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.


[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. 



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?