Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

Tag: community

The Disaster of Wealth

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos warns that contempt for truth and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged leads to disaster. These are words that we might remember as another election day nears. Words that we might ask our political leaders to take to heart. But it is also a warning that is relevant to all of us. Too often even those of us who identify as poor, or at least feel the pressure of meeting our monthly bills on time, fall prey to the mindset that wealth is the true measure of success. It is what our culture teaches us.

And in our desire for greater riches, our desire to be a success, we start to ignore truth and forget about the poor. We start to accept some of the lies we hear, thinking that perhaps little lies don’t matter so much or that maybe it’s ok to tell lies about the liars. We don’t bother fact-checking that great meme before posting it on Facebook. Maybe we think we can’t bother with the homeless when we can barely make our own rent or that businesses shouldn’t have to pay livable wages if that means higher prices for me. Maybe we think it’s ok to vote for a corrupt politician as long as they promise to vote for my pet issue. Maybe we just covet that new phone model. Surely that will solve all of our problems.

When a rich person comes to Jesus asking how they can be one with God, Jesus tells them since they already keep all the commandments that the next step on their spiritual journey is sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor. Needless to say, the rich person walks away dejected. Jesus’ instruction was alarming not only to the rich person but to everyone there, including the disciples. Living in a capitalistic country that sees wealth as the measure of success, we are probably alarmed as well. But Jesus knew that the person’s wealth, which brought them safety, security and status, had become a spiritual burden. It didn’t allow them to truly be compassionate toward others. It got in the way between them and God as well as between them and their fellow human beings.

Wealth can build a wall around us, isolating us. It can put a buffer between us and the suffering. Wealth can make us think we don’t need each other and get in the way of true community. We’ve all heard someone say: “we earned our wealth,” “they’d succeed if they worked harder,” “it’s only business, nothing personal,” and “the poor are lazy.” Perhaps we’ve even said similar things ourselves. But statements like these only serve to justify the distance between the haves and the have-nots and blame the poor for their poverty, letting those of us who have money off the hook. If we are not able to hear the pain of others, we will not be able to fully experience God for God is found in our relationships with each other and Creation. That, I think, is what was happening to the well intentioned rich person in the biblical story. They weren’t able to fully experience the Divine energy because their wealth stood between them and the people around them.

What burdens do we need to let go of that we might fully encounter God? Is it wealth or the desire for wealth? What burdens do we carry that keep us from living in God’s way of love in the here and now? That get between us and the Divine? Some money is necessary in our society to live, but we should not allow the pursuit of wealth to come between us and those around us. We are all on this journey together. We need each other. It is in “the least of these” that we find God.

For further reflection on the role wealth plays in our lives, check out this thought provoking Ted Talk posted on my church’s blog: https://phoenixchurch.org/home/2018/10/does-money-make-you-mean/. You might also want to listen (or re-listen) to the sermon from October 14, upon which the above reflections are based, at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/sermons/through-the-eye-of-a-needle/. This reflection was originally published in my church’s newsletter.

The Family of God and LGBTQ Pride

In the early morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn. This was a bar that catered to marginalized people: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. But the raid didn’t go as planned. Those marginalized people fought back against persecution that night. Riots developed and the modern liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons was born. One year later, on June 28, 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day marked the anniversary of the Stonewall riots with the first ever Gay Pride march. The New York Times reported that the parade of marchers stretched for 15 blocks.

48 years after that first march, we still celebrate Pride. Although the world is much different than it was for LGBTQ people in the 1950’s and 60’s, it is still important to celebrate who we are and to stand up and declare that LGBTQ lives matter. I feel blessed to live in a city that is relatively liberal and accepting but we don’t have to stray very far into the world to know it’s not that way everywhere. Even here in Kalamazoo, there is still much work to be done. Because of that Pride shouldn’t be a once a year party. We need to live with pride in who we are every day, affirming our self-worth to ourselves and to the world.

Our culture would rather that those who are oppressed and marginalized be invisible. Humans fear what we don’t understand. The world would rather we deny our authentic selves rather than challenge their notion of how the world is supposed to work. But, to deny who we are is, in religious language, a sin. To deny who God created us to be – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, cis, gender-bending, queer, straight, etc. – is a sin. Denying who we are separates us from the Divine Presence within us and around us. It creates a barrier between us and the sacred and that barrier is what we mean by sin. In Jesus’ words found in Mark 3:20-35, it’s a serious sin, an unforgivable sin, a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

When the religious scholars accuse Jesus of working for the Devil, they are accusing him of being something he is not. Jesus responds by telling them that they know better than that. They know his power comes from God but they deny it. They know the truth and yet they deny it. And he goes on to declare that denial a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other words, to hear and understand the voice of the Divine within and still deny it is an unforgivable sin. To use the word unforgivable is a bit misleading, however. It’s clear from all of Jesus’ other teachings that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. Or in the apostle Paul’s words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Perhaps Jesus here is engaging in hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point. Perhaps he’s trying to stress the seriousness of denying what we know to be true. For if we deny who we are, how does one recover from that? For those who are LGBTQ, we all have experience with what we call being in the closet. We know firsthand how damaging it is to our mental and spiritual well-being to deny who we are. The only way to recover from that denial is to embrace who we are. That’s not always easy.

We may need to work on discovering ourselves. We may need to overcome internalized homophobia. We may need to deal with hostility from friends or family. We may need professional help. We certainly need the support of good, healthy relationships. These things are not always going to be easy, especially if we lack the support of family. In scripture, Jesus’ family wasn’t so sure about him, either. We’re told they thought he might be losing his mind. Religious leaders were accusing him of working for Satan. He was constantly being mobbed by crowds of marginalized people, those needing healing, those thought possessed by demons. It was all beyond his family’s understanding. So his mothers and brothers went to try and rescue him, but Jesus wasn’t having it.

Jesus redefines family as what I’d call the Family of God – family defined by love, not blood. Anyone who lives with and by God’s love is our sister, brother, mother, and father. Jesus is teaching about community. To live an authentic life we need loving community, the support of family, of people who love us for who we are, as we are. That may include our birth family but it certainly includes the Family of God, those who love us for our authentic selves, who will support us in our times of need, who will forgive us when we mess up. It is this Family of God that we are called to be. It is this Family of God that can change the world.

One of my seminary professors interviewed people about what changed their minds regarding their acceptance of LGBTQ people. What he found was that it actually had little to do with their understanding of scripture. Discussions about how to interpret scripture and apply it to their lives didn’t matter nearly as much as getting to know someone who identified as gay. Relationship and love – these are the things that change people. Welcoming people into this Family of God is where the hope lies for this world we live in. That doesn’t mean converting people to Christianity. It simply means loving people unconditionally, for who they are, as they are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Note: The above reflection is an edited version of my sermon from June 10, “Family of God.” Go to www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php to listen to the entire message.

Moving Into the Future

We are always moving into the future, dealing with challenges, and not quite sure of what might happen next. For many of us, this point in history is a particularly scary time. As we move into the future we do so not only with all of our gifts and with great hope, but we go with our fears and insecurities as well. When Jacob spent the night alone before being reunited with his brother Esau, a brother who had threatened to kill him the last time they were together, he too must have been full of fear and anxiety, wondering what the morning would hold for him and his family. But, by spending that night alone, he opened the way for a holy encounter.

When we spend time in prayer, meditation, and reflection with both our hopes and our fears, as Jacob was doing, we open ourselves to a life changing encounter with the Holy Spirit. Of course Jacob’s holy encounter was not a nice, polite business meeting. Instead, it took the form of a physical wrestling match. Jacob wrestled all night with a stranger in the wilderness, probably at first not knowing whether this was a robber who was trying to kill him or what was happening. But he didn’t give up. He persevered and he resisted even after he was injured. By daybreak he somehow knew that this was no simple robbery but something holy. He resisted until he found a blessing in his struggle. In our struggles, in the scars and injuries we suffer, we often find we have been changed and even blessed. We often find that those struggles can be holy and sacred events when we learn about God, ourselves, and the world around us and grow more into our authentic selves. This is what happened to Jacob that night.

Jacob’s story is about how we deal with our struggles, aspirations and moving into God’s intended future. The story of Jesus feeding five thousand families with just a little bit of bread and a few fish is also about how we meet challenges. The disciples noticed the large crowd was getting tired and hungry, and looking at what food they had, said “It’s not enough.” So they went to Jesus and told him to send the crowds home so they can eat. But then Jesus looked at the food on hand and said “Oh yeah, that’s all we need, it’s plenty.” Jesus thought that whatever we have is enough and began to share it generously – and it was enough! I’m not really concerned with the logistics of the miracle or the veracity of this story, but I’m very intrigued by the question it raises for me: what can we accomplish if we trust that what we have is enough?

What would happen if we didn’t worry about if there was enough but just shared what we had? What if, when we find ourselves struggling, whether in our personal lives, or in our churches, or in our city, state or nation… what if, in our fears and anxieties, we open ourselves to encounters with the Holy? What if we grab hold of God, grab hold of love, and, like Jacob, don’t let go? What if we persevere and persist until the blessing of the struggle becomes clear? What if we trust that what we have is enough? Maybe, just maybe, everyone gets fed and we find ourselves transformed into the loving children of God, a people who never give up, a people assured of God’s love, who give that love freely to the world. As we move together into the future, know that we are enough and that we have enough because we are God’s beloved children.

(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, August 6, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

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