beat around the bush asking the disciples to take action. He didn’t have a low self-esteem or self-worth, he was confident as he took on the religious leaders of his day. He was assertive from start to finish, he was clear on his intentions, even unwilling to make an explanation to Roman officials that could have saved  his life. The early church took the model of Jesus to heart, and this goal of love was filled by humility, but it was not a humility born out of one’s lack of value. Rather, it gave them the courage to be truly humble. It was, and is, humility of deep value, made in the image of God as a follower of Christ. 

Humility has two key aspects: one is repentance and the other is avoiding judgement.  Repentance is an opportunity, and it is something we hate doing. We hate hearing about mistakes or missteps, and it is hard to receive instruction or guidance that can help us grow. It can make us feel small, and if we have placed our value in that ability to do everything just right, well, it can be a blow to our self-worth. Perhaps you feel the sting when someone makes a suggestion or names a concern? I know I do. I struggle when people correct or challenge, even when it is done with love. It becomes easy to want to deflect or explain or undo something.  Early monastics looked to this as an opportunity to live ever more closely to God’s love. They didn’t resent a correction, challenge or concern - it was a chance to grow. Repentance, seeing forgiveness, was a grace. Any they could hear what they had done wrong or name their mistakes because they were so loved and so valued it was safe to learn, change, repent, be forgiven and grow. Their value wasn’t based on doing everything right or the appearance of doing everything right; their value was in God’s deep love. 

Just as humility frees Christians from the risk of embarrassment or a bruised ego, the other side of humility is refraining from judgement. Refraining from judgement is hard - it was hard then, and it is hard now. This is why the Abbots and Abbesses challenged people bringing a concern about another to notice the brokenness that judgment could create. As a part of this humility, right and wrong behaviors could not be listed or made easily into a code. Love is more complicated than black and white choices. Living in real love is more complicated and more discerning, which means judging another is impossible. 

Origen of Alexandria named this journey with a powerful metaphor. He invited us to think of our journey as sailing a ship. It requires our thought, our learning, our care, our intention and our effort to navigate through the sea, but we do not do it alone. God’s grace powers our craft, and love is the wind that fills our sails. We are asked to be open to it, to navigate with it. The power of our humility is in the love of God, the knowledge that we are of worth and value, which allows us to be truly vulnerable and brave in our journey. May we have the courage to be open, to seek forgiveness and transformation as a gift for our journey. May we have the courage to navigate the seas of struggle and hope all around us and may we grow into those with humble hearts who love as God loves. 

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QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

What does it mean to be humble? What does it look like when you see it? What does it look like when it is missing? What is one positive example of humility...someone you know? What do you love about interacting with them? 

How do you feel when you hear the word repent? Do you feel like there are any times and places where you have asked for forgiveness or offered it to yourself or others? 

What does the word judgment mean for you? How do you feel about it when it is directed towards you? Can you name a time when you have judged others and what that was about for you? What would it mean to refrain from judgement?  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Risky Love

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey
John 15:4-5, 9-11 and John 15:12-17

I hate romantic comedies. I really do. Well, maybe I don’t hate them as a form of entertainment, but I do hate the notions of love that we glean from them. In romantic comedies, love is all about infatuation. It is that thrill of the chase, that attraction that makes your heart race and your mind unable to focus on anything else. Every romantic comedy ends with the couple finally getting together, maybe walking down the aisle, maybe driving off into the sunset. And everything is puppy dogs and rainbows.

Now, I’ve got nothing against puppy dogs, and y’all know I am a big fan of the rainbows, but…but we also know that these movies are just about the very beginnings of relationships and don’t tell us anything about the hard work of loving for the long haul. They are certainly not about the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in our scripture today.

This week as I prepared to preach, I read a commentary on this scripture from a book called The Cultural World of Jesus. And it told me that in the ancient Mediterranean world, notions of love were not about affection. They were not about this feeling of love, but they were about attachment and bonding. Love was more about doing than feeling. To love was to act out of commitment to and solidarity with another person. To physically and emotionally care for them. Not necessarily to feel warm fuzzies when we think about them.

And because love was about doing rather than just feeling, it makes sense that Jesus names a radical act as the pinnacle of love. He says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Of course, we know what happened, that Jesus quite literally died for the love of his friends. And sometimes you hear Christians talking as if this is the whole story. They talk about how it was so great that Jesus gave up his life for us. And I do think that Jesus’ willingness to die for his friends was an amazing expression of the depth of God’s love and commitment to Her creation.

But the scripture doesn’t stop there. Jesus isn't just talking about what he is going to do here. He's talking about what his followers are supposed to do. He says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." This is no saccharine love, no Hallmark kind of love. Jesus says I am so committed to you that I will die for you, and I want you to do the same for each other. This is no easy ask.

Luckily, we are rarely in situations that call for such a sacrifice. But I do think that every time we are asked to love in the way that Jesus calls us to love, the kind of love that is about doing rather than just feeling, we are at risk of losing something. We risk losing the time that is required to nurture a relationship or help a loved one through difficulty, we risk losing resources when our love extends to physically caring for someone – whether we share our money or open up our homes or prepare a meal. When we open up our hearts to care, we risk being hurt and disappointed. Loving like Jesus calls us to love involves risking all kinds of loss.

And that can be scary. It’s scary to commit to that kind of love. I confess that I struggle with this. When I am confronted with someone who needs love, my first instinct is to think about scarcity. I am afraid there is not enough. I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough energy to offer another person love. I can’t make room for someone else. My life is too full already.

When I reflect on this, I think my fear of expanding my circle of love is somewhat rooted in this ridiculous myth I carry around – one that I've been trying to shake off for some time. I used to believe this: that there are some people who doing well, who have all their stuff together, and so they can give love because they have resources to spare. And there are some people who are broken and struggling, and they need love and care to be given to them. And so to have a healthy community, you need an equal number of people who have all their stuff together to the number who are struggling and need help. Which on the surface seems to make good mathematical sense. Except my experience has taught me that it doesn’t really work that way.

I learned this when I was part of Church of the Village. I’ve talked about it before. Church of the Village is located in a quite upscale area of New York City (as in, Taylor Swift has a condo there), but Taylor Swift was definitely not coming to our church. In the great socioeconomic divide of New York, we were definitely populated by folks on the lower end of that divide. And when I got involved there, I thought this: we just need to get some healthier, wealthier people in here to take care of these folks who are struggling, and then we will be alright.

Of course there were some instances where it might have seemed that was how it was working.

There was Frances*, a retired well-paid executive at a global agency of the United Methodist Church, who invited more than one person from church, at different times, to live with her when they lost their housing – which was an alarmingly frequent occurrence for people trying to survive in that expensive city. And sometimes her generosity worked beautifully and the person she was helping got on their feet, and sometimes it turned out to be pretty messy. But she taught me about what real, risky love looked like.

But Frances was by far the most "together" person who taught me about risky love. More often than not, I learned from people who had experienced difficulty and loss and were still trying to make ends meet. And often, they were the first to step up and care for others -- even if they didn't quite have their stuff together.

There was Donna who gave Mother's Day presents to all the moms in the congregation on her salary as a public school security guard. There was Sharon, an addict in recovery who started attending church after utilizing the food pantry and immediately became one of most active volunteers in our feeding ministry. There was Tim, who lost his housing and had to move way out to Staten Island to find something affordable, and who used his little extra money to buy something each week - new socks or food or a coat - for a homeless young man whom he saw on the way to church every Sunday, who lived in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

You see, these folks weren't protective of their time or their resources. And I think it was because they had experienced the abundance of God's love and presence. It was God’s love and presence that had gotten them through their lowest moments.

 And because of that - it was the people who I had once seen as broken - who I thought were the broken people who needed my help - who were able to help me and help others. Because they had experienced loss and resurrection. And they understood Jesus' command to love as not some burden, but as the Good News of what their lives were going to be now that they had experienced the transforming and boundless love of God.

I tell you these stories, and I rely on remembering these stories because it reminds me that when I am called to risky love, I don't need to be afraid. I don’t have to save this world on my own. Not just because I can’t, but because the economy of God's grace is not like our economy. When we give love away, it is not lost. It is multiplied. The more you give away, the more you sacrifice; the more willing you are to give, of your care, of your time, even of your resources; the more you are able to truly love and truly live.

And that is not some burdensome slog of a life. It is exactly the life of liberating love that God dreams for us. In the first part of our scripture today, Jesus tells his disciples – and he tells us - about this self-giving way of life not as a something we owe to God, not as a punishment, but as a gift from God. And he tells us this for a very particular reason: "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."

May we receive this gift.

May it be so.

Amen.

*All names have been changed.

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QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Which of your resources (your time, your money, your physical or emotional energy) are you most worried about sharing? What are you afraid will happen if you give too much of them away?

2. Do you know anyone who seems to live from a place of abundance and generosity? What does that look like? Why do you think they are able to live and love generously?

3. How can you cultivate an awareness or mindfulness of God’s abundance in a world that urges us to believe that there is never enough?


Monday, March 20, 2017

Hypo-Christians & The Deep Dive

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 19, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 23

Jesus is less than thrilled.  This might be an understatement.  He has a litany of seven woes and calls the religious leaders of his day blind guides and a brood of vipers.  This is particularly notable because Jesus didn’t gecnerally walk around Israel calling people snakes.  One group of people actually tried to toss him off a cliff, and he didn’t even utter one word to them.  Roman soldiers were tasked with killing him and there was not one unkind thing that came across his lips.  But hypocritical religious leaders, watch out.  Jesus saved his anger for the blind guides.

He invites people to listen to the teachers, saying, “‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (Matthew 23: 2-3) Jesus names how they study the words but don’t embody them, they hear the prophets but can’t live as one, and they teach the stories of the past but don’t live them in the present.  He names how they heap up burdens on others and use their spiritual practice to gain power and honor and un-merited authority.  “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (v5).  Phylacteries were a tool for spiritual formation, a leather box bound to the arm, carrying a scripture.  If could serve as a constant reminder through the day of the sacred story pushing the wearer to live more faithfully or fully. But here the tools of spiritual formation became a tool of power and honor.  A way to show off.  A way to look really faithful in the community rather than being really faithful to the community.

It is this misuse of power that launches Jesus into his litany of woes, over and over saying, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”  (v23)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (v25)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (v27)

Jesus is pretty serious and these are just a few.  He looked at the hypocrites, tithing even from their herb garden but neglecting the poor, the widow and the orphan and he must have been enraged at how they apply the law.  I suspect he had three choices in the face of this reality…or at least perhaps we have three choices when we see it.  First, he could have looked at the way these men gained power and privilege, how they gained authority without merit and he could have chosen to join them.  Understanding the system before him, could have allowed him to engage it, be part of it, work his way into some advantage.  Second, he could have looked at the scribes and priests and Pharisees and determined them to be hypocrites and he could have given up on the whole mess.  He could have looked at the men who couldn’t embody their teachings and decided to give up on all of it, let go of the prophets and stop singing the Psalms, forget his phylactery and stop caring about the stories of Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah, David and Ruth.  He could have decided the whole thing is like a white washed tomb and just let it go.  But he didn’t.

He chose a third option. He chose, I think, to get rooted so deep that he could stand firm in challenging the status quo.  He knew his tradition, he quotes prophets and the psalms spring from his lips whenever he needs them.  He teaches in the temple and everywhere he goes because he knows his faith and loves it enough to discover something more, to see beyond the teachers and into the teaching, to find the power of his faith even when he sees hypocrites all around him.  And this choice is one I believe, he is asking of us.

This text has been used in ugly ways by Christians throughout history.  Christians have read, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  And thought it was about Jewish religious leaders.  This scripture has been used to scape goat, tighten fears of difference and has led to genocide and anti-Semitism, which is a gross misuse and spiritual violence.  The truth is, if we are honest, Jesus would likely have a litany of woes for us twice as long.  A litany of woes regarding how we spend money and build huge sanctuaries, or have such amazing liturgical bling, or neglect the poor or spend too much money on junk that doesn’t matter or cut meals on wheels.  Anything really.

When I was growing up in the Methodist church, I remember learning about doing good, singing songs…sometimes about frogs… learning psalms, picking up trash, walking for the crop walk and talking about the environment.  But as I entered high school and college, I became more connected to para-church ministries that offered Bible studies, which became a primary source of spiritual formation.  And the studies had a primary theme: behaving in a particular way.  As I look back at the Bible I used, I can see what that theme was: it was about sex.  Every verse I have highlighted is about sex or really it was about waiting until you are married to have it.  This of course was sprinkled with a side of don’t drink or do drugs and topped off with both the threat of hell and the grace of forgiveness…kind of.  All of these themes are obviously important for young people to be thinking about; how to care for your body and your wellbeing in a world of choices.  In college with the Navigators, who met on Friday night because they were so serious, there were detailed classes about courtship, a process of praying about dating for six months, a process of talking to someone of the opposite sex (of course) for six months, in a group and maybe holding hands and it culminated in another six months of engagement.  They gave away books, they had every detail and everyone took notes.

My time was a little short lived because I soon shared my call to ministry and my plans to be a United Methodist Pastor.  Which, they had a chart for as well! I like to call the chart, “Why women are secondary and can’t speak in church.”  But at the same time, I was talking with my pastor at home, he gave me new books to read and new questions to ask.  Questions the Bible study leaders couldn’t work with or work through, questions that didn’t fit into the nice five step process they had laid out for salvation.  I started taking classes in Religious studies and Christian history and soon it was like I was discovering something new and old at once.  Everything was more complicated and more interesting.  Christianity was so much bigger and more beautiful and more difficult than I had imagined.  And the parts about sex; well, they were so minimal.

I often wonder what it would have been like if those Friday night bible studies had focused less on policing behaviors and required a more expansive look at the Bible. What if the details had been about the phrase “blessed are the poor” and if the charts and graphs focused on the causes of poverty, the statistics from near and far, the ways people were working to make changes, the structures that help, and the laws that hurt?  I sometimes wonder what it would have meant for the Navigators to look at what Jesus means when he said he came to “proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor” in Luke 4.  This is an economic policy, a year of debt forgiveness, where people enslaved by debt are freed and land is returned to the original owners who may have lost it.  I sometimes wonder if we had spent less time worrying about strategies to not have sex and more time looking at how Jesus healed people what it would mean when Christians today talk about healthcare.  If rooms of college students were looking at the bible saying, “we may not understand healing or practice it in the same way, but is there a way that we as Christians can be a part of it?”

We are called to this strange faith, this beautiful faith that asks us to dive in.  Perhaps diving in gives us the chance and the requirement to stand up and say, “Woe” when we need to.  Perhaps it requires us to take a look at ourselves and at our churches and at our community leaders that claim Christianity and name that we all have room to grow into the faith Jesus taught us.  

Questions for Discussion:

When you read this scripture about hypocrites, what is your first thought?  What makes you angry and why?

Have you considered giving up on faith because of the church and hypocrisy?  What would it mean to get deeper and explore faith in a new or renewed way?  What does this require of you?  Do you have to change anything?

What do you struggle with in your own journey…is there anything that makes you feel like a hypocrite?  What are you working on?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Extraordinary Hospitality

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 12, 2017

Scripture: John 2: 1-11

This text always surprises me - first, I am reminded that I still belong in middle school every time I hear the word ‘drunk’ read in worship. Second, well it’s not the text as much as the surprising ways I have heard people talk about it. Mary comes to Jesus in a desperate moment at a wedding and Jesus turns water into wine to save the day. For some, this is an example of Christ blessing marriage . . . and of course, that means marriage between one man and one woman. It’s just if you take a little look into the context, it is true the marriage could be one man and one woman; but it’s also true that it could be one man and his second wife, or one man and his fourth wife or one man and his tenth wife. This is not a model of marriage I find interesting. Ironically, the same folks who focus on Jesus blessing a marriage don’t see him blessing the wine. My early experience with a campus ministry taught me that in an effort to police what is good and bad or moral and immoral behavior (with, of course, consuming wine being a big No- No), bible study leaders were ironically willing to apply context to this part of the scripture. They’d say, “well, it was different then, wine was safer than water…it is really about hydration.”

The truth is, this scripture is probably not about blessing a wedding or policing wine consumption . . . Mary does not ask Jesus for help to prove a point; she asks him to help the family because they need it.

This is a hospitality crisis. Mary sees the need of people and she knows Jesus can help, so she gives him a motherly nudge. The wedding celebration is still going and the party is running out of wine. We can imagine it. Weddings don’t always go as planned. Groomsmen give inappropriate toasts and fathers trip going down the aisle. Stuff happens, and today that stuff goes viral. We can imagine the pressure of wanting things to go just right and we can imagine the embarrassment of things going wrong as though it will be splashed across Twitter, “McRamsey’s run out of wine at daughter’s wedding - SAD!” But for Mary and the bride’s parents, it’s not about avoiding embarrassment or managing their image as much as it is about the sacred practice of hospitality. Mary grew up hearing the stories of her people welcoming strangers. She taught Jesus about their people’s history of welcoming the foreigner and treating the alien as a citizen, not just as a policy, but as a part of their faith. Hospitality was a part of their identity and written in their covenant with God.

Chapter 18 of Genesis invites us into the story of Sarah and Abraham welcoming three strangers. Abraham goes out of his way to invite them in and offer them the best they have. He kills the fatted calf, makes cakes…well he doesn’t…he has people do that…but he is the chief architect of the family’s welcome. He and Sarah don’t save the calf for their anniversary or a special event and choose the non-fatted calf or an old goat (honestly, I don’t know the opposite of the fatted calf but there must be something; we all know there is a difference between a nice meatloaf and prime rib you were saving for Christmas dinner). The point is, they make the most generous welcome they can offer. They don’t vet the visitors or ask for paperwork; they welcome them. They make themselves vulnerable and it turns out the visitors are angels, and the story concludes with a blessing. Hospitality is so vital that in the next chapter, the three incognito angles journey further, enter the city of Sodom and wait to be welcomed. No one offers hospitality except Lot and his family. Lot puts his family at risk as the city of Sodom turns hostile, which is classically represented by a mob of angry men. They want Lot to send the guests out to be assaulted. This story isn’t about sexual expression between two partners, it’s about sexual assault. And sexual assault is about having power over another. The people of Sodom want to dominate these guests in the most intimate and violent way. This story ends with fire and brimstone raining down from on high while Lot and his family narrowly escape. The sin of Sodom was a sin of hostility in place of hospitality and this sin receives one of the most epic punishments by God in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible takes hospitality seriously, with both a carrot and a stick approach…i.e., you could be entertaining angels or your city could be demolished - you choose. Mary and Jesus and the people at the wedding grow up singing the songs of a faith that welcomes the stranger. Hospitality infuses the work and life of Jesus; everywhere he goes, he feeds and includes. It also shapes the life of all who follow him. The early Christians became known for their hospitality; they break bread and share all things in common. They are so good at it that the Roman Empire turns to them as an example when the emperor asks his leaders to learn from the Christians. Today, this might be more of a corporate meeting and the emperor saying, “you know who does hostility...I mean hospitality well? The Christians. I know we are trying to kill them, but they are great at hospitality. Someone go learn from them and then we will have a great PowerPoint of best practices next month.” Perhaps, not quite like that – but the point is, hospitality is woven into our faith. As Abbeys and monastic communities began to dot the religious landscape, the rule of faith required hospitality. St. Benedict called on his community to welcome the stranger as one might welcome Christ. The stranger is God incarnate. And offering hospitality to anyone was a gift and a matter of spiritual practice.

Jena Reise writes about her experience of Benedictine hospitality in her text, FLUNKING SAINTHOOD. In reaching out to a distant relative, she was received in his home and he was excited for a call out of the blue. He was thrilled to do something that wasn’t on his list. He was thrilled to make her lunch, oh and her husband and her daughter…oh and another couple with whom she was traveling! He lavished time and listening and lunch on the group as long as they had, not as long as he had. He was flexible and open with his time and his energy and the resources that he had to make the best welcome possible.

Jena writes also of her attempt to practice hospitality. She writes about welcoming friends and family in ways that most of us can understand. Having a house guest is not always easy, including navigating our space with their needs. Hospitality pushed her to look at her schedule and how she really didn’t have time or take time to welcome her guests. She was reminded to listen to her guests when she got annoyed at dietary practices that didn’t match her plans for an amazing roast or beautiful chicken dinner. She learned from the jokes and barbs that she sent out, and one of the most difficult moments came in bringing her brother an ash tray and a comfortable chair rather than chiding him one more time about lung cancer.

Hospitality is not easy. It is rooted in a Latin word that means stranger or foreigner. It is the same root from which the words hospital, hotel and hospice emerge. It is also the root of hostile. How we treat the stranger with hospitality or hostility. How we enter into the unknown is the practice of faith. Do we choose the risky, loving vulnerability of hospitality or the guarded, controlling and dominating path of hostility? That is why each week we gather with open hearts at this table to take in Christ the host through this meal. We practice each week in community so we can shape how we live each day. Perhaps this week invites a little practice or a big test of your hospitality. What would it mean to look at is as sacred? What would it mean to practice it so well that people know you for it? We practice hospitality individually and communally. We practice it here each day in our living sanctuary, seeking to surprise and delight and include each and every person. Sometimes that means cleaning a table or redoing the floors, and sometimes that means greeting with a smile or listening to the hard words that are felt but not spoken. Practicing hospitality makes us vulnerable and we engage in it as people of faith entering our national political structures. Our faith calls us (as it did Mary and Jesus, Abraham and Sarah), to be people who welcome the stranger. And as we all know, that is hard to do in a world ruled by fear of strangers. This faith calls us to speak love into this fear.

Maybe we join Mary in asking for help? Mary sees the struggle and the need and she asks Jesus for help. And here in this story of amazing hospitality, God shows up, saving the best wine for last. Everyone thought the party was over - the wine had run out, people were leaving the dance floor - and God shows up and the party is back on, better than ever. The gift is extraordinary. It is beyond expectations, and it is the best that can be offered. May we have the courage to offer our best. May we have the courage to be the blessing in unexpected places and unsure moments.

May it be so. Amen.

Questions for Discussion:
When have you felt welcomed? What does great hospitality feel like and look like?
When have you welcomed or offered hospitality? How does that feel? What do you love about it? What do you find challenging?
What does it mean to you that the words hospitality and hostility are rooted in the same Latin word? Have you heard churches or music refer to Christ as Host and does that mean to you?
What is a step toward hospitality that you might try in this season of lent?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wandering in the Wilderness to Find our Best Selves

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at the Urban Abbey
March 6, 2017


Scripture: Matthew 4: 1-10 

This scripture about TEMPTATION is the start of Lent every year in the lectionary (a shared reading system that helps church communities read the bible in three years). Matthew, Mark and Luke share this story of Jesus in the wilderness. Mark offers the shortest account of 40 days in the wilderness, but that is kind of his style. Luke and Matthew share this more expansive version that personifies the tempter as Satan or the Devil and gives the tantalizing details of three temptations. This kind of personification of evil may be a little beyond how I tend to understand my faith, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand the struggle this story invites us into. This wilderness of temptation has some historic resonance that echoes back further than Jesus in the wilderness. When Matthew, Mark and Luke share the story of 40 days in the wilderness, their readers and listeners hear an echo of the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness. Those 40 years were years of temptation and uncertainty. They were unsure about food and manna rained down from heaven. They were unsure about their God, built idols and received the Ten Commandments. They were unsure about their journey out of slavery in Egypt and even considered turning around for the Devil they knew rather than the uncertainty of freedom. They were tempted to return to the social and political systems they knew, even if it meant slavery in a powerful empire. After 40 years in the wilderness they emerge into a new promised land, having overcome the temptations to turn back or shrink away.

Jesus emerges from his 40 days in the wildness more clear about his call as well. The gospels place this wilderness time as one that immediately follows his baptism. The spirit fills him, surrounds him, is upon him and he is driven to the wilderness for a season of fasting and prayer. It is there that things get a little wild. Jesus is tempted by the Devil, this agent of brokenness tempts him and in sort of a mind-blowing twist, the Devil keeps quoting the Bible (a fact we should probably keep in mind next time we encounter someone quoting the Bible at us). The Devil asks Jesus to prove himself and fill his belly by turning stones into bread. The Devil asks Jesus to prove God by throwing himself off a cliff and requiring God to save him. And last but not least the Devil takes Jesus up high to see all the kingdoms and glittering things of this world. He offers the deal, it can all belong to Jesus if he just accepts it. With each temptation the Devil pushes a little further, quoting scripture. And the thing that links these temptations is that they are all about misuse of power. Misuse of natural world, changing a stone into something it is not. Misuse of faith, testing God and making yourself vulnerable for the wrong reasons. Misuse of power in the world. Jesus can be all powerful by the world’s standards, he can be on top of the system that is…except he says no. Jesus emerges from these 40 days more surely himself. More clear about how he will live and work in the world. He will not abuse the natural world, the religious authority he holds, or conform to the political structures as they are; he is about the work of God’s kingdom and the work of making all things new. Forty days in the wilderness, like the 40 years long past, make Jesus more clear about his work. He sets out immediately to invite other people into this ministry.

 Lent invites us on a 40 day journey. Of course, there is some old church magic math that doesn’t count Sundays, but still the period of lent invites us into our own wilderness with our own temptations. It makes sense that Lent begins with this moment of Jesus facing the hard spaces of being human, the spaces of real temptation to misuse or abuse. Of course, when we compare Jesus facing down the Devil and giving up being an empire, abstaining from Chocolate or coffee or soda or something like that seems a little…well…small. So maybe this Lent we can think about what is really holding us back from understanding ourselves, being ourselves and moving boldly. Maybe we can dive into our own wilderness. That wilderness that is really wild and really inside. Perhaps there are some things to give up or let go or leave behind. And maybe that is even chocolate for you, but I bet there might be something tougher to give up and even more powerful - should you choose it. The other question I would raise as we start Lent is this, “What have you given up already…without even thinking about it?” We give up things all the time: relationships with old friends or working out when we start getting busy, and then we stay busy and we are still busy so we just never pick it back up. We might have given up making a family meal or spending time reading or learning or studying or praying or probably Church - although that is clearly no one here. We give up things all the time that really mean something and make us our best selves. So maybe as we dive into this wilderness, the wilderness of our lives this lent, and ask we should ask what practices we might try, or what might we give up or take up again that will help us emerge our best selves? What would help us emerge ready to be our best selves and confident in offering our best to the world?

We have 40 days. We can imagine Jesus, baptized and spirit-filled, facing the questions of his head and heart, the temptations to conform rather than transform, the temptations to choose the easy path or the safe path - or at least the one that doesn’t get you killed on Good Friday. We can imagine that time in the wilderness where Jesus committed to the life that was important to him and the practices of his faith that would make him the leader he needed to be. We have 40 days. Let’s go to our own wilderness. Let’s be brave together.

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QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

What is your experience of Lent?

What would you consider giving up? Are they things you should give up anyway? What would it mean to you?

What have you given up without considering it or without intention? What would it mean to reclaim or renew some practice or relationship?

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Light That Pierces the Lingering Winter Darkness

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at the Urban Abbey
February 5, 2017

Scripture: Luke 2: 22-35

So here we are. It’s still winter. This past week, we have experienced some of those classic short, grey days of late January and early February. And apparently, just a few days ago in Pennsylvania, some people dug out this very fat and very tired and irritated-looking groundhog named Phil, (I mean, who names a groundhog Phil?) and Phil determined that there will be six more weeks of winter. I watched the video. He seemed very irritated.

I can sort of relate to Phil. I’ve been feeling maybe a little chubby lately from the comfort food-stravaganza that seems to accompany my couch-sitting around 9 PM every night.  And like Phil, I have felt tired and irritated this week - mostly just tired – during these cloudy and dreary days, my heart heavy with worry over the state of our world.

So today I got out a whole bunch of candles. Today we are celebrating the Feast day of St. Brigid (technically February 1st) ,and the feast day that falls on the 2nd: The Feast of the Purification of Mary. The Purification of Mary is the story that we heard in our scripture today. It is that moment when Mary and Jesus and Joseph go up to Jerusalem, up to the temple, in order for Jesus to be dedicated and for Mary to be ritually made clean again 40 days after giving birth to a male child.

St. Brigid is actually associated with this story. See, Brigid, who lived in the 5th century CE in Ireland, is known for many things. She is known for being a child who got in trouble for giving her family’s food away to the poor. She is known as an abbess who founded a monastery for women and men that became a haven for artists. She is the saint people call on during childbirth and daily labor and for rest at night.

And she is also known as a sort of time-bender, a time-and-space-traveler. Many stories about Brigid are about how she traveled, sometimes in a dream, and actually participated in the stories of Jesus. In this particular moment in Jesus’ life, Brigid is said to have traveled back in time in order to hold two candles and walk before Mary to light her way into the temple.

You heard in the scripture, while they are in the temple, the holy family encounters this old man Simeon. The text says that the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple so that he would meet Jesus. And when Simeon meets this tiny savior, he declares that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” In other words, this savior Jesus would be a light and a savior not just for his own people – but for all people.

It is this light motif that caused some Christian churches to celebrate something called Candlemas – the Mass of the Candles – at this moment in the church year. The priest would bless all of the candles – candles that remind us of Jesus being the light for the whole world – even at this moment of lingering darkness, lingering cold, six more weeks of winter. Even here – we glimpse the hope of light.

Now it would be easier to stop here, and just rest in a simple declaration of Jesus as light and hope. But scripture, like our lives, is complicated. The gospel is not the gospel without struggle. So we go on reading the scripture and hear Simeon’s blessing of Mary. He says to her that Jesus will be opposed and will reveal the inner thoughts – perhaps the true nature – of those who oppose him. And then Simeon speaks these ominous words to her: “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Even scholars admit that it’s not entirely clear what Simeon means here. But we do know the rest of this story. We can imagine that it is a reference to Mary's experience as she walks alongside her beloved child. It will be her nearness to Jesus, her love for Jesus that results in her soul being pierced, her heart broken. It calls to mind scenes of Mary at the foot of the cross -  scenes certainly not yet imaginable for this young mother holding her baby.

But isn’t this the paradox of life, the paradox of love, that it is in the very times that we love the most, the times when we open our hearts up to true care for one another, that we are most likely to find our souls pierced?

And paradoxically, I too have found in this dark and difficult time in our calendar year, this dark and difficult time in our political life, that I have experienced the light of Christ most truly in moments where I could care for people in this congregation, and in moments when I witnessed you caring for each other. And these moments have been just as likely to bring me to tears as they have been to bring a smile to my face.

They have pierced my heart. They have helped me realize how much we need one another. And they have reminded me about the exquisite gift we give when we allow someone to care for us. I’m not sure how I would not have made it through the last month without the blessing of having people to care for, and having people to care for me.

You see, I believe that in this personal work of caring for one another, we experience God's presence, and that is where we are empowered and encouraged to engage in the sometimes-overwhelming problems of the world. Said another way...when we care for one another, God is in it.  It is the very presence of God that transforms our compassion - our suffering alongside one another - into the power to resist evil and work for justice.

So I invite you to imagine the scene with St. Brigid holding the candles for Mary as she walks up the steep steps of the temple in Jerusalem. Go ahead and close your eyes if that helps you imagine. Ask yourself this question: Who are you holding the light for? When are you Brigid in this story? Now ask this: who is holding the light for you? When are you Mary in this story? Not one of us has to do this caring for each other alone. If no one is holding the light for you, ask for help. You can be a means of God’s grace. You can give others the gift of encountering God's presence through caring for you.

You can open your eyes.

Here is the good news: I believe in the light. I believe in the light of Christ that pierces the lingering winter darkness. And I believe that, like Mary, to walk beside Christ and to take up the cause of Christ will pierce our souls as well. We will suffer sadness and heartbreak as we risk caring for one another.

And yet. When we suffer and die to ourselves with Christ, we rise with Christ, too. We rise as others offer us light. We rise as we offer light to others. We rise up in solidarity. We rise up in protest. We rise up knowing that we are just one person, and we will not change the world on our own.

But we rise knowing God is God, and Christ is light, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

Even now.

May it be so.

Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Swept up to the Mountaintop

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached January 15, 2016
At Urban Abbey UMC

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 (excerpted)
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo...and the Lord showed him the whole land…The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. It is known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and it is so named because it ends with him leaning heavily on the story referenced in our scripture today. In it, God gives Moses a vision, in the sense that God allows Moses to see. Quite literally, he is looking from a mountaintop at the promised land. This is the land that Moses and his people had escaped Pharaoh to get to, that they had wandered in the desert hungry and thirsty for 40 years to get to, that God had promised would be a fruitful land for them to raise their children for generations.

And God takes Moses to the mountaintop and says, “There it is. But you won’t be going there in this life.” You will die here before you can cross over.

This was a poignant story for King to choose to preach the day before he was assassinated. He told it in the midst of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike. The strike was about getting fair wages and employment practices for the black sanitation workers in Memphis, but it was also about something bigger. Its catalyst had been the deaths of two men: Echol Cole who was 36, and Robert Walker who was just 29 years old. It happened on a rainy day in Memphis, a torrentially rainy day. And as the skies opened up, Cole and Walker jumped in the back of a garbage truck, the kind that compacts garbage so it can hold more.

In the heavy downpour, this was the best bad option for what they could do about it. They weren’t allowed to stop working because of bad weather, and they weren’t even allowed to stop and wait out the worst of the rain in the neighborhood they were working in. Historian Taylor Branch explains why. He writes “They faced a hard choice in bad weather because city rules barred shelter stops in residential neighborhoods – after citizen complaints about unsightly “picnics” by Negro sanitation workers.”[1] White people didn’t want to have to be uncomfortable seeing black men stop in their neighborhood, and so these sanitation workers only had the back of the garbage truck for shelter. The front cab was already full of the more senior members of the team. So as they had doubtless done before, Cole and Walker were in the back of the truck with the garbage. And when a freak short in some wires possibly set off by a falling shovel caused the compactor to start crushing the garbage, Branch writes that when the driver “heard screams, he could not slam on the brakes, jump out, and disengage the pushbutton compressor fast enough.”[2]

It was the death of Cole and Walker that highlighted the systemic racism at work: the root of which was white folks’ inability to see black people as fully human. It was reflected in the signs of the striking sanitation workers that insisted “I am a Man!” I am not garbage.

So King went to Memphis. All of King’s work was based in this very simple, very profound, very theological premise. For King, all people deserve freedom and justice because they are children of God – they are fully human and of sacred worth. And like Jesus before him, King aligned himself with those who suffered most, those who were treated as inhuman, and those who were held down in poverty despite the great wealth of our country.

And when I say aligned himself with, I mean he was willing to die for the cause of bringing dignity and freedom and abundance to those who were denied it. In his mountaintop speech, King is quite aware that he is the target of assassins. He knows his time is short, but he does not despair.  His hope lies in God, in the arc of the moral universe toward justice, but his hope also lies in God moving people to do the work. He says, “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”[3]

“When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

King invites us to get caught up in this vision of what is right. In his most famous speech, he invites us to get caught up in his dream of racial equality coming not in some abstract perfect union years in the future but in right there in the red hills of Georgia where white people in the not-so-distant past enslaved black people, and then when slavery was abolished, those same white folks set laws in place to keep them destitute and powerless, and who continue to this day to gerrymander and attack voting rights in order to hold onto power.

And in the years following King’s speech, his view widened, he looked at the North and the perhaps more subtle but equally systemic racism that keeps cities segregated even today, that keeps prisons disproportionately populated by black men whom studies have shown receive harsher sentences than white men for the same crimes,[4] that keeps black infant mortality rates significantly higher than rates for white infants, and that keeps black males having the shortest life expectancy of all ethnic groups to this day.[5]

We are still so far from his dream of equality, still so far from the promised land. But can you see it? Can you see what the world would be like if our cities were actually integrated? Can you see what the world would be like if our nation committed more resources to education and anti-poverty measures than to expanding our prison system? Can you imagine what our society would be like when black people – and poor people – and all minorities – were just as likely to receive high-quality health care as upper middle class white folks? Can you get caught up in that hope?

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis once wrote (and this quote was in this sermon before Trump even starting tweeting this weekend). Lewis once wrote… “The most important lesson I have learned in the 50 years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within…to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others.”[6]

I believe we can only get to the promised land as a people if we start by truly recognizing others’ humanity, if we start truly being heartbroken and outraged by the injustice of poverty and racism and sexism and every broken structure that allows some people to suffer and die so that a few other people can be comfortable in their privilege.

For my part, I did not get this until I went to seminary. I truly did not get it until I was a member of a racially and and socio-economically diverse church community. I didn’t get it until I had the privilege to be in community with people who helped me see, helped open my eyes, to their full humanity. So much so that things like the Trayvon Martin shooting actually, viscerally mattered to me. Not in some abstract – it’s-ethically-wrong-to-shoot-unarmed-young-men kind of way – but in a Ruby’s-best-friend-at-Church-of-the-Village-is-a-large-for-his-age 11-year-old-black-boy-and-we-live-in-a-world-where-nervous-white-people-have-created stand-your-ground-laws-where-young-black-men-get-shot-for-wearing-hoodies-in-the-wrong-neighborhood kind-of-way.

It broke my heart. It made me feel guilty because I knew that as a white person, those unjust systems had been created to protect me and my family. And then it made me angry. And it made me resolve to always question whether I am placing my own comfort and privilege over someone else’s ability to simply live.

In the face of our current political and societal mess, I wish I could stand up here and tell you just how we are going to fix it all. I may not be able to do that, but with John Lewis’s words about personal transformation in my mind, I just encourage you to do this:

Be uncomfortable.

Put yourself in places and situations where you can learn more about vulnerable people. Do it even if you are afraid or nervous. Do it even if you feel guilty. Don’t let your fear feed the systems that create other peoples’ poverty, other peoples’ suffering, other peoples’ deaths.

I am asking you to sacrifice your comfort to get caught up in God’s dream. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to sacrifice everything for it because he believed in God, he believed in the collective power of his people, and because he believed in us – that we too would be swept up in this dream - until we all reach the promised land together.

May it be so.

Amen.