Jesus said: Forgive 70×7 times?

(Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18:21-35) By Rev. Jacob Kanake –The subject of forgiveness is widely discussed inside and outside of the church. Today, forgiveness is even studied in the academic fields (masters and Ph.D. level). Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and spiritual care professionals say the practice of forgiveness has many health and spiritual benefits. There is consensus across several academic disciplines that forgiveness, spoken about in religious realms for about 20 centuries, is now an accepted public subject.

In today’s readings, Jesus focuses on the subject of forgiveness at the individual level because individuals have the power to influence what happens around them; individuals can choose to forgive. This personal forgiveness has real impact on the people who are the offended.

What is Forgiveness? Forgiveness is a new covenant that was inaugurated by Jesus Christ (Mark 2:5-11), which embodies God’s promise to his people, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Before the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, forgiveness was implicit. That is, until Christ came to fulfil it.

When forgiveness happens, the offended person takes an action and lives as if the offense never happened. The forgiveness is best expressed if the offender asks the offended to forgive. The offended may forgive out of compassion and in response to Christ (Ephesian 4:32). In the process of forgiving, the offended person may rebuke the offender by expressing anger, pain, and hurt instead of continuing to keep grudges toward the offender. Forgiving does not mean condoning the offense or allowing the offender to continue hurting the victim. Last week, we learned the process of reconciliation when an offense is done. Today, the victim is empowered to be assertive on expressing the pain and willingness to forgive.

There are many reasons why forgiveness is necessary. One, the offended person forgives to be free of resentment and hostility. In this case, the offended person forgives the person who offended them for self-benefit and not necessarily for the offender’s benefit. Secondly, the forgiving person feels positive and works to reduce negative feelings by setting up a welcoming tone to the offender, despite the offense. And third, in a close relationship or with acquaintances, the forgiving person forgives with the hope that the offender is willing to restore the lost relationship and start a new chapter. Fourth, both the offender and the offended are willing to settle the conflict peacefully for the sake of their life or those who depend on them.

When forgiveness takes place, the issue of power and control may be addressed (because in the church, a master and slave mentality ought not to exist). The offended person has the option to continue or terminate the relationship with the offender. When Jesus says forgiveness has no limits, he does not mean that people allow themselves to continue being offended or victimized intentionally. Forgiving has a limit when an individual’s life is in danger. Forgiveness should occur without causing physical, emotional or spiritual injury to the offended or the offender. When one is offended, ghastly resentment builds up quickly and retaliation can seem like the only remedy; sometimes the offended person wants revenge or to fight back. I do not know about you, but when I am offended, often negative thoughts build very fast and cloud my normal reasoning. Scientists tells me it is because of the adrenaline rush—a sudden increase of the stress hormone secreted from the adrenal glands that prepares me to fight or flight. When things settle down, the fat from cortisol is stored back into the waistline. Charlette’s research shows that unforgiving people have large fat mass on their waistline.

Forgiving is a Christian duty: Despite our physiological ineffectiveness, Christ advises that vengeance is not ours; it belongs to God (Deuteronomu 32:34; Romans 12:19), because God is the judge, not ourselves. God will take care of those who hurt others because God knows their motive and can avenge at an opportune time. Jesus calls us to maintain peace with others and ourselves. Jesus uses the parable of the servant/slave and master to illustrate this point. During the time of Jesus, the ancient world was influenced by the Greek culture that allowed slaves to own property. In most cases, masters entrusted their slaves to manage their properties and to keep their accounts. The slaves were free to invest their money by lending to other people like their masters. Therefore, Jesus tells of a slave whose master forgave a debt; however, this slave did not in return forgive the debt of his own debtor, but forced the debtor and his family into prison instead. The master of the mean slave decided that the mean slave did not practice forgiveness and therefore should also pay back the debt that the master had forgiven.

Jesus used this parable to teach a necessity of forgiving injuries caused to us without counting the number of offenses!

This parable is also a reminder of the Lord’s Prayer that we say every Sunday and during our private prayers. Forgiving others is not a simple task. Those who attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) know that to stop drinking or taking drugs, they need daily practice of the serenity prayer, the principles of the AA book, regular attendance at the AA meetings, and a sponsor.

The same practice is needed for Christians: we ought to practice forgiveness daily and remind ourselves of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us as we forgive those who wrong us.” Genuine Christians must constantly remember God guides our thoughts and actions. We should not take on God’s responsibility for judging others, including any offender.

Are we stupid and unreasonable if we allow God to fight our battles? Does being patient with those who offend us make us lesser human beings?

I read many forgiveness stories this week and some people’s comment caught my attention. One person said, “I cannot forgive. I am not God; if anyone hurts me, I will revenge very fast. I do not like religion, they want me to remain in a hurting relationship.” Another said, “I cannot stand those who hurt others.” Listening to these voices makes one wonder what God feels with human provocations. While I’ve wanted to play God on some provocations, the reading reminded me that God is merciful and forgives out of compassion. God also does not keep an account of human offenses/sins, which is why Jesus asks humans to forgive without limits—70 x 7 times.

St. Matthew states forgiveness should be without limit whether the offender asks for it or not. St. Luke goes a little further to maintain that an offender should be rebuked and forgiven if the offender asks for forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). Though it is necessary to rebuke and hold offenders accountable for their offense, we also realize that Jesus paid the human debts on the cross, making us free to have fellowship with God like children have fellowship with their parents. We can hold offenders accountable and not keep account of offenses, but forgive others without limit instead.

What can we forgive? Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is offered to all who believe in God by repenting all offenses/sins and trusting God through Christ (Acts 20:21). For those who believe in God, there is no limit of offenses that one can forgive including heinous offenses (Matthew 18:27). Christian ethics demand that forgiveness be done without fines. God through Christ encourages us to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who offend us (Matthew 18:35). However, if the forgiven offender wants to pay back what was taken, like property or money, he/she should be allowed to return it. For example, Zacchaeus, a tax collector at Jericho, returned the money he had taken illegally from taxpayers (Luke 19:1-10).

The secular justice demands that those who commit offenses be punished, and that is where justice and Godly forgiveness clash. The law of the land/justice may not advocate forgiving under all circumstances like religion does. But I know that restitution, a sincere apology, or a punishment imposed by the law can sometimes make it easier for an offender to grant forgiveness. When the law of the land is applied fairly, it may benefit both the offender and the offended. When we forgive those who offend us, do we stop the law of the land from doing its justice?

What happens if we do not forgive: The unforgiving person appears stressful and unpleasant; he appears and feels angry, sad, anxious, and less in control. Refer to the forgiven slave in Matthew 18:28-31: The behavior of this slave correlates with Charlotte’s research on unforgiving people. When he asked unforgiving people to try to empathize with their offenders or to imagine forgiving them, their physical arousal went downward. The same study shows that people with unforgiven grudges have many symptoms of illness, including high blood pressure, high heart rate, and facial muscle tension. When you live around unforgiving people, you will experience their reactions and feel uncomfortable and often you get stressed out.

It is better to forgive for our own good health than live with resentment and hostility.
Forgiving people have high self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships. The Bible shows that most forgiving people have positive emotions toward their offenders; these people experience changes in physiology, including lowered blood pressure. A person who forgives replaces the feelings of revenge with a caring altitude and is driven to reconcile with the offender. Those who experience positive emotions toward their offenders are more likely to forgive them.

Forgiving means continuing to work for the good of the other without malice or revenge, despite the past incident that affected you. This sends a message to the offender and to those around the offended that love is stronger than fear and hate. Working lovingly does not mean one has forgotten the offenses, but one continues loving despite the negative thoughts that remind them of the past abhorrent deeds.

When people live together, mistakes and conflicts are inevitable. It is the same as when coins are in a pocket; they rub against each other and make noise. Some people have personalities (sharp corners) that irritate those who interact with them. If the theology of forgiveness has proved anything, it is that these irritations do not lead to condemning us into a life of hurts and aggression (Ephesians 4:27).

I know forgiveness is real but not easy. The Kenyan nation did it; they forgive their colonizers. The British colonized Kenya from 1894 to 1963, denying the local people a voice in everything: politics, religion, and economy. Kenyans fought for their freedom (thousands of people died) and won independence in 1963. The first Kenyan president asked the Kenyans to forgive the Britons and not to seek revenge by killing them or taking the British property by force. The nation was receptive and the Britons who choose to stay after independence lived in peace. The Britons who wanted to leave sold their property and left. That is what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is for the brave, not the weak. It takes God’s grace to forgive and to keep forgiving when past negative emotions may come back and bring one down emotionally. Be brave!

Amen.

Healing and reconciliation

(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18:15-20) By Rev Jacob Kanake–

The Corn Story

Two members of my previous congregation who lived across the road from each other picked a fight over a chicken’s destruction of a corn crop. The chicken of neighbor A wandered in the field of neighbor B. She called neighbor A to ask her to restrain her chicken from destroying her corn crops. Neighbor B did not act. Neighbor A was annoyed and called aloud to her neighbor and a fight started. They argued for a long time until neighbor B was visibly agitated, and when she was crossing the road to grab neighbor A by the neck, an oncoming car came and killed her instantly. The story of grief reached my office and upon investigation, both neighbors had other grudges that were triggered by the chicken incident. Neighbor B died without a possibility of being reconciled to the surviving neighbor A. This case is a reminder that reconciliation should not be delayed. When Christians in the same congregation disagree, they can easily affect others.

Introduction

In previous weeks, we encountered Jesus revealing his identity; Jesus laying the foundation of his ministry, calling disciples and giving them lessons on doing ministry; and the disciples in the field doing the ministry. In Chapter 18, Jesus turns to teaching his disciples and all the future believers how to respond to personal injury caused by others. When the disciples heard Jesus was about to die (Matthew 16:21), they began to be caught in power struggles. Jesus knew a disagreement was about to occur amongst the disciples and they needed to know how to deal with it. Though there was an old Jewish way of dealing with disagreements, a new way, a global way was deemed necessary.

The whole of Matthew 18 is devoted to innovative ways of solving disagreements among the believers in petty cases, business cases, political issues, economic cases, divorce, and death cases. In every case, Jesus emphasizes that those in disagreements should exercise faith through love. Sometimes hard love! In today’s passage, Jesus moves on to teach the disciples/believers how to deal with disagreements and warns of the evils of power and pride (verses 1-4); Jesus commends the benefit of practicing humility.

The procedure Jesus lays down for dealing with disagreements (and offenses) is new; it cannot be compared with Jewish, American or African methods of dealing with disagreements. For instance, in the Jewish scripture, when people disagreed with the will of God they would die. When Korach disagreed with Moses (Numbers 16) the earth opened and he was swallowed with his assembly. The Jewish people of Moses’ time did not tolerate anyone who disagreed with what they perceived as God’s directives. With time, though, Jewish people moved from a death sentence to paying a fine. When disagreements/sins occurred, the offender would be pardoned after paying a fine (Leviticus 16:8-11). And during the intertestamental period (600 BCE to first century AD), the Jewish people amassed 613 laws and breaking any of them (sinning) attracted various consequences (death in heaven, lashes, and minor punishments). An offender had seven pardons for unintentional offenses; more than seven offenses/disagreements were not tolerated (Matthew 18:21). Jesus summarized all these Jewish laws into two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:8-10).

Therefore, Jesus wanted to set a new procedure that a loving believer should tolerate offenses seventy times seven (77×7) times in a lifetime. Jesus is building a new case for the disciples and all believers to handle offenses or disagreements. Whereas the Jewish people at first killed the offender, they later made laws to isolate the offender by making an offender an outcast. Jesus teaches in the new method that the offender also needs pastoral attention. The new process should be mutual, not one-sided—protecting the offender only but extending mercy to both the offender and the offended!

When disciples disagreed among themselves on who was closer to Jesus than others, the person who might inherit Jesus’ authority and leadership after his death, Peter courageously went and posed the question to Jesus, “Who is greater among us?” Peter was indirectly asking Jesus, “Who is your favorite? Who are you grooming for leadership among us?” Perhaps the disciples wanted to know if Jesus wanted their opinion. Jesus deflects the question on leadership and power and directs his answer toward resolution of disagreements. Jesus told them whoever humbles himself like a child will inherit the kingdom of heaven. But wait a minute, they are asking about earthly life and he is talking about heavenly life! How can one balance both life spheres: living faithfully and graciously on earth and finally living a more full life in heaven? How can one hold both lives in balance, because human tendencies are toward disagreements due to a desire to control and to own others?

Jesus goes further to instruct the disciples to refrain from offending others, especially the weak, the minority and the marginalized (verses 6-7). Jesus asks the disciples to be self-controlled when dealing with self-offenses and self—wrongs to be forgiven (verses 8-9). Furthermore, Jesus taught disciples/believers about practicing heart-felt love toward all believers and all people, including “these little ones” (verses 10-14) and not hurting them with evil plans.

Jesus CAUTIONED the disciples/believers against fighting for power, fame and recognition and instead Jesus implores them to command humility, to commend humility for themselves and for other people. From generation to generation, humility is a lesson hardly learned, yet it is the most vital lesson needed in life. Jesus used children to explain that humility enables the learner to have a new frame of mind and new insights for self and for benefit of others in Christ’s mission. Humility endows those lost in pride and fame to repent/heal, to modify and to reform their lives when they get filled with grace and a sense of caring for the weak. They soak in a deep need for mutual fellowship and they fully come back into themselves. One example of a reformed life is Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul; God facilitated his ministry and he became an influential spiritual teacher.

According to Jesus, one way of practicing humility is caring for all believers irrespective of their status. Jesus insists that those among us unable to provide for themselves need greater attention. The homeless, the disabled, the elderly and foreigners are part of what today can be referred as the “little ones.” The people who stand for equality, kindness and love for all get God’s blessings because “[their] father in heaven”—God—is glad of what they have done.

The above qualities and actions should guide the believers as they seek to restore themselves and others back to fellowship. Those to be restored may have withdrawn themselves from the fellowship or certain circumstances made them withdraw. The responsibility of searching for those who withdraw is placed on the community of faith. During the restoration aspect, the restorer ought to be aware not to allow their impulse to lead them into judging others. Instead of blaming and accusing the lost, they should exercise brotherly correction, necessary as it will be (Matthew18:15-20).

In this passage Christ cautions disciples/believers not to be stumbling blocks to those willing to remain in the fellowship. And in this reading, Christ advises the believers who are clothed with humility and a buffer of grace to confront those who offend them with the powerful desire for reconciliation and not being a stumbling block to them.

Jesus lays down a unique way of dealing with grave issues among the believers. Jesus is aware of secular methods (courts of law) of dealing with offenses, but instead of using the legal apparatus that most church discipline uses, Christ encourages mutual fellowship and pastoral nature where there are disagreements. If churches and individual Christians practice Christ’s teaching, they would be warned of turning to the secular legal apparatus as a means of getting rid of a disagreement or one causing it. Our Falcon Heights church bylaws make it clear that members hold one another in covenant and God’s spirit teaches each member the best way to interpret scripture for Christian growth. Ours is a covenant that we will walk and grow and get transformed together in Christian love. We anticipate each of us listens to God’s spirit for advice. When disagreements occur, we are covenanted to correct each other on time by exercising hard love.

We have many reconciliation methods today, including the secular court mediators or specialized therapists, according to our needs. These methods can be expensive to access and only informed people know where to get the services. We are aware of murder cases where couples, siblings or children and neighbors gun each other down instead of seeking mediation from their church, a court or a therapist. I know the majority of Christians also seek out their pastors or fellowship members to reconcile them when they disagree. I would encourage the Jesus way of mediation and reconciliation; it is easy to access and use either individually or from other believers. I encourage believers to trust other believers and seek their assistance with marital issues, business issues, and personal life crises that lead to self-denial of one’s situation. Welcome to my office and let us pray and evaluate your situation and agree how to solve the situation. I have relied on others and have given time to others in need of individual or family reconciliation.

A Christian believer who is offended even at home or at work is advised not to threaten another person with legal consequences unless one’s pastoral ways of solving the problem are gravely exhausted. When mutual humility is in practice, a desire to control others is minimized and unlimited forgiveness becomes the ideal way of love.

When dealing with disagreements, the question of power should be put at the center of the discussion of “who is greater.” Jesus says both the offender and the offended and the reconcilers should exercise humility in dealing with any disagreement/offense. That way, a disagreement is isolated from both the offender and the offended and handled as an external force that need to be corrected. When disagreements are solved the Christian way, God assures the two believers in agreement to pray and their prayers will be answered. When they also gather in fellowship, Jesus is there among them.

Amen.

Living in God’s transforming love

(Romans 12:9-21) By Rev. Jacob Kanake — Last week we encountered Jesus when he was on vacation with his disciples. He was teaching them how to transform their faith. The transformed faith renews the mind and wills good for everyone. Unless one has faith that transforms and renews the mind, unconditional love (topic of today’s sermon) cannot be achieved; it is extremely hard to love without faith that transforms and renews the mind. A renewed mind can put unconditional love into action for the individual and for the family of God. Paul is willing to educate Christians on how to develop the mind of Christ in their lives and be Christ-like, to “be good, perfect and acceptable.” Unconditional love hates evil and loves doing good, and it wills good for everyone and cultivates a conducive environment where good can thrive. Unconditional love does not sugarcoat evil nor pretend terrible things do not happen, but unconditional love has its own way of overcoming the evil. Unconditional love is one aspect of love (Matthew 22:40).

What is love? Love is the powerful emotions that human beings experience toward God, themselves, other people and other things. It is hard to define love because different people experience and express love differently. Each tribe defines and express love differently. The Greeks defined love in diverse ways: There is love of God (Agape); the love among siblings (Storge); the love between long-married couples (Pragma); the love for self (Philautia); romantic love (Eros); the love (Philia) for other people; and unconditional love (Agape). Today’s world is influenced by the Greeks’ way of defining love. The ancient Greeks also cautioned that love was a mental illness, and anyone who overexpressed love was feared to be “lovesick.” The modern society also tends to believe love is a disease and expresses that “love is blind, love is stupidity,” meaning one should be careful in expressing love. Expressed well, love makes people brave and do bold things. When love is overexpressed, it can make people do stupid things. So, should we condition love to adhere to certain regulations so love can remain valid?

I preached on unconditional love before, and other preachers have preached on the same topic. So, why should I repeat it again? I think reminding ourselves of the topic of unconditional love during this time of racial hatred, Hurricane Harvey and divisive politics is appropriate. We continue to remind ourselves of unconditional love—Christian love, because love never lasts forever unless those who believe in it continue to understand how it works. Whereas un-Christian love seeks rewards, appreciation, payback—kickbacks, or bigger favors like a bank account owner expects interest from his bank or the stock market—Paul says Christian love does not.

Between 56 and 58 A.D., Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, made up of five households (16:5,10,11,14,15), on the dangers of not loving unconditionally. Paul had become aware of the factions in the church at Corinth in Greece. Paul wanted Roman Christians to be careful of divisions and love each other. Paul directed his message at individual Christians (Roman 1:17, God’s beloved in Rome). Like many American churches, the Roman Christians were from diverse origins (Jewish Christians, Gentiles and Africans). Paul was instructing them in faith, seeking their prayers and introducing Aquila and Priscilla, Christian missionaries who were visiting Rome. Paul is also aware most of the Jewish Christians at Rome were more concerned with Jewish nationalistic religion rather than being a global church. Paul’s interest is to promote unity in the body of Christ and not promote certain cultural practices (3:26, 29-30). Paul never denied his Jewish identity yet he knew Christ was for all people (1:16; 2:9-10, 3:1-2, 9-11; 11:25).

The message of Paul is appealing to us today as we live in a religious and political environment that can easily divide people by cultivating fear and impressing on people to fight for their identity. Some of the Roman Christians were jealous; others would openly be showing self-pride; the Jewish Christians thought they were better than the Gentile Christians. And the Africans, the Jews and the Gentiles despised each other for their political adherence. The Roman Christians misused their Christian freedom and they were unable to love or express love to one another. Much of their problem was lack of skills in dealing with the varied needs of a cosmopolitan life and congregation (Gentiles, Jews, and Africans). The congregation needed to learn a unique way of expressing their faith in love rather than bragging, thriving on hate and dividing into factions. In this reading Paul offers and explains ways to practice unconditional love:

Respectful love (9-12) is being able to stay in fellowship with others without bragging or being under the pretext of being superior to others. Many of us have tried to practice this Christian skill by cultivating inner awareness of who we are and how we should respond to others. The more we know about ourselves, we become aware of our weakness and avoid affecting others to hide our weakness. Being aware of ourselves helps us to like who we are and who we are in the process of becoming. This is the only way one can open to the needs of others easily and jump in to help others, remembering the help one received from others.

Caring love (13): Paul emphasizes that a true Christian is the one who cares for others. I have witnessed the many caring events we do here, including making sandwiches for the homeless and visiting those in hospitals, rehab or homes for the elderly. We have our cart full of donations every other week and we pray for the sick. I feel the Lord had enabled us to do that and we can do much more.

Sympathetic love (16): Sometimes sympathy is best understood when an individual explains his actions toward others. I have on a number of occasions prayed and walked with those in need of either moral, financial, spiritual or emotional support. Often, I try “to be with” people in their issues when they open and seek for my support. I have felt compassion toward those with problems and offered my support even without being asked. I join those who invite me to rejoice with them upon healing, reviving a marriage, successful graduation or successful business. Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Norway who has been in my prayers; he was struggling financially. He said, “I want to thank you for praying and encouraging me when I was financially unable to meet my needs. I want to report things have been going well and I am stable financially.” In cases like that it is easy to say, “Praise the Lord!” Being with those with problems and rejoicing with those who rejoice is part of Christian duty. I am aware most of us are sympathetic to others and we can continue to do more …

Uniting love (16): Paul encourages Christians to stay in peace with others where possible. This is the tricky part because a Christian can easily get killed if one practices this Christian skill without reasoning. Trying to be in peace “where possible” does not mean denying the disagreements and insisting that peace must prevail. I think it means being aware of the disagreement and trying to agree in affection, sometime enduring hardship. And when peace is not a solution to the problem, one ought to withdraw and acknowledge the failure and move on.

Engaging love (17-21) is expressing the love that does not hurt others and always wishing others good in their endeavors. Paul would love his enemy and wish them the good rather than the worst; he would feed the enemy and welcome him. If another human affects Paul, he would not seek revenge but leave it to the Lord. Most Christians have practiced this virtue with good outcomes. For me, this is not an easy virtue because I cannot control other people’s reactions. However, it is an easy virtue as far as I can control my own reactions to any situation. Being one to agitate for peace where possible makes one blameless by the witnesses; they can say that lack of peace was not your fault if the situation spirals out control. Paul insists that Christians are called to cultivate peace in their lives and in the lives of those around them. Furthermore, Paul is asking Christians (in public rallies? moral issues?) to watch out for onlookers; they can interpret their behavior and actions.

Apostle Paul expands Jesus’ teaching on unconditional love and affirms that a Christian believer must practice Christian love while in the fellowship of other believers and at an individual level. Any Christian fellowship or individual faith devoid of practical love is difficulty to “grow.” Although it is difficult, I submit that unconditional love ought to be practiced by all believers across every generation, and every race and human class and status.

Paul emphasized that unconditional love can heal and cure the individual, the family and the church divisions (4:15; 15:1-2, 7). Unconditional love can extend beyond personal lines and help believers feel like a part of each other and become each other’s keeper. The teaching of Paul is to love others unconditionally and without reservations (Galatians 5:6). The loving Christian can express human virtues based on affection, kindness and compassion. This is the pure love arising from individual’s state of being and blesses those encountered. Christian love is unconditional love toward God, self and other people or things. A Christian can balance personal happiness with others happiness and make both the receiver and the giver better. Amen.

A story of unconditional love

At 12 years old, I was helping my grandmother in her garden, weeding. My grandmother’s garden was next to Janet (not real name), her friend. At lunch, we ate together and both ladies shared their life stories. Janet almost always talked about her grandchild, whom I will call David (not his real name). Janet’s son had married twice. David was the son of the first wife; she divorced and left David in the care of the second wife. The second wife was not caring. Janet took in David and she said it was hard to care for David because of her age; Janet was older than my grandmother. Whenever David’s name was brought up at lunch time, I curiously listened without contributing or appearing like I was hearing, fearing to be told “Keep quiet! I am talking,” the often-African way of telling the children this is adult conversation.

I felt compelled by David’s story. I wanted to meet him and welcome him at our home. When Janet died, David’s story ended abruptly. I kept thinking about him and I met him after five years at his high festival. David had managed to graduate from middle school and went to a local high school. I asked if I could help him to get to a better school, he said his Dad was not good at paying school fees. I said I will talk to him. He agreed. I talked to his Dad and he agreed to transfer David to a school near my school. His Dad entrusted me with David’s school fees every semester.

When David agreed to stay at our home, I talked to my parents of David’s situation and they agreed for him to stay at our home. My Dad helped to get an extra bed for him. David was considered as one of us, receiving all the privileges of a biological child. David stayed with us for four years. Due to his background David was not an excellent farm hand and sometimes he would sneak out and leave me doing family chores. But there was no time he was punished or denied privileges.

He later became a Christian and a good youth leader. I recommended him to be appointed to lead young people to the world conference in the U.S. in the 1980s. David also studied in the U.S. and later joined politics. I hoped to keep the relationship but he chose a different path and agreed to end our relationship. He is still in politics.

During our time together, my faith did not let me discriminate against him or listen to what other people were saying to my parents. My parents were respectful of him and my Christian values. I did not welcome David into my life with the intention to impress anyone. I never told him the stories I heard from his grandmother, Janet. I knew he would feel embarrassed and perhaps refuse the help I was offering. This was an expression of unconditional love. I am glad my parents did not object to it. I never ever felt David owed me anything. Unconditional love does not count on being repaid; it is authentic love.

I have many other stories of love. I have given love and I never been tired of helping. When I offer unconditional love and I am let down or ignored I move on. I am never slothful; my desire to help boils over and is ever ready to help until the one receiving help again expresses distaste for it or ignores it. When I sense I am offering my help to a bad person, I do it out of submission to the Lord. I feel obligated to serve the Lord, not the mean-spirited person! I have high endurance when tested; I do not give up easily, lest it be God searching my heart during a storm. I become steadfast in prayer and continue to seek the hand of the Lord.

Many of us have expressed unconditional love to others in many ways. May we continue to practice our Christian faith by helping others irrespective of their race, political affiliations, class and status.

Transformed faith

By Rev. Jacob Kanake — We have been exploring our call to Christ’s ministry. Specifically, last week we found Jesus went outside Israel’s territory and healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, a Gentile. The exchange between Jesus, the disciples and the woman was perhaps unfair, although she did not stop asking for healing of her daughter.

Let us revisit the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman for a little while. Using modern language, I can say the Canaanite woman was harassed and mocked! Today the woman would have accused Jesus and his disciples for being sexist, racists and intolerable males with the intention of dominating a woman. But, this woman’s patience and her power of persuasion should not be underrated.

The Canaanite woman being called a dog did not irritate or annoy her; if it did, she did not show it. Jesus used the phrase “throw food to the dog”; taken negatively it would mean the Canaanite woman is a person of inferior race, a person of low standing in society, hence unworthy of being helped! The Jews boasted of being the chosen ones and the Canaanites knew themselves as the owners of the land where the Jews lived. Most theologians and myself agree that Jesus used the phrase not to demean the woman, but as a metaphor to explain the priority of his ministry and to teach the disciples of his messiahship. The Greek term Jesus used kunarion means a small dog or a pet dog. Jesus did not use the Greek term kuon used to refer to unspiritual people or to an ‘unclean’ animal. For Jesus, failing to stick with his call to save Israelites first is the same as taking children’s food and giving it to a pet.

The woman understood Jesus’ use of the Greek term—a metaphor because she was a Greek and welcomed the metaphor and entertained the thought of converting to Christianity. She was convinced Jesus was the long-awaited messiah of the Israelites; she affirmed Jesus’ Messiahship, saying, “You are the son of God, the highest.”

Today’s reading in Matthew describes Jesus and his disciples being at a city near where he healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. The Caesarea-Philippi city is 25-30 miles on the northeast of the sea of Galilee. Mount Hermon, where the local tribes worshipped traditional gods, and the babbling brook, the source of the River Jordan, are both in this city. My friend who visited the area in 1997 found the location has been turned into a public park, a “getaway” place for many people today.

Jesus may have chosen to rest in this city because of its location. Being a northern city with most non-Jews, it had would not have many Jews who would be attracted to His presence.

This city was built by Herod the Great in honor of Emperor Caesar and the Roman temple was there for worshipping the emperor. The Greeks had a great temple for the Greek god Pan and many traditional temples were built there. The mixture of religious worshippers in this city would inform the ministry of Jesus.

Therefore, Jesus was exposing his disciples to multi-religious beliefs and a multiethnic city because he wanted them to realize the type of world where they were called to preach; they were called to deal with varied belief systems, cultural practices and mixed political ideologies. The disciples encountered a context like ours. Today we live in a multi-cultural-religious society with many political ideologies. How are we doing our ministry?

To deal with this context disciples must identify themselves and their mission; they must not act or work for Jesus until they have known him and confessed. It was time to learn and to make their inner confession, or they’d get consumed by many gods, mixed tribes and global problems.

While Jesus was waiting for the disciples to account for their faith, he posed a general question: “Who do people say I am?” Let us reflect on this question for a moment: the question is inquiring about public thought about Jesus. He is interested in knowing why the big crowds follow him and what was their reflection of him and his ministry. This public question ought to be asked in every generation.

The disciples were quick to say what they heard from people. They said, “Some say you are a prophet, you are John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or Elijah.” Why did people equate Jesus with John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah or one of the prophets?

For our understanding and clarity let us review Jeremiah: He was a prophet and priest whose ministry lasted for 40 years. Jeremiah’s personal life (character and personality) and prophetic ministry struggles are clearly written in the Bible more than any other prophet. Jeremiah confronted the people (Jews and their leaders) for their apostasy (greed, corruption, pride, jealousy). They nicknamed him “the prophet of doom” and he attracted few friends (Jer. 26:24). Jeremiah was fearless and courageous (Jer. 15:20) and God affirmed his work (Jer. 17:19-20); he kept the Jewish people on their toes. He did not waver in expressing his feelings and the message of God (Jer. 12:1; 1:17) until his death. When the Christian faith is under threat, the book of Jeremiah is a must-read! The faithful Christians and most of the courageous leaders I know read the book of Jeremiah.

Why did Jesus pose both the general and individual questions?

I think Jesus knew his death was less than a year away and he wanted to prepare his disciples for the work ahead after his death. Also, Jesus wanted the Jewish people to know that he was the Messiah they waited for, although he was a different kind of a Messiah—a spiritual yet indirectly political messiah.

After the disciples answered the general question, Jesus looked at them directly and posed the second question that was demanding yet reassuring, blunt yet warm; in a confrontational yet inviting tone He asked, “Who do you say I am?” The question is “Not who do you think I am” or “Who am I?” The question is: “Whom do you say I am?” The question needs to be explained, “If you say I am [x] then explain why I am [x].” A question like this is difficult and hard to answer quickly. However, Peter did not miss a breath, saying, “You are the son of God.” The answer Peter gave appears to be the second answer given to describe Jesus’ identity. The first revelation came from the Canaanite woman, a non-Jew who confessed Jesus is messiah!

Why was this question so hard to answer?

In my humble opinion, there was no one else capable of answering this question than his disciples! The disciples were with Jesus from the time he called them. They left their professions and followed him to be “fishers of men [humanity].” The disciples heard him laying down the scheme for his ministry using the proverbs, doing miracles and healing diseases. They saw him feeding the crowd, walking on the water and calming the waves; they were with him when he rebuked the Pharisees (traditional Jews), and when Jesus healed the daughter of a Gentile. I mean, they heard him teach and were shocked, doing miracles and they were thrilled, and healing the sick they were amazed with awe and wonder; they were the reputable witnesses of Jesus’ work up to this point! Why can’t they answer the question?

Because it was their time to express their opinion, their time to fish or cut bait; a time to mend or tear, really the time for them to take a stand.

Let us leave the mental wondering on the historical context and the fear and the confusion of the disciples about this question. Let us return to today at Falcon Heights Church situated in Falcon Heights, MN 55113. Let us consider that Christ is visiting with each of us at the Gathering Room to my left side over a cup of coffee and he asks you this question: Whom do you say I am?

If we had time we would like to hear from each of us what answer we would give to Christ. I hope each of us would answer quickly like St. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

If Christ went further to engage us about the debates taking place around the nation and ask us, “What are you saying in my name” about the hatred, the face of racism rearing its ugly head, the unending call to forever condemn the minority, the unemployed, the disabled, and the old people from having proper health coverage? What if Jesus can ask further questions, “What are you saying in my name” during this divisive environment of “them vs us” and “the haves and have-nots” and the “They must go back to where they came from” narrative!

I would expect us to answer genuinely that our faith does not allow us to discriminate, hate, and define others because of their place of origin, color, political, economic, sexual orientation, or appearance. Our faith in Christ provides us with courage and fearless spirit to confess Christ and to stand for Christ as we learned since we began to believe.

To transform our faith into action we need to be a voice against injustice from within or without, attend local meetings organized to fight injustice. We support our conference and United Church of Christ justice ministries and say no to anyone holding us back from practicing our faith in genuine ways. For instance, when praying, I ask what God wants me to do to show love to others and what action of love I can take to make my prayers practical. I donate (do small actions of love) according to my financial ability and give my energy toward causes that promote justice.

From the foregoing, I learned Christ does not care about public opinion as much as “my opinion” of who I say He is in my life and what I SAY he does.

In 1 Peter 3:15, believers are reminded to be prepared always to give an account of their faith in Christ. Being in the constant presence of the Lord makes faith mature and strong, and makes one a new creature and offers one courage to stand against all evil thoughts and actions from within or without—external forces.

St Paul in his Epistle in the Romans, reading from this morning, asks for Christians without strong faith to rethink their faith; to ask Christ to reenergize and renew their faith/strength to overcome evils within their context. Let us be reminded that St. Peter’s open confession was acknowledged and Christ insists that individuals confess. The individual’s answer to the question Christ asks today will determine the individual’s relationship with God, conduct, character and ability to truly love and to experience peace in time of adversity.

Amen!

Our Christian faith or our tradition?

By Rev. Jacob Kanake – Today, this sermon is about our traditions vs. our Christian faith. The online dictionary defines tradition as a long-established action or pattern of behavior in a community or group of people. Often, tradition is handed down from generation to generation. And faith is strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Whereas every tribe has their tradition, Christian faith arises from taught Christian doctrines and its rituals such as baptism and sacrament. Faith is also a gift from Christ. And Jesus spreads the Good News to the non-Jews and heals a Gentile in a foreign country. The Gospel is for all believers.

Matthew today explains how the Jewish tradition evolved and found itself in sharp contrast with Christian faith. The Jewish tradition was written down by Moses (Mosaic law) and later was written down by the Scribes. The Pharisees (Jewish elders) made sure everyone observed the Mosaic traditions. In this reading, Jesus is having an intense conversation with the Scribes and the Pharisees, the supporters and promoters of the Jewish traditional hierarchy; they came to accuse Jesus’ disciples of violating the food law. The tradition was to wash hands before eating meals.

These Scribes and Pharisees were from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital city, the judicial headquarters and by all standards, a modern city where people from small cities and remote villages went to shop, seek medical treatment or religious education and to worship in the temple. One would expect people from a modern city to be better informed than others. But, Jesus found them worse than others. They applied Mosaic law where it fit their plans; they were tyrannical; they used Mosaic law to oppress and force common Jews into obedience.

Jesus knew the Scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who asked people to do things they themselves were unable to do. Jesus did not allow these hypocrites to accuse his disciples and make them unfit for the public for his mission; if Jesus did not strongly challenge the accusers, his disciples would have been condemned for disobeying the fifth commandment (disobeying elders) and isolated from the public until they paid a fine and purified/cleansed themselves in the temple. That is why Jesus exposed the leaders’ inability to keep the Mosaic law. Since the Pharisees were not ready to be challenged, the disciples got scared, but Jesus reassured them by drawing illustrations about the plant’s growth, food digestion and thoughts from the heart.

The disciples continued to speak with Jesus indirectly so that Jesus would either retract his rebuke of the Pharisees and his teaching, or offer them a detailed explanation or modify the teaching. Jesus knew his new teaching was in direct confrontation with the old teaching but his disciples perhaps felt less equipped. Therefore, turning to the disciples, Jesus asked them, “Don’t you understand?” and they still did not understand; they were fearful, so he encouraged them not to fear and not to evade any truth or duty. Jesus made it clear that concealing of the truth, and the indulgence of populist evil deeds and any corruptive ways, makes a disciple of Christ less of a follower and ineffective as a servant of Christ. Christians must own the truth and do their Christian duty and if anyone is offended, it is her/his own fault.

Some American traditions may be harmful like the Jewish tradition of washing hands. One of the American traditions is slavery, which began in 1619 and was abolished in 1863 by president Abraham Lincoln. The slavery tradition, though abolished, exists today in different forms. This nearly 400-year-old oppressive tradition needs to go. It is time to let it go! Modern Americans must say NO to the old ways and indirect system of oppression.

When speaking of this vice, I am aware not every American owned or benefited from having a slave at home or place of work. And I am also aware that most Americans who owned slaves have since self-cleansed themselves by speaking out against the practice. and they have moved with newfound freedom of their mind. However, we have a clear majority of Americans who have not come to terms with freeing themselves from indirectly oppressing others; they want to keep benefitting from the systematically oppressive system, a system that denies minorities housing and economic, social and political freedom.

Those who continue to protect and to continue to improve this longstanding tradition of oppressing others are not doing it with God’s blessings (Acts 5:38). The practices that are not divinely instituted will die of themselves, or they will be openly challenged by those who honestly feel it is their God-given duty to reform humanity; they might be among the Christian believers. Like the parable of tares, such ungodly systems will be bundled for the fire. What has become of the Pharisees and their hand-washing traditions today? The tradition is mostly long abandoned; but the gospel of truth is alive and it is still going strong 2,000 years later.

The human-made systems and their followers always take time to die. An example is patriarchy that oppresses women; it has been a long-standing tradition, but in many parts of the world today woman have become free individuals. In these societies, women decide when to marry, when to have children, and when to keep the marriage to let it “die.” Today, women choose the type of profession or friends to have. Few years ago, we did not have many women in senior positions or places of power. Today, the government of Rwanda’s majority is women.

We are witnessing the last vestiges of the racial oppression in America today. I have heard from many people who do not like the racist speeches and they are joining the freedom movements. The image to illustrate my feeling on racist speeches is the skunk’s poop; its smell shocks the victim. I and many people resent it! I wish I could switch off my brain or put in long-lasting earplugs.

But the last kicks of a dying animal can inflict damage to those who are nearby, and that can be a lasting damage. This week I heard several warnings on the political environment such as the Holocaust survivor (Sonia K) when she was being interviewed by CNN. Sonia said, “When the Holocaust broke, everyone was silent. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups and nations made decisions to act or not to act. People were quiet then, but we must not be quiet again. Now we know better. We must all commit to making the world a better, kinder and more understanding place. Perhaps it is as simple as speaking out when you see something wrong, saying ‘I know better,’ but, please never be a bystander or a perpetrator.…Take active part in standing against [evils]…being promoted today or we could find ourselves repeating a regrettable history. We all need to be on guard and resist and fight.”

Some of these rallies promote fear and hatred and many people are now speaking. Mitt Romney advises people to tune their language because “it can cause racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast hearts of American to mourn.” There are genuine politicians who are concerned, although others might use the situation for their political benefit.

People of faith need to take note of what is happening and voice their feelings. Christ was forceful with his disciples when he asks them, “Don’t you understand?” Perhaps they did not! By asking this question, Christ expects from believers some degree of knowledge, grace, and wisdom. But that understanding comes with truly being a Christian. Racial bias persists this long because practicing Christians either did not realize it was evil to own another human being, or to mistreat another person, or did they ignore Christ’s doctrine of love? Did they love selectively? Why did it take this long for Christians to understand the doctrine of love, the teachings of Christ alongside the American Golden Rule or Constitution—created equal?

The reprieve for those who do not love with Christ’s love is that they may be forgiven. Christ’s forgiving aspect can be witnessed by how he treated the disciples despite their flaws: Jesus did not abandon them. Perhaps Christ did not abandon racist people. Christ may have walked with them though disapproving their practice of hatred and their dullness. In his mercy, Christ will not cast evildoers off, but he pities them and continues to teach them lessons of love until they will finally love! (Luke 24:25-27).

In conclusion, Jesus reminds us that our secular traditions affect our faith. Jesus uses the example of the zealous Pharisees on the tradition of washing hands to show that human tradition, however treasured, will end but the Good News will remain. We are also reminded today that God is concerned with the human heart, not physical food that goes into the body. Jesus is concerned with the human heart, the good thoughts that can fully influence or affect the entire life. And the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 8:7) says the heart is the source of all sin/evil, though not everything comes out of the mouth like a plan to kill or to steal arises from human thoughts/heart. When we allow our mind and conscience to be defiled by sin/evil thoughts, it makes everything else so. The daily reflection on thoughts may help to avoid evil actions.

There are also church traditions that were formulated by the ancient church leaders/fathers and councils and some of them are not supportive of the faith today; Christ calls for those church traditions to be reformed lest they keep believers away from participating in the life of the church.

In many parts of the world, the church is being challenged for speaking against political, economic and social injustice in society. Today many American churches are more than aware of the systemic policies that are designed to affect the minority today, but sadly the same system also affects the majority. For instance, the debates on health care, food stamps, unemployment, the drug epidemic and mental health issues affect American people whether white or black, although in varying degrees.

May the inclusive Gospel of Christ heal all people despite their color, race, political affiliation, or economic status. The healing of the Gentile (Canaanite woman’s daughter) is an indication that Christ’s mission is for all who believe. In Christ, they’re neither a Jew nor a Gentile. No comparison of one person to another. God is calling us today to dismantle all racial systems and outdated church human-made beliefs that promote racial bias because they are contrary to Christ’s teachings on the love of a neighbor.

Amen.

Food and table fellowship: Feed the needy

By Rev. Jacob Kanake —

The beloved nurse’s story

Father Jerry tells a story of a Frenchwoman; she was a trained nurse who devoted her life to caring for the sick and needy. This nurse was single and had no children. She offered selfless service to her villagers for many years before she died. The villagers organized to give her a beautiful funeral, a fitting tribute to the woman to whom so many villagers owed their lives.

The villagers wanted her to be buried in a Catholic cemetery but the parish priest pointed out that, because she was a Protestant, she could not be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery. The villagers protested, but the priest was firm. During his serious illness, this nurse had also cared for him so it was not easy for the priest either. But the church canons were very clear; she would have to be buried outside the fence of the cemetery.

On the day of burial, the whole village accompanied the woman’s casket to the cemetery and buried her outside the fence. That night, a group of villagers, carrying shovels, sneaked into the cemetery and quietly moved the fence.

The church canon was obeyed during the day despite dividing the community united in grief. And later the villagers refused to be divided and set themselves to allow the nurse’s death to unite them into one community. During the night villagers were willing to extend the cemetery fence to unite the dead as they were also united.

From parables to miracles

For the last few weeks we have been learning about parables, their hidden meaning and why Jesus used them. In last Sunday’s parable, Jesus asked his disciples if they understood parables and how to apply them to grow the kingdom of God. The disciples answered an affirmative “Yes,” then Jesus encouraged them to use their old and new insights and self-awareness of their faith to grow the kingdom of God. In Chapter 10 Jesus had sent the disciples out to preach on their own to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6); when they were reporting back and before Jesus responded, he was told that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed.

In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples sail to a lonely place but the crowd followed them; when Jesus saw the crowd, he abandoned his plan to attend to the need of the crowd.

John the Baptist’s death

Jesus and his disciples “went by boat to a deserted place” located on the bank of the sea of Galilee. The other Gospels suggest the location may be Bethsaida, Capernaum or Gennesaret.

John was imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14) and killed around 29 AD (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-27, Luke 9:9). John was murdered because he objected to Herod’s divorce of his wife so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. The Jewish laws did not allow this behavior (Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21). John the Baptist was courageous, he took the bull by the horns and that led to his death. I think we are aware most secular leaders do not like to be told to get their ducks in a row. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was killed—hanged—because of supporting the underground movement against the Nazis. Facing physical death, he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” A Christian call is a courageous spiritual conviction that demands that the believer should tell the truth as it is.

I had my share with a local chief that influenced my peers to discipline me for preaching on girls’ circumcision and creating awareness on HIV-AIDS in my community in 1986. My peers cried for my life; they came one evening to my parents’ home and forced me to go to an illegal peers’ night meeting. After a well-crafted deliberation, I was found guilty of teaching against cultural practice back then. I firmly defended Christian and scientific principles against the harmful cultural practice but they were not ready to listen. They frog-marched me half-naked at midnight as discipline; they proposed to frog-march me the entire night but they disagreed within 30 minutes and I left them and went home. Their action made my faith stronger. I continued to preach vigorously until that cultural practice lost its influence. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Americans are racially divided at 9-11 a.m.; he was referring to religious worship. Can inclusive Christians be on the side of the minority as some politicians continue to promote racial divisions? The courageous Christians who stand with the minority might be prepared to pay a price of being different and wiling to bring God’s people together.

The Christians and the Jewish people often retreat to pray, to meditate or to be with God alone, a moment of spiritual intensity. Or perhaps Jesus wanted to contemplate on merging John’s ministry of repentance and his ministry of salvation by fire and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Jesus was interrupted by the crowd; they wanted to see him, to be healed or to be comforted! Or maybe some wanted to comfort Jesus upon hearing of John’s death. Jesus rose to the occasion; he preached, healed the sick and provided physical food. The fear created by Herod did not capture and control the compassion and generosity of Jesus toward the crowd.

The feeding miracle shows God can create something new, a life-giving food, and the kingdom of God is breaking in. We ought to never underrate what we have in terms of money, skill or strength; God can multiply it for us to use and for others to benefit. Did you notice characters in this miracle?

Miracle characters

Natural law or science are not able to explain miracles or “objects of wonder.” Miracles are extraordinary religious happenings that are only understood by faith. In the feeding miracle Jesus chose characters to play various roles:

The crowd

The Jewish culture was communally oriented. It was not hard to bring people together; it did not require formal invitation, there were no gate crashers. In this crowd some people may have been the disciples of John seeking moral and spiritual support. And those who knew John was the cousin of Jesus were there to support Jesus in his grief. And of course, some people were traitors seeking a subversive message from Jesus so they could accuse him to either the Jewish religious leaders or the Roman leaders. But, most people in the crowd may have been curious about Jesus’ preaching and healing. We could be wrong to imagine the entire crowd came to be preached or healed. In spite of their categories, Jesus did not discriminate against them; he did not ask questions; he preached to all of them and fed all of them equitably. Jesus’ ministry is fair and squarely inclusive to all who seek and practice it.

The disciples

Though the disciples had expressed understanding in previous readings, at first they tend be less involved in this miracle. Some of the disciples were concerned that the crowd was getting hungry, or getting home late to cook. During that time there were no ready-made drinks, punch, junk food, snacks, TV dinners. To put it simply, food required a long time to cook.

Furthermore, the disciples were worn out by the day’s work; they wanted to rest. One can sense their level of anxiety rising as they began to be quite tactical: they requested Jesus to let the people go “into the village to look for food.” Perhaps Judas, the financial officer, must also have said there wasn’t enough money to buy food for the crowd. Maybe the disciples were more concerned about themselves than for the crowd; maybe they had their own packed food and they wanted to eat, rest and plan for their dinner. When they asked Jesus to send the crowd away, Jesus told them point blank to “feed them.” The disciples answered by saying it was impossible to feed this many people, there was no money to buy food or time to organize a feeding program, which would also require particularly trained chefs to plan the menu and organize sitting and several servers.

The disciples did not understand what Jesus was getting at. However, St. Luke says Peter found a boy with his packed lunch and convinced the boy to offer his lunch to feed others. The boy had compassion! Maybe Jesus fed the crowd to teach his disciples compassion. Uncompassionate people approach any type of giving with a mindset of “if you give, then God will…” This is the wrong attitude for Christians. Jesus is teaching us to give generously without expecting anything in return. Jesus prayed for Christians to be moved by compassion for the needs that are present and attend to them without expecting any return. A compassionate giver is moved by a generous spirit, not a hoarding spirit. A compassionate giver’s faith is not about performance. It is about the giver’s heart attitude, an outworking of love that Christ puts in one’s heart. Christ is seeking for the believer to develop the culture of compassionate giving—giving wisdom, time, money and food and much more.

The food

During the time of this miracle the Jews’ food preparation followed Mosaic laws. The disciples may have had in mind that if people were sent into the village searching for food to buy, they would assess on their own if Mosaic rules on preparation were followed. It is not written that Jesus observed Mosaic law on food in this case. Instead Jesus inspired trust in the crowd and everyone was willing to forget the Mosaic food laws and ate fish and bread without asking where the food came from, or if it was safe—kosher.

Whatever food we give must adhere to whatever food we eat. The hosts does not cook disgusting food for the people because he/she is expected to eat with the guests. In my culture, the host tastes her/his food in front of the guest to declare food is fit for others. If the host bewitched the food, the host will die first.

Jesus uses food because the table fellowship makes people relax and share freely. Anthropologists say that a meal has a social language that breaks the barriers and welcomes the strangers. Meals provide people with unique ways to connect. Food can transform and unite strangers into a community, the community that unites in needs for each other. The sharing of our food and the Good News with others transforms and make us fully ourselves in the company of the Holy Spirit. Through the use of food, we have witnessed the transformation of communities in our time like the teaching of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, among others. If we move on sharing what we have, God promises to meet our needs and the needs of others (Phil 4:9).

Today we share the Holy Communion and unite to be one community of faith and practice. We aspire to move the barriers or fences to include the outsiders in our lives. In this miracle Jesus is challenging the disciples to welcome non-Jews into their ministry. I know the Holy Communion inspires in a Christian the vision of liberation and reconciliation. To receive the bread and wine is also to participate in the nourishment and vision of the kingdom of God that makes breaking racial barriers possible.

If Jesus was to use food to explain a teaching today, he would tell us the type of food he is referring to, whether junk or organic, because in our time food has turned to be poison. Today food preparation does not follow the natural rules. My guess is that Jesus would talk of organic food and teach on the methods to prepare a healthy diet. In this teaching Jesus is seeking a culture of generosity in our community, in our family and individually. This teaching is relevant today because most people have lost a sense of community and there are others who do not love even themselves.

The child

It is not easy to take a child’s food away; the parents of the boy in the story must have taught him to be generous in sharing. Or perhaps the disciple had convinced the boy that Jesus wanted to bless the food or perhaps Jesus wanted to pray for it or something like that. Let us hope the food was not snatched away from the boy, as Jewish culture of the time expected young children to obey their elders and to do what they were told without questioning! This child offered his food freely; otherwise Jesus would have cautioned the disciples.

Jesus said elsewhere that children are innocent and we ought to be like children in our deeds. He used children on occasion to teach equality and inclusivity, a lesson extended in this story. We all get excited when a child is willing to share their belongings with others freely. This miracle teaches me that the Kingdom of God is for all, regardless of age or status.

Our mission

What fences can we break down in our lives to unite with others? As the Falcon Heights community, we recently vowed to break down racial fences, employment discrimination and housing discrimination, and agreed to share with those who have less or nothing. Each of us may self-assess to realize the secretly held fences that divide and bring division between the individual and others. The goal is to let those dividing views break down so one can unite and be united.

Jesus encourages compassion, mercy, selfless giving and communal sharing. Jesus first encourages the disciples to obey God in believing food for the crowd can be available, and to also accept that God would use Jesus to do a miracle. The disciples obeyed Christ; they asked the people to sit down; they requested the little bit of food from the owner. Therefore, breaking the dividing fences frees people to feed others with spiritual and physical needs, so we can be Christ to others despite their situations.

Jesus’ motive in this miracle is to see a change in the hearts of the people so they can learn the scripture. He is not so much concerned about physical food as spiritual food, for he who eats the physical food will hunger and thirst again but he who eats spiritual food will continue being satisfied and nourished (John 6:35). The spiritual food can cater to physical need also.

During that time, the wealthy Jews and Romans lived in luxury but the common people labored or begged for food. The Roman government or Jewish elites did not provide a food pantry or social welfare, a political tool in our society. Jesus enters the human situation and decides to provide a free meal to the worshippers. The motive of the teaching is not free food but a lesson on sharing, commitment, and obedience.

We have a choice to make because Christian faith is not about performance, it is about our hearts’ attitudes. And, generosity is an outworking of the love of Christ that has been placed in our hearts. If we allow God to change our hearts into hearts that are generous, then no longer is the issue about how much, or what our responsibility is. It is about where we can show love by being generous. How we can be moved by inner compassion for the people who seem to be without a shepherd—leader—Christ. The teaching reminds us of working toward our comfort and the comfort of others. This week we will prepare sandwiches and distribute them to the homeless and the needy. We are acting on Jesus’ words, “Give them something to eat,” and that is sharing a prophetic action to challenge modern-day stinginess. Whereas some politicians are negative about the poor people, Christians ought to show a calm demeanor and approach human hunger with the handle of faith. The mature Christian faith is better expressed in action and is better lived in practical terms.

Jesus asks that we extends mercy and compassion to hungry people without discrimination like he did in this miracle. Sometime one wonders if Jesus would approve what some religious organizations and their followers do to each another like refusing to share Holy Communion or to allow people of the same sex into leadership or rituals. God is teaching us compassion, inclusivity in our mission.

Amen.

The blind man is healed: everyone else turns a blind eye

By the Rev. Jeff Crews — So, what is today’s reading from John (John 9:1-41) all about? Is it about punishment for sin? Is it about light and dark? Is it about healing? Is it about the blind man now seeing? Is it about the Pharisees grilling the blind man because they were trying to trap Jesus? Is it about mud? Is it about parents who turn their backs on their child? Is it about religious authorities threatening to kick someone out of the synagogue if they supported Jesus? Is it about a brave man, once blind, who stood up to the religious authorities? Is it about the Pharisees becoming angry because Jesus called them blind? Or is it about Jesus, the Son of Man, who brings transformation in Lent? What do YOU think this long story is all about?

Well, let’s ask the guidance of the Spirit as we think about these things together. Will you pray with me? “God of light, of laughter, of life, and Lent, we come humbly before you today and ask that your Spirit teach us about Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. May the words of our mouths and thoughts in our hearts be guided by your everlasting love. Amen.”
In our scripture lesson today we listened to a story about a blind man and many conversations that occur about and with the blind man who now sees. But the entire story starts with a very intriguing question from the disciples in verse 2. “Why is this man blind? Was it punishment for his parent’s sin or his sin?”

This is the question of the ages, really. Why do bad things happen to good people? For me, the converse is even harder. Why do good things happen to bad people? This age-old question is the question Job asked. “Why is this stuff happening to me, God?” Job’s “friends” scolded him, “Well, you must have done something to make God angry.” But Job replied, “No! I’ve been good! This stuff is just happening!” Finally, in exasperation, Job asks God, “Why are you doing this to me?” And God replies to Job the same way Jesus replies to the disciples here, “You are asking the wrong question.” What? That’s it? So what is the right question?

When bad stuff happens, what is the right question, folks? How do you respond to bad stuff? How do we respond? If our God means anything to us, our God must have an answer to this age-old question. We are going to look several places for an answer today. First, we will look at the story of Job, where God told Job that things just happen and humans will never fully understand—only God is God and we are not. While this is certainly an answer, it is not very satisfying. In fact, it feels like Mom saying to us, “Because I said so.” Ugh. The second place we will look is our lectionary passages for today, where the Psalm for today is the 23rd Psalm. The uplifting Psalm we love so well is a response to the previous 22nd Psalm’s question where the Psalmist asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In other words, why is bad stuff happening to me, God? The answer to this question is in the 23rd Psalm, and in particular, verse 4. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” God does not promise to fix things for us if we pray hard enough. Instead, God promises to always walk with us. Always. So what this means is that when bad stuff happens, for whatever reason, God will always be with us. God will not abandon us. There is immense comfort in that. We are never alone. The third place we will look for an answer is in our passage today, in how Jesus responded to the disciple’s question in verse 2 and the Pharisee’s question in verse 40. First, Jesus tells them both they are asking the wrong question because the question infers that God punishes us for sin. But Jesus says stuff happens not for punishment, but to allow God to be revealed to us, or, as Jesus phrases it, to move from night into light. Now, I will admit, I read verse 41 a dozen times and had no idea what Jesus was really saying. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.” What? So, I went to the ancient Greek. Sure enough, that is a pretty good translation of the Greek. But I was still confused. So I started looking at other translations for help, and I found the trans-literation by Eugene Robinson called The Message to be the most helpful. That translation says in the angry response of the Pharisees demanding of Jesus, “Are you calling us blind?” Jesus responded, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.” Here Jesus says that we are not punished by bad stuff happening in our lives, but rather, we are held accountable by how we walk with God and respond to the stuff that happens to us.

So now let’s go back to our original question, armed with these three responses. Why do bad things happen to good people? From Job we get, “Just because. God is God. Stuff happens.” From the 23rd Psalm we get, “Stuff happens, but God will always be with us, no matter what, so we need not be afraid.” And from Jesus here we get, “God will always be with you, and God will be revealed in your loving response to the bad things in your lives.”

I don’t know about you, but the past few months have deeply tested my faith. How could we elect a President and congress so far from the truth of what Jesus taught as the Gospel? Where is God in this horrible mess? This passage teaches us the answer. God is right here with us in this mess. We are the hands and feet of God in this world. The Gospel challenges us to respond to bad stuff like hate and anger with love and compassion. When bad stuff happens, Christ followers respond in love, mercy, justice, and kindness.

So now, when you hear a televangelist say God is punishing us for our sins with a hurricane or storms or disease, you know Jesus said that is totally false. Stuff happens. And God shows up in how we live our lives in our response to the hurricane, in our response to the storm. God shows up in our response to our pastor retiring, or losing a love one, or something bad at work. Our passage today shows us there are two ways to respond to stuff. The people and then his parents responded to the blind man’s healing by rejecting Jesus. They did not believe Jesus. On the other hand, look at the series of responses from the once-blind man. At first he said “a man called Jesus” healed him. Later he calls Jesus a “prophet,” and finally he confesses Jesus as the Son of Man, a Jewish way of saying savior. While the blind man’s eyes are slowly opened in the story, the people and Jewish leaders become more and more blind. So here is the question our passage asks without ever using these words: What do YOU think of Jesus? [pause] The Gospel of John uses the word “sin” only in the singular. There is only one sin according to John: rejecting Jesus. When I grew up, my friends all went to a strict Baptist church. They had a long list of sins, all making moral mistakes like drinking, smoking, dancing or playing cards. But the Gospel of John rejects that, saying all moral laws are just social rules. The only real sin is rejecting Jesus.

So, here is the Good News. God loves you. Really loves you, even when bad things are happening to you. God will not abandon you. Ever. God loves you and invites you to live your life responding to the world in loving ways, even when bad things happen. No matter how much bad stuff happens, how much blindness is on your life, if you turn to Jesus and God, you will find your way through the darkest valley with God by your side. And as you follow Jesus, the blindness will fall from your eyes, and you, just like the blind man in our story, will begin to see.
[sing…] “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but NOW I see.” And God’s people say, “Amen.”

Acceptance and affirmation

A sermon conversation with the Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis and the Rev. Philip Rohler (John 4:5-26; 39-42) —

Anne Swallow Gills (ASG): About a year ago, Philip Rohler began worshiping with us. I’ve invited him to join me in a conversation about today’s scripture reading, in part because of his concern for and support of those who are marginalized in our society and often in our churches. And if anything, today’s story from the Gospel of John is about a marginalized person encountering a welcoming and nonjudgmental Jesus. The layers of this woman’s marginalization may be hard for us to imagine in this day and age. Samaritans did not regularly intermingle with Jews, even though they came from the same ancestry. Their dispute centered on where, upon what locale, does God want to be worshipped. For Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim in today’s West Bank; for the Jews it was Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. It was a bitter family fight. Think of it as similar to the hatred and disdain between Protestants and Catholics down through the years. In addition, a revered rabbinical teacher like Jesus would be considered ritually defiled by having contact with Samaritans, and even more so by contact with a woman not related to him. And, there is this pesky detail about her drawing water from the communal well at noon-time. Has she been shamed and banished from mingling with the other women in the cool of the morning? Even more reason for Jesus to steer clear of this person.

The unusual dialogue between Jesus and this unnamed woman quickly moves from a simple request about a drink of water to an intimate exchange about spiritual thirst, wellsprings of living water within a person, and a revelation of some details about her life. It appears many husbands have either died on this woman or divorced her, and she currently lives with someone not her husband. This may draw a yawn from us, but it was scandalous in Jesus’ time. He calls her out on this reality. He names her marginalization within her culture and community, but interestingly doesn’t dwell on it. He sees her as a person worthy of conversation, of receiving spiritual nurture and invites her to interact with him. No judgment; no shaming. Her marginalization stops there.

At our congregational meeting following worship today, members will be asked to vote on an expanded and renewed statement which clarifies not just our welcome, but our support and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning individuals. We are entering a period of our nation’s history when the rights and safety of this marginalized community are endangered. A retired pastor, Philip has been involved in our Executive Board-appointed Opening and Affirming Group. This group has worked over the recent months to expand this church’s welcome and support of the LGBTQ community. We’ve held after-church forums to explore Biblical views around these issues, and also to better understand gender identity, gender expression, and gender nonconformity so we welcome and support transgendered people. Philip, will you share with us just why it is you wanted to get involved in this church and in this particular working group?

Philip Rohler (PR): After learning about FHC on the website and attending for a year, I’m happy to say I have been warmly welcomed, and I’m glad I have become involved.

Thirty years ago my biological family began to understand in deeply personal ways what it meant for a family member to begin to live in a lesbian relationship. After she and my brother were divorced, they both have remarried. She to her wife and he to his new wife. When my mom was on her deathbed, she invited this former daughter-in-law to visit, and I had the privilege of witnessing their laughter, tears, and my mom’s loving affirmation of her.

In another conversation during her last weeks of life, my mom, knowing she could not do it but wanting us to know what was in her heart, said to my son and me, “Make an appointment for me to visit the president of your denomination; I’ll tell him that the Church will someday change their views about the LGBTQ community, and he should begin giving leadership to that now.”

ASG: Help us get a sense of what it’s like to be part of a denomination that would not consider affirming the kind of Opening and Affirming Statement we will vote on today.

PR: Last week as I was reflecting on today’s gospel text and on my opportunity to join you in this sermon conversation, I watched a TED talk video entitled “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church – Here’s why I left.” A young woman told her story of growing up in the fundamentalist church that taught her to hate any person or group that the leaders of the Westboro church told her were sinners; those sinners, she acknowledged, were people of any different religious, ethnic and life-orientation background. That was very similar to the church in which I grew up, and maybe others in this congregation did too.

ASG: Is this the kind of stance your denomination was taking towards homosexuality, when you were ordained by that church?

PR: No. When I became active in 1973, the denomination had just decided that women were not prohibited in Scriptures from being ordained clergy and leaders in a local church. The new church culture was affirming women who had been marginalized in ministry, a culture in which I openly participated.

While I served as a pastor in town and country churches for 28 years, I enjoyed freedom in Christ, including interfaith and inter-church involvements in the communities where I served. Then about 10 years ago, the pendulum began swinging from openness and inclusiveness to exclusiveness. This was keenly made public several years ago when an ordained pastor and a local congregation were dismissed from fellowship in the denomination because they welcomed members of the LGBTQ community into membership and leadership. And it was reinforced that clergy were prohibited from performing a same-sex marriage.

This shift highlights why I was looking for and found in FHCUCC: a spiritual community where I shared values for ministry and for encouraging a person and the congregation to go deeper into the freedom of Christ, to love our neighbor as self and to put into practice the scripture that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but that all are one in Christ.

ASG: At the end of today’s story, this once marginalized woman has returned to her community and boldly told them that she has been encountered and seen by this Jesus: “He told me everything I have every done,” she enthusiastically exaggerates. In receiving Jesus’ non-judgmental acceptance of her, she herself has become a source of living water for her community. We too are invited to do the same. Today we have yet another opportunity to step forward and say: This is who we are at Falcon Heights Church. We are welcoming, supportive and ready to advocate for this specific marginalized community which has been scorned and rejected by so many churches. We too become sources of living water, as God’s spiritual waters gush up to abundant life within us, and flow out from us. Thanks be to God! Amen

Building the Beloved Community

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is remarkable for what he does NOT say. One might expect him to jump right in with “Hello everybody, now I want you to love one another!” Or perhaps an admonition to act decent, caring, kind; something manageable on a person-to-person level. Why doesn’t he start there? Some days it seems to me that contemporary Christianity as we know it gets reduced to a warm fuzzy version of the love part. Or, maybe more to a small tangent of loving, which is polite, which is calming and not offensive, which is nice. But Jesus doesn’t start with talking about love. As much as we may say it is all about loving one another, Jesus does not begin with this interpersonal message. Instead, he goes bigger: He speaks of life in the public square. He goes right to the root of what “public” means: how we order our lives together as a group, how we govern ourselves because of who governs us. In a time when politics has sharply divided us as a nation, we so want the Jesus story to NOT be about politics.

But the Gospel of Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus’ public ministry begins after he hears of a public and politically motivated act against John the Baptist. Jesus learns that John, his cousin and most likely his spiritual mentor, has been arrested and jailed by the local political ruler King Herod. Jesus leaves his home town and heads to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. And, from that time on, writes the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus starts with a message about…politics! About governance, who is in charge and about how choices are made in this public realm. He says that the kingdom that rules the heavens, the reign of God, has come near. Not words that King Herod, nor the Roman Empire, would want to hear. The first public words out of his mouth are a radical political proclamation about our life together as a body, polis, community. And these words will eventually pit him against the political powers of the day and get him arrested and jailed and crucified. To simply spiritualize these words may put us at a safe distance. We can speak in generalities about God’s merciful love coming near and making everyone friendly and happy. But we will gain little insight into how in the world we navigate this time in our nation’s history as both citizens and Christians.

We are on the edge of a communally fraught week for our nation: on Monday, we celebrate a national holiday acknowledging the ground-breaking ministry and political proclaiming of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We do so in an era when racial inequity around housing, jobs, rates of imprisonment and health care, and resulting racial tension, continue to soar. Dr. King coined the phrase “the beloved community.” He spent his public life addressing the interwoven realities of racism, militarism and poverty, which he claimed conspired together to keep our nation from being such a community. All this, at the height of the Vietnam War. On Friday, we will witness the inauguration of a president whose election continues to cause deep, angry and chaotic divisions in our country. This is the reality, the context, into which this Matthew passage drops today.

The passage also lands in our Epiphany time, the season after Christmas when the light of Christ becomes an “epiphany,” a “manifestation” to the world. For the moment, whoever we may have voted for, it just doesn’t seem like there is much light. I resonated with Walter Bruggeman’s words this week. He is a retired Hebrew Bible scholar, author of over 70 books, and minister in the United Church of Christ. Here is the first part of his poem called: “Epiphany.”

On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
anxiety,
brutality,
violence,
loss —
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

I would say, as a nation and as communities, we still are “people in the dark,” with much darkness looming “large around us.” With “a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.” In the midst of all this, we encounter Jesus again, who keeps saying heaven is coming near. And then he does this very odd thing of going up to a couple of fishermen and saying, “Follow me; I will make you fishers of people,” and the guys drop everything, I mean everything, and follow him. Leaving nets and catch and boats and family? Not a prudent move, it would appear. What are we to know here, those of us who feel like we are walking in the dark at the moment?

Jesus begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, is at hand.” Actually, this is the same thing John the Baptist has been saying. It’s a call for a change of heart, a change of behavior. Why? Because something has been tripped into motion. The kingdom of heaven is on the move, so to speak. The Greek word for kingdom is “basileia” and is translated in a number of different ways. Which means that Biblical scholars argue a lot about what this means: kingdom, rule, reign, empire. Throughout Hebrew scriptures, Jews spoke of God the king as creator and savior and judge, and that God’s kingdom/empire is already fully functional in heaven/the unseen realm. Jews were constantly getting in trouble with the prevailing authorities, the current occupying powers, because of this sense of covenant with, allegiance to, God’s empire.

The New Testament scholar Warren Carter has written how in first century usage, the word “basileia” also referred “to empires like Rome’s that assert rule over people and land. The Gospel’s use of the same term illustrates a common practice among colonized peoples.” He notes that people often cope with “imperializing power by using native traditions to redefine its language to produce a similar yet different meaning.” I see this as a sly and ultimately subversive approach, often used by the seemingly powerless or marginalized. We’re going to take back that word, “basileia,” empire, and apply it to God’s empire coming among us! We see this in the LGBTQ community: We’re going to take back that word “queer” and apply it to ourselves with pride! In the Matthew passage, Carter continues, the “writer imitates imperial language and structures (God’s dominating power) yet redefines them as the subsequent scene of Jesus’ healing and liberating power displays.”

Jesus, the unknown carpenter’s son from Nazareth, wanders in on the public scene and starts to indirectly talk politics. One might say, Jesus is referring to regime change. God’s kingdom, reign of justice, mercy and peace is happening here. Now. The “beloved community” God intends is at hand, it draws near. Jesus is going to start acting like his very presence, his teaching, his healing work, extends this regime change and reveals it. And who does he invite to join him first? Fishermen. Not the local bakers, artisans or tax collectors. All three gospels, Matthew, Luke and Mark, tell us his first students, followers, are fishermen. This is significant because the fishing industry of the time was more fully embedded in the imperial Roman economy that just about anything else. Warren Carter describes how “Rome asserted control over the land and sea, their production, and the transportation and marketing of their yields with contracts and taxes.” Boats, nets, your catch, where you pulled up your boat, who you sold to, prices, all regulated by the empire who also takes a huge cut. Professor Carter continues: “Jesus disrupts these men’s lives, calls them to a different loyalty and way of life, creates a new community, and gives them a new mission (fish for people). His summons exhibits God’s empire at work, this light shining in the darkness of Roman-ruled Galilee.” Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. Now we move to the relational, the building of this beloved community. It’s going to be about how we live together, govern ourselves under God’s rule.

Carter also notes that Jesus will go on and heal people who have actually been physically damaged by living in the inequities of the Roman imperial system. At least 70 to 90 percent of the inhabitants of the region were living in poverty. Food insecurity, unclean drinking water, social stress, poor nutrition, frequent imprisonment and hard physical labor just to survive. Many of the illnesses that Jesus will cure are caused by these kinds of unjust conditions: body weakness and paralysis, blindness, mental instability, fevers. Professor Carter bluntly puts it this way: Jesus comes and starts to “repair imperial damage.” Jesus “enacts God’s life-giving empire.” When I read this, all of a sudden the healing stories of Jesus seemed more radical, more seditious, than I ever imagined. I also realized how closely these conditions of first century people’s lives parallels that of people of color in this nation today.

Martin Luther King Jr. called our nation to repair “imperial damage” of centuries of racism, militarism and poverty. And it was very hard for much of our nation to hear him. And the damage continues. How will we be about “damage repair” in the next four years? Let’s keep talking and praying about this. The rest of Walter Bruggeman’s poem is a starting point, as we begin this significant week:

We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

And so may it be. Amen.

Another look at “faith”

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis – I had an interesting discussion with the parents of our confirmation students the other night. Midway now through working with our five 7th-9th graders, I wanted to better understand their parents’ hopes and expectations, given that they were each requiring their child to attend. What struck me in our conversation was not a stated desire for their youth to believe certain Christian doctrine. Nor were they particularly concerned about their 12-, 13-, 14-year olds assuming responsibilities of adult membership in the church at this age. What the parents wanted for their kids was for them to be able to identify and talk about the questions that the kids have this point in their young lives. Questions of meaning and purpose and how does one come to one’s own conclusions about God and this complex and confusing world. Questions about their emerging identity as a young person, and how their own intellect and conscience might come to judge religious belief and practice. Questions about the ideas their parents and schools and church have taught them. The parents wanted their kids to be able to identify “the enduring questions” that will be with them through life, as one mom put it. To attain some tools for exploring these questions that will be part of their life-long spiritual journeys.

These parents’ concerns resonated with me, and reflect a growing practice within the wider United Church of Christ: helping our youth explore the difference between confirming and conforming (see “Confirm Not Reform” curriculum from Logos Productions). Part of developing one’s own sense of personal identity is to take a hard look at ways we have been urged/forced to conform. How might young people identify and deconstruct some of these beliefs? As a middle-school student, I myself proclaimed that I was an “atheist.”  But I don’t remember anyone actually asking me: “Anne, what idea or image of God do you not believe in? What might be some other ways to think about God and why you are here on earth? And what difference might this make in the way you see the world, make moral choices?” At the time, no one asked me these questions.

For several centuries now, the practice of confirmation in the Protestant church has been about a young person’s education in the proper doctrine or beliefs of the church, so the youth could adequately understand and “confirm” the faith professed by his or her parents at baptism. During infant baptism, we ask the parents if they themselves believe and trust in God, in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and if they will raise the child within the nurture of the Christian church. Confirmation class was the time to learn about and then publicly testify to these beliefs. Little attention was paid to the fact that developmentally, young people need to learn to reflect critically on beliefs, faith and values given to them by parents, church and society.

All of this is rather curious, when I look at the Biblical record of how Jesus of Nazareth actually interacted with people. He never seemed big on doctrine or beliefs. He had this knack for going up to people and saying, “Follow me,” and they would. He certainly didn’t check out their “faith status” first. But in his conversations with his closest followers, those called his disciples, he speaks specifically about their faith. What did he mean by this word, “faith?”

From our brief Luke passage today, we hear Jesus’ disciples make what sounds like a reasonable request:  “Lord, can you increase our faith?!” Jesus has just been talking privately with them about the extraordinary demands of following him. In conversation right before this, Jesus insists they were to continually forgive one another: be mutually accountable, lovingly rebuke where necessary, apologize and make amends. “Do this seven times a day, if you have to.” Apparently, living fully in God’s Kingdom was more complicated than they had imagined. “If someone repents, you must forgive,” Jesus pushes them. To which they understandably respond: “Good grief, we are going to need more of something to do this. Jesus, can you give us more faith!”

Jesus responds in an odd manner: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” There is something in the sharpness of Jesus’ answer, the bizarre exaggeration of his images about small seeds and huge deeply rooted bushes, that leaves me wondering if the disciples, and maybe I, have missed the point somewhere. Is this about more faith? Is quantity the issue here? Or might Jesus be using common images in a cryptic and indirect manner so he can unsettle our assumptions about faith? The disciples appear to assume that faith does come in different quantities: If I have the right amount, I can face the challenges of following you, Jesus. I can valiantly change the world!

So what is “faith” here? Are we talking about faith like a super power, so I can then somehow manipulate an even bigger super power? I wonder if Jesus turns to irrelevant references like tiny mustard seeds and huge mulberry bushes and tossing foliage into the sea because…the disciples are asking an irrelevant question. It may not be about an amount of faith. I sense that Jesus may have been telling them they had all the faith they needed.

Maybe the disciples’ question should have been, “Jesus, we need some help here understanding how following you works, about how to be and act faithful. Jesus, we need some help in learning how to trust God, to trust in God’s steady presence and unfolding plan even when things look bad.” They may already have this thing they think they need. A connection with this transforming God, which they need to learn to trust. This may be at the core of what gets us confused: We hear the word “faith” and think it is about “belief” – an idea or concept we have to get our brain to accept. Yet the word “faith” in Biblical times carried deeper connotations of trust, as in “to have confidence in.” The disciples may have lost track of what they already had. I hear this echoed in the Apostle Paul’s letter, written years later, as he reaches out from his prison cell to a young co-worker Timothy: “You do not have a spirit of cowardice or fear,” he writes in this mentoring letter 2 Timothy. You have, he says, “a source of power and love and self-discipline.” You have it. Lean into it, engage it, Paul urges his leader-in-training. Guard this “good treasure entrusted to you….this treasure of faith that comes down from your mother and your grandmother and lives in you,” he counsels Timothy. Paul speaks of a legacy of trusting, of acting with confidence in God’s presence and strength. How might we have faith to do the hard stuff in life?

Perhaps when a congregation such as ours is faced with overwhelming challenges like addressing racial inequities, we might question: “How do we have the faith to do this? How do we ‘guard the good treasure entrusted’ in us from generations past here at Falcon Heights Church UCC and throughout our denomination? How do we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us?” Because clearly, one of the ongoing legacies of this church has been an abiding concern for those who live in poverty and for racial inequity, a deep passion for those who don’t have enough proper food, school, jobs or heath care. This kind of caring and outreach have been part of Falcon Heights Church’s identity since its formation in the late 1940s. This is about a level of faithfulness, of trust that we are called by God to do these things and that our actions make a difference. We allow the inherent fruitfulness of God’s creative justice and power to affect how we perceive and respond to life.

In these days of increased racial tension and deeper awareness about some of the problems in how we keep our communities safe, we are challenged to have trust in God’s creative justice and power to make changes in our community. I saw that kind of faith-trust in action as we hosted the panel discussion on new directions for community policing here in this packed sanctuary this last Thursday. Members of our Executive Board served as greeters, welcoming the diverse group of attendees. A number of you listened, learned and stayed around to talk with different people in the overflow crowd. Tough questions were asked, and were respectfully responded to by the panel, which included the president of the St. Paul NAACP chapter and a retired St. Paul police sergeant. Important data about racial inequities in policing were shared by one of our former members of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the local legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. We were urged to continue to ask questions about police training and policing policies and to trust that our concerns would be addressed. We were reminded to support our police in the tremendously hard job that they do on our behalf. We were challenged to step out in greater trust, in greater faith, trusting in one another and our ability to work for changes in our community and to heal these injustices.

Jesus seemed to think the disciples’ problem wasn’t about an amount of faith; it was about the ways they were with one another, and with God. He was concerned about their level of trust and patience, honesty and forgiveness. Each Sunday we worship together we renew our commitment to faithful action beyond our walls. We do this as by nurturing these relationships among us. We are here, “rekindling our faith,” our ability to trust in God’s good future together. Thanks be to God. Amen.