Courage for Community
Esther was safe. As the Queen no one would have harmed her, but she was challenged to show courage for her community, and so she exposed the Prime Minister Haaman’s evil plans for genocide. And so Esther saved the Jewish people. Her courage is celebrated every year in the Jewish holiday of Purim.
SLIDE 4: YAD VASHEM
As I meditate upon the happy example of Esther’s courage, I remember another example memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem Yad Vashem, in a memorial to the extraordinary caring of Janusz Korczak, also known under his pen name Henryk Goldszmit. Janusz Korczak was a pediatrician, who under the name of Henryk Goldszmit wrote famous and much beloved children’s stories, in Central Europe every bit as popular as Peter Pan or even Harry Potter. He also had a popular radio program heard all over Central Europe under the title “Pan Doktor.” As a humanitarian in Warsaw he ran two orphanages for several hundred children.
SLIDE 5: REFUSED TO LEAVE HIS ORPHANS
When the Germans invaded Poland, he was offered safe conduct out of Poland, but Korczak refused to leave his orphans. When the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto, they offered him safe conduct out of Poland again, and again he refused. When the SS came to take the orphans for resettlement in the East, a euphemism for transportation to the death camps, an officer who remembered reading Henrk Goldszmit’s books as a child offered to help him escape. But yet again the good Doctor refused to leave his orphans.
SLIDE 6: CHRIST LIKE STORY OF COURAGE FOR COMMUNITY
And so sometime during early 1942 Janusz Korczak along with 200 orphans were transported to Treblinka extermination camp, where he died with his precious orphaned children. The story of Janusz Korczak does not have the happy ending of Purim, but it is an unrivaled Christ like story of courage for community.
SLIDE 7: PROTESTANT INDIVIDUALISM
Protestantism has tended to treat faith as a very individualized phenomenon. Each person must be saved by a personal decision for or against the Commonwealth of God. Profession of belief and baptism have been the outward and visible signs of religious conviction. But in fact faith is lived out within the context of community.
SLIDE 8: THE COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS
Not only the particular congregations in which we claim membership, but also the larger Community of faith, sometimes called the Church Universal and even the past and future communities of believers of which we are a part — sometimes called the Communion of the Saints. We are part of a cloud of witnesses including Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, Rosa Parks, Desmund Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Andrew Young, Bill and Sara Green. People of faith are never entirely alone, for we are called to live in community.
SLIDE 9: A UNIQUE TENSION
At United Church we live in a unique tension. We are called upon to welcome everyone – “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” Daring to be so open, we are constantly in danger of falling out. How can we belong to a community that opens its arms to everyone? If there are no discriminators, how do we know who is in and who is out? We often have a hard time establishing common ground, because we are so different from one another. It takes some courage to live in that kind of tension.
In a world that is seeking spiritual independence with a majority of young people refusing to identify with any kind of organized religious institution, we have to have courage to come together and maintain ourselves as a community of faith. So why should we persist in making the effort to join together in a spiritual community?
SLIDE 10: WHEVER TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED
First, Jesus said, wherever two or three are gathered together in community, the spirit of Christ is there with them in the world. Jesus did not say, “Go become holy hermits.” No Jesus said, come together at the sharing table of Christ, where we can eat together, pray together, and give one another mutual support, for there am I in the midst of you. The commonwealth of God begins for you, when you claim your place in the spiritual community!
SLIDE 11: COVENANT TO PRAY WITH AND FOR EACH OTHER
Second, at United Church we covenant to pray with and for each other offering mutual support on our journey through life. None of us can make it alone. We may think we are rugged individualists, but when the going gets tough the tough reach out and join hands with good spiritual friends. Friendship increases our spiritual resilience. And reaching out to others isn’t for sissies! We need courage to be vulnerable enough to one another to ask for help and prayers. If you come to the Sharing Table be prepared to bring enough of yourself to the Table to be able to ask others to pray for you.
SLIDE 12: COVENANT TO BE IN MISSION TOGETHER
Third, we covenant to be in mission together. We don’t always have to agree with one another about everything we just need to be able to work together to reach out to other people who are in need. We join together in support of Foodline, NAMI, Habitat for Humanity, and the Huntsville Assistance Program.
SLIDE 13: BYRON AND TONI PICK UP WHERE RAY AND SHIRLEY LEFT OFF
Through our Neighbors in Need Offering we will support the ministry of June Boutwell’s friends Byron and Toni Buffalo, who have picked up where Ray and Shirley Berry left off on the Lakota Sioux Reservation. And then on November 29th the First Sunday of Advent we will decorate the Sock and Glove Tree to send to Bryan and Toni. So many things we can do, when we are in mission together.
SLIDE 14: ST. STEPHENS UNITED CHURCH WE DID IT TOGETHER
For instance, neither St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church or United Church could have built the “Healing Steps Labyrinth,” now because we have cooperated together we are able to offer as a gift to our community a handicapped accessible Labyrinth. We are called to be in mission together not “holy hermits.”
SLIDE 15: MENTORING EACH OTHER IN FAITH
Four, as we mature in our faith we the community become a place, where we can mentor others. Many other faiths follow the guru pattern. A Holy Person sets up a practice and invites others, who would like to learn the ways of spirituality to come and be mentored by the Holy One. Spiritual Direction can be a productive path to pursue for spiritual growth, but Jesus did not intend for his disciples to follow that path exclusively. Rather he called the church to become the community of faith that disciples and mentors people into the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus calls us into community, because working out our faith with others is one of our most important callings.
SLIDE 16: WORKING IT OUT WITH OTHERS IN THE FAITH COMMUNITY
One of the most important lessons we will learn on our faith journeys is that working it out with all those other people who can be so different from us is the most difficult challenge of faith. Just read Paul’s letters to the very naughty churches he was trying to pastor. Living in a community of faith is not easy, and trying to lead in a community of faith can be exasperating. But there is nothing more rewarding than when people in a community of faith begin to work together, for then the Spirit of Christ really is among us.
SLIDE 17: MENTORING CHILDREN
Five, the community of faith offers us an opportunity to mentor children. In Africa they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In our modern culture, where we live in the anonymous metropolis, our congregations become the villages that can help to raise our children and grandchildren. Children need a spiritual foundation. I have heard some adults claim that they have not exposed their children to any religion, because they want their young people to “decide for themselves, when they are old enough.” But what kind of decision comes from having no lived background at all? The truth is that people are always free to choose a different spiritual tradition from what they are raised in, but if they have never been immersed in any religious tradition at all, they are likely to remain lost, clueless.
SLIDE 18: RELIGIOUS TRADITION THAT RESPECTS OTHER FAITHS
I understand that some forms of the Christian faith are just down right abusive, and people think they might be much better off without any religious training. But a religious tradition that respects other faiths, leaves the individual free to choose his or her own way, and helps the child to learn to pray, is the best preparation for adult spirituality. At United Church we try to help children grow independently and in community.
SLIDE 19: EMBRACE THE COURAGE AND FAITH TO LIVE IN SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY
Remember all of these reasons for taking courage to live in spiritual community as our stewardship drive draws near. Also when the nominating committee calls, please respond faithfully. The faith community does not happen by accident. A congregation requires careful planning, inspired leadership, dedicated service and generous giving. Embrace the courage and faith to live in spiritual community.
Who Are You Jesus?
SLIDE 3: DIVERSITY OF 1ST CENTURY ISRAEL
Judaism in First Century Israel was very diverse. Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes were only broad categories of different approaches to the Jewish faith. Within those categories of faith were numerous sub-groups who competed with one another to capture the imagination of the Jewish people. And at this point in history there were many more Jews living outside the Jewish homeland in the Diaspora than inside.
SLIDE 4: DIFFERENT MESSIAHS
The word Messiah was used by almost all communities within Judaism, although it had a different meaning depending upon the group. The zealots were looking for a charismatic military leader, who would inspire an army of Jews to throw the Romans out of the Jewish homeland. The Sadducees were primarily invested in protecting the Priesthood and the privileges and revenues of the Temple. A Kingly Messiah might limit the power and privileges of the Sadducees, so they became nervous whenever “messiah” was mentioned. The Essenes were looking for a heavenly figure who would come to earth, throw the corrupt Priesthood out of the Temple, cleanse the Holy of Holies and install a new more faithful priesthood of the Essenes. The Pharisees were all over the place. Some of the Rabbis looked for a military leader, who would defeat the Romans and restore Israeli sovereignty. Other Pharisees believed that only a heavenly Messiah could defeat the Romans and bring back a King from the line of David. Radicals like John the Baptist were looking for a heavenly Messiah who would call all of the people to repentance transform the whole world and bring God’s rule to earth. Most Jews were familiar with the word “Messiah,” but there was no single definition of its meaning.
So in our scripture, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responded, “You are the Messiah,” we may want to know what Peter meant, when he used that title, and we also may want to discern how Jesus understood the role of the Messiah.
SLIDE 5: PETER: “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH”
First, what was Peter’s meaning, when he said, “You are the Messiah!” According to the Gospel of John, Peter had been a follower of John the Baptist. So Peter was probably thinking of Jesus as a heaven sent leader, who would transform the world and bring God’s rule to earth. The healings that occurred in the ministry of Jesus as well as other events the disciples interpreted as “miraculous signs,” the feeding of the multitude, the calming of the storm, the dramatic exorcisms of demonic spirits, led Peter to believe that Jesus carried within him the very power of heaven. While Peter may have been unsure just how Jesus would transform Israel, he believed he was the Messiah, and he had the power to change the world.
SLIDE 6: JESUS: SON OF MAN
Now what did Jesus mean by the title Messiah? First let us note in this passage in the Gospel of Mark Jesus did not refer to himself as the Messiah. When Peter said, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus responded, “keep it quiet; do not to breathe a word of it to anyone.” Jesus then proceeded to use an ambiguous term from the Hebrew Scriptures, and some apocalyptic works of the 1st century, “Son of Man.” In the Book of Daniel, “son of man,” is a heavenly being who comes to signal the end of history and the final judgment. The prophet Ezekiel, however, refers to himself as “son of man,” and in other contexts “son of man” seems to mean a human messianic figure. While many New Testament writers refer to a heavenly being who comes to signal the end of history, Jesus here in the Gospel of Mark points to a very human figure, who will suffer, like the “suffering servant” passages of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12). The “suffering servant” in Isaiah was a messianic figure, or perhaps Israel itself in exile, that would redeem the people through suffering.
SLIDE 7: DON’T RUN FROM SUFFERING
In our passage from Mark Jesus said, “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me, and I will show you how.” These words of Jesus are reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s Six Principles of Non-violence. Allow me to enumerate them.
SLIDE 8: SIX PRINCIPLES OF NON-VIOLENCE
PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body.
Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.
SLIDE 9: IF YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD BE PREPARED TO SUFFER
I think like Martin Luther King Jesus was teaching his followers, if you want to change the world you must be prepared to suffer. You can change the world by embracing self-sacrificing non-violent love. Rabbi Rami in his Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent places Jesus’ words and actions into context.
SLIDE 10: TAKING UP YOUR CROSS — A POLITICAL ACT
“The cross in first-century, Roman-occupied, Jewish Palestine meant only one thing death. Taking up your cross and following Jesus was not a disembodied act of faith, but a political act of nonviolent resistance. Jesus calls you to confront the evils of your day, knowing that doing so may cost you your life. If you are going to die, make your death matter by making your life matter: die in service to the living.”
SLIDE 11: VANDALISM AND PROTEST AGAINST THE MOSQUE
Rabbi Shapiro who recently retired from teaching at Middle Tennessee State University was on the firing line in Murfreesboro over the building of a new Mosque. Like many other cities in Middle America the Islamic population in Murfreesboro has grown dramatically. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has over 1,000 congregants and they sought to build a new Mosque igniting protests and even vandalism and arson of the construction site by Christian religious conservatives. The controversy gained national attention in 2010, when a candidate for the vacant congressional seat in Tennessee’s 6th district, issued a statement in opposition to the mosque, denouncing the planned building as “an Islamic training center,” saying that it was not a bona fide religious institution but a political one “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.”
SLIDE 12: PLEASE GIVE JESUS MORE CREDIT AND DON’T DUMB DOWN CHRISTIANITY
In response Rabbi Shapiro helped to organize Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu support for the Mosque’s constitutional rights. At one event to promote interfaith support for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in response to a conservative Christian protestor who claimed that Jesus didn’t have room in heaven for Muslims, Rabbi Rami said, “Please give Jesus more credit and do not “dumb down” Christianity.” If we want to follow the way of Jesus, we must be willing to put ourselves on the line for justice – racial justice, religious justice, economic justice.
SLIDE 13: FEED THE HUNGRY, HEAL THE SICK EDUCATE THE YOUNG
When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he doesn’t primarily mean come to church. He is not exhorting us to engage more faithfully in prayer, or worship or Bible Study, all of which may lead to spiritual growth. But our exercise of piety is not a substitute for mission, service, and peaceful, non-violent advocacy for justice — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, educate the young, take care of the old.
SLIDE 14: TAKE UP YOUR CROSS — RACIAL, ECONOMIC, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
Now I understand that advocating for justice will take us dangerously close to politics. The allure of power can be subtle and beguiling. People of good conscience will disagree about candidates and issues that emerge in political campaigns. And with the craziness of the 2016 Presidential race already in full swing we must be careful about mixing faith and politics. In fact I wish some of the candidates would be more careful about waving their religion around in their political campaigns. But also remember, we cannot love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with our God without impacting public policy. We still have issues of racial justice, economic justice and environmental justice to be addressed, if we are to take up our crosses and follow in the way of Jesus.