The God We Can Pray To

The God We Can Pray To

Sermon for July 28, 2019, Pentecost 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 

Father, hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our sins, 
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 
And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I was visiting some folks while I was on vacation and heard this story, told by the brother about his sister.  The brother, now retired, remembered what happened in their family when his older sister became pregnant.  They were an Irish Catholic family.  She wanted to marry the father of her baby, but he was Protestant.  So her father went to the priest to ask permission to give his daughter in marriage to a Protestant.  Permission was denied.  The priest told him that if he did, he would go straight to hell.  

So, he went to another priest with the same question, and received the same answer.  What was he to do?  How could he not give away his precious daughter in marriage to the man she loved? But how could he sacrifice his eternal soul to hell?  He sat long, with his whisky, in despair.  

Finally, he made his choice.  He loved his daughter.  They would go to the military base where the man she loved was serving and have a wedding performed by a chaplain.  He was willing to sacrifice his eternal destiny for his daughter.  

The brother who watched his father and his older sister go through this crisis as a thirteen-year-old said, he gave up on faith, and God, and the church all at once. 

Someone in the group asked what I, the clergy person present, thought about it.  I answered this way:  The outspoken atheist, Sam Harris has said that everyone is an atheist with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.  

So, Christians, he pointed out, are atheists with respect to pagan gods, and with respect to Hindu gods, and so on.  So, we can all affirm that we are atheists with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.  

Sidebar: this does not mean that we do not respect people of other religions or their beliefs, it just means that we are Christians who have several ideas that are important to us as we conceive of the God Jesus taught us to put our trust in.  

The point is that the God I trust in is not the kind of God that sends people to hell; especially not for intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics.  I am, you could say, an atheist with respect to that version of God.  

I do not believe that is the version of God that Jesus taught us to trust in.  I am an atheist with respect to a judgmental, punitive, angry version of God, precisely because I believe Jesus was an atheist with respect to that incorrect understanding of God (regardless of how many times God was understood to be that way in the writings of the Hebrew Bible.)

In fact, I believe that it was high on Jesus’ agenda to teach a version of God that was a radical challenge to the notion of God that many of his contemporaries believed in.  

And that is exactly what Jesus was doing in the text we read.  He was teaching about prayer, yes, but at the heart of his teaching about prayer was a radical reformulation of the God he taught us to pray to. 

Prayer is communication with God.  To pray means to have a concept of the kind of God we are praying to.  Our way of understanding God makes all the difference.   

So, how did Jesus teach about what kind of God to believe in, as he was teaching his followers to pray?    He did not start from scratch.  

Starting with the Kaddish

Jesus was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.”  Kaddish means “sanctification,”  The Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed.”)  That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”  

The Kaddish says, “Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.  Amen.

So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer.  But he made some changes to it.  The first was that “Abba,” father, came before the request to sanctify God’s name.  

“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”

Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God. 

Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.

How do we pray?  We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father (or mother) would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.

Yes, but, Really?

But is that God?  Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being?  Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell “in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).

Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we, finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination.  God is not a separate being, but is the source of all being.  

We must never lose sight of this great truth.   God is good, but not tame, as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.

This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”.  Holiness means god-ish-ness.  God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.”  God is not a mortal to be messed with.  

Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky.  God is not a man.  Nor is God a woman.  God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.”  The divine includes male and female but is beyond both.

Infinite only?

This could lead us to a problem.  How would it be for us, if all that we knew about God was that God was infinite?  We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased God in some way.

But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” or “mother” who loves God’s children as the perfect parent would, and looks after them, to raise them well.

So, God is aware that we need daily bread, and God provides the conditions for us to have it.  God is aware that we will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive.  But, God requires that his children do the same, that is, forgive each other, as God does, when they wrong each other.  

God’s Kingdom, Come

Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come.  But instead of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”   

In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.”   This simply means “here and now.”  “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”  

Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.  

To pray for the kingdom to come is to pray: 

  • May justice be done.  
  • May the hungry be fed.  
  • May the homeless find shelter.  
  • May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.
  • May the sick have access to health care.  
  • May our water, air, and soil be clean and our planet not overheated for us and for our children.  
  • May love and harmony, forgiveness, and reconciliation define our relationships.  
  • May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.
  • May we be able to come to God, trusting God to be our perfect parent, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.  
  • May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that God cares and that God has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened, by offering new futures.  

Trust in God as Father/Mother

May we have the trusting confidence in God as father, or mother, to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening.  Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.   

The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father/mother.  There is no way God would give his/her children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg!  Even a human father or mother with all of their failings knows better than to do that!  How much more does God love and care for us?

But this does not mean that bread or fish or eggs drop out of the sky when we pray.  God has given us hands and feet, brains and muscles, and expects us to work hard, be prudent, and self-disciplined.  

And, God has given us the capacity to be the answer to the prayers of others who need bread, or fish, or eggs.  We can be the answer to the cries of the children at the border and the people lost in the desert to which their poverty, vulnerability, and hopelessness have pushed them.  We can be their answers to prayers by our courageous, compassionate response to their suffering.  

Praying (not understanding) 

I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why.  I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if God didn’t know, or reminded as if God forgot.  I don’t believe God needs to be assuaged, by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer.  I don’t think God is waiting until prayers accumulate, like sugar on a kitchen scale, before agreeing to respond.  

All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself.  A God far different from the one that sends people to hell for giving away their daughters in marriage to people of other faiths.  

This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, the Aramaic word for father or Ima, the word for mother.”

The Poisonous Question

The Poisonous Question

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 for July 14, 2019, Pentecost 6C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

New Testament Scholars all agree that one of the most certain things we can know about the historical Jesus is that he told parables.  Many of them contain surprises.  Sometimes they completely reverse our expectations.  

Jesus’ parables are set in normal life — they are about farmers in their fields or families with rebellious sons, or sheep that get lost.  

The parable we call The Good Samaritan is probably Jesus’ most well known and loved, even if it is also so well ignored.  But we cannot ignore it.  This parable has never been more relevant, so let us try to take a fresh look at it again.

The Biblical Scholar and his Questions

It begins with a confrontation.  Luke calls the man who confronted Jesus a “lawyer” but the “law” that he was a trained expert in was not civil law, it was the Law of Moses, the Torah.  So, we would call him a Biblical scholar.

Anyway, he asks a question that we think we understand, but most of us probably do not.  He asks, 

“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It sounds like he is asking how to get to heaven.  That’s not what he was asking.  Most Jewish people had no concept of heaven yet.  But they did have the idea that there were two ages you could live in: this one and the coming one. This age is full of evil, oppression, and suffering; the coming age would be an age of justice and vindication of the righteous.  

How does the new age arrive?  Opinions differed.  Maybe God would just miraculously intervene, maybe God would empower humans to successfully overthrow the Romas, just as God had done in the stories of Joshua’s armies defeating the Canaanites, many years before.  Messiah would be the leader, of course. 

But anyway, the righteous would live in the age to come, and that’s what this Bible scholar wants for himself.  

The First Answer

So Jesus asks him to answer his own question.  At least this is how Luke tells it.  In Mark, which was the first version, the scholar asks Jesus, and Jesus answers; but today, we are reading Luke’s version.  So Jesus asks the question:

“He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The Bible scholar answers.  He goes to the very law that is at the heart of Judaism. 

“He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;”

That law became the basis of the creed, the Shema, that faithful Jewish people recited twice daily, so it is at the heart of Jewish identity and spirituality.

But, interestingly, the bible scholar adds a second law, in the same breath, even the same sentence, saying,

“and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)

Neighboring in Torah

Now, the word “neighbor” is going to become a big deal in this story, so let us just take a moment before we continue to ask, “What was so important about the neighbor?”  

Every Jewish person would know that “neighbor” was a huge concept in the Law of Moses.  In English, “neighbor” translates a couple of Hebrew words, which together occur over 200 times.  It is a huge concept.  Let me give you just a couple of examples:

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”

Deut. 15:7   

Here are a couple from the Ten Commandments:

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

Ex. 20:16

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Ex. 20:17 

And the last example I will give actually supplies the reason for the law based on the very character of God.  It is a law about making a personal loan and taking something for collateral:

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;  27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”

Ex. 22:26 

So God’s compassion requires that the cloak, even though it is collateral for the loan, be returned so the poor person has something to cover herself in the cool Palestinian night.  

You can see how important this concept of neighbor is.  You have huge ethical obligations to your neighbor.  Care of neighbor is right up there with the foundational obligation to love the Lord your God.  Some scholars have called this  the ethics of “neighboring.”

So Jesus says,

“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  

The Poisonous Question

And now comes what I am calling the poisonous question.  Luke tells us the bible scholar’s motivation for asking it: he wants to justify himself.  

Think about that.  That means he is aware of his own track record.  Maybe he has been ethically responsible to some people, people he considers legitimate “neighbors,” but not to everyone.  Is he off the hook?  Here is the poisonous question:

“he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, what are the limits around my ethical obligations?  

Whose cloak do I need to return at night, after a loan, and whose can I just keep, and it is okay with God?  

Who must I not bear false witness against, and who is okay with God to lie to?  

Whose wife am I allowed to covet?  What are the rules; where are the boundaries?

The Parable Answer

So, in response, Jesus tells this famous story.  It has all kinds of clever details.  The victim in the story is stripped — so he is wearing no ethnically-identifiable clothing.  

He is half-dead, so he is not talking — you cannot know what language he speaks, or what regional accent he may have.  

So how do you know if he is a Jewish man, a neighbor, in need of your compassion?  Maybe he is even a Samaritan half-breed?  We hate those guys.  They are heretics.  And they are not people we call “neighbor.”   

So, in the story, two people come down the road; they see him, but pass by without helping him.  No reason is given — but every Jewish person would understand.  Both of these men work at the temple.  One is a priest, the other a Levite.  If they become religiously impure they cannot do their jobs until the period of impurity expires.  Touching a corpse — if he is dead already, or touching blood — we assume this victim is pretty bloody — make you impure, according to the Law of Moses.  So, of course, they have “good,” religious reasons to pass by.  

A third man comes down the road, and this is, indeed the despised Samaritan.  And, as Jesus liked to do in his parables, expectations of what would happen are reversed: the miserable Samaritan stops to help.  In fact, his help is outrageously profuse and generous.  

He went above and beyond the call.  Not only did he give him emergency first aid, but he also put the victim on his own donkey, and put him up in an inn.  Not only that, he promised the inn-keeper a blank check for his expenses!  

Who does that?  Well, someone who is “moved with pity” meaning, compassion, as Luke tells us the Samaritan was.  Just as God’s motive of compassion was given in the law about obligations to a neighbor, so this Samaritan too, was motivated by the same reason: compassion.  

So Jesus wraps up with another question to the Bible scholar — and this too is a complete reversal of expectations.  We are waiting for an answer to the scholar’s  poisonous question, “Who is my neighbor?”  But instead, we get this, from Jesus:

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The answer is obvious:

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Mercy is another synonym for compassion.

“Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Identity

It is so interesting to me that Jesus told this parable in this way, to make it impossible to know the victim’s identity.  He is just a human being.  The only relevant question is, are you willing to see him as a neighbor and treat him as a neighbor?  

It’s no small question.  Remember, neighboring is right up there with the command to love the Lord your God as the basic requirement for life in the age to come.  

So why is this almost universally disregarded?  History is filled with racism, bigotry, ethnic animosity and identity-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion.  I have seen it up close in Croatia.  I have seen it up close in America.  We have all seen the news.  It is the oldest story humans tell.  

We like “us,” we hate “them.”  We are compassionate to “us,”, we are enemies with“them.”  We know who our neighbors are, and to the devil with the rest of them.  

I had a conversation with a Christian leader several years ago when the subject of waterboarding suspected terrorists was in the news.  He actually said to me, “But these people are not Americans. They are not protected by the constitution.”  Right.  They are not citizens.  So, God is okay with torturing them?  They must not be neighbors?  I wonder if the Good Samaritan was worried about constitutional rights?  Something tells me it was not a concern.  

Humaneness

As far as I understand it, the criteria for showing compassion that Jesus used was simple humaneness.  Treating people humanely is what matters.  It is exactly how we would want to be treated.  This applies across the board.  

That’s why it is wrong to treat people of other races, ethnicities, or orientations inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat incarcerated people inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat undocumented people inhumanely, no matter how they crossed the border.  Our humanity requires that we treat them humanely.

Pushing it Further

I believe this extends to our own grandchildren too, which is why it is so urgent that we protect the climate of the planet they are going to be living on.  

I want to push the question a step further.  Why should the same thing not be true for our treatment of animals as well — at least those creatures who are capable of conscious suffering?  I believe they must be treated humanely as well, though it almost feels ridiculous to say that, here and now, when we do not even treat immigrant children humanely.   

Final Question

So, the story we read ends with another question.  Clearly, the biblical scholar got the answer right: Who was the neighbor to the victim?  It was the one who showed compassion.  Jesus confirmed his answer, saying, 

Go and do likewise.” 

So, the final question is, did he?  

Or, maybe the question is, “Will we?”

Making Persons

Making Persons

Sermon for July 7, 2019, Pentecost 4C, and the Installation of Soniyyah (Sonna) B. Key as Community Ministries Pastor. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I read Richard Rohr’s daily emails, as some of you do.  Wednesday he quoted theologian, author, and speaker Sister Joan Chittister, and I liked it so much I posted it on Facebook.  It is about finding God everywhere, which is what contemplatives of every tradition have discovered.  She said, 

“Contemplation is immersion in the God who created this world for all of us. And the mystics of every major religion . . . remind us of that. Hinduism tells us that within the cave of the heart, God dwells, not just in the forest. And the Buddhists say, “Buddha is present in all places, in all beings, in all things, in all lands, not just in the monastery.”  “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” the Jewish Psalmist says [Psalm 139:7]. “Whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God,” Islam teaches. And Christianity reminds us always: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” [Romans 1:20]. . . .”

The Jewish book Wisdom, in the Apocrypha says, “God’s immortal Spirit is in all things.”  (Wisdom 12:1).  

When asked by the woman at the well, according to the story in the Gospel of John, where was the right place to worship, in the temple on this mountain, or the one on that mountain, Jesus replied, 

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” 

(John 4:24)  

That is what we affirm; God is Spirit, and God’s Spirit is present everywhere and active everywhere.  It is God’s Spirit that is the lure to goodness that we all sense.  God’s Spirit is the impulse to seek truth, and to create beauty.  To quote from the book of Wisdom again, God is the “author of beauty.” (13:3)

What Do We Have to Offer?

But this begs a question.  If God is present and active everywhere, and if that fact is knowable and discoverable by people of all faith traditions, as we have seen it is, then what is so special about our faith tradition?   The text for today compels us to ask that question.  For me, the answer is amazing and wonderful.  

Fist, I want to frame what I am going to say this way:  I believe that Christianity has some beautiful and unique gifts to give the world — in fact, crucially important gifts.  I also believe that every religion has unique gifts to give.  So, with no disrespect to any other religion, today the question is: what does our tradition have to offer the world?

The Harvest

The question must be asked, because of this text.  Jesus, according to Luke, tells the disciples that the world is like a field of ripe grain, and that they are the harvesters.  They are to do what the Hispanic migrants do in our country: bring in the harvest.  They are to gather people together for God’s purposes.  What are God’s purposes?  It is their abundance, their shalom, their wellbeing, their blessing.  

Jesus came by this agricultural metaphor honestly.  You find it often in the Hebrew Bible.  In the Psalms, for example, there is a celebration of the joy of being back home in Zion (Jerusalem), after the tragedy of exile.  They were forced out of their country, sowing seeds of tears, but they returned reaping abundance.  

       Restore our fortunes, O Lord…
  May those who sow in tears
        reap with shouts of joy. 

    Those who go out weeping,
      bearing the seed for sowing,
    shall come home with shouts of joy,
        carrying their sheaves

(Psalm 126:4-6)

So, Jesus is saying to his disciples that the time is now; strip down to the bare necessities, take only what you need.  

Go to a community and embed yourself in that community.  Become one of them, on their level.  

Receive the gifts of that community’s hospitality, and share the unique gifts you have to give that community.  The gifts you have to give will be healing for that community.  

But expect that it will not always be easy.  There may be resistance.  Fine.  Accept that, and move on.  There will be people — in fact, plenty of people — hungry for the unique gifts that you can bring.  

Making people Persons

Well, what are the gifts Christianity brings to the community that are so healing?  They are all the gifts that open up and spill out from the proclamation that

the kingdom of God has come near.

When people awaken to the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God, what happens?  I love the way Dr. John Vervaeke, a lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science put it:

“Christianity can say [something] to all of the non-persons of the Roman Empire: (who are non-persons?) all the women, all the children, all the non-male citizens, all the sick, all the poor, all the widowed.  [Christianity] can take all of those non-persons and say, “We will turn you into persons; persons that belong to the kingdom of God”

How?  Just look at Jesus’ message?  Agape Love!  Vervaeke continues:

“[By] loving… you turn a non-person into a person. It’s the closest thing to a miracle, and that sounds hackneyed, I know, but stop and think about this; you depend on agape! It’s because people loved you [starting in infancy] before you [became a fully developed] person, that you have [been able to] become the person you are.” 

Episode 15 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

This is the healing gift we bring to the communities we embed ourselves in.  We can proclaim, affirm, and celebrate the dignity, respect, and value of every person whom we believe, God has made in God’s own image. 

By loving them, we affirm them as persons.  We see them. We listen to them.  We become allies, advocates, and even full accomplices with them, in the depersonalizing struggles they face. 

Community Ministries

This is the ministry we have been engaged in as a congregation in so many ways.  Today, let us celebrate that.  And this is the ministry to which Rev. Sonna has been called.  It is a ministry outside the walls of the church, in the community, to the community, with the community and for the community of the River Valley.  

Do not expect to see her here every Sunday, nor to be in her office 24/7.  Her ministry will be in homes, cafes, the library, and in public spaces where the community lives.  

Our job is to support her with our love and prayers.  Our job is to listen to her, as she listens to the community.  We will dream with her as she imagines what a harvest of shalom can look like in new contexts.  

The Need

Let us return to the text for one final question.  Are the fields really ripe for the harvest?  Isn’t it the case, in these days, that people have abandoned the quest to find meaning through organized religion and clergy? 

Well, the answer is “yes,” as far as that goes.   According to the book written by the PC(USA)’s 1,001 New Worshiping Communities project,

The unchurched population in the United States is so extensive that, if it were a nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet.” 

– from Lost in America, Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, in New Worshiping Communities by Vera White and Charles Wiley, p. 23

Nevertheless, it is also the case, according to a recent Gallup poll that over 90% of the US population claims to believe in God. 

Many people identify themselves as “Spiritual, but not religious.”  In other words, hungry, but unsatisfied with the food that they have been served by the institutional churches they have experienced.  

Well, there is a new table available, and on it, there is a “feast of rich food, of well-aged wines, strained clear,” as the prophet Isaiah imagined it.  (Isaiah 25:6)  

But many people today need it “to go.”  They are more likely to be found waiting for a meal at a food truck than in a traditional restaurant.   

That’s what Community Ministry is about: it’s the food truck, taking the feast out of the building to the people who are spiritually hungry, where they live.  It is about loving them into full personhood, healing the wounds of a depersonalizing world, proclaiming the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God.