Monday, July 14, 2014

Street Ministry Journal: July 8, 2014

I've not blogged about this before, but my congregation has a street ministry that is out in the community every Tuesday and Friday nights providing water, clothing, snacks, candy, hygiene, and other items to people living on the streets. We also go into Chippewa Falls once a week or so to check out the homeless there as well, as they recently lost the only homeless shelter in that city. I go out twice a month usually, and leave it to the volunteers, who have the real expertise, to do this important ministry. Mike Henry is our leader - he has done street ministry in San Francisco, Chicago, places in Central America, and elsewhere. He has many decades of experience and great passion. He is the one who took the photo below. We keep a street journal that we who take part in the ministry occasional write stories for, of our thoughts and experiences. The following is my write up from last week Tuesday:

A beautiful night, weather-wise, and it became an even more beautiful night with a surprise encounter with a man with a silken baritone voice. Lilly, Dave, Sandy, Mike, and I were there to help the many visitors we had to the van. We were busy, but not so busy that we didn't stop for about ten minutes to listen to Wahya, recently arrived at Sojourners, sing us some serenades of 1970s-era blues rock tunes and even some country. He had been a singer in a band many years before, but circumstances led him out of that profession and eventually to where he is today. He has lost much, but not his voice or his passion for song. Mostly he sang alone, but I joined him to sing the beginning of Bob Seeger's "Turn the Page". A gentle man, mostly (perhaps all) Native American. He told us the story of how he received his name, a name that in his tradition can only be given as a gift for doing right things, never claimed for oneself. A fascinating man who I hope can find his way off the "long and lonesome highway" and back into the life that he knew and that he deserves.

Caption: Wahya singing in his rich baritone voice for Pastor David and others.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

God's One-Sided Covenant - sermon from June 29, 2014

Sunday's sermon was on Jesus' summation of the law. When he was asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" he doesn't offer some kind of belief or doctrinal point, nor any of the 613 commandments (mitzvot) found in the Hebrew scriptures - he quotes the summation of all law and prophets that is found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: Love God and love your neighbor and you love yourself. 

This sermon is a meditation on God's process of covenanting with various people and peoples, culminating in the covenant that is Jesus, and an exploration of what loving God and neighbor might look like if we lived by it in 21st century earth.

“A One-Sided Covenant”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 8, June 29, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture [from narrative lectionary, not RCL]: Exodus 20:1-17 and Matthew 22:34-40

Jesus does a nice summation of the covenant with God in his response to this question from these people who are probably trying to trick him, or who are, perhaps, generally curious about Jesus’ answer.

We are a people of the covenant – the covenant between God and us, a covenant we call Jesus. Jesus who said, “My blood is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you.” But before Jesus, there was the covenant of The Law, which we read some of here with these ten commandments. This passage is the beginning of God giving Moses the Law from the mountaintop. They are part of a much longer set of laws that are written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and elsewhere, ending up with a total of 613 commandments, according to traditional Jewish counting.

But these ten are the big ones. These are the ones that God gives to Moses first, and are the ones that Moses brought down on the tablets from the mountaintop. These are the beginning of the Law.

You may remember Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments”, holding the two tablets with his white hair and flowing beard and he’s backlit quite dramatically as he descends from the mountain top with this new law.

Or perhaps you remember Mel Brooks’ movie “The History of the World, Part 1”. The amazing Sid Caesar, who just died a month or two ago, played Moses in a similar scene to Heston’s, coming down the mountain with the same hair and beard but with three tablets, saying “I bring you these fifteen...” and then one tablet falls on the ground and shatters, “These ten, ten commandments!” 

These ten commandments are the basis of the covenant between God and the people that God had just rescued from slavery in Egypt. He’s brought them across the sea and into the wilderness, and one of the first things is to set up this covenant between God and the people. A covenant that says, “I will be your God, and you will be my people, and this is what that relationship will look like. This is how we will act together. You will do this, and I will do this.”

We talk about covenant in the church a lot, too. It’s more than just an agreement, in which, say, you and I agree to do something. And it is less than, or maybe more than, a legal contract which tends to be less about “let us trust one another to do right” and more about “I don’t trust you, so let’s put this into writing.” It’s a kind of agreement or contract, but which is based on trust. A marriage is a covenant. Our relation here as a congregation, our fellowship, is a covenant to agree with one another to be followers of Jesus. We don’t have a doctrine or specific belief that unites us, but we are united as followers of Jesus to help one another, challenge one another, be on the journey together. And this congregation is in covenant with almost 6000 other congregations to form the United Church of Christ that we are part of.

So we have this covenant this God makes with the people through Moses on the mountaintop. But God had made covenants before and after. There is the covenant with Noah after the flood when God sets the rainbow in the sky as the symbol of the covenant never to flood the world again. There is the covenant with Abraham to make a great nation out of him. We read last week the story of Ishmael and Hagar. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, whom he had with Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden, who was not Abraham’s wife, but whom Sarah had told Abraham to impregnate so that he would have a son. A few years after Sarah gave birth to Isaac, finally fulfilling God’s promise to her and Abraham that they would have a child, she had Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert because of Sarah’s fear that Ishmael might “steal” God’s promise to Abraham. As Ishmael is dying from dehydration in the desert, Hagar prays to God, and God responds with a promise (that is, makes a covenant) that Ishmael, too, shall inherit Abraham’s promise, and he also will be the father of a great nation, and he is saved.

Then the covenants continue with Isaac and Jacob. Then the covenant with the Hebrew people that Moses is mediator of. And other covenants that God makes throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Many covenants.

Then with Jesus, a new kind of covenant appears. God makes a new kind of covenant through Jesus. Previous covenants have been of the formula of God saying, “I will do this and you will do this; and if you do not do this, then I will do that...”

But the covenant that is Jesus is a new kind: it’s a totally one sided covenant. It is of the form of God saying, “I will do this.”

And that’s it.

No requirement for the other partner in the covenant. Nothing we have to do in this new covenant. God says, “I will do this. I will love you, will forgive you, will shower you with grace, will fill you with the Holy Spirit, will hold you, will comfort you, I will be – No! I *am* – your God! And you don’t need to do anything. This is my gift to you.”

Now it is all God’s action: “I will do this. My gift to you.”

No longer do we have to do things because we have to. We do things in response to God’s love, not to earn, or achieve, or be worthy of God’s love, but simply as a response to God’s love. God who says, “I love you unconditionally, and that’s it.”

So when Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” he has these ten, and the other 603 commandments to choose from. He doesn’t say, “Well, you have to believe this...” nor does he say, “Well, the biggest one is don’t kill” or “Don’t eat shrimp” or “Don’t wear clothing of mixed fibers” or “Don’t associate with women”.

He doesn’t say any of those.

He quotes instead a variation of two passages from the Jewish scriptures from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “Love God with all your strength, with all your heart, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it.

That’s the law.

The rest, as they say, is commentary about how to live that out. That sums it all up. Just love God, who loves us already, and love our neighbor and love ourselves and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Or more than we love ourselves. But there is also in there the command to love ourselves and not beat ourselves up. We are to love ourselves, our neighbor, and love God.

As I look at the world that is around us, and let me say that there is an awful lot of good and wonderful things that humans do. It can be too easy to focus on the negative and wallow in a kind of nostalgic sentimentalism about an age that never existed except in our minds. But, as I look around the world, I do see evil and injustice. There are political, economic, religious, and social systems that aren’t loving. That hurt people. That leave people behind. That don’t help the poor, or the immigrants, or the foreigners, or so many of our brothers and sisters. There are wars and violence, political maneuvering over resources, economic destruction foisted by one country or corporation on innocent people.

As I look on that world, I grow more and more convinced that trying to reduce Christian faith to a set of intellectual propositions has been incredibly harmful to the Church and harmful to the world. It has allowed us to forget that Jesus’ only command to his disciples and to us was to love another one another.

Think of people who live in areas without easy access to water or to clean water. Our camps this summer are raising money for an organization called DigDeep that helps to bring wells and clean water into places that don’t have either. There are places around the world in which communities are miles away from the wells. So women and children spend many hours a day walking to the source of water and then walking back with a few jugs of water, and going back and forth to have enough to cook with, drink, do laundry, and so on. And because they spend so much time dealing with getting water, they don’t have the time needed to get an education, or have a job, or start a business, or do whatever might lift them out of their poverty.

When I think of people in situations like that, I think that what they don’t need is a Bible. They don’t need people coming in and telling them what to believe. They need water. They need a well in the middle of their community, or in their homes. They need water purifiers. They need something to help free up their time so they can be more than living day by day and therefore take better care of their families and their communities.

People who are hungry don’t need Bibles, they need food. Not that Bibles are bad, but they need food first. And sometimes they need a better government, or to end the wars or violence around that causes constant struggle and destruction of fields or pollution of water or otherwise keeps them from living fully.

Think of our street ministry here. We don’t go out with Bibles to proselytize them. Though if they ask for a Bible, we’ll give them one. We’ll pray with them, bring them to church, give them devotionals if they ask for them. But what they need is a sleeping bag, food, water. Someone to remember their name. Someone to listen to their story. To offer them dignity. They don’t need to be told, “Believe in the Trinity or you will go to hell!” They’re already in hell. They know what hell is like. We need to listen to them.

And so often they are not in this hell because they failed to believe – many are very spiritual – they are in hell because we, the rest of us, have too often failed to love as fully and sufficiently as we are called to.

And that is really all God wants from us. It sounds very simple to say, “That’s all God wants from us!” It is an awful lot to ask, really, and yet it is a very small request, too. What God wants is for us to love one another, and to love one another because God loves us. God has loved us first, and God loves us always and will always love us, unconditionally. Even when we act in unlovable ways. That’s the Good News of Jesus! We are loved, and free to live without fear so that we are free to love recklessly and dangerously.

“I am your God and I love you. You don’t have to do anything. But I do ask that you love one another to the best you are able.”

Think of the ways we at Plymouth are loving one another through our quilts, our offerings for St. Francis, our street ministry, the way that we treat each other.

“I am your God and I love you. You don’t have to do anything. But I do ask that you love one another.”

And that is a mission that we can live out.


--------end of sermon--------

How do you live out "Love God, love your neighbor as yourself?" What would you like to say in response to to Jesus' words, or my words? How might we as followers of Jesus do a better job of living this way, or how might we as a nation or a world do a better job? Or are we doing enough? 

Please post your responses, questions, comments, agreements, retorts, whatever here. Thank you, and God bless.